History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5

At NJPW’s The New Beginning, Hiroshi Tanahashi was challenged by the most unlikely of people: Kazuchika Okada. And when Okada made his challenge, most fans laughed. This blonde-haired pretty boy wasn’t anywhere near Tanahashi’s level. He had spent the past three years on a foreign excursion, wrestling mainly in TNA. While there, he was saddled with an embarrassing gimmick that made him look like nothing more than a sidekick. It was such a bad situation that it led to NJPW severing its ties with TNA completely. This is the History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Part 5.

 

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But this Okada wasn’t the same one as the TNA one. This new pretty boy, who called himself ‘The Rainmaker’, was an overconfident rich kid that liked to pose like Randy Orton. Okada made his return to NJPW one month prior to The New Beginning, putting on a disappointing match against Yoshi-Hashi at Wrestle Kingdom VI.

“He [Kazuchika Okada] was part of the show that did not work. He didn’t look unimpressive and was completely unconvincing in his new role as a cocky playboy.” – Dave Meltzer on Kazuchika Okada shortly after Wrestle Kingdom VI.

And yet, this new Okada did something unthinkable, something no one expected him to do. The 24-year-old Okada beat Tanahashi to become IWGP Heavyweight Champion. In doing so, Okada ended one of the greatest IWGP Heavyweight title reigns of all time. That fifth reign of Tanahashi’s lasted 404 days and a record 11 successful title defenses. Tanahashi had brought prestige and relevance back to NJPW and its heavyweight title through all that hard work.

History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5
NJPW’s Golden Decade begins

Most people reacted to Okada’s win with shock and then negativity. They were upset that a legendary wrestling athlete like Tanahashi had lost to such an ‘Americanized’ gimmick like Okada. But Okada wasn’t a static wrestler. With each passing match, he got better and better. His victory match against Tanahashi was praised as a contest, though most people considered it a ‘carry job’ by Tanahashi. But Okada proved those people wrong when he had an even better match against future rival Tetsuya Naito at NJPW’s 40th-anniversary show.

That match proved that Okada had a lot more talent than people gave him credit for. This first reign of Okada’s lasted four months and two defenses before he lost it back to Tanahashi in another highly-praised match. With that, the title was back with the Ace of the Universe. But there was still a lot to be seen with Okada. He wasn’t a one-and-done champion; it was obvious NJPW’s booker Gedo had plans for him and that he’d be getting his shot at the title again soon. And he got his chance by winning the 2012 G1 Climax and earned a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight title at Wrestle Kingdom VII. Although he failed to win there, his match was, once again, praised as the one that set the bar for 2013.

Multiple Interrelated Stories

In his fourth encounter with Tanahashi, Okada persevered and defeated the Ace at Invasion Attack 2013 to become IWGP Heavyweight Champion for a second time. In doing so, he proved his first world title was no fluke. He also proved in this legendary encounter that he, at the very least, was on Tanahashi level. This was an incredible distinction to be given, as Okada basically surpassed so many other wrestlers. He surpassed Shinsuke Nakamura to become the leader of the CHAOS stable. He surpassed both Naito and Hirooki Goto as strong mid-carders that had been pegged for future greatness. And he even managed to beat Masahiro Chono’s record for youngest-ever G1 Climax winner. After beating Tanahashi at Invasion Attack, Okada had a fantastic championship run of his own. And that 391-day reign featured two key stories.

First, there was Okada’s problem with Naito at Wrestle Kingdom VIII. Like Okada the year before, Naito won the G1 Climax and earned the right to face the heavyweight champion in the main event (read: show-closing) match on the card. But NJPW’s fans shot this down. At the time, Naito was a generic white-meat babyface that acted in the blandest way possible. He had no charisma as a good guy, and this lack of personality was highlighted when Naito was compared to guys like Okada, Tanahashi, and Nakamura. Thus, NJPW’s decision-makers held a vote on which match would main-event Wrestle Kingdom that year. Would it be the heavyweight title match between Okada and Naito? Or would it be the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match between Tanahashi and Nakamura, two rivals whose history goes even further back in NJPW history?

The fans chose the latter.

History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5 Fans Rejection of Naito

Naito was robbed of his main event spot by fans that rejected him for who he was. Keep this in mind as the years go on, as it plays a critical role in the heavyweight title scene.

After Okada defeated Naito, he was met with a new challenger: AJ Styles. Fresh off his departure from TNA, Styles was the hottest act on the global independent scene. And he immediately made an impact by laying Okada out with the Styles Clash and beating him for the title soon after. Styles’ first reign acted as something of a transitional reign, lasting only 163 days and two defenses before he lost it to Tanahashi. But Tanahashi’s reign was even shorter at 121 days before Styles got it back.

This was sort of a transitionary period, as NJPW looked to elevate the Bullet Club as a unit without them harming the other star they were looking to elevate, Okada. The Bullet Club started off as a bit of a joke stable of ‘all the gaijins/foreigners’ together in one group. But their appeal grew and grew, especially thanks to the wrestling from Styles and Prince Devitt. Soon, Bullet Club became arguably the top villains stable in NJPW, especially with one of them as world champion.

But Styles’ luck would run out as an even stronger Okada managed to defeat him at Dominion 7.5 in 2015 to become IWGP Heavyweight Champion for a third time. This reign wasn’t anything special, save for one critical happening: Okada finally defeated Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom. Previously, Okada just couldn’t get it done on the biggest stage of them all. Wrestle Kingdom 10 in 2016 marked their eighth singles match. And by that point, Okada had won three, Tanahashi had won four, and they had one draw. And Okada’s win were all on lesser shows, not the big show, Wrestle Kingdom. In fact, the year prior, at Wrestle Kingdom 9, Okada was so devastated that he had come so close but still failed that he left the arena in tears.

History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5 Okada & Tanahashi

But not this time. After a hard-fought battle, Okada defeated Tanahashi in a wrestling masterpiece at Wrestle Kingdom 10. And in doing so, he supplanted Tanahashi as the ace of New Japan and became the company’s biggest star.

But that wasn’t enough for Okada. He wanted to go to new heights as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. And he did. But he had to go through a brief hiccup first,

Okada’s third reign came to an end after 280 days on April 10th, 2016, when he lost the belt to Naito. But this wasn’t the same Naito as before. This was tranquilo Naito. This Naito had come back from a foreign excursion complete with a new look, new personality, and new friends. He spat on NJPW’s traditions and enjoyed using the numbers game to his advantage.

That advantage helped Naito in a big way as it allowed him to defeat Okada to become world champion. This was a shock as Naito was such a despicable person to NJPW’s fans. His blatant disregard for the company’s traditions made him a true villain. But this was also symbolic revenge for Naito. The fans rejected the Naito that followed the rules and respected everyone. The new Naito achieved successes the old Naito never could and achieved them regardless of what the fans thought.

Sadly for Naito, this reign lasted only 70 days, and one short defense before Okada reclaimed it at Dominion 6.19. And from there, Okada went on to make history

History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5
The greatest reign of all time

Okada’s fourth reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion broke every record. He surpassed Tanahashi for total number of days as champion. He broke Tanahashi’s record for most successful title defenses during a single reign, with twelve. His list of defeated opponents included a who’s who in pro wrestling: Naomichi Marufuji, SANADA, Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre, Jr., Tanahashi, Katsuyori Shibata, and of course, Kenny Omega. The latter being someone with whom Okada, according to many people, put on some of the greatest professional wrestling matches of all time. And it was Omega who managed to vanquish Okada at Dominion 6.9 in 2018 to become champion, having failed in his previous two title matches and only scoring a pinfall in the 2017 G1 Climax tournament. With that legendary performance, Okada’s reign ended at a staggering 720 days, far eclipsing the record held by Shinya Hashimoto in 1996.

Transition period

Kenny Omega’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign was supposed to be NJPW’s ace in the hole. It was meant to act as a launching pad to help NJPW grow in the international wrestling market and gain new fans outside Japan. But those plans fell through when Kenny Omega joined All Elite Wrestling (AEW). He became both a top wrestler there and a key backstage figurehead. And since he couldn’t commit to both AEW and NJPW, decisions were made hastily to fill the void he had created.

Omega lost the title to Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 13, which marked his final NJPW appearance. But Tanahashi was not in a position to carry the NJPW brand, so Tanahashi lost it 38 days later to the Bullet Club’s new leader, Jay White. White was supposed to fill Omega’s shoes as the new top foreign villain, but he lacked many of the qualities and appeal that Omega had. And so, White’s own title reign was also short, lasting 54 days before he lost it to Okada. Okada held it until January 5th, 2020, when he lost it to Tetsuya Naito.

History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5 New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Long-Term Storytelling

And that loss demonstrated one of the best examples of NJPW’s long-term storytelling. Naito was Okada’s first challenger when he won the belt for the first time. Naito failed to beat Okada for the belt at Wrestle Kingdom VIII, and the fans stole from his main event spot. Then at Wrestle Kingdom 12, the new tranquilo Naito almost had the match won. But in a moment of overconfidence reverted back to his previous ‘stardust genius’ persona because he wanted the fans’ adoration as much as he wanted the hold.

But he ended that night with neither. It took Naito another two full years of fighting to claw his way back up to the Wrestle Kingdom main event. And then night before, he had to survive a determined Jay White to retain his IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Yet despite all of that, Naito fought and fought and fought until he made history. By defeating Okada on January 5th, Naito became a dual champion, holding the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships at the same time.

An Uncertain Future

Naito’s historic victory at Wrestle Kingdom 14 was the last time things were truly normal in NJPW. Shortly thereafter, the global coronavirus pandemic spread to Japan, and all pro wrestling events were either halted or held under extreme restrictions. This was a big problem for NJPW and pro wrestling in Japan in general. As the product there depends more on live event revenue than in North America. Because of this lack of fans (and therefore, lack of revenue), NJPW had to make some bold decisions to try and increase fan curiosity. As a result, Naito was betrayed by longtime ally EVIL, who turned on him and then defeated him to become dual champion in Naito’s place. That decision definitely sparked shock and surprise, but it wasn’t sustained. EVIL just wasn’t believable as champion, and Naito reclaimed both of his belt 48 days later.

Wrestle Kingdom
Photo / NJPW

History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5 Which brings us to the present.

As of this writing, Tetsuya Naito is still IWGP Heavyweight Champion. His next big defense will be on two consecutive nights at Wrestle Kingdom 15. On the first night, Naito will defend this belt and the IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Kota Ibushi. Ibushi is the man that originally won the 2020 G2 Climax tournament. He is also the man that lost both matches in the previous year’s double main-event set of matches. And whoever wins on the January 4th show will defend both belts against Jay White.

But regardless of whoever wins, one thing is for certain. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship has become the most prestigious championship belt in modern professional wrestling. It almost fell victim to the WWE and WCW world titles when those belts were passed around and treated more like props than actual prizes worth fighting for. But it took NJPW over a decade of struggling to make that belt mean something once again. Between January 4th, 2011, and January 4th, 2019, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship changed hands on very infrequently. Only three reigns had one successful defense, and only 5 lasted less than 200 days. And thanks to the hard work of guys like Tanahashi, Okada, Styles, Naito, and Omega, that title was elevated to the prestigious position it held long before.

This was History of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Part 5.

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