December 29, 2014
GFW Staff (429 articles)

#WK9 101: Hiroshi Tanahashi – IWGP Heavyweight Champion

WK9 MATCH: vs. Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight title
Team: none
Hometown: Ogaki, Japan
Height: 5’10”
Weight: 227
Wrestling debut: 1999
NJPW debut: 1999
Greatest rivalries: Okada, AJ Styles, Nakamura, Nagata
Greatest Dome match: vs. Okada, from Wrestle Kingdom 7 (2013)
Favorite moves: Hi-Fly Flow (frog splash), Sling Blade, Texas Cloverleaf
Significant achievements: Most reigns as IWGP heavyweight champion (seven), most PPV title defenses (21, including record streak of 11), IWGP Intercontinental champion (2014)

By Steve Te Tai

Tanahashi’s story: The legendary Terry Funk used to say to predict the trends in U.S. wrestling just look at Japan. And when you look at the parallels over the past few decades, the similarities are remarkable. Like the United States, the Japanese wrestling industry reached unparalleled heights in the 1990s and came crashing down in the early 2000s, in large part because of the rise of MMA. On top of the nation’s attention shift to combat sports such as the Pride Fighting Championships and K-1, the biggest stars in wrestling were aging and were either retired or too physically banged up to be as effective as they once were.

Worse yet, no young main eventers were created during those peak years in the ‘90s to take their place. Combined with TV network issues and nationwide economic problems, this was the recipe that sent wrestling in Japan spiraling. To deal with the situation, the major companies formed agreements to co-promote and share talent. And while this period in the early 2000s produced some great wrestling, the needle failed to move because there were no breakout stars.

Until Tanahashi.

Hiroshi Tanahashi was part of the New Japan undercard for years, and while popular, wasn’t considered for a main event position because he didn’t fit the mold of the typical “top guy” in Japan, who historically came from the world of Olympic wrestling or martial arts, sumo, MMA, etc.

However, Tanahashi was a gifted athlete with a great look, and a true intelligence and passion for the wrestling business like a CM Punk, with ideas and beliefs on how to grow the sport.

After years of various “legit” guys failing to move the needle, in 2006 Tanahashi was given the brass ring, in the form of the IWGP heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. In the first instance of Lesnar waffling between pro wrestling and the UFC, he avoided what would now be considered the dream match of all dream matches against Tanahashi and fled to MMA.

Tanahashi won a tournament for the vacated IWGP heavyweight title and never looked back. He worked extra hard as champion, building relationships with the fans and the media, and was putting on some of the most fantastic matches of the decade against a new crop of wrestlers such as Nakamura, Yano and others.

It didn’t happen overnight, but bit by bit, things seemed to be working, especially with the MMA craze dying down after Pride was bought out by the UFC. And at Wrestle Kingdom 3 in 2009, Tanahashi headlined the Tokyo Dome against one of the men most responsible for the ’90s boom, returning icon the Great Muta, drawing the largest crowd in five years. But it wasn’t the size of the crowd that represented the turning point, it was the makeup of the audience. Younger adults and students, the same crowd that didn’t watch wrestling, and once filled up stadiums to watch Sakuraba, Wanderlei Silva, Rampage Jackson and Bob Sapp were now sitting in the stands to watch Tanahashi.

New Japan was starting to become the “it” thing again, and the mainstream celebrity of Tanahashi was starting to pass onto the other young stars of New Japan, such Makabe, Shibata and Naito, and older wrestling fans began to re-discover wrestling.  This momentum built, and year after year saw more and more fans at New Japan shows with Tanahashi as the main attraction, as well as an underground movement slowly spreading worldwide over the internet.

And that brings us to Wrestle Kingdom 9. In a nutshell, Tanahashi is the guy you want to see, and this is the show to see him on. In recent years he has led New Japan to levels of popularity not seen since the 1990s and is generating more revenue and profits for NJPW than ever before.

His effect on the business is the same as what Hulk Hogan did in the ’80s and Steve Austin in the ’90s. Despite being in his 30s, based on his astounding library of matches and his reviving the wrestling industry in Japan, Tanahashi is already one of the most important wrestlers of all time. With WK9 marking his seventh main event in the famous stadium in what will surely be an all-time classic.



No Comments Yet! You can be first to comment this post!

Write comment