The countdown is on for the biggest event in professional wrestling.
Nowhere is the power of professional wrestling more keenly felt than at Wrestle Kingdom every year. The tradition and legacy of Wrestle Kingdom continues on January 4 2024 with Wrestle Kingdom 18. Yet tradition ties NJPW to the Tokyo Dome for much longer than 18 years. In fact, it was 1992 that the January 4 tradition began in the Tokyo Dome, a tradition that started with the ‘Super Warriors’ card.
A WCW vs NJPW theme permeated the event, with Lex Luger wrestling Masahiro Chono for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship uppermost. Chono’s drive to attain the young WCW title was part of an extensive presence for the future black clad charisma in World Championship Wrestling through 1992 and 1993. NJPW’s relationship with WCW would lead to Tatsumi Fujinami and Ric Flair having legendary battles for NWA gold the prior year, but now with that championship vacated, Chono hunted WCW gold until securing the NWA title as a prize in summer 1992’s G1 Climax.
In the Tokyo Dome, Chono had the clear home field advantage from the crowd, but Lex Luger wasn’t afraid to wear the black hat. Putting Chono in the Torture Rack outside the ring, Luger looked for the countout, and when Chono willed himself back inside, Luger went below the belt with a low blow before a diving forearm to win.
The WCW and NJPW crossover wasn’t only limited to singles competition, as a dream tag team match saw unlikely partners combine. The demonic Great Muta’s immensely successful late 1980s excursion to the US was defined by his rivalry with Sting, who himself was elevated through his battles with Muta to be the bright young babyface prospect of WCW in the years to come. As Keiji Muto returned to Japan, so did the Great Muta for memorable bouts through 1991, the last of which being a September victory over Tatsumi Fujinami.
In November of ’91, Muto would team with Hiroshi Hase to end the Steiner Brothers’ first reign with IWGP Tag team Championship gold. The Steiners wanted right back at the top of the tag team mountain, but Muto would not let that match happen. As his partner Hase instead faced a generational clash with Antonio Inoki on the Super Warriors card, Muto would look to his dark nature and his US past to bring Great Muta and Sting together.
The spectacle was one for the ages, and the immense crowd roared, not just at the spectacle of these two icons, but at the innovative and high impact suplex based style of Rick and Scott Steiner. In the end, Rick would think he had the win over Muta with just one such suplex, but not knowing that he wasn’t the legal man at the time, was left frustrated as Sting pinned Scott at the same time to take the win.
Despite the WCW and NJPW theme to the evening though, two very much New Japan Pro-Wrestling affairs were in featured spots on the card. That started with the only the second ever singles confrontation for Hiroshi Hase and Antonio Inoki. Hase had been a personal project of Riki Choshu’s, and came into New Japan as Choshu returned to his original home promotion after a brief but significant sojourn in All Japan. Hase was positioned as part of a new generation of junior heavyweights, and in 1986 became the first ever IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. Yet the amateur standout had plans beyond his weight class, motivated in part by Inoki himself.
After Inoki went to a time limit draw in a title versus career clash on August 8 1988, the NJPW founder would not retire, but rather ‘start again’ in opening matches that included a January 1989 Korakuen meeting with the junior heavyweight Hase. The defeat that night nonetheless spurred Hase to greater heights; by the end of the year he transitioned to heavyweight, and through wars and tag team championships bided his time for the ultimate singles opportunity. In the winter of 1991 that came- a replay of Inoki’s famous Ganryujima deserted island deathmatch would see Hase face an old rival of Inoki’s in Tiger Jeet Singh with the prize being a match against Inoki in the Tokyo Dome. A bloody, and heated to the point of actual fire encounter saw Hase victorious, but with much work to be done on January 4.
Early grappling exchanges saw Hase surprise Inoki with a belly to belly suplex, but a sudden snap into a sleeper hold changed the complexion of the match. Hase seemed out, eventually recovering to his feet, but was caught with a Billy Robinson like double underhook suplex from Inoki and peppered with shots. Desperation in the standup did little for Hase, but a counter of a knee bar into an Indian Deathlock did more, and fuelled the confidence enough for a pair of trademark uranage suplexes. Inoki would cut off thr hat trick though, and enzuigiri paved the way for the Cobra Twist that ended the match.
Right at the top of the card meanwhile, classic rivals Tatsumi Fujinami and Riki Choshu faced off in the main event.
Standard bearers for New Japan Pro-Wrestling through the 1980s, Choshu and Fujinami were both strongly prized proteges of Antonio Inoki, but as each rose to the top, tension would likewise rise to the surface. Choshu would eventually turn his back on Fujinami in an October 1982 tag match, sparking a bitter feud that changed the way fans in Japan viewed professional wrestling; long a battleground of Japanese athletes showing what they had against the best from around the world, now it was an individual rather than a national team effort, and each man saw themselves as number one.
As the decade wore on, Choshu would leave NJPW and then return, and he and Fujinami would on occasion align against common foes, as they battled to represent a new generation of professional wrestling that fought against the establishment of prior decades. Their grudge still existed however, and at the first January 4 main event, seemed to be heading to a climax, with two championships at stake.
Tatsumi Fujinami was the reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion, having retained the title through the bulk of 1991. He would have to cement his dominance as IWGP champion against the Greatest 18 Club champion in Choshu. More than just a token championship awarded to Choshu by Inoki as the modern representative of a club of his greatest opponents and partners, Choshu had fought to keep his title against the likes of Tiger Jeet Singh in the previous year. Now though he sought to add the IWGP title to his collection and become the sole singles heavyweight champion in NJPW.
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