INSPIRE: Crisis In Japan
Ryan Jalda, GrappleFanatics.net

Japanese wrestling undergoes biggest shake-up in ten years!

In March 2006, the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) had its blackest day, when two fighters died, the first deaths associated with the sport. Both had fought earlier on a big card being promoted in Tokyo, and both had lost, suffering head injuries in the process. One fighter was knocked unconscious, never to awake, while the other left the ring under his own power but later collapsed backstage. The world's media had a feeding frenzy, finally able to lay into a sport that could always be relied upon to garner strong reactions. What few realised was that this night would also lead to the most fundamental shift in the landscape of Japanese pro wrestling that had been seen in over a decade.

Burning Hammer Of The Wrestling Gods was the king of Japanese wrestling, having been on top of the business since the 1980s. While facing stiff competition from the up-and-coming PGHW promotion, many felt that BHOTWG - both with massive financial power and a massively talented roster - were virtually unbeatable in the long run. What had made BHOTWG so popular was their ability to fuse many styles of combat together; a tactic displayed most obviously by the amount of legitimate fighters on their roster, including world famous shoot fighters Mike watson and Raul Hughes (their world champion). However, Kaneie Komine, the man who owned the company and had been the visionary behind their recent style, was rocked by what had happened in Tokyo that night in March. Realising that the media backlash would be immense, he acted swiftly. Some would say too swiftly.

With dazzling speed, Komine had organised a press conference in which he told the gathered media that BHOTWG had decided that the time was right to return to its wrestling roots, and the MMA influence that had been obvious in the promotion for several years was going to be downgraded severely. It was clearly a safety tactic, to distance the company from the deaths in MMA, but it also clearly meant a period of change for BHOTWG. What we also know is that he addressed the locker room that very night, and said that the wrestlers were to downplay any mixed martial arts elements of their style, and up the wrestling content. After this, things are less clear, but from piecing together different bits of information, it is safe to say that what happened next went something like this...

After the meeting, several of the wrestlers were unhappy, having spent years building their styles to incorporate more realistic fighting elements. Obviously former shoot fighters Mike Watson and Raul Hughes were extremely unhappy, but they were joined by three other senior figures; company figurehead Tadiyuki Kikkawa (who was well known as a champion of MMA) and two other popular wrestlers, Masaaki Okazaki and Tasuku Iesada. We known that all five demanded a meeting with Kaneie Komine to try and get him to change his mind, and somehow that meeting then led to a massive argument. What we know for sure is that at the end of the meeting all five men had resigned from the promotion.

The news of the resignations was kept quiet, at least for two weeks, out of the wrestlers' respect for the company. BHOTWG had a major show coming up, which would be their final matches with the company, although nobody other than themselves and Komine knew that. Each took a defeat in their final match, and did so in a professional manner. Mike Watson was pinned by future star Hiroaki Nakasawa to help him in his run to the main event scene; Chuichi Sanda rolled over Masaaki Okazaki to end a feud that had been running for several months; Yasunobu Masuno made Tasuku Iesada submit to cement his reputation as a tough fighter; Tadiyuki Kikkawa was finally beaten cleanly by Kinnoji Horri, ending years of unsuccessful attempts by the youngster; and Raul Hughes lost his world title to Bruce The Giant by clean pinfall.

The INSPIRE Story

Seven days after that show, a press conference was held by the five men who were later to be christened the "Five Rebels" by Japanese journalists. Kikkawa was the spokesman, and announced both their departure from BHOTWG and the formation of Inspire Diversity Group International, INSPIRE for short, a new company of which he would be the CEO. All five men would be part of the initial roster. He also announced the concept behind the company, which would be that it'd be a place where fighters from all backgrounds could come and test themselves. The promotion would be based upon The Three Rules Of The Art Of Combat, which were:

Only one-on-one matches were a true test of a fighter, and so that would be the only form of combat allowed.

A fighter's physical size is of no importance, it is his spirit which matters; therefore there would be no weight limits.

All fighters are expected to behave with honour and dignity. Cheating or other short cuts would not be allowed.

Kikkawa also announced that their first event would happen the following month, when they would crown the first King Of Fighters. This tournament happened on May 6th 2006, and proved a massive success, both commercially and critically. Eight men were entered into the tournament. The first match saw a dream bout, as Raul Hughes squared off with Mike Watson in their first ever meeting. Hughes won after knocking out Watson, but injured himself in the process with a broken wrist, meaning both were out of the tournament. Tadiyuki Kikkawa advanced, beating Puerto Rican shoot fighter Billy Russell by pinfall. Russian monster Marat Khoklov looked very impressive as he beat Tasuku Iesada (who was also head booker of the company) by knock out. Marat had only wrestled in Europe prior to this, but had been someone BHOTWG were very interested in due to his size and intensity. Rumour has it that Tadiyuki Kikkawa himself personally talked the Russian into signing with INSPIRE instead, marking a "steal" of sorts from BHOTWG. In the final first round match Masaaki Okazaki defeated Morimasa Kato by submission. In the semi-finals, Kikkawa beat Okazaki by pinfall while Khoklov received a bye due to the injury to Hughes.

The final has gone down in history. Tadiyuki Kikkawa is a legend in Japan, the figurehead of BHOTWG for the past ten years and a former three time world champion with reigns that spanned five years in total. Marat Khoklov is a behemoth, the most physically imposing wrestler since Bruce The Giant. The match was a brutal affair, with both men laying in the stiffest blows imaginable. After ten minutes of action, Kikkawa blasted the giant with his trademark Kikkawa Lariat, but couldn't take him off his feet. When he tried again he was nearly beheaded with a counter Lariat from the Russian. Khoklov promptly hit the most vicious powerbomb anyone had ever seen, knocking Kikkawa unconscious. Marat then started raining down punches from a mounted position, forcing the referee to call for the bell as Kikkawa was out cold and unable to defend himself. This was a massive shock, and not only made the previously unheard of Marat Khoklov into an overnight sensation, but also ensured that everyone was talking about the show the next day. In just six matches INSPIRE had made themselves a power player in Japan.

The BHOTWG Story

With the BHOTWG world title safely off Raul Hughes and onto Bruce The Giant, Kaneie Komine was left with two problems; how to fill the massive gap that the five man loss had created in the heavyweight division, and how to limit the damage to the company's image. Konnoji Horri was the first man to benefit. Thanks to his win over Tadiyuki Kikkawa he had finally been elevated to true main event star, and was the obvious choice to be moved up to rub shoulders with established names Haruki Kudo and Bruce The Giant. The move also made way for Hiroaki Nakasawa, a youngster who had been being groomed for several years as the eventual figurehead of the promotion. It had been assumed that he would eventually be passed the torch by Tadiyuki Kikkawa, but with him leaving, Nakasawa was promoted earlier. With a new outfit and updated move set, Nakasawa was swiftly moved up the card to a position where he would be positioned as a future world champion. Also on his way up was Yasunobu Masuno, a young promising wrestler who had spent a few years in the tag team division developing his skills. With size and a great look, he was an obvious choice to be moved up to world title contender. By moving those three up, albeit a few years before he would have liked to, Komine would plug the gap in the main event scene.

In order to reduce the damage to the company's image, he went back to the history of the promotion, and brought in recently-retired Sam Strong all the way from the USA. Strong was a former BHOTWG champion, and the man who had really cemented Tadiyuki Kikkawa's reputation when he lost the world title to him. Strong is a legend in Japan, and he was signed both to work as a road agent for the company, but more importantly to act as somewhat of a figurehead. Knowing the Japanese public's respect for history, Komine knew that by having Strong attached to the company, even in a non-wrestling capacity, it would boost the prestige of the company.

Unfortunately, even with that signing, some damage was done. The loss of five major heavyweights was clearly seen as a sign of weakness by the public, and it was obvious to everyone that this debacle had seriously hurt BHOTWG. Indeed, as the attendances and TV ratings since the formation of INSPIRE have shown, for the first time since the 1970s BHOTWG are no longer the undisputed number one promotion in Japan, PGHW have clearly drawn level with them, and many would say that they have even overtaken their major rivals.

What we are left with is a much-changed battlefield. For the first time in their history, PGHW are the top dogs in Japan, and show no signs of slowing down their progress. BHOTWG are in a rebuilding phase, but still have the depth of roster and financial clout to comeback soon and comeback strong. INSPIRE are the joker in the pack; with only one show under their belt it is impossible to say whether they have any longevity, but they certainly have the advantage of being the hot topic in the wrestling media, and have an incredible roster to begin with. One thing is certain; Japanese wrestling has been changed in a dramatic way.