There is nothing like WrestleMania, WWE’s annual explosion of pageantry and spectacle. But the closest thing to WrestleMania outside WrestleMania comes to the Tokyo Dome, a massive egg-shaped stadium at the center of Japan’s capital, later this week. Every January, New Japan Pro Wrestling, the world’s second-biggest wrestling promotion, attracts tens of thousands of spectators to Wrestle Kingdom, its own grand-finale showcase. Superficially, Wrestle Kingdom looks a whole lot like WrestleMania — a stadium full of lights and LCD screens and noise, all the attention directed at one ring. But Wrestle Kingdom is its own kind of show.
Japanese wrestlers don’t move like American wrestlers. They stoically stare each other down and kick each other hard. Matches are grueling, bruising affairs. There’s often a moment when the two wrestlers will stand toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring, taking turns slapping each other as hard as they can. The matches don’t generally exist within larger story lines; they are the larger story lines. Audiences don’t chant or whoop throughout matches; instead, they ooh appreciatively whenever a wrestler executes an especially devastating move. New Japan World, the company’s $8.89-a-month streaming service, offers English-language commentary. But if you’ve never watched a Wrestle Kingdom show, you shouldn’t take that option. Instead, stay with the Japanese commentary; give yourself over to the experience.
Wrestle Kingdom is also the show where New Japan goes all in on American-style spectacle, like when American indie veteran Low-Ki fought an entire match dressed as Agent 47 from the video game Hitman, complete with suit and tie and leather gloves. It’s where current WWE star Shinsuke Nakamura once made an entrance on a stage full of flame jets and pole dancers. It’s where longtime headliner Hiroshi Tanahashi strutted to the ring with former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman shredding manically alongside him. In 2018, New Japan will show a whole other kind of spectacle. They’ve brought over WWE legend Chris Jericho, a man who has performed at 13 WrestleManias.
The last time Chris Jericho wrestled outside a WWE ring, Bill Clinton was still the president of the United States. Jericho’s been wrestling since 1990, and he began his career by bouncing around the world, working any place that would have him: his native Canada, Mexico, Japan, the American South, the bingo halls of ECW. In 1999, Jericho wrapped up a three-year run with WCW, WWE’s doomed competitor. In WCW, Jericho invented and perfected his character, a hair-flipping blowhard egomaniac, and figured out how to make entertaining television out of his high-flying wrestling style. But the company never treated him as a star, so he bolted to WWE, where, in his Monday Night Raw debut, he went insult-for-insult with the Rock.
In the past 19 years in WWE, Jericho has left a hell of a legacy. It’s where he became a headliner and, ultimately, a legend. Jericho immediately catapulted himself into the upper ranks of the company, beating the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the same night to become the first-ever Undisputed Champion and main eventing 2002’s WrestleMania X8 against Triple H. In many ways, Jericho has been the perfect WWE specimen. He’s brash, funny, charismatic, and at times, deeply obnoxious. (We should all agree to forget the time he turned “trashbag ho” into a catchphrase.) In the ring, he’s a chameleon, capable of wrestling fast-paced cruiserweight matches or easing into WWE’s deliberate, theatrical main-event style. And as the world has changed, he’s changed with it, rewriting both his persona and his moves to adapt to new realities.
During his WWE run, Jericho would occasionally leave wrestling behind entirely for years at a time, disappearing to tour with his crunch-rock band Fozzy or to host a reality show about robots fighting each other. But when he returned, he never jumped ship to another company. Jericho always returned to WWE, usually with some new twist on his old character. Those absences have probably stopped Jericho’s body from deteriorating through the sheer grind of night-after-night wrestling, and they’re why, at 47, he’s about as good as he’s ever been. And they’ve also given him chances to rethink his persona, to routinely come with something fresh.
From 2016 through to the early part of 2017, Jericho went through what might’ve been the most purely entertaining stretch of his WWE career. Teaming up with fellow Canadian loudmouth Kevin Owens, Jericho matured into the most extreme version of his own persona. In glittery shirts and silk scarves and sequined fedoras, he’d storm through the backstage area, getting interviewers’ names as wrong as possible and hissing his new favorite insult at anyone who crossed him: “You just made the list!” (He kept a running list of everyone who’d done wrong by him. It was a whole thing.) In making himself as unlikable as possible, Jericho once again became a lovable figure — mostly because it was clear how much he relished what he was doing. And when Owens finally, inevitably turned on him in a masterful piece of pro wrestling theater, it made for heartbreaking TV.
Jericho made one last appearance on WWE TV in July, losing a triple threat match to Owens and AJ Styles, and then he went on his way. His contract was up, so Jericho was off to do whatever he does when he’s not wrestling: recording with Fozzy, popping up on random TV shows, interviewing metal veterans on his podcast. So when Jericho showed up on the screen at a New Japan show in November, ripping up a photo of New Japan star Kenny Omega and issuing a challenge, it was a watershed pro wrestling moment. A man who’s been synonymous with WWE for most of the last two decades has gone back to one of the places where he first started, making for a match that, in its sheer unlikeliness, feels like a greater spectacle than anything WWE could pull off.
The story of Jericho’s Japanese return is also the story of the Bullet Club, a team of foreign villains in Japan who have become, over time, wrestling’s greatest non-WWE success story in years. The Bullet Club started in 2013, when the Irish wrestler Prince Devitt, a high-flying junior heavyweight and a longtime New Japan crowd favorite, turned on Ryusuke Taguchi, his Japanese tag-team partner, and went full evil. Devitt reinvented himself as a sort of Guy Ritchie character — a cold-blooded assassin who wore lit-up leather jackets — and assembled a squad of dastardly foreigners who sought to to corrupt the soul of Japanese wrestling. The Bullet Club took on more and more members and slowly became something else. In 2014, Devitt left New Japan for WWE, where he took the name Finn Bálor, and American veteran AJ Styles came in to take his place. During that time, the Bullet Club started taking its cues from ’90s American wrestling factions like the NWO and D-Generation X — flagrantly cussing on camera, pointing at their dicks, and developing a referential lexicon of inside jokes. By the time Styles left for his own WWE run, the Bullet Club were international cult stars.
Omega wasn’t one of the original Bullet Club guys. Instead, he took a roundabout route to Japanese stardom. Omega is 13 years younger than Jericho, but the two both come from the same city, Winnipeg. Like Jericho, Omega got his start bouncing around Canada’s independent circuit. He spent an unsatisfying year in WWE’s developmental system before returning to the indies in 2006. The American indie scene was booming at the time, and Omega did stints with promotions like Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. But he really wanted to go to Japan, and he finally got his start when he caught the eye of DDT Pro, a Japanese company known for ridiculous gimmicks. With DDT, Omega fully embraced the evil-foreigner role and threw himself into the company’s silliest ideas. In his most famous pre–New Japan moment, Omega went viral for wrestling a match against a 9-year-old girl. He took to Japan immediately, moving to the country full-time and becoming fluent in the language.
When he signed to the promotion and joined the Bullet Club, Omega’s character was the Cleaner, an icy badass with a look pulled from ’80s action movies like The Terminator and Cobra. But when Styles left and Omega took over as leader of the Bullet Club, he got sillier and sillier. Along with the flamboyant tag team the Young Bucks, Omega embraced the internet, pulling stunts like using atonal Pink karaoke to celebrate a championship. He and the Bucks formed a Bullet Club subgroup called the Elite, devoting much of their energy to making goofy comedy skits on their YouTube channel. (In an inspired moment in September, the Bullet Club, sans Omega, invaded a California taping of Raw, much like D-Generation X had once invaded WCW Monday Nitro.)
Under Omega, the Bullet Club has flourished, taking on new members like former WWE star Cody, the villainous, icy son of the legend Dusty Rhodes, and spreading to American promotions like Ring of Honor. These days, you can buy Bullet Club shirts at Hot Topic, and you can’t watch a WWE show without seeing a whole lot of Bullet Club shirts in the crowd. WWE has even made its own knockoff versions of the Bullet Club shirt for Finn Bálor and for the Club, the tag team of former Bullet Club members Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. Omega himself has gone about as far as a Western wrestler can go in New Japan. At last year’s Wrestle Kingdom, he became just the third non-Japanese star to headline a New Japan Tokyo Dome show since Brock Lesnar in 2006 and Angle in 2008. Omega and Kazuchika Okada, New Japan’s arrogant, young, bleach-blonde juggernaut champion, had an instant-classic match, one that wrestling critics like Dave Meltzer hailed as one of the greatest of all time.
Jericho was paying attention. The story entering his match with Omega is an old one: Jericho is sick of hearing that someone else is the best, and he wants to let the world know that he’s the best. Jericho told that very same story in his past WrestleMania feuds with Shawn Michaels and CM Punk. But sometimes simple stories are the best ones. The build to Omega-Jericho has been perfect. Jericho put in a surprise appearance at a New Japan show in Fukuoka, beating and bloodying Omega and, for good measure, taking out a New Japan referee, a trainee, and an English-language commentator. Omega then attacked Jericho at a press conference, and Jericho responded by throwing a table at him and saying that January 4 would be Omega’s final night in Japan.
Jericho has said that he wants to create a sort of pro wrestling equivalent to this year’s Mayweather-McGregor boxing match — a worlds-colliding moment of the sort that we haven’t seen in years. In fact, the last time a non-WWE match had this level of buzz might’ve been 2006, when WWE star Kurt Angle left the company and went to the hapless would-be competition TNA, fighting TNA’s homegrown monster Samoa Joe, in what was probably the finest moment in TNA’s history. The Jericho-Omega match feels huge because it features two world-class talents who have never faced off, but it also feels huge because that sort of crossover — a foundational WWE star coming to New Japan — simply seems impossible. And because we don’t know what will happen afterwards.
Jericho, who claims that he told WWE boss Vince McMahon about the match before it was announced, has said that his fight with Omega will be for one night only. We don’t know if he’ll stay in New Japan. Jericho is certainly busy. But at some point, he’ll probably want to return to WWE. Omega might go to WWE one day, too. The company has made a big show of signing stars from around the world — it’s believed they’d love to get their hands on him. But the fact that this match is happening half a world away from WWE is what makes it special. It’s a moment, and moments like this don’t happen often.