There are no shortage of American wrestlers who were big in Japan. Many of the big names in wrestling are equally familiar to audiences on both sides of the Pacific: Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and Dusty Rhodes. But there is another group of western wrestlers who are more famous in Japan than they ever were in their home countries.
Professional wrestling in Japan isn’t fundamentally different than wrestling in North America in and of itself. The difference lies in the details. Matches and characters that would be considered classics in one country might be completely disregarded in another. More recently, given the ease with which we can watch shows from foreign countries over the Internet, these parallel wrestling traditions have grown closer together than ever before. As fans from America become more familiar with Japanese wrestling, some foreign wrestlers have found unexpected success connecting with Japanese crowds — both in modern wrestling and historically.
So, let's examine this group of American (and Canadian) professional wrestlers with more fame overseas in Japan than at home.
Kenny OmegaPhoto: ゾーヒョー / Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
After spending a brief time in WWE’s developmental system, Kenny Omega joined Japanese outsider promotion Dramatic Dream Team (DDT). DDT, known for their wild matches and unconventional characters, became the perfect platform for Omega to show off his unique skillset.
His biggest claim to fame during that time was a feud with his frequent adversary Kota Ibushi. Omega then came to New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he eventually took over leadership of The Bullet Club from the departing AJ Styles. At the start of 2017, Omega went from a star in Japan to a worldwide supernova thanks to his instant classic main event against Kazuchika Okada at the Tokyo Dome.
The SharpesVideo: YouTube
Mike and Ben Sharpe were two of the biggest wrestling stars in post-war Japan during the '50s. Their rivalry with Rikidozan helped to make him the most popular wrestler in the history of Japan. They were even prominently featured in the 2004 biopic of Rikidozan’s life. Mike’s son later became a wrestler in WWE (then WWF) known as “Iron” Mike Sharpe, “Canada’s Greatest Athlete.”
- Photo: Andrew Quentin / Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0
Bob Sapp was picked in the third round of the 1997 NFL draft (four picks ahead of NFL Hall of Famer Jason Taylor). His football career, however, never took off. Instead, Sapp took up MMA, kickboxing, and professional wrestling after a brief stint in the NFL.
He was a big box office hit in Japan, where he parlayed his legitimate athletic background and natural charisma into the world of professional wrestling, including a reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
AJ StylesPhoto: MikeKalasnick / Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0
AJ Styles has made quite a splash since coming to WWE. Prior to that, he was a headliner for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Styles was a longtime, underground favorite among American fans. It was only when he began wrestling for NJPW, where he was the leader of the Bullet Club and twice won the IWGP Heavyweight Title, that he realized his full potential as one of the top stars in the world.