By Mike Lano
Special to the S.F. Examiner
COW PALACE — You have to climb a set of rickety stairs, up into a stunted second floor, to get to the backstage rooms at San Francisco’s venerable Cow Palace. These are the rooms where Roy Shire, Ray Stevens, Pat Patterson, Bobo Brazil, Roddy Piper and Bill Watts pulled on their working boots during professional wrestling’s long and storied history in the city of San Francisco.
All of those wrestlers, at various points in their career, competed overseas in Japan — an honor for any wrestler, given how the venerated athleticism and workmanship are in Japanese wrestling circles. On Saturday, it was a Japanese promotion coming over to America that filled those rooms once again.
New Japan Pro Wrestling delivered a breathtaking card Saturday at the legendary venue, in front of it’s largest U.S. audience to date, setting promotion records for the biggest venue, biggest gate and most tickets sold.
Despite some local quirks from a perhaps less-savvy crowd than NJPW is used to stateside, the event was a resounding success for a promotion looking to make a major impact in the United States and beyond. Though official ticket numbers have yet to be released, the crowd was close to topping 9,000 in the 12,000-seat arena. That’s significant, because WWE has had a long history of not being able to even come this close to filling the arena built when promoter Roy Shires had Cow Palace standing-room-only routine attendance every 3-4 weeks. That fact was on nearly everyone’s mind backstage.
At the front of the house, the San Francisco G-1 Special event made a few new fans.
“Five-stars. I love WWE but New Japan blew them away in every aspect,” said Examiner reader Ilene Lynch from Twin Peaks. “The wrestling is just so much better and athletic. I didn’t want to take my eyes off it although Kenny Omega beating Cody was too much outside the ring. And Juice Robinson winning the U.S. title was so cool. Everyone has to watch New Japan’s Friday show on AXS cable channel.”
Fans watching on AXS (which reportedly had its highest ratings in years) were treated to the legendary Jim Ross and former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett calling the action.
One notable aspect of the crowd was the more well-educated female fans, and the greater number of female fans than NJPW’s recent show in Long Beach, Calif. Jennifer Garland of Antioch said she came to see Japan’s version of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, in Tanahashi.
“He’s the cutest and best wrestler in the company,” she said. “And he’s doing lots of movies and TV and commercials just like John Cena does here.”
Arlene Sousa of Arcata said the long drive to the Cow Palace and back was worth it. She and her husband Joe promote wrestling up there regularly and along the Oregon border.
“I thought the wrestling in every match, the production values, everything was amazing,” she said. “We would never have missed a chance to see the greatest wrestling.”
During the best overall bout of the night, Dragon Lee almost captured the IWGP Junior World Championship from new champ Takahashi (who just beat UK star Will Ospreay for the strap in Japan). Popular Lee is the quickest pro wrestling/luchador in the world, and wore his King of the Indies belt — secured in a tournament win at the previous night’s 5-star All Pro Wrestling show nearby at Pacelli’s Gym — to the ring.
Kenny Omega — holder of the promotions’ top belt, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship — retained his title against his long-hated rival Cody — the son of Dusty Rhodes, the very last Cow Palace U.S. Champion under promoter Roy Shire. Following the match, he gave an impassioned speech.
Omega said how proud he was to work so hard for the great fans in San Francisco, and in the historic wrestling palace. He finished with a plea for tolerance and acceptance of others, as he gave his hand to his foe and raised Cody back up to his feet like a dotting brother.
For the moment at least, their Bullett Club — the most celebrated wrestling faction in Japan for years with Omega and Cody battling for supremacy — seemed back on track, at least until it’s South Pacific Island members came out and changed the dynamic with a protest beat-down, forming their own new group.
San Francisco has always had the mainland’s largest South Pacific wrestling fan base amidst it’s huge percentage of Cow Palace attendees. They seemed elated at all of this, perhaps feeling a kinship with them as they had for seventies San Francisco legends like popular Chief Peter Maivia and The Islanders (Afa and Sika).
NJPW had previously ran three smaller venue shows in Long Beach to even more ravenous, educated fans of their patented strong-style athleticism that sold-out weeks in advance. As loud as San Francisco locals were here, the crowds in southern California were larger, and knew more of each wrestler’s unique chants and melodic claps.
Area “smart” fans knew to call out “shhhhhhh” whenever someone was about to chop a foe’s chest, so that the noise would reverberate and echo around the Cow Palace. Saturday’s event was missing fans throwing colorful Japanese paper streamers into the ring during introductions, but while some traditions were absent, there was a concerted effort to draw in the more casual fan by pushing more Americans, who now hold most of their lead championships.
As a result, NJPW dominated worldwide social media trends Saturday night for over three hours, nearly breaking Twitter records for either amateur or pro-wrestling.
San Francisco has a long and storied history with professional wrestling, and on Saturday, it came to life again, with talent from another continent. Though NJPW shows in southern California have perhaps popped better, the promotion learned quite a bit from its experience in San Francisco, which will enable it to pivot towards even more successful events in the future. It’s hard to see Saturday as anything but an unqualified success. It’s very likely that it won’t be the last time NJPW visits the Bay Area.