By Tony Cline, Columnist
One of the biggest issues that I have with the professional wrestling industry over the last couple of decades is that they seem to lack the ability to truly develop storylines over the long term. Much of this is due to the system of monthly pay-per-views that has taken over the business. Because the promotions want fresh storylines for each monthly show, they have abandoned the long-term storylines that used to be a staple of the industry and added a great deal of drama to the business. I talked recently about how the special stipulations matches aren’t so special anymore, and most of the reason is that they use them as filler rather than as the blow-offs for huge feuds that they were meant to be.
In today’s environment, Shane McMahon and Kevin Owens spent a whole three weeks developing their feud for Hell in a Cell. And why was the match inside the steel cage? Well, because that’s just what time of year it is, and that’s the theme of the show. In contrast, Ric Flair used to spend months getting counted out and benefiting from Horseman interference before he would be forced to step inside the steel cage with whatever opponent he had been feuding with for the last several months. The purpose of the cage was not to fit a theme but to keep the wrestlers in and everyone else out so the fans could finally get a decisive answer to who the champion should be.
The monthly pay-per-view regime has unfortunately ended the superior plot development that the business used to contain, at least mostly. I am, however, thrilled to see New Japan Pro Wrestling putting together what may amount to one of the best slow burn storylines we have seen in a very long time. It all started at Dominion in June when Kenny Omega faced off against Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Omega was taking some pretty heavy damage when Cody (don’t call him Rhodes, per WWE court order) came out with a white towel in hand. Cody tried to throw the towel in to end the match, but other members of the Bullet Club prevented him from doing so. Fans were wondering if Cody’s concern for Kenny was genuine, or if he was just trying to preserve his own scheduled title shot the following month at the G1 Climax special event in Long Beach, CA.
The following month, during Cody’s match with Okada, Omega came down to the ring with an identical towel. Rather than try to throw it in himself, Kenny tried to persuade Brandi Rhodes to toss the towel in for her husband. Cody, seeing what was happening, took the towel and threw it in Omega’s face before losing the match. This led to a backstage confrontation during the post-event interviews that are a regular occurrence in Japan.
In August, at the G1 tournament, there was a six-man match that included six members of the Bullet Club. During the introductions, Tama Tonga took exception to the fact that Kenny was wearing an Elite shirt rather than a Bullet Club shirt like everyone else. Tama then used the match to beat up on Kenny a little.
Then, at this month’s Power Struggle event, Cody was involved in a six-man tag team match with Chase Owens and Yujiro Takahashi as his partners. After Chase Owens was pinned, Cody went over to Don Callis, the English-language color commentator known to be friendly to the Bullet Club, and complained about his partners, including saying that Takahashi’s women were a distraction.
All of this is leading up to a likely split of the Bullet Club. The fact that the plot has been building for six months without exploding yet is an amazing use of time and resources by NJPW. The longer they draw this out, the more powerful the climax of the story line will be, and the more profitable it will be for NJPW. It is unlikely we will see this story explode at Wrestle Kingdom in January, but I expect it to continue to build. It would make sense for it all to come to a head at the next US event in March, but if not, withholding the payoff longer will only whet fans’ appetites even more for the resolution to this story.
WWE, Impact, ROH, etc., take note. NJPW is giving a master class in setting the hook on a major plotline long in advance of the climax. The slow build for this story has been nothing less than masterful, and it will certainly result in a huge payoff for both the fans and the promotion.