Late on the first of May, New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s most recent pay-per-view event was coming to a close. World heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada had just defended his title in a grueling half-hour bout and was bidding the crowd in the Fukuoka Dome farewell when the music abruptly changed.
But after an associate joined his sneak attack on Okada, the New Zealand-born grappler slammed the champ into the mat face first and delivered a message not just to Okada, but to the thousands watching in the arena and at home.
“Did you forget? Let me remind all of you exactly who I am,” White said, listing his nicknames and accolades and staking his claim on Okada’s championship. “Once again, you will breathe with the Switchblade, because it’s still — my — era.”
Whether he stands tall after facing Okada in Osaka next month, Jay White will be a key part of NJPW’s future, both in Japan and as the face of an expansion into the United States that was disrupted by the pandemic and altered by changes to the wrestling landscape.
Founded 50 years ago by wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, NJPW had a resurgence more than a decade ago and became one of the world’s leading promotions. As opposed to the “sports entertainment” style of professional wrestling presented by industry powerhouse WWE, NJPW showcases “strong style,” a mix of technical grappling, submission holds and martial arts strikes that is presented more like a sport.
Throughout the last decade, NJPW ran a handful of events every year in the U.S., often with partner Ring of Honor. In 2019, the company launched New Japan Pro-Wrestling of America and ramped up to more than a dozen events, with plans to double that number in 2020.
Covid-19 disrupted the company’s grand plans, which were further limited by Japan’s strict (and still ongoing) travel restrictions. By August 2020, the company was able to launch a weekly show, NJPW Strong, based out of its Los Angeles dojo and often headlined by White.
“I love not being in Japan,” he says, claiming that the country’s stringent pandemic restrictions and rules “make no sense.”
While U.S. promotions gradually started welcoming fans back in full force over the last two years — NJPW Strong has been taping in front of a live audience since last fall — Japanese crowds are still not allowed to cheer.
“The fact that the crowd can’t make noise is still mind-blowing,” White says. “For a pro wrestling show, it’s not really entertaining when it’s silent.”
White’s journey to the top of the wrestling business took a unique path. The 29-year-old talent had watched for a few years during his adolescence before losing interest, but the spark was relit when he won a radio contest for an all-expenses-paid trip to WWE’s WrestleMania in 2011 when he was 18. While the in-ring action wasn’t anything to write home about, White nevertheless began to see a future as a pro wrestler as a possibility.
A few years later, White started from scratch: He was living in Portsmouth, England, in shared student housing and had begun his wrestling training. He met Irish pro wrestler Prince Devitt, then a star in NJPW, a connection that would eventually lead to White leaving the U.K. to train in the NJPW dojo in Tokyo. As is customary, he would soon leave on an excursion, working for more than a year for promotions in the U.S. and U.K. before returning to NJPW with his new “Switchblade” gimmick.
In 2018, White became the leader of Bullet Club, a faction founded earlier in the decade by Devitt as a brash collection of foreigners (or “gaijin”) who disrespected Japanese wrestling culture and used any means necessary to win. Bullet Club would become so popular that eventually its skull-and-crossed-guns logo could be found on shelves at Hot Topic.
White’s leadership came at a turning point for Bullet Club, at around the time key members Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes and brotherly tag team the Young Bucks left NJPW to found All Elite Wrestling — the first legitimate challenger to WWE’s dominance in more than 20 years. AEW’s weekly show debuted Oct. 2, 2019, and before the company could hit its stride, NJPW announced plans for its American expansion.
As much as the pandemic paused NJPW’s plans, the rise of AEW further complicated its attempt to be the destination for fans looking for pure pro wrestling, as opposed to sports entertainment. But if you can’t beat them, join them: The two promotions began a working relationship last year as wrestlers and fans started speculating about who would walk through the “forbidden door” between companies and make a surprise appearance at a rival’s event.
“I don’t think anyone would fit better in the role than someone of my caliber,” White says. “You can’t send over someone who is not really going to cut it.”
White knocked down the door in February, and again last month, interrupting the heads of AEW and NJPW as they were announcing a co-branded pay-per-view (also called “Forbidden Door”) set for June 26 in Chicago that sold out in minutes.
White will no doubt be on that card in what could be a dream match against a number of AEW stars, and if he defeats Okada next month, he could be wearing gold around his waist. But first, he’ll continue NJPW’s tour of the states for a tag team match in Washington that will continue the build to his championship bout.
“We go to these different towns, and every single time, the crowd is growing,” he says. “We hit these different places that haven’t seen New Japan — especially New Japan Strong — and people can experience it for themselves and see what we’re all about.”
NJPW Capital Collision, May 14 at 7 p.m. at Entertainment and Sports Arena, 1100 Oak Dr. SE. eventsdc.com. $35-$45.