SoCal and Puroresu Part 3: The Inoki Dojo and NJPW-USA

In the final part of my SoCal and Puroresu series, I take a look at the Inoki Dojo and NJPW-USA.

With New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Special in the USA taking place this weekend, I wanted to take a look back on the promotion’s first attempt at breaking into the American market. In Part 1 of this series, I took a look at Antonio Inoki‘s World Wrestling Peace Festival. In this part, I look at the opening of the Inoki Dojo, the Toukon events, NJPW-USA, and the aftermath.

The Beginning

In April of 2002, NJPW founder Antonio Inoki opened up a gym inside of a warehouse located in Santa Monica, CA called the Inoki Dojo. The Inoki Dojo would be used as an American base where NJPW would try to find foreign talent to bring over to Japan. The opening was attended by NJPW stars Kensuke Sasaki, Masahiro Chono, and Yuji Nagata, along with MMA fighters Don Frye, Bas Rutten, Wallid Ismail, Justin McCully (who also wrestled as Justin Sane), and former WWF superstar Joanie “Chyna” Laurer. The grand opening event would feature an exhibition match between Don Frye and Bas Rutten for the members of the Japanese media who were in attendance.

Along with providing high-level professional wrestling training, the Inoki Dojo also brought in Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, and Yoga instructors for wrestlers training at the facility. The Inoki Dojo also became a place where local professional MMA fighters would drop in to do some training. Wrestlers training at the dojo such as Bryan Danielson would live at an apartment owned by Inoki Sports Management, or at the Dojo itself. Years later, the facility would open the [O]RIGIN Pro Wrestling Gym, a school within the Inoki Dojo that featured trainers such as Samoa Joe, Ricky Reyes, Rocky Romero, and T.J. Perkins.

On the surface, the Inoki Dojo seemed like an awesome thing for aspiring wrestlers hoping to make it to NJPW or to just improve. When the Dojo began running shows in 2003, and later having a TV show in 2004, it seemed like the fans would also have a lot to be excited for.

Toukon: The Early Days

On June 21, 2003 the Inoki Dojo promoted an event called Toukon, which mostly featured worked-shoot matches. The event was headlined by MMA fighter Jimmy Ambriz going over Hiroshi Tanahashi. The show also featured T.J. Perkins (who was wrestling as Pinoy Boy at the time) vs. Bobby Quance in what was said to be the match of the night. Rocky Romero and Toru Yano also performed on the debut Inoki Dojo event. Toukon 1 drew about 100 fans, half of which were Japanese fans. Fans in attendance watched the event respectfully with no chants or catcalls during matches. The presentation was also different from other shows at the time, as techno music played throughout the whole show. Even during the matches.

On March 6th, 2004 the Inoki Dojo promoted another event at the Hollywood Athletic Club in Hollywood. Toukon 2 was headlined by an IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match with HEAT (Minoru Tanaka) defending his title against Bryan Danielson. The show also featured Shinsuke Nakamura and Ken Shamrock going to 5 minute time-limit draw. There was also a musical performance from Joanie “Chyna” Laurer’s band. The musical performance received negative reviews. Reviews on the quality of wrestling were very positive though. The event was aired on Samurai TV in Japan about a month later.

The Inoki Dojo would run a pair of tournaments in April 2004 at their facility in Santa Monica. The first would take place at Toukon 3 on April 3rd with the American Young Lions Tournament, drawing about 50 people. T.J. Perkins went on to win the tournament and competed in 2004 the Young Lion Cup in Japan under the name Pinoy Boy. Other participants in the tournament included Tommy Williams (Funky Billy Kim), Jose Moreno, Chad Wicks, and Joey Ryan. Wicks, who went to the finals of the tournament, also competed in the 2004 Young Lion Cup in Japan. The show also included a non-tournament match with the Bryan Danielson and Aaron Aguilera in a tag team match against Samoa Joe and Bobby Quance.

On April 16th, the Inoki Dojo presented the first ever American Best of the Super Juniors tournament in front of about 110 fans. The tournament featured wrestlers such as Rocky Romero, Ricky Reyes, Bobby Quance, Chad Collyer, “Iceman” Webster Dauphiney, Sean “X-Pac” Waltman, and Teddy Hart. The tournament was won by Bryan Danielson, who went on to compete in NJPW’s 2004 Best of the Super Juniors tournament in Japan. The show also featured non-tournament matches such as Tommy Williams & Frankie Kazarian vs. Joey Ryan & Eric Matlock, and Samoa Joe vs. Aaron Aguilera.

A fan cam version of the show was released and ended up becoming popular in the tape trading community. At the time there had been no other way for fans to easily access Inoki Dojo content aside from attending live events or getting a Samurai TV copy from a tape trader.. This would change though, as the Inoki Dojo ended up getting a deal with a local television station to bring a weekly series to fans in the Los Angeles area.

NJPW-USA Toukon Fighting Spirit

By May 2004 the Inoki Dojo had become  hottest thing in SoCal next to PWG. Their shows were being praised by fans around the scene, and wrestlers who had been training there were getting noticeably better inside the ring.

While taking part in the 2004 Pacific Media Expo in Anaheim, the Inoki Dojo announced they had signed a deal with local television station KVMD-TV for a weekly TV show. The new show would be called NJPW-USA Toukon Fighting Spirit. It was also announced that the series would be produced by David Marquez and Kevin Quinn.. The series would include pre-taped matches from monthly events held at Dojo in Santa Monica, with three episodes being taped every event.

The first set of tapings were held on June 26th, 2004 with Ultimo Dragon taking on Bryan Danielson in a match that wasn’t taped for television in the main event. The taping would also include Samoa Joe defending the ROH World Championship against Togi Makabe, and HEAT defending the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship against Rocky Romero.

The rest of the card featured Inoki Dojo regulars T.J. Perkins as Pinoy Boy and Puma, Ricky Reyes, Bobby Quance, Joey Ryan, Tommy Wilson (Funky Billy Kim), Brad Bradley, Chad Collyer, local workers Adam Pearce, Babi Slymm, as well as Japanese wrestlers Taiji Ishimori, NOSAWA, MAZAWA, and Toru Yano. The taping also included an appearance from NJPW referee Masao Tayama, and featured CM Punk on color commentary.

About 200 fans attended the taping, which was about what the Inoki Dojo could hold. The first taping was well received by many people at the show that night. Fans in attendance were really into the match despite there being 14 in one night.

The first episode would air on July 24th. During its run, the show included bonus footage of Joanie “Chyna” Laurer against Masahiro Chono in NJPW, and a Sid Vicious segment from Harley Race’s WLW. While the series sounded great on paper, it ended up being marred by poor booking decisions, technical difficulties, subpar production, and no real direction in the product.

Prior to the beginning of NJPW-USA’s series, the promotion announced it would be recognizing ROH World Champion Samoa Joe as their main champion. The move would be confusing to some fans who wondered why NJPW-USA didn’t recognize the IWGP Heavyweight Champion as their main champion. After the first set of episodes aired on TV, fans complained about CM Punk’s commentary heavily mentioning ROH during matches at the direction of the show’s producers.

The show would also feature a worked Mixed Martial Arts bout between Kazuhiro Hamanaka and “Iceman” Webster Dauphiney. At the time MMA wasn’t regulated by the California State Athletic Commission, making this segment absurd. To make things even more ridiculous, the worked-bout ended with Dauphiney taking an unrealistic bump on a wild overhand from Hamanaka.

Some fans complained about the format of the show, as it had been more reminiscent of an 80’s style studio wrestling show more than a show with the style of wrestling NJPW had been famous for (aside from the worked MMA thing, which Inoki was pushing hard in NJPW at the time). While NJPW-USA retained some aspects of its Japanese parent company, it wasn’t what some people had expected. Not everyone was down on the product though. Some fans were happy to see a non-WWE program on TV. Others were just glad local stars were being given more exposure.

The biggest issues with the series centered around KVMD not airing new episodes as scheduled. During the first four weeks of NJPW-USA’s run, only two new episodes were aired. On some weeks, the station ended up airing reruns of a previous week’s episode. Other times, the show wouldn’t even air in its scheduled time slot. Fans who were expecting new episodes every week ended up being upset over the handling of the show by KVMD. When the shows did air on TV, there were complaints about the picture freezing and jumping ahead.

In the weeks prior to their second taping, NJPW-USA had promoted a special event on July 11th. The promotion advertised a main event of CM Punk vs. Joey Ryan. NJPW-USA’s event ended up drawing 13-18 people. The match was changed though during the show, with Colt Cabana stepping in to replace Punk. While the promotion had been advertising Punk being in action well in advance, there had been speculation that he was never been informed of what was going on.

On July 25th, NJPW-USA held its second TV taping at the Dojo. The event would feature Christopher Daniels under his Curry Man persona going against longtime NJPW star El Samurai, and an unadvertised match with CM Punk. Tiger Hattori also appeared on the event. Despite the first taping being a success, attendance for the second taping dropped drastically to about 100 fans. Before the show was set to start, producer David Marquez came out and requested that fans move toward the section across from the hard camera so that it made the venue would look full on screen.

The taping also weren’t considered as good as the one a month prior. Several fans in crowd that night were considered to be annoying and disrespectful with cat calls and inappropriate chants. For weeks NJPW-USA had also been hyping the debut of a surprise team from OVW at this taping. The surprise team ended up being Mark & Mike Bell. This was considered very underwhelming by fans in attendance. A lot of these factors ended up leaving a sour taste in the mouths of fans for awhile.

After having lots of momentum in the beginning of 2004, the Inoki Dojo/NJPW-USA lost a considerable amount of steam. Despite taping six episodes of Toukon Fighting Spirit, only five would make air. On September 8th, NJPW-USA issued a press release announcing the show would be going on hiatus.

NJPW-USA President Simon Inoki would also state in the press release that the company would begin moving on to what he called “Phase II.” Some would speculate the move was done after rumors went around that NJPW was unhappy about investing so much on the Dojo project and only to get little in return. One rumored estimate floating around claimed that NJPW had been spending $30,000 a month to run the facility.

Phase II: NWA Pro

On October 27th, Inoki Sports Management, Inc. issued a press release announcing plans for what it was calling “Phase II.”

The first part of “Phase II” included the announcement of NJPW-USA joining the National Wrestling Alliance. Along with joining the NWA, NJPW-USA would recognize the NWA Heavyweight and Tag Team Championships as the World Championships. At the time, the NWA titles were under control of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (now Impact Wrestling). The move would have some people wondering as to why NJPW-USA didn’t recognize the IWGP titles as their main titles, much like the situation with NJPW-USA recognizing the ROH Championship as the World Championship.

NJPW-USA’s “Phase II” would also include an event at the Portero Restaurant & Nightclub in Cudahy on December 12th. The show would feature a match between former WWE superstar James Gibson (Jamie Noble) and Bryan Danielson. It would also feature matches involving Ultimo Dragon, Vampiro, and Katsushi Takemura & Osamu Nishimura vs. Chad Collyer & Samoa Joe in the main event. The show drew about 100 fans. Footage of the event aired on Samurai TV about a month after, and eventually circulated among the tape trading community.

On April 2nd, 2005, NJPW-USA and the Ring of Honor co-promoted the Best of American Super Juniors Tournament in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The tournament featured a mix of ROH and Inoki Dojo stars with Bryan Danielson, Brian Kendrick, Matt Sydal, Alex Shelley, James Gibson, and Roderick Strong taking part of the tournament. Rocky Romero also competed in the tournament as Black Tiger IV, where he was defeated by Dragon Solider B (Kendo KaShin) in the finals.

The booking decision wouldn’t go over well. As a result, the show drew negative feedback from ROH fans who were unhappy about Dragon Soldier B winning the tournament. This would also not sit well with Jack Evans, who was a regular in ROH at the time. In a 2007 interview with former Pro Wrestling WAR promoter Gary Yap, Gary talked about how Jack sought revenge after Yap’s promotion booked the Inoki Dojo as a venue for two events in the spring of 2005.

In addition to his amazing wrestling abilities, Jack Evans also has the uncanny ability to vomit on cue. No shit. So Evans comes into the Dojo with an immediate dislike for then-Dojo representative David Marquez, who – in Jack’s opinion – had completely ruined the 4/2/05 ROH show, because of his booking interference. ROH fans know EXACTLY what I’m talking about! Look it up yourself. No. Really. Go. So anyway, Evans is determined to ‘make a statement’ and proceeds to vomit in the ring not only after his 4/10 match against Trent, but after his 5/27 match against Markus, too, which causes Dave to lose it. Ahh, good times.-Gary Yap on Jack Evans in the Inoki Dojo.

Changes

Around this time, several changes were taking place both in Japan and in Santa Monica. In May of 2005, Simon Inoki was named the President of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Later that year in November, Antonio Inoki would sell his controlling shares of NJPW to video game development company Yuke’s.

The Inoki Dojo became mostly dormant as a promotion, but would remain active as a school while also hosting tryouts for NJPW. The Dojo was also part of the 2005 Pacific Media Expo, where they presented live exhibition matches much like they did the year before. While the Inoki Dojo hadn’t been running many shows in 2005, the NWA Pro group began to expand in SoCal under Dave Marquez when it started to recruit local promotions to join the NWA under Dave’s membership.

After a promotional hiatus, the Inoki Dojo began to host weekly “NWA Pro” events in 2006 on Sundays at the Dojo, and the group began to quietly phase out the “NJPW” name. The majority of the events drew really small crowds. Some were even drawing single digit numbers. The events themselves would feature various wrestlers training at the Inoki Dojo along with SoCal and Lucha Libre workers of different backgrounds.

The weekly Dojo events would feature notable wrestlers such as Karl Anderson, Fergal “Prince” Devitt (Finn Balor), Alex Koslov, Mikey Nicholls (Nick Miller), and Shane Haste (Shane Thorn) before they became well known stars. Several of the events would also feature special guests like Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli. Footage from the shows would be used for a YouTube program called the NWA Pro Recap. The weekly recap series featured clips of matches from the Inoki Dojo and  NWA Pro events narrated by Dave Marquez.

The Inoki Dojo and NWA Pro would promote two tournaments in May of 2006. The winners of each tournament would end up getting an entry into the 2006 Best of the Super Juniors tournament in Japan. On May 14th, the Inoki Dojo presented the Super Lucha Tournament. The tournament would feature Alex Koslov, Phoenix Star, Chilango, and Shamu Jr. to name a few. It would be won by Durango Kid, who performed under the name Fuego. The event reportedly dew 10 fans.

On May 19th, NWA Pro hosted the 2006 Best of American Super Juniors tournament in El Monte. Rocky Romero, who was performing as Black Tiger IV, went on to win the tournament. The 2006 BOASJ tournament also featured Alex Koslov, T.J. Perkins as Cobra II, Jimmy Rave, Joey Ryan, Roderick Strong, Scorpio Sky, and Karl Anderson. Aaron Aguilera, Human Tornado, Scott Lost, and others were featured in non-tournament matches.

End of the Santa Monica Dojo, Simon Inoki resigns from NJPW

After spending four years in Santa Monica, the Inoki Dojo would change locations. The final event promoted in Santa Monica took place on August 25th, 2006 with Rocky Romero defending the CMLL Super Lightweight title against Mikey Nicholls. The undercard would feature local stars such as Scorpio Sky and Scott Lost, along with Dojo regulars like Karl Anderson, T.J. Perkins, and Webster Dauphiney.

The Inoki Dojo relocated to North Hollywood in a warehouse behind a strip club shortly after in September of 2006, and continued promoting weekly events for awhile. The new location would be used for a series produced by Dave Marquez called the NWA Pro Wrestling Showcase.

The Inoki Dojo would break away from Dave Marquez’s NWA Pro group in 2007. After spending some time in North Hollywood, the Dojo would relocate to East Los Angeles in what was described as an auto garage.

In March of 2007, Simon Inoki announced his resignation as the President of New Japan. After leaving NJPW, Simon continued to help operate the Inoki Dojo. He would also be part of his father-in-law’s newest venture, the Inoki Gnome Federation. With NJPW out of the picture, the Inoki Dojo was under full control of the Inoki family.

On May 13th, 2007, the group promoted a show entitled “Burning Bridges” at the new Dojo location. The main event would feature an AWA World Women’s Championship match with Nanae Takashi defeating the Amazing Kong for the title. The event also featured Cheerleader Melissa vs. Saki Maemura, and Masato Tanaka & Josh Daniels vs. Sigmon & Shockwave The Robot. The event drew about 50 fans.

Following the departure of NWA Pro and NJPW, the Inoki Dojo’s notoriety declined. While events continued to take place, the shows weren’t prolific enough to catch the attention of local fans. Eventually the Inoki Dojo faded away with little fanfare. What was once considered a world-class training facility and a place for independent wrestlers to earn an opportunity to wrestle in Japan ended up becoming a distant memory in the minds of many.

Aftermath

Dave Marquez and his NWA Pro group moved forward by creating partnerships with numerous local promotions while also making several attempts at breaking into the television market. In 2009, Marquez began producing a series called NWA Championship Wrestling From Hollywood for KDOC in LA and Orange County. The show would become the longest running show he’s produced, having aired over 300 episodes and counting. Dave would leave the NWA years later to form the United Wrestling Network. After leaving the NWA, he would rename his current show to Championship Wrestling From Hollywood.

NJPW would turn around as a company after falling in popularity during the early part of the 2000s. In May of 2011, the promotion would embark on another American excursion. This time the company presented the Invasion Tour 2011: Attack on East Coast, hosted by Jersey All Pro Wrestling. The tour would feature events in Rahway, NJ, New York City, and Philadelphia. The events reportedly cost JAPW a substantial amount of money, resulting in JAPW only running once a year.

The tour would feature NJPW regulars such as Shinsuke Nakamura, Jedo, Gedo, Yujiro Takahash, Kazuchika Okada, Tiger Mask IV, M.V.P., Bad Intentions (Giant Bernard and Karl Anderson), Satoshi Kojima, Apollo 55 (Prince Devitt and Ryusuke Taguchi), Hiroshi Tanahasahi, Toru Yano, Togi Makabe, Tetsuya Naito, and Hiedo Saito. US independent stars also performed on the events, with appearances from Davey Richards, Homicide, Rhino, Low Ki, Charlie Haas, and more.

New Japan Pro Wrestling would be sold by Yukes to Japanese trading card game company Bushiroad in January of 2012. In 2014, NJPW would partner with Ring of Honor to co-promote events in the US and Canada. NJPW would also go on to co-promote events in Europe with the UK based Revolution Pro promotion (not to be confused with Ron River’s Revolution Pro based in Southern California between 1999-2004). In 2015, NJPW began airing previously taped matches on the American cable broadcasting network AXS TV. The promotion also launched its own streaming service New Japan World, which helped boost its popularity among wrestling fans across the world.

Many of the wrestlers who trained at the Inoki Dojo went on to a lot of success in professional wrestling. Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, T.J. Perkins, Karl Anderson, Fergal Devitt, and more are now part of the WWE. Rocky Romero went on to become a former IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, an 8-time IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, and has been a longtime member of the NJPW roster.

While not much public information is known about it, a new incarnation of the Inoki Dojo is currently open. It is said to be running discretely somewhere in Los Angeles.

Thoughts from someone who was a fan at the time

At the time of NJPW-USA’s incarnation, I thought it would be an amazing addition to the SoCal scene. The prospect of a local promotion having a TV deal sounded amazing. Not just any local promotion, but one associated with NJPW. I was hoping to see “Strong Style” and great Junior Heavyweight action on a weekly basis. So were a few others.

Instead, I and other fans got something else. I was disappointed. As were others. I felt like I didn’t get an authentic New Japan-style experience. Even though some enjoyed the product for what it was, I can’t help but to look back at how underwhelming it was.

The history of the old Inoki Dojo is an interesting one. There is so much more I wish I could get into about it. Things like the politics, animosity towards fans from certain people in NJPW-USA, and tensions between different offices. I didn’t have everything I needed to write about those things though. Not only that, but there are others out there who could tell the stories better than I can.

Despite the 2004 NJPW-USA project being a massive disappointment, the Inoki Dojo during the Santa Monica era had a lasting impact not just in SoCal, but throughout the wrestling world. It helped launch the careers of many current pro wrestling stars. Had the Dojo not existed, there might not have ever been a Bullet Club. It made wrestlers who came through to train there better than they once were. It also helped some of them earn opportunities to go to Japan.

The Dojo also gave SoCal fans the chance to see people like Ultimo Dragon, El Samurai, a young Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Toru Yano, and Togi Makabe challenging Samoa Joe for the ROH World Championship.

With all that said, the Southern California area was lucky to have a place like that when it was around. Now, we’re even luckier to have NJPW bringing the G1 Speical in the USA to Long Beach this weekend.

For more on the Inoki Dojo and the “Dark Age” of NJPW, check out the following articles:

Note: Some bits of information were taken from excerpts from the book “Yes!: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania” by  Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson and Craig Tello. In it, Danielson describes living at the Inoki Sports Management apartment, joining the Inoki Dojo, offers insights of what was provided for the wrestlers, and the reason why he left.

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