Keeping up with wrestling events that are being held without any fans has become a tedious venture. The novelty of a match like Go Shiozaki versus Kazuyuki Fujita has been worn out for weeks now and wrestlers still playing to crowds that aren’t in attendance is drawing scrutiny. This has led to viewers begging for the performers to switch up their game. I’ve personally found that any empty arena match that goes over twenty minutes is losing my attention.
As my eyes glaze over while I’m trying to stay interested in this thirty minute empty arena match, my mind began thinking back to a time where not all title matches and main events had to go long. Wrestlers came in and got to the point. At first I started with IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches that went under fifteen minutes but quickly found those matches weren’t burning me out so I expanded to an even twenty.
As it stands, there are fifty-five IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches under twenty minutes available on NJPW World. That isn’t every match in the title’s history that meets this benchmark but it’s the pool in which these matches were selected. If you have access to a match that fits this criteria and isn’t on NJPW World please feel free to send it my way and I’ll be happy to make any updates.
10. Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs Taiyo Kea – 1/4/07
A tournament for the vacated tite is how Tanahashi would begin his first reign the previous summer. He was scheduled to end the reign of Brock Lesnar but Lesnar never showed, forcing the tournament. For the inaugural Wrestle Kingdom event, Tanahashi was defending the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. His opponent was a fellow rising star just coming off his first reign as Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, Taiyo Kea.
Kea had worked his way from tag team specialist to the top of AJPW, beginning his first reign the same month as Tanahashi but having lost the title by this point. The match worked as a showcase of Tanahashi’s iron will as he navigated his way around the larger man and was determined to keep the title in NJPW. This is where Tanahashi would become synonymous for defending the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom.
9. Yuji Nagata (c) vs Yoshihiro Takayama – 5/2/02
That February, Nagata had defeated Tadao Yasuda to begin his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign. Nagata had been seen as the perfect blend of wrestler and fighter. His loss to Mirko Cro Cop in late 2001 didn’t stop the company from making Nagata the guy to go on a record-breaking ten defense reign. For his first defense, Nagata was tasked with Yoshihiro Takayama.
This wasn’t the legendary Takayama who took the beating from Don Frye later in the year but Takayama was still the imposing figure you want your new babyface to overcome. Watching Nagata forced to get up from one Everest German after another was an impressive sight and to cap it off with a surprise head kick gave the finish a realistic feel.
8. Shinya Hashimoto (c) vs Tatsumi Fujinami – 4/4/94
Fujinami ended Hashimoto’s first reign with a lesson; never let your frustration get the best of you. At the time, Fujinami was a four time IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the standard-bearer for heavyweight wrestling in the company. Hashimoto was out to prove himself as the man to take the mantle and at five minutes into the match, abandons all niceties by unloading on the veteran.
Tiger Hattori tries to separate the two by pulling Hashimoto away but he gets shoved aside so he hops onto Hashimoto’s shoulders. That leads to Hiroshi Hase hitting the apron in frustration of the veteran receiving favor from the official. Now completely gotten to, Hashimoto goes for the spinning heel kick but Fujinami ducks and pulls Hashimoto into a grounded cobra to take the pin.
Fujinami would lose the title back to Hashimoto the following month in just six minutes with Hashimoto having learned his lesson and being primed and ready for his legendary nine defense run.
7. Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs Yoshihiro Takayama – 1/4/10
A Tokyo Dome rematch from six years prior. Then, it was a young Nakamura on his first reign as champion doing his best to survive Takayama’s onslaught before he eventually catches him in a kimura. Nakamura retained his belt as well as took Takayama’s NWF title. Now, six years later, Takayama wanted to test Nakamura’s growth as a wrestler.
On his third (and final to date) reign as champion, Nakamura had evolved from the catch wrestler he was during their last meeting into someone more well-rounded. Still, he tried to finish Takayama in the same fashion as he had in 2004 but in order to win this match he was forced to show a side of himself that Takayama had never experienced. Nakamura unloaded a series of knees to the head before finishing Takayama with his newly acquired Boma-Ye.
6. Kensuke Sasaki vs Toshiaki Kawada – 1/4/01
After the AJPW exodus happened half a year prior, Kawada was left on his own to right the ship. He came into NJPW that October for a special attraction Tokyo Dome main event against IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Kensuke Sasaki. The match ended with a Kawada win and despite the title not being on the line, Sasaki still decided he wasn’t a worthy champion so the belt was vacated.
Three months later, back in the Dome, a tournament is held to determine the next champion. The final comes down to the rematch between Sasaki and Kawada, this time Sasaki proving his worth to carry the title. Sasaki’s reign wouldn’t last long as this is the point in history where things begin to unravel but still a cool moment where NJPW is left standing tall over its competition.
5. Genichiro Tenryu (c) vs Kensuke Sasaki – 1/4/00
In need of new stars, NJPW called on the ever reliable Tenryu to get the job done. First, they had him come in to defeat Keiji Mutoh for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and become the first to ever hold both the IWGP and Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Tenryu is also the only person who has pinned both Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, making him the most valuable opponent possible at the time.
Sasaki was trained by Riki Choshu who lost to Tenryu in the Tokyo Dome seven years prior. An angry Tenryu, upset over the heart of Sasaki, put his emotions on his sleeve when he hit Sasaki with his own Northern Lights Bomb but it didn’t prove to be enough as Sasaki’s heart was able to shine through. This is the match that helped put Sasaki on the map and catapulted him from a tag team specialist into becoming one of the biggest stars of the 2000s
4. Big Van Vader (c) vs Riki Choshu – 8/19/90
A rematch in the same building and almost a year to the day from where Vader ended Choshu’s first reign. After taking a serious beating from Choshu, Vader wound up taking the title from Choshu with a sneaky sunset flip pin. Since the win, Vader famously when on to a hellacious war against Stan Hansen in a match so intense, Vader’s eye was dislocated from its socket.
That would be the story of this match. Vader, more battle-tested than ever, had a glaring weakness that Choshu decided to exploit. He’d hammer and rip at Vader’s damaged eye, causing Vader to remove his mask out of frustration. With Vader unable to see where the next Riki Lariat was coming from, Choshu sent him crashing to the mat and reclaimed his title.
3. Kazuyuki Fujita (c) vs Yuji Nagata – 6/6/01
In the modern era, the name Kazuyuki Fujita is mainly said with disgust. Outside of those loyal to Inokism, he’s the poster boy of NJPW’s downfall in the early 2000s. A match like this shows he shouldn’t be shouldering all the blame. This was a time of experimentations within the company. Blending pro-wrestling with MMA was Inoki’s dream project and while you can blame the uneven booking, this match should at least show you the promise of the idea.
Nagata dominates most of the match and the fans are firmly behind him. This, in my opinion, should have ended in a title change. Instead, Fujita wins and when the rematch comes the following year with Nagata now on top, Fujita denounces the title. Both their title matches are great showcases of what could have been but are tainted with the history of what was to come after. The idea to infuse the two isn’t wrong, it was just handled poorly.
2. Tatsumi Fujinami vs Riki Choshu – 6/24/88
After Antonio Inoki was forced to vacate the first ever IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign due to a fractured foot, Fujinami defeated Big Van Vader to become the next champion. Fujinami’s first challenger was his former rival, Riki Choshu. The first ever Japanese heel, Choshu turned on his Japanese class when Fujinami was selected for the first IWGP Heavyweight Championship tournament (held in 1983) over him.
Choshu wound up leaving NJPW in 1984, taking his Revolutionary Army stable with him to create the JPW. The promotion dissolved in late 1987 and Choshu came back home to antagonize his rival. Their 5/8/88 title match ended in a no contest which led to Fujinami vacating the title having felt he didn’t deserve to hold the championship. This match here is their rematch where Fujinami proved his worth as champion and went on to seven defenses before ultimately vacating the title.
1. Nobuhiko Takada (c) vs Shinya Hashimoto – 4/29/96
Between October 10 and April 29, NJPW & UWFi held three cross-promotional shows in the Tokyo Dome. Takada was seen as the most legitimate champion in Japan at the time and with business sliding, this partnership was seen as a way to help NJPW gain legitimacy while UWFi gains exposure from a different fanbase. The first show went on to such great success that they had to turn fans away at the door.
After splitting Dome wins with Keiji Mutoh, Takada was now onto Hashimoto. Already with the aura of a legitimate shooter (at least in the world of NJPW) Hashimoto being able to handle himself inside the ring with Takada did wonders for his image as the toughest wrestler in the world. Hashimoto out-crafted Takada with a leg sweep when Takada went for a head kick, brought Takada down with a brainbuster and picked up the win via submission to prove himself as legitimate. UWFi would close up shop by the end of the year.