This Sunday, New Japan Pro Wrestling holds one of its biggest days on their annual calendar: the G1 Climax Final. Next to their annual Tokyo Dome show held every January 4 (known for the last decade as Wrestle Kingdom), the G1 Climax Final is the most important day of the year for puroresu fans. The two men that are good enough and lucky enough to make the final will fight for bragging rights for life, a really awesome trophy, ten million yen (around $80,000 US), and the right to main event Wrestle Kingdom 10 in what will be a pretty packed house in Tokyo. They'll have one person more than any other to thank.
This guy, boys and girls, is Kanji Inoki, known these days as Muhammad Hussain Inoki after converting to Islam some time ago (1990, but not revealed until three years ago), but is best known as Antonio Inoki. Antonio Inoki was the man that founded New Japan Pro Wrestling after he failed in a hostile takeover attempt of his original employer, the Japan Wrestling Association. His charisma and skill made him not just one of the biggest stars in puroresu, but THE biggest. Of course, when you book your own company, you too can be your own biggest star; see every wrestling promotion EVER. Thing is people loved Antonio. I mean, they LOVED this man. He could do no wrong in their eyes.
Then he got a little too full of himself. In a six-year span, a man once seen as revolutionary in the world of wrestling nearly drove his company to the ground.
This is the story of Inoki-ism, a philosophy that nearly killed New Japan Pro Wrestling, and how Western sensibilities saved it.
The date is January 4, 1999. Familiar date, yeah? Most longtime wrestling fans know full well what went down on that day(Mankind's WWF title win broadcast, almost immediately thereafter by the Fingerpoke of Doom). It was, for all intents and purposes, the day the momentum forever shifted in the Monday Night Wars.
A few thousand miles away, a paradigm shift had occurred. While most of America slept, Inoki protégé Naoya Ogawa, a silver medalist in the 1992 Summer Olympics in judo (and a fifth place finisher in the '96 Games) took on one of the "Three Musketeers" of New Japan, Shinya Hashimoto (the other two were Masahiro Chono and The Great Muta; the trio all debuted in 1984 and all went on to become three of the biggest stars in puro wrestling). There's already bad blood between the two. Back in April 1997, Ogaya in his pro wrestling debut defeated then IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hashimoto, and immediately, the two were billed as rivals. To put this in perspective (using who was popular at the time), this would be the rough equivalent of Kurt Angle making his pro wrestling debut and beating Stone Cold Steve Austin right after Austin's star-making performance at Wrestlemania.
Fast forward to 1/4/99. Now Ogaya's got a year of experience under him, and Hashimoto is still making crazy money for New Japan. This was a highly anticipated bout on New Japan's version of Wrestlemania. So, perhaps on instructions from his mentor Inoki, Naoya shot in on Shinya (as in the guy legitimately started beating on him) and began delivering some of the hardest shots anyone's ever seen in a wrestling ring. I mean, if this were UFC, John McCarthy would have probably stepped in and stopped this thing already. After about seven minutes, the match is thrown out and ruled a no contest. People were not happy with this. In fact, the fight got so out of control, members of both camps had to break it up and another puro legend, Riki Choshu, had to step in and make peace. To put this in perspective (again using who was popular at the time), this would be like if the Fingerpoke of Doom degenerated to a mass nWo Hollywood vs. nWo Wolfpac brawl because Kevin Nash refused to lay down and instead just shot on Hollywood Hogan. And someone like Ric Flair stepping into make peace or something.
This seven-minute bout, even if it was a worked shoot as some had since speculated, all but ruined Shinya Hashimoto. See, Shinya was seen as one of the toughest men to ever lace a pair of boots in New Japan. And on that night, he looked like an absolute patsy. Basically, this was the equivalent of Steve Austin's heel turn right after Wrestlemania X-Seven, turning him from badass SOB to brown-noser in constant need of validation. Eventually the beef was squashed, but the damage was done. And now New Japan had to make Inoki's protege look like a killer to validate that his rocket push.
Two months later, Ogawa ended Dan Severn's four year run as NWA world champion, and would hold it for 470 of the next 477 days, vacating it in July 2000. Hashimoto would be forced into a temporary retirement in early 2000, but returned only briefly later in the year. Ultimately, interest in Hashimoto-Ogaya wore off. By the end of the year, he was gone from the company entirely to start Zero-1. Inoki in his mind had stumbled upon an idea. Well, not so much stumbled upon it as he had been sitting on it for a long time: he wanted to combine pro wrestling with mixed martial arts.
Around this time, mixed martial arts was riding a wave of popularity in Japan. Because of that popularity, pro wrestlers in Inoki's mind were no longer seen as the real tough guys they've been made out to be. Luckily for him, he had a solution: have wrestlers participate in shoot fights and have shootfighters participate in matches. Anyone who remembers the WWF's Brawl for All knows exactly how well that idea went over in the States.
Overseas, it didn't go much better. In fact, it went much worse. While some wrestlers found success in MMA (Kazuyuki Fujita and Shinsuke Nakamura did), others failed horribly, including Jushin Thunder Liger (yeah, THAT Jushin Liger... the one that's gonna be on NXT Takeover: Brooklyn next weekend), Katsuyori Shibata, and one of New Japan's biggest stars of the early 2000s, Yuji Nagata. Nagata lost to both Mirko Cro Cop and Fedor Emilianenko in under a minute each. MMA fighters would time and time again go over wrestlers, much to the chagrin of wrestling fans. Bob Sapp... THAT Bob Sapp... was once IWGP Heavyweight Champion (permission to roll your eyes granted). Masayuki Narese and Kendo Kashin, both primarily MMA fighters, held their junior heavyweight title. Josh Barnett, mixed martial arts fighter (and now English commentator for the best of New Japan shows on AXS TV) found himself in the main event of a January 4 show. Needless to say, wrestling fans eventually began to speak with their wallets. So did the wrestlers themselves. As mentioned earlier, Shinya Hashimoto left to start his own company. Keiji Mutoh and Satoshi Kojima left for All Japan. Riki Choshu, who was the primary booker during the late 1990s, a very prosperous period for New Japan, was forced out. Eventually, the MMA buzz in Japan wore off. But that didn't stop Inoki from pushing Inoki-ism.
In a three-year span from 2003 to 2006, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, New Japan's top title, changed hands 15 times, more than any other three year period before--or since. Only four men held it for more than 100 days in a row: Yuji Nagata, Yoshihiro Takayama (who went 0-4 in his MMA career), Kazuyuki Fujita (15-10), and Brock Lesnar. Kensuke Sasaki, briefly WCW United States Champion in the mid-1990s, once backed into the title when his opponent, Kazuyuki Fujita, put on a rear naked choke and was counted down. That bout lasted two and a half minutes. Brock Lesnar virtually held the IWGP title hostage in a contract dispute.
Inoki-ism drove fans away, causing attendance and revenue to plummet. New Japan's weekly show was moved to a late night timeslot. A company that pulled in as many as 50-55,000 for their Tokyo Dome shows were now pulling in half, if they were lucky (and truthful). With the company on the verge of bankruptcy, Yuke's (yeah, THAT YUKE'S, they of the WWE series of games you may have played for the last decade and a half) buy 51.5% of the company (if you're even a little decent in math, you know that's more than half... not much, but enough), enough to force Antonio out of the company that he built and molded in his image. The MMA fighters that populated the roster would eventually be released, and those that stuck around had to accept lesser deals or be forced out with them. But more than new leadership was needed for people to be convinced a new day was coming in New Japan.
Enter this guy.
This guy here is Hiroshi Tanahashi. He along with Shinsuke Nakamura and Katsuyori Shibata were the new "Three Musketeers" of New Japan, the three men that would lead the once proud company back into prominence. Along with Gedo and Jado, collectively known as "The World Class Tag Team" taking over the booking duties, they would lead a new generation of stars...and hopefully bring a new generation of fans. Well, that was the plan. Around 2007, Shibata decided to turn his attention to MMA. And Nakamura already had a pedigree (hell, he was once the IWGP Heavyweight Champion). Shinskue and Hiroshi went on an excursion to Mexico together. It was there the separation was created.
Upon their return to Japan, Tanahashi began to show a flashy, more exciting style. More colorful. Something New Japan hadn't seen in years. He could fly like a luchadore. He could brawl like a gaijin heavyweight. He could mat wrestle too (he had a decent amateur background). In fact, there was almost nothing he could do. Fans took to Tanahashi, and soon the promotion, much like the WWF did with Steve Austin in the late-1990s, would be built in his image. Well, not exactly his image, but more people would have the Tanahashi attitude and charisma and pedigree. Soon enough, Shinsuke Nakamura, once dubbed "The Super Rookie", changed with the times. He would incorporate his strong style teaches and add a little bit of flair. And by a little bit, I mean a lot. He had half his head shaved. He came out to outfits inspired by the late Michael Jackson. Nakamura may be the best combination of old New Japan and new New Japan.
Well, he would be the best (or at worst 1A) if it weren't for this guy.
Kazuchika Okada at 6'3", 235 pounds is pretty much every wrestling promoter's dream. Crazy talented, good looking, naturally charismatic. Remember when it was once said that if one were to make the perfect professional wrestler, Randy Orton would be it? That's Okada. Without the tattoos, of course. Training under Ultimo Dragon and Yuji Nagata, Okada debuted at age 16 for Toryumon Mexico, Ultimo's Mexican promotion. After further training in the New Japan Dojo, he would debut at just three months shy of his 18th birthday. He was a prodigy no doubt. But his development would have to wait. Less than a month in, he was injured and was sidelined for eight months. Upon his return, his stock rose in breakout matches against main event talent, including Nakamura and Tanahashi. Then, it was over.
Well, not exactly. Okada was sent on an excursion to America, an excursion that landed him in TNA. New Japan management said that excursion could take as long as three years.
New Japan brought him back in ten months. He continued to improve, but largely was a mid-card performer. A year later, after the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 6, Okada called out Tanahashi for a match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. It was practically an act of sacrilege; the champion challenges you, not the other way around. The next day, Okada joined New Japan's top heel stable, Chaos, and took on Gedo (one of the bookers for New Japan) as his manager and spokesman. Kazuchika Okada became "The Rainmaker", something of a combination of Randy Orton and Ted DiBiase. Just one month after making the challenge, Okada won the title. Though fans initially rejected the notion of a 24-year old as their top champion, eventually fans warmed up to him, and today, he's one of the faces of the resurgent promotion and has all but replaced Katsuyori Shibata as one of the Three Musketeers of this generation.
In 2011, New Japan turned in a profit for the first time since the Yukes takeover. That year, they toured the United States for the first time. The next year, Japanese card game maker Bushiroad bought 100% of the company for just $6.5 million. They've since returned to the States multiple times and have entered Canadian borders. They've partnered with ROH and will partner with a few other organizations around the world soon. They have a TV show in the US and a streaming site similar to WWE Network (and cheaper than WWE Network too). To say that life is good for the King of Sports would be an understatement. So enjoy the G1 Climax 25 final this weekend and enjoy some of the world's best wrestling.
And remember, had Antonio Inoki gotten his way, you probably would be doing something else.
Update: Josh Barnett has responded to this article, and it's definitely worth reading: