On September 21, New Japan Pro Wrestling ran what may have been its final live iPPV in North America. With something of an overhaul going on to Ustream.tv, its pay-per-view provider, the future is uncertain. One thing is sure however, since debuting on pay-per-view in late 2012, the company has provided the absolute best pro wrestling in the history of the pseudo-sport.
I had never held a bias to the product one way or another, so my new-found admiration for the company was never anything less than genuine. Upon recommending the shows to friends that I considered to be avid followers of the sports entertainment genre, I’ve always been amazed by those who continued to turn a blind eye, sighting the language barrier (commentary is exclusively in Japanese) as a hurdle they could not push past. The quality of entertainment these folks have missed out on is quite abundant.
This all culminated on September 21, as the number one performer in the company, the man this brand has been centered around for the last decade, 6-time heavyweight champion Hiroshi Tanahashi took on long-time real-life nemesis Katsuyori Shibata. The hatred was palpable, and the energy in the building couldn’t get any thicker.
To lend some background to this epic encounter, these two have been immersed in conflict with one another since they both broke into the business at the start of the last decade. It had been decided by those in power to put the future of the company in the hands of three young men: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Katsuyori Shibata. The company’s future was going to be based on their successes and failures.
Early on, Nakamura was lucky enough to reap the benefits of an MMA fight, one where he went toe-to-toe with a member of MMA’s first family, Daniel Gracie. The fight lasted almost 15 minutes. Nakamura lost, but came out a winner in the sense he had gained the respect of the fans as a legit badass. As a 23-year old rookie, this was a huge deal. He was now a household name, and was pushed to the top immediately. He defeated Hiroyoshi Tenzan for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship shortly after.
Hiroshi Tanahashi was more of the slow burn. A smiling young man who seemed to connect with women and children. He was exactly what you would want to push as the hero of your brand. In a strange twist, his fame rose when he was stabbed during an argument by his girlfriend, who was a news reporter at the time. The story spread throughout the news quickly, however that would have meant nothing had he not become the master of the squared circle that he is today. A cocktail of circumstance and ability had placed Tanahashi as the leader of the new school.
Katsuyori Shibata meanwhile had noticed the MMA boom, as the sport of Mixed Martial Arts was taking off, providing big paychecks and a rowdy dedicated fanbase. He decided to play the hot hand and left NJPW to be a mixed martial arts fighter. Essentially turning his back on those that had not only placed their future in his hands, but even worse during a time in which business was down and he was needed the most.
He had a mediocre MMA career at best, and came back to NJPW just a couple years ago. Despite being a highly entertaining, incredibly dynamic performer that fans wanted to see, he didn’t get the push that his talent would normally be rewarded with. Soon enough, it was reported that Tanahashi (and apparently Nakamura, as well as match bookers Jado & Gedo) found him to be disloyal and had no big plans for him.
In the meanwhile, Tanahashi and Nakamura stuck it out, with Nakamura winning multiple world titles, as Tanahashi placed himself in rare air winning multiple world titles as well, while also becoming the kind of breakout star that brought the company from it’s lowest lows to it’s highest heights. NJPW was back and better than ever, on the strength of highly talented, insanely dedicated performers with Tanahashi as the centerpiece. In the midst of this epic run on top, he releases his autobiography, in it detailing his utter disdain for Shibata, calling him disloyal, clumsy and one-dimensional.
As we approached September 21, the Tanahashi/Shibata bout was to be a clash of ideologies. An encounter rich in history. These two men came from the same school of training, even debuting professionally on the same day. Shibata was considered slightly ahead at the time they burst on the scene, being that he was a high school wrestling champion, and the son of a professional wrestler. Tanahashi on the other hand was merely a fan growing up, with no strong athletic background, but despite being given lesser opportunities, he still emerged as the better pro.
Noticeable during the bout was Tanahashi’s departure from the smiling babyface that would hug the ladies and high-five the children. This was a man who came to fight, for he was fighting for what he truly believed in, and having been defeated by Shibata during the G1 Climax tournament earlier this year, he knew he could fight fire with anything less than a blazing inferno of passion and aggression, even hitting Shibata with his own move, an incredibly stiff dropkick in the corner, before hitting his own signature maneuver the High Fly Flow, taking home the victory, essentially besting Shibata once and for all. This was for all intents and purposes the Match Of The Year, if not on the short list of great matches of all time.
The magic refused to cease there. Shibata in rare show of emotion walked over to the victorious Tanahashi, his arch nemesis, and shook the man’s hand, thanking him for saving NJPW, for never giving up when the company was down, and for giving them that moment, for without Tanahashi elevating the company to heights previously unseen, that crowd wouldn’t be there for NJPW in 2014.
Tanahashi, essentially pulling back the curtain shed a tear, calling it square as much as he could, and replied “Welcome Back”.