In an interview this week with Chris Van Vliet, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Tama Tonga joined the show to discuss his time with the company. Tonga detailed how important the Bullet Club has been to his career and how the stable was created.
Tonga explained that management came to them and said that they wanted to put the foreign talents together in a stable. The group then began to try and come up with a name they could call themselves.
“The boss came up and said, ‘we want to put you guys together – the foreigners,'” Tonga said. “It was actually Prince Devitt, Finn Balor now, with Togo, with Bad Luck Fale, and we were the only foreigners besides Tensai that were in New Japan. So, we were always hanging out all the time, and they said, ‘Look, we’re going to put you guys together. We can see you guys got great chemistry outside the ring. We’ll see what happens in the ring,’ and it was just natural.
“Prince Devitt was going to be the front-man. He was leveling up from juniors to heavy and he needed a support group. So, Fale was on this excursion from Missouri, they brought him back. He was going to be his bodyguard, and me and Karl Anderson, I was like Karl Anderson’s second, so I would just be with him always like my mentor. And so Prince Devitt finally went together first, and me and Karl Anderson came in second.”
Tonga said he didn’t have much of a say in the name of the stable, but it was really Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) who was brainstorming ideas since he was going to be the front-man for the group.
“The first name that was brought up – I didn’t have any say in the name,” Tonga explained. “I was just, ‘alright, you tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Whatever you guys need for me’. But Prince Devitt was thinking calling it the Bullet Brigade, and Fale was like, ‘what if you called it ‘Club’, because Fale’s from New Zealand, and he played Professional Rugby, and Clubs is a thing. So, that’s where Bullet Club came. We took that and ran with it.”
The group’s logo is something that has become very popular among fans. Tonga revealed who came up with the design for the logo.
“A new Japan designer, and they put it together because the first logo was s?t,” Tonga explained. “It was just like a Bullet, and then we’re like, ‘Alright, we’ll try to make it work’. But the reason how they came up with the infamous one, Gallows, when we used to dress up in military fatigues, he used to paint the black down his eye. And because of our military-style, that’s where the two guns came in, and that’s really it.
“It was our military-style because that skull with the open – it’s like a gap. That’s Gallows all the way, and I knew that, and I think that they just saw our whole thing together and just started to put it all together, and bam!”
The Bullet Club became one of the most popular factions in wrestling history. Tonga shared how much being in the group changed his life and career.
“I mean, it’s definitely put a lot of cash on my pocket for sure, so it’s changed me a lot financially,” Tonga explained. “That’s number one, but just my perception of wrestling of how it should be and how it can be, it’s changed. I really applied what I learned in the military into that group. That’s teamwork, and adaptation, and overcoming, and keep going. If you look at the beginning of Bullet Club, we were very military style. I was putting a lot of my military uniqueness into it, if that makes sense.”
Tonga said the success of the group led a lot of wrestlers to wanting to join the club. He said the group started wanting to be selective with who could join so it didn’t become too big, like what happened with the nWo in WCW.
“I know people want to be in it,” Tonga said. “In the beginning, I think we just kind of started letting people in, just coming in no matter what. But it wasn’t really our decision at the beginning, but we learned a lot in those first 3-4 years. And then after that, we start, ‘okay, we got to do this carefully’. And we didn’t want it to kind of end up like how – not a knock on nWo – but how nWo was, and it’s so many members. I think there’s a way to do that where we could have so many members but keep it not going where it’s just a mess. I think there’s a way to do that.”
Various members of the Bullet Club have gone on to sign with WWE, and the company has responded by trying to create their own version of the faction. Tonga sees it as a compliment that other companies want to copy what New Japan is doing.
“It’s just like anything else,” Tonga said. “Just like Mexico’s LIJ that became LIJ of Japan. It’s just like The Hurt Business or The Mob – whatever. When you’re doing something so good, everybody wants to copy it. That’s a nod to us, and I’m okay with that! But you ain’t going to do it like us, though. It’s all good. I ain’t got no hate for that. Y’all can keep trying.”
Finn Balor is one of the talents who made the move from NJPW to WWE. Tonga discussed the group’s conversations when Balor told him he was going to make the switch.
“One, we’re happy you’re elevating to a platform that makes money because we’re all in here to make money, so we’re happy for it,” Tonga said. “Two, we’re sad that you’re leaving our circle, but in the end, you got to do what you can to support you and your family. And it always sucks when somebody leaves. When guys leave, you’re like, ‘Ughhh’, especially when you have great chemistry with them.
“They’re your friends. You spend more time on the road with them than you spend with your family. You get to know these guys, you get to know their ins and outs, their family, their personal lives, their ups and downs, and you connect. These guys become your family because you wake up, you stay at the same hotel, you get on the same bus, you sit next to each other, you talk about s–t, you eat together, eat lunch together, breakfast, dinner. I mean, the whole week you’re together. You spend more time with them than you see your own kids. So, when they get relieved, it’s kind of takes this piece of you. Like, f–k man, and then you go in and got to re-form, but this bond is different.”
Other talents have made the move to WWE, including top stars like AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. Tonga spoke about the frustrations that he feels when talent decides to go to a different company.
“It hurt them because these were their stars, their top guys. You can basically say they came and raided our locker room, and Shinsuke was, at that time he left, he was one of our biggest stars,” Tonga said. “He hit this momentum after coming back from Mexico, he changed, got very charismatic. He was killing it every match, and then you had Gallows and Anderson who were tag team champs. They’re not only big inside the ring, but they – Anderson’s been there and he’s like a locker room leader for the foreign guys.
“Kind of like the overseer, and then you got AJ Styles, who’s also a huge huge star. And that’s a big chunk to take off the top, a big, big chunk. So yeah, it hurt them. But at the same time, that gap was an opportunity for us lower-carders to move up and prove ourselves that we can fill that spot, that we can hold it up. Everything has it’s reason and there’s a silver lining.”
You can view the full interview above. If you use any of the quotes in this article, please credit Chris Van Vliet with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.
Mehdy Labriny contributed to this article.