Monster: The incredible career of Manabu Nakanishi

Manabu Nakanishi ends a 27 year career on February 22.

At a press conference in January, Manabu Nakanishi announced his intentions to retire in Korakuen Hall on February 22, bringing an end to a career spanning over 27 years. NJPW fans have been entertained for years by the hard hitting ‘Yajin’ (country boy) with a big breakfast appetite, and new upcoming talent have benefited no end from the wisdom he has imparted. That wisdom is backed up with a championship resume, international renown, and Nakanishi’s own special spot in NJPW history.

Nakanishi first hit the wrestling mat at age 15 and would become a four time All Japanese through his time at university. After graduation, he entered the Tokon Club, an NJPW affiliated amateur wrestling club similar to the Bushiroad Club that exists today, and in 1992 would represent Japan at the Barcelona Olympics. Wrestling freestyle at 100kg, the Olympics was the culmination of a ten year journey in the amateur ranks for Nakanishi; he wanted to turn pro, and did so with New Japan Pro-Wrestling.

Nakanishi would be instantly branded a ‘super rookie’; taken under the wing of Tatsumi Fujinami, he would debut with The Dragon in the second Super Grade Tag League, an alternate when Fujinami’s planned partner Big Van Vader suffered a knee injury.  The two would even secure a win in the league over WCW representatives Jim Neidhart and Tom Zenk. 

It wasn’t plain sailing for Nakanishi in this phase of his career however. Though clearly a standout, he was part of an incredibly competitive generation. In 1994, this meant despite only dropping a single match in his league campaign, he lost out on the Young Lion Cup to Satoshi Kojima, a disappointment compounded that summer when a defeat to Yoshiaki Yatsu meant he was unable to qualify for the G1 Climax. 

In 1995 however, he would defeat fellow student amateur and future tag championship partner Yuji Nagata to lift the Young Lion Cup on his third attempt. Both Nagata and Nakanishi would embark on excursion to WCW, with the huge country boy’s easy charisma connecting with  American fans and fellow wrestlers alike during his time in the States. While disappointment lingered from his 1994 Young Lion Cup defeat, Nakanishi had size, strength and an affable nature in common with Satoshi Kojima, making them a popular tag team on his return. On May 3 1997, the Bull Powers performed a seemingly impossible task by defeating the formidable teacher and student team of Kensuke Sasaki and Riki Choshu to become IWGP Tag Team Champions. 

The next year, Kojima would leave Nakanishi to shockingly join nWo Japan, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan, with whom he’d form a record setting tag team. Nakanishi would reunite with Yuji Nagata, and the two would make an unstoppable force that would hold tag gold for just shy of a full year from August 1999 through to July 2000. Yet it was as a singles wrestler that Nakanishi had even more success at the close of the 90s. The 1999 G1 Climax saw Nakanishi not only victorious, but also defeat IWGP Heavyweight Champion, nWo Japan’s own Keiji Muto, in the process. That led to Nakanishi having the distinction of a main event position in the last Tokyo Dome card of the millennium.

Despite a relentless offense of spears and Argentine backbreakers, Nakanishi would fall short in his challenge to Muto. Yet Nakanishi had never been more popular. His no-nonsense, hard hitting style and explosive ability made him beloved by audiences around Japan. In the wake of Final Dome ’99, a match was made with another electrifying hard hitter at the peak of his own popularity, for January 4 2000: Bill Goldberg.

Unfortunately a hand injury to Goldberg resulted in last minute changes to the card, Nakanishi instead wrestling a giant ‘super rookie’ in his own mould, Kenzo Suzuki, in Suzuki’s debut instead. The match represented the very model of Nakanishi’s career; a staunch NJPW loyalist working the very hardest to bring the best out of anyone in the cerulean blue.

Nakanishi was willing to represent New Japan against all comers, from nWo to WCW to the world of mixed martial arts; as evidenced in October 2002 where The Spiral event saw him wrestle Bob Sapp in one of his most memorable bouts. Sapp, who had gone from American football to a breakout marital arts career, was unarguably the biggest celebrity in Japan at the time, and declared himself the ‘Real Beast’ compared to Nakanishi’s status as ‘Country Beast’. Nakanishi would come up short via countout, but had his gigantic foe in trouble on several occasions. 

Nakanishi had proved to NJPW’s faithful that he could step up to defend New Japan pride at any time, much as he would in 2005 against another gigantic outside force in Brock Lesnar. ‘If an outsider underestimates (NJPW) then that means they underestimate all of Japan,’ Nakanishi would say of the match. ‘He came in with an attitude, but got real quiet after he faced me’.

As Nakanishi fought on for NJPW, its richest prize would elude him. Manabu Nakanishi would challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on numerous occasions through the 2000s, but after coming heart wrenchingly close, would fail to seize the gold each time, most memorably in March 2003, where he wrestled close friend Yuji Nagata to a 60 minute draw over the title. 

Yet Nakanishi remained ‘constantly ready’ to take on any opportunity that came his way. That opportunity came on May 6 2009. A Korakuen Hall double header followed Fukuoka’s Wrestling Dontaku that year, on cards highlighted by Kota Ibushi’s NJPW debut and stars from CMLL, including Mistico who was set to be part of a match with IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi. Yet amid concerns over the bird flu pandemic, the CMLL stars were not able to make the trip to Japan, the main event on May 6 becoming a friendly special single match between Tanahashi and Nakanishi instead. 

Then, after a hard fought defence against Hirooki Goto in Fukuoka, confidence got the better of Tanahashi. The Ace declared that the special single match would now be for the IWGP title. Nakanishi vowed to, for once, not think about company or fans, but instead ‘do it for me’, and attack the already compromised neck of Tanahashi. With a huge German Suplex, he scored the shocking win, with the Korakuen crowd erupting as they witnessed what is to this day the sole IWGP Heavyweight Championship change ever to take place in the famous Hall. 

Even in the midst of the greatest victory of his career, Nakanishi was modest to a fault. ‘I want to say something brash and showy, but this is only the first time I’ve ever been champion. I’ve missed out before. Now I’ve finally done it, I want to enjoy my time as champion’.  Nakanishi’s reign was short lived. In June at Dominion, a rematch with Tanahashi saw Nakanishi’s one and only title reign come to an end, but the Yajin had made an enduring mark on the history books. 

Nakanishi would remain in that ‘ready’ state through 2010 and into 2011, but just over two years after his title reign came to an end, disaster struck. A neck injury suffered in ring would put Nakanishi on the shelf for well over a year. Encouraged by Yuji Nagata and the rest of the third generation in particular, Nakanishi finally made an emotional return at King of Pro Wrestling in 2012, a comeback completed at Wrestle Kingdom 7 when he submitted Takashi Iizuka to defeat a CHAOS team that also included his opponent of a decade prior, Bob Sapp. 

On announcing his retirement in January 2020, Nakanishi would say that he was unable to compete at the same level after his return from injury, but the Yajin would nonetheless fight with power and pride for years to come. In singles matches against Yuji Nagata, his firm friend brought the competitive best out of Nakanishi, while as an opponent or partner of Young Lions, he brought a fire from NJPW’s newest prospects. 

Nakanishi will wrestle his 2737th and last match on February 22 2020. His years of service, and countless memorable moments are to be appreciated forever.