Like most people, George Carroll Jr. sleeps with his smartphone plugged in on the nightstand next to his bed. Thanks to a 14-hour time difference between Boston and Tokyo, he often wakes up to an inbox full of emails from his bosses at New Japan Pro Wrestling and other times the phone rings in the middle of the night and Carroll answers the call.
As the US Director of NJPW Expansion, Carroll has a busy seven days ahead of him. STRONG STYLE EVOLVED, which runs Sunday in Long Beach, is the second card that the Japanese wrestling promotion is hosting on American soil, and making sure every T is crossed and I is dotted, that’s Carroll’s responsibility.
“Whenever my phone rings or an email comes through with anything from a request to a question, I am there to answer it or handle things, ” said Carroll.
Being the person that returns that call or email is Carroll’s responsibility all because once while walking into a Target store, he returned another call.
“I remember where I was when the call came, its something I will never forget,” said Carroll.
It was October 2016 and Carroll and his wife Sarah had taken a trip to Orlando for her birthday. It was meant to be a distraction-free getaway for the couple. Shortly after arriving in Orlando, Carroll got a text that read, “Hey, we need to talk. It’s really important.” Normally, Carroll would text back or even call instantly, but he thought better of upsetting his wife and let the text sit there unanswered.
Two days later, on their way out of town, Carroll decided to stop at a Target to pick up a few things. His wife had fallen asleep on the drive. He parked the car and let his wife continue to rest. On his way into the store, he finally replied to that text and said, “let’s talk”.
“I paced for the next 30 minutes around this little pond in Orlando outside that Target in amazement. I was stunned by what I was hearing. I agreed about 30 seconds into the call,” said Carroll. “The feeling I felt on the call is something I can’t describe, sort of that feeling you get when you first fall in love, those butterflies but a little more intense. It was really emotional for me internally.”
Carroll headed back to the car, found his wife was waking up and let her in on the good news.
“You won’t believe this! I just got offered a job with New Japan Pro Wrestling,” Carroll told his wife.
The new job put Carroll in charge of all U.S.-facing operations for NJPW.
“I must have made a positive impression on the right people. I’ve never really asked, “Why Me?”. I just recognized the chance to be part of something special and accepted it,” said Carroll. “When an opportunity presents itself, you either run from it or take it and run with it. I was running with it.”
The first NJPW card on American soil, G1 Special in USA, was still nine months away. In that time, Carroll had to help secure a venue, figure out how to get the talent that NJPW was known for into the United States, coordinate the logistics of a live broadcast on AXS TV and handle every single detail of the show. It might sound like a high-stress job, but it’s the type of role that feeds into Carroll’s personality and it’s something he considers himself lucky to do.
“I don’t get stressed out. What stresses me out is wanting more to do. What’s next?, what can I be doing to make sure we are maximizing every second, every opportunity?” said Carroll. “I’m pretty blessed. A lot has happened in a year and it makes me want to work that much harder for what’s coming next.”
The Job He Was Born For
A lot of people who work in the wrestling industry will tell you how their love of pro wrestling started when they were a kid. Carroll is different though – his origin story takes you back to before he was even born.
“My parents met at the Boston Garden during a wrestling event in July of 1975. My mother tells a story of her attending wrestling events while pregnant with me and I would move the whole time in her stomach during the show,” said Carroll.
Family continued feeding Carroll’s love of wrestling when he was a kid growing up. His cousin had a buddy who would give him wrestling magazines from the late 70s and early 80s. That was the first time he learned anything at all about the pro wrestling scene in Japan.
“I remember sitting in a closet for a couple of days just reading them all back to front. Learning about Antonio Inoki and his battle with Muhammad Ali, then I remember being in awe of pictures alone of Tiger Mask vs. Dynamite Kid,” said Carroll. “My impressions were I needed to see this wrestling from another land.”
Long before the information superhighway made it easy for fans to discover wrestling promotions all across the globe, Carroll had to rely on public transportation to get him his fix. Every weekend he’d jump on a bus and head to Cambridge, MA to pick up a copy of Gong Magazine, a Japanese wrestling magazine that a Japanese supermarket would bring in.
“I didn’t understand the writing, but their pictures were so much better than the U.S.,” said Carroll. “Eventually they started selling tapes of New Japan Pro Wrestling TV shows, maybe on a three-week delay. In the early 90’s I was watching NJPW TV regularly and I was hooked there.”
To the surprise of nobody that knew him, Carroll started chasing a pro wrestling career once he hit adult age. In late 1995, he began training with Perry Saturn in Salisbury, MA. It wasn’t long after he started training that ECW made Saturn a full-time wrestler and trainer at the House of Hardcore in Philadelphia. Carroll thought about going with him, but around the same time, he found out he was going to be a father soon and knew he couldn’t go.
He continued to train, working primarily in the Northeast United States, but becoming the next international wrestling star never really panned out. He wasn’t done working in the industry though. Carroll continued to hustle and find work in various roles with independent promotions before finally landing a content producer gig with Ring of Honor in 2014. It was a role that put him in direct contact with everybody involved with the company. Things seemed to be going well for Carroll until 2016 when he was unexpectedly shown the door.
“Getting let go from a company that I loved, that I was passionate about, stung. It showed me that I was capable of producing on a national level. I learned that the scope of the business is much bigger than just live events & television,” said Carroll, who says he took lessons from his time there that he’s been able to apply since joining NJPW. “Again, being someone who watches, studies and applies, I also learned to develop a lot of patience and the ability to hyper-focus. I very much need both of those now. We do not want to miss a step and stumble.”
He’s not just relying on his previous experience though. His time working for all of those indies gave him connections with some of the most well-respected people in the wrestling business. He often finds himself seeking guidance from some of them.
“I’m constantly asking questions of guys like Court Bauer, Kevin Sullivan and Steve Corino. Those three are a true credit to this business. They have the knowledge and are willing to share it,” said Carroll, who also picks up things simply by standing back and taking notes. “I have a very weird brain that allows me to watch and break down things in real time, so people teach me without even knowing it. I catch myself learning where most people are just observing.”
Staying True to NJPW History
Carroll comes from a generation of wrestling fan that could only see NJPW matches on tape and get updates in newsletters. He relied on finding like-minded fans willing to trade VHS tapes with him. Today, NJPW is available on AXS in the United States and anybody can pay about ten bucks a month to get access to NJPW World, the streaming service, and see as much content as they could possibly consume. Carroll is now a key figure in making sure that this ambitious expansion of the NJPW audience goes smoothly.
“I will repeat what Chairman Naoki Sugabayashi and President Takaaki Kidani have specified, we are looking at Global Branding. New Japan Pro Wrestling is unquestionably the best professional wrestling brand on the planet. As evident by the shows in Long Beach this past July, the US and the world is ready for more,” said Carroll. “New Japan Pro Wrestling has no equal when it comes to the bell to bell portion of professional wrestling. It already has strong production values and is developing personalities at a quick rate. So while the company is 45 years old, it is really coming into its own right now.”
The United States wrestling market has been dominated by one brand for the better part of the last 17 years. Companies like IMPACT and ROH have made some inroads in an attempt to be the #2 to the WWE’s #1, but the gap between the two has often been fairly wide. When Carroll looks at the what WWE does and what NJPW does he sees an important distinction that wrestling fans today are bound to understand.
“There is sports entertainment and people who are great at that, but New Japan Pro Wrestling is pro wrestling at its finest and I don’t see anyone competing with us in pro wrestling on any level,” said Carroll.
For the American fans that grew up watching WWE or WCW and never ventured beyond that, NJPW has some work to do in introducing them to the product. Carroll believes that NJPW will rely heavily on their streaming service and the massive archive available there to show those fans what they’ve been missing out on.
“With a library of matches that show a who’s who of historic, Hall of Fame talent, it’s clear that New Japan Pro Wrestling is something that should be on your radar. Exposing existing consumers and marketing to new potential customers is key,” said Carroll, who doesn’t expect the ethos of the promotion to change much, even as they expand to new markets. “New Japan Pro Wrestling is a promotion about respect, respect for its championships, its competitors, its fan base. It has respect for its own history, its current path and where it wants to be. This is something that will continue to be stressed above all.”
Carroll thinks many pundits could be underestimating exactly how much of the NJPW product the diehard WWE fans know about.
“I don’t think it’s as little as some may believe. Access is the key, how many times have you heard of something and automatically grabbed your phone/tablet or PC and instantly looked it up?” said Carroll. “I wouldn’t know what the average WWE fan would know, but the availability to learn is there, almost instantaneously. So that’s what our focus is.”
With one U.S. live-show in 2017 and just one announced so far for 2018, NJPW has shown that they’re more than willing to patiently build their brand to this market and Carroll believes that relying on everything that NJPW has nearly perfected in Japan, will serve them well throughout the process.
“We want to continue to create a more diverse fan base. We will continue to showcase the sports element, focus on our strengths and build from there. So I’d much rather attract and build than try to convert,” said Carroll. “New Japan Pro Wrestling is showing step by step that its position in this marketplace is much bigger than just Japan.”
One of the main goals of this global expansion is to increase the number of monthly subscribers to NJPW World. Before anybody was thinking about a monthly subscription service, this move outside of Japan might not have been possible. The pay-per-view era of pro wrestling would have made it cost-prohibitive to hire an English commentary crew and then pay the hosting fees that most cable and satellite companies would command.
“Is the pay-per-view model dead? I’d say no, but when you have your own platform that gives the viewer the option of when to watch, it makes more sense for us to push viewers there than to take a chance on Pay Per View,” said Carroll. “I also think the current presentation on AXS is key. You get more top quality professional wrestling in that 60 minutes of television than you do anywhere else.”