New Japan Pro Wrestling is a company built on traditions, and one of its longest-running customs has been to send members of its roster on learning excursions – extended trips to work in other promotions around the world in order to develop their characters, improve their grappling abilities, or just to have time away from NJPW fans so they can come back to the company with a new character or mentality. Although most wrestlers are sent on excursion during their days as a Young Lion (New Japan’s rookie wrestlers), some are sent away once they are a permanent graduate member of the NJPW roster to improve even further. But of all the many talents that have been sent abroad over the years by New Japan, which had the most successful journeys? Who was the biggest hit in their foreign promotions, and who made the biggest impacts upon their return? Let’s find out – here are the Top 10 Most Successful New Japan Pro Wrestling Excursions.
I’ll be basing the rankings on what each wrestler managed to achieve during their time in another promotion, and on how their foreign excursions directly affected/improved their success when returning to New Japan. Also, excursions to other Japanese promotions, e.g. NOAH and All Japan, won’t be included.
10. Yujiro Takahashi
As part of the tag team No Limit with Tetsuya Naito, Yujiro Takahashi went on a developmental tour, working in TNA, Jersey All Pro Wrestling, and CMLL. Although they were only there for two months, No Limit were given an IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match, and a television bout with Kevin Nash during their time in TNA. When they debuted in CMLL, Takahashi and Naito were presented as anti-Mexican heels, dubbing themselves La Ola Amarilla (Spanish for “The Yellow Wave”), and competing only against Mexican natives.
During his time their, after enduring racially-charged abuse and heat from fans, Takahashi developed the confident, cocky swagger we see him utilise as part of the Bullet Club today. Without his time in Mexico, Yujiro may never have been able to stand out enough to become the first Japanese member of BC, and as a result, capture multiple championships including the NEVER Openweight Championship.
9. Jay White
In the case of newly graduated Young Lion Jay White, his excursion took him to Ring of Honor, and Revolution Pro in England, where he had plenty of success. White managed to go undefeated for nearly nine months in ROH, unusual for somebody under 200 pounds, and managed to steal the show at their War of the Worlds series of pay-per-views earlier this year when he faced Will Ospreay. During his time away from New Japan, White bulked up in weight in order to become a more believable heavyweight in preparation for his return, and developed a vicious blend of strong style, good fundamentals and high-flying offense. Clearly his time developing his moveset as well as his physical form paid off massively for White as his first match back in NJPW was against Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom, and within a matter of weeks had beaten Kenny Omega clean for the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship.
8. El Desperado
As you’ll soon find out from reading this list, New Japan send a vast proportion of their young lions over to CMLL in Mexico, the oldest active professional wrestling promotion in the world, due to their close partnership. When Kyosuke Mikami was sent down to Mexico in early 2012, he was given a mask and gimmick based upon the Japanese folk demon Namahage. During his time there, Mikami worked prodomantly as a heel, feuding with the likes of Stuka, Jr. and Rey Cometa.
In just a year, Mikami was main-eventing major CMLL shows, competing in hair vs. mask as well as hair vs. hair matches (traditions in Mexico), and won the Arena Coliseo Tag Team Championships. When he returned to NJPW at the beginning of 2014, he debuted a new character – El Desperado. Although separate to his CMLL persona, Desperado completely owes his current gimmick as a Mexican luchador to his time spent in CMLL. If it wasn’t for that, he wouldn’t be the masked member of Suzuki-Gun that he is today.
7. Takuma Sano
Although Takuma Sano isn’t known much for his time in New Japan Pro Wrestling, despite a series of great matches against Jushin Liger for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship in the late 80s, his time away on foreign excursion as a young lion with the company is an experience that he owes a significant amount of his success to.
Takuma’s first overseas excursion, back when he was still only allowed to wear black boots and black trunks, was an effort to help him develop and learn as a pro wrestler. He was sent to the now defunct UWA promotion in Mexico, where he won the Distrito Federal Trios Championships with fellow NJPW wrestlers Hirokazu Hata and Yoshihiro Asai. After a successful return to New Japan in 1989, Sano was sent on excursion again a year later, this time to Canada – but it was due to this learning experience that Sano would end up leaving NJPW.
Competing for the Canadian National Wrestling Alliance under the name Mr Sano, Takuma was given the chance to compete against some of the best technical wrestlers Canada had to offer, capturing the promotion’s World Mid-Heavyweight Championship in the process. Being able to show off his skills against the talented CNWA roster helped Sano catch the eye of Megane Super, a major Japanese optomotrist chain that owned Super World of Sports at the time. Megane Super offered Sano a substatial amount of money to not return to New Japan, and instead become the top junior heavyweight in SWS.
It is impossible to say whether Takuma would have been more successful in the long run if he had stayed with the company that trained him, however if we are looking solely at his time on excursion and the impact it had on his profession, it was the sole factor for him being pushed into a highly paid position at a relatively early point in his career. Even though it may not be one of the greatest excursions from the prospective of New Japan, when it comes to personal success, this has got to be one of the best learning journeys of the last forty years.
6. El Samurai
With most of the other entries in this list, their time on excursion either helped them grow as a professional wrestler, or became their influence for their new persona upon returning to NJPW. For legendary junior-heavyweight El Samurai, he owes his entire character to it.
In 1991, Osamu Matsuda travelled to work in the aforementioned UWF promotion in Mexico, where he was put under a mask and given the name El Samurai. During his time there, Samurai was highly successful, winning the UWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship, the UWA World Middleweight Championship, and even the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship (yes, that WWF).
Once he returned to his home promotion, Osamu kept the El Samurai look and name, and from there, became one of the most successful junior-heavyweight wrestlers on the 1990s. During his career, Samurai became IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion,
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion several times, J-Crown and Best of Super Juniors winner, NWA World Welterweight Champion, and competed in two five-star matches.
5. Manabu Nakanishi
After competing in the Greco-Roman Wrestling at the 1992 Olympics, Manabu Nakanishi was quickly signed to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Immediately after winning the Young Lions Cup in 1995, Nakanishi was sent to WCW to become a member of The Stud Stable, led by Colonel Robert Parker. The team feuded with WCW legends Sting and Road Warrior Hawk, competing against them at Clash of Champions, the company’s biggest PPV show. On top of that, Manabu even kayfabe broke the arm of Hawk after the match, and given how tough the Legion of Doom member was always portrayed to be, this was a major boost for Nakanishi’s career. During his relatively short time there, Nakanishi also competed at Halloween Havoc, and is known for almost beating Randy Savage on an episode of Nitro.
Even though WCW was yet to hit their biggest stride when Nakanishi joined their roster, they were still a major promotion with a weekly cable television show seen around the world. Not only did he get to compete for huge television audiences, Nakanishi got to do it against some of the biggest names pro wrestling has ever produced.
4. Hiromu Takahashi
In 2014, New Japan young lion Hiromu Takahashi threw away the black trunks and black boots, travelled to Mexico, and turned himself into a star.
Much like El Desparado, Takahashi was sent on excursion to CMLL where he was given a masked character based on Japanese folk law, Kamaitachi. Initially working in the lower card of CMLL shows, which much like New Japan consists primarily of six-man tag matches, it wasn’t until early 2015 when Kamaitachi really began to shine. Hiromu began feuding with one of CMLL’s most promising rookies, Dragon Lee. The two instantly had immense chemistry together, competing in multiple match of the night candidates. After losing a mask vs. mask match, Kamaitachi really allowed his personality to shine with his undeniable charisma and unique swagger. From there, Kamaitachi won the CMLL World Lightweight Championship, and his on-going feud with Dragon Lee, sent them both to work in Ring of Honor, as well as PWG.
On November 5th 2016, Hiromu returned to New Japan, once again working under his real name. With dyed red hair and the most glorious jacket in all of wrestling, Hiromu debuted his ticking time bomb persona, swaggered down to the ring, and challenged KUSHIDA for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. A month later, Hiromu was invited to join Los Ingobernables De Japon, a position he wouldn’t have received if it wasn’t for his time in Mexico. Since then, Hiromu has become one of the most popular and captivating members of the New Japan roster, putting on incredible matches against his old rival Dragon Lee, as well as new rivals such as Will Ospreay and KUSHIDA. What’s more, he is responsible for introducing the world to the global treasure that is Daryl the cat.
Not only did Hiromu Takahashi have one of the most successful times during his excursion out of any NJPW talent, but what he’s achieved since his return to the company is completely down to his journey in Mexico and the United States. If you need to look at a true young lion success story, look no further than the man who carries a stuffed cat around with him, feeds fried chicken to his opponents, and wears multi-coloured fur coats.
3. Yuji Nagata
In 1997, future IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Yuji Nagata was given one of the biggest opportunities ever presented to a rookie in New Japan – he was sent to be part of World Championship Wrestling, which at the time was the most watched wrestling promotion in the world. In the midst of the Monday Night Wars, Nagata joined the winning side as an arrogant villain, immediately put into a feud with legendary cruiserweight, Ultimo Dragon. By October, Nagata was competing on WCW’s Halloween Havoc PPV (click here for the worst moments from that PPV series) and World War 3 the following month.
By 1998, Nagata, along with Kensuke Sasaki, won a tournament to become the WCW World Tag Team Championships, yet were unsuccessful in their efforts to capture them. By August 1998, Nagata was back in New Japan, where he began one of the greatest careers of any young lion graduate.
As far as foreign excursions go, being on live PPVs broadcast around the world, as well as the most watched wrestling programme in the world at the time, viewed by millions in the United States alone, that’s not bad going for the legendary Blue Justice. (Oh, and he got to feature in WCW/NWO Revenge because of his time there, and that game is awesome.)
2. Tetsuya Naito
You may not realise it, but the fans that talents work in front of can potentially have a massive impact on how they work and how their persona develops. Take current main-event megastar Tetsuya Naito, leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon. From May 2009 to January 2010, Naito was on excursion with Mexican company CMLL, with his aforementioned No Limit partner, Yujiro Takahashi.
During his time there, Naito was subjected to a lot of racially charged fan abuse whilst in the ring, regularly being told to “open his eyes” due to his Japanese ethnicity. The CMLL fan response taught him how to work heel in front of crowds and would ultimately help develop the persona he holds today. After working many years as a straight-forward babyface back in NJPW that was finding little success with fans, Naito returned to CMLL in 2015, completely overhauled his character, joined Los Ingobernables, developed his signature eye-holding pose as a direct response to racist fans telling him to open them, which all in turn led him to being arguably the most popular wrestler in his native country right now. If it wasn’t for his time spent in another nation, Naito would have never been exposed to his adopted tranquilo ways, and New Japan would not have the global superstar they do today.
Without his time in CMLL, Naito would never have been able to form the stable he has propelled into a gigantic spotlight. He owes his current persona and entire stable to his time spent in Mexico on foreign excursion, along with his confidence as a heel.
Mitsuhide Hirasawa – Highlights: Winning the WWC Carribean Heavyweight Championship and WWC Puerto Rico Heavyweight Championship.
Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger – Highlights: Facing ‘Rollerball’ Mark Rocco for the World Heavy Middleweight Championship several times, and appearing on ITV’s World of Sport.
Nobuhiko Takada – Highlights: Competed against the likes of Bret Hart, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith for the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship.
Osamu Nishimura – Competed in a tournament for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship which would eventually end with Shane Douglas infamously throwing the title to the ground.
Tama Tonga – Highlights: Main-evented a CMLL show against La Sombra, and won the CMLL World Tag Team Championships.
Hirooki Goto – Highlights: Competed in TNA as part of Team Japan, and had a lengthy run in Mexico.
Shinsuke Nakamura – Highlights: Competed in Mexico, Brazil and Russia, trained in Brock Lesnar’s personal gym, and gained a lot of muscle ready for his return.
1. Keiji Mutoh
On a worldwide scale, Keiji Mutoh is easily one of most popular Japanese wrestlers of all time, and he owes that global success to his time spent on excursion.
Now, Mutoh’s excursions didn’t start out all too great. Initially he was sent to Florida, where he would be known as White Ninja, then later to Puerto Rico where he was christened The Super Black Ninja. Thankfully, neither character stuck with Mutoh for too long, but then in 1989, he was given the moniker that has stuck with him for almost thirty years.
Before we talk about this future IWGP World Heavyweight Champion though, we must discuss one of the most underrated influential figures in pro wrestling – The Great Kabuki. In 1981, The Great Kabuki character was born in World Class Championship Wrestling. With his Japanese heritage, elaborate yet terrifying entrance outfits, and ever-changing facepaint designs, Kabuki stood out compared to the rest of his peers. He was a true innovator when it comes to Japanese talents competing in the United States, and was the first person to ever spray mist out of their mouth in pro wrestling, something which dozens of wrestlers have used since.
When Keiji Mutoh was brought into WCW, he was introduced as the son of The Great Kabuki, hence why he was given the Great Muta name, why his face was painted, and why he sprayed mist at his opponents. Thanks to a short run in WCCW prior to his time with WCW, the NWA were high on Mutoh’s abilities, which is what earned him this character, and the instant push he was subsequently given.
During his one year stint there, Muta battled some of the biggest names in WCW history, including Lex Luger, Ric Flair, and Arn Anderson, and was even given the honour of beating the iconic Sting to capture the NWA World Television Championship, all of which took place whilst on excursion. When he returned back to New Japan, Mutoh brought the Great Muta gimmick with him due to how popular it became. From there, Mutoh quickly became one of the biggest stars the company had, winning championships and putting on five-star classics.
However, as Mutoh had been such a success in WCW, Muta was brought back several times for major matches in the coming years, including an appearance at Starrcade 1990. 91 and 92, and Clash of Champions 91. Over time, he was invited back for major runs and extended tours right up until the last days of WCW.
Muta without question had the greatest foreign excursion in New Japan history as not only was his time afterwards directly affected by his foreign excursion, Mutoh was also massively successful during the excursion. Not many people get to defeat a company’s top babyface when they’re not even a permanent member of the roster, and not many have been able to replicate the levels of success Muta had post-excursion, including winning the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, becoming the inspiration for The Muta Scale, being involved in several five-star matches, and starting his own promotion. When it comes down to it, Muta truly is one of the greats, most of which is thanks to his time spent on excursion.