Wrestle Review Wednesday: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Savior of NJPW

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NJPWWorld.com English play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Kelly offered profound commentary on longtime New Japan star Hiroshi Tanahashi, following the Ace’s G1 Climax defeat of EVIL last Thursday:

“He’s the reason we’re sitting here today. There might not be a G1, there might not be a New Japan, were it not for Hiroshi Tanahashi carrying this company on his back and leading it out of its darkest period to now, this incredible renaissance, where we’re seen all around the globe.”

In the larger-than-life world of professional wrestling, rhetorical hyperbole is common vernacular. However, to attribute to Hiroshi Tanahashi the very existence of NJPW in 2018, an era when the promotion has grown to an undoubted No. 2 on the global landscape, raises a profound discussion. Certain factors suggest Tanahashi is the most important active wrestler in the world, and in the bigger picture, he may well rank among the single-most important to ever lace up wrestling boots.

Kevin Kelly’s commentary touches on the foundation of the former point. Tanahashi’s significance among currently active is self-evident in the meteoric, international rise of NJPW. The promotion sits today as the second-most prominent globally in terms of exposure and revenue.

NJPW owes its popularity to a cast of exciting talent, all with clearly defined characters and attributes that appeal to different sectors of the audience. While crediting the company’s boom entirely to a single performer does a disservice to the remarkable array of standout wrestlers on the NJPW roster, it’s fair to posit every main-event caliber leading the way in NJPW for the past half-decade owes a debt of gratitude to Hiroshi Tanahashi for elevating their own status.

G1 Climax concludes this weekend with a dramatic crescendo, featuring finals pitting Kazuchika Okada against Tanahashi in the A Block; and Kenny Omega against Kota Ibushi in the B Block, with reigning G1 Climax winner Tetsuya Naito following the result closely.

Even casual followers of NJPW need no introduction on the Okada-Tanahashi rivalry, a series spanning more than six years and producing some of the very best wrestling in the world during that time. More on that in a moment. In the meantime, we have the highly anticipated Omega-Ibushi bout.

The Golden Lovers have not faced each other in one-on-one competition since a 5-star classic in the DDT promotion six years ago. That alone is enough to pack their B Block showdown with intrigue, but Tanahashi played an important role in elevating both to main-event status in the much larger and more mainstream NJPW landscape.

Omega arrived in NJPW with fanfare, introduced as the Junior Heavyweight gun for Bullet Club. His outstanding ring work and charisma established Omega as a cornerstone of the division, but an exodus of talent out of Bullet Club (and NJPW in general) at the beginning of 2016 necessitated Omega becoming a cornerstone for the entire company in short order.

After his attack on WWE-bound A.J. Styles at New Year Dash 2016, wherein Omega anointed himself leader of Bullet Club, he was plugged into a program with Tanahashi. Squaring off with and defeating the Ace of the Universe for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship — vacated with Shinsuke Nakamura also headed to WWE — gave Kenny Omega instant main-event credibility.

Meanwhile, ultra-talented Kota Ibushi has had an on-again, off-again relationship with NJPW for the past half-decade. Last year’s G1 Climax and the 13 months since have been the most on for the Golden Star, and a vital stepping stone in establishing the longtime independent free spirit as a potential player in NJPW long-term was his Power Struggle 2017 Intercontinental Championship bout against Tanahashi.

In a rare reversal of roles — challengers typically lay down the gauntlet to champions in NJPW — Tanahashi called out Ibushi to set up the bout.

Ibushi may have lost, but the 5-star matchup against the face of New Japan helped solidify his place in the promotion’s ranks.

This weekend’s Omega-Ibushi match has heavy implications for Tetsuya Naito. With a win and Omega loss, Naito advances to the G1 Climax finals for a second consecutive time and third such appearance overall.

Naito reached the finals a year ago with a defeat of Tanahashi in a stellar bout that punctuated a trilogy between the two in 2017. Their fantastic matches for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 11 and Dominion added new dimensions to both their careers: For Hiroshi Tanahashi, the seeds of doubt in his ability to continue carrying NJPW after more than a decade were planted. For Naito, a clear separation from the current, wildly popular Tranquilo Naito and the previous Stardust Genius Naito was established.

It was in the latter persona Naito won his first G1 Climax five years ago, defeating — who else? — Hiroshi Tanahashi.

Naito was positioned then as the heir apparent to Tanahashi, working with a similar gimmick. His promo after the bout, in which he declared himself the company’s new star, doomed Naito’s main-event push from the outset.

There could be no Next Hiroshi Tanahashi; to reach true main-event status, he had to establish himself as his own Tetsuya Naito. Last year’s series underscored that transformation, in the process establishing the Los Ingobernables de Japon leader as a fan favorite and clear headliner.

Each of these feuds illustrate Tanahashi’s role as NJPW’s primary gatekeeper; the Final Boss, in video-game parlance, before one can claim headlining distinction. No single rivalry better illustrates that than Tanahashi and Okada, which adds a new chapter on Friday.

The two squared off at May’s Dontaku event, delivering a Match of the Year candidate that also functioned as a tangible passing-of-the-torch. Okada’s win gave him the IWGP title defense record, which Tanahashi himself previously held.

This crossing of paths has been the M.O. for these two every time they’ve faced since their first showdown in 2012. Each entry into the series takes different turns that illuminate the evolution of each, and every milestone along the way also denotes a step in the overall progression of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Before he commentated Wrestle Kingdom 9, Jim Ross compared Okada-Tanahashi to Rock-Austin. It’s an apt parallel; the veteran Stone Cold Steve Austin not only had a worthy adversary in The Rock, but a foil whose own rising star provided a catalyst for the evolution in Austin’s career.

Conversely, trying to best the much more experienced Austin forced the younger Rock to elevate his own game, relying not only on sheer athleticism, but becoming a more ring-savvy tactician.

Okada’s ascent has been crucial to the global expansion of NJPW. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Okada does not reach such heights without Hiroshi Tanahashi; and, without Okada as a flag-bearer, perhaps NJPW’s growth to No. 2 on the world scale does not come to fruition. 

Indeed, I revisited the various entries in the Okada-Tanahashi series this year, and the most jarring detail in watching these bouts — starting with New Beginning 2012 and ending at Wrestling Dontaku 2018 — is the size and scope of the backdrop. The audiences for their bouts grow in number, with an increasingly electric atmosphere emanating from the screen for each.

This weekend in the legendary Budokan Hall, which NJPW has not run since 2003, should only further amplify that energy, while also denoting yet another milestone.

NJPW’s last Budokan show — Crush 2003 — closed with a brief bout between young up-and-comer and converted MMA fighter Shinsuke Nakamura, and MMA fighter/wrestler Kazuyuki Fujita. Both reflected the shoot-fight aura NJPW founder and longtime face Antonio Inoki tried unsuccessfully to establish throughout the first half of the 2000s.

Crush drew just 8,500 fans, roughly 5,000 fewer than a Keiji Mutoh-Kensuke Sasaki-headlined card at Budokan only four years earlier. Two years after Crush signified a turning point in the trajectory of NJPW.

At this time, the current global No. 2 ran a distant second locally around this time to Mitsuhara Misawa’s Pro Wrestling NOAH. The loss of company mainstay Keiji Mutoh to All Japan in 2002, just as Inokism began to ramp up, may have even positioned the company third in Japan.

The dwindling attendance reflected quizzical booking decisions — like putting the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on Brock Lesnar in 2005. Though Lesnar brought WWE stardom, his taking the second-generation IWGP Championship belt hostage further embarrassed a company just sold out of bankruptcy.

Perhaps ironically, this was around the same time NJPW in general and Hiroshi Tanahashi specifically first came on my radar. Tanahashi arrived stateside for a handful of shows in part of a talent exchange agreement with TNA. He wrestled A.J. Styles and Roderick Strong, and immediately piqued my interest.

I had some knowledge of the Japanese scene at this time, albeit limited to Kazaa downloads of Pro Wrestling NOAH shows. Tanahashi excited me enough to add NJPW to my virus-risking file-share searches. I also kept tabs on the promotion through puroresuspirit.net, where in late 2006, I learned about the plans NJPW had to reestablish its Jan. 4 supershow with the title “Wrestle Kingdom.”

Tanahashi did not headline the inaugural Wrestle Kingdom — that honor went to a tag bout wherein legends Mutoh and Masahiro Chono gave a stamp of approval to Satoshi Kojima and Hiroyoshi Tenzan — but the future Ace did defend the IWGP Championship against All Japan representative, Teiyo Kea.

To watch that first Wrestle Kingdom now is even more staggering than revisting past Okada-Tanahashi matches; the sparse attendance in the Tokyo Dome demonstrates the dire state of NJPW in the mid-2000s. But it’s necessary to watch these shows throughout their history to truly understand the rise of NJPW, with Hiroshi Tanahashi as its ace.

His match against Nakamura at the second Wrestle Kingdom is a pivotal chapter in a series that, before Okada-Tanahashi, was the company’s flagship program. Being juxtaposed against the charismatic good guy Tanahashi led to the talented Nakamura shedding his uninteresting MMA character for a brash, somewhat bizarre persona that made him a hot commodity for industry-leading WWE.

By Wrestle Kingdom III, Tanahashi headlined the Tokyo Dome against Mutoh in an excellent match that left no doubt about who was to lead the promotion into the next decade.

Every venue since, from Korakuen Hall all the way to the Tokyo Dome, has attracted more fans since. NJPWWorld.com and the expansion to a global audience followed. All came on the back of Hiroshi Tanahashi.