The Double Gold Dash is first and foremost in our thoughts as we head down the road to Wrestle Kingdom. Jay White, Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi and Kazuchika Okada will all compete on January 4 and 5 to determine the first ever double IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental champion.
In fact, this represents the first time that two championships under the purview of the International Wrestling Grand Prix will be at stake at once inside Japan’s most famous stadium. When it comes to other championships however, it’s a different story. The Tokyo Dome has long been home to the biggest matches in combat sports. That includes champion versus champion matches, with the following being the biggest so far in the history of the ‘Big Egg’.
March 21, 1991- NWA World Heavyweight Championship vs IWGP Heavyweight Championship- Ric Flair vs Tatsumi Fujinami
The IWGP Heavyweight Championship was relatively young in 1991, having been inaugurated in 1987, but Tatsumi Fujinami was nevertheless its 11th holder in under four years, and in the middle of his third reign as champion. With classic rival Riki Choshu, the fearsome Big Van Vader, and fearsome Russian import Salman Hashmikov in the mix, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship shifted hands eight times in the two years since NJPW’s 1989 Tokyo Dome debut alone, including the only run of three V0 reigns in championship history.
Vader brought a fearsome stability to the title heading into 1990, only stopped by Choshu. It was Fujinami who took the title from his old rival, starting a brief second reign; when Vader took the title once more in January, Fujinami would wrest it right back. Eager to lead NJPW into the 1990s in much the same way that Antonio Inoki had in the 80s, Fujinami wanted big matches against big match players. Ric Flair and the NWA World Heavyweight Championship fit that bill.
Flair’s appearance in the Tokyo Dome came as a relationship between NJPW and WCW solidified; one that would last through the entire decade. Flair was in the midst of his eighth NWA reign, after 1990 was dominated by his rivalry with Sting. Flair would try and fail to get in Sting’s head as he wrestled as the Black Scorpion toward the end of the year, but kicked off 1991 defeating his arch nemesis as himself, and carried his typical swagger into the Tokyo Dome.
Starrcade ’91 in Tokyo Dome had been built around the concept of America and Japan’s finest wrestlers tying up, and the main event was the absolute epitome of that idea. Fujinami and Flair were two masters of their field in their absolute primes in 1991, and the match was as competitive as the crowd was fervent. Mat mastery would eventually give away to rougher tactics however, both men spilling to the floor, and Flair bloodied by a guardrail outside.
Then, controversy. Referee Bill Alfonso, representing WCW, tried to get Flair and Fujinami into the ring as both brawled outside. Both champions listened to his commands, Fujinami following Flair in, with Alfonso in the rear. Flair charged at Fujinami, who ducked as the American referee went flying out of the ring.
Flair soon followed as Fujinami sent him tumbling over the top rope. As the NWA Champion tried to get back inside, the IWGP champ caught him with a suplex, and went for a cover. Back-up referee Tiger Hattori slid in to count the three, and the Tokyo Dome crowd exploded as Fujinami left with the NWA and IWGP Championships.
While Fujinami’s double title win was celebrated in Japan, the situation was different in the US. While Alfonso was incapacitated and unable to call the end of the match, he did see Flair tumble over the top rope right at his feet; under NWA rules of the time, a disqualification. Hattori’s three count would have been legal were this contested under NJPW/IWGP rules, but not in WCW/NWA’s. Fujinami’s NWA reign went unrecognized in the States, and he and Flair wrestled again to settle the issue back in the US, in Florida that May; a match Flair won to become undisputed NWA Champion, while Fujinami retained the IWGP.
January 4, 1992- IWGP Heavyweight vs Greatest 18 Championship- Tatsumi Fujinami vs Riki Choshu
Tatsumi Fujinami retained the IWGP Heavyweight Championship through the remainder of 1991, albeit with only two defences, both against the rising star of Masahiro Chono before and after his historic victory in the first G1 Climax. 1992 started with a new tradition, as NJPW started their year in the Tokyo Dome on January 4, which has happened every year since. Fujinami again sought to show his and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship’s dominance against an old rival and a new championship; the Greatest 18 Club Champion Riki Choshu.
The Greatest 18 Club was inaugurated in February 1991, to mark the 25th career anniversary for Antonio Inoki. Inoki was winding down his in-ring career, and re-purposed the World Martial Arts Championship that he had held for so long into a title that represented the greatest 18 figures of his career.
Joining Inoki himself in the club were then NJPW president and long time partner Seiji Sakaguchi, Muhammad Ali, Hulk Hogan, Strong Kobayashi, Verne Gagne, Bob Backlund, Hiro Matsuda, Bill Robinson, Willem Ruska, Stan Hansen, Andre the Giant, Johnny Valentine, Johnny Powers, Nick Bockwinkle, Johnny Valentine, Karl Gotch, Lou Thesz and, initially, Tiger Jeet Singh. When the original Greatest 18 Champion, and figure to represent the Inoki spirit going forward, was named as Riki Choshu, Singh acted with furious rage, and ultimately bloody defeat, on the same Tokyo night that Flair and Fujinami had their controversial bout. He’d be replaced in the Club by Dusty Rhodes, as Choshu continued to represent as its champion until January 4.
Fujinami and Choshu’s rivalry was approaching a decade in length by the time the two tied up on January 4; Choshu had said beforehand that the grand situation they found themselves in warranted this being the last time the two would meet (though this would turn out not to be the case). Both champions attempted to overpower their opponent, with Fujiwara gaining the upper hand with a top rope knee and piledriver to Choshu, but Choshu would not give in, or submit to a follow up Dragon Sleeper.
Eventually finding a gap in Fujinami’s offense to exploit, Choshu landed a pair of devastating backdrop suplexes, but couldn’t put the IWGP champion away. A barrage of Riki Lariats followed, Fujinami only being knocked off his feet -and pinned- by the third.
Both championships remained distinct under Choshu, who defended the IWGP Heavyweight title on its own against Scott Norton, Masahiro Chono and Super Strong Machine in the ensuing months. In August, he faced the demonic Great Muta, in a personal title situation in Fukuoka that demanded more skin in the game. Both championships were at stake in the match Muta won, before discarding the Grestest 18 title to ensure all focus went on the IWGP.
January 4, 1993- NWA World Heavyweight Championship vs IWGP Heavyweight Championship- Masahiro Chono vs The Great Muta
The Great Muta consigned the Greatest 18 Championship to history in August 1992, right as conversation in NJPW circled around another familiar title.
After Ric Flair defeated Tatsumi Fujinami in Florida to put paid to their Tokyo Dome controversy, yet more confusion circled around the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Flair jumped ship from WCW to rival WWF, officially rendering his championship vacant while still retaining the physical championship belt. In the ensuing Stateside drama, WCW inaugurated its separate WCW World Heavyweight Championship, while the position of NWA world’s champion remained vacant for close to a year.
In 1992 it was revived, with the new NWA Champion to be crowned on a fittingly global scale; the second G1 Climax. After a grueling single elimination tournament, Masahiro Chono would defeat Rick Rude to hold the title aloft. That was something the Great Muta couldn’t allow, as the two Dojo contemporaries were set to meet January 4 1993. The ’91 G1 final had seen Chono best Keiji Muto in a classical bout, but Chono couldn’t expect any measure of sportsmanship when facing Muto’s evil alter-ego of the Great Muta.
Chono extended a hand to the man behind the paint at the bell, only to see Muta spew green mist in clear response, and to give a clear indication of the style of match fans were about to witness. Chono would have the upper hand on the mat against Muta, but the dynamics of the bout changed dramatically when Chono was sent outside, Muta backing up down the long entrance ramp at the Tokyo Dome to gain a massive run-up on a lariat to the NWA Champion.
Now in control, Muta led with his signature dynamic offense, but missed a Moonsault leading to a Chono STF. After Muta made the ropes, the two exchanged some dangerous suplexes on the entrance ramp, before each showed just how well they knew the other; Chono getting a boot up to Muta on another Moonsault, Muta swatting aside the diving shoulder that had won Chono the G1 Climax and his NWA title in the first place. In the end, two Moonsaults from Muta brought both belts to his waist.
As was not the case with the Greatest 18 Championship, Muta was willing to hold and defend both IWGP and NWA Championships separately, but this situation didn’t last long. In March 1993, he lost the NWA World Heavyweight Championship to Barry Windham, who would in turn lose the title to a returning Ric Flair. Muta would hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for a total 400 day reign before Shinya Hashimoto took the title. It would be another decade before the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was in a double title scenario at the Tokyo Dome.
May 2, 2003- NWF Heavyweight Championship vs IWGP Heavyweight Championship- Yoshihiro Takayama vs Yuji Nagata
The early 2000s saw a period of great change, and challenge, for NJPW as stiff competition was faced both within pro-wrestling and outside of it; a boom in Mixed Martial Arts capturing the imagination of combat sports fans across Japan. In a difficult period, and one of great uncertainty, Yuji Nagata carried NJPW on his shoulders with pride and a great deal of strength. Defeating Tadao Yasuda in April 2002, Nagata’s second IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign would run to a then record 10 defences, the first of which being against Yoshihiro Takayama in the Tokyo Dome that May.
Nagata would continue to take on all comers, be they from the professional wrestling world, as with a 60 minute marathon effort against Masahiro Chono, hybrid fighters and wrestlers, as was the case with Takayama, Kazuyuki Fujita and Kazunari Murakami, or fighters new to the pro-wrestling arena, as when Nagata defeated Josh Barnett in the UFC alum’s first ever wrestling match on January 4, 2003.
That same night saw Yoshihiro Takayama seize the re-activated NWF Heavyweight Championship. Once the top heavyweight title in NJPW, the NWF Championship would be retired by Inoki in 1981. Then Inoki would argue that NJPW was pushing new boundaries worldwide and needed a championship governing body to reflect that, starting to build the framework of what would become the IWGP. With divergent styles proving competitive in NJPW though, Inoki would re-introduce the NWF Championship in 2002, as a title geared primarily to MMA fighters with a more rigid, grappling and strike based match framework.
The tournament came to an end on January 4 2003, with Takayama as its winner. A ideal model of the two sport mentality at the top of Japanese wrestling in the early 2000s, Takayama had emerged in UWFI and rose to prominence when UWFI and NJPW battled through the mid 1990s. From there, he would find himself not just wrestling, but fighting in a variety of rings, including the MMA battleground of PRIDE FC, where he quickly garnered legendary status. Takayama would quickly assert that he was the dominant champion in NJPW, and moved to challenge Nagata for his IWGP Championship in May’s Tokyo Dome event, one year removed from his loss.
Shortly after Takayama’s first meeting with Nagata in May 2002, he found himself against Don Frye in a PRIDE fight that instantly became famous for the barrage of brutal punches both men absorbed. Nagata/Takayama 2 had a very similar feel in the early going, with Takayama coming out on top.
Takayama was incredibly effective at using his size against more diminutive wrestlers, and this was the case with Nagata. Where the IWGP Heavyweight Champion was able to find an opening for a flash head kick knockout in 2002 however, none was forthcoming one year on. Nagata gave Takayama all he had, with some brutal shots, but the huge Takayama was too much, and an Everest German Suplex saw Takayama emerge with both titles.
Takayama had every right to declare himself the sole, most dominant champion in the game, but incredibly defended both titles separately, while keeping his MMA fight schedule open at the same time. Takayama rebuffed the IWGP Challenges of Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Masahiro Chono heading into a dominant G1 campaign, but one of his rare blemishes would be against Tenzan in the block phase. Tenzan would earn another shot at the gold and won on November 3 in the Yokohama Arena, as Takayama was left with only one title heading into the new year.
January 4, 2004- NWF Heavyweight Championship vs IWGP Heavyweight Championship- Yoshihiro Takayama vs Shinsuke Nakamura
Hiroyoshi Tenzan claimed his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship in November 2003, but he didn’t hold it long enough to make it to the Tokyo Dome. Mere weeks later, Shinsuke Nakamura, at just 23 years old, and with 15 months experience, became a Young Lion IWGP Champion with a Shining Triangle choke in Osaka.
Having been hand picked by Antonio Inoki as the ultimate cross sport prospect, Nakamura would hone his skills in the original LA Dojo, and back in Japan, participated in Ultimate Crush matches (fights contested under MMA rules that punctuated traditional pro-wrestling bouts on NJPW cards) through 2003 while also competing with the top pro-wrestlers of the era. Nakamura was the flag bearer of the Inoki-ist ideal, at a time where NJPW’s future direction seemed unclear; this new breed of dual sport athlete butted heads with the traditions, pageantry and style that saw New Japan on top of the mountain through the 1990s. In October 2003 in the Tokyo Dome, Nakamura teamed with Takayama, along with Bob Sapp, Kazuyuki Fujita and, on his return to pro-wrestling from MMA, Minoru Suzuki on Team Inoki for a ten man elimination match against top NJPW stars, including the soon to be IWGP Champion, Tenzan.
Team Inoki’s win in that match paved the way to a title shot for Nakamura in the wake of Tenzan’s victory, and for his eventual success. Yet regardless of style and affiliation, in Nakamura’s mind the greatest sport on Earth was professional wrestling. Nakamura sought to unify his freshly won IWGP championship with the NWF belt that Takayama still held, and bring solidarity to NJPW and pro-wrestling at large.
Nakamura was at a size and experience disadvantage against Takayama, but that wasn’t the only handicap the ‘Supernova’ had to deal with. His match in the Tokyo Dome came a mere four days after a K-1 fight against Alexey Ignashov, the damage of Ignashov’s knees being plainly visible in the huge black eye on the IWGP Champion.
While Nakamura gamely grabbed holds on Takayama early, a huge kick from the NWF Champion instantly changed the flow of the match. Nakamura’s offense would be fleeting at best as Takayama played with the younger man. Yet the future King of Strong Style’s submission instincts were still present. When Takayama delivered an Everest German, Nakamura had the wherewithal not only to kick out, but to navigate a double wrist lock that submitted Takayama and gave Nakamura double gold; still before his 24th birthday.
Nakamura’s feat was incredible, but so was the damage he incurred over a short timeframe in two sports. He would relinquish the unified IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the spring, and on his return he struggled and failed to wrest it from Bob Sapp. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship would have multiple winners through 2004 and 2005, but it was in 2006 that its holder would truly set and bear the standard for NJPW and professional wrestling at large: the Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Who leaves the Tokyo Dome on January 5 as dual IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Champion? Make sure, whether in person or live on NJPW World, you need to be a part of history!