Before wrestlers make it to WWE, they can rack up a lot of significant achievements that often go overlooked and ignored by Vince and co, thus many of us may not realise how much success these performers have elsewhere. It’s widely known how the likes of AJ Styles, Vader, Hulk Hogan and more ventured to New Japan with accomplished results, yet there are many names out there you may not even realise stepped in an NJPW ring, let alone captured gold there. Here are Five WWE Wrestlers You Probably Didn’t Know Were Champions in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
During the early days of his iconic ECW career, Sabu had a year-long run in New Japan. Debuting at the January 4th Tokyo Dome show in 1995, and making his final appearance for the company in December of the same year, Sabu managed to win two championships during that period. the UWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Championship (a belt which was brought over to Japan once the Mexican promotion UWA became defunct), as well as the legendary IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship.
It’s hard to believe that the same title held by the likes of Jushin Liger, Tiger Mask, and more of the greatest junior wrestlers of all time was also once held by a homicidal, genocidal, suicidal, death-defying maniac like Sabu. Before his name was eternally tied with barbed wire to blood and guts, he was one of NJPW’s top junior heels for a twelve month period, wrestling the likes of Koji Kanemoto, Gedo, Wild Pegasus, Black Tiger, and the aforementioned Jushin Liger.
Chavo Guerrero Sr.
The oldest WWE Cruiserweight Champion in history (yes, that did happen), Chavo Guerrero Sr., also known as Chavo Classic, spent two years in the late 70’s and early 80’s competing in New Japan, teaming regularly with other non-Japanese wrestlers, and facing some of the biggest names in New Japan history, including Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Andre the Giant.
When Chavo competed in New Japan, he became their NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship, a belt that was mainly contested in New Japan, which had ties with the National Wrestling Alliance at the time. Chavo wasn’t just a forgettable champion though as his first reign with the belt would be what defined it for the rest of the 1980’s.
Whilst being the reigning champion, Chavo Guerrero Sr. left NJPW to return to the United States, never wrestling for the promotion again, taking the championship along with him. When he returned to Japan the following year, it was to compete for NJPW’s biggest rival, AJPW, and he brought the belt along with him. With that, a New Japan championship then became the top prize in All Japan’s junior heavyweight division.
One of Guerrero’s siblings would become known and beloved for lying, cheating and stealing decades later, yet back in the 80’s, Chavo was stealing a championship away from one of the biggest wrestling promotions in the world. Beat that, Eddie.
Although he is most known for his time in Ring of Honor, ending EC3’s undefeated streak in IMPACT, and now being a part of 205 Live, Mike Kanellis, then known as Bennett, did have a brief stint in New Japan Pro Wrestling as part of The Kingdom, where they even beat Gallows and Anderson for the IWGP Tag Team Championships. And it’s because of Mike’s time in NJPW that we have to thank for that hilarious GIF of Maria Kanellis distracting an enamoured Karl Anderson, so his travels there were certainly not wasted.
His time in WWE may not have been the most eventful, mainly being remembered for his many tribal tattoos and his association with Christian, yet Tyson Tomko certainly went on to find success elsewhere. As well as a decent period wrestling in TNA, Tomko also spent his post-WWE days wrestling alongside Giant Bernard (aka Albert, Prince Albert, A-Train, Lord Tensai, Tensai, Sweet-T, Jason Albert, Matt Bloom, etc.) as a dominant tag team. This duo beat the legendary Steiner Brothers at the second Wrestle Kingdom show, won the G1 Tag League, and held the IWGP Tag Team Championships on one occasion.
The most notable name featured in this article surprisingly spent the most time competing in New Japan, touring with the company for four years from 87 to 91. When he wasn’t competing in the WWF as the Blue Blazer, Owen Hart was battling legends like Jushin Liger, Fit Finlay, Keiji Muto, and many more as a member of their junior division. During his time there, Hart became the first ever non-Japanese talent to hold the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship.
Despite only holding the belt for a single month, Hart made history nonetheless, something which he would do throughout his career.
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