All eyes are on the G1 Climax coming up, but with a little bit of relative down time before the tournament starts, it’s a perfect opportunity to browse the World archives. Every week we look back through history to give context to some interesting matches.
June 15, 1993: A Sinister Summit
New Japan wrestlers have a history of standing in American rings, often as a learning step on their path out of the Dojo and toward more global recognition when returning to Japan. Of all the names that underwent international excursions to America, though, none were more successful, or gained more notoriety than Keiji Muto.
Muto left NJPW to head to America in the late 1980s as a handsome blue chip prospect, but when wrestling in NWA rings, he fell under the spell of the Great Kabuki. Kabuki got his start in the original JWA promotion before his time in the 1970s in Japan was mainly spent in All rather than New Japan. It was in 1981 though where he made a move that gained him his notoriety, beginning to ply his trade in World Class in Texas, and gaining a sinister, poison mist spewing persona.
When Muto began working for Jim Crockett in 1988, without another ally to support him, Kabuki took the young star under his wing, and taught him the dark arts. Adopting Muto as if he were his son, Kabuki turned the handsome, young, smooth moving firebrand into a terrifying man with staccato, violent motions and potential for true evil; the Great Muta.
On Muto’s return to Japan in 1990, he was at emotional war with his former self, flitting between the adored Muto and the fearsome Muta. Muta was dark and frightening, but got the job done; in the Tokyo Dome in January 1993, Muta unified the NWA and IWGP Heavyweight Championships when he defeated Masahiro Chono. Yet this was in a period of flux and promotional warfare, and Muta would have to come to terms with wrestling his father figure.
New Japan had a new rival in the form of Genichiro Tenryu’s promotion WAR, and the straw that stirred the drink in the feud were the Heisei Ishingun. Headed by Shiro Koshinaka, it was a group comprised of both WAR and New Japan talent that played both ends of the battle. In May, Kabuki would wrestle Muta at a WAR event, a bloody battle that ended in disqualification.
Kabuki would get on the microphone after the match was thrown out and yell ‘My son! I will kill you!’ which brought us to the Nippon Budokan on June 15. What followed is not for the faint of heart.
June 17, 1996: Skydiving-J
The junior heavyweight wrestling boom, ignited by Jyushin Thunder Liger and contemporaries, would arguably reach its peak in 1996. The Super J Cup in 1994, and the inaugural Best of the Super Juniors that same year showed that junior heavyweights could impress thew world and fill buildings; moreover, junior heavyweight champions from around the world all wanted to show their worth on the grandest stage of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
This would lead to The Skydiving-J, a special event in the Nippon Budokan consisting of eight junior heavyweight singles matchups, all for different championships, from the British Commonwealth to the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championships. Later in the summer, these eight titles would be folded into one, as a tournament with all titles on the line would decide the holder of the first J-Crown.
In the meantime, one of the highlights of the Skydiving-J saw the UWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Championship defended by Shinjiro Otani against Kazushi Sakuraba. Before becoming a hall of fame level MMA competitor, Sakuraba’s roots were in pro wrestling, for UWFi. UWFi and NJPW were at loggerheads ever since the prior autumn, and that interpromotional war added another layer to what already promised to be a technical classic.
June 18, 1982: Tokusatsu Battle!
Professional wrestling’s appeal is often likened to that of superhero movies, comic books and anime. Superhuman athletes performing amazing feats of athleticism and fighting for justice and glory; many a Japanese child has been introduced to wrestling with the pitch of ‘it’s like a real-life ‘Ultraman’!’
Tiger Mask had exemplified the ‘real life manga hero’ since his debut, and had wowed fans, particularly younger in age, across Japan. No doubt one could imagine the arguments in playgrounds across the country over whether Tiger Mask was tougher than Ultraman and who would win if only they had a proper fight. In 1982, fans got the answer to that argument. Ultraman had actually performed extensively in Mexico before making his appearance here in Kuramae against Tiger Mask, lending a lucha libre feel to this WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship match.
June 19, 2016: ‘Assen na yo!’ ‘Bibin na yo!’
In the spring of 2015, Tetsuya Naito could do nothing right. Losing at Wrestle Kingdom, eliminated in the New Japan Cup and not receiving any support from fans, Naito decided to head to Mexico and radically change his career path.
After that change, and by the spring of 2016, Naito could do nothing wrong. He was indifferent to rules and officials, and spoke at length about what he felt were the shortcomings of the NJPW landscape. Yet the fans loved him, and deafeningly cheered him to his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship victory that April in Sumo Hall, even made possible as it was by SANADA’s debut and interference.
Okada would want a rematch against Naito, but received an on-brand reply of ‘tranquilo! Assen na yo!’. Okada was not about to just relax, and instead retorted ‘bibin na yo!’, suggesting Naito was running scared. Naito would accept the title rematch at Osaka, but for him, it would be a match not just against the Rainmaker, but the establishment that he felt wanted Okada to be a top star regardless of ability. Naito would demand that the rematch take place at Dominion, before an Osaka crowd that booed him so vociferously before he formed Los Ingobernables De Japon. ‘I haven’t changed since then’, Naito would say, ‘I just say out loud what I’ve kept quiet until now.’ He demanded that Osaka do the same, that they boo him just as they had before, making for an interesting and vocal crowd to witness a classic IWGP Championship match.
June 20, 2009: Aces High in Osaka
Seven years before Naito and Okada battled in the main event, Hiroshi Tanahashi was in much the same position as Okada was in 2016; a three time former IWGP Heavyweight Champion battling aman who had completed a long journey of his own to wrest his title from him. Manabu Nakanishi defeating Tanahashi in May for his first IWGP title was the high point of a career that was approaching twenty years for Nakanishi; while he had often come close to the gold, winning the G1 Climax in 1999 and challenging for the championship in the Tokyo Dome shortly after, he’d never been the man. His win was an emotional one, and saw Osaka cheering for the new champion. Tanahashi had suffered his losses in Osaka in the past, with a history he had to overcome if he wanted his title back.