It's no secret to the devoted wrestling fan, that Japanese wrestling has featured some of the best promotions and matches in the world, over the years. With a precise, physical style, often showcasing a stiff wrestling style, with a bevy of high-risk maneuvers, it has gained a notable, renowned following the world over. While promotions such as NJPW, AJPW, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and others, typically feature a large number of native Japanese stars, there are also usually a handful of American wrestlers that have made the jump over.
Sometimes it was just for several matches, especially as a result of cross-promotional deals, such as when WCW partnered with NJPW in a talent exchange during the mid-1990's. In other instances, wrestlers who had gained a following in the States, found themselves even more popular in Japan, due to their personal style getting over more with the Japanese audience. As opposed to stateside promotions, Japanese wrestling typically places less of an emphasis on mic skills and promos, with the action in the ring taking center stage. It also a somewhat more methodical, and psychological aspect than a lot of mainstream wrestling in America, though a lot of indie promotions, do employ the same philosophy in certain cases.
So, it's not exactly a common thing, but there have certainly been some notable cases of stateside wrestling talent going to Japan, and in some cases, saving or enhancing their career. For them, it offered an alternative to the more "entertainment" based style in the squared circle, most utilized over here, and exposed them to a fanbase that saw them at a higher caliber than the ones in America.
Ranked below are the top 15 American wrestlers who succeeded in Japan.
15 Road Warriors
Both Hawk and Animal had stints in Japan where they went over extremely well with the international fans, in between their more well-know runs in the NWA and WWE. They were first prevalent overseas when touring with AJPW, where they captured the NWA International Tag Titles. Their intense in-ring style made them a hit, and a result, faced some of the best Japanese competition in the likes of Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenyru. Hawk also had a stint in NJPW during the mid-1990s without Animal, where formed a tag team with Kensuke Sasaki as The Hell Raisers, and captured the IWGP Tag Titles. Ultimately, the Road Warriors were most popular in stateside promotions, but certainly had significance in Japan as well.
Before he went on to gain the bulk of his recognition in ECW, Sabu was a staple in Japan's hardcore promotion, FMW, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Much like his time in ECW, barbed wire death matches and the use of fire in the ring were the norm, and helped establish his reputation as a fearless (or some would say "crazy") in-ring performer. He teamed often with The Sheik (his real life uncle and trainer), and began to establish the style that would later make him a staple of hardcore wrestling in ECW, and dozens of other promotions worldwide.
13 The Briscoe Brothers
While they have been a prevalent tag team all across the indie circuit in the States for over a decade now, The Briscoes have also made their mark in Japan, during several different stints. They had a successful Pro Wrestling NOAH run, in which they captured the GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Titles, and their combination of high-flying and technical wrestling styles went over well with the Japanese fans. Recently, they made their debut in NJPW, and figure to become a good draw there, most likely getting a shot at the IWGP Tag Titles at some point in the next year. They have a larger body of work in the U.S., but have proven that they can be a staple in Japan as well.
12 Brock Lesnar
While Lesnar was slated to be the next big thing in WWE, during the early 2000's, he arguably had just as much success in NJPW. In his debut match for the promotion, he won the IWGP Heavyweight Title, and held it for quite some time. He defended it against both Japanese competition, as well as American staples such as Kurt Angle, who ended up winning the title from him. It may not have been the greatest IWGP title run in history, but it was definitely on par, if not better than his performance in WWE. He would return to WWE several years later for a second run, and his time in NJPW served as a good buffer for that, along with his NFL and MMA ventures.
11 Scott Norton
Norton was a mere mid-carder during his time with any promotion in the States, but in NJPW, he was a certified star, winning the IWGP Heavyweight Title on two occasions. While he was also considered kind of "faceless" in American promotions such as WCW, his strong-style of wrestling went over very well in Japan, where less emphasis is put on mic skills and promos. Norton would return to American wrestling in 2006 to start his own Wild West Championship Wrestling promotion, but would return to Japan's HUSTLE promotion the next year. Ultimately, his personal wrestling style was always better suited to Japan, and his run overseas likely helped extend his career by five or ten years.
10 Steiner Brothers
The Steiners were popular everywhere they went as a tag team in the 1990s, and that held true when they won the IWGP tag titles in 1991, as a part of the talent exchange that WCW had with NJPW at the time. Japanese talent would wrestle on WCW shows, and vice versa. Of course, the Steiners were most popular in the states with the NWA and WCW, but Japanese audiences knew they were watching one of the best tag teams of the era, and received them as such. Overall, they won the IWGP tag titles on two occasions, and performed at the same high-caliber they did in American promotions.
9 Eddie Guerrero
For several years in the mid-1990s, Guerrero wrestled in NJPW, using the Black Tiger gimmick, working his way high up in the junior heavyweight rankings. While, he lost his only IWGP Junior Heavyweight title shot to The Great Sasuke, his stint in Japan helped bolster his resume for his subsequent success in WCW and WWE. Guerrero wrestled in his familiar technical and high-flying style, which went over with the Japanese audience, allowing him to have great matches with all the top juniors in Japan at the time. He left NJPW for good in 1996, but went on to big things in WCW soon after. Tragically, Guerrero passed away in 2005.
8 A.J. Styles
Styles has done well pretty much wherever he has went, and that includes his multiple stints in NJPW, where has won the IWGP Heavyweight Title on two occasions. His precise in-ring style has allowed him to be successful in dozens on promotions and his time in Japan has been no different. Styles is truly one of the biggest stars in the industry, and that has resonated with the international audience. In addition to NJPW, he has also wrestled for Wrestle-1 in Japan. While he hasn't eclipsed his popularity in the States, with his work in Japan, he has certainly shown he can make a name for himself in an unfamiliar, international promotion, and is bound to return to NJPW at some point in the future.
7 2 Cold Scorpio
Scorpio ultimately found more longevity in Japan than he did in ECW, WCW or WWE, all of which he wrestled for during the 1990s. He left for AJPW in 1999, and when native members of that promotion decided to form Pro Wrestling NOAH in 2000, Scorpio then followed them there as well. Scorpio spent six years with the promotion, and won the GHC Openweight Hardcore Title, and twice won the GHC Tag Team Titles, with Doug Williams and Vader. While never an outright superstar during any point in his career, Scorpio was more of a staple of NOAH, than he was any promotion in the States, and gave him several title runs he otherwise wouldn't have likely gained in the first place.
6 Dynamite Kid
Not an American per se, but Dynamite Kid had several years on top of the tag team circuit in WWE, as one half of The British Bulldogs with Davey Boy Smith, before finding a second wind for his career in AJPW during the 1990's. He found considerable success, winning both the All Asia Tag Team Championship with Johnny Smith, as well as the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Title. He was known as a stiff worker in the ring, and the physical, hard-hitting style resonated with the Japanese audience. As a result of injuries sustained in the ring over the years, his career began to slow down, and ended in 1996.
5 Gary Albright
Albright is a prime example of someone who was never going to find popularity in the States, recognized it early, and ended up having a pretty good career in Japan as a result. Despite the lack of a definable look, or having elite mic skills, Albright was an accomplished in-ring technician, and knew how to work a match. He achieved most of his success in AJPW, winning the tag titles twice, with Stan Hansen and Steve Williams respectively. He never found much traction as a singles competitor, despite several tries at it in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, he died in the ring in 2000, while wrestling an indie show in the States.
4 Johnny Ace
While he did spend time in the NWA, Ace's most noteworthy work came in AJPW. During the 1990s, he was on as high a level in Japanese wrestling that any American talent had every experienced. In total, he won the All Asia Tag Titles twice, and the AJPW Tag Titles on four occasions. He did also wrestle in singles competition, but never won the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, despite a shot at it in the late 1990s. Since retiring in 2000, he has been an on-air personality for WWE, under his real name, John Laurinaitis. For those that know their wrestling history however, he should also be recognized as one of the most successful American wrestlers, to ever compete in Japan.
3 "Dr. Death" Steve Williams
Williams did achieve success in the NWA, but was ultimately more successful in AJPW, in both singles and tag team competition. In a rare occurrence for an American talent, he won the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship in the early 1990's, which was at the time, was probably the most prestigious title in all of Japanese wrestling. He also won the AJPW Tag Team Titles six times, with Terry Gordy, Gar Albright, Vader and Johnny Ace. Williams' stiff working style was a big hit for Japanese audiences, and served him well in AJPW. He also had a stint in IWA Japan, where he won their tag titles with Ryo Miyake. Unfortunately, Williams passed away in 2009, at the age of 49.
No matter what promotion he has ever been involved with, Vader has seen his share of accolades. He was a popular draw in WCW, and to a lesser extent, WWE in America, but the lions share of his success came in AJPW and NJPW, without question. Between the two Japanese promotions he won their respective Heavyweight Titles a combined five times, and won the tag titles twice. As a fairly athletic super-heavyweight sized performer, Vader captivated Japanese audiences, and faced the top competition in each promotion for years. He also appeared in Pro Wrestling NOAH in the early 2000's, and won the tag titles once. He's returned to both American and Japanese promotions over the years, but will always be remembered for his heyday in the 1990's, when he was one of the most dominant singles competitors in the world.
1 Stan Hansen
When it comes to the American wrestlers having success in Japanese promotions, Stan Hansen has always been the prime example. He spent some time in WWE and the AWA in the early portion of his career, but essentially from a twenty year period from 1980 to 2000 (with a short WCW stint in between), he was a main event talent for AJPW. Probably no other American wrestler has seen the level of Hansen's success internationally; a four time Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, and eight time tag champion, Hansen was a superstar in Japan. His definitive cowboy persona, and devastating Lariat finisher captivated Japanese audiences for years, and he essentially became one of their own. Overall, Hansen should be considered an all-time great, and the best export from American wrestling to Japan.