On Saturday the 20th of November, Pro Wrestling NOAH and New Japan Pro Wrestling held a joint conference to announce that on January 8th 2022, Night 3 of NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 16 will be a special NJPW vs NOAH show.
That sent ripples through the wrestling world, both East and West. NJPW vs NOAH isn’t something new but they haven’t had a working relationship together in five years.
So with January 8th not that far away, I want to bring attention to the history of NJPW vs NOAH. As there is a lot of ground to cover, I am going to do this as a weekly series.
Truth is I don’t know how many parts this series will contain but I imagine it will at least be 4.
Before The Ark
Now, NOAH was formed in August 2000. Arguably the first NJPW vs NOAH match took place in January 2002. But the history between the two promotions goes back further than that. It goes back to Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba. Inoki and Baba were disciples of Rikidōzan in the Japanese Wrestling Alliance and were even tag team partners. Rikidōzan was murdered in 1963 and, while they both remained with JWA for some time after that, both felt the need to start their own thing.
Inoki was first with New Japan Pro Wrestling, announced January 13th 1973 but not holding their first show until March 6th. Baba, with JWA dwindling, founded All Japan Pro Wrestling with Rikidōzan’s sons and a majority of the JWA roster in October 1973 which the first show very quickly taking place that same month on the 21st.
Baba leaving JWA with a good portion of its roster to form All Japan would be a great irony for what happened 28 years later when Misawa left AJPW to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. But we’ll get to that.
NJPW and AJPW became the two biggest promotions in Japan. And in the 70’s and 80’s they were neck and neck. If you’re not familiar with the two promotions history, and thank you for reading this if that’s the case, consider the two to be comparable to WWF and NWA.
Except that comparison isn’t entirely apt. WWF was glitzy and glamorous. NWA was more stripped down and focused on the wrestling. Neither NJPW or AJPW were glitzy and glamorous, even by the standards of the 1980’s and Japan. Both focused on the wrestling but you had Strong Style for NJPW and King’s Road for AJPW.
Strong Style is about fighting spirit with some MMA realism, in that a win can happen out of nowhere for anyone. King’s Road is more layered in that there is a hierarchy and to advance up it takes years of hard work. To show growth is that someone higher up has to do more to beat them before the rising star eventually does beat their higher up. Opponents have to bring up bigger and deadlier moves to put each other away.
Both NJPW and AJPW worked with other promotions in the 80’s, the NWA specifically but even WWF at times. NJPW made stars of Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Riki Choshu and then later Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono and Keiji Muto. AJPW had Baba, Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu and then later Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue.
Things changed in the late 1980’s when Baba decided that AJPW would no longer work with other promotions and instead focus on their own talent. Yes, they did continue to use gaijin like Stan Hansen, Steve Williams and Terry Gordy, but they didn’t use any Japanese talent from other promotions.
For NJPW on the other hand, they kept working with promotions both at home and abroad. They had a close relationship with WCW and had inter-promotional feuds with UWF, UWF-I and WAR in the 90’s.
Now NJPW and AJPW had their very distinct personalities. NJPW had the Three Musketeers, the fantastic junior heavyweight division which was helped tremendously by talent sharing with other promotions and the interpromotional angles.
AJPW was built around the Four Pillars of Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and Taue with a strong supporting cast of Tsuyoshi Kikuchi and Masanobu Fuchi. But they didn’t have much of a junior heavyweight division to speak of, it was mainly Kikuchi and then later Yoshinari Ogawa.
The NJPW Third Generation of Kensuke Sasaki, Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Manabu Nakanishi, etc would be introduced while AJPW had Jun Akiyama, Takao Omori and then later Taiyo Kea. But, in the 90’s, they would be in the shadows of the Three Musketeers and Four Pillars respectively.
Both were really strong companies in their own right. And, due to the amount of shows each one was running, most Japanese fans had to pick a side. You were either an NJPW or an AJPW fan. Either way, you were watching good wrestling and each had something the other didn’t.
NJPW was arguably more well rounded and it’s junior heavyweight division was a highlight and something that stands up today. AJPW had an incredible main event scene with some of the best singles, tag and six man tag team matches to ever happen in wrestling.
The turn of the century into 2000 changed everything. Inoki was leaning heavily into MMA inspired shoot wrestling, to the detriment of his main event scene. Baba passed away from cancer and his would-be successor in Misawa had a falling out with Baba’s widow.
Like I said about Baba leaving JWA with the majority of it’s roster in the 70’s, Misawa left AJPW with all but 2 of its wrestlers to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. The new promotion was announced in June 2000 and held their first shows in August.
The two wrestlers who remained with AJPW were Kawada and Fuchi. Misawa said part of the reason for creating NOAH was because he wanted AJPW to work with other promotions but Motoko Baba refused. Kawada spent quite some time in the dog house in AJPW because he was very vocal about seeing NJPW do big business in the WAR feud and wanting AJPW to also engage in interpromotional angles.
AJPW were understandably knocked down low with losing 24 out of 26 native roster members. This forced them into working with other promotions in order to survive and continue to put on shows.
Kawada would end up representing AJPW in a cross promotional feud against NJPW and Sasaki. Then-IWGP Heavyweight Champion Sasaki lost to Kawada in a non-title match so vacated the belt as a result. That was October 2000.
The vacant IWGP Heavyweight Championship was decided in a one night tournament on January 4th 2001. Kawada, Chono, Sasaki, Kojima, Tenzan and Nagata all entered with Kawada and Chono having byes into the semifinals. And in the final, Sasaki was able to avenge himself by beating Kawada and reclaiming the belt.
Now, as for NOAH, despite intending to work with other promotions, they spent 2000 building up their new promotion and establishing themselves. They may have taken the AJPW roster but they were trying to make them NOAH stars now while continuing on their legacies.
NOAH vs ZERO1
Former NJPW main eventer Hashimoto would end up being the first big name not previously from AJPW to enter a NOAH ring in December, where he destroyed Omori. Hashimoto had not yet outright left NJPW by this point and it seemed, at that time, that ZERO1 was going to be a NJPW subsidiary.
On the 13th of January 2001, Hashimoto invaded NOAH again for a tag match against Misawa. This created the main event of the first ever ZERO1 show where Misawa & Akiyama beat Hashimoto and, still under NJPW contract, Nagata. So you could consider this to be the first ever NJPW vs NOAH match. However Hashimoto was pretty much done in NJPW with one last appearance happening in April.
Akiyama vs Nagata in that tag match was particularly heated and made the crowd rabid for a singles match, something both men teased after the match. Neither man was yet to achieve the ultimate prize in their respective promotions but were both on the cusp.
Jun Akiyama would be the first of the two as he won the GHC Heavyweight Championship on July 27th from Misawa to become only the second ever Champion. Nagata was ringside watching that match to tease to that singles match even further.
NJPW vs NOAH: The Beginning
In October the two would team together on a NJPW show to beat Muto & Hiroshi Hase. Now this match is notable for a few reasons. It’s the first official NJPW vs NOAH match to take place on a NJPW or NOAH show.
Akiyama was the GHC Heavyweight Champion. Muto, then a NJPW contracted wrestler, was the AJPW Triple Crown Champion. The first time those two Champions faced each other in a ring and it was in a NJPW ring too.
Hase was brought up in NJPW and was a former tag partner of Muto (and rival and the reason for the infamous Muta scale) but moved to AJPW in the late 90’s and had a history with Akiyama so there was some intrigue there. Muto, Hase, AJPW’s Kea, ZERO1’s Shinjiro Ohtani and Michinoku Pro’s Jinsei Shinzaki were all in the BATT cross promotional stable. BATT standing for Bad Ass Translate Trading. Yeah…. Your guess is as good as mine.
You can watch that match by subscribing to NJPW World and watching it here.
So far, these have all been tag matches and not even straight-up NJPW vs NOAH yet. That would change on January 4th 2002. Then-IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuyuki Fujita suffered an injury due to also competing in MMA (Inoki-ism was in full force here) so NJPW needed a strong main event for their Tokyo Dome show.
Therefore they asked their new friends in NOAH for Akiyama to defend his GHC Heavyweight Title against Nagata and NOAH agreed. The very first ever NJPW vs NOAH match. Tokyo Dome main event. And it was for the GHC Heavyweight Championship.
Akiyama would make his Third and final successful defense over Nagata in just under 20 minutes in an incredible match.
You can watch that match by subscribing to NJPW World and watching it here.
That match would not put an end to their team however. Just a month later, Kenta Kobashi was returning from knee surgery so needed a big main event tag team match to headline the Nippon Budokan for NOAH’s only second show there.
GHC Heavyweight Champion Akiyama & Nagata beat Misawa & Kobashi after Akiyama pinned Kobashi. Now, for the heavyweights, this inter-promotional feud was just about individual glory instead of necessarily proving which promotion was better.
But Nagata didn’t come to the Budokan alone. He brought Jushin Thunder Liger and Wataru Inoue from NJPW along with him. And for the junior heavyweights, they were fully prepared to bring the heat.
Liger & Inoue faced and lost to Kikuchi & Yoshinobu Kanemaru. Liger and Kikuchi were the established wrestlers of their team, each being established as the faces of the junior heavyweight division in NJPW and AJPW respectively. Inoue and Kanemaru were young stars who were being groomed for junior heavyweight stardom in their promotions too.
Budokan was on absolute fire during this match. Liger was a glorious heel, knowing his role as an outsider and riling the NOAH fans up something fierce. Because, what I said earlier about only being a NJPW or AJPW fan stayed true about NOAH fans. You had devout supporters of each promotion and depending on which promotion the match was taking place in, it felt like Home vs Away games.
After the match, Kanemaru made a challenge to then IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, Minoru Tanaka. Things were getting heated and they were getting heated fast in the junior heavyweight division.
And that’s the end of Part 1.
Thank you so much for reading and I’ll see you next week for Part 2, which will cover the rest of 2002 into 2005!