Puroresu is the common term for professional wrestling in Japan. Pro-wrestling in Japan had failed to catch on prior to WWII, it wasn’t until a Korean born Sumo wrestler named Rikidozan established the Japan Wrestling Association (JWA) that pro-wrestling’s popularity began to grow. Anti-American sentiment was still high after the war, fans would gather in droves to watch Rikidozan karate chop his western opponents. Soon he would lift the sport to the same level of popularity as Sumo or baseball. Rikidozan was murdered in 1963 just ten years after forming the JWA. His two proteges Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki became the new faces of Japanese wrestling. Internal strife and backstage politics drove both men out of JWA each forming their own promotions. To set himself apart Inoki referred to his style of Puroresu in his New Japan Pro-Wrestling as “Strong-Style”, while Giant Baba referred to his style in his All Japan Pro-Wrestling as “Kings Road”. Strong style was marked by its “stiff” kicks and blows, martial arts moves and submission holds. It was fast paced and made to look like a real fight or in pro-wrestling terms a “shoot”.
Since the beginning of the rise of Puroresu many Western wrestlers came to compete against their Japanese counterparts. A few brought the styles they learned in the East back home. A few Japanese stars made their way West and inspired even more westerners to travel to Japan. In the mid-nineties, a small group of young journeymen wrestlers began to make a name for themselves in the larger American promotions. Wrestlers such as Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit began to incorporate bits and pieces of Japanese Strong Style into their work stateside in companies such as WCW and ECW. WCW formed a cruiser weight division that featured actual Japanese stars alongside Mexican and American stars. This inspired an entire generation of wrestlers who did not fit the Hulk Hogan cookie cutter mold of massive behemoths pantomiming violence. The action was fast paced and high octane. It brought a lot of the perceived realism of Japanese Strong Style to American wrestling. Combined with British catch-as-catch-can style a new type of wrestler began to emerge in the early 2000s.
By the mid-2000s a number of American promotions independent of WWE such a Ring of Honor (ROH) and Total Non-Stop Action (TNA) had become to incorporate much of New Japan’s “Strong-Style” into the more typical soap-opera-ish American style wrestling. By then the WWE (the top wrestling promotion in the world) had begun to take notice. Wrestling; unlike any other business or sport in the world is largely controlled by the audience. The audiences taste and reactions often dictate the direction of the business as a whole. By the mid-2000s the popularity wrestling had enjoyed in the late 90s had begun to wane. A new group of fans raised on bootleg VHS tapes from Japan and emboldened by the behind the scenes news leaked on the internet called Smart Marks (or SMarks) had emerged and they began to demand something more. They had grown tired of the old style of American wrestling of story driven entertainment. Raised of action movies and real life violence audiences wanted more and Japanese Strong Style gave them that. So, in order to remain relevant WWE followed suit.
By 2011 a young upstart who had made his way through many of the independent promotions (such as Ring of Honor) became WWE Champion. His name was CM Punk, and despite having never wrestled in Japan, Punk incorporated a great deal of Japanese Strong Style into his move set. Using many of the moves that were popular in Japan at the time including his finishing move the “Go to Sleep” or “GTS” which was the finisher of one of Japans biggest stars Kenta Kobayashi who would later come to the WWE under the name Hedio Itami. CM Punk spent much of his time toiling in the underground and battling his way up through the ranks of WWE. After a yearlong title reign, he departed the company, but he left such an indelible mark on the business that his name was chanted for years afterwards. Due to his popularity CM Punk opened the doors for a whole new generation of talent. Much in the way Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit had done before him. Most importantly CM Punk had opened the door for a talent that would prove to be even more popular than himself. A young international journeyman that had come through many of the same promotions as him. His name was Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson), and while Bryan had made many of the same stops as Punk his dedication to the craft had taken him around the world and he was closer in fact to the Jericho generation than even Punk. Daniel Bryan brought with him even more of a Japanese move set. Utilizing an entire arsenal of moves based on Japanese Strong Style. His time on top of the company (WWE) was cut short due to injury. Many blamed the harsh Strong Style for this. Though much shorter than Punk’s his influence was almost greater. Daniel Bryan brought with him something else from Japan. The Japanese call it “the fighting spirit” and it is as important to Strong Style as the martial arts kicks and stiff strikes. The Fighting Spirit is more than just the “babyface” making a strong “comeback”, it is also about each opponent being able to withstand an intense amount of physical punishment.
In a few short years, the WWE began recruiting many others like Daniel Bryan with long histories on the independent circuit with international backgrounds. Those that honed their craft in Japan and came up idolizing Bryan, Punk, Jericho and Benoit. Soon WWE began recruiting even the top Japanese Stars who these westerners were emulating. The fans demanded it and the company was forced to respond. In the last several years some of the top names in Japanese wrestling have made their way onto WWE television and Japanese Strong Style has changed American wrestling (hopefully) for good. Professional wrestling has existed in America for over a hundred and fifty years partially due to its ability to change and adapt to the times and the taste of its audience. The introduction of Japanese Strong Style to Western wrestling has been a good thing that has brought about a resurgence of the art form and elevated it of the doldrums of the stagnate 80s and into a more dynamic well rounded form of sports entertainment.