MMA star Josh Barnett headlined in his first ever wrestling match on January 4 2003
<– 2002: Nagata vs Akiyama 2004: Shinsuke Nakamura goes for double gold–>
Yuji Nagata may have come up short on January 4 2002 when he challenged GHC Heavyweight Champion Jun Akiyama, but shortly after, on April 5, he started an IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign that would define his career. Defeating Tadao Yasuda in the Nippon Budokan, Nagata started a 392 day, ten defence reign that was at the time the most dominant IWGP heavyweight Championship run in the title’s history.
In the midst of a turbulent time in the professional wrestling world, Nagata was a constant, and would take on all comers, emerging victorious. Traditional pro-wrestlers Kensuke Sasaki and Masahiro Chono would be unable to wrest the title from him, but that wasn’t all; contenders from the booming Mixed Martial Arts scene were also turned away by Blue Justice. Nagata had already defeated Bas Rutten earlier in the summer, and on January 4 2003 faced a decorated fighter in Josh Barnett.
January 4 2003 saw Barnett’s first pro-wrestling match take place in the main event in the Tokyo Dome, but Barnett’s reputation more than preceded him, and there was no doubt Nagata would have his hands full. Indeed, Barnett would keep fighting until the very end, but though he kicked out of a Nagata enzuigiri, he did so at 3.1 and not 2.9, his follow up crossface hold irrelevant as the champion’s hand was raised.
Meanwhile the collision between the two worlds of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts was commemorated with the revival of the NWF Championship in 2003. In the early years of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, long before the conception of the IWGP, the NWF Championship was the top heavyweight title to gun for, and would be revived in a tournament that saw professional wrestlers seeking to show their king of sports status against martial artists. Tsuyoshi Kosaka and Yoshihiro Takayama would square off in the Tokyo Dome final of a tournament that also included the likes of former IWGP Champions Kazuyuki Fujita and Tadao Yasuda. Takayama would be victorious, and one of only two holders of this reborn NWF title before Shinsuke Nakamura united it with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a story for our next installment.
For this installment, the ‘supernova’ Nakamura was in a very painful spot in his January 4 debut. With a rocket on his back thanks to his cross sport potential, Nakamura was an attractive prospect for both worlds of pro-wrestling and MMA. That led to a double booking in 2002, as a fight on New Year’s Eve saw him dealt a painful loss, and a nasty gash that was opened moments into tagging with Michiyoshi Ohara against Tadao Yasuda and Kazunari Murakami. Yet with the fighting spirit that later saw him earn the label of ‘King of Strong Style’, Nakamura rallied, and emerged with the victory.