Hiroshi Tanahashi faced former mentor Keiji Muto in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 3.
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Whether it was Hiroshi Tanahashi or Shinsuke Nakamura carrying the standard, pride and stability in the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was being restored at the close of the decade, after the mid-2000s had seen several dramatic shifts. Yet 2009 saw a figure from outside NJPW dominate the title space for the majority of the year. All Japan’s Keiji Muto seized IWGP gold in April, and would be the centerpiece in both AJPW and NJPW for the rest of the year.
As Muto maintained a vise like grip over the IWGP gold, New Japan was in need of a ringer. After struggling to a flat performance in the prior year’s G1, Tanahashi sought to find a new angle in the US, where he would head on excursion to TNA Wrestling. Yet his lengthy trip away was cut short by NJPW Chairman Naoki Sugabayashi himself, who made a direct appeal for Tanahashi to return and take the title back.
Hiroshi Tanahashi had served as Muto’s second during the Ace’s time as a Young Lion, and a stage was set for the pupil to take on the master at Wrestle Kingdom 3. Bristling with youthful confidence, Tanahashi vowed to send Muto out of the Tokyo Dome in a wheelchair, but that was a task much easier said than done. When Tanahashi emerged on top, he finally vanquished a foe he had at times thought impossible to surpass, and truly earned his status as the Ace of NJPW.
The night would also see the last Tokyo Dome apperance of NOAH’s Mitsuharu Misawa before his untimely passing. Misawa would bring the hard hitting amateur master Takashi Sugiura into action against Hirooki Goto and Shinsuke Nakamura of the RISE faction. NOAH and NJPW would do battle through 2009, with Manabu Nakanishi and Jun Akiyama doing battle earlier in the evening. This tag bout would see the start of a long held interpromotional grudge between Goto and Sugiura that would see them collide in some brutal bouts on Tokyo Dome cards to come.
As for Nakanishi and Akiyama, the Country Monster was unrelentingly aggressive toward his NOAH opposition, throwing heavy blows from the bell, and even flying with a plancha and missile dropkick to Akiyama. Nakanishi kicked out of the former GHC Champion Akiyama’s exploder suplex, but not the wrist clutch variant; still, the crowd’s connection to Nakanishi, and the Olympian’s fighting spirit in response were both signposts to his emotional IWGP Heavyweight Championship win later in the spring.
Inter promotional battles were the order of the day at Wrestle Kingdom III. NJPW vs AJPW in the main event, and versus NOAH underneath was joined by a continuation of New Japan’s relationship with TNA, and even with Zero-One. There Yuji Nagata was reigning as World Heavyweight Champion, and defending against another wrestler famed for his lack of aging, Masato Tanaka. Where Tanahashi was trying to wrest his company’s gold back from outsider Muto, Tanaka was invading to wrest his own promotion’s title back.
Supported by Shinjiro Otani and members of the Zero One roster, Tanaka quickly took the fight o the floor and split Nagata open on the ring post, but Blue Justice would draw blood of his own. Nagata withstood Diamon Dust, a massive lariat and a top rope backdrop suplex, recovering to land a backdrop of his own for the triumphant three.