August 31st was a big day for New Japan Pro Wrestling, as they ran their first solo show in the United Kingdom, Royal Quest, from the Copper Box Arena in London. For all intents and purposes a major NJPW show/PPV, being streamed on Fite TV (and soon NJPW World), with no less than 4 titles on the line and many big names making an appearance, it all added together to create a big fight atmosphere, lapped up by a rambunctious crowd who were determined to enjoy every last minute.
25YL was there in person (first row of the balcony, opposite the entrance, since you asked) and is ready to give you a personal take on what will hopefully be remembered as one of the major wrestling shows of the year.
The Copper Box Arena is an ideal venue for a New Japan show and not just for the arena itself. The local area surrounding the venue, Hackney Wick, has long been a centre for artists of various disciplines, in part due to the cheap rents, and it shows. Cool, interesting graffiti abounds, while formerly disused industrial buildings have been put to great use as studios and exciting, homegrown little breweries and bars (I heartily recommend Tank Bar for quality beer and great alternative music if you’re that way inclined. Another bar nearby, that shall remain nameless, is strongly advised to hire more bar staff…)
In the run-up to the event, I often wondered what type of audience New Japan would draw in the UK. As the local bars began to fill up with other punters in need of a pre-bell pint, a definite picture began to emerge of an internet savvy fan base, reasonably affluent and leaning towards the contemporary stereotype of ‘hip’ (beards, tattoos and, in the UK at least, flat caps). I had expected, perhaps unfairly, a bit more mingling between fans, as this was a great opportunity for like-minded fans to meet and make connections over a shared love of wrestling.
But people seemed to stick to the people they knew, while suspiciously eyeing other fans’ t-shirts in some kind of sniffy peacocking over who had the best wrestling shirt on. A minor shame maybe, but nothing to ruin the day and hipness has always been linked to social competitiveness anyway.
In any case, I was able to speak to a very friendly guy called Steve who was part of a group called Watch Wrestling London, who arrange regular meetups to watch wrestling events in the capital and share their passion for pro grappling over a pint or two. Steve was very much looking forward to the meet up at the next PROGRESS event and we had a good chat about the virtues of Bret Hart and how the Hitman’s ring work still holds up very well. It was a pleasure to be able to meet new people and have these kinds of conversations, as people who attend various fan conventions can attest to. I hope big wrestling shows like this can encourage this community to feel more, and something like Watch Wrestling London is a great, forward-thinking idea.
On the T-Shirt front, there were many on display, with the Bullet Club less represented than you might imagine. There were several NJPW shirts, a couple for AEW and Jericho’s Judas Effect, but the most popular shirt was perhaps surprisingly Los Ingobernables de Japon’s, Naito’s cool crew seemingly claiming fans’ hearts where I thought the Bullet Club might still reign supreme. My top pick for T-Shirt of the day, however, betrays my wrestling nerdiness and love for the NWA/WCW with a great Capital Combat ’90 shirt – Sting Meets Robocop!
The Copper Box arena, opened in 2011, was initially used as one of the major venues for the 2012 Olympics and since then it has been the home for various basketball, badminton and Netball games, as well as wheelchair rugby and amateur boxing. As a predominantly sporting venue, as opposed to a more general ‘entertainment’ one, the Copper Box was the perfect fit for New Japan with their inherently more sports-based presentation, whereas someone like NXT might struggle there.
With a capacity of 7481, the venue was large enough and yet intimate enough for New Japan’s first UK solo show. With the venue being a relatively new build, ease of view was excellent and even where we were sat at the front of the balcony we had an excellent view of the ring and the entranceway and could see the action in the ring very clearly. The entrance itself was simple but effective with Union Jack columns and a video screen showing video packages and reiterating who was in the ring.
One thing I did appreciate was that the video recaps of feuds had English subtitles, which helped to provide context to the matches and established that Royal Quest was not just a novelty show but a part of the larger NJPW story continuity and was, therefore, an important show.
The action itself arrived promptly on time and for over three hours the crowd was treated to a full-on hard-hitting show with plenty of major developments. The London audience was, to put it mildly, a lot more wild and animated than a typically Japanese audience and the crowd was absolutely white-hot throughout, with almost volcanic excitement displayed for Kota Ibushi, Will Ospreay, Aussie Open, Zack Sabre Jr and a certain Mr. Minoru Suzuki.
The wrestlers seemed to really vibe from the intense audience adoration and involvement, and even seemed to play up to it at times. Naito pulled out a spot where he went to swing a chair at an opponent but smoothly unfolded it into a seated position, coolly taking a pew to rapturous response. Minoru Suzuki received the loudest singalong to Kaze Ni Nare in recorded history. It’s the only time I can recall as well that I’ve actively seen Suzuki encourage the audience for further applause, which he swiftly received, creating a very strange yet great babyface moment – Hulk Suzuki anyone?
The match between tag champions Guerrillas of Destiny and Aussie Open was held up for a moment at the start by duelling chants of such equal passion that both teams, particularly GoD, seemed positively stunned. KENTA played up to the fans boos with such slimy heel authority that for a moment, under the influence of a view pints, I genuinely believed KENTA was the greatest heel in the world. People literally wanted Ishii to tear him apart, although crowd affections were a little more balanced by the end of the match.
Best of all, homecoming champion Zack Sabre Jr., who received an overwhelming face reaction, garnered the best fan chants of the evening. ZSJ is known as a staunch Labour supporter. To this effect, there were calls to ‘hit Tanahashi—-pretend he’s Brexit,’ and ‘Fuck you Brexit.’ What Tanahashi must have made of all this is anybody’s guess.
It was also a night of import for the furthering of New Japan’s storylines. KENTA took Ishii’s Never Openweight title and Tanahashi claimed ZSJ’s RPW British Heavyweight title, surprisingly so with Sabre being on home soil. Will Ospreay issued a further challenge for he and Robbie Eagles to face El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori, but this time for the Super Junior Tag Titles. And after a VERY hard-hitting match against eventual loser Minoro Suzuki, World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada was confronted by SANADA who, after claiming victory earlier in the evening, came back to the ring to make his intentions known – Okada’s Heavyweight title.
Is it a show that will hold up on video? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. Outside of the fact that sometimes the live experience creates a kind of excitement that is not captured in a recording, I believe subsequently that there were issues with Fite TV’s live stream of the show so that commentators were speaking with no sound and the stream itself dropping out regularly. In fact, I understand the stream did not right itself until the 5thmatch! Which is a real shame, because it gives the impression that an excellent show with a white-hot crowd was second rate, which Royal Quest certainly was not. I’m confident though that by the time the show is uploaded onto NJPW World for streaming that some of the issues that plagued the live stream will have been fixed and the show itself will be able to be judged more fairly.
For NJPW though I believe they will take the overall experience as a positive. Out of a possible 7481 seats, they have reported an attendance of 6119, which is nothing to be sniffed at for a first-time solo show in a new market. The crowd was rapturous and with word of mouth a second show with a similarly big line up could possibly sell out. I don’t think this is the last of New Japan we will see in the UK and I personally will be at the front of the queue when tickets are released. This is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen live: wrestling, rock and roll, anything.
Believe in NJPW: they really are the King of Sports.