Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
I’ve written a little about Japanese professional wrestling in previous columns, also known as puroresu, but this week I want to discuss a particular phenomenon currently happening in the New Japan promotion. We’re gonna talk about The Bullet Club.
First, a little back story. The tradition of gaijin wrestlers working in Japanese promotions is a long one. Hulk Hogan, Vader, Stan Hansen and even Brock Lesnar have all put in considerable time in the Land of the Rising Sun. One of the most successful gaijins in recent NJPW memory was Fergal “Prince” Devitt, an Irish junior heavyweight of considerable technical skill. Despite not being a native, Devitt had made NJPW his home, winning multiple championships and being very beloved by fans, both as a singles star and in the Apollo 55 tag team with his partner, “Funky Weapon” Rysuke Taguchi. Early last year, it was becoming pretty evident that Devitt, for all his talent and skill, was becoming stagnant.
The junior heavyweight division in New Japan is a pretty shallow pool, sorting between a few performers and maybe three or four tag teams, resulting in a lot of recycling feuds and rematches. With Devitt having done everything in his career there is to do, at the 41st Anniversary Show, he was given a title shot against heavyweight champion Hiroshi Tanahashi. The match was solid and Devitt was made to look like a credible threat, but it was ultimately a losing effort. Out of the ashes of this loss, however, we began to see a new side of Devitt. He became petulant, cocky, selfish. He was in the throes of a heel turn.
The transformation was completed at Invasion Attack last year, when Devitt and Taguchi failed to regain the junior heavyweight tag titles from rival team Time Splitters. Devitt turned on his partner and began referring to himself as a “shooter,” the insider term for a wrestler who can really fight (a humorous notion in this case designed to imply every other competitor is fake moreso than establish Devitt as a legit tough guy) and “a real rock ‘n’ rolla.” Shortly thereafter, Devitt aligned himself with the former King Fale, who Devitt rebranded “Bad Luck Fale,” his new heavy. The two pretty explicitly evoked the iconography of early ’90s Shawn Michaels and his bodyguard Diesel. It was a smart bit of nostalgia that efficiently and effectively set Devitt aside from his peers.
At the time, New Japan already had three separate heel factions on the roster, with CHAOS, Suzuki-Gun and the “invading” American forces from the remnants of the NWA, led by Bruce Tharpe. Since NJPW doesn’t put as important an emphasis on face/heel alignment, it allows their booking greater flexibility in building matches, and their performers are allowed to shift the extremities of their personas to best fit whatever feud they are currently engaged in. The downside of this is that appearing to be legitimately villainous takes a lot more work, given the sheer number of charismatic baddies there are on the roster. Devitt accomplished this feat by injecting a foreign element into the landscape. By channeling the energy and attitude of Shawn Michaels, the corporeal embodiment of 1990s WWE heel work, Devitt brought in the specter of The Kliq (the backstage faction in the then-WWF of Michaels, Kevin Nash/Diesel, Scott Hall/Razor Ramon, The 123 Kid/X-Pac and Triple H) and with it, the tropes of American wrestling that are used comically or as a diversion in Japan, that of a brash disrespect for authority and a penchant for rule breaking.
On an episode of Monday Night Raw, you are likely to see a litany of “dirty finishes” to matches, ie, those ending in some form of cheating or interference. New Japan utilizes this kind of storytelling sparingly and usually on undercard matches. Their important feuds, no matter how villainous the heels involved, tend to adhere to a straightforward style unencumbered by American theatrics, leading to more credible, believable match outcomes. When Devitt started having Fale interfere in his matches or leaping off the top rope to stomp opponents in the testicles, he became punk rock incarnate. An act like that would seem pedestrian in the States, but in the upper-mid card of NJPW, it felt revolutionary and elicited legitimate heat from the audience.
As Devitt’s infamy grew, more joined the cause, among them American wrestler Karl Anderson and Tamu Tonga. Real “shooters” all, the crew began unceremoniously beating down whoever got in their way, putting finger gun gestures to their skulls as marks of disrespect. The Bullet Club was born.
With The Bullet Club at his back, Devitt became the first junior heavyweight champion to win the Best of Super Juniors tournament undefeated, an accomplishment obviously marred by consistent sabotage and interference from his cohorts. They just became so hateable, co-opting the faux gang signs of the NWO and just generally being massive assholes. Over the past year, they’ve added Doc Gallows, a former WWE/TNA wrestler, as well as The Young Bucks, a junior tag team from SoCal who are legitimately the greatest in the world at engendering derision and scorn. Devitt, once a very talented wrestler with a middling character, was now the hottest heel in Japan and courting alleged offers from the two major wrestling companies in the US.
A few months ago, things changed. Devitt, after a lengthy reign, dropped the junior heavyweight title to fan favorite Kota Ibushi and reignited a feud with Taguchi, his ex-partner returned from injury. In their last match, Devitt lost a Loser Leaves Town stipulation, further fueling rumors that he’s headed to the WWE, but not before turning away his Bullet Club teammates and losing honorably, choosing to go out as a babyface.
With Devitt gone, a new challenger entered the fray as the Gaijin Heel Incarnate: “The Phenomenal One” AJ Styles.
For a long time now, AJ has been the face of TNA wrestling, and he’s easily one of the best living wrestlers on Earth. TNA, with its perpetual financial troubles, lowballed him on his latest contract, so he went free agent, returning to Ring of Honor and the other indies where he originally made his name a decade ago. New Japan wanted to snatch him up, and given his history with heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada in the American promotion it seemed like a no-brainer to have him replace Devitt.
On the surface, this makes sense. Picture any time you’ve read a superhero team book in which the writer leaves and a new writer adds a random character to lead the team in a different direction, like a Suicide Squad comic where Jason Todd is assigned mission leader or something. It can be jarring, but sometimes can yield exciting results. Here, however, Jado and Gedo, NJPW’s head bookers, were taking a big risk. Firstly, AJ has, unfortunately, spent much of his career being misused by a promotion no one really cares all that much about anymore. He’s not as big an American get as say, CM Punk. Secondly, while the decision to build a feud around Okada’s humble period studying wrestling in the States is intriguing, it presents the opposite problem of Devitt’s incarnation of The Bullet Club.
It was fine for Devitt to break the rules and rebel against the status quo because it wasn’t happening in the main event. At the last big show, AJ pinned Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and he did it dirty, enlisting the help of Okada’s former CHAOS stable mate Yujiro Takahashi, here revealing himself as having joined up with The Bullet Club. The audience didn’t react well to this. Perhaps if Devitt had stayed and the outcome was the same, fans could have accepted it, as a year of storytelling was building up to such an ascendance, but this was AJ’s first appearance. Gaijins have held the top title before, but to besmirch arguably the most credible world title in wrestling so abruptly was definitely a shock, and not necessarily a good one.
AJ, while possibly a better wrestler than Devitt, also severely lacks in the promotional charisma department, so in addition to not seeming like a real threat because he had to cheat to win the title, he is incapable of pleading his case on the mic to right the ship. Karl Anderson does a great job as his “translator” and he gets real heat for coming across so pithy, but putting The Bullet Club in the spotlight like this was a gamble.
In the double shot North American co-promotion with ROH, AJ and The Bullet Club were accepted with open arms by fans, leading many to believe that putting the title on Styles was a stunt to pop the crowds in the States. This was dispelled over the weekend at the big Yokohama arena show, where Styles retained over Okada, beating him cleanly. (Relatively, anyway. There were fewer shenanigans on this go-around.)
So here we are, with a gaijin champ, a massive heel faction still running wild, and half a year of build to next year’s Wrestle Kingdom show (New Japan’s Wrestlemania). What happens next?
That very question, I suspect, is what Jado and Gedo want us to be asking. For years, they’ve booked the promotion with great skill and integrity, positioning themselves as maybe the best wrestling product in the globe. The direction of The Bullet Club stable, while an aesthetic aberration in terms of storytelling, has sufficiently added a sense of unpredictability and urgency to the otherwise deliberate pace NJPW angles move at. It’s been risky putting such a focus on a group and a style the majority of their fans don’t seem to be as invested in, but if the result is legitimate curiosity and intrigue, leaving viewers salivating for what comes next, then haven’t they done their job? Maybe they’re the “real rock ‘n’ rollas.”
 We should have seen this coming, as Devitt began regularly cosplaying during his entrances as various Marvel Comics characters, making him impossible not to cheer.