Heading into the 2015 G1 Climax there were a few certainties held by many fans; Shinsuke Nakamura was going to win and Hiroshi Tanahashi might be "done" as the top performer at the age of 38 after months out of the spotlight. Shinsuke Nakamura’s early elbow injury and how New Japan handled the reporting of it and rearranging the booking in the B-Block to give Shinsuke the proverbial nod into the finals seemed like cut-and-dry proof that it was Nakamura’s year. I wanted it to be Nakamura’s year. It had to be, it just made sense.
Nakamura winning the G1 made a world of sense sense this year. In fact, it seemed like the logical conclusion to the year that he had been having. After once again holding the IWGP Intercontinental Championship for an extended reign before dropping it to Hirooki Goto Nakamura was once again listless and without much of a defined role within the organization. Tanahashi was still the guy that was ending each show with twenty minutes of air guitar and wiping his sweat on screaming girls’ towels title or not, but Nakamura was just there, muttering a line or two before shouting "YEAOH!" and heading to the back. We are in the midst of another Kazuchika Okada reign and while Nakamura and Okada have squared off in the past, the CHAOS stablemates feuding has always seemed perverse and out of the question. Another proper IWGP Championship reign for Shinsuke is logical by any standards considering that he’s 35 and while at times left uninspired by what he’s doing in the ring he’ll show it, he’s still one of the very best in the world by any measurement. So this was going to be his year, right?
The yin to Nakamura’s yang has always been Hiroshi Tanahashi. Tanahashi has been on cruise control for most of 2015. He had another great match at Wrestle Kingdom against Okada, the loss sending Okada into a downward spiral for the first part of the year while Tanahashi would quickly go on to lose the title to Styles, who then lost it to Okada while Tanahashi has just been a pretty face, head of hair and some air guitar. Much like most of their careers, the fates of Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi were linked together and only each other could serve as foils for their greatness. So when both men were on the outside looking in, it made sense that their path back up to the top would involve each other, even if a lot of us would have been happy without it.
The end result was Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura having another classic, match of the year contender that saw Tanahashi walking away with his hand raised, Nakamura once again defeated when it mattered against Tanahashi. Conceding to the greatness that is Hiroshi Tanahashi isn’t difficult because, quite frankly, he’s amazing. He’s one of the very best in the world without a doubt. The thing is, he doesn’t quite cut it for me. I can and do enjoy his matches, but it always feels like there are now three certainties in life; death, taxes and two High Fly Flows equal death. Shinsuke Nakamura on the other hand is everything that I want in a professional wrestler and once again I find myself firmly a fan of the perennial number two in a generation of greats.
In many ways Shinsuke Nakamura stirs up the same emotions in me that the great Toshiaki Kawada did. Toshiaki Kawada was part of one of All Japan’s greatest generation of wrestlers that included Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and of course Kawada himself. Modern New Japan mirrors classic All Japan in quite a few ways, one of which would have to be that New Japan has a top three consisting of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada. Just like in the 90’s in All Japan any combination of those three together yields classic results, as does throwing in the occasional top level gaijin or assorted supporting player from the roster. All Japan had guys like Steve Williams, Stan Hansen, Akira Taue and later on Jun Akiyama. New Japan has AJ Styles, Katsuyori Shibata, Hirooki Goto and a few others to step up and into the spotlight.
Toshiaki Kawada had a hard-hitting, emotional style of wrestling that was unique for the time. His base was rooted in martial arts as demonstrated by his vast array of kicks and stiff punches, with enough pro wrestling pageantry mixed in like powerbombs and suplexes to round him out. The best part about Kawada, though, was that he emoted so strongly that it was impossible to not feel his pain and find yourself completely immersed in his matches. Kawada was an asskicker, no doubt, but he was so good at getting beaten up and trying to overcome insurmountable odds that his position was always right behind the top guy. Kawada was the guy that fans wanted to win, but when he didn’t it wouldn’t come as a shock, it was just how things were. He was always the #2 to Misawa’s #1.
Nakamura is not only like Kawada in having a hard-hitting style based strongly on martial arts blended with traditional professional wrestling moves, but he emotes in similar fashion. Yes, Nakamura has a certain air to him, some would call it swag, others just plain charisma, but none of that would work if he didn’t connect with his audience on a regular basis. When Nakamura is going for a pin and his opponent kicks out he looks pained, frustrated and sometimes just plain lost. When he’s hit with a hard shot or a big move it’s difficult to discern if he’s truly in pain or if he’s just putting on a show, which is part of the magic of Shinsuke Nakamura. The viewer can’t help but feel his pain and immediately get sucked into the action in the ring. Just about everything that Nakamura does in the ring has a certain sense of gravity to it, the consequences seem elevated beyond simple wins and losses, instead veering into the realm of life or death.
Much like Kawada before him, though, this has landed Nakamura was the solid #2 to Hiroshi Tanahashi’s #1. When Nakamura and Tanahashi meet the end result will almost certainly be a Tanahashi win at this point, much like when Misawa and Kawada met during their epic rivalry. Tanahashi hitting that High Fly Flow on Nakamura this past weekend had the same impact of when Misawa hit that elbow strike on Kawada in their last match in a NOAH ring in 2005. Watching that finish felt like getting down the street while rushing to an appointment that I was already late for and realizing that I left the garage door open and had to turn around; defeated again, the air sucked out of my sails. I’ll be on time next time, Nakamura will win next time. I guess.
As a now lifelong fan of the #2 wrestler I’m used to this feeling, I’m used to seeing my favorite work hard only to be swatted back down until the next time. It’s both what I love and hate about professional wrestling at the same time. I so desperately wanted to see Kawada win in my youth and now as an adult nothing as a fan would make me happier than to see Nakamura on top again. This kind of connection to a performer is special and demonstrates how professional wrestling can be more than just some sort of goofy athletic spectacle of low culture. It can be art, telling a story that is worth telling involving characters that the viewer is highly invested in.
If hard numbers are more your style then take a gander at this. Toshiaki Kawada and Mitsuharu Misawa met in singles matches a total of 22 times with Kawada winning a staggering four of those matches and five of which were time limit draws. That leaves Misawa with 13 wins over his career adversary. When it comes to the still-unfinished story of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura the numbers aren’t quite as damning, but still tell a rather compelling story. In their seventeen match history Nakamura holds a total of seven wins over Tanahashi, six of which came before 2009. After 2009 they have met a total of seven times with Nakamura picking up a sole victory over Tanahashi. Unlike Kawada and Misawa’s saga there is only one time limit draw in the equation, leaving Tanahashi with nine victories over Nakamura.
The Nakamura/Tanahashi rivalry is hardly as damning as the Kawada/Misawa one, but the numbers don’t lie that post-2009 only a sole victory has gone to Nakamura. It’s very clear that Nakamura is the #2 in this situation, right down to critics and fans heaping of praise on Tanahashi as an all-time great while Nakamura is often highly praised but usually with mild trepidation or footnotes to down periods where many felt he wasn’t performing up to his level. The same can be said when reflecting on classic All Japan where many point to Misawa and Kobashi as the all-time greats and aren’t afraid to heap praise onto Kawada, but are still leery about placing him on the same level.
So will fans look back on this boom period in New Japan remembering Tanahashi and Okada fondly while seeing Nakamura as that guy that worked great matches and rivalries with them, or will he go down as the all-time great that he is? That remains to be seen, but what I do know is that I’m going to continue to watch and hold firm in my belief that the "#2" is the best wrestler in the world and there isn’t much that can be said to deter me from that. That’s what is so great about wrestling, that’s also what is so tragic about it as well.
Dave Walsh is a novelist and combat sports writer best known for his work with the sport of professional kickboxing. His second novel, Terminus Cycle, is available now.