A look back through history: The IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Part Four)
Following on from last week's part, we now move forward to the early 2000's where there were a lot of things going on with NJPW...
It's Monday, you know what that means...
It's time for another delve back into the history of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship! Last week when we left off, Hiroyoshi Tenzan was the Champion, having beaten Yoshihiro Takayama for the title.
We're moving into the early 2000's now and this is where things really started to pick up for NJPW. Along with new stars being made, there were Gaijin workers beginning to make bigger names for themselves within NJPW's ranks, as well as MMA fighters continuing to cross over and compete in the squared circle. We will also look today at the major controversial incident that led to the IWGP Heavyweight Title having to be remade into the current version that we know today!
Today's article will be really interesting, so let's get into it.
As alluded to last week, Tenzan's current reign as Champion would not be a particularly long one. In fact, it lasted just 36 days. Tenzan was scheduled to face a young and upcoming star at the Battle Final 2003 show, and at just 23 years old, a certain "King of Strong Style" would make history as the youngest ever IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
That's right, everyone's favourite artist, Shinsuke Nakamura, beat Hiroyoshi Tenzan for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship!
We all know the story of Shinsuke Nakamura. As a huge fan of him myself, I was absolutely blown away when he signed with NXT, and to watch him perform live just a few months later was just incredible. As in ring talents go, Nakamura is up there with the absolute finest. His strikes are believable, his psychology is crisp, and his knee strikes are brutal, just ask anyone who has been hit by one!
But he had to start somewhere, and in 2002 he did just that when he debuted in August of that year. Dubbed the "Super Rookie" due to his enormous potential, Nakamura made waves from the start, and as part of the "new Three Musketeers" with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata (a man who has never won the IWGP Heavyweight Title but absolutely should have!) the trio became regulars at the top of the card quite quickly.
In fact, Nakamura's IWGP Title victory against Tenzan at Battle Final was his first title win in NJPW, and indeed professional wrestling as a whole. To win the top title at any stage of your career is amazing, but to do it less than 18 months after your debut, and at just 23 years old, was remarkable. Nakamura would make a successful defence of the title, beating Yoshihiro Takayama in a match where the NWF Heavyweight Title was also on the line, before having to relinquish the title due to injuries.
Whilst his first reign as Champion would be a short one, it would not deter him. Nakamura's time with NJPW was incredibly successful. along with a further two IWGP Heavyweight Titles, Nakamura also held the record for most IWGP Intercontinental Championship reigns with five until he was surpassed by Tetsuya Naito just last year. Nakamura also won the IWGP Tag Team Titles with Hiroshi Tanahashi, and is a former holder of the IWGP Under 30 Openweight Championship (Although only he and Tanahashi ever won this title before it was quietly deactivated in 2006)
His list of accolades doesn't end there though. He won the G1 Climax in 2011, and the G1 Tag league with Masahiro Chono before that in 2006. After defeating AJ Styles at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in 2016 in a match that is still revered today, Nakamura gave notice of his intention to leave NJPW. Stamford had come calling!
Sami Zayn was the star of NXT in 2016, and as such was rightly on the verge of a main roster call up. Seemingly to give him a fitting send off, Sami was granted one more match in an NXT ring, against none other than the debuting "King of Strong Style" himself, Shinsuke Nakamura.
Now unless you have been living under a rock, you'll know that this match was one of the best matches ever seen on NXT TV. The two put on an absolute clinic of wrestling, with Nakamura coming out on top in an undoubted match of the year contender. It comes as no surprise, that by August of 2016, having debuted for NXT just five months previously, Nakamura won the NXT Championship from Samoa Joe. Nakamura would lose the title 91 days later back to Samoa Joe, but then regain it 14 days later during a tour of Japan (definitely some #shenanigans going on there!)
His second reign was quite a short one, as he would wind up losing the title to Bobby Roode on January 28th, 2017, but by this point he was on the cusp of the main roster, and in fact debuted on Smackdown! just a short while later.
Accompanied to the ring by his own personal violinist, Nakamura made a huge impact, he went on to win that years Royal Rumble, setting up a hugely anticipated WWE Championship match with AJ Styles at Wrestlemania! Sadly, the match didn't hit the heights expected of it, whether that was because of high expectations due to their previous match ups or due to WWE's watered-down style is anyone's guess, but either way, Nakamura did not leave with the gold that night.
He has had success in WWE, though. With Intercontinental, United States and Tag Team Championship wins, he appears to be on the up again now, and we can only hope he re-emerges into the main event scene very soon.
On vacating the IWGP Title, it was next won by the man Nakamura beat for it initially, Hiroyoshi Tenzan. He won the title in a tournament on February 15th, 2003, but by March he had lost it to Kensuke Sasaki. Tenzan's second reign was just 26 days, but Sasaki's run after beating him was just 16 days!
Sasaki defended the title at Hyper Battle 2004 on March 28th, just 16 days after winning it, and he was on the losing end of a dominant performance by Bob Sapp.
Bob Sapp is an interesting case. In my opinion, he is more well known for his MMA career than his pro wrestling career, although he has been pretty successful in both. Sapp was a major star in Japan throughout his career, appearing in commercials and TV shows aplenty, but this did have an effect on his fight career, especially at the peak of his fame with K-1.
His trainer, Matt Hume once said:
"If he would have had time to dedicate to strict training, he would have been a better fighter, however K-1 and Bob's priority was media exposure, so we accepted it and worked with it."
He still had a pretty good MMA career though, with 12 career wins. But aside from The WWA World title in Korea, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship would be the only major title he would ever hold in professional wrestling. He didn't hold it for very long though.
He was scheduled to face former IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuyuki Fujita in an MMA fight for K-1 on May 22nd, 2004. On this night, Bob Sapp was comprehensively beaten by his Japanese counterpart, and as a result ten days later, he vacated the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Yet another tournament would be held to crown a new Champion, and as you may have guessed by now, Fujita won the tournament and the vacant title.
Over the next twelve months, the title changed hands five times (Kinda shooting to pieces my bold claim at the beginning of this series that the title was not "hot-shotted" about!) with Sasaki, Tenzan, Kojima and Fujita all picking up more reigns as Champion to add to their repertoires. However, October 8th, 2005 saw the title change hands for the sixth time in those 12 months, to a man we all know and loathe; Brock Lesnar.
I don't like Brock Lesnar. Never have, never will, and the incident we're about to go into only strengthens that dislike. However, it cannot be denied that Lesnar is a phenomenal athlete. The man has won titles wherever he has gone. UFC, WWE, Japan... Honestly, it is an impressive list of accomplishments.
An overall 8-time World Champion in WWE, Brock Lesnar was essentially coasting off of his early successes, using it to procure himself very substantial paydays in the biggest companies. After a short stint with the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL, Lesnar went back to where he knew he could make big money, and so he began working for Japanese companies. On arriving in NJPW, he would beat Fujita and Masahiro Chono in a three-way match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
All sounds great, doesn't it? Until you factor in that at the time, WWE were actively trying to stop him from defending the title and indeed wrestling for any company altogether due to a "no-compete" clause in his agreement to leave WWE previously. Under the terms of the agreement, he was not to wrestle for any other companies before 2010.
But, Lesnar being Lesnar, he challenged this and the two sides went back and forth with counterclaims against the other, eventually ending up agreeing to a settlement in April of 2006, with the whole case being dismissed in June.
So, with that all wrapped up in a nice tidy bow, Lesnar did the right thing and went back to Japan to work out how he would lose the title... No, sadly that isn't true. What actually happened is that Lesnar claimed he had not been paid correctly as promised and was keeping the belt until this was done. The claim of "visa issues" was also thrown around, but let's face it, we all know that is utter horseshit.
Image credit: SEScoops
So, Lesnar kept the belt, even though he was stripped of it on July 15th, 2007. He would eventually end up defending the title before being stripped of the title though, as he would face Kurt Angle at the first Inoki Genome Federation event on June 29th, where Kurt Angle would beat him to win the IWGP "3rd Belt" Championship, but more on that a little later.
Having stripped Brock Lesnar of the title, guess what NJPW did? Thats right! A tournament was held to crown a new Champion! And they didn't hang around, because just two days after Lesnar had been stripped of the title, Hiroshi Tanahashi became IWGP Heavyweight Champion for the first time.
If you're reading this article as an NJPW fan, I don't need to tell you who Tanahashi is. The man is quite simply Japanese Wrestling Royalty. But for those of you who may be reading this for the first time, Tanahashi is to NJPW what Cena is to WWE. He's their Golden Goose, their ticket to print money. Anything Tanahashi does is a big deal.
Starting out as mentioned earlier alongside Nakamura and Shibata, although he actually debuted in 1999, Tanahashi's first big success was defeating Kensuke Sasaki in under two minutes at the 2002 G1 Climax. From there he steadily climbed the ranks, but ironically what made him famous was something that happened outside the ring!
After trying to break up with a girl he was seeing, she went berserk and tried to Kill Tanahashi. He ended up hospitalised with stab wounds, and as his attacker was sentenced to four years' probation after admitting to attempted murder, intrigue began to build towards Tanahashi's return. His return took place on February 16th, 2003, to a sold-out Tokyo crowd in a match against Manabu Nakanishi.
Tanahashi's first title reign was a great one. In 270 days as Champion, he made four successful title defences against Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Shinsuke Nakaura, Taiyo Kea and Kanji Kanemoto before dropping the title to another former IWGP Heavyweight Champion in Yuji Nagata. Tanahashi would not be denied though, as he ended Nagata's reign 178 days later on October 8th, 2007, by becoming the Champion once again.
But what of the "3rd Belt", I hear you ask? Well, after Kurt Angle won it from Lesnar at the first IGF event, Kurt, being the straight stand-up guy that he is, did the right thing and faced the IWGP Heavyweight Champion in a unification match.... Eventually.
Image Credit: Twitter - @WrestlingIsKing
In actual fact, the belt kicked around on TNA Impact for a while, and was part of the "Winner Takes All" title match at Hard Justice 2007 between Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe, where all the titles were on the line (yes, all of them!).
By winning this, Kurt was the TNA Champion. Literally. He held all of the gold! But we're not interested in TNA gold in this article, it's all about that 3rd Belt. So, after having it with him on TNA for a while longer, Kurt eventually did the right thing and lost the title to the IWGP Heavyweight Champion on February 17th, 2008.
That man, bringing us full circle, was Shinsuke Nakamura...
Thank you once again for reading this week's article. Come back next week when we will go through the years 2008 to 2012. As ever please do leave your comments and feedback, all are greatly appreciated, and I'll see you next week!