For American indie wrestling fans, the fire-eyed, shaven-headed Spartan Brooklynite Low-Ki has long been a sort of messianic figure: Someone who built an anti-image image, whose face-stomps spoke louder than his words. In the main event of the first-ever Ring of Honor show in 2002, he beat Christopher Daniels and Bryan Danielson (now Daniel Bryan) in an instant-classic triple threat match that established what sort of bugshit athletic display independent wrestling could and should be, post-ECW. In the years that followed, his grunty intensity served as a blueprint for, arguably, too much of the indie scene. And after he washed out of the two American wrestling giants, WWE and TNA, for reasons that had something to do with his zeal for kicking people really hard, he went on a run in Dragon Gate USA in which he called out other wrestlers for treating themselves too much like characters, for disrespecting the purity of the art form. As impressive as his matches could be, he had a real problem with turning them into anti-fun zones, with becoming the pro-wrestling equivalent of one of those perma-scowling backpack rappers who prizes technical fluidity above all else. So it was a blast, last week, to see Low-Ki entertaining a stadium full of Japanese fans by dressing up like a video game character.
Specifically, Low-Ki was in costume as Agent 47, the hitman from Hitman, probably just because he's similarly bald. He emerged from an under-the-stage elevator, like Michael Jackson on that HBO special, and he wore a black tailored suit, white shirt, red tie, and black leather gloves. He carried two pistols to ringside, and he sadly did not attempt to fake-shoot either of his opponents during his match. This was for New Japan Pro Wrestling, Japan's biggest wrestling federation, at Wrestle Kingdom 7, its biggest show of the year, in front of tens of thousands at the Tokyo Dome. And Low-Ki wrestled his entire match in that ridiculous get-up -- only taking his jacket off when the match was almost over, leaving the tie on and the top button buttoned the entire time. Low-Ki probably won't ever get the chance -- and might not want the chance -- to work at an actual Wrestlemania. But at Japan's equivalent, this anti-goof will commit completely to a goofy gimmick, and that's great. Wrestling should be at least a little bit goofy.
For nascent wrestling dorks, it's an article of faith that Japan is where the real shit happens, where charisma-free American indie wrestling humps can become stars if they elbow people in the mouth hard enough. Japanese fans don't react like American fans; they don't wave signs or boo villains or attempt cutesy chants, but they do ooh attentively at vicious knee-strikes. Japan, we're led to believe, has taken an American entertainment with carnival-sideshow roots and transformed it into Serious Art. Part of that reputation was earned, but part of it comes from how historically tough to come by those Japanese videos always were; American enthusiasts, like death-metal cultists, had to tape-trade by mail. Now that every important Japanese match is right there on YouTube, it's pretty apparent that Japanese wrestling, at its highest level, still has plenty of circus left in it.
I don't know enough about Wrestle Kingdom's history to say whether it's explicitly patterned after Wrestlemania, but it sure seems that way: Stadium setting, elaborate sets and entrances, so many lasers. At this year's show, the first official match (after a couple of unofficial dark matches) was an eight-man tag team bout, and one of its moments was pure circus: The former sumo champ Akebono and the man-mountain MMA attraction Bob Sapp taking turns slamming into each other with seismic force. The popular-only-in-Japan American wrestler Karl "Machine Gun" Anderson always enters while pretending to fire off his namesake weapon, with accompanying sound effects; for Wrestle Kingdom, he added a series of high-powered T-shirt cannons. Yuji Nagata, one of New Japan's oldest and most durable stars, uses an armbar as one of his signature moves, which should be visually static and boring. But it works in a wrestling-fundamentalist sense, because he beats the shit out of his opponent's arm beforehand and because he really yanks that fucker back. And it also works as pure theater; while he's doing it, he rolls his eyes back in his head, Undertaker-style.
Another thing I was surprised and happy to find while watching Wrestle Kingdom: Characters. Japanese wrestling doesn't typically devote as much of its energy to persona-building as the WWE, but even without understanding what the commentators were saying, it was pretty easy to pick up on what these guys were projecting. Togi Makabe: Human grizzly bear who wears a huge link chain around his neck, like Treach from Naughty By Nature, and who shows zero finesse when he's demolishing people. He's impossible to dislike. Shinsuke Nakamura: A flamboyantly confident art-school weirdo with real-world MMA cred and notorious badass status. With that balance of freaky style and ferocious technical chops, he's a wrestling-world equivalent to Danny Brown (with the same asymmetrical haircut and everything) -- one who will brutally kick you in the back of the head rather than brutally outrap you. Minoru Suzuki: Horrible asshole bad guy, ugly and pot-bellied and pig-faced and prone to shaving elaborate shapes into his scalp, snorting and sticking out his tongue and showing extreme general disrespect to whoever he's facing -- a thing he can do because he's a skilled technician who can absorb a ton of punishment. His showdown with Nagata's weathered Eastwoodian badass was epic -- hard-earned experience vs. malevolent dickheaded sadism.
In the main event, I met my favorite character on the show and my favorite wrestling persona in quite some time. Longstanding good-guy champion Hiroshi Tanahashi, a recognizable virtuous-superman type, had to face a challenge from Kazuchika Okada, a bleach-headed 25-year-old phenom who works a cocky-rich-asshole gimmick. During Okada's entrance, confetti cannons shot fake money over the crowd, a trick I've only witnessed firsthand at a Toby Keith show. Okada calls himself the Rainmaker, and his finishing move, also called the Rainmaker, is one for the ages: He grabs you from behind, swings you around, and puts his entire body behind a short-arm clothesline that absolutely folds you in half. But his signature pose, the thing he strikes immediately before hitting that move, is even better: Arms outstretched, head tilted back, eyes closed. It's this, basically, except that when he does it in the context of a match, it looks just impossibly cold.
Still, my favorite match of the show ended up being the one where Low-Ki came out and looked ridiculous. Ki took on two similarly athletic daredevils, the Irishman Prince Devitt and the Japanese Kota Ibushi, for the IWGP Light Heavyweight title, the three of them leaping and diving all over the place like the old WCW superball Cruiserweights. In its level of aerial abandon, that match reminded me of the Ring of Honor three-way that made Low-Ki internet-famous. It doesn't take a whole lot of cerebral investment to enjoy a spectacle like that; it's just pure bell-to-bell exhilaration.
Most of the matches from this year's Wrestle Kingdom weren't paced like that one. Japanese wrestling, lately, has been heavy on MMA influence, and plenty of its wrestlers have real-fighting experience. That means the matches are slower, more visceral, more based around brutal strikes and intricate submission holds. And Japanese wrestling has its own internal rhythms and crowd dynamics. But it doesn't take long for neophyte outsiders like me to get used to that stuff and to get sucked into the drama of the matches.
A few of the wrestlers at Wrestle Kingdom, like Shelton Benjamin and MVP, are recognizable WWE faces, and a few others might eventually end up there. (WWE is nuts if it doesn't try to sign Okada or Devitt.) But this isn't like an American indie show, where you find yourself constantly evaluating WWE prospects. Most of these guys are exactly where they need to be, and the show itself works within a context all its own. A show like Wrestle Kingdom, which puts the best of Japanese wrestling on huge, glittery display, turns out to be a great jumping-in point: A five-hour immersion in a form of professional wrestling different from ours but, in its own way, just as fun. And blessedly, it's all on YouTube. Settle in.