Book Review: "Lion's Pride." A Gem in Need of Some Polishing.
Originally published at Canadian Bulldog's World
I’ve been mystified by professional wrestling in Japan from my earliest days watching wrestling. When I watched wrestling in Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP), wrestlers would talk about working in Japan and the great wrestlers they faced. Wrestling magazines mentioned it as well, talking of high-profile matches between American champions and Japanese challengers. Occasionally, Japanese stars would appear in American wrestling, adding to their mystique.
Japanese professional wrestling, like Japan itself, is often a tantalizing mystery for American fans. Fans know that Japan has wrestling but the details get murky from there. They’ve heard that Japanese fans take their wrestling seriously, politely clapping during the matches and dressing up formally for events. They’ve head that Japanese wrestling is different too but they don’t know exactly how different. The problem has always been getting access to Japanese wrestling, the second getting English translations of it.
Former wrestler Chris Charlton’s 2015 book Lion's Pride: The Turbulent History of New Japan Pro Wrestling sets out to tell the history of New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), arguably Japan’s most important promotion. The promotion has had its ups and downs but it has been a proving ground for some of the biggest names in the sport. The book talks about the promotion’s history, key figures (in and out of the ring), and famous angles. While the book wavers at time in presenting a coherent history, it does provide a lot of information about Japanese wrestling, dispelling some myths as well. For example, there’s the saw about how Japanese fans sit and clap politely during matches. As the book details, fans can get incensed, setting things on fire and throwing them into the ring.
Lion’s Pride begins with a history of professional wrestling in Japan, detailing how the sport grew in post-World War Two times. The book talks of Japan’s legendary wrestler Rikidozan (a Korean) and his role in wrestling. From there, it establishes the top promotions at the time and focuses on star Antonio Inoki and how he created NJPW.
The early part of the book does a good job of showing Inoki’s plan to develop NJPW and some of the programs he worked. As we detailed earlier, Inoki was involved in one of the biggest sporting events of the 1970’s; the Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali fight that took place in Japan. While the fight was a dud, it gave a ton of exposure to Inoki and Japanese wrestling.
Lion’s Pride does a good job explaining how a person trains to be a wrestler in Japan and makes the transition from trainee to stepping into the ring. New Japan has a rigorous program where wrestlers live at a dojo, training constantly and serving established wrestlers. Once a wrestler has served their apprenticeship, they work in simple black tights and boots, usually as what we call enhancement talent. From there, they travel abroad to get seasoning and return, hopefully to success.
What I liked about the book was that it provided a lot of details on famous wrestlers I heard about and watched wrestle in America, but didn’t really have any background on, Tiger Mask and Jushin Liger coming to mind. Both wrestlers are legendary for their skills in the ring as well as in Japanese culture. I learned a lot about the different incarnations of Tiger Mask and Jushin Liger’s important role behind the scenes.
Lion’s Pride deals with the business side of AJPW just as much as it does the action in the ring. It’s interesting to see how the promotion went through its ups and downs. A new approach to booking in the 21st century helped jump-start the promotion after some very lean years. It’s interesting to see how New Japan is trying to reach foreign markets through its streaming service and its use of English-speaking announcers like WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross. The language barrier has always been a stumbling block and if you look at AJPW’s website, you can see they have a long way to go in making the product user-friendly to English-speaking audiences.
The book has color photos of some of the wrestling stars. This is helpful for fans who have heard the names but haven't seen the faces. It may not seem like much but it’s a nice bonus as most self-published books don’t have photos.
Where the book runs into trouble is its organization. The historical aspect starts off coherently then starts to wander all over the place. Part of the problem is that the author inserts chapters about things such as the promotion’s top lightweights, which kills the book’s flow. Sometimes this type of writing works well in a book. In this case, a book that already has structural problems gets even messier.
The other major complaint is the book’s formatting for the Kindle. One of the problems with self-published books is that authors focus on the book’s content, but neglect to make sure its format is presented well. Lion’s Pride doesn’t have any significant formatting errors but it has enough that it’s noticeable. Given the book was funded through crowdfunding, you’d think the author would have hired an editor to look things over.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start about Japanese wrestling, this is a good jumping on point. While the book focuses on AJPW, it does mention some of its rivals, especially when the promotions worked together. Case in point the UWFi shoot promotion which worked with NJPW in an invasion angle, inspiring Eric Bischoff to create the New World Order.
Lion’s Pride is a flawed book that could have been a real gem. It’s worth reading but you can’t help but wonder how much better it could have been if it was organized better. Unless you’re a real fan of Japanese wrestling, you’ll likely want to skip buying it. If you want to learn more about Japanese wrestling, it’s worth reading whether you buy it as an e-book or borrow it.