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NJPW makes landfall in United States with show at Cow Palace

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IWGP world champion Kenny Omega at Korakuen Hall after he won the world title. (Michael Lano / Special to S.F. Examiner)

Story by Dr. Mike Lano, edited by Ryan Gorcey

During this year’s mayoral campaign, London Breed spoke of growing up in San Francisco’s inner city, saving her pennies as a kid just to go regularly to the Cow Palace to see all her favorite WWF wrestlers in the 1980s.

On Saturday, New Japan Pro Wrestling will make its debut at the classic arena, and now-Mayor-elect Breed is trying to make one more appearance, although this time, she may wind up in the ring.

Japan-based NJPW — long one of the most respected promotions worldwide — is attempting to promote globally outside Japan. At press-time, Mayor-elect Breed is trying to alter her schedule to hopefully attend and present the promotion with keys to the city and a proclamation plaque, as they kick off arguably their most ambitious show in the United States.

NJPW will bring together world-class athletes from Japan, the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Europe to compete in the “G-1 Special In San Francisco,” the promotion’s largest-ever international event, and San Francisco is the perfect place to do it.

San Francisco pro wrestling has had a long history dating back well before Vince McMahon’s WWF and Verne Gagne’s AWA battled for supremacy at the Cow Palace and Oakland Arena in the 1980s.

San Francisco legend Ray Stevens’ tag team partner, Roy Shire, was instrumental in the early days of Bay Area wrestling. He brought in most of the world’s top talent — including Ray — in 1960 to promote all over Northern California. He pushed out former area promoter Joe Malcewicz, who had a 25-year run selling out venues with former 49er great Leo Nomellini challenging Lou Thesz for the NWA Title.

Shire regularly sold out the Cow Palace every three weeks, as well as his many other venues in Oakland, Sacramento, Reno, Modesto, Stockton and San Jose, until he closed his Big Time promotion in the face of McMahon (from New York and Connecticut) and Gagne (Minnesota) trying to take their respective wrestling companies national.

Both McMahon and Gagne saw the San Francisco Bay Area as a prime territory in which to experiment, while Shire had two earlier setbacks with his U.S. Champion, Stevens, getting injured before two different planned Candlestick Park spectaculars, where he would face Pepper Gomez.

Shire’s other top babyface — legendary Pat Patterson — learned much from Shire about the emotional aspects of wrestling, suspending disbelief and how to best utilize television to grow mainstream interest. After his days as a wrestler were numbered, Patterson became McMahon’s lead creative brain in WWF (now WWE), developing, among other things, the battle royal now known as the Royal Rumble.

San Francisco’s Dusek Brothers played a major role in the roots of Japanese pro wrestling, the flowers of which fans will get to see when NJPW takes over the Cow Palace this weekend. Like San Francisco of old, New Japan, too, has fed the wrestling world some of its best and brightest. New Japan has produced some of the WWE’s most exciting new stars, including A.J. Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura and Finn Balor.

NJPW was recently featured in a front-page story in the New York Times, in which it was called a major threat to Vince McMahon’s global vision for the WWE. In concert with ever-growing ratings of NJPW’s Friday-night telecasts on Mark Cuban’s AXS channel, the viewers of those broadcasts have raved about the quality of the wrestling.

The promotion routinely sells out Osaka Castle Hall and Tokyo Dome, and drew over 300,000 in North Korea back in the 1990s for a Peace Festival show, attempting to ease global tensions. Wrestling experts and writers from Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proclaimed NJPW’s product as much more athletic and hard-hitting than WWE’s.

The company is known for it’s “strong-style wrestling,” which has a feel of authenticity in a sport known more for its theatricality. Many of it’s athletes are former MMA and football stars. In fact, after company founder Senator Antonio Inoki started NJPW in 1972 as it’s lead star, he soon brought in top amateurs and gold medalists from other disciplines like boxing and kickboxing, in order to give New Japan legitimacy and excitement.

Inoke also brought in Thesz, Karl Gotch and even Patterson, when he was still selling out the Cow Palace for Shire’s promotion every three weeks. Inoki’s own 1976 wrestler-versus-boxer match against Muhammad Ali is credited by many with launching the mixed martial arts movement that’s spawned UFC, Bellator and other promotions.

Since Inoki left the company and was elected to office, NJPW has grown exponentially with new management and an ever-growing roster. Kazuchika Okada and Canada’s Kenny Omega (NJPW’s current IWGP World Champion) routinely trade off “best wrestler of the year” and “best match of the year” honors with one another. Ring of Honor — another major promotion — shares talent like MMA legend Minoru Suzuki and the Young Bucks with NJPW. New Japan also features Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tetsuya Naito, along with UK superstars in World Junior Champ Will Osprey, Zack Sabre Jr and Marty Scurrl. Dusty Rhodes’ son Cody Runnells — formerly WWE’s Stardust — is also part of the promotion.

Tickets are available at new-japan-pro-wrestling.tickets-center.com since the Cow Palace box office recently closed. Fans from all over the world set an online record for single-day purchases and the event will be “WrestleMania-Weekend-Like” with a live TV press conference the day before, and Bay Area-based APW having their own show nearby that Friday evening.

Dr. Mike Lano is a former longtime Examiner sports/arts columnist and a retired San Francisco dentist. He’s covered pro wrestling around the world since 1966 for the newstand magazines and still hosts his syndicated CBS and Sirius/XM Satellite Radio Shows. 

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