Pro wrestling is incredibly subjective. For this reason, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what pro wrestling should or shouldn’t be. The two major stances on this issue naturally stand in direct opposition to each other. These dueling philosophies are the ones perpetuated by Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata’s respective styles. While it’s difficult to call them the founders of these ideologies, the two men definitely manifest them.
The first, represented by Shibata, is Japan’s infamous strong style. It’s a version of pro wrestling that favors realism and hard hitting strikes. The second philosophy wants to make pro wrestling more family oriented, and is centered around making people happy. I’m coining the name Love Style for this ideology, based on Tanahashi’s motto of “Love and Energy.”
These differences are not only shown through Shibata and Tanahashi’s wrestling styles, but through their personalities. Shibata presents himself very plainly; he wears simple black trunks to the ring, and his merch consists of black or white shirts that just read, “The Wrestler.” He’s the epitome of no frills, no nonsense both in and out of the ring. Tanahashi, on the other hand, is full of frills and flamboyance. He tells the audience he loves them, and has merch depicting him giving air-hugs to fans.
To summarize, Shibata gets into the ring to fight, while Tanahashi gets into the ring to entertain. This is also the key difference between Strong Style and Love Style.
As stated before, strong style loves realism. It views pro wrestling as a combat sport, like an offshoot of MMA. Strong style consists of hard strikes, kicks, and chops. It’s as brutal to watch as it is to perform. The style was popularized in the 90s by Japanese promotions, notably AJPW. Oftentimes this is preferred by fans who see themselves as wrestling “purists” because of how seriously it takes itself.
Strong style is not without its critics, though. The most notable of these critics is undoubtedly Hiroshi Tanahashi; He described strong style in his autobiography as wrestlers
“punching each other in the face until either one coughs up blood, kicking someone in the face, taking things beyond the ring and resulting in title matches ending in a muddled way. Having the fans all going home with a gloomy mood.”
Tanahashi feels that pro wrestlers should primarily see themselves as entertainers with the job of making the audience happy. He also emphasizes that this audience should be diverse, and consist of as many women and children as there are men. Tanahashi sees strong style as far too violent to be welcoming to women and children. After attending a strong style show, Tanahashi asks in his autobiography:
“Would [families] want to come back for another show after watching brutal bloody matches or grudge matches with bad aftertastes? As a father of two children, I would think ‘this is not educationally right to bring my kids to these places. I should never come back.’
He contrasts this grim vision of strong style with what he aims to do with his matches in NJPW, what this article has called love style:
“We take pride in creating a new generation of wrestling that children and women can enjoy, get excited, even go bananas, go home with satisfaction, and want to come back for more.”
While love style is not gentle by any means, it’s typically much easier to watch. Perhaps strikes look more staged, but the audience is usually able to suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy the story of the match.
As of the current moment, it seems that NJPW prefers love style, but still leaves a time and place for strong style. This time and place is typically given through the NEVER Openweight title, typically held by the hardest hitters of the company. Overall, though, NJPW certainly loves having a family-oriented show. This is not only seen through the friendly, charismatic babyfaces at the top of the company, but through the company’s merchandise. What other wrestling company, after all, has teddy bears of their roster and plush cats named Daryl as some of their best sellers?
Ultimately, though, pro wrestling and the matter through which it is presented are completely subjective. There’s no real right or wrong, only what we prefer.
So, do you like Shibata’s strong style, Tanahashi’s love style, or a mix of the two?
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