A look back through history: The IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Part Five)

As we move towards the end of this series, Paul is back with the penultimate part of the IWGP Heavyweight title's history.

A look back through history: The IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Part Five)

It’s Monday, you know what that means…

Yes, it’s time for part five of the History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship!

I gave up my usual slot yesterday for Jason's monthly round up, which you can find here. When we left off, Shinsuke Nakamura had just defeated Kurt Angle to unify the IWGP 3rd Belt Title with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, making the title whole again following the controversy that Brock Lesnar caused.

In this part, I will be focusing on the years between 2008 and 2012, and during this time the title stayed on mostly the same group of guys, with a couple of others mixed in. So, let’s get into it.

After unifying the titles at Wrestle Kingdom II, Nakamura would hold the title for 114 days, making two defences of the title. The first was a win over Hiroshi Tanahashi, but in his second defence he lost to Keiji Mutoh, who became Champion for the fourth, and final, time. During his final reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Mutoh also won the AJPW Triple Crown Championship, solidifying his place as arguably Japan’s Champion. With successful defences against Manabu Nakanishi, Hirooki Goto, Togi Makabe, and Shinsuke Nakamura, Mutoh’s reign was a good one. All good things must come to an end though, and so it was on January 4th, 2009 at Wrestle Kingdom III, Mutoh was relieved of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship by Hiroshi Tanahashi.

This would be Tanahashi’s third reign, and while it was by no means a long one at 122 days, he still fit in some top-quality defences against Shinsuke Nakamura, Kurt Angle Hirooki Goto before surrendering the title on 6th May, 2009 to Manabu Nakanishi.

Nakanishi was a respected amateur wrestler before embarking on a career in the squared circle. He competed at 220lbs in Freestyle wrestling and placed fifth in his first ever tournament in Canada in 1987. His highest accolade in amateur wrestling was a Bronze medal in the Asian Championships in 1992 when he represented Japan. Soon after that same year, he debuted for NJPW.

Whilst he competed in NJPW’s Super Grade Tag League that year, one could hardly call it a successful tournament. Although teamed with former IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Tatsumi Fujinami, they lost all but one match, and he spent the rest of 1992 in tag team matches before making his singles debut in 1993. By 1995 he had won the Young Lions Cup, and an excursion to WCW came calling.

In WCW, he wrestled under the name Kurasawa, and joined the Stud Stable, regularly teaming with Meng (there are so many stories about this man that it is incredible!)

His time in WCW was largely forgettable, and by September of 1996 he was back with NJPW. And boy did he return with a bang, forming the Bull Powers with Satoshi Kojima and rampaging through the tag team ranks before ripping the IWGP Tag Team Championships away from the formidable duo of Kensuke Sasaki and Riki Choshu. It would be the teams only tag team championship win, but it set the ball rolling for Nakanishi.

Over the coming years he won two more Tag Team Titles with Yuji Nagata and Takao Omori respectively, as well as winning the 1999 G1 Climax tournament, before finally landing the big one, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, in May 2009, nearly 17 years after his debut.

Unfortunately for Nakanishi, he suffered a serious spinal injury in 2011 which left him with temporary paralysis. He would be out of action for over a year before making a triumphant return on October 8th, 2012.  Less than a year later he challenged then NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, Rob Conway, for the title but was unsuccessful. His final title reign was as NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Champion in 2017 with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Ryusuke Taguchi.

After a career spanning three decades, Nakanishi finally called time on his career in early 2020, stating that “As a result of a neck injury, I haven't been able to wrestle to the level I wanted, and rather than drag things out, I wanted to draw a line in the sand.” Since then, he has began presenting his own TV show called Nakanishi Land where he cooks traditional Japanese food and plays sports.

His reign as Champion was transitional though, as just over a month later and in his first defence, he would lose the title back to Tanahashi, who would begin a fourth reign as champion. Unfortunately, this reign was curt abruptly short after Tanahashi fractured his eye socket, forcing him to vacate the title.

This of course facilitated the need of a new champion, only this time it seems that, shockingly, NJPW DID NOT hold a tournament to crown the new champion! Instead, the “King of Strong Style”, Shinsuke Nakamura fought and beat Togi Makabe to become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion for the third time.

This would be (to date) Nakamura’s final reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and he made it count in a 218-day reign with successful defences over Shinjiro Otani, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Yuji Nagata, Yoshihiro Takayama, Manabu Nakanishi, and Hirooki Goto before losing to the man he beat for the vacant title, Togi Makabe.

Born Shinya Makabe in September 1972, Makabe debuted in 1997 as a junior heavyweight. He wouldn’t win his first match until almost two years after his debut when he finally beat Yutaka Yoshie in singles competition. He does, however, hold the distinction of beating Hiroshi Tanahashi in his own debut match in 1999.

Makabe was a participant in the 2000 Super J-Cup, and although he was eliminated in the first round by Gran Hamada, he would then enter the Young Lion Cup, winning all his group matches and marching all the way to the final where he was beaten by Kenzo Suzuki. He didn’t stop there though as the following month he was back in tournament action in the Best of the Super Juniors, finishing 11th out of 12 competitors, before receiving his first title shot, as he teamed with the legendary Jushin Thunder Liger in a losing effort for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles.

From there he began to make a name for himself, and won his first IWGP Tag Team Championship with Toru Yano in February 2008. The duo would hold the titles for 322 days, dominating the division and beating a host of teams such as Giant Bernard and Tomko, Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Takashi Iizuka, Hirooki Goto and Shinsuke Nakamura, and Manabu Nakanishi and Yutaka Yoshie, before losing the titles to a certain couple of guys from DudleyVille…

After losing the Tag Team Titles, Makabe worked his way up through the ranks before eventually being granted a match for Nakamura’s IWGP Heavyweight Title, and he took full advantage by wrestling the title away from him at Wrestling Dontaku 2010 on 3rd May. From there he began a 161-day reign as Champion that saw him defeat Go Shiozaki, Shinsuke Nakamura and Masato Tanaka in successful title defences before losing Satoshi Kojima for his second reign on 11th October 2010. Makabe has never held the title again, but he has had two NEVER Openweight Title wins as well as a second Tag Team Title and a NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Title. Safe to say, he’s done pretty well.

Kojima’s second reign was an almost exact carbon copy of his first reign. His first reign lasted 83 days and had a single successful defence against Nakamura before losing the title to Hiroyoshi Tenzan. This time round, he held the title for 85 days, with a single successful defence against Shinsuke Nakamura again, only this time he lost the title to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom V.

Tanahashi was now in his fifth reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and at this point, his longest title reign has been 270 days, with four successful defences. Well, The Ace of the Universe smashed that record with his fifth reign, holding the title for an incredible 404 days, making eleven successful defences, which to date is his personal record run with the title.

His successful defences were against some of the biggest names in the sport. Satoshi Kojima, Yuji Nagata, Shinsuke Nakamura, Charlie Haas, Hirooki Goto, Giant Bernard, Tetsuya Naito, Toru Yano and Minoru Suzuki all fell at the mercy of the Ace in spirited battles against him for the title. But the man who ripped it from his grasp is a man we all know well, and he almost needs no introduction. Ig Tanahashi is Wrestling royalty, then this man is the successor to the throne.

I am talking, of course, about “The Rainmaker”, Kazuchika Okada!

Now, in case you have been living under a rock and do not know the name Kazuchika Okada, I strongly recommend two things;

  • Go to YouTube, or your video platform of choice, RIGHT NOW, and search for him. Go ahead, I’ll wait….

 

  • Have a serious talk with yourself and question your life choices up until this moment and ask yourself if you are truly a Professional Wrestling fan. Well? Are you?

 

All kidding aside, Okada is easily one of the most famous and prominent names in wrestling, not only in Japan, but the world over. The mere mention of his name conjures up memories of his incredible run of matches with current AEW World Champion Kenny Omega, or his record shattering 720-day reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion between June 2016 and June 2018 (but more on that later).

Furthermore, Okada has only won five championships so far in his career, but ALL of them are the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. That’s right, he has never won a tag team or mid card championship, but when you’re the Rainmaker, does that even matter?!

A winner of two G1 Climax tournaments in 2012 and 2014, as well as the New Japan Cup in 2013 and 2019, Okada is no stranger to singles success. And if his impressive hall of World Championships isn’t enough proof of that, just look at the sheer number of accolades he has amassed from Nikkan Sports, Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Tokyo Sports, not to mention Dave Meltzer blowing his load over him for the Wrestling Observer Newsletter on what feels like an almost daily basis. Okada is an absolute rock star in every sense of the word. He captivates a crowd, wows them with his in-ring intensity and is a genuinely great guy, as evidenced by the fact that he donates ¥30,000 (£200/$280) every time he wins a match to a charity he created in 2014 when members of his family were diagnosed with cancer, not to mention his ¥5million (£33,620/$46,825) donation to the Nippon Foundation’s Coronavirus Relief Fund at the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

Ok, that’s enough fan-girling over Okada, back to the facts…

Trained by Ultimo Dragon in 2004, Okada’s debut was against Negro Navarro, and he spent the next couple of years touring Mexico with Toryumon. In 2005, he wont the Young Dragons Cup, and in 2007, he graduated from Toryumon and joined NJPW.

2008 was his breakout year, moving up to heavyweight after recovering from an injury that kept him out for nearly nine months, he gained applause for his performances against the likes of Go Shiozaki and Takashi Sugiura in the NJPW v NOAH war. Despite losing matches to the top talent of the time such as Nakamura and Goto, he was getting over, and a talent excursion to TNA in 2010 was announced in order for him to experience a different style of wrestling and continue his wrestling education.

Well, Okada certainly learned some things while with TNA, but it’s hard to tell if they were good or not! Primarily used on Xplosion, as well as a minor role in the Samoa Joe/D’Angelo Dinero feud, Okada was mostly jobbed out, as he lost matches to Doug Williams, Stevie Richards, and perhaps most embarrassingly, Rob Terry.

It was due to their treatment of Okada that NJPW ended their working agreement with TNA, although Okada himself has stated previously that he found his time there beneficial, stating that “he learned he needed more than just a good match—he needed a character. In Japanese professional wrestling, there is no character – it's fight, fight, fight", but TNA's agents kept telling him that he needed a character, and he created the "Rainmaker" persona upon his return to NJPW.

After winning his first IWGP Heavyweight Title, Okada would hold the title for 125 days, with successful defences against Tetsuya Naito and Hirooki Goto. But at NJPW Dominion on 16th June 2012, he would lose the title, as “The Ace of the Universe” would rise again…

Thank you for joining me for part five of the History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Next week, we will bring us right up to date to the current day, as there have been some very exciting developments with this title in the last week, so be sure to come back for the finale of this series.

As always, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and now Patreon. Feel free to leave us comments with your thoughts and feedback, and I will see you all next week!