New and All Japan met in the finals of a Jan.4 2001 tournament.
The IWGP Heavyweight Championship had been defended in the main event of January 4’s Tokyo Dome every year since 1995, but in 2001, things were different; there was no champion to defend the belt.
In the summer of 2000, large shifts in the fabric of All Japan Pro-Wrestling led to the birth of the Pro Wrestling NOAH group consisting of a large part of the AJPW roster. In the wake of this move, AJPW’s Masanobu Fuchi would appear in ring at NJPW’s G1 Climax final to declare a ‘breaking down of walls’ between New and All Japan and a closer working relationship.
Controversy brewed, but so did curiosity over entirely new matchups between established stars from both companies. Top of that list was a match between two of the top heavyweight stars of wrestling at the dawn of the millennium; Toshiaki Kawada and Kensuke Sasaki. On October 9, a huge main event in the Tokyo Dome represented a dream clash of All Japan’s Kings’ Road style and NJPW’s Strong Style. Sasaki’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship was not at stake, but the two men wrestled as if it were, with Kawada eventually coming out on top.
Disgraced that he wasn’t able to defend his promotion’s honour, Sasaki relinquished his IWGP title, which sat vacant at the end of 2000. A single elimination tournament would run through January 4 2001’s Wrestling World event. Having defeated Sasaki, Kawada would receive a bye in the six man tournament, while Masahiro Chono would also advance to round two, snapping up a bye that Sasaki rejected. While Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima would put up valiant fighting efforts, it was inevitable that Kawada and Sasaki’s sheer will would see them to the final and the main event.
Those wills were tested in a match that turned out to be a series of violent collisions, but one that Sasaki would eventually emerge from with the title. After managing to stay on his feet through high speed impacts and dole out his own lariats and suplexes, the Northern lights Bomb would see him once again on top of the IWGP mountain, sending the fans home with a simple and heartfelt expression of gratitude.
For many years it had been Shinya Hashimoto that sent the fans home from the Tokyo Dome, but in 2001, the ‘King of Destruction’ was entering a very different phase of his career. After losing a match with his career on the line against controversial rival Naoya Ogawa in mid-2000, Hashimoto would spin away from NJPW into his own Pro-Wrestling Zero One promotion. As Hashimoto distanced himself from NJPW, an old rivalry with Riki Choshu built on mutual respect would turn more aggressively violent, and led to a fight for pride between the two men. It didn’t take long for said fight to break down into a pure slugfest, and one that was again embroiled in controversy. With neither competitor listening to the official, then President Tatsumi Fujinami would wave the match off, ensuring a bitter taste was left in the mouths of both Hashimoto and Choshu.
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