< Part One
The Insane Years: 2003-2006
Right… Part two as promised of the history of New Japan Pro Wrestling and this time a look into the years that where amongst the most crazy, turbulent and damaging to any company in Japanese wrestling history…
Let’s start off with a little fact….
Did you know that Hiroyoshi Tenzan has won the IWGP Title a total of four times which is second behind Kensuke Sasaki and Tastsumi Fujinami only Sasaki has made a total of 11 successful defences and Fujinami has made 13…
Tenzan in contrast has made only 2 in all of his four reigns and two of those four reigns also ended without any successful defences.
Hell one of the runs with the belt wasn’t even supposed to happen as in the semi-final of the tournament held in 2004 to decide who should become the champion after Shinsuke Nakamura had to vacate the title Tenzan accidentally knocked out Nagata who was supposed to win with a botch Moonsault press.
Welcome to New Japan Wrestling in the years 2003 to 2006, where the top title and as a result the fan base, credibility and almost the existence of the company itself where almost reduced to dust.
In the years between 2003 and 2006 there was a total of 15 different championship reigns, that is more then any other three year period of NJPW’s existence.
Here are the highlights…
- Tenzan loses to Shinsuke Nakamura in his first defence after finally capturing the IWGP title. Nakamura would be the youngest champion in the company’s history and won the gold due to his potential shoot fighting prowess.
- Nakamura unifies the IWGP title with Takayama’s NWF title… only for injuries suffered in a shoot fight a couple of weeks before the match to be worsened due to the punishment suffered against Takayama. As a result the title is vacated.
- Tenzan knocks out Nagata accidentally in the semi final of the tournament set up to decide the new champion. Nagata was supposed to go on to win the title and feud with Kensuke Sasaki but Tenzan took his place, losing the gold just over a month later.
- Sasaki loses the title 14 days later to Bob Sapp, the American Shoot fighter who is a celebrity in Japan not for his fight record but for his huge size. Sasaki’s reign was (and still is) the shortest in the titles history.
- Sapp loses to Fujita in a MMA match that takes place in PRIDE in an embarrassing and crushing manner. As a result Sapp refuses to work the next NJPW event and the title is vacated again.
- Fujita comes in and wins the title in a decision match against Tanahashi. The reason given is that he defeated Sapp so he should be in the match. It is the third title reign in six months to be awarded due to the influence of MMA results.
- Fujita’s MMA schedule begins to hamper the time he can spend in the ring. NJPW want the title back but Fujita refuses to lose in a clean manner. As a result he would lose in the main event of a NJPW super show that place at the Sumo Hall against Sasaki by pinning himself whilst trapping Sasaki in a rear naked choke. The match lasted two minutes and twenty nine seconds.
- Tenzan would again win the gold after winning his second straight G-1 Climax… however he would lose again in his first defence against former tag partner and AJPW Triple Crown holder Kojima who becomes the first (and only) person to hold both the Triple Crown and IWGP title at the same time.
- Tenzan defeats Kojima in a rematch. Their first match went nearly an hour, this one on the other hand lasted under 20 minutes.
- Fujita returns to Japan again and defeats Tenzan, however in his first defence he would face Chono and Brock Lesnar in the first ever triple threat match for the title. Lesnar would pin Chono after the Verdict (F-5) meaning the champion wasn’t even pinned when he lost his title in his first ever defence.
- Lesnar refuses to tour but works special events. However when asked to put over Tanahashi and accept a pay cut as NJPW began to downsize Lesnar refuses. As a result NJPW did not send the visa required for Lesnar to continue to work for the company and as a result the title had to be vacated AGAIN. Lesnar also refuses to return the belt so the old generation IWGP title has to be brought out of retirement for use. Lesnar would use ‘his’ title as the ‘Inoki 3rd Generation Title’ and defend and lose the gold on the first card of the IGF promotion to none other then TNA and former WWE champion Kurt Angle a year later.
- Tanahashi wins a tournament in July 2006 to decide the new champion and would have the first reign that went on for a respectable length of time and with a good number of defences, it finally came to an end in April 2007.
Looking at that it easy to see just how many insane mistakes that the company made with it’s top title in these years of madness, none more so then the decision to place the title on Sapp and then to cave into Fujita’s demands in regards to how the title should be switched.
The debacle at the Sumo Hall where Fujita cost himself the match lead to the ring being barraged with rubbish, a near riot in disgust and a phenomenal drop in attendance and ratings. The knock on effects of this almost caused the company to close and only a buy out by YUKES (the company that make the Smackdown v RAW games for the WWE no less) and a change of management and booking along with the cull of several big names allowed the promotion to level out again.
As a result Yoshie, Nagai, Nishimura, Nagao, Naruse, Takayama, Suzuki, Sasaki, Black Tiger IV, Josh Bartnett, Takemura, Kakihara, Fujinami and Yasuda all left the company due to budget constraints or disagreements with the new management. Also near enough all members of staff that where left had to accept pay cuts in the 2007 contract re-negotiations.
Luckily the company is in a much safer place now and is beginning to grow again and re-earn the trust of its fan base. Solid title runs by Nagata and Tanahashi have steadied the top scene and the continued emergence of Nakamura, Hirooki Goto and Makabe have boosted the talent roster.
Also the junior heavyweight scene has continued to be the rock of the promotion with Liger, Kanemoto, Taguchi, Samurai, Tiger Mask (IV) along with Jado and Gedo providing a great backbone for good under card action and storylines as was the case during the mid nineties glory days.
It remains to be seen if the company can carry on using the existing talent base and talented younger generation to feed its rebirth and if it can once more pull a respectable number to the Dome where they once more promote a show in January. Also it remains to be seen if the working agreement with TNA will provide enough interest in the media, with the involvement of Kurt Angle and the stolen IWGP belt that Lesnar kept and lost to Angle the main storyline that all hope will provide a good spark in the press and public minds.
Needless to say after the past three years of decline the company and Japanese wrestling needs its second longest running active promotion to step back up to plate, learn from its mistakes and carry on earning back the good faith it spurned in years gone by, or of they don’t it could finally end male wrestling’s time as a sport worthy of interest in the Orient.
Here’s hoping for the best case scenario.
Till next time Puro Heads.