With live action returning to NJPW World this Monday as we count down toward King of Pro Wrestling in Ryogoku, there’s a few days to catch our breath and take in some stunning matches from the NJPW World archives. Matches like the following, as we bounce back and forth from the 1970s to the 2010s:
September 29, 2013: Naito says NEVER again
In September 2013, Tetsuya Naito was dreaming big. Having grown up watching wrestling from the base line of the Tokyo Dome, the Stardust Genius had overcome a crushing knee injury to return to the ring and win the 2013 G1 Climax. He had a ticket to the main event in the Tokyo Dome on January 4 2014 (or so he thought), but it wasn’t just the IWGP heavyweight Championship he was looking for. Naito had unfinished business with the NEVER Openweight Championship.
Naito had a strong association with NEVER, a series of small scale events at the turn of the decade with a focus on furthering younger talent in NJPW. It was at the NEVER events that Naito and then No Limit partner Yujiro Takahashi gained a string following, with Naito in particular being stingly associated with the sub-brand.
Naito would outgrow the smaller stage of NEVER, and the brand itself would fade away. No Limit would break up when Yujiro turned his back on Naito, instead aligning himself with Masato Tanaka, forming the Complete Players. Naito would gain steam as a singles wrestler instead, but when he injured his knee during the 2012 G1, Takahashi would exacerbate the injury in the worst way, attacking his former partner until he had to be stretchered out of the building at King of Pro Wrestling and putting him on the shelf for months.
While Naito was away, NEVER was resurrected, this time as a championship rather than a brand. A single elimination tournament in the winter of 2012 saw Tanaka emerge as champion. The title associated with a brand Naito helped build was held by the man that his former partner stabbed in the back to join. On Naito’s return in July, Tanaka rebuffed his challenge, putting him on the back foot heading into the G1 Climax he would eventually win. Unfinished business for the Stardust Genius indeed, that led to a unique match in Kobe World Hall that year: NEVER versus Tokyo Dome rights, title for contract.
October 2, 1975: Red Doesn’t Draw Gold For Hollywood Blonds
Lots of teams over the years have wrestled under the name of the Hollywood Blonds, but the original bleached duo consisted of Jerry Brown and Buddy Roberts. Emerging to prominence under Bill Watts in the NWA Tri-State territory, the Blonds would be a hugely successful team, earning 20 tag championships over a seven year period from 1970 to ’77, before Roberts would become part of the Fabulous Freebirds at the end of the decade.
In 1975, the Blonds were at the peak of their efficacy, and brought a vicious and often bloody fight style to anyone they came across. In August that included NWA North American Tag Team Champions Antonio Inoki and Seiji Sakaguchi. Inoki and Sakaguchi had dominated with the titles since winning them a year prior, but in a two out of three falls scenario in LA, Roberts and Brown held them to a controversial draw. With the score in the match at one fall apiece, the referee lost control of the third fall and threw the match out.
Without a winner, the title was vacated rather than defaulting to the champions. A match was determined to claim the vacant titles in Aichi, but with Sakaguchi choosing to make good on a promise to one time rival turned ally Strong Kobayashi to team together against the Blonds rather than with Inoki. Without the established chemistry Sakaguchi had with Inoki, the Blonds took control of the match and of the tag team gold; ten days later in Osaka, Sakaguchi was back with the New Japan founder.
October 3, 2015: Will Ospreay’s Revolution
22 year old Will Ospreay was making waves in the British scene in 2015. The young Essex boy’s preternatural flying ability had drawn the attention of promoters across the country, and he became the centerpiece of Revolution Pro’s Cruiserweight division, holding its Cruiserweight title for the best part of a year between October 2014 and September 2015. Nevertheless, from a top flight experience level alone, Ospreay being put opposite Kazuchika Okada at Global Wars UK seemed like a shocking mismatch to many.
The result, a Rainmaker to Ospreay that saw the IWGP Heavyweight Champion with his hand raised, was not in doubt. That Ospreay acquitted himself with such ability, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been. Ospreay took Okada far, far closer to his limit than he would have liked, and came nail bitingly close to a victory with an OsCutter that Okada narrowly kicked out of.
yet there7s nothing that Okada enjoys more than competition. Seeing Okada’s immense ability, the Rainmaker handpicked the Aerial Assassin to join CHAOS in April 2016. The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and his ‘big brother’ Okada have dominated both weight classes in new japan ever since.
October 5, 1979: Inoki, Ruska collide in Korea
As Antonio Inoki was on top of the pro wrestling game throughout the decade, he showed his incredible flexibility in his diverse range of opponents and rivals. Men like Tiger Jeet Singh and Stan Hansen brought out Inoki’s capacity to brawl, but it was men like Olympic judoka Willem Ruska that brought out a more focused martial artist in Inoki, allowing him to label NJPW as the King of Sports, and himself as the king of the King.
Inoki first faced Ruska in February of 1976, a match that served as a warmup for Inoki on the way to his famous Budokan clash with Muhammad Ali. Three backdrop suplexes awarded Inoki a KO victory that night, but Ruska was always gunning for rematches. By the end of the year, Inoki had inaugurated the World Martial Arts Championship, and Ruska had an opportunity to challenge for the title, but fell short.
Ruska continued to wrestle in NJPW rings through the next few years, and sometimes found himself opposite Inoki in tags, but always under standard professional wrestling rules rather than the auspices of the Martial Arts title. The two would collide in Roland Bock’s European Catch tournament in November 1978, where Inoki again scooped victories in Germany, Belgium and Ruska’s native Holland, but in October 1979, in the unique environ of the Jangchung Gymnaisum in Seoul, they would have one more match; their last until Inoki announced his impending retirement 15 years later, and this time over the Martial Arts title that was now recognised by the WWF.
Since his title had come under New York authority in December 1978, Inoki had defended it against karate players, from the amateur toughman Mr. X to Left Hook Dayton. Facing a judoka in Dayton was a sharp change for Inoki, and the match came with little time to prepare; incredibly this South Korea match came the very day after Inoki defended his NWF title in a bloody Indian Deathmatch against Tiger Jeet Singh in Tokyo. The more focused and prepared Ruska seemed to have the edge going into this bout.