If you watched the WWE’s SummerSlam festivities this past Sunday, there’s a good chance you — like some in the WWE locker room — came away from the experience a bit perplexed or disgusted about Brock “The Beast” Lesnar splitting Randy Orton’s head open. I’m with you 100 percent.
But behind that grotesque display, a fascinating story is unfolding. The WWE has labeled this the “New Era,” a change driven by a brand split and an influx of new talent — stars such as AJ Styles (who just beat up John Cena) and his sometimes-comrades Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows of The Club (who just beat the reigning tag-team champions, albeit by disqualification), and Finn Balor (who just won the WWE Universal Championship against longtime WWE golden boy Seth Rollins).
And what do these guys all have in common, aside from each having won on Sunday? Japan.
Indeed, the 31 winning1 wrestlers at SummerSlam 2016, on the SummerSlam pre-show, or in WWE’s NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II event had a combined 5,590 matches’ worth of experience in Japanese pro wrestling, compared to just 542 matches in Japan among the 32 wrestlers on the losing side. On a match-by-match basis, if one side had significantly more experience in Japan, that side tended to win, particularly in the most important matches.2
Japan has a rich pro wrestling history, and many would-be WWE stars trying to make a name for themselves will wrestle virtually anywhere they can get work — even legends like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant did extensive stints there. But what’s going on in the WWE right now goes beyond one territorial class having a good week against the others.
The fact that Balor — who just won a major title in what was functionally his third match on the WWE main roster — built his career in Japan is a huge part of his storyline in a way that would have been unthinkable when Hogan or Andre wrestled. The SummerSlam broadcast even paid tribute to his status as founder of The Bullet Club — a worldwide, cross-promotional3 faction — when his former stablemates Anderson and Gallows (as well as his successor as Bullet Club leader, AJ Styles) tried to give him the “Too Sweet” sign, which Balor is credited with bringing back.
Likewise, AJ Styles’s billing has highlighted his victories around the world, and the fact that he and The Club were a faction in Japan is a significant part of his character. Oh, and he just beat John Cena — the “face that runs the place” — which means their feud will likely end with Styles as the final victor. And Styles won clean.4 After kicking out of a super-version of Cena’s finisher. As a heel.
In other words, unprecedented things are being booked for guys who not only come from outside the WWE’s own farm system, but for whom those ties and experiences are crucial parts of their stories and marketing.
But perhaps even more interesting is how the WWE is bringing in and pushing Japanese talent. The WWE has a pretty dicey history with Asian-themed characters: The organization’s most successful Japanese character was probably WWE champion Yokozuna, who was neither Japanese nor a sumo wrestler, although his character was implied to be both. And his manager, Mr. Fuji, was an offensive Asian stereotype who carried around a Japanese flag and spoke in a heavy accent, although the man who played him was born in Hawaii.
Of the Japanese wrestlers who managed to build a career in the WWE, none was a consistent winner:5
Among matches in CageMatch.net’s database, until recently the Japan-born wrestler with the most impressive win-loss record was the original Tiger Mask, a legendary Japanese character that is passed down from wrestler to wrestler, who won all 19 of his matches in the WWE (then WWF) in 1982.
At NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, Shinsuke Nakamura won the NXT Championship from indy wrestling legend Samoa Joe. That title has evolved from a developmental award into arguably the most prestigious one in the promotion, at least judging by the people who’ve held it.
Nakamura, whose character is equal parts Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Bruce Lee, and a wrecking ball to the face, was one of the two or three most popular wrestlers in Japan before signing with the WWE this January, and he may already be the most “over” (meaning successful and popular with fans) act in his new promotion:
And the WWE bookers — the people who choose who wins — still haven’t let him lose a singles match of any type: He’s 25-0 since his arrival.
But being booked to look strong is about much more than wins. The second-billed match at TakeOver: Brooklyn II involved Japanese-born NXT Women’s Champion Asuka defending her title against former champion Bayley, who is probably the most beloved wrestler in the WWE. Just when it looked like Bayley might take back her title, Asuka kicked her in the head a couple of times. At this point, the WWE has made Asuka look so strong — she’s on a ridiculous 73-match individual winning streak — that bookers may need to bring in outside help (like a Ronda Rousey) to credibly beat her.
The rise of Japanese wrestlers isn’t limited to top level of the WWE. While NXT is theoretically a developmental system, its most important public function is to showcase and generate fan interest in the next wave of WWE superstars. Big pushes (which is when wrestlers are booked to look stronger and get more popular) in NXT correspond very well with pushes on the main roster. For example, all of the NXT women’s champions who have jumped to the main shows have gone on to be WWE women’s champions. So who has gotten the biggest initial pushes in NXT history? You guessed it.
To be able to compare pushes, I looked at each NXT champion and marked the start of their initial push as the first time they won a match on television and the end as the first time they lost a singles match cleanly thereafter:
The two Japanese champions at the moment aren’t just getting good pushes relative to past Japanese wrestlers, they’re getting monster pushes relative to anyone else in the promotion. This doesn’t guarantee success, as wins and losses aren’t the the be-all and end-all of professional wrestling the way they are in competitive sports. But at the very least, it signals how committed the WWE likely is to making its Japanese talent look as good as or better than the talent that’s already around.
Perhaps SummerSlam’s most significant indication that the WWE is committed to taking a new direction with outside talent didn’t come in a match at all.
After winning the first match of TakeOver, heel character Austin Aries wouldn’t stop applying his submission hold on his Dominican dance-themed opponent No Way Jose. Hideo Itami, wearing a suit, showed up for the save and Aries attacked him. Itami gained the upper hand with a series of strikes, and then lifted Aries on his shoulders and performed his finishing maneuver to stand tall at the end of the segment. Of course, this kind of scene is a standard way of setting up a likely program between two wrestlers, but I’ve included the confrontation as if it were a match in the charts above (just as I included Roman Reigns beating up Rusev), because it was a “fair” face-off and Itami came out on top cleanly.
But the real power of the scene lay in the fact that Itami used the “GTS” (or “Go to Sleep”) finisher. This was the signature move of hugely popular former WWE champion and main-event star CM Punk. As the announcers quickly explained, however, Itami actually invented the move. But though he had used it extensively under his ring name Kenta in other promotions, he had refrained from using it on WWE television since signing in 2014. Until Saturday.
The WWE put Japanese wrestling over in a number of ways on SummerSlam weekend, but allowing one of its newer talents to symbolically reclaim what’s his on such a major stage sends the message more emphatically than booking alone ever could.
Even acknowledging that other promotions exist is unusual for the WWE; now it looks like the WWE is booking its own “invasion.”
CLARIFICATION (Aug. 29, 2:55 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that the talent for WWE’s “New Era” was drawn from the “WWE Superstars” television series. The “New Era” is not related to the series.