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Japan has forever been known as the home of sumo, but there’s a more contemporary style of wrestling that’s challenging the traditional sport for the wrestling throne’s top position: New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW).
The second biggest wrestling program after WWE, NJPW was launched in 1972 by retired professional wrestler and martial artist, now politician and wrestling promoter, Antonio Inoki. Over the decades that followed, it slowly gained a loyal international following and is now considered the biggest threat to the WWE.
“NJPW has successfully combined its prestigious history and modern influences to create a product that wrestling fans around the world can rally behind”, explains Erin Dick, a wrestling journalist and founder of Bronco Busters an online wrestling magazine that covers the more underground side of pro wrestling.
“It has a bit of everything; history, star power, illustrious championships, comedy, athleticism, endurance, relationship exploration, storylines and more. They’ve sought to fill a gap in the market, where Western audiences have been looking for something accessible and different from WWE.”
One of the most respected figures in the NJPW world is US-born, now Japan-based Juice Robinson. Once a wrestler in the WWE, he left the league in 2015 to become a star in the NJPW world. He spoke to Culture Trip about forging a successful career in the NJPW world, the common misconceptions around wrestling in Japan and what a day in the life of a New Japan Pro-Wrestler looks like.
When did you decide you seriously wanted to be a professional wrestler?
When I was about nine or 10 years old with my babysitter’s son, who was in high school. My best friend’s older brother introduced pro wrestling to both of us. [After that,] I didn’t want to be anything other than a pro wrestler and from the beginning of junior high school, I started taking what I thought were the necessary steps to making my dream a reality. I played football and began lifting weights, but I also got into performing arts and did my best to do whatever I could in front of an audience.
Just before I graduated high school, a local small-time wrestling promotion agreed to let me start training. Juggling college and trying to train on the weekends quickly became too much for me. I knew I had to give 100% to wrestling to even have a chance at being successful. I dropped out of college, threw caution to the wind, never took “no” for an answer and haven’t looked back.
You were originally in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc). How did you make the jump from the US wrestling scene to Japan?
As an American, the WWE is what I grew up watching on television, it was all I knew. I thought it was the only place I could make a good living doing what I loved. I signed a WWE contract when I was 21. I didn’t have the life experience or the pro wrestling seasoning I needed to succeed yet. I was given opportunities but was too immature as a performer to make the most of those opportunities.
Eventually, the company lost faith in me and the opportunities to become the star I always wanted to be dwindled. I was stuck; good enough to wrestle there, but not good enough to climb up the card. My career stagnated. I knew the only way I could continue to grow and evolve as a wrestler was to leave and start over somewhere else.
I quit WWE three years ago and was given a chance at NJPW. I’m succeeding now, but had I not failed in WWE, I would not be where I am today.
Do you think there are any common misconceptions about the world of pro wrestling?
I think any of the misconceptions surrounding pro wrestling would just stem from unawareness to what we actually do. We tell stories. Wrestlers grow and evolve over their careers, we have ups and downs. We struggle for success and have to battle back when we fall short, all the while, the fans are emotionally attached along for the ride.
What have been the biggest differences between NJPW and WWE?
WWE isn’t pro wrestling anymore. Even the term “pro wrestling”, when used to describe WWE, is frowned upon by their bigwigs. They prefer to call themselves sports entertainment, which is totally fine. Here in New Japan, we take pride in being a pro wrestling company.
Pro wrestling is a sport, it is entertaining, it always has been, and it always will be. Also, WWE does a lot more talking and a lot less wrestling than us. We believe in more in-ring action and less drawn out interviews and promos. NJPW’s motto is to tell stories bell to bell, the backstage comments are the icing on the cake.
Why do you think, in recent years, NJPW has gotten so big internationally?
True hardcore wrestling fans around the world are looking for an alternative to WWE’s sports entertainment. NJPW is classic, old-school pro wrestling and gives people a high-level product that can be seen anywhere in the world, regardless of where you live. NJPW World, which is seven or eight US dollars a month, has helped grow our fan base drastically over the past few years. Njpwworld.com has all our big shows, plus content dating back to the beginning of NJPW.
What does a day in the life of Juice Robinson generally look like?
My life is 100% wrestling. I’m either on tour travelling from city to city performing every night or at home getting ready to come back strong and fresh for the next tour. There is no “off” season, I live on the road out of a suitcase and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My day consists of trying to find somewhere to train, trying to find healthy places to eat, riding a bus to the show, doing the show, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s my life and I love it.
What are the most difficult aspects of being a New Japan wrestler?
Without a doubt, the hardest thing is being away from the people you love. I constantly miss holidays. That’s really tough, but that’s the sacrifice I chose. I know what I signed up for. On the rare occasions that I am home, and able to attend a family gathering, I never take it for granted. It really puts the important things in life into perspective.
On the other side of the coin, thinking about the people I love fuels me to work hard and realise how lucky I am to be able to live my dream. A lot of people helped me get to where I am and for that, I am infinitely grateful.
And what are the best bits?
The best part is, of course, the audience and being able to entertain people all over the world. So many people get so much joy out of coming to watch New Japan. The fact that we can impact people positively and give them a little happiness, even during tough times, gives me so much satisfaction.
If people want to learn more about NJPW where should they go?
From a virtual standpoint, visit Njpwworld.com and sample the free videos to get a little taste of what New Japan offers. If you want to check a live match out, go to Njpw1972.com and click on “schedule” and find out when we are in a town near you. I always recommend first timers, if possible, to go to a Korakuen Hall show [in Tokyo’s Bunkyo district]. That will give you the best example of what New Japan Pro-Wrestling is all about.