On Monday, January 27, wrestling fans from around the South gathered at the Durham Armory to watch New Japan Pro Wrestling, where a mix of wrestlers from Japan and other parts of the world faced off.

This wasn’t the Japanese pro-wrestling promoter’s first time in North Carolina: New Japan ran a show in Charlotte last year, though visa issues related to the government shutdown prevented all the Japanese wrestlers but one from traveling over (the night ended in “Fuck Donald Trump” chants).

But there were no visa problems this time, and the tour included Hiroshi Tanahashi, one of the biggest stars in the company, who is considered the catalyst for New Japan’s rise in recent years, making it the top wrestling company in Japan.

Andrew Shuler made the trip from Bristol, Tennessee to see the show, saying New Japan feels different than any other wrestling.

“You’re going to see a different environment, a different attitude in that ring,” Shuler said.

The show heavily featured trainee wrestlers, both Japanese and American. It ranged from a competitive, bruising grappling match between the toned and muscular trainee Clark Connors and Olympian Jeff Cobb to plucky trainee Ren Narita struggling to take down the tall, ferocious Lance Archer, who battered Narita with slaps before taking him down with a high-altitude chokeslam.

Durham’s show also made headlines across the wrestling world as Marty Scurll, a star across different wrestling companies, made a surprise appearance to announce a match between himself and New Japan’s top bad guy, Jay White, drawing some of the biggest cheers of the night.

For the main event, it was a classic good vs. evil match, with the villainous “Bullet Club” taking the fight out into the audience and battling their opponents among the fans, while American favorites Juice Robinson and David Finlay fought back. The match culminated with all eight wrestlers hitting a big move on the opposing team, one after the other, with the timing that only wrestling can provide, before Tanahashi tapped out the weaselly villain Jado and won the day for the good guys.

Both in storyline and in reality, 2020 is also the start of a new era for the company, which officially launched a new subsidiary, New Japan Pro Wrestling of America, in an attempt to spread across the country and do more shows here. This event in Durham, as well as in Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia, are the first under that banner.

Charles Underhill, who traveled from Greensboro for the show, has been a New Japan fan since 1991. He said the South is a good place for wrestling and a good place for the company to start.

“I saw the Great Muta vs. Ric Flair in Dorton Arena in 1998,” Underhill said.

The show also included icons of classic Southern wrestling: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express.

The Armory show was the smallest of the five on this tour, with only 766 seats available, and not all of them filled. But listening to the room, you couldn’t tell.

“I’m glad they decided to come to the South,” said Bradley Edwards, from Lenoir. “Anytime they come, I want to support it, and hopefully there’s more to come.”

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