A match over four years in the making May 21
On May 21 at Resurgence, Will Ospreay and Hiroshi Tanahashi will go head to head for only the second time in their careers. At stake is a match with Lance Archer at Dominion, a man both men have storied histories with; beyond that lies the number one contendership to IWGP United States Champion Kenny Omega, and more history still.
Yet looking down the road to what may await the winner in June would be to look past a match four years in the making in Long Beach between two men that have in their own way represented New Japan Pro-Wrestling to generations of fans. Let’s look at how this bout has come together.
Will Ospreay first appeared on NJPW fans’ radars back in the autumn of 2015. As NJPW stars hit Revolution Pro rings, the young high flier would turn heads from all over NJPW thanks to his efforts against the likes of AJ Styles and Kazuchika Okada. Those effusive in their praise of Ospreay included Hiroshi Tanahashi, who saw in Ospreay the potential for the Briton to become a junior heavyweight ace for Hontai alongside KUSHIDA, then riding high at the top of the division.
It would be Okada and CHAOS that would recruit Ospreay, the Rainmaker handpicking the prospect to take on KUSHIDA at Invasion Attack 2016. That same year, Ospreay would win Best of the Super Jr. for the first time on his first attempt, and in all senses, lived up exactly to the lofty expectations that many had placed upon him, and beyond.
In 2019, Ospreay would surpass even the loftiest of expectations by slaying a dragon in Ryogoku Sumo Hall. Best of the Super Jr. 26 saw its final in the main event of the grand arena, putting the tournament on its biggest stage to date. Ospreay advanced to the B Block final, but opposite him seemed to be an impossible task, in the hitherto undefeated Shingo Takagi.
After a 33 minute 36 second war, Ospreay emerged victorious, and having broken new ground for the junior heavyweights, brought inspiration from the Ace. Referencing a T-shirt slogan for a young Tanahashi, Ospreay declared that he would ‘attack for the next generation’, and upset at the lack of promotional representation for his weight class, decided to represent as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion in G1 Climax 29.
It was a challenging G1 for both Ospreay and Tanahashi. The prior year’s winner, Tanahashi was only able to reach the Budokan August 10 even at 4-4, a key win over Lance Archer helping to stem the tide for the Ace. Ospreay would reach the Budokan at 3-5, Archer tearing into the Aerial Assassin in a highly physical match to start his campaign in Dallas Texas, and the damage only piling up with successive bouts.
Tanahashi saw his best opportunity to emerge with a positive W/L record from the G1 would be to attack the base of his opponent and deprive Ospreay of his aerial offense. The Ace would keep Will grounded after finding his first Dragon Screw, and kept his foe in place despite a spectacular Sasuke Special. A Texas Cloverleaf almost forced an Ospreay tapout, but the Briton rallied with a Spanish Fly and OsCutter for two. Eventually, Ospreay would be able to bury the Hidden Blade and then land Stormbreaker for a phenomenal landmark victory.
The ledger for Ospreay’s first G1 would read 4-5, eight points and not a sniff at the final. Yet in a world of ‘what have you done for me lately’, his last win was the biggest. Ospreay truly had attacked for the next generation in defeating the leader of the last, and set a path for heavyweight competition; his win over Zack Sabre Jr. to capture the British heavyweight Championship in RevPro on February 14 2020 would be followed with the declaration that he was officially a heavyweight from here on out- little did anyone know that ‘here on out’ included into a global pandemic.
When action resumed, Ospreay was driven to take matters into his own hands, and not have to wait for a chance to scramble up the card. Instead he would form the United Empire in autumn of 2020, capturing the New Japan Cup in March 2021, and immediately winning the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at Sakura Genesis in April. Yet after a defence against Shingo Takagi the following month, Ospreay learned that in the International Wrestling Grand Prix, the Grand Prize carries a Great Price. Injured, Ospreay would be stripped of the gold, returning to dispute that claim on the same night in Los Angeles at Resurgence where Tanahashi won the IWGP United States Championship for the first time from a familiar figure in Lance Archer.
2022 started with defeat for Will Ospreay, just short of eternal foe Kazuchika Okada in a Tokyo Dome main event as IWGP World Heavyweight Championship controversy was finally laid to rest. Tanahashi started his year with a notch in the win column, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Reluctantly facing KENTA in a no holds barred streetfight, the Ace went to lengths that he never wanted to go to in his vision of professional wrestling, but still left with the IWGP United States Championship as KENTA went on the injured list. Tanahashi would state that he wanted a palette cleanser of sorts when it came to his year in wrestling, a classical wrestler similar to himself to face in Hokkaido in February. SANADA fit that bill.
The old adage of being careful of what one wishes for would bite Tanahashi at New Year’s Golden Series as SANADA defeated Tanahashi with a surprise O’Connor Roll, leaving Hokkaido with his first singles championship in NJPW. It was with a renewed confidence that SANADA entered New Japan Cup, but that was until he collided with Will Ospreay.
Ospreay would later state that he felt SANADA’s orbital bone crack under his Hidden Blade elbow, but with no sign of a stoppage from referee Red Shoes Unno, kept pushing his advantage with 12-6 elbows to the back of the defenseless champion’s head. Unno would wave the match off, Ospreay advancing to the quarterfinals of the cup and ironically being forced out due to a fast decision against eventual tournament winner Zack Sabre Jr. More relevant to our tale though, was that SANADA was forced out of title contention, having to vacate the US gold, and creating a decision match between the man he beat for the title in Tanahashi against the man who put him on the shelf in Ospreay.
A title match rich in history was set for the Fukuoka Dome on May 1, but despite anticipation riding high, an unfortunate positive COVID test denied entry to an asymptomatic Ospreay into Japan. The result was Tomohiro Ishii stepping in for a characteristically intense bout. Tanahashi would leave Fukuoka US Champion once again, but any thoughts of the originally planned bout with Ospreay were put on ice when Juice Robinson entered the picture. Representing BULLET CLUB, Juice attacked Tanahashi after the bell in Fukuoka, and injected himself into a four way bout for the US gold in Washington DC between Juice, Ospreay, Tanahashi and Jon Moxley.
A US title scene that had started chaotic and plagued with injury, illness and controversy would only get more murky. Juice took the title via pinfall with Ospreay’s foot visibly under the bottom rope, before himself having to relinquish the title after claiming a bout of appendicitis. Ospreay won the vacated gold he felt he was deserved at Dominion against a returning SANADA, and had a lot of work to do to restore its honour and prestige, doing just that with four defences through the rest of the year that would be the talk of the wrestling world. With a cheering Tokyo Dome finally back for Wrestle Kingdom 17, Ospreay prepared to bring the title to new heights with a defence against Kenny Omega.
Omega hadn’t been seen in NJPW since losing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to Hiroshi Tanahashi on January 4 2019. A clash of wrestling philosophies with Tanahashi the classical wrestling artist against what he deemed to be the ‘graceless’ and vicious approach of Omega, Tanahashi would have to get his hands dirty to emerge victorious at Wrestle Kingdom 13, but did just that. On his way out of NJPW, Omega advised Ospreay to ‘step up’ in his departure and formation of AEW; years on, Kenny didn’t like what he saw.
Whether threatened by Ospreay’s meteoric rise while still in his twenties, or truly believing that he needed to return ‘for the NJPW fans’, to save them from ‘the real pandemic’ that he viewed Will’s brand of wrestling created, the match was on. Driven by an intense and emotional press conference the night before, Ospreay and Omega headed to battle. The result, emotional and epic in drama as it was, was one that even the outgoing champion would describe as one sided. Blood pouring from his head, Ospreay refused to give up in the face of Omega, but a brutal barrage of offence from the Cleaner was too much.
Ospreay was ousted from the US title scene, and in the meantime, the US title scene has been all but non existent in New Japan. All but holding the title hostage, Omega recorded one defence against Jeff Cobb on AEW Dynamite before awaiting the winner of our US Championship number one contender’s mini tournament. For the US Champion, there is doubtless a desire to redeem his loss against Tanahashi from 2019, not for forcing his exit from NJPW, but for marking it with bitterness and resentment rather than a triumphant departure.
The Ace himself, now a three time former champion, wants a run of stability, one that can once more, and perhaps for one last time cement himself as a global force at the top of pro wrestling. Ospreay, putting himself on the clock and giving himself until January 4 2024 to stand atop New Japan while bringing the company back to the top of the wrestling world, wants nothing more than a second shot against Omega. Then, looming large in the background is the threat of Lance Archer, who has a violent history with all three of the other men in this title, and with the championship that binds them.
The first step in this journey will be May 21. Tanahashi and Ospreay’s second singles match is one with high stakes both personal and professional. A bout with nearly a decade of history is one that fans in attendance at Long Beach’s Wlater Pyramid are sure to remember for many more years to come.