We last left the newly introduced NJPW Intercontinental Championship belt with MVP who won a gruelling tournament in America during the New Invasion tour and his successful defences against Yano to retain the title.
However, after a 148-day reign, MVP lost the IWGP Intercontinental Title on October 10th to Masato Tanaka, who was a wrestling legend in his own right, in Tokyo during the Destruction tour. Although holding the belt for less time than MVP, Tanaka defended the title three times including a rematch with MVP, a bout with Tomoaki Honma in the lead up to Wrestle Kingdom, and the man who would eventually beat him for the title in 2012, Hirooki Goto. These matches got progressively longer and more important, with his match against Honma going over 20 minutes. However, there still wasn’t enough belief in the belt meaning that it wasn’t defended at the Tokyo Dome in 2012.
There was still a way to go before the title got the respect of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
During the New Beginning Tour in Osaka, Tanaka was in need of an opponent. Goto thought he deserved another shot at the title he failed to win in November 2011. Before this, Goto had been floundering and sometimes overshadowed by those who he trained with as a Young Lion. These names included Shinsuke Nakamura, Ryusuke Taguchi and high school friend Katsyori Shibata. He had also only ever had two titles around his waist: the IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Titles with Minoru and the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Title. It was time for Goto to cement himself as the strong heavyweight he was.
On the 12th February, 2012, Goto beat Tanaka for the NJPW Intercontinental Title at the New Beginning Tour in a match that went just over 13 minutes. During his first reign as the champion, Goto had two successful defences against Yujiro Takahashi and future Chaos stable member Tomohiro Ishii.
Although Goto has been known for holding the title, it was on Goto’s third title defence in July at the Kizuna Road Tour, where he lost the title, that the Intercontinental title started its elevation to where it is now. It was a defence against the man who is now associated with the title more than any other person: Nakamura.
It was the start of what would become Nakamura’s lifelong association with the belt he made so prestigious.
Nakamura was at the height of his career in New Japan and exactly what the title needed. In a reign that lasted just over 300 days, the longest single reign in the title’s history, it added prestige to New Japan’s newest star belt.
During this reign, Nakamura successfully defended the title 8 times against different opponents across the world from Japan to America. His first title defence came in the form of Oliver John in August 2012 in California for SWF International Wrestling Wars.
From here, his opponents were a little closer to New Japan. He faced Karl Anderson, Lance Archer, Davey Boy Smith Jr, and Shelton Benjamin. It seemed as if the NJPW Intercontinental Title was especially attractive to the Gaijin wrestlers; they just couldn’t retrieve it from the King of Strong Style. It was seemingly impossible to pry the title of Nakamura who seemed to have formed a bond with the title.
The belt suddenly became a prize that wrestlers wanted to fight for.
The biggest match in this reign of Nakamura came in his match against Kazushi Sakuraba. It was the first time this title had been defended on the biggest stage of the New Japan calendar: Wrestle Kingdom 7 at the Tokyo Dome in 2013. Although the match only went for just over 10 minutes, it was a massive step forward for the title belt. It had not been defended in the previous year and it marked a step forward for the title as every major title is normally defended on the 4th January. it also marked the prestige added to it from Nakamura.
This title reign also saw the introduction of the new NJPW Intercontinental Title design. Previously being the standard black strap with bronze plates, Nakamura had always been critical of the design comparing it to a 10 yen coin. However, it seemed to fit in with all of the other designs for the other belts. However, for it to have a chance of being a top title, it needed to change in some way. Thus, the new title we all know and love now was born. A white strap to symbolise a clean slate and gold coins to show the prestige he wanted for the title.
After a record reign, the seemingly unbeaten Shinsuke Nakamura finally lost the title. On 31st May, on a CMLL show, Nakamura lost to La Sombra; he is more well known now as Andrade Cien Almas. This was not the first time Sombra had challenged for the title. Earlier in the year, Sombra completed at the annual New Japan and CMLL tour Fantastica Mania. At the CMLL show, maybe the hometown advantage worked in Sombra’s favor.
It may have been the end of Shinskuke’s first title reign. However, it was only the beginning of his relationship with the belt.
Although Shinsuke lost the belt, it would not be the last time he held the belt. However, from this single reign, we saw a shift in the belt’s momentum. This would lead to one of the hottest rivalries in New Japan history.