It’s no mystery that I am a pro-wrestling fan and that my fandom spills over the boundaries of mainstream American graps such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to include independent promotions in the U.S. and Europe, Lucha Libre from Mexico, and puoresu from Japan. Many moons ago, when I has but a lad of 17, I purchased two 4-head VCRs for the purpose of double taping and dubbing American wrestling matches for the purposes of trading my wares with fans abroad for their local brand of wrestling goodness. I would scour listservs and other forums for results from the biggest shows abroad and then vow to track down the bouts, sometimes waiting as long as six months before getting my hands on them. To this day, my mother’s basement storage area still houses hundreds of video tapes with countless hours of wrestling from Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, Germany, and even North Korea. Today, almost all of that footage is available online, either “illegally” (that’s debatable) from video websites or licitly from the growing number of dedicated pro-wrestling streaming services that have come online over the past three years. Never in my teenage dreams did I believe such a thing would be possible and yet here we are.
For those unaware, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) began 45 years ago as a way to showcase what became known as “strong style,” that is, Japan’s unique blend of martial-arts striking and submission wrestling in a worked forum (i.e., the outcomes are predetermined). Today, thanks to tape trading, foreign talent exchanges, and the aforementioned streaming services, strong style is literally everywhere, though arguably few do it well outside of its original Japanese context. For instance, when Shinsuke Nakamura, the self-proclaimed “King of Strong Style,” left New Japan last year for WWE’s NXT brand, everyone knew he would have to cool his jets a bit. And while Nakamura has found a way to retain his strong-style approach to wrestling, it’s clear to anyone who followed his Japanese work that it is watered-down presentation of what he can do fully in the ring. Although NJPW, like any wrestling promotion, has had its ups and downs over the decades, most agree that the promotion has been firing on (almost) all cylinders for the past five years thanks to a mixture of grizzled veterans, new stars, and (largely) top-shelf foreign talent. With the launch of the New Japan World streaming service for a mere 999 Yen per month (roughly $10), which includes new live events and a treasure chest of archival material, NJPW is finally able to reach a global audience quickly and efficiently. Moreover, because of growing interest from the Anglophone world, New Japan World now offers English-language commentary for its biggest shows, though I confess that I still love listening to the Japanese announcers, particularly when the big bouts are hitting their respective crescendos.
For the past 25 years, it has been a NJPW tradition to run shows at the famous Tokyo Dome on January 4. Though the event names have changed over the years, the company has now settled on “Wrestle Kingdom” as its premiere event where all of the major promotional feuds are (typically) brought to a close. Unlike the WWE and other American promotions today, NJPW’s booking style is pretty straightforward: Wrestler A wants to prove he is better than Wrestler B, so they’re going to lock up in the ring to find out. There are, of course, personality clashes mixed in, not to mention some colorful characters and a few guys willing to bend the rules to the breaking point to get what they need, but more times than not it all makes sense. Relying less on over-the-top angles and heavily scripted interview segments, many of New Japan’s storylines are advanced in the ring. In fact, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out the personalities, feuds, and goals in play just by watching a couple of shows, English commentary or not. Yes, NJPW, like all of pro-wrestling, is a work, that is, the wrestlers are not actively competing against each other, but when it comes to Wrestle Kingdom in particular, they are competing for the audience’s adulation and the right to be viewed as the best performers on the planet.
For those interested, here is my brief review of last night’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 event from Tokyo. Instead of running the risk of catching spoilers online, I actually arose at 3am EST yesterday (5pm Tokyo time) to watch the entire show as it unfolded lived. Since I have not had time to go back and re-watch any of the matches, these comments — and the five-star rating system I employ — are best on first impressions from seeing the bouts as they happened. In the heat of the moment, there isn’t much time to second-guess certain spots, match length, or results; the real question comes down to whether or not you are entertained. Not surprisingly, I was very entertained.
It’s something of an open secret that my wife and I were married by Fr. Patrick Reardon, the pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago and senior editor of Touchstone magazine. When my wife was accepted to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, we relocated to the Hyde Park neighborhood and left the parish. Being a foolish young man of 24-25, I didn’t appreciate everything Reardon taught me. In fact, in a foolish pursuit of “pure Orthodoxy” untainted by “Western thinking,” I can say quite honestly that I shelved a great deal of what I learned at All Saints . . . until I returned to the Catholic Church.
I have joked—and continue to joke—that All Saints is an Orthodox parish where a Catholic priest ministers to Protestants. (I mean that in the best way.) While Reardon is probably best known for his deep knowledge of the Scriptures, theology, and history, he is one of the few Orthodox clerics in the Anglophone world who vigorously upholds his communion’s longstanding—now widely ignored—teaching on contraception. Moreover, Reardon remains steadfast on bioethical questions, including the immorality of in vitro fertilization and sterilization. Most who go through All Saints at some time or another leave with sound knowledge of fundamental Christian morality. From what I have gathered, however, those teachings go straight out the window when convenience and cleric-shopping take center stage. Remember: In Orthodoxy, if Fr. Cosmas says the pill is off limits, Fr. Damian down the street is there to give you the exact opposite answer.
The reason I make mention of this is not to jump down anyone’s throat or open up another useless debate about Orthodox moral catechesis, but rather to express openly a debt of gratitude to Reardon and other Orthodox clerics who, in various ways, taught me that a Christian life, whether Orthodox or Catholic, is replete with moral hardships that no man has a right to ignore. Mind you, knowing that and living it out are two very different things, and I cannot in any way, shape, or form claim that I have lived my life according to the full precepts of the Church. And here I should also thank Reardon for helping me see that Confession is reconciliation with Christ, the one who died an ignoble death on the Cross for the salvation of the world, rather than a rapid-fire listing of sins divided into the neat categories of “venial” and “mortal.” It would take a decade for that to really sink-in, however.
There are those out there who, for reasons both good and bad, believe that I am anti-Orthodox. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am, of course, critical of certain currents in contemporary Orthodoxy, though far less so than I am of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church. There are times when I am more than a bit envious of Orthodoxy’s confederate structure if only because it provides ample opportunities to run and hide from this-or-that jurisdiction’s internal problems. (How many Catholics today wish they could look over their shoulders at Francis and declare, “Well, he’s not my Patriarch!”?)
With that said, I cannot and will not ever encourage anyone to convert to, or stay, Orthodox. Lately, I have been thinking of those past acquaintances and friends who have opted to walk a dark road out of convenience in flagrant disregard for natural and revealed law. If they had not been Orthodox, that is, had they come to the Catholic Church where, despite dissenting clerics and laity, the truth of things is articulated clearly, would that have chosen to forego sterilization and in vitro fertilization by accepting the cross Christ gave them to bear? I’ll never know the answer to that; but I imagine that question will haunt me for a good long while.
Let me close by affirming, without hesitation, that I am the chief among sinners and in no way, shape, or form believe myself to be more moral, more holy, or more Christlike than my estranged Orthodox brethren. I am as bereft of virtue now as a Catholic as I was as an Orthodox Christian, only thankfully more aware of that fact. Any tempering of my character which has occurred over the past 15 years is due only to the grace of God; my individualized efforts to be a better man by sheer force of will have all ended in failure. As 2017 begins, my dear readers, I ask you to pray for me as I, in my own weak way, will pray for you.