A look back through history: The IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Part Three)
After stepping aside last week for Jason's monthly round up, Paul returns with part three today!
Hello and welcome to part three of the history of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Last week I gave my usual spot over to Jason for his monthly round up of AEW and Impact Wrestling, but I'm back this week and ready to dive right back in to the prestigious IWGP Title.
So, without any further ado, let's get into it!
When we left off Tatsumi Fujinami had just begun his sixth and final reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Fujinami, as well as Shinya Hashimoto, Big Van Vader, and Riki Choshu, had essentially carried the heavyweight division throughout the nineties, but going into the latter half of 1998, the landscape began to change.
Fujinami's final reign was ended by Masahiro Chono on 8th August 1998 at Rising the New Generation.
Chono is something of a legend at New Japan having debuted in 1984. With the pedigree of training he received it was no wonder he became one of the biggest stars of his generation. Chono was trained by Stu Hart, Antonio Inoki and Lou Thesz, quite possibly three of the biggest names in Professional Wrestling, and his ability was evident because of it.
As the winner of the 1987 Young Lions Cup, he then went on an excursion that same year to Catch Wrestling Association in Austria. After his stint in CWA, Chono would go on further excursions to America, Puerto Rico and Canada before returning to New Japan, albeit on a part time basis, as he was still appearing for CWF, winning the Tag Titles with Mike Davis. in 1988.
Aside from an IWGP Tag Team Championship victory with Keiji Mutoh, Chono's biggest victory was winning the NWA World's Heavyweight Championship in 1992. Sadly, he was unable to join Hashimoto, Mutoh and Kojima in winning the AJPW Triple Crown Championship and therefore does not hold the honour that they do, but winning the NWA Title is no mean feat.
After years of chasing the IWGP Championship and winning three G1 Climax tournaments, Chono, who had been a fan favourite, did the unthinkable; he turned heel. Adopting a Yakuza gimmick, he then established NWO Japan, and went about his business. During this time, he would join the NWO in WCW as it was gaining prominence, and is said to have legitimately injured Bill Goldberg......zzzzzzzz....... during a match.
This all lead up to him winning the IWGP Heavyweight Title, but not before he won another six IWGP Tag Team Championships and another G1 Climax tournament. He would ultimately leave NJPW, becoming a freelancer, but he did sign with AJPW in 2013, in an advisory role.
Whilst he only won the IWGP Title once, he still boats an impressive record of five G1 Climax Tournament wins, and seven IWGP Tag Team Championships, as well as the aforementioned NWA World's Heavyweight Title. Chono had an incredible career. But sadly, his reign as IWGP Champion lasted only 44 days, as he was forced to vacate the title due to Injury on September 21st, 1998.
The title would not remain vacant for long though. In fact, just 48 hours later, it was around the waist of a new Champion, and the first American to hold the Championship since Big Van Vader in 1991.
WCW talent and NWO member, Scott Norton won the vacant title, and was champion for roughly four months.
Norton was a late bloomer in professional wrestling. He began training in 1989 under Brad Rheingans, and debuted before he was truly ready to do so. Despite that, Verne Gagne saw enough in him to give him his debut, and continued to train him also. He would work the territories for a short time before signing with NJPW in 1990. He would appear at the joint shows put on by WCW and NJPW, and won the IWGP Tag Team Titles before returning to America and signing with WCW in 1993. He did briefly leave WCW in this time to sign with WWF, but was back with WCW within 12 months, joining the NWO (him and a thousand others!)
1999 saw him pull double duties once more, as he split his time between WCW and NJPW, though he would ultimately wind up going back to NJPW full time until 2006. Since then, he has worked the indies and is still somewhat active now. Norton was a big star for Japan, but in America, he was lost in the shuffle of the NWO shenanigans and the fact that Hulk Hogan was leader. going to Japan and becoming IWGP Champion afforded him the top billing he desired, and he will surely be remembered as such for it.
Although he would win the title again 2001, his 1998 reign ended at Wrestling World 1999, as Keiji Mutoh once again captured the IWGP Championship. Mutoh's reign would last a little over 11 months, before losing it to the native veteran, Genichiro Tenryu.
Tenryu's career path had been slightly different to others. Starting out as a Sumo Wrestler, he wouldn't step into the squared circle until 1976. Although he is most well-known for his time with NJPW's rival promotion, All Japan Pro Wrestling, his time in NJPW was well spent, as he won the IWGP Heavyweight and Tag Team Titles. He started WAR, Wrestling and Romance, in 1990, and WAR became his base from where he would wrestle the top competitors from other promotions, such as The Great Muta, Shinya Hashimoto and Masahiro Chono. He defeated them all, and also holds the distinction of being the only man to hold clean victories over Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. AJPW was always his main home though, and after the decimation of All Japan caused by the Pro Wrestling NOAH split. Tenryu closed down WAR and returned to AJPW.
His later years saw him take in stints with NOAH, and his own Tenryu Projection company, but in 2015, he embarked on a "Retirement Road" tour, including matches in Kyushu Pro Wrestling, DDT, BJW, Wrestle-1 and Pro Wrestling FREEDOMS. His final match was against a certain Rainmaker, who would defeat him and send him into retirement. His single reign as IWGP Champion was a transitional one though, as just 25 days after winning, he would lose the title at Wrestling World 2000 to Kensuke Sasaki.
With Sasaki once again Champion, he defended the title successfully multiple times. But upon losing a non-title match to Toshiaki Kuwada at Do Judge on October 9th, 2000, Sasaki vacated the championship. The title then remained vacant for almost 3 months, with a tournament taking place to crown a new champion. The new champion would be crowned at Wrestling World 2001.
And so, on 4th January, 2001, the tournament final took place. The challengers entered the ring and fought a spectacle like none seen before them. And on that night, the new champion emerged, beating his opponent and securing the championship for himself.
That man was....... Kensuke Sasaki.
Yep, he won back the title he vacated. And he did so by beating Toshiaki Kuwada in the final. Pro Wrestling at its finest folks!
So, after the pointless vacation of the title and then winning it back, Sasaki would hold the belt for just 72 more days, before losing it to Scott Norton for his second and final reign. And in truth, his second reign was hardly worth mentioning, as he lost the title 23 days later in his first defence to Kazuyuki Fujita.
Fujita was an accomplished amateur wrestler, representing Japan at many tournaments and almost making their Olympic team, and although he was first approached about joining NJPW in 1993, he didn't actually debut until 1996 because of his amateur wrestling career. He only won three titles in NJPW, but all were IWGP Heavyweight title wins. Fujita though didn't feel like he was transitioning to Pro Wrestling very well, and had agreed to leave NJPW and head to an MMA promotion. But at the last minute his trainer and NJPW owner, Inoki, stepped in and put a stop to it, instead sending him abroad to train in MMA before going to Pride Fighting Championships as a member of Team Inoki, where he was much more successful.
His overall MMA record stands at 18 wins and 14 losses. Not amazing, but by no means terrible either. And with wins over Bob Sapp, Mark Kerr and Ken Shamrock, he was certainly able to contest with the best the MMA world had to offer.
Image Credit: njpw1972.com
He wasn't done with wrestling though, as he did win two further IWGP Heavyweight titles, with one of those reigns going on to become one that started a whole lot of trouble, but more on that later. In 2005 he stepped away from the squared circle to focus on his MMA career, but returned to the ring in 2011 for Inoki Genome Federation. He won the IGF Championship in July of 2012 and would hold it for 535 days, making four successful defences. After 6 years with IGF he stepped away from the wrestling world once again for two years, before returning as a freelancer, working for several companies on the Japanese independent scene. He is still active today, and is the current Real Japan Pro Wrestling Legends Champion, having beaten Super Tiger for the title.
Unfortunately though, despite a good run and two successful title defences, Fujita was forced to relinquish the title on January 4th, 2002 because of injury. As a result of this, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was not defended in the main event of the Tokyo Dome show for the first time, with Pro Wrestling NOAH's GHC Heavyweight title instead taking the main event spot, where Jun Akiyama successfully defended the title against Yuji Nagata.
The IWGP Heavyweight Title remained vacant for a number of weeks, until it was won on February 16th, 2002, by a man that Fujita himself had beaten in MMA competition; Tadao Yasuda.
Image Credit: SportsDB
Yasuda had been a successful Sumo Wrestler before transitioning to the squared circle of Professional Wrestling. Debuting for NJPW in 1994 and staying with them until 2004. During this time, he also competed in Mixed Martial Arts, with an overall record of two wins and six losses, one of which came at the hand of Fujita. After his sole title reign ended, he formed a stable with other workers from MMA backgrounds called Makai Club, where they would regularly compete for opportunities at the IWGP Tag Team titles. Ultimately, they were never successful in winning the gold, and following this, Yasuda left NJPW, making occasional appearances for HUSTLE and ZERO-1. Following some personal torment in 2007 where it is alleged that Yasuda attempted to take his own life, a claim he denies and states accidental, Yasuda announced his decision to retire from in ring competition in January 2011, and had his final match on 4th February, 2011, against Genichiro Tenryu.
Yasuda had beaten Yuji Nagata in a tournament final for the Championship, but his reign would be short. After just 48 days as Champion, he would lose the title to Yuji Nagata in only his second defence.
Nagata is a well-known name in Japanese Professional Wrestling. A multi-time champion across several promotions, he is a 4-time World Champion, 5-time Tag Team Champion, and a winner of several tournaments including the AJPW Champion Carnival, NJPW's G1 Climax, and Pro Wrestling NOAH's Global League. In fact, by winning those three tournaments, he became the first wrestler in history to achieve that feat.