On October 13th 2014, Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated AJ Styles for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. In a grueling fight, he managed to beat Styles with his patented High Fly Flow and capture the most prestigious prize in Japanese wrestling for a record breaking 7th time. As he celebrated, Kazuchika Okada, the man who will challenge for his title at New Japan’s premier event of the year, Wrestle Kingdom IX, strode to the ring. The two went face to face, and a buzz rose from the 9,000 people clustered around them in Ryougoku Sumo Hall. For the 5th consecutive year, (and 7th out of 8,) the man known as the Ace of the Universe would fight for the biggest title, on the biggest show, for the biggest promotion in his homeland. For the 8th time, he would face Okada, the transcendent star that he made a household name. And for perhaps the final time, he would lead New Japan into uncharted territory, as the face of a wrestling revolution that seeks to take the United States by storm.
As both men posed for the audience, Tanahashi’s legion of fans drowned out the shouts from the Okada faithful, driving Okada from the ring. And that left Tanahashi alone in the ring at the end of the show for about the millionth time, posing with the title he rescued from obscurity, shining in the lights like a golden lion.
This is a story about Hiroshi Tanahashi but, just as importantly, it’s a story about the company that he helped to save. At the turn of the century when Tanahashi entered the company, New Japan was flying high. Their chief rival, All Japan Pro Wrestling, was in disarray following the death of Giant Baba and would soon split into two rival promotions. This left New Japan at the top of the heap with a collection of aging, beloved stars such as Keiji Mutoh, Masahiro Chono and Shinya Hashimoto. Everything seemed set up for a decade of dominance, except for just one problem. Antonio Inoki.
You have to understand, New Japan is a promotion that was built by Inoki’s hands and in his image. He was the founder, top star and promoter all through the 70s, 80s and into the 90s, and he was both a national hero and a veritable force of nature within the wrestling industry. Up until this point, he has seen almost nothing but success throughout his entire career, and was very seldomly questioned in what he wanted New Japan to be. It is thanks to this enormous respect that he was able to commit perhaps the most self destructive series of blunders in wrestling history. A philosophy of booking so unbelievably terrible that it drove him from his own company, and causes people to regard him as an eccentric and irrelevant old man to this day. That philosophy is known as “Inokism” and here is how it works:
Let’s say you have a hot, up and coming star. Let’s use Jack Swagger for this example, as he has legitimate grappling experience, as many Japanese pro wrestlers do. Now, in this hypothetical scenario, let’s say that MMA is at it’s very peak of popularity in the United States, so you decide that the best way to get Jack Swagger over as a credible fighter is to have him fight Cain Velasquez in an actual UFC fight with minimal preparation time, and no real training. Jack Swagger would have about 1 chance in 10 of winning that fight, and if he lost then everyone would think that wrestlers in general were weak losers who can’t fight for real. And yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.
Burgeoning star after burgeoning star was fed into the wood chipper of Inokism, and the results were truly miserable. Instead of proving the superiority of puroresu, as Inoki had striven to do all his life, he all but convinced his fans that wrestling was too fake to even be enjoyable. In an effort to combat this, Inoki began bringing in actual MMA fighters with extremely limited wrestling experience, and began pushing them to the moon over his trueborn stars. Not coincidentally, Hashimoto and Mutoh quickly jumped ship to other companies thanks to this, and Chono retreated further into his other passions, leaving Inoki’s roster of steroid filled MMA fighters as his only remaining stars. Then the MMA craze in Japan died, and with it the withering lie of Inokism and the era of fighting spirit, (for more on Inokism, skip to the end of this post for a special addition from our puro pal, DDT!)
The world of New Japan in 2005 was a barren one. After Inoki sold New Japan to a video game company and left his company in disgrace, there was an amazing amount of uncertainty about what New Japan’s future would hold. Attendance and sales of every sort dropped precipitously, mainstream interest in the product was at an all time low, and the entire promotion rested on the shoulders of a severely overtaxed Yuji Nagata. Taking stock of the roster, there were two shining points of light named Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura. The first was an athletic pretty boy and the second was a somber shoot fighter, and they just so happened to be teaming together in semi-obscurity. They were sent away to Mexico together on an excursion to prepare themselves for a dual main event push, and when they returned it was off to the races.
So why exactly is this article about how Hiroshi Tanhashi saved New Japan and not Shinsuke Nakamura? They were pushed to the sky at the same time, had roughly parallel careers, and are both synonymous with New Japan today. But where Nakamura was a youthful embodiment of the fighting spirit of New Japan’s past, Tanahashi’s style and theatrics dragged New Japan kicking and screaming into the future. After a few years of pushing both men, NJPW realized that Nakamura just wasn’t working as their top guy, and decided to put all of their eggs into Tanahashi’s basket and on January 4th, 2009 the new era of New Japan truly began when Tanahashi defeated Keiji Mutoh in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom III to solidify him as the face of the company.
In that moment, the philosophy of New Japan began to seriously shift to complement their new star. Production values rose across the board, talent began to be prized for charisma more than fighting credibility, and Jado and Gedo (who were great students of the American style of wrestling,) were handed the booking responsibilities and told to turn New Japan into something that would appeal to a new generation of fans. And they did just that by resting the company on Tanahashi’s shoulders and asking him to give performances that had never been seen before by Japanese audiences. With a style that seamlessly blended the best of puroresu, sports entertainment and lucha libre, and an adatable way of working face or heel depending on the crowd, Tanahashi quickly forged a reputation for delivering incredible main events against anyone and everyone who challenged for his IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
It took time. Many fans, in Japan and abroad, saw Tanahashi as a pretty boy at best, and the antithesis of New Japan’s principles at worst. It took a few years for the quality to outweigh the perception, but fan by fan, match by match, Tanahashi, and the booking of Jado and Gedo, changed the minds of fighting spirit fans, and sold them a new brand of Japanese wrestling that took their breath away. Every year that followed, the stature of New Japan raised notably around the world. Slowly but surely, fans across Japan, the United States and the other hotbeds began to take notice and began to buy into the hype.
Then Okada happened.
Built like a booker’s wet dream and with an unteachable physical charisma about him, Kazuchika Okada erupted onto the scene in New Japan by defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in what is still one of the most shocking upsets in Japanese wrestling history. Up until that point, many thought of him as a failed project. An immature pretty boy whose excursion to TNA had been a laughable disaster. His title win was met with shock and derision by fans worldwide. But something happened during that title reign. Okada grew with rapid leaps and bounds, maturing into something never before seen by Japanese audiences. And then the rematch happened. In one match, Tanahashi sold him as an utterly irresistible force, touching off the rivalry that would launch New Japan into millions of homes worldwide.
As Okada grew and developed more as a performer, he found himself confronted with Tanahashi again and again, resulting in some of the greatest matches of this era. In no time, Okada became an enormous draw of his own, allowing Tanahashi to personally travel the world to pass on the good word of the company that was built in his image, So Tanahashi became what he had to be. Main attraction, ambassador, merchandise shill, worldwide goodwill king, and shepherd to the young talent growing all around him. You can see why people compare him to John Cena.
After all of that, all of the ups and downs for New Japan, and after all of the fighting to drag New Japan into the sun; January 4th will be the grand finale for the Ace of the Universe. For the first time, New Japan will be available in the homes of fans in the United States, kicking open the door to a market that no Japanese company has ever successfully penetrated. The match Jado and Gedo have chosen to give us for many of our first true taste of New Japan action? Okada vs. Tanahashi.
Whether Tanahashi will be standing in the middle of the ring at the end of that night shining in the lights like the world’s most immaculately groomed lion or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Ace of the Universe took this battered piece of trash that he called home and bore it upwards into the stars with him. Remember, it’s not often than we get to watch a man create genuine history right in front of our eyes. So just do your grandkids a favor when you tune in this January, and keep your eyes on the golden lion before his spotlight goes out.
DDT: Inoki’s at-the-time-protege Naoya Ogawa, who won the Silver Medal for Judo in the Olympics, at the behest of Inoki (and reportedly others) took New Japan’s undisputed cash cow and began to shoot on him, beating the crap out of him. Hashimoto had no idea what was going on, and didn’t even think to defend himself until after he had been repeatedly legit-punched in the face. Needless to say, after less than seven minutes of that bullshit, one of the most anticipated matches on the biggest show of the year ended in a no contest, and fans were piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiised.
Riki Choshu, one of the other major players in New Japan at the time, (and dire opponent of Inoki-ism) rushed to the ring and slapped Ogawa right in the face; it almost erupted into a brawl between the two camps. Hashimoto, who’s whole image was the bad-ass who defended New Japan’s honor from foreigners and outsiders, was almost irrevocably ruined, salvaged only by the good will he had built with the fans towards this point, and he would leave the company two years later. Agreements were made, bridges were mended, and offenses forgiven, and thus began rush-booking to make it look like Ogawa was the new Hashimoto, beating him in a series of VERY good matches, including one that would lead to Hashimoto’s retirement (it didn’t take). Too little, too late; the fans were either offended, or had no interest in seeing a pretend fight when Ogawa clearly demonstrated he could beat the shit out of Hashimoto.
So Hashimoto was ruined, Ogawa’s career, which was incredibly promising, was stunted forever (Hashimoto apparently felt so bad for how things turned out that he invited Ogawa to work for him at Zero-1), and New Japan sells would suffer without a true top star for years; Choshu was happy to submit his own protege Kensuke Sasaki (who was a straight Riki Choshu clone that the fans did not want), and thus fans were caught between bullshit and more bullshit. Seriously, if the All Japan split never happened and Kawada never ‘invaded’ New Japan…I won’t say they wouldn’t have survived, but they certainly would have been in trouble. And all because, I shit you not, New Japan would not co-promote Inoki’s UFO kickboxing event.