Welcome to part 2 of a look back at Tanahashi’s career following his loss against Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 10. If you haven’t read the first part of the article yet, you can do so here
Battles against Tetsuya Naito
Tanahashi may have failed in his bid to win the G1, but is not yet finished with his quest to return to the Tokyo Dome main event. After avenging his opening night G1 defeat against SANADA, Tanahashi challenges the man now holding the Intercontinental championship, Tetsuya Naito, who accepts the challenge. Tanahashi suggests a fan vote to decide which match will go on last at Wrestle Kingdom 11, hoping for a repeat of Wrestle Kingdom 8, where fans had voted for a Tanahashi/Nakamura main event with Naito/Okada’s main event being moved down the card. Naito scorned from this fan vote rejects the possibility of this happening, essentially robbing Tanahashi of another Main event. Nevertheless Tanahashi describes his match against Naito as his restart, after what was a tough 2016 for him. The match proves to be a clash of ideologies, as Tanahashi’s ethics of hard work and sacrifice go up against Naito’s “Tranquilo” and apathetic personality. Tanahashi enters to new theme music, setting out with a clean slate and a driven focus, but he is unable to overcome Naito and the ace suffers a second consecutive high profile loss at the dome. Over the following months, Naito slowly destroys the Intercontinental championship, tossing it around as if it’s worthless to him, disrespecting the belt and those who have worn it previously. Tanahashi again challenges Naito, promising to bring Prestige back to the title and win back his pride in the process. Before Tanahashi gets to face Naito though, he once again comes down with an injury, suffering a ruptured bicep tendon. Surgery is the best option for Tanahashi, but again he chooses to work through. Tanahashi enters the match, seemingly having a huge disadvantage, but Naito also enters with an injury on his knee that was unknown to the fans or the press prior to the match. This time the intensity and animosity between the two competitors is amped up to the fullest, with Naito’s disrespectful attitude pushing Tanahashi over the edge. Tanahashi manages to survive Naito’s assault on his shoulder, and is able to target Naito’s knee in return. He hits Naito with the High Fly Flo and follows it up with a painful Cloverleaf. Naito desperately attempts to escape via a rope-break, but Tanahashi continually drag Naito back to the centre of the ring. Tanahahsi locks the move in deep and finally the injured Naito is forced to tap out in the middle of the ring. With this Tanahashi finally wins the Intercontinental championship again, in what is his greatest achievement since falling to Okada back at Wrestle Kingdom 10.
The damaged champion
The 2017 G1 climax proves to be a tough one on Hiroshi Tanahashi, its gruelling schedule clearly taking its toll. Tanahashi makes a strong run nonetheless though, only taking two losses on his way to the final night, where a third battle with Tetsuya Naito awaits. A certain sense of destiny surrounds Naito and this tournament however, his “stolen” Wrestle Kingdom main event hanging in the balance and Tanahashi is defeated via Destino, as Naito advances to the finals where he is victorious. Despite this Tanahashi continues on triumphantly towards the Tokyo Dome, avenging his first two G1 losses in title matches against Zack Sabe Jr. and then the man Tanahashi considers to be a true potential successor, Kota Ibushi. Following his second defence against Ibushi, Tanahashi is attacked by Jay White, a New Japan Dojo graduate returning from excursion and a match is set between the two for Wrestle Kingdom 12. Once again though, a legitimate injury strikes Tanahashi, and his Dome match seems to be in jeopardy. Tanahashi is forced out of working the dates leading up to the Dome but returns for Wrestle Kingdom, despite still not being 100%. The event proves to be bittersweet for the ace, as while he is victorious over Jay White, he finds himself, for the first time in years, in the middle of the card, underneath the nights “double main event” of Omega vs Chris Jericho and Okada vs Naito. The night is a reflection of both Tanahashi’s success and his falling status.
Facing Minoru Suzuki
By the time Tanahashi reached the New Beginnings 2018 event, his reign as champion was hanging by a string. With the injury list piling up, many fans had long since been calling for Tanahashi to take a long period of time off for the sake of his health. Tanahashi had pushed through to this point, perhaps longer then he really should have, but his opponent at New Beginnings, Minoru Suzuki would show him no mercy. Tanahashi had battled Suzuki before and been victorious, but in his current state the odds were against him. Suzuki proved to be ruthless in his attack, many had targeted Tanahashi injuries before but none with quite the ferociousness of Suzuki, who tortures the champion. The wounded Tanahashi refuses to give up against Suzuki, but it becomes increasingly clear that his efforts are in vain as the match goes on, and that Tanahashi clearly does not have enough left in him to withstand Suzuki. Suzuki hits his dreaded Gotch piledriver on Tanahashi, and the match is his to win. The sadistic Suzuki doesn’t simply want to defeat Tanahashi though, he wants to break the champion, both his body and his spirit. He continues to torture the champion, cruelly applying a leglock to Tanahashi’s still injured knee, but the champion refuses to give up, even as the referee begs for him to. With Tanahashi clearly unwilling to give up, and Suzuki clearly unwilling to let up, the referee puts a stop to the bout. Suzuki is awarded the belt and proceeds to taunt the champion, mocking him for thinking he could compete against someone like Suzuki in his current state.
Tanahashi’s sacrifices and struggles to keep the company afloat and thriving, have led to the likes of Omega, Naito and Okada, three men who’s success was very much tied to their battles with Tanahashi, now leading the company forward in his place. Still Tanahashi’s “Ace” status is still no mere Moniker, as he proved when Nakamura and AJ left, he can still be called on in times of need and is still a huge draw. Many felt an extended break was in order following his loss to Suzuki but Tanahashi has already been confirmed for the upcoming New Japan Cup. Tanahashi hasn’t won a tournament in some time now, but he may be considered the favourite here. If he can win the whole thing, a rematch with Suzuki would seem the obvious next step. Tanahashi may also decide the time is right to challenge Okada, who is close to breaking Tanahashi’s record for most defences of the IWGP World Championship. Either way while he may not be the face of the company anymore, Tanahashi’s journey through New Japan is as captivating as ever and he will clearly continue to be a major part of the company going forward.