The trees are going up, the shopping is underway, and (if you want to do things the Japanese way) you’re making your order for a bucket of fried chicken and a strawberry shortcake. 2018 is nearly over, but when it comes to the show that never ends at New Japan Pro-Wrestling, eyes are on the future.
Yes, Wrestle Kingdom 13 is right around the corner. All eyes worldwide will be on the first card of 2019, which happens to be the last of an epoch. In Japan, years are counted in eras, with each era coinciding with the reign of a Japanese emperor. For 64 years from 1926 until 1989, Japan was in the Shōwa era, under emperor Hirohito. His son Akihito took over the throne on Hirohito’s January 1989 death, beginning the Heisei period. Akihito will abdicate the throne in spring 2019 however, making Wrestle Kingdom 13 the last Tokyo Dome event of the Heisei era. The history of pro wrestling in the Tokyo Dome exactly matches that of Heisei Japan.
Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kenny Omega will have an appropriate clash of ideologies and philosophies as they relate to the future of wrestling in the main event on January 4. A fitting close to the Heisei period in the Tokyo Dome. But what of its start?
On April 24, 1989, New Japan would promote Battle Satellite, the first pro wrestling event in the freshly constructed Tokyo Dome, and the first major event of the Heisei period. With stadium wrestling cards in Japan being quite rare in the years prior to the Dome’s completion, NJPW’s biggest event to date was seen as a huge promotional risk.
As it happened, the risk paid off. Tens of thousands of fans flooded the new structure to witness a tournament for the vacant IWGP championship, Russian Olympian Shota Chochishvili taking on Antonio Inoki in a no-rope, MMA style match, and two young stars in the show’s opener.
The tour leading up to Battle Satellite saw a single elimination ‘Young Tokyo Dome Cup’ tournament. Distinct from the later Young Lions’ Cup that took a round robin league format, this knockout cup took place over one week. Losers went home, while finalists would receive the prize of being the first wrestlers in a Tokyo Dome ring.
Among the future stars in the tournament were Akira Nogami, who would be a mainstay of the junior heavyweight division through the 1990s opposite the likes of Jushin Thunder Liger and El Samurai. Then there was Takayuki Iizuka, who nearly three decades, a name change to Takashi and a demented shift in attitude later, would team with Minoru Suzuki in the 2018 World Tag League. Making that landmark final though, were Naoki Sano and Hiro Saito.
At 28, Saito was comfortably under the 30-year age limit for the tournament, but was already a ten year veteran. Moving from high school judo to the New Japan dojo, he had debuted in 1978, but it was only now that he really arrived in the big time. With a strong showing in 1988’s Top of the Super Juniors (a precursor to today’s Best of the Super Juniors), a tournament that featured names like Owen Hart, Masakatsu Funaki and Hiroshi Hase, Saito proved he could hang with the best, and was becoming a serious contender.
Naoki Sano was four years Saito’s junior, and six years less experienced. Having entered the Dojo in 1984, Sano took the traditional Young Lion route to preliminary matches through 1985 and 1986. The next year he headed for a learning excursion to Ray Mendoza’s UWA, and would return with red tights, and a lucha tint to his martial arts background.
So it was that the first match in the Tokyo Dome was between a young veteran and a fiery up and comer. There was a clash in styles evident from the very start, Saito charging in with lumpy forearms and a snapping body slam before Sano fired back with a graceful drop kick and ‘tope suicida’ to the floor.
As Saito took over with a methodical bruising approach, including his trademark senton, he was unwilling to be outdone in the air. A missile dropkick sent Sano to the floor, and Saito attempted a tope suicida of his own. In this case though, the suicidal move was aptly named. Sano moved clear at the last second and Saito rocketed through the ropes, and over ringside mats to land with his head meeting the guardrail and his face meeting concrete.
Sano would follow with a devastating high cross to the floor. Back in ring, Saito would unleash all the power moves at his disposal on Sano, including a German suplex, Electric Chair and a powerbomb to the youngster, but a momentary hesitation, perhaps caused by his earlier head injury, allowed Sano to capitalize with a rollup.
After winning the Tokyo Dome Cup, Sano would go on to a heated rivalry with Jushin Thunder Liger, who had debuted on the same fateful April 24 night. A year later, he would leave New Japan, eventually finding himself in UWF-I, reunited in ring with Liger when the promotion famously invaded NJPW in 1995. Now 53, Sano still wrestles on the independent scene today.
As for Hiro Saito, his heavy hitting style made him ideal muscle for numerous rule breaking factions over the coming years. He’d spend the early part of the 1990s in the Blond Outlaws, before befriending Masahiro Chono and becoming a founder member of Chono’s Okami Gundan, nWo Japan and Team 2000. He still makes occasional appearances for New Japan, and has continued his history with the Tokyo Dome by entering the pre Wrestle Kingdom New Japan Rumble in recent years, as well as working with young up and comers in Lion’s Gate.
What memories will our modern day Gladiators create? Will Naito vanquish Jericho once and for all or will Jericho end his career as promised?
Will Omega defeat Tanahashi and retain his IWGP Heavy weight championship?
We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, you can relive nearly three decades of Tokyo Dome history in NJPW World right now! Let is know in the comments below what you felt was your favorite Tokyo Dome match of all time!