This week saw Wrestling Dontaku in Fukuoka, and a phenomenal main event from Will Ospreay and Shingo Takagi that has had the world abuzz. Plenty of matches and moments have made the beginning of May a crucial one in NJPW history, with the below being just some examples.
May 1, 1994: Inoki’s Final Countdown in Fukuoka
Antonio Inoki’s in ring career spanned an incredible four decades from his debut in 1960 to retirement in 1998. There was no star bigger or brighter than New Japan’s founder, and as such Inoki’s retirement was no sudden occurrence and not to be taken lightly. Rather, Inoki would embark on his Final Countdown in 1994, a series of matches that took place over a four year span that would leave lasting memories and enduring messages to fans and wrestlers alike.
The countdown got off to a significant start on May 1, 1994 inside the Fukuoka Dome for the second ever Wrestling Dontaku event. Taking on the ultimate challenge of Inoki was the mysterious Great Muta, who was at definite ideological odds with his boss. Keiji Muto had entered the New Japan Dojo at age 21, in the midst of a turbulent period in New Japan. As many of his seniors found themselves in different promotions during a period of upheaval, Muto found himself the center of attention for his athleticism and good looks. Still in his early 20s, Muto found himself tagging with Inoki, who saw in the young man somebody who would assume his mantle, alongside other promising youngsters Shinya Hashimoto and Masahiro Chono.
Inoki would take a select few of his most promising young talents, including Muto, Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki, and the man who we would come to know as Jyushin Thunder Liger, aside in 1987. He would encourage them to take additional martial arts training with the hope to create a group of all round fighters to take on the world’s best martial artists as well as pro wrestlers. For Muto, about to head to Florida on international excursion though, a different path awaited.
In America, under the tutelage of the mystical legend Great Kabuki, Muto would tap into an otherworldly alter ego by the name of the Great Muta. Muta moved with a supernatural blend of grace and speed, and like his new mentor, mastered the spewing of poisonous mist. When back in Japan, the two personae of Muto and Muta would hold fans in awe. Audiences sometimes got the bright, colourful, positive man announcers would call the ‘Sexy Tarzan’. When the occasion called for it, the terrifying, bloodletting crazed Muta.
Muto and Muta ushered in a new era for New Japan. He was the ultimate charismatic showman, but someone in staunch contrast to the plain talking, plain fighting martial artist Inoki was, and who Inoki had wanted Muto to be. The first Final Countdown match was a generational battle, but it was also an ideological one.
May 2, 2002: Blue vs Green
While Dontaku was a part of the shedules through the mid 1990s, and a permanent fixture from 2009, the early 2000s saw major events staged in the Tokyo Dome in the month of May to mark the Golden Week holiday. In 2002, a special NJPW event celebrated 30 years of NJPW earlier in March, with a wealth of unexpected dream matchups.
Right at the top of the card though, and alongside Yuji Nagata narrowly retaining the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in a thriller with Yoshihiro Takayama, was a dream match nobody had thought possible.
2002 was a year of major change in new Japan. At the start of the year, Keiji Muto and Satoshi Kojima were big names in a departure of wrestlers from New to All Japan. Chono would step up, not just as leader of Team 2000, but as a representative of NJPW at large. The black clad mega star had spent much of the 1990s as an antagonistic force heading up T2000 and nWo Japan before it. Yet his love for New Japan and willingness to fight for the company and the principles of Strong Style were still evident and burning strongly.
Misawa was fighting for a newer company. Having been a major star in All Japan through the 1990s, Misawa championed the dramatic King’s Road style of pro wrestling. In 2000, he would take that style with him to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. The upstart promotion was making major waves in the early part of the new millennium, and its stars were eager to show their worth against the established names of NJPW.
When Chono and Misawa made their rises to super stardom in the 1990s, New and All Japan were two very distinct entities that would never cross. Their different approaches to pro-wrestling, both still incredibly popular, led many to fantasy book dream matches between the top stars, knowing in their hearts they would be practically impossible to make happen. Yet in 2002, here we were, with the biggest of big fights, underneath the shell of the Big Egg.
May 3, 2013: Number One, With a Bullet
Wrestling Dontaku has its fair share of historical moments, but none changed the face of NJPW and the wrestling world at large as much as in 2013, when the Bullet Club was officially formed.
Prince Devitt had undergone a massive change at the start of the year. After a Junior versus Heavyweight Champion match at NJPW’s 41st Anniversary event saw Devitt fight with a chip on his shoulder against Hiroshi Tanahashi, he became determined to seek any means necessary for victory. When partner Ryusuke Taguchi resisted Devitt’s new tactics, he turned on his Apollo 55 brother and aligned himself with the gigantic Kiwi, Bad Luck Fale.
Meanwhile, Karl Anderson, who had shown his worth as a singles wrestler in 2012 and went as far as the finals of that year’s G1 Climax, had engaged in a rivalry of his own with Tanahashi. His was more sportsmanlike on the surface, driven by a desire to beat Tanahashi in order to advance his career to the next level.
Anderson and Tanahashi had a spirited and highly competitive match in Fukuoka, but it was Tanahashi coming out on top. Immediately post match, Devitt and Fale charged the ring, attacking the Ace, and giving the Machine Gun a choice that changed the business…
May 5, 2000 Great Muta Faces Power Couple
Few in wrestling would embody the term ‘power couple’ like Kensuke Sasaki and Akira Hokuto at the dawn of the new millennium. At the top of their respective fields, Sasaki would rule over NJPW as IWGP Heavyweight Champion while Hokuto was dominant over the All Japan Women’s promotion, both using the terrifying Northern Lights Bomb en route to major victories.
Sasaki had started the year as IWGP Heavyweight Champion with a major win over rival Genichiro Tenryu. He maintained his dominance through the early part of the year, but when it came to the month of May, needed an added edge. The Great Muta had already declared his intention to head to America in the spring of 2000, and made an impactful statement at the expense of Masahiro Chono a month earlier, getting himself disqualified in a singles match in the Tokyo Dome. Now he sought to take the IWGP Heavyweight Championship away with him, after lulling Sasaki into a false sense of security by feigning a leg injury going into the match.
May 6, 2009: Monster Upset
Manabu Nakanishi was one of NJPW’s toughest competitors, who fought with pride for the cerulean blue. Still though, its richest prize would elude him. Nakanishi would challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on numerous occasions through the 2000s, but after coming heart wrenchingly close, would fail to seize the gold each time, most memorably in March 2003, where he wrestled close friend Yuji Nagata to a 60 minute draw over the title.
Yet Nakanishi remained ‘constantly ready’ to take on any opportunity that came his way. That opportunity came on May 6 2009. A Korakuen Hall double header followed Fukuoka’s Wrestling Dontaku that year, on cards highlighted by Kota Ibushi’s NJPW debut and stars from CMLL, including Mistico who was set to be part of a match with IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi. Yet amid concerns over the bird flu pandemic, the CMLL stars were not able to make the trip to Japan, the main event on May 6 becoming a friendly special single match between Tanahashi and Nakanishi instead.
Then, after a hard fought defence against Hirooki Goto in Fukuoka, confidence got the better of Tanahashi. The Ace declared that the special single match would now be for the IWGP title. Nakanishi vowed to, for once, not think about company or fans, but instead ‘do it for me’, and attack the already compromised neck of Tanahashi. With a huge German Suplex, he scored the shocking win, with the Korakuen crowd erupting as they witnessed what is to this day the sole IWGP Heavyweight Championship change ever to take place in the famous Hall.
Even in the midst of the greatest victory of his career, Nakanishi was modest to a fault. ‘I want to say something brash and showy, but this is only the first time I’ve ever been champion. I’ve missed out before. Now I’ve finally done it, I want to enjoy my time as champion’. Nakanishi’s reign was short lived. In June at Dominion, a rematch with Tanahashi saw Nakanishi’s one and only title reign come to an end, but the Yajin had made an enduring mark on the history books.