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At NJPW's show last weekend, Will Ospreay and Hiromu Takahashi had a great match over the IWPG Junior Heavyweight Championship. What stood out about the match, other than the insanely risky moves performed by both men, was the commentary by Kevin Kelly and Don Callis. While the match was excellent and full of exciting moments, Kelly and Callis both reacted in a very solemn, understated tone, which helped tell a story throughout the match.
When Ospreay made his way to the ring, Kelly began hyping him up, calling him "one of the most naturally gifted athletes we have ever seen." Callis replied by quietly saying "Yeah, but I worry about him." Later in the match, as Ospreay was subjected to brutal moves such as taking a release German-suplex on the floor and being tossed, head-over-heels, into the steel guard rail, Kelly and Callis did not begin to expound about what an incredible match this was; but rather made several uncomfortable noises and comments about what they were watching.
I thought this was one of the better jobs a commentating team has done in supplementing a match. Instead of trying to sell the match as a legendary contest, the match was presented as an unsettling battle between two men who were willing to risk their long-term health for a chance to be the champion. It adds to the realism; these are not actors performing a role but rather competitors who are subjecting themselves to punishment in the spirit of competition. As a fan of both men, I too was worried about the risks they were taking, even if at the same time I can admit that the match was amazing. Commentary is about selling a product to the viewer, and sometimes the best way to do that is to not to just yell about how incredible something is; but rather to reflect the reality of what is unfolding.
Attendance up, merchandise down
As my colleague Brandon Howard Thurston wrote earlier this week, WWE's merchandise numbers displayed an interesting trend in 2017; while their overall attendance figures are up, the money the company makes selling merchandise sold at live events is down. This has led to a couple hypotheses, and one I think may be true is WWE's overall shift from being a promotion based around stars, to a promotion based around a brand.
Historically, wrestling has relied on individual stars to draw fans to the show, from Frank Gotch to John Cena. However, in recent years WWE's model has shifted away from that to some degree, relying on a loyal fan base that will continue to go to events and subscribe to the network simply because WWE promotes it. A major issue frequently discussed about WWE concerns the fact that the promotion lacks true star power; and with the exception of part-time wrestlers like Cena, Brock Lesnar, The Undertaker and others, no one star can really be attributed as a drawing card. A show like WrestleMania sells tens of thousands of tickets without a single match on the show being advertised, simply because the show is WRESTLEMANIA and fans endorse that brand name.
The issue is that selling merchandise inherently relies on fans endorsing a particular star and not just a brand. Very few people would buy a shirt that just said "WWE" on it. Major drawing cards like Cena, Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin sold unbelievable amounts of merchandise to fans; and with Cena off the road full-time WWE lacks a star of anywhere close of that caliber to anchor merchandise sales. Roman Reigns isn't that guy; neither is Braun Strowman , Seth Rollins or anyone else on the full-time roster. AJ Styles sold the second most merchandise in 2017, and his numbers were significantly behind Cena's, who also didn't wrestle for much of the year.
Another issue people have raised is the T-Shirt design. I do not envy WWE's designers, who probably have to follow all sorts of rules and regulations and also come up with something that a lot of people would wear. I always think the best wrestling shirts are subtle, such as the NWO shirt or the "Austin 3:16" shirt. Wrestling fans probably don't want to wear a shirt that screams out to everyone that they are a wrestling fan, because there is still a social stigma around being a wrestling fan. But an "Austin 3:16" shirt? That is perfect, because people who don't watch wrestling will not think anything of it if they see you wearing it, but wrestling fans that see it can appreciate it.
At Wrestle Kingdom 12, IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada unveiled a new outfit. Instead of wearing short –tights like he had been since returning to NJPW some years ago, Okada decided he was going to be wearing pants. Not just any pants, and certainly not tights, but loose pants that resemble bell bottoms.
I have to say, they look terrible. I'm fine with him switching it up, especially because unlike WWE or other promotions, NJPW wrestlers typically wear the same exact design and color scheme for years; but the pants are awful. His color scheme is kind of uninspired, but they looked fine when he was wearing short-tights; expanded into pant form and they look like those pictures you used to look at in elementary school where you are supposed to stare at them for a while and see a different image.
The biggest problem is that nobody in the history of society has ever looked athletic while wearing loose fitting pants. Tight pants, like what Shawn Michaels, AJ Styles, Edge and a million other wrestlers wore, are fine, but the loose pants? Give me a break, Okada might be the best wrestler in the world but he certainly is the best-dressed.
Must Watch Matches:
Will Ospreay vs Hiromu Takahashi: ****1/2 – NJPW New Beginning in Osaka
Kazuchika Okada vs SANADA: ****1/4 – NJPW New Beginning in Osaka