It’s almost here. Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Return To Budokan. Finally, after over 11 years (discounting the Kobashi retirement special in May 2013), NOAH returns to the venue steeped in the history of the four pillars and NOAH’s golden age on Friday the 12th of February.
AJPW’s and the 4 Pillars in the Budokan
But before talking about the show itself (that will follow in another article), I want to talk about the venue and what this return means for NOAH. Nippon Budokan was a regular stop for All Japan Pro Wrestling in their glory days. Since the formation of the Triple Crown, AJPW ran the Budokan.
Genichiro Tenryu became the second man to ever hold the belts after defeating Jumbo Tsuruta on the 5th of June 1989 in that venue. Stan Hansen began his first reign there. Mitsuharu Misawa made his first ever challenge for the belts there against Jumbo on April 18th, 1991. Toshiaki Kawada made his first challenge there against Hansen June 5th, 1992. Misawa beat Hansen to become Triple Crown Champion there on the August 22nd, 1992.
Misawa would have a legendary first reign with the belts, lasting for 705 days, facing and beating Kawada (3 times!), Taue and Hansen, all in that venue. Kenta Kobashi would make his first challenge for the belts on September 3rd, 1994, against Steve Williams. Akira Taue was the only one of the Four Pillars to not have their first title challenge happen at Budokan.
Kawada won the belts for the first time there. So did Kobashi. Between 1992 and 2000 any combination of the four pillars headlined the Budokan in a Triple Crown Title match 18 times. Budokan truly was the home of the four pillars and their legandary title matches.
It wasn’t just AJPW who ran Budokan, but the venue is more synonymous with them. New Japan, UWFi and AJW all held shows there but AJPW’s dominance reigned supreme. Shows were often held bi-monthly with a maximum of seven per year at the peak of their popularity.
When Misawa resigned from AJPW and took pretty much the entire roster (bar Kawada and Masanobu Fuchi) to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, holding their first show August 4th 2000, they did not rush right into running the Budokan. AJPW, either in defiance or because they already had a contract in place, continued to run the Budokan bi-monthly to diminishing returns. Japanese promotions are notorious for inflating their attendance figures and AJPW claimed not to have suffered any loss in the crowd on their first few shows but then claimed just under two thousand fewer fans for their fourth show and under three thousand less than their glory days shows by the fifth. AJPW would cease running the Budokan in February 2004.
NOAH’s beginnings in Budokan
NOAH ran their first Budokan show on July 27th 2001 to a packed crowd where Jun Akiyama defeated Misawa to become their second ever GHC Heavyweight Champion. That would be their only show there that year. But in 2002 they ran it twice. The first show on February 17th saw Kobashi’s return after a year plus long injury to main event with Misawa against Akiyama and NJPW’s Yuji Nagata. Their second show on 23rd September 2002 saw Misawa defeat Yoshihiro Takayama to become the 5th GHC Heavyweight Champion -becoming the first man to hold the belt twice.
2003 they began to ramp up the shows as five took place. March 1st saw a massive crowd when Kobashi beat Misawa to win the GHC Heavyweight Championship in what is considered one of the best matches of all time. Kobashi would go on to defend that belt in the Budokan against Yuji Nagata, Yoshinari Ogawa, Takeshi Rikio, Yoshihiro Takayama, Akira Taue and Minoru Suzuki over a two year period (four Budokan shows taking place in 2004) before Kobashi lost the belt to Rikio on March 5th 2005 in the same venue he had won it 735 days before.
Rikio would defend the belt against Akitoshi Saito, Hiroshi Tanahashi (in the Tokyo Dome) and Misawa before losing it to Taue in November 2005. Five Budokan shows in 2005, but NOAH was about to enter their golden age.
NOAH’s Peak (2006-7)
And it really was NOAH at it’s peak. They ran Budokan seven times each in 2006 and 2007, the same as AJPW did in their glory days. 2006 started with Akiyama winning the belt from Taue, a dream tag match in June as Akiyama and Misawa beat Takayama and Kensuke Sasaki (a replacement for Kenta Kobashi, who had just been diagnosed with cancer), Naomichi Marufuji pulled off an upset when he beat Akiyama for the GHC and for the first time ever, in AJPW and NOAH (and most likely NJPW too) two “juniors” headlined the Budokan in October when Marufuji defended against KENTA in one of my favourite matches ever (seriously, do yourself a favour and watch it). 2006 came to a close with Misawa winning the GHC for the third and final time.
If you were to pinpoint a year of NOAH’s decline, 2007 would have to be it. Misawa was 44 years old at the time of winning the belt and had won the Triple Crown in the same venue just over 14 years prior. That’s 14 years worth of main event, Budokan level title matches which had taken it’s toll on his body. And now here he was, 2007, still having long, high impact matches on his body. Taue was already broken down and was the first of the four pillars to crumble. Kobashi was out with cancer. And Kawada, who made a one-off return in 2005, unfortunately upset Misawa and other high ups so was not likely to return (it took Misawa’s death for him to do so for a brief time).
Misawa defended that belt in the Budokan against Takeshi Morishima, Takuma Sano, Taue and Samoa Joe before dropping the belt to Morishima on March 2nd 2008. That was 448 days of more punishing, gruelling main event matches. There was a bright spark of hope when Kobashi returned from cancer on December 2nd, 2007, as NOAH drew the biggest crowd the Budokan had ever recorded at that time. But it was clear that Kobashi would never be the wrestler he once was after this; and that his time in the main events going forward should be limited and spent in tag matches.
Morishima unfortunately did not reach the heights expected of him in his first reign. He faced former tag partner Rikio at Budokan in July 08, in what was the lowest drawing Budokan NOAH show at that time, and he lost the belt to Kensuke Sasaki in September 08. That loss severely hurt Morishima, but the title change made Sasaki the first man to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Triple Crown and GHC Heavyweight Championship. October 08 saw a rematch of Marufuji vs KENTA with the AJPW Junior Heavyweight Title and GHC Junior Heavyweight Title both on the line; but it ended in an hour draw.
The Gradual Decline
NOAH at this point was the only Japanese wrestling promotion to be running the Budokan and had been for quite some time. But audiences had been dwindling and had gone from 15K plus to hovering above 9.5K and under 12K. They ran Budokan 6 times in 2008 and 4 times in 2009. March 1st 2009 saw a good bump as Akiyama beat Sasaki for the GHC and start his third and final reign and the NOAH vs NJPW second feud began. It’s unfortunate that Misawa’s final ever Budokan main event in May 09 (before his passing on June 13th) saw the lowest attended NOAH show in his lifetime with just 9,000 people as Misawa and Shiozaki beat Sasaki and Morishima to win the Global Tag League 2009.
They held a tribute show for their fallen leader in September 2009, which drew the biggest house Budokan has ever held for a wrestling show at 18,000, double the amount of fans that saw Misawa’s last match. The main event would see new GHC Heavyweight Champion, Go Shiozaki (Akiyama had vacated the belt and taken some time off to deal with nagging injuries, fearing he would end up like Misawa if not) make his first defense against Akitishi Saito in an emotional match as both were involved in Misawa’s final match.
Unfortunately their next show went back to their standard draw of around 12K, as Takashi Sugiura beat Go Shiozaki to win the GHC Heavyweight. 2010 was their final year running Budokan, and it’s easy to see why. Like they did in 2009, they only ran 4 shows. The first show, headlined by Sugiura vs NJPW’s Togi Makabe, only drew 9.5K. The May 2010 show, headlined by the inaugural Global League final between Akiyama and Takayama, drew 11K. But that was their best draw that year. September was main evented by a rematch between Sugiura and Shiozaki, but only managed 7,200, their lowest ever draw. A massive shame, considering the performers involved.
The last NOAH Budokan show took place on December 5th 2010 and was a memorial show for the recently deceased Joe Higuchi. 8,600 fans got to witness Sugiura defend the GHC Heavyweight Championship against Takeshi Morishima. This is considered the last official Pro Wrestling NOAH show at Budokan (before next Friday) as Kenta Kobashi’s retirement show, Final Burning (held on May 11th, 2013) was more of a joint show and Kobashi was not formally under contract (the cause of Akiyama, Shiozaki, Suzuki, Kanemaru & Aoki all departing NOAH in December 2012).
There is a myriad of reasons as to why NOAH’s drawing power at the Budokan declined, but the heart of the matter is that NOAH failed to create any new stars; and the four pillars began to collapse under the weight of what they had built.
Jun Akiyama should have been a star equal to the four pillars, but his rise was mishandled in AJPW and his GHC reign was ended in under 5 minutes in his fourth defense by Misawa’s second, Yoshinari Ogawa.
Takeshi Rikio was given a big rookie year and showed a lot of potential, but his title win over Kobashi had no real build, and then he was not properly treated like the star that ended Kobashi’s reign. He lost the belt in six months.
Naomichi Marufuji got to dethrone Akiyama’s second reign but after an INCREDIBLE title match against KENTA had a poorer attendance, Misawa beat him to put the belt back on to a tried and tested star.
Takeshi Morishima again only had a six month reign, before it was once again ended and once again put on someone who had already displayed drawing power in Kensuke Sasaki.
Ultimately the belt never really left one of the four pillars for a sustained period of time. All new pushes were aborted with relative quickness if the attendance ever dropped. The audience didn’t see anyone other than Misawa, Kobashi and Taue as the booking didn’t treat anyone else as stars. Sure, the audience liked other guys…. But they didn’t love them like they did the four pillars.
On top of Misawa’s death in 2009, NOAH lost their main TV deal so their only way to reach audiences was very late at night. So they really did struggle with Misawa gone, their TV deal gone, Kobashi being in and out of the ring due to injuries and Taue had not been in main event shape for years. The decision was made to no longer run the Budokan after that December 2010 show.
It’s testimony to how much the Budokan was synonymous with NOAH – and how difficult it must be to run it – because between 2001 and 2010 they held 45 shows there. Since that final show, it’s only been used for wrestling 10 times in over the past decade.
NOAH, NJPW and AJPW co-promoted a show there in August 2011 called ALL TOGETHER to raise money after an Earthquake devastated Japan in March that year.
DDT held their annual Peter Pan show there in August 2012.
NJPW held the final three nights of the 2018 G1 Climax in August 2018.
They did the exact same again (final 3 G1 shows) in August 2019.
And NJPW again held the World Tag League and BOSJ Finals 2020 on the same show in December.
NOAH’s show next Friday will only be the second show to be held there since the Coronavirus pandemic. STARDOM will be the first Joshi promotion to run Budokan since AJW in 1995 on March 3rd. It seems like the use of Budokan could definitely be on the rise in the future!
And I hope that is the case for NOAH. That this isn’t just a one-shot and done, nostalgia of old memories. But that instead new memories and moments can be created there for years to come.
NOAH has had a rocky road over the past decade since leaving the Budokan. The Yakuza ticket scandal. Financial difficulties which lead to Kobashi being let go and six of NOAH’s core roster leaving in dispute. Rikio retiring. Kobashi retiring. Taue returing. The partnership with NJPW which lead to the Suzuki-Gun invasion and fans getting turned off the product as it wasn’t the NOAH they knew and loved. Morishima retiring and his tragic story afterwards.
But they have done a lot of building. And now it’s time to reap those rewards with Return To Budokan.
From that very first Budokan show only Takashi Sugiura, Naomichi Marufuji, Akitishi Saito, Masao Inoue and Yoshinari Ogawa will be on this coming show, with Jun Akiyama making a one night return for it.
From the last Budokan show, the same five wrestlers appeared on it (Akiyama was injured at that time) along with Shuhei Taniguchi, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Muhammad Yone, Go Shiozaki and Kotaro Suzuki who will all be apart of this coming show.
So you can see there has been a real turn over in NOAH. Kenoh, who defends the GHC National Championship in the semi-main has never wrestled at the Budokan. Both GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion and challenger, Daisuke Harada and Seiki Yoshioka have never wrestled in the Budokan. Kaito Kiyomiya and Yoshiki Inamura have both never wrestled there. In fact 15 out of the 40 wrestlers on the card have never wrestled in the Budokan and for some that have in the past it’s been almost 20, or even 30 years!
Below is the card for February 12th.
NOAH “DESTINATION 2021 ~BACK TO BUDOKAN~”, 12.02.2021 (PPV)
Tokyo Nippon Budokan
1. Akitoshi Saito & Masao Inoue vs. Kinya Okada & Daiki Inaba
2. Atsushi Kotoge, Junta Miyawaki & Yasutaka Yano vs. Hajime Ohara, YO-HEY & Kai Fujimura
3. Mohammed Yone & Shuhei Taniguchi vs. Masaaki Mochizuki & Masato Tanaka
4. Takashi Sugiura, Kazushi Sakuraba, NOSAWA Rongai, Kazuyuki Fujita, Kazunari Murakami & Kendo Kashin vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima, Masa Kitamiya, Manabu Soya, Haoh, Nioh & Tadasuke
5. GHC Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Title: Yoshinari Ogawa & HAYATA (c) vs. Kotaro Suzuki & Ikuto Hidaka
6. GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title: Daisuke Harada (c) vs. Seiki Yoshioka
7. NOAH GENERATION: Naomichi Marufuji & Jun Akiyama vs. Kaito Kiyomiya & Yoshiki Inamura
8. Double Main Event I – GHC National Title: Kenoh (c) vs. Masakatsu Funaki
9. Double Main Event II – GHC Heavyweight Title: Go Shiozaki (c) vs. Keiji Muto
The first four matches are only available through paid means. The first option, if you are Japanese, is to purchase the show through the PPV on ABEMA at which point you get the full card. The other option for those outside of Japan is to purchase the show on Fite TV. There you get the full show with English commentary and unlimited replays.
If you are a Wrestle Universe subscriber you can get the last five matches, with English commentary, as part of your subscription. Or you can watch the last five matches for FREE on ABEMA with Japanese commentary.
So the only way, currently, to see the full show is to pay for it. But hopefully the bottom half of the show will get put on Wrestle Universe at a later date.
Thank you for reading. I hope this has been informative and that you’ve enjoyed reading about NOAH’s history with the Budokan and why this show is so important for NOAH’s future. I’ll be back soon with a preview piece for the show itself to get you ready for it!