A look back through History: The IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Part One)
Paul returns to his passion, Championships, this week, as he begins to explore the history of the prestigious IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
While writing my previous historical articles about arguably the two most important World Championships in professional wrestling history, a lot of the comments I got at the time were from people saying that they would enjoy reading a history of other titles too. And while this was certainly in my plans, I was conscious of putting myself in a box and being known as “the history guy”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted to be able to mix and match my articles, giving takes on both history and more modern-day wrestling, as well as exploring different scenarios.
The “What If” series is fun to write, allowing me to be more creative and to really dive in and explore different aspects of previous wrestling angles and moments, and I will be going back to it at some point. But the pull to write about another prestigious Championship’s history proved to be too strong, and so I decided to return to the historical articles for a little while.
The IWGP Heavyweight Championship is, to me, one of the most visually stunning Championships today, and in terms of prestige, it is certainly up there as one of the most desirable Championships to win. The list of people who have held it is a veritable who’s who of Japanese wrestling, as well as the elite (pun most certainly intended) of gaijin workers.
The design has changed a lot over the years. The original title was a very simple circular plate with several smaller circular side plates. It had several blue, white, and red gems adorning the main plate. The second design of the title debuted around 1996, with the main plate in the shape of an ornate golden crown. Whilst it looked fairly plain, it featured a domed globe at the top of the belt, with almost pinwheel shaped side plates.
The third belt was introduced around 2005 after the second belt was retired in honour of it's first holder, Shinya Hashimoto, who had passed away, and is well known for one certain reason, which we will of course get to. Its design is similar to the one we know now, only more streamlined and with larger lettering. It featured a winged eagle at the top and a circle of red gems in the middle. This belt also started to put the names of former champions onto the side plates. Today, we know the IWGP Heavyweight Title as possibly the most decorative belt there is. Its contrast of gold and platinum main plate with the side plates again containing the names of previous champions is sought after massively by collectors. They are widely available from belt makers, but to my knowledge, very few official replicas have been created. The current belt just oozes prestige and is possibly the only belt (in my opinion) that really completes the look that a champion needs.
Whichever of the belts the champion held, each of them (bar one!) elevated the title in their own way. The thing with the IWGP Title is that for the most part it has not been hot potatoed, but rather the champion has been granted the time to really build their reign and make their legacy with it. Since its introduction in 1987, only 29 wrestlers have held it, some more than others.
Given that NJPW began operations in 1972 you may be surprised to hear that the IWGP Title only came into existence in 1987. Prior to its creation, NJPW used both the NWF Heavyweight and Asia Heavyweight Titles. The National Wrestling Federation Title belonged to Pedro Martinez's company, but after winning it, Antonio Inoki founded NJPW and took it with him, and in 1976 the Asia Heavyweight Title was created by NJPW. That title was retired five years later, as the IWGP was formed and would create their own Championships.
Despite being formed in 1981, the first IWGP Heavyweight Championship did not come along until 1983, and it's not even the same one we know today!
The original title was awarded to the winner of the IWGP League (today known as the G1 Climax) and was defended annually against the tournament winner. Under those rules, the title was held by only two wrestlers; Antonio Inoki, and a name everyone knows; Hulk Hogan.
Antonio Inoki is wrestling royalty. A straight up Japanese wrestling legend, and as mentioned previously, the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Born into wealth in 1943, Inoki was an athlete from school age onwards, and while forced to emigrate to Brazil with his family when they fell on hard times in 1957, he would return to Japan in 1960 after meeting Rikidozan. As Rikidozan's disciple, alongside Giant Baba, Inoki began working with the Japanese Wrestling Association, but was deemed to be under Baba's shadow constantly. He was fired from JWA in 1971 after he attempted to take control of the company.
Undeterred, Inoki began NJPW, and wrestled Karl Gotch in his first NJPW match. From there, he built NJPW into the force that it is today, and along the way had matches with Bob Backlund, where he won the WWF Title (although the reign is unrecognised) and had a match with Ric Flair at the Wrestling Festival for Peace in North Korea in 1995. The event drew over 300,000 fans over the course of two days, and is known for being the only time Inoki and Flair fought, with Inoki coming away with the win.
Inoki retired from in ring competition in 1998, and later sold his controlling stake in NJPW to Yuke's, the video game developers, in 2005. From here he created a new company, Inoki Genome Federation (IGF) until he left them in 2018 having created another new company, ISM, which stood for "Inoki-Ism".
Antonio Inoki will forever be remembered for being the man who revolutionised Japanese Wrestling, making it the strong product that it is today. While he may no longer be involved with NJPW, his name will always be associated with it.
As for the other of the early IWGP Champions, well, we know what kind of career he went on to have!
The title as we know it today was introduced in 1987, with the winner of the IWGP League being crowned as the first IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and it was of course Antonio Inoki who emerged victorious, beating Masa Saito in the finals. He would hold the title for almost a year, before vacating it on May 2nd, 1988 due to fracturing his foot. Six days later at an event in Tokyo, Tatsumi Fujinami won the vacant title after defeating everyone’s favourite masked villain of the 90’s, Big Van Vader.
Fujinami is a name that is almost synonymous with Antonio Inoki. Starting his career in the seventies, he also began with the JWA, as he was trained by Inoki himself. When Inoki was fired by JWA in 1971, Fujinami and a few others walked with him to the newly established NJPW. In those early years, he would be the opponent for many debuting rookies, with the likes of Mr. Pogo, Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Gran Hamada, all counting him as their first matches. He would also compete in the Karl Gotch Cup, which was a precursor to the Young Lions Cup. By the late 1970's, he was sent on an international excursion to Mexico's Universal Wrestling Alliance, as well as the U.S. based Jim Crockett Promotions. He would also make his way to the WWWF, where he won his first title, the WWWF Junior Heavyweight Championship. He would end up taking this title back to Japan with him and making it the most sought-after prize in the light heavyweight division. Eventually, he made the step up to heavyweight, and it was then that he won the IWGP Heavyweight title for the first time. He would go on to hold the title six times in total, amassing 785 days as champion with thirteen defences. Not only that, but he is also a history maker, as he became the first man to hold the IWGP & NWA Heavyweight titles simultaneously after beating Ric Flair in 1990.
Fujinami's list of accolades doesn't end there either, as he also won five IWGP Tag Team Championships, one WCWA World Heavyweight Championship, and was the winner of the 1993 G1 Climax tournament. His departure from NJPW came in 2006, shortly after Inoki sold the company, and from there he wrestled across Japan for multiple companies, including the cult famous Dramatic Dream Team. in 2015, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by Ric Flair, and is an ambassador for WWE to this day as a result of his Legends deal with them. Most recently, he held the Pro Wrestling HEAT UP Universal Tag Team Championship with Kazuhiro Tamura (who I have had the pleasure of seeing perform live) and at 67 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Despite going on to have a hugely successful career, his first reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion ended prematurely just under three weeks after winning the title, when a title defence against Riki Choshu ended in a no contest, the belt was vacated and a rematch set for June 24th, 1988 to determine the champion. Fujinami came out on top in that match and became the first ever two-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion. This second reign lasted a lot longer, running until April 5th, 1989, when it was vacated again so that a champion could be decided in a tournament. Fujinami put in a stellar performance, but was unable to reach the finals of the tournament and reclaim his championship. He was defeated in the semi-finals by the man who would go on to win the tournament, Big Van Vader.
Almost everyone knows the name Vader. If you're a professional wrestling fan, you've heard stories or seen some of his matches, probably without even knowing it. He is widely regarded as one of the best super heavyweights of all time. Starting his career as an NFC Championship winning American Football player, he retired from the sport after just one season due to rupturing his patella. But in 1985 while working out in a gym, he was recognised by someone who remembered him from his college days and was recommended to pursue a career in wrestling. He would be trained by Brad Rheingans, an Olympic level wrestler, and medallist in both Pan American Games and World Championships, who had transitioned to Professional Wrestling with NJPW, and made his pro debut in 1985 for the Verne Gagne owned American Wrestling Association. From there he went on to work with multiple companies, including UWA, UWF International, World Championship Wrestling, World Wrestling Federation, All Japan Pro Wrestling, TNA and many more.
He won Tag Team gold with Bam Bam Bigelow as "Big, Bad and Dangerous" when the duo won the IWGP Tag Team Championships, and achieved the impressive feat of winning World Titles not only in all the major Japanese companies, but also in Mexico's UWA, Austria's Catch Wrestling Association, and of course, WCW. In total, Vader has fifteen World Championships to his name, having won the All-Japan Triple Crown Title twice, the IWGP Heavyweight Title three times, Pro Wrestling NOAH's GHC Heavyweight Title once, CWA's World Title three times, the UWFI & UWA World Titles once, three WCW World Titles, and the Impact Zone Wrestling World Title (No, that's not the TNA title for anyone wondering!)
Vader was a prominent figure in the wrestling world up until his death in 2018, and prior to this had gotten into a war of words with Will Ospreay owing to the now famous match between Ospreay and Ricochet which garnered worldwide attention.
After footage of their match at Battle of the Super Juniors went viral, Vader would take to Twitter and say:
"Blantant acrobatics, no story, is there anything done in this video that relates to winning u could get 2 high school gymnast and put ona show"
This caused a lot of people to respond in defence of Ospreay and Ricochet, and Ospreay himself used Vader's own middle rope move in a match. This led to Ospreay taking on Vader at Revolution Pro Wrestling in the UK, a match which Ospreay would lose. It didn't end there as the two traded jabs back and forth for some time, with Ospreay saying Vader tried to change the end of their match, and Vader calling him a liar.
Following heart surgery in March 2018, Vader was hospitalised soon after with pneumonia, which ultimately ended up taking his life on 18th June.
Vader's first reign as champion would end very quickly though, as he was to lose the title to another history maker. May 25th, 1989 at Battle Satellite in Osaka, saw Vader defeated by the only Soviet Union wrestler to ever win the IWGP Heavyweight Title, Salman Hashimikov.
Born in Chechnya, Russia in 1953, Hashimikov was an accomplished amateur wrestler. He seemed to pick up gold medals wherever he went. Between 1979 and 1983 he amassed an amazing collection of eleven gold medals in World Championships, European Championships, USSR Championships, and the World Cup. He attempted to make a successful business career following this, but when that went south, he went to Japan and worked with NJPW for five years. He was the only legitimately Russian-born champion at the time too, as many "Russians" in wrestling were characters portrayed by others as a result of the ongoing Cold War.
He would make only one appearance in the United States as he appeared at 1990's Starrcade in the Pat O'Connor Memorial Tag Team Tournament, where he and his partner Victor Zangiev, another Russian-born wrestler who had worked for NJPW, lost in the second round to Mr. Saito and The Great Muta. He would spend the majority of 1993 and 1994 working for UWF International. Little is known about what Hashimikov did after this, but he is still alive and well today.
While Hashimikov's reign was indeed a history making one, it was by no means a long one, as just forty-eight days later, he would lose the title in his first defence to a man who would go on to have a long and storied career within NJPW, but more on that next time...
Thank you for reading this first instalment of the History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. I'm really excited to discover the journey of this title throughout the years and I hope you are too.
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