Imp’s NJPW Adventure – The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi Part 2: The Ace of the Universe

Hiroshi Tanahashi

Imp’s NJPW Adventure

Wrestle Kingdom 13 is now only days away! From top to bottom the card looks absolutely amazing once again, but I’m here to specifically talk about the main event. Well, one man in particular, the G1 Climax 2018 Winner Hiroshi Tanahashi.

If you missed my first column you can read it here:
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi Part 1: Becoming The Ace

January 4th, 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 back years. 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.

Get your hot drink ready before you start this one, it’s time for the tale of The Ace.

The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi
Part 2

The Ace of the Universe

2009

Tanahashi

Fresh off of defeating Japanese icon Keiji Mutoh for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom, Tanahashi had officially been passed the torch of Ace, the top face of the company. His first defence of his new title against his long time rival Shinsuke Nakamura. The two had become synonymous with each other, if Tanahashi was the champion then Nakamura was right there immediately challenging.

A pattern was emerging with their encounters however, especially when it came to title matches, Tanahashi had Nakamura’s number for most of the year, but not at the Dome. Tana especially had the better of Nakkers during this February clash, as the RISE leader was mentally distracted by his near war with Togi Makabe and his Great Bash Heel stable.

So this defence ended up as a challenge for Tanahashi, but also a kind of an official crowning of his new status. In the post-match celebrations he proclaimed himself the ‘Ace of the Universe’, it was now time to carry New Japan into the future on his back. Which was when a certain someone walked out to challenge him… that man was one other than Kurt freaking Angle! Talk about kicking off this new age with a bang.

New Japan rightfully marketed the match as a ‘World Pro-Wrestling Classic’, to be honest that was still probably putting it lightly.

April 5th, NJPW Resolution, Tanahashi stood up to his test from the West. This was Kurt Angle, not a man to take lightly. Tana had to fight back for a good portion of the match, after an early Angle Slam off the top rope early on snatched all momentum away from him.

Tanahashi was then stuck trying to counter Angle’s sublime ground/submission game, an area that had failed the champ in years past against Nakamura. But here he shone through, eating up everything Angle threw at him. Even after being slammed with an Angle Slam and locked in the Angle Lock, The Ace stayed fighting in the match.

In the end, Tanahashi was ready to hit the Hi Fly Flo when Angle popped up and pelted it to the top rope to hit that German we’ve seen countless times. However, on this occasion Tana was able to shove him off and instead hit a Hi Fly Flo to the standing Angle! The Ace then hit a second and then third Hi Fly Flo to 100% make sure the American legend was down for the count. A highly impressive win for the Ace that looked to be sure to keep him as the talking point of New Japan.

However, the even bigger story to come out of Resolution was that of the war between Nakamura’s and Togi Makabe’s stables RISE and Great Bash Heel. With the show promoted as a final clash between the two top stables that had been locked in a bitter feud for over a year. A final showdown this most definitely was, it just didn’t go how anyone was expecting.

Nakamura and Makabe went one on one in an immediately out of control match after the GBH leader attacked his opponent on the entrance ramp. The rest of the match was a complete brawl, a showcase of the total bitterness that had warped both men during the heat of this rivalry. Nakamura’s hatred had consumed him in particular that night, and it changed both himself and New Japan for years to come.

It was revealed that Nakamura had poached every single member of Great Bash Heel from under Makabe, bar closest friend Honma. Toru Yano, Giant Bernard (Matt Bloom in WWE), pre-Bullet Club Karl Anderson, Gedo, Jado, Tomohiro Ishii (with hair!), Takashi Iizuka, all of them turned on their former leader. They joined forces with Nakamura to form a brand new stable, a group that would go by the name ‘CHAOS’. With Nakamura pushing his ideology of, “You know that Strong Style of wrestling you came to hate under those Inoki years? Well I think it’s bloody brilliant and I’m bringing it back!”

Back to Tanahashi, unfortunately there’s a reason I ended the Part 1  where I did, because 2009 ended up finishing on an anticlimactic note for the IWGP Champion. A note that was delivered via the stiff knee of the new CHAOS leader himself.

Tanahashi

G1 Climax 2009 semi-final, Hiroshi Tanahashi faced Nakamura in a hard hitting classic. Nakamura’s style was a lot more stiff and vicious, utilising a higher number of kicks and strikes than before. Tana had developed counters for a lot of his opponent’s ground based offense, however now Nakamura showed he could best him in the striking game.

The CHAOS leader was driven, part by the hatred that had consumed him, by being so passionate in reviving Strong Style, but also by the recent losses dealt by his long-time rival. Nakamura was going to prove that he was in fact deserving of being the true Ace.

Nakamura hit the Landslide off of the top rope, but now the long-time rival had something to follow up with, a stiff running knee strike called the BOMAYE a move that would one day be renamed the Kinshasa. He delivered the knee with such force that he legitimately broke Tanahashi’s orbital bone and the champ was out for two months, but most devastatingly he was forced to vacate the title. He’d been passed the torch in January, only to collide face first with Nakamura’s knee and have his momentum all come screeching to a halt.

To make matters worse Makabe would go on to win the G1 and then lose in a bout for the vacant IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Nakamura. With his CHAOS stablemates by his side, The King of Strong Style was now once again the top lion upon the New Japan mountain.

Tanahashi would return in October, tagging against CHAOS and even with Makabe himself on the odd occasion. Warming up, getting back into things whilst making his message clear. He was coming back for his championship, the title that he never lost.

However he would not be successful in his rematch. In November at Destruction, Shinsuke Nakamura was once again able to beat Tanahashi. The two showed how much they’ve learnt and improved, matching each other in so many aspects, but all that crashed down after Tana went for the Hi Fly Flo a little too soon. Flying off the top rope, he landed hard, showed spirit to get back up, but was immediately grounded with a stiff kick followed by a BOMAYE.

Nakamura’s new style had once again bested the Ace of the Universe, for the first time in three years Hiroshi Tanahashi would not be in the IWGP Heavyweight Championship match come Wrestle Kingdom.

Tanahashi was still The Ace though. So instead, he would be called upon once again to defend the promotion’s honour on the grand stage.

2010

Tanahashi

At Wrestle Kingdom IV, while Nakamura would main event the annual Dome extravaganza defending the future existence of the IWGP Strap, our Ace Tanahashi would go one on one with another legend, Go Shiozaki. A match that on paper could have been another semi-main event, both men were arguably the future for their respective promotions. In the end Shiozaki proved dangerous, fantastic in quick exchanges and matched The Ace’s strength (plus his moonsault was absolutely, bloody beautiful).

However he simply didn’t have enough answers to Tana’s signature moves, after the two had worn each other down Shiozaki got caught by a Slingblade and was never back in the match.

Two Hi Fly Flo’s later and Hiroshi Tanahashi was walking out with yet another Tokyo Dome victory against an outside talent. A reputation was being built, on the biggest stage he’d once again showed so much heart and fire in defending New Japan’s honour.

As did Nakamura, who stepped up to the dance and assured the legacy of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship would go on. While Nakamura prospered, defeating New Japan Cup winner Hirooki Goto, Tanahashi would begin to struggle somewhat, being surprisingly eliminated in the second round by a rising wrestler named Tetsuya Naito.

And then May hit. Wrestling Dontaku 2010, Tanahashi once again was hit by a surprise loss, this time bested by Nakamura’s second man Toru Yano. Since his injury The Ace was simply struggling to establish a run of momentum, and wasn’t unable to reach his previous heights. However in the main event, the landscape took a sudden shift after Nakamura’s title reign came to a surprise end when he lost out to his bitter rival Togi Makabe.

In reality, the shift was only just beginning. A legend had returned and by this time next year, one hell of a dark force of a stable would be running through New Japan.

Tanahashi

The G1 Climax Final for 2010,Tanahashi was drawn in Block A and, going in to the final day, it had come down to him and IWGP Heavyweight Champion Togi Makabe. Level on points, this would decide the Block.

The Unchained Gorilla had been a constant in the G1 these past few years, now he was champion on top of that as well. But Tanahashi’s agility was once again too much for the big man. He was wise to the Hi Fly Flo, to the repeated attempts of the Slingblade, however a quick roll up with a bridge completely caught him off guard and Makabe once again fell to the Ace.

Also on the night everything opened up for the other Block, after Nakamura had a belter against Go Shiozaki that ended in a 30 minute time limit draw. Allowing Satoshi Kojima, wrestling in the tournament as a freelancer who had specifically returned to wrestle in the G1, to slide in and take that spot in the final.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan crowd were fully behind the returned veteran Kojima, but Tanahashi didn’t let that get to him as he once again put on an incredible display of fighting spirit. Constantly coming back, kicking out and refusing to stay down. But he was aided by one factor: Kojima’s injured right arm. The reason for his AJPW departure was the fact he needed surgery and they second guessed, this allowed him to compete in the G1 but it was at a cost.

Tanahashi was turned inside out flying backwards off the second rope after hell of a lariat from Kojima, later caught again by a quick Lariat to the back of the head and then a third time after the former AJPW man rebounded off the ropes with force. However every time Kojima was unable to get to the cover quick enough and every subsequent Lariat, although devastating to Tanahashi, was doing more and more damage to his own arm.

Kojima went for a final swing, but Tanahashi ducked and rebounded off the ropes for a Slingblade. When he was caught by a wild Lariat of Kojima! Tana was out! 1, 2, 3 and the crowd were on their feet, cheering in shock that Satoshi Kojima had actually won.

Even more shockingly, in October Kojima then went on to defeat Makabe for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship! Marking an incredible return, but that fan support would not last forever. Kojima hadn’t forgotten a certain night 5 years past

In December, IWGP Heavyweight Champion Satoshi Kojima founded a faction that at the beginning was named Kojima Office. First he was joined by a young lion returning from excursion in Mexico called TAICHI, then later that month by two more, one by the name of TAKA Michinoku, the other Nosawa Rongai. If you’re a fan of modern day NJPW you’ll know exactly where this is going.

Right, so it’s time for a little context on Kojima.

In 2002 he left NJPW for AJPW and he’d pretty much become THE guy in wrestling for that time period. A key part however is he is best friends with Hiroyoshi Tenzan, with the two still teaming on New Japan shows to this day. However back in 2005, when his friend was IWGP Heavyweight Champion and he himself held AJPW’s Triple Crown Championship, the had a match with the stipulation of winner takes all.

The story is that the match was supposed to end in a 60 minute time limit draw, however Tenzan had immense back problems and 11 seconds before the bell he collapsed. You can even see Kojima desperately trying to get his friend to his feet as those final seconds flashed by, however Tenzan was just too big of a dude and the task impossible.

The bell sounded and Kojima was now a double champion, I’m putting it lightly but the NJPW wrestlers were PISSED. Nagata had a cheeky kick and then others tried to snatch the title off of Kojima as he stood on the apron. Perhaps in response to this, Kojima chucked the IWGP Heavyweight Championship back into the ring before making his exit. This immediately infuriated two wrestlers in particular: Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi, who ended up chasing the champion down the ramp. Possibly the two were thinking AJPW had just screwed them out of their title and that championship had just been publicly disrespected with it being thrown down to the mat.

So yeah, you could say there’s history between Tanahashi and Kojima.

After a tag match building to their Wrestle Kingdom bout, Kojima attacked Tanahashi from behind after the bell. Officially turning heel, he placed his foot on top of the ace and raised his title high as NJPW fans shouted at him to go back to AJPW. He threatened to do it, but it was an empty threat, he wanted to embarrass Tanahashi at his event. At Wrestle Kingdom Kojima was going to make a statement at the expense of NJPW’s Ace.

5 years later, Kojima once again stood holding the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, with his foot on top of NJPW’s downed Ace.

An outsider held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and it once again fell to Hiroshi Tanahashi to defend his Kingdom. However things were just getting started for the current champion. Shortly after Wrestle Kingdom, Kojima would officially rename his new stable, cementing the group’s new philosophy. They were soon to be known as ‘Kojima-Gun’.

2011

Tanahashi

Kojima and tanahashi had an amazing back and forth encounter in the Dome. An awesome counter turned Kojima’s Cutter attempt into a Slingblade, but shortly after a Lariat off the apron turned Tana inside out. Back and forth, equal, but Tanahashi had an idea. Constant Dragon Screw’s from Tana attempted to somewhat distil the Lariat. That didn’t stop Kojima from swinging though. So when Tana Ducks one Lariat, he ducks two Lariats, but the third catches! However it’s then delivered via the arm Tana had worked on and that split second of pain halted Kojima from getting to the pin quick enough.

Kojima waited for The Ace to get back to his feet and then rebounded off the ropes with yet another Lariat, however the champ fell to the ground in pain clutching his arm before leaning over for the cover. Tana kicked out at 2 yet again and Kojima was starting to worry, each one of these Lariats was causing more and more damage.

Kojima did not stop however, he constantly went for the Lariat again and again and Tanahashi started to counter, ducking the arm and lifting Kojima up into suplexes. The champion’s tunnel vision to hit that final Lariat blinded him and Tanahashi got back into the match. Finally hitting a Slingblade and two High Fly Flows, Tana made sure Kojima was not kicking out before going for that cover.

Tanahashi had defeated Satoshi Kojima for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, in what would become a record setting title reign, the fight had really only just begun. The previous record was 10 defences in one reign, Tanahashi would go on and swing for 11. An accomplishment that stood strong for 7 years.

Defence #1,
February, The New Beginning

vs Satoshi Kojima

Tanahashi

In his new bright white gear, Tana embraced his new position as Ace of the Universe. Kojima went in with a game plan however, viciously targeting the neck. He delivered a string of stiff DDT’s, with Tana rolling about and clutching the back of his neck as the doctor checked on him after each one.

A hell of a test for Tanahashi’s first defence, an opponent so driven and remorselessly zoning in on his weak spot. He was not just a champion though, Tana was also now the Ace, if possible creating an even bigger target on his back. Everyone steps up when they face THE champion, not wanting to miss their swing at the king.

However once again Kojima was simply too reliant on the Lariat, with Tanahashi utilising what he’d learnt from his Sensei and nailing multiple Dragon Screws to the arm. This lead to a very similar end to the month prior, with Kojima unable to cover Tanahashi quickly enough. Eventually the champion was able to nail his mighty Slingblade and Hi Fly Flo combo for the win.

Like Tanahashi’s reign in 2009, it was with the second defence that he really started to make his mark and get the ball rolling.

Defence #2
April, New Dimension

vs Yuji Nagata

Tanahashi

For the first time Tanahashi walked out to defend his title whilst strumming an air guitar and took New Japan Cup Winner Nagata. Nagata had learned from their past matches, when the Ace went for the standing Hi Fly Flo he caught the man mid-air with a good ol’ stiff knee to the gut. Quite possibly the most even and back and forth match of the lot between these two, with Nagata coming within milliseconds of beating the Ace.

In the end Tanahashi was once again able to wear out his opponent enough to hit the Hi Fly Flo, but it was yet another gruelling 30+ minute contest between these two. This was a benchmark Tanahashi wanted to set, that if you were going to contest the champ you were going to have to seriously bring your absolute best.

In that vein, Tana didn’t wait for his next opponent to be announced, after the match calling out Shinsuke Nakamura who had been watching from the front row. The CHAOS leader without hesitation got into the ring and laid down his challenge, at Wrestling Dontaku, the very show where he lost to Makabe a year prior, he was coming for his title.

Quick note: May 3rd, Kojima lost to Togi Makabe. After the match Minoru Suzuki made his surprise return and chocked out the former champion, with TAICHI and Michinoku both proclaiming him as their new leader. Kojima-Gun was no more, Suzuki-Gun was born.

Defence #3
May, Wrestling Dontaku

vs Shinsuke Nakamura

Tanahashi

A sense of familiarity. Tanahashi targeted Nakamura’s leg, attempting to weaken the effects of the BOMAYE, whilst the King of Strong Style stuck to his plan of working the neck. The challenger knew Tana so well that he didn’t change his game plan once, in spite of the damage inflicted by the champion. All Nakamura had to do was keep targeting the Ace’s neck, a weak point that arguably didn’t even need the BOMAYE to be at full force to end the match.

However that’s where the familiarity came in, in Nakamura’s game plan, after all the work he still had to hit the running knee strike. Tanahashi was on form dodging and countering causing Nakamura to take a step back and think of new ways to wear the champ down even more. But this is Tanahashi we’re on about, with a newfound strength of will since taking on the accolade of The Ace. Eventually the challenger became desperate.

It looked like Tana had the match, after on awesome sequence Tana reversed Nakamura’s armbar counter into a Dragon Suplex and left the challenger in the perfect place for the Hi Fly Flo. But when he launched off of the top rope Nakamura caught him with a straight closed fist, the crowd booed as the challenger jumped to the second rope to capitalise with a jumping BOMAYE. Unfortunately for Nakkers, Karma’s a bitch. Tanahashi caught him mid-air with a dropkick and rapidly followed up with two Hi Fly Flo’s for the win.

Tanahashi had once again shown the kind of form where if anyone were to stand any chance of dethroning him, they’d had to have the perfect match. No errors, no frustration, Tana was just too good. That didn’t stop challengers from immediately stepping up to contest the crown however, as straight after the air guitar solo to delight the crowd, Hirooki Goto was in the ring looking the champ in the eye.

Tana told the challenger to get out the ring and let him celebrate, allow him his moment with the crowd to end the show. Goto didn’t budge. Instead he delivered a stiff as hell headbutt that grounded the champion. Message sent I guess, he’s a blunt fellow that Hirooki.

Quick note: before the two met at Dominion, Tanahashi travelled to the West for NJPW’s first ever US tour. With his fourth successful IWGP Championship defence taking place in New York against none other than Charlie Haas. The Ace returned to Japan faced with one hell of a test, in comparison the former WWE superstar was like a warm up.

Defence #5
June, Dominion

vs Hirooki Goto

Tanahashi

Goto once again absolutely brought it to Tanahashi. The challenger kept on fighting way longer than he had in previous attempts against the ace, fighting back any urge of losing focus. However eventually that reared its head once again, Tana just simply kept kicking out no matter what Goto threw at him, eventually leading to him pounding the mat with his fist in frustration. Goto was becoming someone who would give it his all but continuously fall just short, that frustration ended up costing him the match.

Tanahashi once again came back, hit the Slingblade, followed up with two Hi Fly Flows and that was all she wrote. Another fantastic match between these two that had the crowd jumping out their seats, but the Ace had once again shown why is worthy of that moniker.

Which was when the next challenger walked out, a pattern was emerging that aspect, the other wrestlers weren’t simply waiting for their opportunity. The tag team of Bad Intentions (Karl Anderson & Giant Bernard) stepped through the ropes decked in tag team gold. Giant Bernard layed down a challenge, the next belt he wanted was the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

5 years had passed since their first championship match opposite each other, since then both men had earned a lot of respect, although Bernard’s was more often fighting in the tag team division at this point. Tana accepted, with one condition, “You want my belt, I want your belt.” And his partner for this tag match? The Ace didn’t even flinch, he looked to his opponent who was exhausted in the corner and in a huge showing of respect he named Goto as his fellow challenger.

They didn’t win, but the bonding of respect between the two was on display. However Bernard won via scoring a pinfall on the IWGP Heavyweight Champ himself, a statement had been made: Tanahashi can be beaten.

Defence #6
July, New Japan SOUL

vs Giant Bernard

Tanahashi

The tag champion really went at Tana with confidence, the tag win seemed to have invigorated something inside the American. Half way through the match the big man even became the one controlling the match and dictating the pace, after slamming Tana back first on top of a barricade completely took the champ out of the match.

For the first time in this reign, the champion genuinely felt like he was in trouble. His greater fighting spirit found since becoming the ace had gotten him so far, but Bernard was something else. Tana would to have to be the one show will to fight back through the pain and frustration of not being able to keep the tattooed giant down. And it was Bernard’s strength that countered the Ace’s agility, with the champ slower than usual the American was able to catch him and slam him down smashing all the wind out of him.

Whenever Tanahashi had built momentum, it took simply one move from the tag champ to ground him. Perfectly shown when Tana attempted to jump on Bernard on the outside, missed, and was instead lifted up into a Powerbomb onto the apron! The challenger was not he to play, really the only reason he was possibly unable to get the win was the work to the leg Tana had done early in the match. The big moves took it out of Bernard and come the latter half of the match he was slow to cover, but Tanahashi was still in trouble, unable to really keep the American down for long.

And Giant Bernard seemed to have done it! Tanahashi was out of it after the future Lord Tensai nailed a Helter Skelter, so the big man went in for the kill. With all the damage to the champ’s back this was surely it, Bernard lifted the Ace up and slammed him down hard with a Sit Down Last Ride. 1, 2, somehow Tanahashi kicked out! Bernard couldn’t believe it, how? He was out! The crowd were jumping up in shock as well, how was the Ace still in this?

This was a special kind of fortitude being shown by the champion. The crowd showing their support with resounding chants of, “Tanahashi! Tanahashi!”

This amped up the Ace of the Universe, with Bernard unfocused he got back in and immediately nailed a Slingblade. Then jumped to the top rope, hit the two Hi Fly Flows and Bernard kicked out! As I said, Bernard was truly something else. So Tana went back to his roots, digging deep and nailing a Dragon Suplex with a bridge finally earning his victory.

A hell of a fight for the Ace, in his efforts Bernard had earned the champion’s respect and shown the fight really could be taken to the champ. After the match Tanahashi pleaded the big man back to the ring, before he could say anything Bernard snatched the mic and said, “Tanahashi, ichiban,” and shook the hand of the champion. He had come close, shown that the champion could be dominated, matched his will, but it was still not enough.

Giant Bernard had proven the champion could be beaten though, a factor that would come into play during 2011’s G1 Climax.

On the first night of the G1, Yuji Nagata beat Tanahashi and the tournament started off with a bang. Tana’s G1 went exactly how people believed it would, building to a big Tanahashi vs Nakamura final, well that was until a huge shock in the final round. Tetsuya Naito had had an amazing G1 and rocked the Ryogoku with a monster upset over the Ace, with the Stardust Genius scoring a surprise pinfall in just 5 minutes! Naito made his first final with that win placing him ahead of the heavily favoured Ace.

The other block came down to the two top heel factions, CHAOS vs Suzuki-Gun, Shinsuke Nakamura vs Minoru Suzuki. The King of Strong Style won and seemingly had Naito’s number relatively easily in the final, he was having a damn strong year and took the G1 crown, ready to once again step up to the Ace.

Defence #7
September, G1 Climax Special

vs Shinsuke Nakamura

Tanahashi

Come September there was a different aura about Nakamura, a certain charisma, a swagger, a now familiar fancy red leather jacket.

It quickly became one hell of match, with both men so familiar with each other, they knew exactly where to damage and the contest became who could follow up after hitting their biggest moves. Tana working Nakamura’s knee, Nakkers working Tanahashi’s neck.

This led to Nakamura eventually locking in a Dragon sleeper and following up with a BOMAYE to the groggy champion. He couldn’t follow up however, the damage to the knee was too much, so the King of Strong Style waited until The Ace got back to his knees to deliver a second strike. The BOMAYE was blocked by Tana’s hands! The champ shook them in pain, but he was back in! Well, he was until his Hi Fly Flow attempt was met with jumping double knees.

Nakamura’s patience evaporated and he started aggressively striking Tana’s head and neck with stiff knees and kicks. He then struck the Ace with a straight up closed fist before signalling for another BOMAYE, as the crowd booed the CHAOS leader’s actions. The frustration was showing, Nakamura had already made his mistake.

Tana dodged Nakker’s knee strike attempt, then reversed an attempt to hit the Landslide into a Slingblade. Then a second Slingblade! Kickout. Tana hit a perfect Dragon Suplex, but the challenger was not giving up and somehow kicked out milliseconds before the three. The champion knew his opponent well though, without hesitation he jumped up and hit two Hi Fly Flows before rolling the King of Strong Style up for the win.

In all that Tana had lost a front tooth, a sign of how tough this battle was!

One mistake, a single mental slip, that’s all it took. With the kind of form Tanahashi was in, the opponent’s game would have to be sheer perfection in order to break him.

Defence #8
October, Destruction

vs Tetsuya Naito

Tanahashi

After his amazing showing in the G1, in which he had beaten Tanahashi, come October Tetsuya Naito was awarded an opportunity for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship itself. In the exact same arena the challenger had bested Tanahashi two months prior, the rising star stepped up and gave Tanahashi one hell of a fight. Arguably the first man to truly match the champion’s athleticism.

Lots of close pinfalls, Tana was on his back for a lot of the final portion of the match, but Naito just didn’t have enough to put him away. In the end, Tana showed his own athleticism countering a Samoan Drop off of the top rope into a Slingblade. Naito scored more close falls, but the frustration seemed to kick in after that. And as we know, that small mental break is the one thing that has cracked many who have had their try and the Ace.

Tanahashi once again was able to ground Naito, hit two Hi Fly Flows and secure his 8th successful IWGP Heavyweight Championship defence. Was there anyone strong enough of mind to take down this incredible champion at the peak of his game?

Nagata walked out to challenge the champ, but before Tana could accept dirty heel Yano whacked him over the back with a steel chair. Nagata had his legitimate reasons to challenge the champion, but he’d have to wait whilst the champ taught this idiot a lesson.

Defence #9
November, Power Struggle

vs Toru Yano

Tanahashi

Well, if anyone was known for experience in the ‘mind games’ department. Plenty of outside brawling, but this was a test that Tanahashi would have been embarrassed to fail. A completely different kind of task in front of the champion.

Yano quickly turned the contest into more of a brawl, with him taking Tana to the outside to try and gain the upper hand. However, for the entire match it felt like Yano was doing that because he knew in a straight up match Tanahashi would easily finish him off. But a severely worn down Tanahashi? Possibly not.

In actuality, with the form the champion was in Yano would have to have done a lot more damage than he did before trying to win the match. After getting back into the ring, Tanahashi fought for momentum and slowly got back into the match. Yano could wear down The Ace, but to actually win he needed to beat the man in the ring and the scales were not tipped in the CHAOS man’s favour when that eventually happened.

Yano scored some 2 counts, but Tana was never really in danger. He eventually nailed the Slingblade and Hi Fly Flo combo for the win. Now with business taken care of, he could finally take on that defence against Yuji Nagata. The challenger was not going to take this match lightly given the circumstances.

Defence #10
December, New Japan Alive

vs Yuji Nagata

Tanahashi

The second defence against Blue Justice during this record setting reign. However it was Yuji Nagata’s record number of defences Tanahashi was breaking, to make it to Wrestle Kingdom for that 11th defence, he’d have to beat the very man set that record of 10 defences just shy of a decade years earlier.

Now the dynamic of veteran versus Ace, Tanahashi had to really dig deep to best the man desperately trying to defend his own accomplishments and legacy. Nagata had a look in his eyes, a crazed gaze as he saw Tanahashi struggling to his feet. Maybe in this moment the challenger was a little naïve, he looked to toy and make the champion prove himself worthy.

Tana stood up to the task. His mouth all bloody and his body knackered, covered in sweat, Tanahashi fought back with a succession of suplexes. He matched Nagata’s strikes, turning them into exchanges. Whenever the challenger knocked the wind out of him, the champion got right back on his feet.

Eventually the momentum swung and Tanahashi was the man scoring the near falls, eventually nailing the Slingblade and Hi Fly Flo combo for the win. He’d once again proved himself against a respected peer, proving himself and breaking Nagata’s 10 defence record.

After the match out walked none other than Suzuki-Gun leader Minoru Suzuki, over the course of the year the faction had become the #1 heel stable in NJPW. Now they were coming for New Japan’s top crown, losing here could have major ramifications were Suzuki-Gun to have that much momentum at the top of card.

The Ace initially shrugged off the challenge, but taking down a villainous group that looked to somewhat hold the promotion’s top championships hostage would send one hell of a message, Tanahashi simply could not let that happen.

Once again he was called to defend New Japan Pro Wrestling, this time against Japanese wrestling and MMA legend Minoru Suzuki..

2012

Defence #11
January 4th, Wrestle Kingdom V

vs Minoru Suzuki

Tanahashi

Suzuki was smiling on his way down to the ring, that’s never a good sign.

The challenger appeared none too impressed with the Ace of the Universe’s flashy entrance, pulling faces as Tanahashi air guitared his way through the fire and flames of the stage pyro.

Arguably this was Suzuki’s first mistake, for come the ring of the bell Tanahashi was a champion as serious as anybody. Over the course of his reign he had shown that the fight within him was something truly special. On such form that one foot wrong immediately ended any challenger’s hopes of becoming the king.

That said, Suzuki dominated large portions of this match, at one point dragging Tanahashi up the ramp in a Dragon Sleeper. Even feeling audacious enough to try and hit a Gotch Style Piledriver on said entrance way! Tana broke free, but Suzuki’s intent to truly hurt the champion was on display. The Suzuki-Gun leader had no interest in honour, he was going to win no matter what route he’d have to take.

This also brought out the fight in Tanahashi early in order for him to get back into the match, the champion was exhausting more energy than the challenger who only had to simply hit one move to immediately regain control. So the Ace starting hitting bigger moves to keep Suzuki down, which somewhat worked. After hitting a Dragon Screw Leg Whip sending his opponent to the outside, Tana climbed to the top and launched flew to the outside with a Hi Fly Flo, flattening the challenger.

However that took so much out of The Ace that just getting his opponent back to the ring took enough out of him for Suzuki to get right back in control. The pattern was just continuing, the champion was exhausting more energy whilst the challenger was hitting one or two tactical strikes to immediately bring him back crashing down. Tanahashi needed to be able to follow through with more offence if he was to finish Suzuki off.

Tanahashi

That didn’t come in time though and Suzuki was able to hit the Gotch Style Piledriver! If it were anyone other than Tana, the match would have been over there and then. But for Tana, it was time to catch Suzuki with those sequences of moves. He hit a string of suplexes ending in his former finisher of the Dragon Suplex, Suzuki kicked out but Tanahashi wasn’t hesitating. He immediately jumped to the top rope for the Hi Fly Flow, however his opponent kicked out again!

Tanahashi was drained, what was he to do? He was hitting these moves in hopeful bursts more out of the will of momentum! Suzuki seemed to know that and wasn’t going to let his momentum slip away so easily, but neither was Tana. Both men started striking each other, with Tanahashi going for the Slingblade as soon as Suzuki seemed rocked. However Suzuki countered into a Dragon Sleeper, he was not allowing that momentum to slip. As I said earlier, neither was Tana. The champ reversed Suzuki’s Sleeper reversal into another Slingblade and had the challenger grounded!

Tanahashi may have been exhausted, but this was it, this was his chance. He pulled himself to the top rope and splashed down with the Hi Fly Flow, then right back to the top for a second. 1, 2, 3! Tana had done it, the Era of The Ace would go on! In the process officially breaking the title defences record with 11 successful retentions.

Hiroshi Tanahashi now stood at the top of NJPW, not just for now but historically as well. The undisputed Ace, the man who had held the company up on his back in its darkest hour and saved it from the brink of death. Getting it in position at the start of the decade to expand and eventually become the clear second biggest promotion in the world.

The night was not over, however. After match, a former Young Lion who had just returned from excursion was about to make a hell of an audacious challenge. The man now donned ‘The Rainmaker’, Kazuchika Okada walked out and challenged Tanahashi. The crowd were not exactly taken by the young man, to put it politely his return match earlier in night was not great. Tana was of a similar line of thinking, responding with, “You are a long way from being IWGP worthy.”

However in press conferences The Ace would accept this rookie’s challenge, sticking to his point that despite Gedo’s plaudits, Okada hadn’t really accomplished anything yet. So Tanahashi, saviour of New Japan, the IWGP champion, the Ace of the Universe, he was going to teach this kid a lesson.

Or so he thought.

……..

Thanks for reading this second monster of a column! A special thank you for all the kind words and amazing comments, messages, tweets. Really helped motivate me during this busy holiday period! Again, hopefully it shows just how much effort went into this, I’m ready for a good long sleep till January 4th!

Two things, what to know what happens next? I’ve already written it! It picks up right where this column dropped off, with Okada’s audacious challenge to The Ace.

Imp’s NJPW Adventure – Wrestle Kingdom 12’s Main Event: Okada vs Naito Part 1: Story of the Champion Kazuchika Okada

The switch of character perspective is fitting. However, I am planning a third and final Tanahashi column, feel it doesn’t really work without knowing the outcome of January 4th again Omega though! So keep your eyes peeled for that dropping at some point.

Also, there were multiple requests for an Ultimate Recommended Tanahashi Match List, well here you go! All are clickable links to said matches on NJPW World, all available and conveniently ready to watch with the click of a button.

Sign up to NJPW World HERE.

Becoming the Ace

Young Lion Tanahashi vs Young Lion Makabe (Fall In Black, 1999)
vs Hiroyoshi Tenzan (G1 Climax Final, 2004)
vs Shinsuke Nakamura (January 4th Tokyo Dome, Fighting Spirit 2005)
vs Katsuyori Shibata (January 5th Tokyo Dome, 2006)
vs Giant Bernard (NJPW Circuit – Turbulence, 2006)
vs Yuji Nagata (G1 Climax, 2007)
vs Yuji Nagata (Explosion, 2007)
vs Hirooki Goto (November 2007, Destruction)

Ace of the Universe

vs Shinsuke Nakamura (G1 Climax Semi Final, 2009)
vs Satoshi Kojima (G1 Climax Final, 2010)
vs Satoshi Kojima (Wrestle Kingdom V, 2011)
vs Hirooki Goto (Dominion, 2011)
vs Giant Bernard (SOUL, 2011)
vs Shinsuke Nakamura (G1 Climax Special, 2011)
vs Tetsuya Naito (Destruction, 2011)

Email Imp – theimplicationsyt@gmail.com

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