Wrestle Kingdom rewind: A New Era Begins 【WK18】

Hiroshi Tanahashi started a historic reign at Wrestle Kingdom 5 as NJPW entered a brave new era.

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As the calendar turned to 2011, New Japan Pro-Wrestling started to turn a corner, after some testing years, into a new era of growth. At the helm of this growth was Hiroshi Tanahashi, whose record setting V11 title reign would see ever larger crowds turn out to discover NJPW, and be told, every last one, that the Ace loves them at the end of the evening. 

That reign would begin on January 4, 2011 as he took on the prodigal Satoshi Kojima. The third generation star had made the decision to jump from New to All Japan at the start of the millennium, a move that drew a lot of ire, and strong opposition from NJPW stars when he did make his appearances in the promotion. After winning the G1 in 2010 however, Kojima made it known that he would commit to NJPW full time from that point on. 

With a surge in momentum, Kojima would defeat Togi Makabe in October to hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the second time, but many in NJPW would make him only too aware that acceptance back in the New Japan ranks wouldn’t come easily. Hiroshi Tanahashi, who had toiled hard to shine a light on New Japan in Kojima’s absence, was one such voice, and the Ace would feel that he should be the one steering the ship in the new decade.

With Tanahashi’s High Fly Flow and Kojima’s lariat being the most feared weapons of both men, the match unfurled with both keenly aware and trying to avoid one another’s deadly finishers. Kojima got his knees up on one High Fly Flow and kicked out of a second to the shock of the crowd. In a flash back to Antonio Inoki’s defeat to Hulk Hogan in 1983, Tanahashi ate a lariat off the apron that almost put him out of the running, but the Ace willed himself back inside, and came up with a decisive High Fly Flow to claim victory. 

The man Kojima had taken the title off, Togi Makabe was involved in a characteristically violent brawl with Masato Tanaka in the semi-main event. Ever since Makabe’s GBH was all but dissolved in a great exodus to Shinsuke Nakamura’s CHAOS, Makabe had been battling the faction, which had Tanaka added tangentially to the mix as part of the Complete Players with Jado and Gedo. That November saw Tanaka drop Makabe with a vertical drop brainbuster onto a steel chair to lead to this matchup, one Makabe won with a powerbomb through a table and the King Kong knee.

For the third Wrestle Kingdom in a row, Hirooki Goto would lock horns with Takashi Sugiura on the card. NOAH’s Sugiura would team up with the huge Yoshihiro Takayama, while Goto would have a unique partner. Kazuchika Okada was mid US excursion, and returned to tag with Goto in the Dome. One year later, he would return in very different form.

It was the first of two NJPW vs NOAH clashes on the card, following Shinsuke Nakamura’s collision with Go Shiozaki. Nakamura’s CHAOS would be the factional landing point for Kazuchika Okada, and after a long feud with Shinsuke, and Nakamura’s own departure, the eventual home for Goto as well. Interesting ties would bind the NJPW representatives against NOAH in the future, but before that, Nakamura’s rivalry with Hiroshi Tanahashi could be seen in contrasting matches with Shiozaki. 

The Ace was forging ahead at Wrestle Kingdom V by starting a year plus record breaking IWGP run, one year on from defeating the face of NOAH. Here, Nakamura would not be outdone by Tanahashi. Defeating Shiozaki himself with a Boma Ye, he would sew the seeds for what would become his own iconic reign with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, created later in 2011. Whatever Tanahashi could do, Nakamura aimed to do better.   

Watch Wrestle Kingdom V here!