A week ago I was standing in a small-ish arena watching wrestlers from NJPW in Daytona, Florida of all places. Despite struggling to establish a consistent presence in the US, somehow the combination of a fighting game tournament, CEO, and pure force of will brought them over. The likes of Jushin "Thunder" Liger, Tetsuya Naito, and the IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega put on a show that, in all earnestness, shouldn’t have occurred. What really brought NJPW to Daytona and CEO was a desire from those involved to see wrestling grow, expand, and reach new people.
Watching the WWE can be both a joy and a chore. The hours wane on and the content can excite and drain fans. It’s part of the reason it can be so difficult to get someone new into the show. Five hours of commitment, plus additional time for special events and shows is all too much to handle. And the WWE style doesn’t serve itself up to be easily consumed, only devoured. It’s why the company is trying harder and harder to find younger fans and escape their aging, grumpy, white man fan base. However it’s NJPW that clearly has the right idea. Storylines and wrestling gimmicks won’t suddenly bring a new wave of viewers and onlookers, exploring new venues will.
At CEOxNJPW the arena was pretty filled with typical wrestling fans. Chants and screams would bellow forth even before the doors opened. However the crowd wasn’t all longtime marks who have intense opinions about which Bullet Club member was the best. Instead, peppered throughout, were new fans to wrestling or NJPW. Bright eyed and curious they watched their first major live show and were treated to legends like Liger. They were treated to something completely different than the WWE style and branding. A more raw, pure form of wrestling that is very earnest about itself.
Wrestling is a bug, a virus, that you need to catch so it can live on in your bloodstream as a passionate embarrassment. It needs to take hold and be stoked by interesting wrestlers, gripping stories, and awe-inspiring matches. It needs to be a fever that causes delusions of sweaty men in tights. NJPW, WWE, or whoever wishes to grow beyond the stale borders of wrestling fandom need to have more events like CEOxNJPW. New waves of people need to have a chance to see wrestling live, to make the sport more tangible and real. Wrestling is an illness and it needs close contact to spread.