The IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Titles will be unified and officially recognized as the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. News of the merger was announced at a press conference earlier today when NJPW Chairman Naoki Sugabayashi said New Japan has decided to uphold the request of the champion and unification will bring the linage of both titles forward under a new banner.
Current champion Kota Ibushi has campaigned to unify both titles since he captured them at Wrestle Kingdom 15 when pinning Tetsuya Naito. On Saturday at Castle Attack, Naito unsuccessfully challenged Ibushi for the Intercontinental belt to prevent the possibility of unification.
Kota Ibushi will be the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Champion with his first defense on April 4th at Sakura Genesis in Sumo Hall. The winner of the New Japan Cup will challenge Ibushi for the newly unified championship.
Kota Ibushi’s name is now linked in linage with current WWE star MVP, who became the first Intercontinental Champion in 2011, and the legendary Antonio Inoki, who was the first to regularly defend the Heavyweight Title in 1987, after its creation in 1983.
World Championship designation for the International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP) is long overdue for what many consider the most prestigious title in professional wrestling. However, it’s easy to see why NJPW never made the change until now. For decades, NJPW primarily focused on the Japanese market as their events captured the imagination of wrestling fans abroad via tape trading.
Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) had a cult-like following in the ’90s, and the promotion’s blood and guts style heavily influenced WWE’s renowned ‘Attitude Era.’ While ECW designated their heavyweight crown as a world championship, several wrestling publications wouldn’t recognize their top prize as a world title until ECW signed a national television deal in August 1999.
NJPW’s push into the United States market began in May 2011 with their East Coast Invasion Attack tour. NJPW’s premier event, Wrestle Kingdom, would be made available for the first time on internet pay-per-view in 2014 and the following year on traditional pay-per-view and New Japan’s streaming service, New Japan World.
NJPW’s popularity increased as wrestling fans worldwide could finally watch the product regularly. At the same time, those who only heard of the legendary bouts between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada could see what all the fuss was about.
It’s safe to say most wrestling fans, if not all, always considered the IWGP Heavyweight Title a world championship. NJPW’s ever-growing popularity, along with their U.S. title checking many of the same boxes as the Intercontinental belt, made for the perfect time to make the change to their top prize.
NJPW fills the top spot for diehard fans as their focus on the in-ring aspect of pro wrestling is considered the gold standard within the industry. While it’s likely NJPW was never concerned if their belts had “world” etched on its gold center plate, it’s only fitting that a title featured in many of the year’s top matches finally has the proper classification.