Since 1987, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship has been held by some of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time. A variety of incredible contenders from around the globe have competed for this prestigous belt….however….at times, some highly unlikely contenders have somehow managed to earn themselves a match for New Japan’s biggest prize, so let’s take a look at the most unexpected challengers of them all – here are the Top 10 Most Surprising Challengers for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
10. Toru Yano
Yes! Newer fans of New Japan may not expect that the master of the low blow did manage to land himself an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match against Hiroshi Tanahashi at Power Struggle 2011. For anybody that only knows Yano as a comedic fool, I would highly recommend you go onto NJPW World, and seek this match out – you’ll get to see Yano actually do a bit of wrestling, and also see Tanahashi wear face paint for some reason.
With his current reluctance to go one-on-one in a fair fight against anyone in New Japan, it’s highly unlikely Yano will be earning another opportunity for this title any time soon, but I’m sure we all love present day Yano more than we would ever love IWGP Champion Yano.
9. Vicious Warrior (Psycho Sid)
So, considering he was a world champion in both WCW and WWF, it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that Psycho Sid once had a match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, however what is surprising is the time it took him to earn it – less than two years into his professional career.
Known at the time as Vicious Warrior, before his days in WCW or WWF, Sid unsuccessfully challenged then champ Tatsumi Fujinami at the Special Fight In Kokugikan event. For a gaijin to get such a major opportunity so early into his career was a clear sign that he was destined for big things…I just wish somebody had given him a sign to avoid using live microphones…
8. Jerry Lawler
Given the fact Jerry Lawler is the most decorated wrestler in history, as well as the major spotlight he’s had over the last few decades, it’s surprising how obscure his IWGP Heavyweight Championship match actually is. During the Big Fight Series in 1989, Lawler lost against WWE Hall of Famer Tatsumi Fujinami in his only shot at the title. I doubt Jerry was all too disappointed about not being able to hold this belt back in the late 80s though, after all, he did hold 160 of them in his still ongoing career.
7. Josh Barnett/Bas Rutten/Bob Sapp/Don Frye
I’m lumping all four of these men together in one entry as they’re all surprising for the same reason – they’re all MMA fighters synonymous with that sport, and all had very little, or no experience in pro wrestling before coming to New Japan Pro Wrestling. In fact, Don had less than 30 matches before he got his shot at the belt, Bas got a chance in his seventh ever match, Bob Sapp actually won the title in his 9th match, and Josh Barnett’s first ever match was for this prestigious title!
These four men getting such a major opportunity so early on in their ventures into the world of pro wrestling is proof of how beloved MMA is in Japanese culture, and how much martial arts is encompassed in the world of strong style. Pro wrestling has always been presented as a genuine sport in New Japan, thus bringing in these established fighters to compete for their biggest prize was a way of legitimising their product. Neveretheless, four MMA fighters coming in and fighting for a world title with so little experience is still surprising, regardless of how well-known they were.
6. Lord Steven Regal
Until recently, Lord Steven Regal was the only British man to compete for this championship, when he got the opportunity back in 1995 during the Battle Rush series to face the legendary Shinya Hashimoto. The two used their completely different styles to put on a fantastic match for the time. Sadly, Regal never picked up a world title during his amazing career, but he did get to share a room with Jushin Thunder Liger on the Shetland Islands during the 1980s, so not a bad run in general.
5. Road Warrior Hawk
As he is completely synonymous with tag team wrestling, it’s quite astonishing that Road Warrior Hawk was doing so well in singles competition back in 1995 that he was granted a title match against Keiji Muto during the second ever Best of the Super Junior tournament, of all things. Taking a break from teaming with his old friend Animal, Hawk tried to cease the biggest prize in Japanese wrestling, yet failed, and soon returned to what he did best. Let’s just forget about the whole LOD 2000 fiasco that followed though.
4. Charlie Haas
Turns out Kurt isn’t the only member of Team Angle to fight for this title. Yes – Charlie freaking Haas actually had an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match, against Hiroshi Tanahashi no less! During NJPW’s Invasion Tour in 2011, Haas was given the most important match on the card. Obviously he didn’t come out on top in this one, yet was a nice addition to his resume before retiring two years later.
Remember that guy that beat Big Show in a sumo match at Wrestlemania? Well, Paul Wight wasn’t the only wrestler he faced off against. What you may not realise is that the world’s most famous sumo wrestler has actually had an extensive pro wrestling career also, and had matches as recently as 2017. In 2006, Akebono had one of the biggest bouts during his time in the ring, when he unsuccessfully tried to topple then IWGP Champ Brock Lesnar. Despite his fame and dedication to pro wrestling, it may still come as a huge surprise, especially to pro wrestling fans, that a name so closely identified with sumo fought for one of our sport’s most prestigious titles.
2. Van Hammer
Van Hammer was a mid-card wrestler in WCW during the 90s that somehow managed to to stay employed far longer than he ever should have. Despite never having won a single championship in his entire career, this former member of Raven’s Flock actually had a match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship when Scott Norton brought the belt to WCW Monday Nitro in 1998. The match lasted less than two minutes, but it still counts! The only thing that’s more surprising about this title match is if you can actually remember anything from Van Hammer’s career.
Shiro Koshinaka – Known for being the first-ever IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, it may be surprising that he did also have a match for the heavyweight belt too.
Karl Anderson – Known now for being a tag team wrestler, he once had the singles run of a lifetime, which led to a match for the biggest title in the promotion.
EVIL – EVIL surprised us all last year when he beat Okada during the G1, and earned himself a main-event match for the title.
Yujiro Takahashi – Known now as the pimp from Bullet Club, at one point Yujiro was being groomed as the next big star in New Japan.
So……..who the hell is Lodi? Well, he was a WCW wrestler in the late 90s that is best known for being a member of Raven’s flock, and at one point, being in a homosexual gimmick tag team that offended LGBT rights group GLAAD so much to the point that TNT immediately had the two men suspended for six months. In the midst of these forgettable yet controversial runs, Lodi had an eighteen second match on WCW Nitro against Scott Norton for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This is the shortest match in the title’s long history, and is nothing more than a piece of obscure wrestling trivia, much like the rest of Lodi’s career.
Thankfully, we’re long past the days of pimping this belt out to other companies for them to ignore the importance of it, and only defend it in throwaway squash matches. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship is one of the most important and heralded belts in modern pro wrestling, so just be thankful that the likes of Lodi only fought once for the belt, and never even came close to capturing it.