WWE wrestler Xavier Woods made headlines this year when he entered the ring wearing armor and a tail. He was dressed as Vegeta, a character from the Japanese cartoon Dragon Ball Z—and the crowd recognized it instantly.
“Essentially, mixing my love for [anime] into my love of wrestling and have it not be outlandish… it’s cool that people appreciate it,” Woods told gaming site IGN.
The world of pro wrestling, with its larger-than-life personalities and theatrical rivalries is not unacquainted with wacky costumes. But to decipher Woods’ decision to dress up as an anime character, we need to turn back the global history of pro wrestling to the 1950s when, in the wake of the United States’ occupation of Japan, pro wrestling arrived in the east.
The story begins with Rikidozan, Japan’s first modern professional wrestler. Through brute strength and a nationalistic fighting spirit, this man not only became famous worldwide, but unwittingly laid the foundation for an entire genre of Japanese anime with his career.
In a country with a post-war paper shortage that made books scarce, there was little amusement for people to look to in order to lift their spirits. Perhaps that’s why all eyes were on Rikidozan when he made his debut, presenting himself as a nationalistic Japanese hero who beat up the big bad American invaders. It didn’t matter to onlookers that Rikidozan was of Korean origin himself, or that the “evil Americans” he battled were usually a pair of Canadians, or that the wrestling matches were scripted from the beginning. Rikidozan’s bouts followed a feel-good storyline which ensured that no matter how much humiliation the smaller-statured 5’9” wrestler endured at the hands of his dishonest, foreign enemies, he would always justly triumph in the end, and, it followed, so would Japan.
Rikidozan’s career rose to prominence at the same time that television sets became widespread in Japan, in the mid ‘50s, and viewers would tune in every week to catch a match in what was becoming a predictable but enduring storyline. Daryl Surat, a Japanese pop culture writer for Otaku USA and host of the podcast Anime World Order, explains it thusly:
“Rikidozan would defeat his opponents and subsequently make friends out of many of them. Every now and then he would go away for a while, say to train or recuperate, and an evil foreigner would come beat up all of Rikidozan’s friends one by one. Everyone held out hope that ‘when Rikidozan comes back from his training, he’ll save the day’ and sure enough he would.
“For people who are fans of, say, Dragon Ball Z, that’s a storyline that is recognizable,” said Surat. “A lot of shounen anime, with one on one battles and a narrator announcing each fighter’s moves as a storytelling device, a lot of these things took root in pro wrestling.”
Dragon Ball, a Japanese cartoon franchise about fighters with larger-than-life personalities squaring off against one another in ever riskier battles between good and evil, follows where professional wrestling left off. Like with wrestling matches, Dragon Ball shows use fights as storytelling rather than filler in between. Based on Akira Toriyama’s 1984 comic, Dragon Ball and its offshoots remain some of the most popular anime today.
Nate Ming, Customer Support Lead at Crunchyroll, the media site where Dragon Ball Super is currently streaming, corroborates this.
“Every weekend when a new episode of Dragon Ball Super comes out, the site freaks out. How many of those people also watch wrestling? Probably a lot,” he said.
Today, wrestling and anime are so enmeshed it’s hard to tell which group is borrowing from which. It isn’t just Woods—dozens of wrestlers have come forward as unabashed anime fans, and the vast majority of them aren’t in Japan. Sasha Banks has been particularly vocal about her love for Sailor Moon. WWE’s John Cena listed classic battle anime Fist of the North Star as his favorite movie, while Josh Barnett did him one better and made the anime’s most famous line, “Omae wa mou shindeiru!” [You are already dead!] his catchphrase. Kenny Omega was inspired by his favorite Japanese cartoons to become the first gaijin (AKA “foreigner) wrestler for New Japan Pro and win the organization’s biggest tournament.
Crunchyroll’s parent company, Ellation, sees a business opportunity in the overlap. The company specializes in niche streaming channels for fans of a particular hobby, like arts and crafts with their channel CreativeBug. However, they saw a potential to transcend a single fandom with a limited time deal for fans to purchase a streaming account at both Crunchyroll and WWE Network for a discounted rate. The deal extends until December 2.
“WWE Superstar Xavier Woods is a huge fan of anime and an advocate of Crunchyroll more specifically,” a spokesperson shared. “His tag team, The New Day, made their entrance at WrestleMania this year in Dragon Ball cosplay. There’s a clear overlap between the anime and WWE communities, and we were excited at the opportunity to collaborate with another global entertainment company in WWE. We hope this is just the beginning of a great partnership.”
The fans are already there. Patrick, a 30-year-old project coordinator in Austin, Texas, said that after a lifetime of fandom, it’s hard to separate his interests in anime and pro wrestling.
“Both are viewed as a thing for kids by anyone who doesn’t understand them, but I’m at a point where I no longer care about stuff like that. From the outside, they both seem silly, but once you dig in you find there’s a lot to enjoy,” he said.
Fans like Patrick see similarities in modern wrestling storylines that mirror anime’s most enduring sports and battle shows. For example, there’s “Broken” Matt Hardy, the Impact wrestler who recently underwent a scripted personality shift that turned him into a villain. The way wrestlers become evil and are later reformed is known as the heel-face turn and is a staple in both anime and pro wrestling—ever since the first time Rikidozan converted an evil American.
“In anime, characters are super expressive and convey emotions in a way rarely scene in traditional American cartoons,” said Patrick. “Wrestling also can play with emotions, whether it’s the way the wrestlers talk, or how they react in the ring. They have to take the audience on a journey to further the story.”
Anime and pro wrestling are two separate interests which, under the hood, turn out to have a lot in common. But their steady, if unexpected unification isn’t unique. Surat believes that it’s simply a side effect of the way the Internet combines fans of all stripes. It’s not that niche stuff has become more general, but that general gathering places now offer a variety of niches.
“Fandom is becoming this monocultural melting pot,” said Surat. “There are fewer and fewer websites that everyone is using, so it’s much easier for things to spread between interests. Even if you don’t care for Marvel Comics movies, chances are you’ve been exposed to image macros from them. Pro wrestling, such as WWE, Lucha Underground, Dragon Gate, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla is one of those things that melds in with that, as is anime.”