Wrestle Kingdom Rewind: Nagata vs Akiyama 【WK18】

Yuji Nagata challenged GHC Heavyweight Champion Jun Akiyama in the main event on January 4 2002

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Just as it had on January 4 2001, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship lay vacant on the day of Wrestling World 2002. Champion Kazuyuki Fujita had injured his Achilles tendon and had to vacate the title, making for the first January 4 Tokyo Dome card in the ten year history of the event with no IWGP Heavyweight Championship match scheduled. 

That left the onus on New Japan’s best to show their superiority against outside forces, and the main event of the evening saw Yuji Nagata wrestle Jun Akiyama, the GHC Heavyweight Champion of Pro Wrestling NOAH. A few months earlier, Nagata and Akiyama had teamed up in a cross-promotional exhibition tag match in the Tokyo Dome; after Akiyama and Nagata defeated Keiji Muto and Hiroshi Hase of All Japan, Akiyama suggested that Nagata could step up and challenge any time. 

The result on January 4 2002 was a spectacular clash of two accomplished amateur wrestlers turned two of the toughest pros of their era. Nagata would come close with the Nagata Lock II and his backdrop suplex, but it would be Akiyama in the end who took victory, borrowing the Emerald Flowsion of NOAH president Mitsuharu Misawa and then a pair of wrist clutch Exploders. 

Meanwhile, after the latter part of the 1990s was consumed with the boom and bust of the New World Order, January 4 2002 would see its former members in tag team action, and its next evolution on display. After feuding with Keiji Muto over control of the nWo, Masahiro Chono would spin off into the Team2000 group, recruiting nWo’s biggest stars. Those included the G1 Tag League winners TenCozy, who had their own ambitions for power. As Satoshi Kojima and Hiroyoshi Tenzan  came into their primes, Chono wanted the two in their place, and teamed with the immense Giant Singh to do just that. 

Singh’s power was unmatched, and Chono would have the inside track when it came to knowing his opponents’ offense. Yet as TenCozy were able to mount flurries, it was Team 2000 that was its own worst enemy. Another giant at the service of Chono, Giant Silva tried to get involved from the apron, only for a miscue with Silva to lead to a Kojima lariat and Tenzan pinfall; what should have been an unstoppable du in Silva and Singh seemed to fall apart at the seams as the winners left the ring.

Another group that was gaining notoriety in the wrestling world at the time was B.A.T.T. Keiji Muto had separated from NJPW to join All Japan where he would become the Triple Crown Champion, and bring another former NJPW star in Hiroshi Hase under the Bad Ass Translate Trading banner. As both returned to their former homes, it would be against the NJPW President in Tatsumi Fujinami, and his highly skilled partner Osamu Nishimura for a classical battle of technical masters.

The junior heavyweight division was in an interesting spot at the turn of the millennium. After Jyushin Thunder Liger railed against a perceived lack of competition in the division in 2001, he would straddle both junior and heavyweight divisions, cruising to an undefeated Best of the Super Jr. campaign, before entering the G1 Climax, as well as both junior and heavyweight tag leagues that year; a first. Other juniors were fighting to truly emerge meanwhile, and that included Kendo Kashin. Kashin lifted the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship for the second time in October, defeating a martial arts expect in Masayuke Naruse. 

On January 4, he faced another fighter dipping his toes in the pro-wrestling waters in Daijiro Matsui. Matsui clearly meant serious business, but Kashin was anything but in his approach, insisting on having his version of the junior heavyweight tile to hand to defend, before avoiding contact with Matsui. The old handshake offer to low blow trick didn’t work on a fighter wearing a cup, and Matsui took over for the bulk of the bout; after stealing one with a rollup, Kashin would reject his reward of a trophy and signed declaration from Seiji Sakaguchi, instead just leaving with his non-official title belt.

Watch Wrestling World 2002 here!