1997 saw Riki Choshu main event for the last time in the Tokyo Dome
<– 1996: NJPW takes on UWFI 1998: NJPW vs nWo–>
On January 4 1997, Wrestling World ’97 saw a number of fascinating battles, as upstart renegade promotion Big Japan Pro-Wrestling challenged established NJPW stars, while two superstars with split personalities had a special singles match on the card, Great Muta (Keiji Muto) meeting Power Warrior (Kensuke Sasaki) in the ‘Battle of Double Dealers’.
The main event though would see Riki Choshu challenging IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinya Hashimoto for the final time. Hashimoto’s third, final and most dominant IWGP title reign had begun after a successful challenge to Nobuhiko Takada in the wake of the prior year’s January Dome event. A then record 489 day reign would ensue, with successful defences against Satoshi Kojima and Ric Flair rounding out 1996, before Riki Choshu stepped up on January 4 1997.
Choshu was certainly an elder statesman of the NJPW roster, and would in fact retire from active competition the next year in the Tokyo Dome. Yet a fairytale run in the 1996 G1 Climax saw him win with a perfect record, and had many believing he could have one more chance at the IWGP Heavyweight title, especially as he had defeated Hahsimoto en route to the summer trophy.
Hashimoto and Choshu’s relationship had changed several times over the years, and would continue to do so hereafter, from tense enemies to strong teammates, who won the 1992 S-G Tag League together. There was mutual respect at play on January 4 1997, but the two would hold nothing back until a Vertical Drop Brainbuster saw Hashimoto retain.
Underneath Riki Choshu’s drive for the IWGP heavyweight Championship was a protege of Choshu’s facing a man who was ascendant as a Young Lion during Choshu’s absence from NJPW in the mid 1980s. Kensuke Sasaki would develop under Choshu’s watching brief before winning four IWGP Tag team Championships in the early part of the 1990s, two under the Power Warrior guise with Hellraisers partner Hawk. 1997 would see Sasaki finally break into his own as a singles star, going on to win the G1 Climax in 1997 and then his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 1998.
Meanwhile Keiji Muto had been to the top of the IWGP mountain, both as Keiji Muto and in his demonic Great Muta persona. Muto was very much keeping the gate that Sasaki had to burst through, and his powerful Great Muta form would be the man that Sasaki had to beat. As Sasaki called on the Power Warrior to battle Muta, the ‘Battle of Double Dealers’ was set. A match that started with a powerful lock up exchange would turn chaotic with piledrivers exchanged instead onto ringside tables. Power Warrior shrugged off a chair shot from the demented, demonic Muta, and kicked out of his trademark moonsault, before landing a Northern Lights Bomb onto a table to stand as the more powerful ‘Double Dealer’ on the night.
Meanwhile Masahiro Chono would work double duty on the night, first being involved in the aforementioned battle between New, and Big Japan as he made light work of BJW’s Shoji Nakamaki, before defending the IWGP Tag Team Championships alongside Hiroyoshi Tenzan. Young prospect Tenzan had returned from European excursion at Battle 7 on January 4 1995, and quickly caught the eye of Masa Saito and Masahiro Chono. As Chono set about forming the pack of wolves that was the Okami Gundan, he took Tenzan under his wing; the result was the ChoTen tag team and the cornerstone of what would eventually become nWo Japan.
By Wrestling World ’97, Chono and Tenzan were two time IWGP Tag team Champions and trying to transition out of a long feud with the team of Kazuo Yamazaki and Takashi Iizuka. As ChoTen and the Okami Gundan threatened to change the order in NJPW, it would be the symbol of traditionalism in their face. Tatsumi Fujinami and Kengo Kimura had been the very first IWGP Tag Team Champions some nine years prior; indeed they were the first consistently defending IWGP Champions of any kind.
After a miscommunication between Tenzan and Chono saw the wild bull fly with a headbutt that struck his own tag partner, Kimura and Fujinami capitalised, bringing the veterans back to IWGP Tag Team Championship gold for a fourth time.
Early in the card, the mysterious Super Liger (later revealed to be Chris Jericho) made his one and only appearance in a losing effort against Koji Kanemoto. The real Liger would walk into the Tokyo Dome clad in an all-gold bodysuit, to face Ultimo Dragon with the eight junior heavyweight title J-Crown at stake. After the Skydiving-J in the early summer of 1996 saw the greatest junior heavyweight champions from across Japan come together on one card, the concept of uniting eight junior heavyweight titles under the unified banner of the J-Crown came into existence. Great Sasuke would be the first holder of the title, victorious in Ryogoku at the G1 Climax finals over WA-R’s Ultimo Dragon despite a fractured skull sustained during the bout.
Two months later, Ultimo Dragon won the J-Crown, and added it to the WCW Cruiserweight and NWA World Middle weight Championships healready held, giving him ten titles simultaneously, a record still unmatched. It was the eight titles of the crown which Liger challenged for here, however. A high speed opening had Dragon in charge, but Liger would strike back with power, a Romero Special straining at the champion, and a powerbomb following up. Grace and aggression would see Dragon battle back, landing an Asai Moonsault to Liger for two, and getting even closer with a Dragon Suplex and top rope Frankensteiner. Dragon even pulled out a Liger Bomb for another nearfall, but the challenger would respond with a brutal Screwdriver like move for three, Liger adding title gold to the gold mask and bodysuit.