And in This Corner: A Rival from Japan Takes on the Pro Wrestling Establishment

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Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, once went through a table for World Wrestling Entertainment. Now he’s backing a competitor, New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Credit Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

In the history of professional wrestling tag teams, the billionaire Mark Cuban and his Japanese business partners make for one of the industry’s more dissonant stables.

Founded in 1972 by the wrestler Antonio Inoki, New Japan Pro-Wrestling has carefully developed a reputation rooted in old-school tradition and reverence — one quite unlike the image Mr. Cuban has perfected for himself as the flamboyant owner of the Dallas Mavericks and on the television show “Shark Tank.”

But Mr. Cuban, who once got slammed through a table during an appearance with World Wrestling Entertainment, has now made New Japan a staple of his AXS cable network’s Friday night lineup.

“N.J.P.W. is what wrestling is all about,” Mr. Cuban wrote in a recent email. “Fun. Exciting. Athletic. Entertaining and more.”

Since 2001, when W.W.E. bought out its top competition, the company has had a chokehold on its industry. Last year, W.W.E. reported a record $801 million in revenue.

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New Japan is out to loosen its grip.

Inside New Japan’s headquarters in Tokyo, Katsuhiko Harada, the company president, has a classroom-sized Rand McNally map of the United States. Dozens of cities, including New York and Chicago — now W.W.E. strongholds — are circled like targets.

“I believe there are people who want a different type of way from W.W.E., some fans who prefer other kinds of pro wrestling,” Mr. Harada said, with that map behind him. “For those people, we just want to show another option and for them to see New Japan.”

New Japan’s growth has been fueled in part by Bushiroad, a Japanese card gaming company, which became its majority shareholder in 2012 and emphasized appealing to wider audiences, Mr. Haruda said.

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Cody Rhodes, left, wrestling in a W.W.E. event in 2009. Mr. Rhodes is now with New Japan, which he said offers its wrestlers more creative and control and options for self-promotion. Credit Wenn Ltd/Alamy

Intense bouts with layered storytelling and spectacular ring entrances has made New Japan a darling among die-hard fans who sometimes bemoan W.W.E.’s booking, which has become increasingly tailored for mass consumption.

New Japan’s growth has been helped by YouTube, which has made New Japan’s matches more accessible to an audience outside of Asia, said Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which has followed the sport since 1983. Capitalizing on this rise, New Japan launched an online streaming service — similar to the W.W.E. Network — in December 2014.

“W.W.E. does the ‘entertainment’ part of ‘sports entertainment’ so, so well,” said Cody Rhodes, a New Japan star who left W.W.E. in 2016. “New Japan does the ‘sports’ part of ‘sports entertainment’ like nobody else.”

Last year, New Japan sold out its first two shows in the United States, and all the seats for an event on Sunday in Long Beach, Calif., were gone shortly after going on sale in January.

But evolving from a buzz-worthy niche to mainstream acceptance remains a daunting task.

Professional wrestling has historically been colored by fierce territorial wars, with promoters battling over in-ring talent and the audience that pays to see it. Without serious competition, W.W.E. has built a business that allows its stars to reach levels of opulence never before associated with wrestling, both in income and crossover appeal. A top star like John Cena can appear with W.W.E. one night and guest-host NBC’s “Today” show the next morning. There are, however, only so many Cena-level spots available.

New Japan’s rise has come, in part, from offering its performers more artistic freedom as well as additional avenues for income that are not always available to those working for W.W.E. For example, some wrestlers can negotiate with New Japan to also work for other promotions and to sell their own branded merchandise.

“It’s important to play your music how you want to play it,” Mr. Rhodes said. “To be the writer, director, cameraman, and actor all at once. A company like New Japan builds the set, fills the seats, but allows us to do what we do how we want to do it.”

For years, wrestling in Japan was seen as a rite of passage for foreigners. Mr. Rhodes, the son of Dusty Rhodes, one of the most popular pro wrestlers of the 20th century, always found Japan appealing because of his father’s trips there.

Now with Japan as their base, Mr. Rhodes and his North American colleagues Matt and Nick Jackson and Kenny Omega — collectively known as The Bullet Club — have become among the most popular wrestlers in the industry.

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Mr. Cuban, left, used a series of business deals to became a billionaire sports team owner and a star of “Shark Tank.” Credit Michael Desmond/ABC

Ryan Barkan, whose company prowrestlingtees.com is the official U.S. seller of New Japan apparel, began producing Bullet Club shirts in 2014, and they immediately became his best seller. The classic Bullet Club logo shirt was also the top-selling T-shirt at retailer Hot Topic in 2017, according to Barkan, who has supplied 470,000 units of New Japan products to the store since brokering a deal with them last June.

New Japan’s entrepreneurial spirit calls to mind how Mr. Cuban amassed his fortune through a series of business deals that started with a tech firm he started in the 1980s. (Since Mr. Cuban has gone into partnershop with New Japan, published reports have cited a history of alleged sexual harassment in the Dallas Mavericks organization. Mr. Cuban has denied those allegations and New Japan declined to comment on them.)

Despite New Japan’s ability to present critically-acclaimed matches and the company’s impressive tally of T-shirts sold, television remains a key to mainstream visibility.

AXS has less reach than USA Network, which broadcasts W.W.E. programming, but Andrew Simon, chief executive officer of AXS TV Fights, said viewership for New Japan is “up tremendously year over year,” although he did not disclose exact ratings.

This month, New Japan’s exposure continued to grow with an English-language DVD distribution deal and the opening of a training center in Southern California. When Chris Jericho, one of W.W.E.’s biggest stars, performed for New Japan in January, the announcement received coverage in Forbes and Rolling Stone.

New Japan’s quick ascent has impressed many in the business, but comparisons to W.W.E. might be premature.

“It’s like a great foreign film coming to the U.S.,” Mr. Meltzer said. “It’s not going to be competition for the blockbusters, but it could be a better movie and often is.”

Still, New Japan’s influence has even reached W.W.E. On April 8, at W.W.E.’s signature “WrestleMania” spectacular, the bill’s main event will feature Shinsuke Nakamura against A.J. Styles, an American who reinvented his career overseas.

Both are former New Japan champions.

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