Much has been written and said about the “Ace” of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi. An irresistible force that not only dominated the main event scene of New Japan for over a decade, but carried the company through tough times and into the golden era it is experiencing today. While championship reigns and Tokyo Dome main events are what will forever define him, it is perhaps the current incarnation of Tanahashi that is the most fascinating. No longer the face of the company, Tanahashi now portrays a man who’s body is slowly failing him, but who remains too stubborn and prideful to simply fall to the wayside, as he tries to find his place in a company that could now survive without him. Here we look back on 2016, undeniably Tanahashi’s toughest year to date, as New Japan’s next generation of stars begin to surpass him.
Ace of the Universe
Hiroshi Tanahashi began his in-ring career in 1999, and by the early 00’s he, alongside Shibata and Nakamura, became part of what New Japan promoted as the new “Three Musketeers”. The name was a callback to the three most dominant wrestlers of the 90’s, Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono and Keiji Mutoh, who collectively were known as the “Fighting Spirit Three Musketeers”. New Japan believed it would be these three men who would carry the promotion forward. Nakamura however, would struggle to truly connect with the fans early on, whilst Shibata would leave NJPW altogether to pursue MMA. This would leave Tanahashi with the burden of carrying the promotion (which was struggling at the time) forward, and carry it he did. With his charisma and in-ring abilities, fans rallied behind “the ace of the universe” leading him to multiple IWGP World championships and a dominating Tokyo Dome run.
The Greatest Defeat
Tanahashi dominated the main event scene of New Japan for years and was seemingly untouchable. A young star named Kazuchika Okada, however, would step up and prove himself a worthy challenger. First challenging and defeating Tanahashi for the IWGP world championship in 2012, Okada and Tanahashi would engage in a legendary rivalry over both the World championship and the status of being the “guy” in NJPW. The two men would trade wins over the next several year’s, but when it came to Japan’s biggest stage in wrestling, the Tokyo dome, it was Tanahashi who proved to be the more dominant, defeating Okada on two occasions. The two men would meet at the dome once again at Wrestle Kingdom 10, in what is considered the rubber match of their rivalry. Okada enters as champion, but it is Tanahashi who is the man to beat with his status as ace on the line. With both men in peak physical condition, they employ their entire arsenals against each other. In the end though, it is Okada who proves to be the better man, and after one last defiant slap across the face from Tanahashi, he defeats his rival with a ferocious rainmaker lariat, taking his place as the new face of the company in the process.
Wars with the Bullet Club
Despite Tanahashi’s loss, in the weeks following Wrestle Kingdom it becomes clear that he is needed within New Japan more then ever, with both his longtime rival Shinsuke Nakamura and the leader of the bullet club, AJ Styles leaving for the WWE. Tanahashi suffers a legit shoulder injury but chooses to work through it, taking the place of Nakamura in an upcoming Intercontinental championship match against Kenny Omega, defiantly telling the new leader of the bullet club “I am Ace!”. For Tanahashi the Intercontinental championship is more then just a midcard title, it is the belt he and Nakamura took to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8, and it represents an opportunity for Tanahashi to find a new identity and relevance following his defeat to Okada. At New Beginnings against Omega however, he is unable to overcome his injury alongside persistent interference from the Bullet Club and he falls to Omega. The Ace attempts to regroup and enters the New Japan Cup, the opportunity of a rematch with either Okada or Omega on the the line. The competition proves to be disastrous for Tanahashi, as he is eliminated in the very first round by another Bullet club member, Bad Luck Fale. Afterwards Tanahashi continues to battle the Bullet club in multi tags and he does find some success, winning the Never Openweight six man tag titles on two separate occasions. However as Tanahashi gets set to face off against the Intercontinental champion Kenny Omega in a rematch, he suffers another injury, this time having no choice but to pull out of the match.
The G1 Climax 2016
Tanahashi recovers in time for the G1 climax, the tournament he won the year before, that led him to the main event of the Tokyo Dome. Early in the tournament things once again do not go well for Tanahashi. He is outclassed by SANADA on the opening night, defeated by Makabe in his second bout and once again struggles against the Bullet Club, taking another defeat to one of their members, Tama Tonga. In each of these matches the story is the same, Tanahashi shows guts and resilience but lacks that killer edge to put away the competition, frustration building with each loss. Tanahashi then takes on the a man who eliminated him from the New Japan Cup, Bad Luck Fale. The match plays out in a similar fashion the the last, with Tanahashi going full steam ahead, but struggling against the larger Fale. Fale seems to have Tanahashi defeated yet again, setting him up for the move that defeated Tanahashi in their last bout, the Bad Luck Fall. At the last moment, just as all seems lost for Tanahashi, he escaped and rolls Fale up for the pin. The victory is hardly a strong one, with Tanahashi having clearly taken a worse beating then Fale. Nonetheless it proves to be the switch in momentum Tanahashi has been looking for, as things finally start to click hereafter for the ace. He returns to his winning ways defeating Goto, Ishii, Marafuji and Tenzan in the following four matches. This puts Tanahashi back in the running for G1 finals, but first he must defeat the man who dethroned him at Wrestle Kingdom, Okada. For both men it is a must win situation, a draw would result in both men being eliminated from the tournament and Goto going through to meet Kenny Omega in the finals instead. Tanahashi enters the match full of optimism and confidence, finally back on a role and with an opportunity to reclaim his spot as the face of New Japan. The crowd is behind Tanahashi but it is Okada who starts strong, looking to put Tanahashi away in dominating fashion, erasing all doubt of his supremacy in NJPW. Tanahashi weathers the storm, bringing the fight back to Okada till it seems he has him beat on the outside, with the referee getting closer to a twenty count. For Tanahashi however, this is about more then just reaching the G1 finals, this is his chance to undo a year’s worth of turmoil and reverse his fall from grace. To do that he needs to defeat Okada in the ring. Tanahashi breaks the count but this proves to be a mistake as he is immediately caught by Okada’s tombstone on the outside. The “Ace of the Universe” fights back again though and with the 30 minute time limit reaching its end, he hits two high fly flo’s. It’s not enough to beat either the clock or Okada however, and the match is declared a draw with Goto going through to the finals. Tanahashi’s tournament is over and while it is not the disaster it could have been, it seems he has failed in his goal to return to main event of Wrestle Kingdom.
Seeing out the year
Tanahashi’s 2016 was one of his toughest year’s in the sport, but for the company it was also one of his most important. With the losses of Nakamura, Styles and later Gallows and Anderson, Tanahashi’s continued star power, even in the wake of multiple defeats, would continue to be a stabilising force. As the year came to a close though, it was clear a new generation of stars were now emerging to lead the company forward, with both Tetsuya Naito and Kenny Omega now on the rise, and Okada becoming ever more comfortable in his role as face of the company. The question now was where exactly did Tanahashi, who had been so vital till this point, fit in to New Japan as they looked to the future? Still harbouring Tokyo Dome aspirations, Tanahashi set about avenging his loss against SANADA and laid down a challenge to another LIJ member, Championship gold once again in his sights…
Part two of this article is now available here