A look back through history: The IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Part Two)
Following on from last weeks first installment, Paul looks through the history of the title and the men who held it between 1989 and 1998.
Welcome back to this second part of our look back through the history of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. It's great to see that the first part was largely well received. Whilst the pull to write about this particular title's history was too strong to ignore, I have to admit that I have not kept up to date with Japanese wrestling so much over the years. Although I always watch Wrestle Kingdom, I have rarely had the time or inclination to watch every show, much like I don't watch Raw or Smackdown with any degree of regularity.
And in a way, I believe this has made it so much more interesting to research and write about, as I am finding out things I did not know before. Hopefully, that is the case for you, the reader, also.
So, with this in mind, lets dive back in where we left off last time.
Salman Hashimikov's historic reign would be a short one. Having beaten Big Van Vader to win the title in May of 1989, Hashimikov may have hoped to have a long reign as champion. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, as he was dethroned in his very first title defence by Riki Choshu.
Choshu's career has been a long and storied one. Born Kwak Gwang-Ung to a Japanese mother and Korean father in 1951, Choshu was proficient in many sports during his school days. Although he had to deal with discrimination towards himself due to his Korean heritage, he would not let this stop him and he would eventually move to the wrestling department of Yamaguchi's Sakurakaoka High School, and was classed as a special student.
After placing second in a freestyle wrestling tournament, he was spotted by representatives of the Senshu University, being offered a wrestling scholarship within their halls. Choshu accepted this and would enrol with the university.
Things got better for him from here as he won the 90kg All Japan Student Wrestling Championship in 1970, and as a result he was selected to represent Japan at the Olympic Games in 1972. While this was massive recognition for his talents, the Japanese Olympic Officials refused to allow him to compete under their flag due to his Korean heritage. This however was not a problem for the Korean Olympic team, and so they selected him to represent them at the Olympics. Choshu won just one of his matches, against Ion Marton of Romania, and losing to Gunter Spindler of Germany and Barbaro Morgan of Cuba. he would be disqualified under the penalty points system, amassing a total of nine penalty points in those three matches. The experience taught him some valuable lessons though, and upon returning to Senshu University he was made the captain of the wrestling team, going on to win the Freestyle and Greco-Roman 100 kg tournaments at the All-Japan Championship in 1973.
This background in amateur wrestling served him well when he made his first forays into the world of Professional Wrestling with NJPW in 1974. He was trained by Masa Saito at the NJPW Dojo and made his debut in August 1974, initially under the name Mitsuo Yoshida. But after an overseas excursion to train and develop in North America, he would return to NJPW and adopt the name Riki Choshu, as an homage to his hometown's nickname of the "Choshu Forces."
Choshu made history in Japanese wrestling he became the first "traitor heel" after turning on Tatsumi Fujinami in 1983.Outraged at not being part of the IWGP League's inaugural tournament, he would attack Fujinami and form his stable, Ishin Gundan, or Revolutionary Army in English. He would take this stable to his own newly formed promotion, Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1984.
Choshu's company initially ran their own shows, but having announced a working arrangement with All Japan Pro Wrestling, within a year almost all of his rostered talent were actually signed to AJPW, but working for him on a "pay-as-you-play" deal. By 1987, JPW had dissolved and merged with AJPW, and Choshu would return to NJPW as a result.
It took him a long time to climb back up through the ranks in NJPW, but in 1988, along with Masa Saito, he was able to capture the IWGP Tag Team Championships. As mentioned in last week's article, he did face Tatsumi Fujinami for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but with the match ending in a no contest, the title was vacated, and a rematch set, which Fujinami won.
Choshu would win the IWGP Heavyweight Title 3 times, as well as 3 IWGP Tag Team Titles and winning the 1996 G1 Climax tournament. By 1998 he retired from in ring competition to focus on his booking duties for NJPW, but he returned to the ring in 2000 and would wrestle for another 19 years before retiring for good in 2019. During those two decades he started another new company, Fighting World of Japan Pro Wrestling, but this also folded and he would wind up back with NJPW.
After winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Hashimikov, his journey back to the top seemed complete, but his grip on the title was to prove quite loose, as in August of the same year, he lost the title back to Big Van Vader in his first defence. This time, Vader would embark on a long reign as Champion, holding it for just over a year and making four successful defences, before losing it back to Riki Choshu. Choshu would again have a short run with the title before dropping it to Fujinami again. In fact, between the years of 1989 and 1992, the title was dominated by the trio of Vader, Fujinami and Choshu.
The man who would break that domination, and also go on to forge a legendary career of his own, was Keiji Mutoh, or to give him his more popular name, The Great Muta.
Even the most casual of Japanese wrestling fans knows the name of The Great Muta. In a career that has lasted an incredible 36 years, and it still going, Muta has been there and done it all.
From time spent in WCW to starting the well-known Wrestle-1 promotion, Muta can easily be considered one of the most legendary Japanese wrestlers in the game.
Debuting in 1984 having been trained by the man himself, Antonio Inoki, he spent his early years with NJPW. 1985 saw him being sent on an international excursion to America where he would win the Florida Heavyweight Championship, before a two-year excursion to Puerto Rico and America brought him attention from the NWA after some stellar performances for WCCW. The nineties would see him make appearances for WCW while going back and forth between them and NJPW.
He has the distinction of being the second man to hold the IWGP Heavyweight Title and the All-Japan Triple Crown Championship simultaneously, and he spent just over ten years as a part of All Japan's roster too. He became a shareholder in NJPW, and by 2013 he sold his shares for ¥200 million. Now, you may think that sounds a lot, but actually, it equates to just £1.4m/$2m. In either case, the sale of these share allowed him to start the Wrestle-1 promotion, which sadly stopped promoting events after thier final show in April 2020. A show which could not have any fans in attendance due to the worldwide pandemic.
Muta has a real affinity towards America, considering it "the homeland of his soul", and gives much praise to American wrestling fans. His list of championship wins is impressive, with nine total Heavyweight Title wins between AJPW and NJPW, as well as a total of twelve Tag Team Championships. In addition to this he is a former NWA World's Heavyweight Champion, the winner of the 1995 G1 Climax and a 3-time winner of AJPW's Champion Carnival, which is essentially AJPW's version of the G1 Climax.
Muta's first reign was a legacy carving one, he held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for 400 days, making 5 successful defences. He would lose the title on September 16th, 1993, at the G1 Climax Special to Shinya Hashimoto.
Hashimoto has been mentioned in a previous article, as he is a former NWA World's Heavyweight Champion. As a result, he is one of the famed "Three Musketeers", having held the NWA, AJPW and IWGP Championships.
Hashimoto's career lasted exactly twenty years and one day, having debuted September 1st, 1984, and retiring on September 2nd, 2004. Having wrestled the majority of his career for NJPW, he is a 3-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, 2-time IWGP Tag Team Champion, and the winner of the 1998 G1 Climax. In 2001, he left NJPW for Pro Wrestling ZERO-1, winning the NWA Intercontinental Tag Team Championships three times. Twice with Naoya Ogawa and once with Yoshiaki Fujiwara.
Sadly though, Hashimoto died unexpectedly in 2005 from a brain aneurysm. His son, Daichi, currently wrestles for Big Japan Wrestling, where he is a 2-time BJW World Strong Heavyweight Championship, continuing his father's legacy.
Hashimoto's first reign was ended in April of 1994 by Tatsumi Fujinami, but only briefly, as he won the title back just a month later. His second reign was much better, holding the title for 367 days, making a total of nine successful defences. His tenth defence ended in defeat to The Great Muta, going under his real name of Keiji Mutoh.
Mutoh would hold the title for the rest of 1995, losing the title in his sixth defence at Wrestling World (Later renamed Wrestle Kingdom) on January 4th, 1996. His opponent that day, was Nobuhiko Takada, another student of Antonio Inoki's.
Whilst Takada's wrestling career was not filled with gold, he still won some impressive championships during his time with NJPW. In addition to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, he also held the IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship and the IWGP Tag Team Championship with Akira Maeda. However, having also wrestled for UWF, UWFI, where was a 2-time World Champion, and HUSTLE, his talents were not exclusive to the squared circle. H was also a proficient mixed martial artist, and fought for the well-known PRIDE Fighting Championships, as well as one fight for Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye in 2001.
Unfortunately, his fight career was largely unimpressive, with losses against Royce Gracie, Mark Kerr, and Rickson Gracie, but there were some slight highlights. On June 24th, 1998, Takada scored the first win of his MMA career by submitting Kyle Sturgeon in 2:18 of the first round by heel hook. Following his loss to Rickson Gracie in August 1998, he rebounded in some style by beating the first ever UFC Heavyweight Champion, Mark Coleman, with the heel hook again inside two minutes of the first round. As impressive as this sounds though, it turns out this was a fixed fight, as was his previous win over Sturgeon, as Coleman later commented;
"It was what it was. I needed to support my family. They guaranteed me another fight after that and I needed that security. It was what it was. I'm going to leave it at that."
Takada has noted that he was unaware of the fixed nature of the fight, but sadly, what followed was a string of losses to Mark Kerr, Royce Gracie and Igor Vovchanchyn, seemingly proving his status as a lower-level fighter. Although he did rebound with draws against Mirko Cro Cop and Mike Bernardo, his final fight saw him knocked out in one minute by Kiyoshi Tamura in November 2002. This marked the end of his MMA career with a record of ten matches, two wins, two draws and six losses.
Much like his MMA career, Takada's reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion was largely unimpressive. In 116 days as Champion, he made just one single successful defence, before losing the title to Shinya Hashimoto for his third reign. Hashimoto made this reign count and really cemented his legacy as a fantastic champion by making a total of seven defences in 489 days as champion. His overall record has him 4th in the rankings with 1,052 combined days as champion, and over the course of three reigns he registered twenty successful defences.
Hashimoto's final reign was ended by a man who is well known in Japanese wrestling. On August 31st, 1997 at Final Power Hall in Yokohama, Hashimoto's final reign was ended by Kensuke Sasaki.
Sasaki is a history maker, being one of only two men to gold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, All Japan's Triple Crown Championship, and Pro Wrestling NOAH's GHC Heavyweight Championship. Debuting in 1986 for Japan Pro Wrestling, Sasaki's career saw him take in spells with World Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico, Stampede Wrestling Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he trained at the legendary Stu Hart Dungeon, and the Catch Wrestling Association in Austria.
He was able to win Tag Team gold in WWC and Stampede, but in 1992 he began team with the Road Warriors as "Power Warrior" when he began making appearances for WCW, and would later win the United States Heavyweight Championship from Sting at WCW World in Japan on November 13th, 1995. His reign ended up being a short one as he lost the title in somewhat dubious circumstances to One Man Gang just 44 days later.
Despite this setback, he would go on to hold much more gold in Japan. He has a total of seven IWGP Tag Team Championships to his name, with various partners, as well as solitary reigns with All Japan's All Asia Tag Team Championship and NOAH's GHC Tag Team Championship. In total he has amassed 27 Championships in his career, with the majority being earned in tag team competition, but with a total of five separate reigns as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, his is joint third overall in terms of Heavyweight Championship reigns.
2005 saw Sasaki embark on a new adventure as he began promoting shows under his own brand, Kensuke Office. By 2012 this had been renamed Diamond Ring. The company was part of the short lived Global Professional Wrestling alliance but did enjoy some early success. However, by the time 2014 came around, Sasaki had retired and the company had only one wrestler left on their roster, so they quietly closed down following their final show in March of that year.
Despite all of this, Sasaki is still revered as one of the most prominent names in Japanese wrestling, and adding to that his undefeated MMA record of two wins from two fights, he is still a prominent figure in the combat sports world today.
Sasaki's first run with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was a decent one. He held the title for 216 days, making three successful defences, before losing the title to Tatsumi Fujinami on April 4th, 1998, at the Antonio Inoki Retirement Show. The amazing thing about this show, is that Antonio Inoki did actually stay retired, unlike some people who bastardise an amazing send-off they are given following a stellar performance at the "Showcase of the Immortals", to go and piss it all away in the Impact Zone! (No names mentioned but I think we all know who I'm talking about here!)
Fujinami would hold the title for 126 days, making two successful defences. But the old guard were getting just that, old, and so new blood, and new names, began to come through into the main event scene....
Thanks for reading this second part of the history of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship! Next week sees it get even more interesting as gaijin start appearing more regularly for NJPW, and seeking that top prize!
As ever, leave your comments for us with your thoughts and we will reply, but until next week, thanks for reading and see you soon!