Published on October 23rd, 2018 | by Rob Ireland0
Bullet Club – The Birth of NJPW’s Most Iconic Stable
The Bullet Club “Bone Soldier” logo has become one of the most recognizable images in the history of professional wrestling. Like Austin 3:16 or nWo before it, you cannot watch a wrestling show from any promotion without seeing a sea of Bullet Club t-shirts in the crowd, and its cultural relevance has even extended beyond just wrestling crowds, showing up in crowd footage of music concerts and sports games worldwide on a regular basis.
But despite its worldwide recognition, it all started with four foreign dojo boys in Japan, becoming friends, traveling together and trying to make a name for themselves in a company which typically didn’t give many big chances to their Gaijin (non-Japanese) workers. This is the story of how Prince Devitt, Bad Luck Fale, Karl Anderson, and Tama Tonga created one of the most recognizable brands in modern wrestling.
Bullet Club original, “The Real Rock N Rolla” Prince Devitt
Fergal Devitt was born in Bray, Ireland, training in his home country and making his pro-wrestling debut in 2000 at the young age of 18. He would train, wrestle, and teach in his home country until 2005 when he moved to California to train in the New Japan Inoki Dojo (where he would meet Karl Anderson), before signing with New Japan officially in 2006, moving to Japan in the process.
Devitt would enter into the Japanese dojo system, becoming a “young boy” in their developmental system, the first Gaijin to train this way for 20 years.
Devitt explains on Talk Is Jericho, “I was a full young boy. I would be woken up at 7.30, we’d have to clean the toilets, go out clean the ring, sweep the streets, hose it down because of all the cat pee on the street outside. We’d prepare the food, wash the sempais which are the senior wrestlers. You just basically run all the errands for the older wrestlers and whatever had to be done. It’s kind of like a hazing, I guess. You’re learning discipline and a respect for the craft that’s being taught.”
Bullet Club original Prince Devitt (better known to WWE fans as Finn Balor) used to have to clean toilets, sweep and hose off the cat pee on the Japanese streets outside the NJPW dojo, as well as wash the senior wrestlers as part of his initiation.
Devitt lived this lifestyle coupled along with a famously ruthless training regime, as the only Gaijin for a full year, not speaking the language, having no internet or means of communication with back home.
“This was before Skype and iPhones, and even Wi-Fi was really common, so I was really cut-off from the outside world. So, I had no alternative than to really immerse myself in it. I was in up to my neck with the Japanese boys.”
In 2006, Fergal Devitt made his official New Japan Pro Wrestling debut, initially facing some resistance from the Japanese management over his name “Fergal.”
Devitt recalls, “I would always wrestle as Fergal Devitt. That’s my real name. I got to Japan and they have problems pronouncing R’s. Problems pronouncing F’s. Problems pronouncing L’s. I think I was there about 3 weeks and they made me have a try-out match before one of the shows in Sendai. And it was so intimidating, all the boys were sat there around the ring and I was in working on the fly against Taguchi. This was before the show and basically just a try-out for me. I guess it was a five-minute match, and we finished up and the booker at the time pulls me over and was like:
“‘Next week you start. What’s name?’
“And I go, ‘Fergal Devitt.’
“And he goes, ‘Hmmm, no. King Devitt.’
“And I was like, ‘Okay, cool’. I had no choice, you know? But I guess in the week they kind of mulled it over and said, ‘Oh well, he’s only 24. He’s not old enough to be a king yet, he’s only a mere prince,’ ya know? And that’s how the name came about. Just in the blink of an eye.”
So, in the blink of an eye, Devitt had his new ring name that he would wrestle under for the next eight years in Japan.
In 2009, he would form a team with his try-out opponent Taguchi, known as Apollo 55. The team would win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships within their first year and would continue tagging throughout the next four years, cementing Devitt as a popular foreign babyface to the Japanese audiences, when combined with the comedic fun-loving Taguchi.
Devitt also had a great deal of success as a Junior Singles competitor during these years, with notable matches against Kota Ibushi, Low-Key and Kushida, as well as winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times and the 2010 Best of the Super Juniors competition.
However, during these years, Devitt received many offers to join the developmental system in WWE, but he was reluctant to go, feeling he had unfinished business in New Japan. Devitt wanted to make his way to the top of the card in New Japan. Soon, he had a shot at this glory in a match with Hiroshi Tanahashi, the Ace of the company, but lost in what turned out to be a rather one-sided match. The characteristically sportsman-like and noble Prince Devitt refused to shake Tanahashi’s hand and began acting more arrogant and heelish in the weeks after the match.
“They decided for me to switch to a heel, which I was really excited about because I hadn’t worked heel out there. I’d been about five-and-a-half or six years as a straight-laced babyface and I kinda felt like I’d, not peaked, but done all that I could do. I wasn’t as creatively fulfilled anymore and when they said, ‘Would you turn heel?’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’”
Shortly after the Tanahashi match, Apollo 55 lost a match at Invasion Attack 2013 for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships, causing Devitt to turn on his long-time partner in the process, and instead align himself with the recently returned King Fale, now dubbed Bad Luck Fale. After the beatdown, Prince Devitt grabbed a microphone and declared, “No more Apollo 55. No more Mr. Nice guy. You’re looking at the Real Rock N’ Rolla, Prince Devitt!” and the new Prince Devitt was born.
Bullet Club Origins – “The Underboss” Bad Luck Fale
Fale Simitaitoko was a Tongan born former rugby player when he entered the New Japan dojo system in 2009. Having never wrestled before, he became the first ever foreign-born trainee to go through the entire dojo process from start to finish (Devitt had already trained elsewhere when he joined).
In an interview with New Japan website Fale, remembers teaming up with Devitt.
“Initially it was me and Ferg (Devitt) and the idea was for me to help make him legit as a heavyweight. When he turned [on Apollo 55 partner Ryusuke Taguchi], it just exploded and we knew we were onto something.
“At the time I’d been in America, on my learning excursion. I was really trying to figure out who I was, and where I could fit in. I was King Fale, this savage killer kind of character and then I was called back as someone very different, kind of a bouncer.”
Fale became the enforcer for Devitt, interfering in his matches and helping him get heel reactions from the audiences, dubbing himself “The Underboss” Bad Luck Fale.
Devitt explains, “It was meant to be me turning heel with King Fale as my bouncer, similar to Shawn Michaels and Diesel. But then Gedo (NJPW Booker) had this idea of we might as well just lump all the foreign guys together. So, there was Karl Anderson, there was Tama Tonga and he put us together.”
At the next New Japan Event, Wrestling Dontaku, Karl Anderson had just been defeated by Hiroshi Tanahashi, when Devitt and Fale entered the ring attacking Tanahashi. They would later be joined by Tama Tonga and Karl Anderson in the beatdown, with the four foreign men standing tall over the beaten ace of New Japan.
The Birth of the Bullet Club – “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson
Karl Anderson (real name Chad Allegra) had been wrestling eight years before he first signed with New Japan, after training in their California-based Dojo, in which he met Devitt, before signing a contract with NJPW in 2008.
Anderson talks about this on the Sam Roberts Podcast:
“We met at the Los Angeles Dojo, in California, where New Japan had like a feeder system. Then, me and him came through the Dojo in New Japan. We started in New Japan as absolute young boys, on small money and we had to train every day, stay there for 3 or 4 months at a time.
Ferg would stay for four or five months at a time in the dojo, which is where I stayed too, which was an old crappy nasty house, we lived there. When I signed with New Japan Pro Wrestling, I flew over there with about $25 in my account. I got the contract in the mail and I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me, this is awesome! How long am I staying? I don’t care. Here we go.’”
When Bullet Club original member Karl Anderson flew over to Japan to start work with NJPW, he had about $25 in his bank account. His New Japan contract was a welcome new beginning for him.
Anderson had a lot of success in New Japan, winning the World Tag League and IWGP Tag Team championship in his Bad Intentions team with Giant Bernard, and had been gaining a lot of notoriety as a singles competitor throughout 2012, with high profile wins against Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi, and reaching the finals in the G1 Climax.
But he wasn’t making much of an impact as a character and towards the start of 2013 he had started losing all his big singles matches. In the leading up to Dontaku, he had been teaming with Tama Tonga in tag matches, before the game-changing formation at the event.
Bullet Club Beginnings – “Bad Boy” Tama Tonga
Tama Tonga (real name Alipate Aloisio Leone) grew up in the wrestling business as the adopted son of the Legendary WCW and WWF talent King Haku, but he never actually started wrestling until he was 25, after spending six years serving in the United States Air Force.
He then went on to train to wrestle under the Dudley Boys at their school, Team 3D Academy, making his debut in 2008, and then eventually finding his way to Japan in 2010 to become a young boy in the dojo system and becoming friends with the other three members.
Tama talks about this time in the NJPW On The Road docu-series:
“The way I see it, it was four Gaijin, in the land of the rising sun, that were brothers, that ARE brothers. It was only us Gaijin and the rest were Nihongo (Japanese). So, we became brothers, friends, best friends, because all we had was each other, to speak to each other in English. We had Devitt and Karl who were our Sempais and then me and Fale came in as young boys. Devitt and Karl really helped us grow as wrestlers, to teach us the American style and still the Japanese style. We became really really close, where we were drinking together, eating together everyday and working together.
“So you gotta understand that us foreigners, when we leave home and come here, about 80% of our time is here in Japan. So that’s who we’re next to is the guys we work with. We’re with them more than with our real families at home. So, of course these guys become your family, so the bond is really tight.”
The team used this real-life camaraderie when they formed at Dontaku 2013 and became a natural fit. Fale explains, “Oh, completely natural. What people don’t know is that we were always together. We called ourselves the ‘Dojo Boys’ because we were the only foreigners who were here. At times they’d bring in foreign guys to do big shows, Giant Bernard would do a tour here or there, but we were always there since 2010 when Tama came I, and Ferg and Anderson had been there before I got there. We were a group to ourselves every tour already. So, since we were already working, living as a group together, it only made sense.”
Becoming The Bullet Club
The group was formed, and they’d made a statement by attacking Hiroshi Tanahashi at Dontaku, but they still needed a name. On Talk Is Jericho, Devitt recalls how he came up with it.
“I remember one night I’m back in the dojo and I’m scribbling lots of little names, trying to figure out what it’s gonna be. I didn’t want it to be 3 letters (like nWo), and I didn’t want it to be ‘The’ something. So, I remember coming up with this name, Bullet Club, thinking that’s kinda cool. I was trying to tie everyone’s characters together. So, I’d been doing this thing where I was a ‘Real Shooter,’ I used to make fun of Minoru Suzuki because he’s an actual shooter, I’d say ,‘Well I’m a real shooter,’ just to kinda make fun of him. I’d always do the hand gun point gesture at him, just backstage in the locker room joking around. This was about six months before we even came up with Bullet Club.
“Then there was Karl Anderson who was known as the Machine Gun. So, I’m the Real Shooter, he’s The Machine Gun, how do I tie all this together? We all fire bullets. So then I had Bullet Parade, Bullet League and then Bullet Club. I remember texting Karl Anderson with this list of names and saying, ‘Do you wanna look at them?’ He just texts back, ‘Bro, I don’t give a shit. Call it whatever you want.’ So I pitched the name and even at the time the boys were on the fence about it and the office couldn’t pronounce it. But it went from strength to strength and got over.”
The team found instant success by Prince Devitt entering the Best of the Super Juniors tournament soon after their formation, with the team using their bond to help each other out in matches, helping Devitt cheat his way through the tournament, much to the dismay of the Japanese fans, who were not as accustomed to these kind of heel tactics.
Devitt recalls, “We were the only people who were really working proper heel. I went from being this super straight-laced babyface doing all these high-spots and dives, to like, I completely changed my offense to eye-pokes, nut-shots and I wouldn’t do any of the fancy stuff anymore.
“And I think they kinda felt disrespected, that I’d really turned my back on the Japanese culture and my upbringing in the dojo and stuff.”
Devitt went on to win the Best of the Super Juniors, defeating Kenny Omega in the semi-finals and Alex Shelley in the final to win the tournament, with a great deal of interference and help from the other members of Bullet Club. This caused an outrageous amount of heat from the Japanese fans, who were outraged that someone would cheat to win the prestigious tournament.
Fale remembers, “The Japanese fans take it all very seriously. I think it did feel dangerous, but that’s when we knew we had something. Feeling that emotion, feeling that hate, it was, ‘Woah, we’ve gotta keep this going!’
“It changed everything. Before, nobody really took notice of us. But when we got this chance, we knew we had to take it, and we had to make people hate us. A lot of people don’t like being hated, but look, figure it out, man. You’re either cheered and remembered or you’re hated and remembered. We understood the situation.”
Devitt continues, “I was told that the office had to set up a complaints number and it had to be manned eight hours a day at the New Japan office. ‘Prince Devitt cheated behind the referees back in every Super Junior match,’ ‘He took the pads off the ring posts,’ ‘King Fale interferes every time the guy goes outside the ring!’ (laughs).”
“I think the fans got to where they respected us as much as the Japanese guys,” Anderson explains, “and then we actually turned heel on those fans. We started to be able to be ourselves, it was a shock to the people seeing us be assholes. So we started doing whatever we wanted and then when we started doing that it just started to snowball. We were cussing on tv and pounding beers during promos. Stuff that people don’t usually do.”
After winning the Super Juniors Tournament, Devitt challenged Tanahashi to a match at Dominion, NJPW’s second biggest show of the year, in an attempt to defeat the opponent he couldn’t beat before forming Bullet Club. This was a chance for IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Devitt to once again take on a Heavyweight, something that rarely ever happened in the company. This time with his Bullet Club brothers at this side, Devitt was able to defeat Tanahashi, after Bad Luck Fale interfered, attacking Tanahashi and setting Devitt up to hit the Bloody Sunday and get the pinfall.
Anderson explains, “In Japan they still have weight classes, the Juniors and the Heavyweights, they still keep those guys separated, and Ferg was getting this huge push as a Junior. And so, when we created the Bullet Club he started beating Heavyweights, which started rubbing some guys the wrong way, backstage. But that even added more to the Bullet Club coolness because he was getting this badass push, that was transcending what people have done in the past in New Japan.”
When Bullet Club original Prince Devitt began getting wins over Heavyweights while IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, this started rubbing some guys the wrong way backstage.
After vanquishing the Ace of New Japan at Dominion, Devitt set his sights on the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Later on in the show, after the reigning champion Okada finished his match. Bullet Club walked to the ring and Devitt stood toe-to-toe with the champion, challenging him to a title match.
The pair eventually faced each other at Kizuna Road 2013. This time, however, Devitt was unable to get the win despite lots of attempted interference from the rest of the Bullet Club. Okada had retained the IWGP Heavyweight title and Devitt would only get another chance if he entered and won the G1 Climax, a tournament typically reserved for Heavyweight only. Devitt defeated Okada on the first night of the tournament and had an impressive run overall but failed to make it to the finals. The club’s heelish tactics hadn’t succeeded in getting them the big titles, but they were starting to grow a fan-base.
“Too Sweet” – The Hand Gesture Made Popular Again By The Bullet Club
Originally a hand signal used by The Kliq in the mid-nineties, Bullet Club started using the “Too Sweet” gesture early in their formation and it had started to catch on, and you could start to see fans doing the hand signal during Bullet Clubs entrances.
In an interview with WWE.com, Anderson and Devitt talk about when they started using it:
ANDERSON: It started for sure with me and Finn in 2006, in Santa Monica in the New Japan Los Angeles Dojo. We were just buddies and would Too Sweet each other for the hell of it because we thought it was fun. Then, as we progressed and moved into New Japan Pro Wrestling, we always did it to each other on the bus. It was part of our handshake.
DEVITT: We’d be on these six- to eight-hour bus rides on the New Japan tour bus, going from Tokyo to Osaka or to Kyushu, and absolutely going insane on the bus and trying to think of ways to entertain ourselves. We went through this phase of quoting all the Attitude Era stuff.
ANDERSON: We loved The nWo. We loved Scott Hall. We loved Kevin Nash. It was just kind of our thing.
DEVITT: It got to the point where we’d be on the bus and four hours into a journey, and there’d be complete silence. We’d just look at each other and wouldn’t even say anything, but we’d both know that we were going to Too Sweet right then. And we would, then go back to sleep or do whatever we were doing. We’d be Too Sweeting each other backstage before we went out or in the locker room that day or in the bar that night.
ANDERSON: Then, one day in the ring, in Tokyo, Japan, we just got a win. Finn got the win.
DEVITT: We were standing in the ring and Karl goes to give me a high-five.
ANDERSON: He held the Too Sweet up in the air and looked at me. I started to get chills. I said, “Are we doing this right now?”
DEVITT: And I said, “Yep.” That’s the exact moment it transferred from the locker room to the ring. We started to do it everywhere.
ANDERSON: It was the beginning of a Too Sweet relationship.
DEVITT: It’s kind of almost like a secret handshake or secret acknowledgement to the past and the people who paved the way, to pay tribute to those guys and to help carry forward. When I do it to Karl and Gallows, it feels like a secret handshake vibe. It’s an acknowledgement of a brotherhood — something we’ve been through together.
The Bullet Club Bone Soldier T-Shirt
Bullet Club was starting to grow in popularity and size, due to new additions such as The Young Bucks and Luke Gallows. The Young Bucks joining the group gave them some extra indie cred and Tama Tonga was frequently away representing the group in Mexican companies like CMLL, recruiting temporary members and giving the faction some cross-promotional appeal that would later become a staple of the team.
But mainstream appeal finally came with the addition of the Bone Soldier t-Shirt, which when first on sale sold out in two hours and crashed the New Japan merchandise website due to the amount of traffic directing to the site.
Anderson mentions this on the Sam Roberts Podcast. “They made us these sweet shirts, with the black and white and the bones and those things started selling like crazy. I think that got us more over in Japan than anything, because they just kept selling out. It was just a cool-ass t-shirt, it was black and white, it was simple and it was cool.”
Anderson mentions the rapid sell-outs also on the Steve Austin Show. “That first shirt they came out with, when they sold like eight-thousand in two hours, I said, ‘Whats going on, man? What’s going on?’ That’s when I knew something really got cool. I felt it. Crowds started getting cooler, bigger, more Bullet Club shirts in the arenas. I noticed that at all the big pay-per-views fans were always wearing Bullet Club shirts. And they still are. It’s crazy. It’s cool to be associated with the first four who were in the thing.”
Devitt’s Departure from New Japan and the Bullet Club
At Wrestle Kingdom 9, Devitt lost his IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship to Kota Ibushi and then the next night at New Year’s Dash, a returning Taguchi attacked Devitt, as revenge for when his former Apollo 55 partner turned on him. This was to set-up a “Loser Leaves Town” match at Invasion Attack 2014, in which the two former partners would face each other, one year after Devitt’s betrayal.
During the match, The Young Bucks repeatedly tried to interfere, staying true to the Bullet Club ideology of helping each other to get ahead, but Devitt balked at these attempts, deciding he wanted to beat his former partner on his own. Devitt going against the main ethos of Bullet Club didn’t sit too well with The Bucks and they attacked Devitt during the match. Devitt was able to fight them off and carry on the match, losing to Taguchi, before shaking the hand of his former partner and leaving the company.
Bullet Club has now become a widely recognizable brand that has almost crossed over into mainstream appeal outside of the wrestling world, and it all started with four dojo boys, and the brotherhood of the Gaijin living together and trying to make a name for themselves in Japan.
Despite the departure of their founder and leader, Bullet club was still on the upswing, growing in popularity and winning championships in every division. Later that night at Invasion Attack 2014, Bullet Club would gain a “Phenomenal” new member, kicking off chapter 2 of the Bullet Club saga.
To be continued……
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