Japanese professional wrestling is an enigma unto itself. While North America’s presentation primarily emphasizes spectacle over sport, Japan’s exhibition of the art accentuates the opposite. While it might look the same as the staged combat seen in the west, the eastern flavor has more kick.
While WWE is the industry leader, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) is Japan’s most prominent and longest-running wrestling promotion. Founded in 1972, NJPW is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Today, NJPW is arguably the second biggest promotion in the world and puts on great wrestling matches that have produced a global cult-like following. All Elite Wrestling (AEW) and New Japan will team up for their Forbidden Door pay-per-view event this Sunday.
There are many great matches from a multitude of events that epitomize NJPW. Consider this an introductory course for the uninitiated, citing ten matches that best illustrate the style and presentation of New Japan.
This isn’t a “best-of” list, and I won’t be teaching this class alone.
If you’re watching AEW Forbidden Door this Sunday and are unfamiliar with NJPW, this one is for you.
1. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – G1 Climax 2015 – 8/16/15
Have you ever watched something that gave you such euphoria you almost couldn’t put it into words? That occurred during the finals of the NJPW’s grueling month-long tournament, the G1 Climax.
Similar to WWE’s Royal Rumble, the winner of the G1 gets a world title match in the main event of NJPW’s preeminent event, Wrestle Kingdom.
Hiroshi Tanahashi beat AJ Styles to win the A Block, while Shinsuke Nakamura pinned Kazuchika Okada to lock up the B Block. Their rich history with one another cascaded throughout Sumo Hall to amplify the enormity of the moment.
Two of NJPW’s biggest stars had done it all together and even more against each other. While no one knew it would be their final battle at the time, it still made for a legendary night.
Despite knowing each other well, they showed caution in the early moments of the bout. It was the perfect piece of barbecue off the grill cooked low and slow. That alone popped the crowd as it stressed the importance of the match.
The intensity increased as each wrestler took more risks. Once the high-impact moves began, their offense exhibited a poetic narrative.
Tanahashi and Nakamura used moves that earned them victory against the other in years past. When that didn’t work, they switched things up, trying to deliver new moves to upend the other’s familiarity.
The closing moments saw Tanahashi alter his finishing maneuver, the High Fly Flow (frog splash). After a dragon suplex, Tanahashi hits a High Fly Flow to Nakamura’s back, followed by a proper High Fly Flow for the 1-2-3.
Tanahashi and Nakamura wrestled each other 15 times over ten years. Their record against one another was 7-7-1 going into the match. It was fitting their final chapter occurred in a setting many were surprised hadn’t happened earlier as two legends saved the best for last.
2. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega – G1 Climax B Block Finals – 8/12/17
Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada engaged in what many call the greatest in-ring rivalry. Four bouts with 25 ¼ star ratings have changed the conversation on what makes for a great wrestling match. However, one encounter tickles my fancy more than most due to its simple yet compelling story.
Their third bout occurred in the B Block finals of the 2017 G1 Climax. It took Okada forty-six minutes to beat Omega in their first encounter, and they wrestled to a sixty-minute draw in their second outing. This time, under G1 rules, there was a thirty-minute time limit.
How was Omega going to beat Okada in thirty minutes, never mind at all?
Adding fuel to the fire, Okada could advance to the finals with a win or a draw due to a one-point differential. Okada was vulnerable due to a neck injury he suffered in a prior bout. However, Okada wanted to win and not coast to the finals since their last match ended in a draw.
For Omega, winning was the only way to advance.
Both men wrestled a high-action sprint from the jump. Omega found his target and attacked Okada’s neck. Okada fought him off with everything he had. Early on, both missed their signature moves. All of Omega’s offense battered Okada’s neck.
Okada’s manager, Gedo, considered throwing in the towel.
After countless attempts and only three minutes remaining, Omega finally produced his pièce de résistance, the One-Winged Angel. 1-2-3, Kenny Omega pins Kazuchika Okada to win the B Block.
Okada wanted to win as badly as Omega needed to succeed. It was comic book action come to life that produced a masterwork of storytelling.
3. Jushin “Thunder” Liger vs. The Great Sasuke – Super J-Cup – 4/16/94
Cruiserweight wrestling in the U.S. has never gotten its due. However, wrestling involving lower-weight classes in Japan is not only typical but often exceptional. Wrestlers under 220 lbs. compete in NJPW’s junior heavyweight division.
The Super J-Cup is a one-night tournament that revolutionized the wrestling industry. Jushin Liger devised the exclusive junior heavyweight showcase as 14 wrestlers from 6 different promotions wrestled in front of a sold-out crowd at Sumo Hall.
18 minutes of intense wrestling in the semi-finals accentuated an enthralling underdog story. The Great Sasuke, representing the smaller Michinoku Pro Wrestling, faced Jushin Liger with the might of New Japan Pro Wrestling on his shoulders.
From bell to bell, you can’t ask for more out of a wrestling match. Drama, suspense, great technical wrestling, and lightning-quick action.
In the closing moments, Sasuke slipped while attempting a springboard hurricanrana. Liger mocked him, which gave Sasuke enough time to recover and deliver a hurricanrana for the win. It’s the best match on arguably the single greatest night of pro wrestling.
Honestly, the entire tournament is worth going out of your way to see.
4. Jon Moxley vs. Tomohiro Ishii – G1 Climax 2019 – 7/19/19
The former Dean Ambrose was WWE’s resident brawler. Now, as Jon Moxley, his blend of wrestling and street fighting brought his game to another level. The 2019 G1 Climax saw Moxley face NJPW’s own hybrid brawler, Tomohiro Ishii.
Ishii entered the match as the Never Openweight Champion, while Moxley came in as the IWGP U.S. Champion. The tension rose with each kick, punch, chop, slam, and brainbuster. Korakuen Hall was ground zero to an exceptionally wild brawl.
Moxley used anything not nailed down, while Ishii’s strong style edge showed why he’s the hardest-hitting grappler in the game. If things couldn’t get more intense, Ishii got his jump man on and dove off the top turnbuckle, crashing onto Moxley through a table.
Over 20 minutes of brutality exceeded the hype to such a degree that the bout received several match of the year nominations.
5. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi – Wrestle Kingdom 9 – 1/4/15
I was a casual fan of NJPW during the internet tape trading era in the 90s. Over two decades later, Wrestle Kingdom 9 produced an encounter that converted me into their strong style cult and became my favorite match of all time.
In 2013, Shinsuke Nakamura beat Kota Ibushi in a memorable G1 bout. However, Ibushi was wrestling as a junior heavyweight. As a newly minted heavyweight, Ibushi blindsided his idol with a sneak attack and challenged him for the Interconentital Title.
The unique pomp and circumstance of pro wrestling were on full display as Nakamura came to the ring dressed as a combination of Freddie Mercury and the Statue of Liberty. The attire was Nakamura’s flamboyant way of proclaiming himself the King of Strong Style.
Phrases such as hard-hitting, action-packed, and jaw-dropping don’t begin to convey the elegant perfection on display. Ibushi came after Nakamura with increased intensity while getting into his head early, mocking him at every turn.
This match is littered with great near-falls due to how well each wrestler sold every bone-crushing maneuver. To steal a phrase from Jim Ross, the educated feet of Nakamura and Ibushi added a rare element of two elite strikers who can knock out their opponent as quickly as they can pin or submit them.
In a sequence that looked like something out of The Matrix, Ibushi climbed to the top rope, grabbed Nakamura from the apron, and threw him with a German suplex into the ring. The finish came when Nakamura delivered an onslaught of moves and finished it with a Kinshasa for the pin.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully articulate how much a transformative experience Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi was for me as a wrestling fan. The match is a twenty-minute masterpiece that personified the sheer artistry of pro wrestling action and storytelling.
-Now, class, it’s time for me to make the hot tag to SSJPegasus to take us home with his five NJPW recommendations.
1. Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kazuchika Okada – NJPW Sakura Genesis 2017 – 4/19/17
After leaving NJPW as an act of defiance in 2005 after being touted as one of the Three Musketeers, including Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shibata returned in 2012 to mixed success.
Still, after traveling abroad to the U.K. and U.S., Shibata started gaining traction again, winning the Never Openweight Championship 3 times. Entering the New Japan Cup in 2017, Shibata was in the middle of the pack regarding favorites to win. However, after defeating Minoru Suzuki, Juice Robinson, and Tomohiro Ishii, Shibata squared off against Bad Luck Fale in the finals. He was in the finals in his first New Japan Cup three years prior.
Kazuchika Okada, on the other hand, walked into his third title defense after taking the belt from Tetsuya Naito with a win over Minoru Suzuki. Now in his fourth reign, Okada looked to top his previous reigns of 280, 391, and 125 days and was staring down the barrel of a reign of 294 days walking into Sakura Genesis.
The match itself was a treacherous battle between two men who, at one time or another, were touted as being the next legends and pillars of NJPW. Shibata tried to separateOkada’ss head from his body with vicious, repeated forearm shots.
Along with trying to tear muscles and break bones with submissions, Shibata’s goal was to wear down the champion and avoid all of Okada’s big shots. While Okada, on the other hand, had to withstand the onslaught and push Shibata past his limits to ensure he outlasted the challenger.
2. Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – Wrestle Kingdom Trilogy – W.K. 7: 1/4/13, W.K. 9: 1/4/15, W.K.: 1/4/16
Arguably the most important trilogy in NJPW history and definitely the most significant trilogy in Wrestle Kingdom history.
This trilogy came at a time when NJPW was on its way to becoming a name in the Americas again and when they were in desperate need of new blood on the topside of the card.
Okada came back from a failed excursion to the Americas at WK 6 and was catapulted right to the top. Even though it was believed to be a mistake at the time, it paid off HUGE! And this trilogy is proof of that, with their Wrestle Kingdom 10 matchup being my personal favorite.
This trilogy began duringTanahashi’ss streak of six straight Wrestle Kingdom main events, eight out of ten overall. Wrestle Kingdom 9 would start Okada’s streak of four main events in a row.
Together the duo accounts for 16 out of 20 main events for Wrestle Kingdom.
3. Kenny Omega vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW G1 Special in USA – Night 2 – 7/2/17
As the Bullet Club was blowing up worldwide, names like the Young Bucks, Cody, Jay Lethal, War Machine, AJ Styles, and Michael Elgin, along with the return of Kenny Omega helped the Americas become a hotbed for NJPW.
The market was craving the Japanese style of wrestling. When NJPW arrived stateside, it was only a matter of time before a title was introduced to represent their footprint in the country.
That title was IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship.
At the time of this match, Kenny Omega was a staple and main event player in NJPW, while Ishii’s popularity was growing in the U.S.
The U.S. Title Tournament and the finals were a great way to introduce the U.S. title and a full NJPW show to the U.S. market.
4. Hiromu Tanahashi vs. El Desperado – Best of the Super Juniors XXVII – Finals – 6/3/22
Going into this match, I was not expecting anything near what I got. From El Desperado coming out in all white, showing how important this match is to him, to Hiromu talking so much trash because he wanted Desperado’s best!
This match has so much raw emotion throughout the affair.
Towards the end of the match, there is a moment that I believe should be immortalized in the NJPW history books. Because it will always stand out in my mind, and I don’t know how often we get those in wrestling.
5. Kota Ibushi vs. Will Ospreay – Sakura Genesis 2021 – 4/4/21
This match was a special one for me. I have followed Will Ospreay’s career since 2015 during his Progress Title reign and his debut in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG).
His growth throughout his NJPW career has been amazing to watch. While he has become a consistent performer for them, his 2021 was one for the ages.
After winning his first New Japan Cup, Ospreay set his sights on Kota Ibushi and the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Nothing was going to stop him.
Kota was a god in wrestling then, and his game went to another level after his performance at Wrestle Kingdom 15. He was the perfect person to test Ospreay.
Ospreay didn’t need to be tested, in my opinion, as he passed every prior exam with flying colors.
Ospreay’s victory was the payoff for all of his hard work, and with the newly formed United Empire behind him, nothing was holding Ospreay back, as he showed in this match.