Imp’s NJPW Adventure
Wrestle Kingdom 13 is only a matter of weeks away and with the final ‘Road To’ show taking place yesterday, all the pieces are set. A card that from top to bottom looks to be an amazing experience once again, however it’s the main event in particular that could end up shaping the future of New Japan Pro Wrestling for years to come.
G1 Climax 2018 winner Hiroshi Tanahashi takes on IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega in a match for the ages. But what makes this such an epic encounter? Why are the people so behind the challenger? The Ace of the Universe, a man who was at the top of NJPW for so long. What is his story?
Well my friends, this is New Japan and to find that out means I need to go right back to the beginning. Hiroshi Tanahashi has had one hell of a career, from promising rookie to saviour of the company to air guitar master.
The story of Hiroshi Tanahashi is the story of New Japan in the modern era. The man who 10 years ago saved New Japan from certain death and come January 4th 2019 looks to protect it once more.
You might want to get a nice hot drink, this one’s an epic.
The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi
Becoming the Ace
1999 – 2002
In his early Young Lion years, it was clear that this new rookie was a hot prospect. Debuting in late 1999, he later managed to earn low stakes wins over big names in 2000 and 2001. Including victories over the likes of Scott Hall and later a surprise win over Kensuke Sasaki in 2 minutes during NJPW’s prestigious annual round robin G1 Climax tournament in 2001. Things were looking promising, over those two years he was improving incredibly well.
During these days he was often seen as the rookie helping out Keiji Mutoh, one of the Three Musketeers, the biggest stars of his generation. Learning from the best, watching from the closest seat in house. Literally leaning on the ring, can’t get much closer than that!
However things would take a sharp turn, in 2002 there was an incident that altered Tanahashi’s life and career in an instant.
November 2002, Tanahashi was stabbed by TV news reporter Hitomi Hara of whom he had been dating for a brief time and had attempted to break things off with. She didn’t take it well. After two stab wounds to the back he was out of action for four months, with the incident widely covered all over Japanese media. And I mean ALL over, this went mainstream. It got so big even NY Times covered it.
Without question one of the most difficult times in Tanahashi’s life, but the mass coverage created a swell of sudden support. The whole incident may have ironically become the greatest thing to ever happen to his career, as come the end of the year there was huge mainstream interest in seeing his return.
Quick point: Hiroshi Tanahashi’s rise occurred during Antonio Inoki’s creative reign, the booking was not strong with this one. To put it mildly, hardships were to come.
In February 2003 NJPW jumped on that interest and built up a return match in front of a sold out Tokyo crowd against big muscly bastard Manabu Nakanishi. From that moment on he began to rapidly climb the ranks of NJPW and garnered more and more support from the crowd. Arguably he has never stopped since.
Later in the year he captured the U-30 OPENWEIGHT Championship, a title designed for wrestlers under the age of 30, and was seemingly destined for great success. However, this time is often referred to as NJPW’s ‘Dark Ages’, Inoki’s rash booking was about to thrust the future Ace into a position he wasn’t ready for.
Long story short, Antonio Inoki’s love for MMA vs Wrestling inadvertently brought NJPW to its knees and almost finished the job. Top wrestlers were either publicly humiliated in shoot fights or top MMA fighters were stinking up the ring trying to hang with the professional wrestlers. Two of New Japan’s biggest stars from the 90s, in Keiji Mutoh and Shinya Hashimoto, were both actively pushed away.
Top guy at the time, Yuji Nagata was pushed into legit MMA fights, ending with both his body and credibility obviously destroyed by MMA legends Mirko Cro Crop and Fedor Emelianenko. Fecking Cro Crop! How was that ever going to end well? Nagata infamously lost in 18 seconds and it took him YEARS to get back to that perception as the greatest wrestler in the world. These MMA vs Wrestler matches drew nice crowds, but in the process NJPW’s credibility (along with Nagata’s limbs) was being dismantled.
So noticing the perception of his top guys slipping, when 2003 hit, Inoki decided he needed new young faces at the top. In the process he was completely passing over his current main eventers in their wrestling prime in Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi and Hiroyoshi Tenzan (Satoshi Kojima had already left as he apparently hated the MMA push). Inoki picked out three extremely promising wrestlers and pushed them straight into the main event, those three would later be known as the ‘New Three Musketeers’.
In a few years these men would be relied upon to bring New Japan into a new age and out of the crap Inoki ended up leaving them in.
Tanahashi needed polish, he was getting it as the U-30 Champion, then all of a sudden he was destined as one of the new main event stars along with rookies Shinsuke Nakamura and Katsuyori Shibata. His Musketeer counterparts were both great wrestlers, but neither at the time had much in the way of charisma or character. Nakamura was rushed the most, skipping the Young Lion process entirely and main eventing the Dome in his first year thanks to his MMA background.
This didn’t slow down Tanahashi however, he simply continued to grow and prove why he really was destined for that spot thrust upon him. Teaming with Yutaka Yoshie he captured the IWGP Tag Team Championships, of which they held all the way to December. He was also impressing in singles environments, after a match against Yuji Nagata in October, the now legend was impressed with him enough that the next month they teamed together and won Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Tag Team Championships in an NJPW Invasion angle.
In spite of the MMA push, Tanahashi was still growing nice and gradually, however things would rapidly change over the next year. The push had already somewhat begun, but Inoki’s plan to push the youth would well and truly kick into effect.
A warning before we dive further, in both 2004 and 2005 NJPW was voted the worst promotion by the Wrestling Observer. Get ready, we’re now into the New Japan era referred to as ‘The Dark Ages’.
Being a young rising star may have been a blessing for Hiroshi Tanahashi, he was seemingly able to float past a lot of the MMA issues around him. Whilst the likes of Bob Sapp were winning the IWGP Championship only to be stripped of the title after losing an unconnected MMA fight, New Japan’s future shinyaku (lead actor) was able to float about gaining valuable experience.
Throughout this year Tanahashi really honed his fighting spirit and athleticism. The qualities that would help him to become The Ace down the line hadn’t quite developed yet but the pieces were starting to slowly come together. No Slingblade nor Hi Fly Flo, no gorgeous hair, no flashy outfit, just an incredible ball of talent that was really upping his game in the ring.
January 4th in the Tokyo Dome Tanahashi successfully defended his U-30 OPENWEIGHT Championship against his former teammate Yoshie. Success on such a stage was a big moment for his career, even if it was in the mid-card without much tension against a wrestler he was allies with. He had still won a championship match at the Tokyo Dome, for the years to ahead he’d need to remember this.
He’d then have a huge opportunity, at Pro Wrestling NOAH’s biggest event ever at the Tokyo Dome he received an opportunity to win their top title. And with his rising popularity, on top of the coverage of the year prior, there was a real feeling he might actually win. He didn’t, but it was a real sign of his continuously rising stock. Something that didn’t go unnoticed by Antonio Inoki.
In August he achieved the biggest moment in his career to date, reaching the final of the G1 Climax where he’d go one on one Hiroyoshi Tenzan. This was the first time Tanahashi’s heart and spirit would be on full display as he took Tenzan to his limit. Scoring multiple close falls, utilizing his signature moves at the time (the Shining Wizard and Dragon Suplex), he came oh so near to his first grand achievement in NJPW. Managing to kick out of a surely match ending moonsault from Tenzan, he shocked the Ryogoku Kokugikan crowd with his ability to keep on fighting.
Even though he fell short, Tanahashi established himself as someone who could well and truly hang with New Japan’s prime wrestlers of the day. His stock rose once again. Perhaps in the eyes of Antonio Inoki, a little too much.
Back in 2004 the G1 didn’t earn you a Wrestle Kingdom Heavyweight Championship match like it does today. Most would get a title shot in October or at some point before the year’s end. So despite his victory here, come January 4th 2005 Hiroyoshi Tenzan would not be the man main eventing the Tokyo Dome…
An interesting year for New Japan, the seeds for the future were all there, but so were the issues that had been marring the product for the past few years. The annual January 4th Tokyo Dome show drew the smallest gate in NJPW history, with approximately 25,000 in attendance and 10,000 paid. New Japan was seen to simply not have any stars, having either fed their top talents to MMA fighters, scared them away or booked them to lose simply way too often.
So for that year’s January 4th Inoki went all in with looking to the future, booking Shinsuke Nakamura vs Hiroshi Tanahashi for the U-30 Openweight Championship to main event the show. Even though IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tenzan was on the card, the younger wrestlers headlined in what was deemed an ‘interesting’ move. The crowd may have been quiet, but the two young wrestlers knocked it out of the park.
Tanahashi threw everything he had at the challenger. Hitting a suicide dive early on with so much force that he flew straight over the barricade, setting the story of Tanahashi besting his opponent with an awe of athleticism. At the time Nakamura was more known for his strong, ground based submission game and even though he gave it has all, Tana was simply unable to escape his opponent. He couldn’t climb that hurdle, on the grandest stage of them all Tanahashi got caught and was forced to tap.
On top of that, the rest of show was deemed to have fallen flat, leaving fans feeling really depressed over the current state of that something they once loved. Nakamura and Tanahashi’s efforts, although praise worthy, were not enough to save perception the show.
Come the New Japan Cup in May, Hiroshi had a fire lit under him. In the span of six months he’d made it to both the G1 Climax Final and January 4th main event and lost them both, he wasn’t going to let another golden opportunity pass him by. In order to do so though, he’d have to best NJPW’s early 2000s Ace of the company Yuji Nagata in the opening round and then in the semi-finals beat the very man he failed against back in August in that G1 Final, Hiroyoshi Tenzan. A momentous task, but he stood up to the occasion and proved everyone wrong by flying through to the final.
Fighting through two of New Japan’s biggest names of the era, Tanahashi had impressed and just had to beat one more name: Manabu Nakanishi. A man just as hungry to succeed in the New Japan Cup Final as he was, a man full of raw power, previously passed over by Inoki, ready for his time to shine.
Tana used everything he could, even nailing the Dragon Suplex on the larger man, but Nakanishi’s strength was simply too much. Until out of nowhere Hiroshi hit his new move, the Slingblade. And scored a surprising, very contentious three count! Nakanishi seemed to kick out and was irate after the bell, however the victory was Tanahashi’s and things were looking like 2005 may finally be his year.
This seemed to be reinforced after Tanahashi regained the U-30 Championship in July. Nakamura had vacated the title due to the fact he just didn’t defend it (booking boo), a 6 man round robin tournament took place and our boy Tana beat Toru Yano in the finals.
Things don’t always go to plan though, Tanahashi’s G1 ended in disappointment. The IWGP Champion Fujita completely mauled him on the second night. Which was followed up by another loss to Shinsuke Nakamura, who he was IWGP Tag Team Champions with at the time. This set the tone for the rest and he ended up finishing in the middle of the pack without much of a bang.
Instead the spotlight went to the final original Musketeer left standing in New Japan, Masahiro Chono. A hero’s return, well, it would have been if not for a certain someone making his debut.
October 8th none other than ‘The Mayor of Suplex City’ Brock Lesnar won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in his debut match, a triple threat between champion Fujita and 2005’s G1 winner Masahiro Chono. Interesting tibit, Lesnar was said to have been making $30,000 per appearance and because of the turnout for the show being so low, NJPW lost money. Ha, Lesnar lol.
Lots of changes happened in the second half of 2005, Fujita was meant to be Lesnar’s Tokyo Dome opponent but walked out, fellow new musketeer Shibata jumped from the sinking ship (pissing off Tana immensely in the process) and left for the indies/MMA and then the biggest change of all, Antonio Inoki was forced to sell New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Eventually enough had become enough, business was so bad that it come to a point for Inoki to either sell NJPW, or keep going down the road to their ultimate collapse. In Japan, NJPW and how their perception is linked to that of wrestling’s is kinda like how WWE are intricately linked with wrestling in the US. If New Japan died, it could have meant consequences for the rest of the industry, so there was only ever one option.
November 30th the deal to sell New Japan Pro Wrestling to the video game company Yuke’s was completed, the Inoki era was over, but the damage had been done. Fan perception of the company had never been lower, but if anything, that drove Tanahashi to succeed even harder.
Success takes time, but it helps if Gedo’s booking you.
By the mid 2000s, NJPW’s stock had fallen to the point where they were more often than not the company lending stars to their competitor’s tours. With the likes of Tanahashi and Yuji Nagata competing for NOAH and others joining Dragon Gate on their US tours. So at the time, interpromotional matches were common and one of the men who screamed New Japan was Hiroshi Tanahashi. The work ethic and fighting spirit of an NJPW wrestler oozed out of that man, he may not have been the ace but he was certainly the work horse.
If anything, I guess you can relate him to how KUSHIDA is seen today. You wanted a work horse who seemed to bleed New Japan, Tanahashi was your man.
January 4th, Tokyo Dome, Tanahashi versus Shibata. The first big show under the new Yuke’s ownership. Shibata left NJPW in 2005 to compete as a freelancer and train for MMA. Here he represented Big Mouth Loud (a promotion that was founded the year prior and would be defunct by the end of 2006). The clash between two of the New Three Musketeer’s was promoted as an interpromotional bout, but for Tanahashi, after losing to Nakamura it was a second chance to prove himself on the grand stage against a fellow proclaimed Musketeer.
Shibata, like Nakamura, may have been pushed by Inoki because of his MMA background, but his sheer intensity immediately separated him from the pack. Just look at NJPW this decade, Inoki was right, if not a tad impatient. Shibata was pushed hard from the get go when in reality he needed time to grow. Come 2006 he was a guy who hadn’t really lived up to Inoki’s proclamation and had ultimately left the promotion.
On the other hand, Tanahashi’s 2005 hadn’t turned out how he’d hoped either. With a lacklustre showing in the G1, his momentum from winning the New Japan Cup had been somewhat halted. A win here could surely set him on track to attempting to climb that mountain once again.
In the match Tanahashi’s spirit shone through, fighting through Shibata’s stiff as hell kicks and strikes that had fell top foes of years past. But Shibata’s kicks were lethal weapons, with any single one able to end the match there and then. This is exactly what happened, caught by one hell of a running strike he was straight up KO’d.
Once again, Tanahashi had lost at the Tokyo Dome. Both of his counterparts of that generation had bested him, even when that fire was lit under him, he couldn’t best the strikes of Shibata and he couldn’t beat the submissions of Nakamura. If he were to succeed something had to change.
At the time NJPW had a working agreement with TNA, with the two promotions trading stars and featuring on each other’s biggest shows. Tanahashi would get the opportunity to face AJ Styles, the two faced at Final Destination 2006 but his time there was quickly cut short.
Long story short there was ‘trouble up mill’, Nakamura was leaving for a bit to train and put on some muscle mass in America and Lesnar proving a tad of difficult prick. So just before the future artist went off on his travels, he and Tanahashi had a match and finally the man with Power Production written on his ass (that’s Tana) was able to best his peer. Nakamura left for America, come his return in late 2006 NJPW would be very different.
So Tanahashi had beaten Nakamura, however he was still evidently not fully on form yet. In the New Japan Cup he showed spirit to reach the semi-finals, but ultimately fell short losing to Yuji Nagata.
By the Summer of 2006, Tanahashi had fought and built his momentum to point where he had earnt his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship match. Nakamura had failed to best the beast at the Tokyo Dome after Fujita walked out and Shibata was gone, there was only one hope left for the future of New Japan. He vacated his U-30 championship (dissolving it in the process), announcing that he was focusing on becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
Lesnar may have been champion, but he was heavily criticised for phoning it in when in the ring. Not much changes. Everything hit a peak come mid-2006, an inarguably huge moment in Tana’s career, he finally had the chance to become THE man in NJPW. Climb that mountain, conquer another beast and lead New Japan into the new age!
Lesnar no showed. That was the final straw. NJPW vacated the title and Lesnar was never seen in the company again.
In its place, the match was replaced with a tournament to crown a brand new champion. The moment was his and it had slipped through his fingers thanks to no fault of his own. Now he had to fight once again, his opportunity wasn’t gone but it was a hell of a task ahead. Would Tanahashi have it any other way? He successfully fought his way to the final to only come toe to toe with none other than New Japan Cup winner Giant Bernard himself.
With the help of his heel CTU stablemates, Giant Bernard (Matt Bloom/Albert/Tenzai/Sexy T) had mowed through his opposition in impressive fashion, a big scary foreigner who was building momentum fast. However, Tanahashi had experience in overcoming the bigger man in tournament settings.
Bernard turned out to be something the likes of which Tanahashi had never seen. After hitting the Slingblade just like in the match with Nakanishi, the giant opponent instead immediately jumped to his feet! Tana hit a second Slingblade, went for the cover and Bernard kicked out at one. Tanahashi was stunned, how was he meant to topple this monster of a man?
Tana took him to the corner, climbed up the ropes to drain his opponent down with punches, only for Bernard to lift him up and down into the Bernard Driver (a sit down power bomb). On this occasion it was Tanahashi’s time to show his resilience, kicking out at two with Giant Bernard now the one in shock.
In fact Bernard seemed to become desperate, with the aid of his CTU friends the ref was ‘accidentally’ downed and a steel chair introduced. Once again Tana fought back and launched himself high at his opponent as the chair was lifted. Bernard went down, Tana went flying over the top to take out the interfering Tyson Tomko (oh hello, you!) and slid back into the ring to take down the bleeding American with a Slingblade for the win.
The crowd erupted as Hiroshi Tanahashi lifted his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship! With the likes of Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi watching on from ringside, Tanahashi had finally accomplished his dream. The crowd may have been smaller than he’d liked, but he was champion. Now the real work could begin.
In September he once again overcame Tenzan, outside of the tournament setting this was a huge statement from the champ. However there was a cloud that didn’t go unnoticed, Tanahashi had accomplished all this but had done it during the absence of one man. In December of 2006 Shinsuke Nakamura returned and stepped up to challenge the champion. To get to Wrestle Kingdom as champion, Tanahashi would have to beat a Musketeer.
Once again Tanahashi was able to best the King of Strong Style, having seemingly found the fighting strength of a champion. Nakamura looked strong in defeat, but having just returned it would be a little while till he was back at his fighting best. As for Tanahashi, with more on the line than ever, it was time to see if he could finally deliver on the stage of the Tokyo Dome.
The new era was marked with a new brand for the January 4th Tokyo Dome show, it would now be know as ‘Wrestle Kingdom’. Hiroshi Tanahashi walked in to the first one as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, a statement for the years to come. The show wasn’t just NJPW’s, it was his. Like Shawn Michaels with WrestleMania, Tanahashi would become Mr Wrestle Kingdom.
In November of 2006 it was announced the event would be a joint effort with rival company All Japan Pro Wrestling, with wrestlers from both promotions clashing on the big stage. Resulting in Tanahashi not just defending his title, but also New Japan’s honour. He had both failed last year and the year prior, but now as IWGP Heavyweight Champion he would have to be able to step up and face this test of all tests.
Tanahashi’s task was to beat AJPW’s Hawaiian born Taiyō Kea, a man who like Tanahashi had been around a while but was just now truly breaking out. As I said earlier, Wrestle Kingdom was to be Tanahashi’s domain and he made that statement with immediate fashion.
Straight away there was a different feel about the match, with fans chanting Tanahashi’s name as soon as the bell rang. There was a new aura about him, a champion’s confidence. That was until Kea pulled away the ringside mat and delivered a Falcon Arrow to Tanahashi, who hit the concrete underneath HARD. Ouch!
However this was a different Tanahashi, no longer just a promising talent, this was a champion. Tana had the edge when it came to the fighting spirit and Kea couldn’t believe his eyes, becoming visibly knocked off of his game when the NJPW man kept kicking out. Tana came back and if you’re watching on NJPW World, this is the first time you’ll see him hit the Hi Fly Flo. Launching from the top rope, he flew with a beautiful Frog Splash that hit with awesome impact.
Tanahashi had defended NJPW’s honour, victorious at a January 4th Tokyo Dome show for the first time since his U-30 defence three years ago. But the manner in which he had done so was something to take note of, more than the heart of a champion was developing. We’d just seen a glimpse of the will of an Ace.
Then came the biggest test of Tanahashi’s career to date. New Japan was dawning on a new age, but the current generation weren’t going to fade away without making a huge statement first.
If one rivalry defined 2007, it was Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Yuji Nagata. In what was seemingly destined to be Tanahashi’s year, it ended up being arguably the greatest in ring year of Nagata’s career.
The year prior Mr Blue Justice had won the cup to only lose to Lesnar, so had something to prove, he wanted to make a statement: he was the greatest wrestler in the world, the megastar that should have been.
On April 13th Hiroshi Tanahashi defended his IWGP Heavyweight Championship in Osaka, and with the crowd firmly behind the challenger, Nagata brought his absolute A game. In fact Tanahashi was on the receiving end of a fair amount of boos, for the first time since he had started his reign the confidence seemed to be somewhat shook.
If Tanahashi was on a damn strong run of momentum, then Nagata was his equal. The challenger was oozing with passion and determination, the match becoming a contest of who could dig the deepest, two athletes with immense fighting spirit throwing everything they could into besting their opponent. The bar raised when Nagata got the knees up in time to block the Hi Fly Flo, followed by kicking out at one after a Dragon Suplex. Tanahashi was up against something entirely new here, against a man with such strong will, how was Tanahashi to break him?
Blue Justice brought the stiff kicks, the exact thing that had defeated Tanahashi back at the Tokyo Dome last year with Shibata. It worked here once again, after a tense exchange Nagata rocked the champion collapsing him to the mat. Spotting the opportunity he rocked Tana with one hell of a high suplex! Unlike with Shibata, this time the champion was able to kick out. Tanahashi dug deep and kept on fighting, the heart of the champion shining strong.
As I said earlier though, Nagata was shining just as bright and was showing zero mercy. He quickly picked up the champion and hit another suplex, this time holding on for an immediate pin. Tanahashi was defeated. Tana’s name was chanted in the Dome, but come Osaka the night was all Nagata’s.
And so would be the following months, Nagata truly stepped up to the moniker of the ‘Best Wrestler in the World’ with two strong title defences leading in to the G1 Climax. In fact, signs were pointing to the champion himself winning the whole tournament, Tanahashi wasn’t ever going to give up so easily.
In the Semi-Finals for the 2007 G1 Climax: IWGP Heavyweight Champion Yuji Nagata defeated Shinsuke Nakamura before in the second semi Hiroshi Tanahashi faced fellow Young Lion Togi Makabe. A man who over the past year had started to find his groove under a heel King Kong attitude and had taken over leadership of top heel stable Great Bash Heel. A different beast to either Nagata or Nakamura, but a type of beast Tanahashi had experience in defeating.
Makabe came close with a showing of dominance, but Tanahashi’s experience overcoming bigger men came into play once again. However, after the victory Makabe made sure Hiroshi would enter the G1 Final the weaker man. He grabbed the metal chains he wore to the ring, wrapped them round his wrist and leathered Tanahashi with a clothesline.
All of a sudden Hiroshi’s task of beating either Nagata or Nakamura had become nigh on impossible.
(Fun fact: the young lion who helped Tanahashi to the back? Tetsuya Naito.)
If one thing helped Tanahashi, it was that Nakamura and Nagata had one hell of a stiff match. A fantastic watch, it was like they had completely forgotten they were meant to be wrestling another match after this. The bleedin’ thing only ended after referee stopping because Nakamura dislocated his shoulder.
So the question got asked, Tanahashi’s task was still difficult, but had that war of match made that job a hell of a lot easier?
Ha no, it’s feckin’ Yuji Nagata, mate. You know your match with Nagata was tough when after he slaps you hard in the face, he gets sprayed with your elbow blood. To be fair, said blood was as a result of Tanahashi hitting a Hi Fly Flo to Nagata on the outside and landing bloody hard. These were exactly the kind of lengths Tanahashi had to go to though, after losing the title to him earlier the year Tana knew he had to up his game.
In the end, despite some spirited resistance Tanahashi seemed to find his ability to step his match up an extra gear, with Nagata down he nailed the Hi Fly Flo and four years after he made his first final, he’d finally won the G1and the right to face the IWGP Champion… Yuji Nagata… Again… Ah feck.
October 8th 2007, NJPW EXPLOSION, the decider. With one win a piece Nagata and Tanahashi faced each other once again for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This time it was Tanahashi with the tournament victory momentum, seemingly having found that killer edge. Turns out he’d found more than that.
Out of all their matches, this is the one that seems starts out with the most respect. Nagata was having an amazing year and Tanahashi had well and truly stepped up to the plate, which was reflected in the crowd chants that were a lot more equal this time around. An arena that was like a ball of pure energy.
The match was even as well, feeling like a true rubber match in a series between two equals. There was one important factor though, during this time Tanahashi had returned from his first neck injury. This resulted in many of his opponents attacking that area during his matches, Nagata was no exception. If anything it made the champion more clinical, targeting his suplexes which made the effects even more devastating.
As I said, the match was still even though. Nagata’s knee wasn’t exactly in tip top shape and that gave Tanahashi a weak point to target also. So due to the other’s work, Nagata hit a suplex he grabbed his knee, Tanahashi hit a suplex he grabbed his neck. The battle became a question of who had the greater spirit to fight through. Tanahashi kicked out of an Exploder 8 (high release German dropping him on his noggin) and Nagata the same from a Dragon Suplex. Both men were going to have to bring something special.
That’s exactly what Tana did, when the opportunity came he nailed the Hi Fly Flo, but this time when Nagata kicked out there was no hesitation. He immediately jumped to the top rope a second time and put the champion away. From the get go Tanahashi had the mindset that he was the one to set the pace, he’d control his matches. No longer fighting from behind, he’d be the dictator. And it payed off in style.
After the match he proclaimed he was going to be the ‘Sexy Champion’ and for the first time his cocky character was coming through. This wasn’t a plucky underdog or promising star anymore, this was a man who knew just how damn good he was and you weren’t going to forget it.
His first defence solidified these characteristics, when he faced a recently returned from Mexico Hirooki Goto. The challenger had been tearing through opposition and within 3 months had quickly earnt himself one hell of an opportunity. NJPW got the crowd on his side with reminders of his training with icons Inoki and Hashimoto, then out danced Tanahashi, spinning round in all black, showing off as if to say, “Look at how damn great I am.”
Once again the champion dictated the match, slapping Goto right across the face instead of respectfully heeding the break. The difference between this and the last title match is striking. Tanahashi is absolutely full of character, he’s such a dick… and it’s absolutely fantastic.
Heeling it up to get into Goto’s head any opportunity he could get, the thing is he really is very good. When Tanahashi hits a dropkick you can’t help but cheer, and his new cocky attitude if anything makes him more dangerous. He has no barriers on his viciousness, he’s now relentless with his dragon screw leg whips, opportunistic with his shots and most important of all, in control the entire time.
The mind games eventually paid off too, during a slapping exchange Goto snapped and started punching Tana with closed fists. After which Goto himself became relentless in his targeting of Tanahashi’s neck, but the entire time he was getting increasingly frustrated, unable to put the champion away. In his frustration Goto seems to not take into account just who he was up against, all because he was being a dick didn’t mean Hiroshi Tanahashi had lost his fighting spirit.
Goto’s frustration had led him to forget the damage Tanahashi had done prior, the champ directed his Hi Fly Flo to the legs and locked in a Texas Clover Leaf for the win. There was something special about this performance, his ‘champion’s confidence’ was overflowing and even at Goto’s greatest moments Tanahashi just kept fighting back.
Throughout that entire match the fans were going mental and by the end the arena was a deafening noise. He was making people take notice, the Tanahashi train was rolling.
Rolling on into the future and right into Shinsuke Nakamura at the Tokyo Dome that is! Ah, feck.
The rivalry that would go on to define a generation. Here tonight, however, it would mark yet another Tokyo Dome defeat against Nakamura for Tanahashi. An even contest, with Tana targeting the taped arm the challenger had dislocated half a year ago. Nakamura was countering well and keeping the match relatively balanced, however one key moment revealed a target. As soon as Nakamura hit an awesome looking Pop Up Tombstone (yes, ‘pop up’) Tanahashi’s neck problems reared themselves once again.
Nakamura zoned in like none of Tanahashi’s foes had before. Upon his return he’d debuted a new finisher called the Landslide, lifting his opponent off of his shoulders down and rotating them in front of him to land high on their back. So Nakkers thought it would be a swell idea to hit that off of the top rope! Tana was done after, but Nakamura wasn’t going to risk making Goto’s mistake. He hit the Landslide for a second time before finally covering Tanahashi for the three.
Perhaps on the night Tanahashi’s cockiness had gotten the better of him, but over his reign he’d tapped into something. Despite the Wrestle Kingdom II result he had found his edge, perhaps he’d also learnt how far to push it. In the end though, Tanahashi had once again lost to his greatest foe on the biggest stage. He’d once again have to pick himself up and rebuild.
2008 was a huge year for New Japan, first of which came in the form of a new top championship. Long story short: Inoki had started a promotion called IGF, said promotion still recognised Lesnar as the IWGP Champion. In the first defence Angle defeated Lesnar, at Wrestle Kingdom II Angle fought off Nagata in a fantastic Best in the World bout, then in February Nakamura defeated Angle. BAM! Fancy new championship for the New Japan lads, the same one we know and love to this day.
Also come February, Tanahashi had a contract dispute with NJPW. He’d end up competing in the New Japan Cup, but after that he wasn’t seen till the G1 in late summer. Instead taking part in AJPW’s Champion Carnival as a top heel and popping up as a free chap on the odd tour.
The contractict issues didn’t hinder his New Japan Cup performance though, in fact the tournament couldn’t have gone any better to be honest. He defeated Goto, Taguchi and Makabe on his way to the final where he once again toppled Giant Bernard to become the first 2 time NJ Cup winner. With that he’d pretty much immediately earnt his championship rematch, the perfect rebound.
Well, aside from the contract dispute… oh and one week later he’d go one on one with IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinsuke Nakamura, only to fall once more. At Korakuen Hall he was again caught by Nakamura’s Landslide, this time leading to an armbar submission. Tanahashi had entered 2008 as the cock of the walk, now only two months later he had no championship, no contendership and no contract.
In his absence, Shinsuke Nakamura would go on to have a hell of an interesting year. Losing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to an NJPW legend Keiji Mutoh (aka The Great Muta) who at the time was representing AJPW. The future King of Strong Style was also then heavily involved in a bitter war between two factions: Makabe’s ‘Great Bash Heel’ and his own faction ‘RISE’. A rivalry that would spill over into the G1 Climax Final itself, with Goto fighting the odds and pulling out a strong victory whilst donning the crimson mask of the Makabe war.
This was a rivalry that would change Nakamura’s career forever – I’m not being over dramatic, you’ll see in Part 2 – without Tanahashi there to protect them though, who was looking out for New Japan?
Tanahashi had returned in time for the G1 Climax, but he wasn’t at his best. He finished 2nd from bottom in his group and it would take him the a couple of months to get back to his former self. In that time, Keiji Mutoh’s defence against Goto took place on an AJPW show of all places. Think about what that would have meant to Tanahashi, the G1 Climax winner didn’t even have their match on an NJPW show. Tanahashi had taken that ball last year, he was meant to be their protector but instead had become ‘a bit of a dick’.
Not this time, he was going to step up. Tanahashi teamed up with Nakamura’s RISE stable to help take on Great Bash Heel for the remainder of the year. Showing honour and loyalty to New Japan, he showed he was willing to step up and protect the company when called upon. Culminating in a brawl of a match against Togi Makabe.
Like Goto, Tanahashi showed incredible fighting spirit to beat the odds against Makabe. However, ironically, it was his time away that would feed into his Wrestle Kingdom opportunity.
Remember I said Tanahashi competed in the AJPW Champion Carnival? Well Tanahashi was put in a ‘group of death’ against a load of the company’s top guys, one of which he went to a 30 minute draw with. And that man happened to be none other than the current IWGP Heavyweight Champion Keiji Mutoh.
The match ended with Mutoh ready to hit a moonsault off of the top rope, when the 30 minute time limit bell sounded. We never got to find out, was Tanahashi seconds away from losing? A finish that Tanahashi would repeat years later against Kazuchika Okada, but more about that guy in Part 2.
Way back at the start of this column I made sure to note that as a rookie Tanahashi was often seen accompanying Keiji Mutoh. Well my friend, we’ve come full circle. Over 6 years and 6,000 words later, the student would take on the master on NJPW’s grandest stage. The torch was ready.
January 4th, Wrestle Kingdom III, IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a passing of the torch moment, in front of NJPW’s largest crowd for years. Over 30,000 fans attended the Tokyo Dome to witness one of the past’s greatest stars give way to the current generation.
AKA Dragon Screw Leg Whip: The Movie
I’ve talked about a showing of respect between Tanahashi and his opponents in the past, but here it really was a major factor. Tanahashi showed his Sensei, Mutoh, a slower and less vicious game than we’d seen over the past year. He still worked his opponent’s evidently weaker knees (two decades of moonsaults does that to a man), but he was nowhere near as relentless as he’d been against the likes of Nakamura or Goto.
A nice gesture, but Mutoh’s way of paying him in kind was to up the pace with his own relentless work to the leg and hitting Shining Wizards galore. He started Dragon Screw Whipping Tanahashi everywhere he could. Over the past year Tanahashi had utilized those leg whips without remorse, but now he was on the receiving end of a lesson from the master.
On the apron? Grab that leg and Dragon Whip him off it! On the barricade? Dragon Whip! Oh you managed to get back to the ring… Dragon Whip through the ropes!
If you enjoy two men working on each other’s legs, this is the match for you. A classic case of Mutoh having taught Tanahashi everything he knew in that game, but that doesn’t mean he taught him everything. The final lesson Hiroshi would have to learn himself, how do you beat the man that taught you everything?
Anything you can do, I can do too. Tanahashi returned the Dragon Screw Whip favour. This was the game that had brought Mutoh success over his whole career, but the challenger did everything in his power to equal his Sensei. Which in the end proved too much for the almost 50 year old legend.
Around 30 minutes in we reached a very familiar spot, calling back with Mutoh poised on the top rope about to hit a moonsault. This time we got our answer as Tanahashi rolled out the way! Mutoh lay motionless as Tanahashi jumped to the top himself and delivered a Hi Fly Flo to the back, before getting back up and delivering a second for the three.
In that moment the torch was passed, from one musketeer to another. Tanahashi had took hold and officially become the Ace of the Universe.
He’d been there for NJPW in their darkest hours, busting his ass and sacrificing his body to put on the best match no matter the crowd. Now he was one of the most popular wrestlers in the industry, bearing the torch for the future. With Tanahashi atop the mountain New Japan Pro Wrestling was back on track, from here on out things would only get better and better.
Now the hard work really began… and as I said earlier, Nakamura’s war against Makabe would end up sending waves through New Japan still felt to this day.
A bitter rivalry that would warp the mind of Tanahashi’s greatest rival,
an era of chaos was about to begin.
But you’ll have to wait for Part 2 to drop to find out! Thanks for reading this monster of a column, please share, comment, pick an emoji, feedback with interesting tibits I’ve missed out on. Hopefully it shows just how much effort went into this, I’m ready for a good long sleep tomorrow!
The plan is for Part 2 to drop the same time next week, but please be patient, these types of columns do take a hell of a long time to put together.
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