Wrestle Review Wednesday: Ranking Hiroshi Tanahashi’s Wrestle Kingdom Matches

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New Japan Pro-Wrestling savior Hiroshi Tanahashi losing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship earlier this month to “Switchblade” Jay White felt like the final punctuation on one of the most important chapters in modern professional wrestling.

Tanahashi won his record eighth IWGP Heavyweight Championship in January at Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW’s flagship show, and an event for which Tanahashi’s been synonymous. He’s appeared on every WK card, and presumably has more in his future. But the 13th may well have been the final main-event billing for The Ace of the Universe at NJPW’s signature event.

In honor of this bittersweet moment, I rewatched all 13 of Tanahashi’s Wrestle Kingdom bouts.

13. “Switchblade” Jay White, Wrestle Kingdom 12

IWGP Intercontinental Championship

My Rating: 23/4*

Vignettes teased the arrival of a new character to New Japan for several months in the latter-half of 2017. New Zealand-born Jay White, who had been on excursion for the previous year, made his return sporting a very mid-2000s emo look. He targeted NJPW’s ace, certainly a declarative statement for the young talent, in a bit of foreshadowing.

White’s fleshed out the Switchblade persona nicely, but lacked the presence to believably stand against The Ace at Wrestle Kingdom. Their IWGP Intercontinental Championship bout at Wrestle Kingdom 12 was sandwiched between some of the best matches of 2018. Coupled with White having just re-debuted, and Tanahashi requiring some time off to heal from an arm injury, the title affair was stilted.

Tanahashi and White have wrestled one-on-one three times since, and each has been markedly improved from the Wrestle Kingdom 12 showdown. Their King of Pro Wrestling matchup from October of last year is arguably the best bout of White’s career.

12. Shinsuke Nakamura, Wrestle Kingdom 2

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 31/4*

Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura were practically destined to be main-event rivals. The two emerged as the promotion’s future around the same time in the mid-2000s, and Wrestle Kingdom 2 marked an occasion to clearly crown one at a pivotal juncture for the promotion.

Revisiting this match with hindsight is somewhat bewildering. Tanahashi wrestles as a heel, an anomalous occurrence in his career. Nakamura, who rose to fame as an eccentric, somewhat sleazy character in the 2010s, worked with a serious demeanor in the vein of NJPW predecessors like Tatsumi Fujinami or Antonio Inoki.

One reason for this: Tanahashi was leaving the promotion in 2008, while Nakamura remained committed in a bit of future role reversal. Nakamura having not yet found his natural character and Tanahashi wrestling out-of-character resulted in two performers who oftentimes got the best from each other producing a good but hardly memorable main event to the second Wrestle Kingdom.

11. Go Shiozaki, Wrestle Kingdom 4

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 4*

As you can deduce from the jump in rating at No. 11, the quality picks up from here on out. Wrestle Kingdom was originally born from collaborative efforts of different promotions around the world, like CMLL and TNA, but primarily for mutually struggling Japanese federations to share their top talent on supercards. Wrestle Kingdom 4 pit NJPW against Pro Wrestling NOAH, which just six months prior, experienced a downturn from which it’s never recovered.

NOAH takes its name from the exodus of talent Mitsuharu Misawa led from All Japan at the turn of the millennium. The new promotion became an immediate No. 1 in Japan, aided in part by the dark days Inoki’s worked-shoot philosophy ushered in for New Japan. But that’s selling NOAH short; the promotion likely would have taken the top spot all on its own due to the sheer volume of talent and outstanding feuds it booked.

2003 was NOAH’s best year, showcasing classics between Kenta Kobashi and Misawa, as well as Kobashi and Jun Akiyama. NOAH’s golden age extended into 2007, but in 2008, a rash of injuries repeatedly sidelined Kobashi. Then, in the summer of 2009, NOAH founder and cornerstone Misawa died in the ring during a tag-team match. His death began a scandal-plagued stretch for the promotion, with NOAH falling in debt to the Yakuza.

Also in 2009, Akiyama suffered serious injury. NOAH was forced to build new stars almost from scratch, which included the young Go Shiozaki. Shiozaki teamed with Misawa and thus became an obvious choice to carry his legacy after the legend’s death, and an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match was part of his quick push.

Shiozaki and Tanahashi have a pretty entertaining bout, though it’s clear Shiozaki was not quite up to Tana’s level at this juncture. Tanahashi was clearly being positioned as The Ace by this point, so a title loss to the still relatively new outsider wasn’t likely.

10. Keiji Mutoh, Wrestle Kingdom 3

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 41/4*

Name the most influential personalities of Japanese wrestling since the launch of standard-bearing promotions All Japan and New Japan 47 years ago, and Keiji Mutoh ranks somewhere in the top 3-to-5. For NJPW specifically, Mutoh carried unique clout as one of the promotion’s Three Musketeers. So, when Keiji Mutoh reportedly gave his endorsement of Tanahashi as the future of NJPW, the office had to listen.

Tanahashi left NJPW in 2008 to evaluate his options, which included a stint in TNA. He appeared there in 2006 and had a great match (albeit with a lousy finish) against A.J. Styles; that bout and Brock Lesnar’s recent signing provided the impetus for me to start seeking out New Japan. Tanahashi’s return to TNA could have, and should have, produced thrilling matches with the likes of Samoa Joe, Chris Daniels, even Kurt Angle or Sting. He instead worked mostly as filler for short X-Division matches.

T-N-A! T-N-A!

Anyway, Tanahashi came back to NJPW in late 2008 and challenged Mutoh at Wrestle Kingdom 3. Mutoh was still wrestling full-time in 2008/2009, but his managerial duties for All Japan and his age limited his in-ring ability. A match between orange trunks-wearing Mutoh circa 1991 and 2009 Tanahashi might have been the original 7-star bout. As it stands, Mutoh’s left to rely on spamming Shining Wizards, but the battle in between tells a significant story.

Tanahashi main-evented Wrestle Kingdom the previous year, sure, but this was the match that gave him main-event aura.

9. Minoru Suzuki, Wrestle Kingdom 6

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 41/2*

Villainous Minoru Suzuki made his name shoot-fighting in Pancrase before transitioning to wrestling in the early 2000s. His reputation as a legit bad-ass gave him instant credibility and an immediate push, resulting in his winning All Japan’s Triple Crown just three years into the business.

Suzuki dominated All Japan in the latter-half of the 2000s, which included a high-profile bout against NJPW mainstay Yuji Nagata at the inaugural Wrestle Kingdom. That’s a tremendous match available on NJPW World, and arguably the best on the first WK lineup. Five years later, Suzuki parted with AJPW and was then a New Japan regular.

Suzuki’s been at, or at least right next to the main-event scene of NJPW ever since, with his exile to NOAH a few years ago the lone exception. In that time, he’s had a number of outstanding matches against Tanahashi; this is one of them.

Tanahashi’s high-flying, fast-paced style clashes with the hard-hitting, violent and sometimes devious approach Suzuki employs. The two fight on the ramp early into the bout, and Suzuki takes control repeatedly with underhanded maneuvering before Tanahashi’s rally. At this point is when we start to see Tanahashi become Mr. Wrestle Kingdom; his entrance for this match comes with some serious pomp and circumstance.

A fun use of NJPW World is to watch the rematch between Tana and Suzuki nine months at King of Pro Wrestling, which is one of Tanahashi’s greatest bouts ever.

8. Tetsuya Naito, Wrestle Kingdom 11

IWGP Intercontinental Championship

My Rating: 43/4*

The trilogy of matches between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega became the talk of the wrestling world in 2017, but it wasn’t the only standout trifecta from that year. Tetsuya Naito evolved from a clearly Tanahashi-inspired babyface character in the early 2010s to a brash, anti-authority figure after failing in his quest to take Tana’s spot as ace.

Naito’s formation of Los Ingobernables de Japon eventually made him a fan favorite, but not before an Intercontinental title run as a heel. Tanahashi viewed Naito’s defacing and disrespect of the belt as disrespect of New Japan and stepped in to challenge. This came at the tail-end of 2016, a year in which Tanahashi lost the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to Okada at Wrestle Kingdom, then failed to claim the Intercontinental title against Kenny Omega after Nakamura vacated it.

By Wrestle Kingdom 11, the wear of years on top rendered the once-unbeatable Tanahashi vulnerable. Naito capitalized in the first of three outstanding matches that year, all of which helped to elevate the stature of Naito, and solidify his transition to fan favorite.

7. Kazuchika Okada, Wrestle Kingdom 9

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 43/4*

One of NJPW’s first efforts to expand its American appeal came with Wrestle Kingdom 9, aired live on PPV in the U.S. with English commentary. Legendary wrestling broadcaster Jim Ross provided the call, and in the build-up on his podcast, he compared Okada-Tanahashi to Rock-Austin.

That’s high praise. In particular, the allusions to Rock and Austin’s unforgettable Wrestlemania X-Seven bout work nicely for Wrestle Kingdom 9. Like Rock and Austin, who wrestled one-on-one several times from 1997 through 1999, Okada and Tanahashi weren’t facing for the first time at WK 9. It wasn’t even the first WK main event between the two; that occurred two years earlier, much in the same way Austin and Rock faced at Wrestlemania XV.

And, like Rock-Austin at X-Seven, the established ace of the company again reigned supreme.

This wasn’t the best Okada-Tanahashi in their long, illustrious rivalry — in fact, I’d slot it near the lower end. The two meet in three matches that were worthy of 5 stars just in 2018. Of course, when you put together two wrestlers capably of so routinely delivering A+ bouts, even something on the lower end of their rivalry is magic.

6. Taiyo Kea, Wrestle Kingdom

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 43/4*

The AJPW vs. NJPW theme for the inaugural Wrestle Kingdom included a showdown between a young Tanahashi, and AJPW veteran main-eventer Taiyo Kea.

The Hawaiian-born Taiyo Kea had only just won his first AJPW Triple Crown a few months prior to Wrestle Kingdom, but his star had been rising long before that. He wrestled Goldberg in August 2002, for example, and his Triple Crown reign was consummated with a defense against All Japan legend Toshiaki Kawada. Thus, this was a challenge for the up-and-coming Tanahashi to prove his worth.

Tanahashi won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in a tournament that summer, after Brock Lesnar peaced-out with the newly christened, third-generation IWGP Championship belt.

Tanahashi’s first reign needed to restore some credibility after Lesnar very publicly thumbed his nose at the title and promotion. This match with Taiyo Kea was a step in that direction.

Kea controls much of the match as the veteran. Tanahashi sells like Ricky Morton from the hard-hitting butt-kicking Taiyo Kea unleashes. That sets up an excellent, last-gasp kind of finish. This is a gem from a time when NJPW was collectively in the doldrums.

5. Shinsuke Nakamura, Wrestle Kingdom 8

IWGP Intercontinental Championship

My Rating: 5*

Six years after their Wrestle Kingdom 2 main event, rivals Tanahashi and Nakamura again occupied the spotlight to close the show. This is an important match for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is it provided the first spark for Naito’s career-defining heel turn. Naito was initially intended for the main event, winning G1 Climax 23 and challenging Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

However, a fan vote pushed the established stars and Intercontinental Championship into the main event. Thus began Naito’s bitterness. Meanwhile, Nakamura and Tanahashi delivered on an outstanding match — the second-best of their entire rivalry, behind only the epic G1 Climax 25 Final — showcasing the contrast in their characters.

Since their last WK main event, Tanahashi owned his role as The Ace of the Universe. Nakamura left behind his MMA-inspired roots and his stoic, Fujinami-like persona for that of the sleazy leader of the faction CHAOS. If Okada-Tanashi was Rock-Austin, this could be compared to Cena-Orton (only not terrible).

Nakamura’s NXT and WWE entrance is beloved, but his arrival to Wrestle Kingdom 8 really captures the essence of his heel character.

After the showy entrance, the two have an outstanding match worthy of any card’s main event.

4. Kazuchika Okada, Wrestle Kingdom 7

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 5*

As I stated with their Wrestle Kingdom 9 match, Okada and Tanahashi create magic when they’re in the ring together. The rivalry was new in 2013 at the time of their first WK showdown, having begun just 11 months prior at New Beginning.

There, a fresh-from-excursion Okada challenged Tanahashi and stunned The Ace to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Tanahashi understood by Wrestle Kingdom 7 that the young Okada was no slouch and needed to be taken seriously. The tenor of this bout reverses the roles from the previous year’s New Beginning, with Tanahashi coming out aggressive and Okada working somewhat arrogantly.

By the time Okada realizes all that’s at stake, Tanahashi is in control. The furious sprint to the finish is excellent, and this set the standard for the series — a standard they’d clear just three months later at Invasion Attack 2013.

3. Kenny Omega, Wrestle Kingdom 13

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 5*

Wrestle Kingdom 13 felt like the last ride for Tanahashi in the WK main event. If so, what a way to go out.

Although both occupied the main-event picture for three years leading up to WK 13, Tanahashi and Omega had surprisingly been separated since their IWGP Intercontinental Championship match of February 2016. That’s a good bout, but this one far exceeds it.

The build-up has an undeniable shoot quality to it, with Omega decrying Tanahashi upholding the “old” New Japan ways. Omega’s willingness to bend, even break rules, destined him to Change The World. There’s an undercurrent of genuine bitterness to Omega’s performance, starting with his entrance, and adding to the match. Whereas other outstanding Kenny Omega matches of the past two years simply felt like him attempting to live up to the nickname “Best Bout Machine,” this had an added dimension of competition to give a fight quality to it.

Tanahashi’s teasing of embracing the new way plays a central role.

2. Satoshi Kojima, Wrestle Kingdom 5

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 5*

Of every NJPW match from the Dark Ages — unofficially beginning with Lesnar’s title reign — until Bullet Club’s 2013 introduction kicked off a new era of prosperity, Tanahashi-Kojima may be the best. This is an underrated gem of the time, and among my very favorite Tanahashi matches ever.

Satoshi Kojima was a main-event player in AJPW, even leading an All Japan angle against NJPW in the mid-2000s that included an awesome match with Hiroyoshi Tenzan. Kojima quickly ascending to NJPW’s main event was an easy decision. His hard-hitting approach offers an intriguing juxtaposition to Tanahashi’s flashier offense.

The crowd’s absolutely electric for this main event; in my re-watches, this was the first Tanahashi match that seemed to elicit reactions truly on scale with cards the magnitude of Wrestle Kingdom. Bonus points for a young Taichi in Kojima’s corner, sporting a hair style that can be best described as Little Lord Fauntelroy meets Good Charlotte.

1. Kazuchika Okada, Wrestle Kingdom 10

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

My Rating: 5*

The apex of the Okada-Tanahashi feud, and the unofficially official passing-of-the-torch. Okada’s tearful exit from the ring after falling short at Wrestle Kingdom 9 set the stage for a rematch. Could Okada deliver on the biggest stage, at an event Tanahashi owned much of his career?

The hype packages show a confident Tanahashi air-guitaring with the G1 Climax-won briefcase. He’s lost to Okada previously, sure, but Tana owns Wrestle Kingdom. Okada’s a multiple-time champion, but is he ready to ascend to ace status?

For those familiar with the Misawa-Kobashi feud from All Japan in the ’90s, there’s a quality to this build similar. In-ring, the action lives up to that comparison. This is an excellent, dramatic match; professional wrestling at its very best.