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

In the final part of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship series, Paul brings us right up to date on this titles prestigious history.

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

Well, it’s Monday, you know what that means…

Here we are again, with the final part of our look back at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This series has been really fun to explore and I’m sure that we have all learnt things we weren’t aware of before, I know I have!

The title has truly been held by some of the absolute best in the business since its inception in 1987, and as the current form of the Championship is set to change following the events of the NJPW 49th Anniversary Event, the future looks set to be even more exciting for the Japanese Wrestling.

As we enter the final stretch of this series, we are going to bring it right up to date, and get into the stars of the current era, and there are some fantastic names to go through, so let’s get to it!

When we left off, Okada was in the midst of his first reign, but as ever, the shadow of the Ace was breathing down his neck, and so it should come as no surprise to anyone that Hiroshi Tanahashi was able to dethrone Okada and win the title for the sixth time.

Tanahashi would hold the title for 295 days, with successful defences against Togi Makabe, Masato Tanaka, Naomichi Marufuji, Minoru Suzuki, Yujiro Takahashi, Kazuchika Okada and Karl Anderson, in a reign that ended up being his second longest reign with the title, before losing it back to Kazuchika Okada at Invasion Attack.

Okada himself then went on a lengthy run with the title, as he held it for well over a year at 391 days, with eight successful defences.

The list of competitors that Okada beat during this run are, like Tanahashi before him, some of the absolute best in the world. With successful defences against Suzuki, Makabe, Kojima, Tanahashi, Anderson and Hirooki Goto, there were also impressive victories over Prince Devitt, now known as the current and 2-time NXT Champion, Finn Balor, and the man formerly known as the Stardust Genius, Tetsuya Naito.

But all good things must come to an end, and so Okada’s second reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion ended at the hands of possibly the most exciting Gaijin to enter NJPW in quite some time. You could say that his arrival was “phenomenal”.

Of course, I am talking about AJ Styles.

AJ Styles climb to prominence is a storied and fascinating one. Starting out in National Championship Wrestling from Georgia, which eventually merged with NWA Wildside, Styles was trained by Rick Michaels and by 1999 had won their Television Championship while wrestling as Mr Olympia. From there, he was seen by an ailing WCW and brought in alongside Air Paris to form Air Raid. They would appear only a brief number of times, mostly on Thunder, but they were entered into the Cruiserweight Tag Team Championship Tournament on Nitro, however they were beaten in the first round by Elix Skipper and Kid Romeo, who went on to win the tournament.

After WCW, Styles received a try-out match with the WWF, but despite winning, he was not offered a contract at this time. He would make a couple of appearances for WWE in 2002 as an enhancement talent, and was actually offered a development deal following these, but due to the need to relocate, he refused the deal and continued on the Indy circuit. Styles would spend the next several years with Ring of Honor, winning the Tag Team Championships with Amazing Red, as well as the Ring of Honor Pure Championship. Amazingly, AJ never won the Ring of Honor World Title, but seeing as his next career move was what made his career, this didn’t hold him back.

As we all know, AJ Styles joined Total Nonstop Action Wrestling from its inception, and is widely renowned as Mr. TNA. His list of accomplishments with the company is far above anyone else:

  • 3-time NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion
  • 2-time TNA World Heavyweight Champion
  • 4-time NWA World Tag Team Champion with Abyss, Jerry Lynn, and Christopher Daniels twice
  • 2-time TNA World Tag Team Champion with Tomko and Kurt Angle
  • 2-time TNA Legends/Global/Television/King of the Mountain/Whateveritscalledtoday Champion
  • 6-time TNA X-Division Champion
  • First TNA Triple Crown Champion, a feat he has achieved five times overall
  • First TNA Grand Slam Champion, which he has achieved twice

Add to that the list of personal accolades such as Feud of the year with Christopher Daniels in 2005, match of the year in 2006 and 2009, and X Division star of the year in 2004, AJ truly topped the mountain when it comes to TNA. He was a member of both Immortal and Fortune, and starred in so many classic matches, such as the globally renowned triple threat match with Christopher Daniels and Samoa Joe for the X Division Title, his 2009 Bound For Glory match with Sting, and countless others, so it is a shame that his time with TNA ended in animosity, as it was reported at the time that TNA had offered him a new contract on greatly reduced pay, which Styles flat out refused.

From there, he would return to Ring of Honor while simultaneously working for NJPW, and it was here, as the newest member and de facto leader of Bullet Club, that he would take the IWGP Title from Kazuchika Okada at the very first attempt on May 3rd, 2014.

His first IWGP Heavyweight Title reign would last 163 days and had two successful defences against Okada and Michael Elgin in a triple threat, and also Okada again in a singles bout. But, on 13th October 2014, AJ would lose the title to The Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi, once again.

Tanahashi’s seventh reign would last for 121 days, but he managed just one successful defence against the Rainmaker, Okada, before losing the title back to AJ Styles on 11th February 2015, at the New Beginning in Osaka show.

This would be AJ’s final reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion to date, and his 121-day reign saw him make just one successful defence against Kota Ibushi (who we will get to later) before dropping the title to Kazuchika Okada for his third reign. Shortly after this, AJ would leave NJPW, and despite rumours he had agreed a new contract with Impact Wrestling, he had actually signed with WWE, and debuted to a rapturous response at the Royal Rumble in 2016. Since joining WWE, Styles has further solidified his legacy with three United States Title wins, one Intercontinental Title win, and two WWE Championship wins, the second of which lasted over a year. He also holds the honour of being Undertaker’s final match in a hugely acclaimed “Boneyard Match” at Wrestlemania 36.

With Okada back in the hot seat as Champion, he would again hold the title for a significant length of time, 280 days, and had three successful defences over AJ Styles, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Hirooki Goto.

The first title change of 2016 took place on 10th April at the Invasion Attack show, where the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon, Tetsuya Naito, was able to break Okada’s grip on the title.

Naito is a very interesting character. On the surface, he seems wild and crazy, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that he is a hugely competent and talented wrestler. His mind games are legendary, as he tends to psych out his opponents before he even steps foot in the ring with them.

Debuting in 2006, Naito gained his place on the main NJPW roster after passing a public audition to graduate from the dojo. He would spend his early year in NJPW in the tag team ranks, and won both the IWGP Junior Heavyweight and IWGP Tag Team titles with Yujiro Takahashi.

He is the record setting 6-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion, as well as a former NEVER Openweight Champion, as well as a 2-time G1 Climax winner, and a New Japan Cup winner.

Naito is well known for his “Circle Eye” taunt, or “Abre los Ojos” (“Open Your Eyes”), which is something he came up with in 2009. during an excursion to Mexico, the local fans hurled racially-charged taunts at him for his narrow eyes. This caused Naito to widen his eye with his thumb and index finger in response to this. The taunt has since also been used by some of Japan’s leading celebrities, such as baseball player Shinnosuke Ogasawara, who plays for Chunichi Dragons, and Yuki Kashiwagi, who is an actress and a former member of Japanese idol group AKB48.

In 2015, Naito returned to NJPW and formed Los Ingobernables de Japon, a tie in to La Sombra’s “Los Ingobernables” stable in Mexico that he was a part of. The stable has had some fantastic members since it began, including Jay Lethal, current Ring of Honor World Champion, Rush, Truth Martini, and EVIL, and currently counts Bushi, Hiromu Takahashi, SANADA, and Shingo Takagi among its ranks, and in terms of Championships, they have been pretty successful:

  • 3 IWGP Heavyweight Championships – All Tetsuya Naito
  • 6 IWGP Intercontinental Championships – All Tetsuya Naito
  • 4 IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championships – Bushi (1), Hiromu Takahashi (3)
  • 3 NEVER Openweight Championships – EVIL (1), Shingo Takagi (2)
  • 4 NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championships – EVIL, Bushi and SANADA (3), EVIL, Bushi and Shingo Takagi (1)

Naito is without doubt a top star in NJPW, and is no doubt going to add even more Championships to his CV over time. However, his first reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champions ended after just 70 days and one successful defence against Tomohiro Ishii, would anyone like to guess who he lost the title to?

That’s right; Kazuchika Okada.

This was Okada’s crowning glory. His fourth IWGP Heavyweight Title reign is the longest in history, at an astonishing 720 days. Winning the title on 19th June 2016, he successfully defended the title 12 times, beating Naomichi Marufuji, Kenny Omega, Minoru Suzuki, Katsuyori Shibata, Bad Luck Fale, Cody Rhodes, EVIL, Tetsuya Naito, SANADA, Britain’s own Zack Sabre Jr, and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Everyone thought that he would go on to be the first to hold the title for two straight calendar years. Sadly, for him though, a certain “Cleaner” had other ideas, as he was dethroned just ten days before the magic two-year mark...

Now, if you don’t know the name Kenny Omega, it means you’re probably a WWE mark, because EVERYONE should know the name at this point. From leader of Bullet Club, to Golden Lover, and now the All Elite Wrestling EVP and their World Champion, Kenny Omega has truly done it all and risen to the top of the Pro Wrestling world, all without the substantial power of Stamford’s muscle.

To go through Kenny’s entire career is an article in itself, so I will briefly summarise it;

After four years on the independent circuit, he was signed to a WWE Development deal in 2005 and assigned to Deep South Wrestling, but requested his release after less than a year due to, in his opinion, a poor learning environment. He particularly called out the promoters Bill DeMott and Jody Hamilton, as well as Head Trainer. Bob “Hardcore” Holly.

He would divide his time between the independent circuit for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Ring of Honor, as well as Japan for the next few years, spending six years with Dramatic Dream Team (If you haven’t heard of this promotion, I implore you to look them up, they’re hilarious!), as well as occasional appearances for NJPW

In DDT, he was involved in some crazy matches, most notably against Yoshihiko, a blow-up doll that everyone believes is a real person, and a nine-year-old girl! This proved that, while Kenny was incredibly good at serious competitive match ups, he was just as adept at comedy style matches too.

2014 was when Kenny began to appear more frequently for NJPW, and he would sign with them on October 3rd, 2014 after the expiration of his DDT contract, and by November 8th he had joined up with Bullet Club, eventually rising to the top.

He has experiences huge success in NJPW, amassing several title victories aside from the IWGP Heavyweight Title, including:

  • IWGP Heavyweight Championship
  • IWGP Intercontinental Championship
  • 2-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
  • IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship – with Kota Ibushi
  • IWGP United States Championship - He was the inaugural champion after winning a tournament
  • 2-time NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship – with Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson
  • G1 Climax (2016)

Add to this his PWG World Title win, the fact that he is the current AAA Mega Champion, and of course the AEW World Title, its no surprise to see the Best Bout Machine up there with the very best.

Kenny’s sole reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion saw him successfully defend against Cody Rhodes, Tomohiro Ishii and a triple threat match with Cody Rhodes and Kota Ibushi, before he was eventually dethroned at Wrestle Kingdom 13 by The Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi, for his eighth, and currently final, reign.

What was sad about this record breaking eighth reign for Tanahashi is that it was a transitional reign, as he only held the title for roughly 40 days before losing it in his first defence, to Jay White.

Jay White has only been a professional wrestler for eight years, but in that time, he has proven himself to be one of the best grapplers on the planet. Born in New Zealand in 1992, he was actually trained here in Britain by the UK Kid at Varsity Pro Wrestling. From there, he did what all British wrestlers tend to do when starting out, by working the holiday camps circuit with All Star Wrestling, among other promotions.

But a phone call from Bad Luck Fale would change his fortunes when he was told that none other than Prince Devitt has been lobbying to NJPW officials about bringing him in, and a few months later, after meeting with Fale, Devitt, and Shinsuke Nakamura in London, he accepted the offer and began preparations to leave for Japan.

Aside from a brief spell in Ring of Honor, White has spent most of his career with NJPW, and doesn’t seem like he has any intention of leaving the place that made him a star. He has had numerous successes with NJPW, having also won the IWGP Intercontinental and IWGP United States Championships respectively. Quite frankly, the sky is the limit for Jay White.

However, his first title reign ended almost as quickly as it began, when he lost it in his first defence to Kazuchika Okada.

Now in his fifth reign, Okada once again held the title for a long time, 274 days, with five successful defences, most notably against Chris Jericho at Dominion in 2019, before he was beaten at Wrestle Kingdom 14, by Tetsuya Naito, for his second reign. But this was no ordinary win, as Naito, who had won the IWGP Intercontinental title from Jay White the night prior, put the Intercontinental Championship on the line also in a Winner Takes All match.

With this win, Naito had unified the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles, and from this point on, the two titles were defended simultaneously. While Naito’s second reign was almost three times longer than his first, he still only had one successful defence in that time, when he beat KENTA at the New Beginnings in Osaka show in February 2020. Five months later, he would lose the titles to former stablemate, EVIL.

I have to confess, when I heard that EVIL beat Naito, I was somewhat shocked, as I hadn’t considered him to be a contender. At the time, keeping up with NJPW was tricky for me personally and so I didn’t know too much about him, but looking back on his career, he certainly earned his shot at the title.

A former NEVER Openweight Champion, EVIL is without doubt a competent singles wrestler, but he can mix it up in tag teams too, as his two IWGP Tag Team Titles and four NEVER Openweight Tag Team Titles will attest. Add to that his New Japan Cup victory in 2020, and two consecutive tag leagues with SANADA in 2017 and 2018, and its clear to see EVIL is no ordinary guy.

On leaving Los Ingobernables de Japon and ripping the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Titles away from Naito, he embarked on a short run as champion, with one successful defence against Hiromu Takahashi, before losing the titles after just 48 days back to Tetsuya Naito.

It seems there is a sort of pattern with Naito’s reigns, as he once again made just one successful defence against EVIL, before losing the titles just a couple of months ago, to a man who is universally loved, and a particular favourite here at Real Rasslin: Kota Ibushi.

Like Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi deserves an article all of his own, perhaps more so. His reputation as grown and grown over the last few years, with multiple title wins in NJPW and indeed across Japan:

Dramatic Dream Team

  • IMGP World Heavyweight Champion
  • Independent World Junior Heavyweight Champion
  • 3-time Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship 
  • 2-time KO-D 6-Man Tag Team Championship – with Gota Ihashi and Kenny Omega (1), and Daisuke Sasaki and Kenny Omega (1)
  • 3-time KO-D Openweight Championship
  • 5-time KO-D Tag Team Championship – with Daichi Kakimoto (1), Kenny Omega (2), Danshoku Dino (1) and Daisuke Sasaki (1)
  • Go-1 Climax (2014)
  • KO-D Openweight Championship Contendership Tournament (2009)
  • KO-D Tag League (2005) – with Daichi Kakimoto
  • DDT48/Dramatic Sousenkyo (2012, 2014)
  • Best Match Award (2012) vs. Kenny Omega

New Japan Pro-Wrestling

  • IWGP World Heavyweight Champion - Current and First
  • IWGP Heavyweight Champion - Once and Final
  • IWGP Intercontinental Champion - Twice and Final
  • 3-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion
  • IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship  – with Kenny Omega
  • IWGP Tag Team Champion – with Hiroshi Tanahashi
  • NEVER Openweight Champion 
  • Best of the Super Juniors (2011)
  • 2-time G1 Climax winner (2019, 2020)
  • New Japan Cup (2015)

As accomplishments go, Kota is easily in the top ten wrestlers in Japan, if not the world. When he won the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Titles earlier this year at Wrestle Kingdom, he stated afterwards that he planned to unify the titles properly. That plan came to fruition only a week or so ago, as it was announced the two titles would be merged and a new title belt created and renamed the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. But rather than just be given that title, Kota Ibushi being the man he is, stated that the first IWGP World Heavyweight Champion would be decided on March 4th when he fought El Desperado for the titles. On that night, Kota emerged victorious as the final IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champions, and the first ever IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. Whilst the new title belt has yet to be revealed, you can be sure it is likely to be just as stunning as the current one, and with Kota Ibushi as the Champion, we can be sure that there will be more amazing matches and moments to come.

Thank you for following this series, it’s been a genuine pleasure to go back through history and discover more about the pioneers that paved the way for what we know now, and I hope you join me again soon as we take another trip through wrestling history!

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Until the next time, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you at the matches!