A Bullet Point Guide Through the History of New Japan Pro Wrestling

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For the past year, I’ve been doing guides on New Japan shows, NJPW World, and members of the New Japan roster, all of which have received a wonderful response (thanks, guys). And while I hope you’re all now caught up with the goings on in NJPW today, for many, the history of New Japan is still mostly unknown.

Unlike many Western promotions, information about NJPW is a bit more scarce, harder to discover, or requires scrolling through paragraphs of texts to find. So, as I’ve been compiling knowledge for past guides, lists and just for my general interest, I tried to put together the most comprehensive yet precise guide through the archives of New Japan as I could.

The following post will take you through every decade from NJPW’s inception to the present day in bullet point form. I’ve included all of the company’s most important events, the biggest stars of each time period, when certain promotion traditions began, the hardships NJPW went through, and just general facts and obscure info.

In order to make this as clear as possible, I’ve tried to keep each point as concise as possible without leaving out any vital information. Hopefully by the end of the guide, you’ll be more aware of what led to this great company being in the thriving state it is in today, and more appreciative of the quirks and ways of what makes New Japan what it is. This is my Bullet Point Guide Through the History of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

 

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The Inception

  • Prior to 1972, the biggest promotion in Japan was the JWA – Japanese Wrestling Alliance.
  • The promotion was started by Rikidōzan, a man who is credited with popularising pro wrestling in Japan, and is seen as a national treasure as a result.
  • In 1963, Rikidōzan was brutally murdered by a member of the Yakuza.
  • With Rikidōzan gone, JWA had to then rely on two younger stars to draw in fans – Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba.
  • Baba and Inoki would be top stars in the promotion for years, both as singles wrestlers and as a tag team.
  • The company remained successful until they began to lose fans to rival promotion, IWE.
  • By 1972, Inoki and Baba were both so unhappy with how things were in JWA that they tried to take charge of the company, yet were fired before they could manage it.
  • In response, both men decided to start their own promotions in 1972 – Baba founded All Japan Pro Wrestling, and of course, Inoki started New Japan Pro Wrestling.
  • Interestingly, the JWA went out of business just a year later.

 

 

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1972-1979

  • Antonio Inoki appointment himself as the president and the top star of NJPW from day one.
  • Their first show took place on March 6th 1972, and they were given a television show in 1973.
  • Alongside the promotion, the NJPW Dojo was also established in 1972. Ran by Inoki, it became a training system for many of the company’s top stars, and is still crafting many young talents to this day (read all about the life and journey of a young lion here).
  • Initially, NJPW did not feature many foreign talents, only a select few that had proven themselves reliable to Inoki during his JWA days, such as Lou Thesz, Karl Gotch, Billy Robinson and Andre the Giant.
  • Infamously, Inoki was very unwillingly to lose, especially in his earlier days, thus a win against Inoki was a huge feather in anybody’s cap.
  • NJPW was a purist promotion during the time, championing technical ability over theatrics and characters.
  • In 1974, NJPW started a tradition of having a tournament between the company’s best heavweights every summer. This tourney would later go on to be the G1 Climax.
  • NJPW became a part of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1975.

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  • In 1976, arguably Inoki’s most famous match took place when he had a special attraction bout with Muhammad Ali.
  • Many believe this to be the first example of an MMA match.
  • As neither man was willing to lose, the two barely dared get near each other, and it ended in a draw.
  • Despite the poor quality of the bout, Inoki’s popularity in Japan grew, and he was seen as a legitimate fighter.
  • To capitalise on this legitimacy, Inoki began bringing in professional boxers to fight in New Japan, and of course, Inoki won all of those matches.
  • During this time, New Japan was second to All Japan in terms of popularity.

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  • In the late 70s, New Japan began forming a relationship with the WWF through Inoki.
  • When Inoki came over to America in 1978, Vince McMahon awarded him with the WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship, a title that would be defended solely in NJPW despite being branded as a WWF title.
  • In the same year, NJPW wrestler Tatsumi Fujinami won the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship, which he brought over to New Japan, where it was defended regularly.
  • In 1979, Inoki defeated the then WWF Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund in Tokushima for the title, making him the WWF Champion.
  • A couple of weeks later, a rematch between the two (which Backlund won) was declared a no contest due to outside interference, but Inoki refused to keep the championship this way so he vacated it.
  • As Inoki refused to take the title back, his short reign is not officially recognised.

 

 

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1980-1989

  • Inoki began bringing in a lot more foreign talents, many of whom would go on to become huge names in the WWF.
  • Growing tensions between NJPW and All Japan led to increased ruthlessness and higher paychecks in order to compete for the best talents.
  • Hulk Hogan was brought over to NJPW in 1980, where he was instantly a big star. He used a more technical style than we are all used to seeing from him and was nicknamed “Ichiban” (number one) by fans. In 1983, Inoki was stretchered out during a bout with Hogan and hospitalised when Hogan accidentally knocked him out legitimately, which instantly made Hogan a huge threat due to Inoki’s status and unwillingness to lose.
  • Other big American stars to appear in New Japan during this time included Dusty Rhodes, Andre the Giant, Stan Hansen, Sgt. Slaughter, and more.
  • Interestingly, some of the biggest matches in WWF history had already taken place in NJPW during this time (click here for a list of those matches).

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  • In 1981, NJPW acquired the rights to take a very popular masked pro wrestler manga character, Tiger Mask, and adapt it into a real life wrestler. Satoru Sayama portrayed the character and instantly became a huge star, and made New Japan synonymous with junior heavyweight wrestling.
  • It was the junior heavyweights which became well-known around the world, and popular with tape traders, thanks to the likes of Dave Meltzer, who gave his first-ever five star rating to a match between Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid.
  • Prior to 1983, New Japan’s top belts were all under the NWA banner, that is until Inoki decided to create the International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP), a fictional governing sports body (similar to the likes of the WBA for professional boxing) used to give NJPW more legitimacy.

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  • Initially, the International Wrestling Grand Prix held a yearly tournament to decide the best wrestler in the company, but then in 1987, the first defending IWGP Heavyweight Champion was crowned, and it was of course, Antonio Inoki.
  • New Japan cut all ties with the NWA in 1985.
  • The IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships were created in 1985.
  • The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship was created in 1986.
  • The MSG Tag League became an annual event in 1980, which would go on to be the World Tag League which is still going today.
  • New Japan held its first show in the Tokyo Dome in 1989.
  • 1984 saw three of the most important performers in New Japan history make their debuts as young lions – Keiji Mutoh, Shinya Hashimoto and Masahiro Chono.

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  • Probably the most important debut of the decade was Big Van Vader in 1987, who famously destroyed Antonio Inoki in under five minutes, a level of dominance which had never been seen before against the New Japan founder. Two years later, he became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
  • Arguably the biggest feud of the 1980s was between NJPW and the invading UWF, a wrestling organisation made of many former New Japan talents that returned as heels once the company went out of business. The feud lasted years, and even involved the IWGP Heavyweight Championship trading between the two companies.
  • One of the most influential junior heavyweight wrestlers of all time, Jushin Thunder Liger, debuted in 1989, based on an extremely popular anime character (click here for my list of Jushin’s weirdest moments)
  • Antonio Inoki decided to get into politics in the late 1980s, and was elected into the Japanese House of Councillors in 1989.

 

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1990-1999

  • New Japan formed a relationship with World Championship Wrestling in the early 1990s.
  • In 1990, Tatsumi Fujinami became the first man to hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and the NWA World Heavyweight Championship simultaneously, when he beat Ric Flair for the big gold belt.
  • From 91-93, New Japan and WCW held three cross-branded supershows together.
  • The two companies exchanged talents throughout the decade, with varying degrees of success. Many members of New Japan would make appearances on Nitro for months at a time, and even appeared in some of their video games. Yet you may not realise that WCW talents also had lengthy stints in New Japan also, some finding far more success over there compared to in the States.
  • Arguably the biggest success story of an NJPW talent going over to WCW (at least in terms of international name value) was Keiji Mutoh, who became The Great Muta in the United States (Read more about that here).

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  • The biggest WCW star in New Japan was nWo member, Scott Norton, who won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 1998.
  • In fact, the faction ever had its own sub-group in NJPW – nWo Japan. Strangely, one of the most popular members of the group was nWo Sting, an impostor version of the popular WCW World Champion. Jeff Farmer began a feud with the real Sting in WCW when he began dressing as and pretending to be him. Once the feud was over, nWo Sting went over to New Japan and became a big star.
  • During this relationship with WCW, talents like Ric Flair, Macho Man, and more competed in New Japan for short tours.
  • One of the most fascinating events that New Japan was associated with in the early 90’s was the release of 41 Japanese hostages from Iraq. NJPW founder Antonio Inoki, who was an active politician at the time, self-funded journeys over to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein in order to help free the hostages. Inoki even converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammed Hussain Inoki. After bringing over NJPW stars to hold a two-day wrestling peace festival there (Saddam was a big wrestling fan, and had even funded shows in Iraq prior to this), all of his efforts led to the release of every hostage (See a full video about this here).

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  • Arguably, the most controversial event for the promotion in the 90’s was the infamous Collision in Korea event in 1995. It was a two day peace festival. Inoki has been trying to build positive relationships with North Korea since his successful endeavours to Iraq, and this event was a part of that.
  • Collision in Korea featured stars from WCW and NJPW, and is currently the most attended wrestling event in history (although whether most of them actually chose to be there is a different story).
  • Collision in Korea has never been made available for release on home video or the WWE Network, however interestingly, two of the matches are available on NJPW World (read about that here).
  • Another major event held by Inoki in this decade was the World Wrestling Peace Festival in LA, which featured talents from NJPW, AAA, All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling, CMLL, Michinoku Pro, NWA, and WCW. This is the show that is responsible for several cruiserweight wrestlers being signed by Eric Bischoff.
  • The G1 Climax was held for the first time in 1991. As mentioned earlier, there was always an annual summer heavyweight tournament in NJPW, but none prior to the G1 hold the lineage and prestige that it does.

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  • When it came to heavyweight wrestlers, the decade was dominated by The Three Musketeers – Keiji Mutoh, Shinya Hashimoto and Masahiro Chono. These three men were singled out as the young future stars once Inoki stepped away from wrestling full time. They were often teammates, yet also often enemies.
  • The first G1 Climax final between Keiji Mutoh and Masahiro Chono is a good example of the friendly rivalry between the musketeers, and also their immense popularity (read about my favourite G1 finals here).
  • The Great Muta and Hiroshi Hase had a match in 1992 that was so gruesomely bloody, it spawned The Muta Scale – a measuring stick for the bloodiness of a pro wrestling match.
  • In 1991, the tradition of holding a show inside the Tokyo Dome every January 4th began with Super Warriors in Tokyo Dome.
  • The first Super J Cup took place in 1994 – the finals of this tournament was one of the most legendary Junior Heavyweight bouts in history. Wild Pegasus vs. The Great Sasuke was a favourite amongst tape traders throughout the decade, and earned a five-star rating from Dave Meltzer.

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  • The Best of the Super Juniors was first held in 1994 (there was a Top of the Super Juniors prior to this, but it wasn’t annual and does not hold the prestige of BOSJ).
  • Much like the 80’s, the junior wrestlers were the talk of New Japan when it came to match quality.
  • The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships were created in 1998.
  • Arguably the greatest contribution to global wrestling during the 90’s that New Japan had was the exposure of several junior wrestlers that would go on to be huge future stars. Without NJPW displaying the talents of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, and more, WCW and ECW may not have signed them and gave them a Western platform to shine on.
  • Elsewhere in the country, All Japan Pro Wrestling were gaining traction and huge critical acclaim thanks to stars such as Kawada, Misawa and Kobashi, who many believe put on some of the greatest matches of all time during this decade. The competition between the two companies was fierce, but the late 90’s especially were still a prosperous period for New Japan. That is until…

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  • The final year of this decade is not remembered too fondly in this company, as many attribute it to being the start of a period known as “The Dark Ages”.
  • On January 4th 1999, a protege of Inoki and former Olympic Judo competitor, Naoya Ogawa, took on Shinya Hashimoto (one of the Three Musketeers) at the biggest show of the year. This match has become infamous due to how out of control it became.
  • Instantly, Ogawa began to shoot fight Hashimoto, taking him to the ground and stiffing him with brutal shots – this went on for seven minutes. The match had to be called off, and Inoki and Chono entered the ring to break the two apart.
  • Although there is speculation over whether this was planned or not, fans were definitely not happy, and this match alone ruined Hashimoto’s reputation for being tough.
  • Things didn’t get much better in the new millennium.

 

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2000-2009

  • Inoki became obsessed with crossing the worlds of MMA and pro wrestling – he had his wrestlers trying out MMA and MMA stars coming in for wrestling matches.
  • Fighters like Bob Sapp, Josh Barnett, Bas Rutten and more all came in for IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches, and Bob Sapp even won the belt (Read more about that here).
  • As a result, many of NJPW’s top stars such as all three of the Musketeers left the company, along with many fans, to go to places such as All Japan, and upstart companies such as Pro Wrestling NOAH.
  • Inoki continued to push this idea though, which many have coined as Inoki-ism (search the term for more articles about the subject).
  • The IWGP Heavyweight Championship belt was traded numerous times during the early 2000s. Eventually it ended up in the hands of Brock Lesnar, who would refuse to defend or return the championship at one point due to a contract dispute.
  • Although New Japan has always been an all-male promotion, former WWF Women’s Champion Chyna was brought in for several singles matches, the only female ever to do so. Apparently, this offended some roster members, most notably Masahiro Chono, who was extremely rough with her in the ring, which caused then boyfriend X-Pac to fight Chono backstage after his match.
  • These dark ages for New Japan lasted up until around 2006, when the company was on the brink of going out of business.
  • To save the company, 51.5% of NJPW was sold off to video game company Yukes (who interestingly were making video games for WWE at the time), effectively forcing Inoki to lose his overruling power.
  • In 2007, Inoki started a new promotion, IGF (which has since left and started yet another promotion), where on their first show in June 2007, Kurt Angle beat Brock Lesnar for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship that he refused to give back to New Japan almost a year earlier. The belt would then finally be returned in the coming days.

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  • Ever wondered why Hiroshi Tanahashi is so revered in New Japan, and referred to as The Saviour? Well, he pretty much saved the company by himself.
  • The changing of New Japan’s whole attitude and how it operated coincided with Tanahashi’s rise to prominence.
  • Whilst others like Shinsuke Nakamura held on to the idea that they had to be a traditional, non-eccentric performer like those that came before him, Tanahashi embraced theatrics and character, and the fans ate it up.
  • By 2009, Tanahashi was a multiple-time world champion, main-eventing the biggest shows of the year, and with it, the landscape of New Japan changed. The likes of Shinsuke changed their ways, and started to ooze the charisma and character they’re known for today.

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  • On January 4th 2007, we saw the first ever Wrestle Kingdom show.
  • In 2005, the first New Japan Cup was held, a knockout tournament that grants the winner a match against any of the heavyweight champions.
  • New Japan partnered with the oldest wrestling company in the world, CMLL, in 2008. Many young lions in the past decade, such as Naito, Hiromu and Yujiro Takahashi, have went on excursion there in Mexico.
  • Also in 2008, NJPW partnered with TNA. Some of New Japan’s top talents appeared in TNA over the coming years, including Tanahashi and infamously Okada, and many TNA stars appeared on Wrestle Kingdom shows.

 

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2010-Present

  • New Japan’s popularity and overall quality began to rise in this decade.
  • NJPW became a promotion based around competing factions.
  • In 2012, Minoru Suzuki and Tanahashi were involved in the first NJPW match in 15 years to get five stars from Dave Meltzer. Obviously this is just one man’s opinion, however it is a good indicator of the growing interest and quality of New Japan at the time.
  • This is the decade that spawned one of New Japan’s biggest ever stars – Kazuchika Okada. After returning from a learning excursion on January 4th in 2012, the young rookie immediately challenged Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Just over a month later, he picked up a truly shocking victory over The Ace to win his first world championship. He would go on to be a multiple time champion, and has the records for longest reign, most title defences in one reign, and most combined days as champion.
  • Tanahashi and Okada have been fierce rivals ever since. Many believe this to be the greatest feud in company history.

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  • When Naito challenged Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 8 for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, fans voted to have the Intercontinental Championship match main-event the show instead due to the lack of interest in this title bout. Fans were reluctant to get behind Naito, but after returning from an excursion to Mexico in 2015 with a new faction and character, he has since become one of the most popular wrestlers in the company.
  • The NEVER Openweight Championship was created in 2012. It is the only singles belt without weight restrictions.
  • In 2011, NJPW created the Intercontinental Championship.
  • In 2012, collectable card company Bushiroad took charge of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
  • New Japan aired their first iPPV in 2012, and eventually that morphed into their own streaming service, NJPW World, in late 2014 (click here for a guide on using and getting the most out of it)

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  • New Japan partnered with ROH in 2014, and began holding joint shows both in the US and in Japan.
  • British company Revolution Pro started working with New Japan in 2015, where Kevin Kelly is now a commentator on their brand new TV show on FreeSports (read my interview with Kevin here).
  • One of the most popular factions ever in pro wrestling, Bullet Club, was formed in 2013 by Prince Devitt, Karl Anderson, Tama Tonga and Bad Luck Fale. When Devitt left New Japan in 2014, AJ Styles was brought in to be the new leader, who won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in his first match as an official member of the roster (he did have four matches for the company in 2008 when TNA was partners with NJPW).
  • The NEVER Openweight Six-Man Championships were created in 2016.

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  • In 2016, Kenny Omega became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the prestigious G1 Climax.
  • When Omega challenged Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11, their main-event match was an instant hit, and got the world talking. Omega and Okada would go on to have three more incredible matches with each other, all of which have helped spread the word about New Japan around the globe.
  • In 2017, the IWGP US Championship was created in celebration of the company’s global expansion.
  • At the end of 2017, Chris Jericho returned to New Japan after twenty years to challenge Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom, in his first match away from WWE since 1999. Jericho’s popularity helped to increase NJPW World subscriptions significantly leading up to the show.

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  • A New Japan highlights show began airing on AXS TV in the US in 2015, which is still running today.
  • After partnering with GFW in 2014, Jeff Jarrett helped make Wrestle Kingdom 9 in 2015 available to watch on PPV in the US.
  • NJPW opened a new dojo in LA in 2018.
  • In April 2019, New Japan will host a show alongside ROH inside Madison Square Garden, the first time a non-WWE wrestling promotion will do so since 1960. The show is already sold out.
  • New Japan Pro Wrestling has never been more popular on a global scale as it is right now, and is experiencing impressive domestic success.

 

I hope this guide has been helpful and informed you on some things that you didn’t already know.

I post guides to every major New Japan full of important information, start times, explanations of why matches are taking places, match recommendations with links, and much more.

ALL NJPW CONTENT HERE

Follow me on Twitter where I am always happy to talk about New Japan – @HairyWrestling

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