On October 8, Jinder Mahal will defend the WWE Championship against Shinsuke Nakamura in a match that will not only lay the foundation for the SmackDown Live brand going forward but also demonstrate the company's devotion to its Asian expansion.
From an influx of talent from the east to a renewed interest in the Indian market, WWE has focused its attention on Asia, and the result has been a wealth of immensely talented and internationally recognized stars.
The company has not always been that invested in that area of the globe.
In 1993, it devised an enormous push for Yokozuna, a Samoan American masquerading as a Japanese fanatic. In 1998, the promotion introduced Kaientai and wasted little time playing up stereotypes rather than presenting them as legitimate competition.
Invested in expanding its presence in the continent, the company has made a concentrated effort to erase its previous lackluster attempts to present Japanese, Chinese and Indian wrestlers to the masses, beginning with the arrival of several Japanese and Chinese competitors, continuing with emphasis on India and culminating with the upcoming battle between champion and challenger.
Hideo Itami, Asuka and The Beast In The East
The push toward expanding the WWE product to Asia began in earnest in 2014 with the signing of internationally recognized star Kenta Kobayashi. Known to NXT fans as Hideo Itami, the Superstar's arrival reflected what Paul "Triple H" Levesque told WWE.com was a "continued dedication to creating a diverse roster that appeals to our global fanbase."
Itami, who had earned rave reviews for his work in All Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling NOAH, was considered a major acquisition for WWE. Not only for its expansion efforts but also for its NXT brand, which needed to replace talent that was constantly being called up to the main roster.
Before injuries repeatedly sidelined him, Itami was set to be one of the faces of the brand and a Superstar around whom the show would revolve.
Better known to Japanese Joshi fans as Kana, she exploded on to the scene, becoming an integral part of NXT's attempt to rebuild its women's division in the wake of The Four Horsewomen's main-roster debuts.
Levesque echoed that sentiment in a statement to WWE.com at the time of her signing: "Her exciting in-ring style will make an immediate impact on the already impressive NXT women’s division."
That it did. Some two years after debuting with the brand, Asuka surrendered the women's championship having never been beaten. Her reign of dominance was unprecedented, and the big-match feel she brought to every championship clash elevated the meaning of that title.
She is, without a doubt, the most successful Japanese star of the past 20 years in WWE.
Right as WWE was expanding its roster with the exciting Japanese talent, it capitalized on the platform WWE Network presented. Broadcasting live from Japan on July 4, 2015, the company produced a special event known as The Beast in the East.
The event featured more than Finn Balor's NXT Championship victory and Brock Lesnar's return to the country.
It was proof of the company's devotion to bringing meaningful programming, with recognizable stars, to a country it hoped would embrace its new streaming service and help make the WWE Network a tremendous success.
The Network roll-out was undoubtedly at the center of WWE's desire to establish itself in areas where it may not have previously had a strong foundation. Expanding to other countries, planting some roots and encouraging more subscriptions would help the company's bottom line while bringing its product to people who may have been unfamiliar with or previously uninterested in it.
To encourage more of those subscriptions, WWE continued to pick and choose from a crop of talented Superstars with connections to Asia.
In early 2016, WWE announced the signing of Shinsuke Nakamura.
The arrival of The King of Strong Style was the watershed moment in WWE's attempt to conquer Japan. An enormous star for New Japan Pro Wrestling and one of the sport's most naturally charismatic performers, he opted to sign with Vince McMahon's company rather than staying put with the promotion that made him an internationally recognized entity.
He exploded on to the scene in NXT, defeating Sami Zayn in a five-star classic during WrestleMania 32 weekend and proceeding to win the brand's world title in short order. He became the face of NXT for the next year, and right after WrestleMania 33, he debuted on the SmackDown Live brand to much pomp and circumstance.
Clean victories over John Cena and Randy Orton on free television have served as announcements to the wrestling world that management sees him as the long-term face of the brand.
That's a role no Japanese competitor has held in the history of the company.
The China Initiative
In 2016, WWE President of International Business Gerrit Meier issued a statement to Matthew Rocco of Fox Business in which he stated, "China is strategically important for WWE, and we are confident that Jay will help successfully develop our brand and business in the market." He continued, "We remain committed to expanding WWE internationally, and our presence in China is critical to the company’s future growth."
The Jay he references is Jay Li, the general manager of WWE's efforts in China.
The country is a largely untapped source of talent.
In 2016, the company signed its first Chinese Superstar in the then-22-year-old Bin Wang during a major ceremony in which basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming was present. The company has since added numerous other Chinese athletes, including Xia Li, who recently competed in the Mae Young Classic.
The recently released HoHo Lun competed in the Cruiserweight Classic.
By capitalizing on a market that was largely nonexistent, WWE can build its brand and sell its Network to an audience that will recognize it as the first to really appeal to them.
Jinder Mahal and India
When Jinder Mahal defeated Randy Orton to win the WWE Championship in May, he became the first Superstar of Indian descent to hold a major world title since The Great Khali a decade earlier.
The victory was met with controversy and suggestions by fans, critics and analysts that Mahal had only won the title because of his heritage. Sure, he was born in Canada, but he looked the part and had parents who were from the country, so WWE understandably decided to appeal to another untapped audience via The Modern Day Maharaja.
It is a wise move. Even wiser is the company has avoided stereotyping him. He is not a typical foreign heel who denounces the U.S. Instead, he is simply proud to be Indian. It is a refreshing change from booking tropes of the past.
Whether the company's gamble on Mahal pays off remains to be seen.
WWE subscriber numbers from India to coincide with his reign atop SmackDown Live are not yet available for analysis. His work has been solid, and he has grown as a performer in the role. Whether that translates into any considerable spike in business outside of the States is the question.
Fans tuning into the Mae Young Classic on the WWE Network were treated to performances from women representing numerous countries, but it was newcomer Kairi Sane who captured headlines thanks to her fierce performances and a top-rope elbow with incredible hang time.
Another recognizable Joshi star from Japan, she looks set to follow in Asuka's footsteps and make the NXT women's division stronger than it ever has been. She could start as early as Tuesday, when she battles Shayna Baszler in the final of the aforementioned tournament.
The booking of Shinsuke Nakamura and Jinder Mahal in the WWE Championship program is significant for WWE in that it is something that has rarely happened in the company. The idea of a Japanese competitor challenging an Indo-Canadian for the top prize in professional wrestling is foreign to fans.
The title picture, for the majority of WWE's existence, has been predominantly white. It has not ever routinely featured a true Japanese competitor.
For the company to promote a rivalry without the presence of a white American is out of the ordinary but welcome. It not only appeals to that Asian market it is so desperately trying to penetrate, but it also promotes diversity at the top of the company.
It also provides WWE with a sense of freshness. Neither has been at the top of the company for an extended period of time. Nor have the Superstars been at the forefront of the title picture. Their matchup is fresh and inspires excitement rather than the monotony that accompanies the repetitive bouts found elsewhere in the company.
The Superstars will help create fans abroad and, more importantly, break through the glass ceiling to redefine who can be a headliner in WWE.