As we put the New japan Cup behind us and get on the road to Sakura Genesis, where history is set to be made in our main event and the first IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match. High stakes matchups are prevalent this week in history, with the below just some of the big late March moments of the past.
March 20, 1987: Duel of the Young Musketeers
While spring has been most strongly associated with the New Japan Cup over the last 16 years, between 1985 and 1987, it would be new blood celebrated in the Young Lion Cup.
Junji Kosugi and Keiichi Yamada had claimed the past two years’ cups, with 1987 seeing a nine man field compete in a league through the month of March. Notable names would include Akira Nogami and the future El Samurai, who would be active through the 1990s in NJPW, but the two biggest future stars would meet in the Korakuen Hall final.
The man who would be known as the ultimate in black clad charisma Masahiro Chono, and the future King of Destruction Shinya Hashimoto certainly looked different to how fans would later remember them, but the hard hitting ring style was definitely there. In the end it would be Chono with the technical ability catch an inside cradle victory on the larger Hashimoto to claim the winner’s trophy and 500,000 Yen prize money; Hashimoto struggled with the decision, but bring rendered by special guest referee tatsumi Fujinami, he had little choice but to accept the result.
March 21, 1991: Double Gold Dragon
This week saw the first japanese fans get their hands on tickets to Wrestle Grand Slam, a pair of huge events which will see NJPW debut in Yokohama Stadium, and return to the Tokyo Dome. 30 years ago this week, NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair faced IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tatsumi Fujinami with both titles at stake in the Dome. Starrcade ’91 in Tokyo Dome had been built around the concept of America and Japan’s finest wrestlers tying up, and the main event was the absolute epitome of that idea. Fujinami and Flair were two masters of their field in their absolute primes in 1991, and the match was as competitive as the crowd was fervent. Mat mastery would eventually give away to rougher tactics however, both men spilling to the floor, and Flair bloodied by a guardrail outside.
Then, controversy. Referee Bill Alfonso, representing WCW, tried to get Flair and Fujinami into the ring as both brawled outside. Both champions listened to his commands, Fujinami following Flair in, with Alfonso in the rear. Flair charged at Fujinami, who ducked as the American referee went flying out of the ring.
Flair soon followed as Fujinami sent him tumbling over the top rope. As the NWA Champion tried to get back inside, the IWGP champ caught him with a suplex, and went for a cover. Back-up referee Tiger Hattori slid in to count the three, and the Tokyo Dome crowd exploded as Fujinami left with the NWA and IWGP Championships.
While Fujinami’s double title win was celebrated in Japan, the situation was different in the US. While Alfonso was incapacitated and unable to call the end of the match, he did see Flair tumble over the top rope right at his feet; under NWA rules of the time, a disqualification. Hattori’s three count would have been legal were this contested under NJPW/IWGP rules, but not in WCW/NWA’s. Fujinami’s NWA reign went unrecognized in the States, and he and Flair wrestled again to settle the issue back in the US, in Florida that May; a match Flair won to become undisputed NWA Champion, while Fujinami retained the IWGP.
March 23, 2013: First try, first win
Kazuchika Okada’s first year back to NJPW from excursion as the Rainmaker will forever be known as the most impactful return in New Japan history. Within weeks of his comeback at Wrestle Kingdom 6, he made his first challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and won in the Rainmaker Shock. Barely six months removed, he would be victorious in the G1 Climax, again on his first attempt, and seven months after that, persisted in the single elimination New Japan Cup to win that too on his first try.
In doing so, Okada would be the third in history to follow a G1 victory directly with a New Japan Cup win, following Hiroshi Tanahashi in 2007/2008 and his opponent in 2013’s final, Hirooki Goto in 2008/2009. Still in NJPW’s hontai at the time, Goto was the reigning New Japan Cup winner, with sour memories of falling short in his championship challenge to Okada the prior spring. In 2016, Goto and Okada would become CHAOS allies, but there was no such comradeship in 2013; still with Okada getting past Toru Yano in the semifinals, the Rainmaker was not about to play nice regardless of his opponent.
March 24, 2019: Back to the front
Six years removed from his first New Japan Cup victory on his first try, and Kazuchika Okada had all but withdrawn from the spring classic, after one more entry in 2015. The reason? As the dominant IWGP Heavyweight Champion of the 2010s, the Rainmaker was more used to being what awaits the New Japan Cup winner than being in the hunt. In 2019 however, he was part of the field in what was at that point the biggest cup in history. 32 men were competing that spring, with the prize not just being an opportunity at IWGP Heavyweight Champion Jay White, but the opportunity to do so on a brand new grand stage: Madison Square Garden.
In the end, Okada and SANADA would face off in a classic final that truly cemented the men as rivals ready to compete with on another at any time. The Rainmaker deserved his hard earned victory, and had an emotional post match encounter. At ringside on colour commentary was the 2017 New Japan Cup winner, Katsuyori Shibata; that year Shibata would move to challenge Okada in a match that would prove to be The Wrestler’s last, thanks to injuries sustained against the Rainmaker.
The post match handshake and affirmation from Shibata was fitting denouement to the struggles both physical and mental for Okada in the intervening years, and set him up for what would be a history making moment in MSG the next month.
March 26, 2005: Battle to bring the IWGP back
April 4 sees a new era for the top IWGP prize, as the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship is defended for the first time. The unification of the IWGP heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships comes after over a year of the two titles being won and defended together. In 2005, two of the richest prizes in Japanese professional wrestling were held by the same man, but all NJPW’s top stars wanted was their own title back.
Having departed new for All Japan in 2001, Satoshi Kojima had completed a journey to AJPW’s Triple Crown Championship on February 16 by defeating Toshiaki Kawada. That added another dimension to his IWGP heavyweight Championship challenge to Hiroyoshi Tenzan in Ryogoku Sumo Hall just four days later. With both titles on the line, Kojima and Tenzan wrestled to near the 60 minute time limit, before a last minute knockout blow saw Kojima become the first in history to hold top heavyweight gold in both promotions simultaneously.
Post match, Kojima showed the ultimate sign of disrespect to the IWGP title, tossing it aside as he walked away. In the melee that ensued with furious NJPW wrestlers giving chace, it was Nakamura picking the title up, a gesture that saw him become Kojima’s next challenge. The youngest IWGP Heavyweight Champion in history after his late 2003 win over outsider Yoshihiro Takayama, Nakamura had the weight of NJPW and its fans on his shoulders as he did battle with Kojima; a battle that this time went the distance.