With NJPW’s 49th Anniversary in the books, we are deep in the New Japan Cup, a tournament that presents some thrilling narratives from March in years past. Yet there’s plenty more that stands out this week in history as we shall see:
March 6 2014: Golden Anniversary
Nippon Budokan’s Anniversary Event saw huge matches back to back last week, with Kota Ibushi and El Desperado giving fans a phenomenal main event that was historic on several levels.
As IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion Kota Ibushi took on IWGP Junior Heavyweight singles and tag team champion El Desperado, it was the first double champion versus double champion match in NJPW history. As Ibushi becomes officially recognised as the first IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, it was the last ever defence of the IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Championships in their current form. Finally, in the semi-regular tradition of heavyweight versus junior main events to celerate NJPW’s anniversary, Ibushi became the first to occupy both positions in their career.
While in 2021, Ibushi was the heavyweight counterpart to challenger Desperado, seven years earlier, he was the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion taking on heavyweight champ Kazuchika Okada. Appropriately enough, Ibushi had made his first defence of his reign against El Desperado just weeks earlier, before representing his division and his dual contracted promotions in NJPW and DDT in Ota at the 42nd Anniversary in Ota.
March 8, 1997: International Strong Style
Shinya Hashimoto, Kensuke Sasaki, The Barbarian and Meng. Four names that would strike fear into any wrestler in the 1990s faced off in the same ring this week in 1997.
Having won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship the prior April in the Tokyo Dome from Nobuhiko Takada, Hashimoto was closing in on a year into what would become a then record 489 day reign. The question of just who could stop the ‘King of Destruction’ was being raised; in actual fact it would be his partner this March night, Sasaki who would take the title in August on the back of a G1 Climax victory.
WCW’s Faces of Fear certainly represented fearsome competition however. This was Meng and the Barbarian’s first tour of NJPW in four years after a brief run in 1993, and the then Prince Tonga’s formative years in All Japan Pro Wrestling in the early 1980s. He and the Barbarian were undoubtedly two of the toughest human beings anywhere in the world, and looked to make a mark in NJPW against top flight competition, in much the same way that decades removed, Meng’s sons in the Guerrillas of Destiny would.
March 9 2003: Monster Justice
Six years after Shinya Hashimoto’s record setting IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign, Yuji Nagata was in the midst of his own dominant run that put him in the record books. Between April 2002 and May 2003, Nagata would hold the IWGP gold and rack up a record ten defence reign.
That V10 streak would be one more than Shinya Hashimoto’s third reign in 1994-1995. Hashimoto’s dominant reign would eventually come to an end at the hands of his Dojo and Three Musketeers contemporary, Keiji Muto. When Nagata sought to draw level with Hashimoto then, on defence number nine, it was appropos that the man opposite would be Manabu Nakanishi.
Nagata and Nakanishi’s paths to stardom met when both were teenagers in amateur ranks. Both had debuted mere days apart in 1992, and now both were in the main event for the IWGP heavyweight Championship. After coming close to the top flight in 1999 after winning the G1 Climax, Nakanishi was not going to take things easy on his best friend something that he showed with a dominant performance that saw the Yajin do everything within the 60 minute time limit but pin or submit Nagata.
March 11, 2018: Zack Sabre Time
The win and move on format of the New Japan Cup makes it quite the place to make a first tournament impression. That’s a lesson Great-O-Khan learned when he forced a referee stoppage against Tetsuya Naito in the Budokan last week, and a lesson Zack Sabre Jr. learned in 2018. Though ZSJ was a year into his NJPW career, and had already established himself as a formidable force in the 2017 G1 Climax, it was the New Japan Cup that really saw him established as a main event player. Through submission after submission, he would storm through the cup, taking the trophy on his first attempt to put himself opposite Kazuchika Okada in Ryogoku Sumo Hall.
Yet it wasn’t just the victories themselves, but the quality of the competition Sabre defeated that was impressive. Kota Ibushi, SANADA and Hiroshi Tanahashi would all fall in the ensuing matches, but first was Tetsuya Naito, who was a pre-tournament favourite until Zack Sabre Time rolled around.
March 12, 2004: They’re Hot! They’re Spicy! They Taste Great!
With its members, including new additions Kevin Knight and The DKC gaining attention by the day, it’s no wonder that NJPW’s LA Dojo is regarded as one of the best training facilities in the world for prospective professional wrestlers. The same was the case of the original LA Dojo back in the mid 2000s, producing stars like Rocky Romero, Karl Anderson, Prince Devitt, and wrestling in Yoyogi 17 years ago this week, Bryan Danielson.
The American Dragon was making major waves all around the world in 2004, and had a unique tag team partner with him. The enigmatic ‘hot, spicy and great tasting’ Curry Man made his first appearance in the 2002 Best of the Super Juniors tournament; although he would only manage a pair of wins in his block, fans took notice of his undeniable charisma and dynamic ring style that was unique and yet oddly familiar all at once.
Earlier in February Curry Man had his highest profile singles bout to date, but even his fiery spice was unable to overcome IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, Heat. The curry would be brought back to the boil by Danielson, and the two reset, going after IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions Jado and Gedo. After starting their second reign with the titles by defeating the young team of Ryusuke Taguchi and Hirooki Goto in November, the World Class Tag Team had an impressive pair of defences with tough competition in the form of Heat and Tiger Mask, and Jyushin Thunder Liger and Koji Kanemoto. The Curry and the Dragon would have their backs to the wall, but would bring all the fire they could to take the gold.