Pro Wrestling NOAH’s N-1 Victory 2021 begins on Sunday, September 12th. This year’s tournament will run for six shows, with the finals taking place on Sunday, October 3rd.
Unlike previous years, there will be Four Blocks consisting of Four wrestlers each. The four wrestlers in each block will compete in a round robin tournament format and the the four block winners will face off in a single elimination tournament format.
I am going to write three articles for this year’s N-1 Victory.
The first covered the Eleven year history from the first 9 Global League’s that took place between 2010 and 2018. And the two N-1 Victory’s in 2019 and 2020.
This is the second, and will cover all 16 wrestlers competing in this year’s N-1 Victory. There will then be a third and final piece, which will cover all the matches, when they take place, how to watch them and my (horrible) predictions.
So, let’s make a start on who is in the N-1 Victory!
N-1 VICTORY 2021: THE COMPETITORS
Debuted: December 2000
Current: ZERO1 World Heavyweight Champion and GHC National Champion (x2)
Former: GHC Heavyweight Champion (x4), GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x6), GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion (x2) and GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x2)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 11th. Winner in 2014. Finalist in 2012 and 2019.
Other Tournaments: NJPW Best Of Super Juniors 2003 semi-finalist. NJPW G1 Climax 2009 semi-finalist.
Making his eleventh entry into a Global League/N-1 Victory, Sugiura now stands above everyone else in terms of entries. This comes after Naomichi Marufuji chose not to participate and Shuhei Taniguchi failed to qualify – both now stand at Ten entries.
If you were to make a top five list of which names/faces you most associate with NOAH you’d have to include Mitsuharu Misawa as the founder of NOAH. Kenta Kobashi on account of his legendary run with the GHC Heavyweight Title. Naomichi Marufuji as the Vice President and someone who has represented NOAH both in Japan and abroad. KENTA because he had the best matches of his career and made his name in NOAH. And Takashi Sugiura can comfortably stand aside all four of them.
He was the very first person to make his wrestling debut in a NOAH ring. And while officially he’s not the first NOAH dojo graduate, as he joined the All Japan dojo before the NOAH split, no one else can say they were the very first wrestler to make their debut in the emerald green ring. Starting late, he was already 30 years old when he debuted. But he was an accomplished amateur wrestler and almost qualified for the 1996 Olympics (yep, the broken freakin’ neck one).
Funnily enough, Sugiura would be heavily inspired by Kurt Angle through his early wrestling attire and wrestling style, adopting the German Suplexes and Ankle Lock. But he would not have the meteoric rookie year that Angle did. He began his career as a junior heavyweight and it took him until September 2003 to first taste gold – the GHC Junior Heavyweight Title.
While he was always a stocky junior heavyweight (to put it mildly), he didn’t move up to a heavyweight until 2007. It was during the second NOAH vs New Japan feud in 2009 that he really broke out. He won his first GHC Heavyweight Championship in December 2009.
There are very few wrestlers who have graced a NOAH ring over the past 20 years who haven’t faced Sugiura in either singles or tag team matches. While Shiozaki and Marufuji would eventually tie him as four time GHC Heavyweight Champions, he did it first. Kobashi may hold the longest individual GHC Heavyweight Title reign, but Sugiura is second and he beat Kobashi’s title defenses in that reign. Sugiura was also the very first person to hold the GHC National Title and is definitely the only person to have held the belt more than once at time of writing.
He’s also had success in the Global League/N-1 Victory before. He made the finals in 2012 but lost to KENTA. He beat Daisuke Sekimoto to win it in 2014, but failed to beat Marufuji for the GHC Heavyweight Title. He reached the finals again in 2019, but lost to Kenoh in his title challenge.
Just last year, it was a loss to Katsuhiko Nakajima that saw Sugiura miss out on winning the block. Nakajima would ultimately go on to win the N-1 Victory over Kaito Kiyomiya. That could have been Sugiura, if not for that one loss.
This year, the leader of the Sugiura Army has held and lost the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Titles, won the GHC National Title for a second time and, on August 15th, he beat Masato Tanaka in a Title vs Title match to win the ZERO1 World Heavyweight Title.
But he’s not done there. Sugiura may have lost to Marufuji in July in their GHC Heavyweight Title match but Sugiura is adamant that he’s going to add more gold and he wants the GHC Heavyweight Title for the fifth time.
Debuted: October 1984
Former: GHC Heavyweight Champion, Wrestle-1 Champion, Triple Crown Champion (x3), IWGP Heavyweight Champion (x4), NWA World Heavyweight Champion, NWA World Television Champion, AJPW World Tag Champion (x5), IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x6) and WCW World Tag Team Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 1st
Other Tournaments: NJPW G1 Climax 1995 winner. 1991, 1999 and 2001 finalist. AJPW Champion Carnival 2002, 2004 and 2007 winner.
Realistically, I shouldn’t be needing to fill you in on Keiji Muto. Or his demonic alter-ego, The Great Muta. If you are a fan of Puroresu you’ll at least be aware of him if not already a fan. Even if your knowledge of Japanese wrestling is limited, names like Muto/Muta and Jushin Thunder Liger, who were able to achieve fame amongst western audiences through periods on American soil.
Honestly, I was surprised to see Muto included in the N-1. I thought they’d keep his singles matches rare and special. Especially with him losing the GHC Heavyweight Title to Marufuji at the big Cyber Fight show at the beginning of June. But then again, his matches will be spread out so it gives his body time and rest for him to be able to recover.
Do you want to know the last time Muto entered a singles tournament before this one? Champion’s Carnival 2009. And he technically won his Block but the top two wrestlers advanced to semi-final and finals. Muto was eliminated by Minoru Suzuki in the semis and Suzuki would go on to win the tournament.
Everyone has their own opinion on Old Man Muto. Yes, he is 58 years old and is showing every day of his age. He has been wrestling for almost 37 years. But he is a smart man, and a smart wrestler. He knows his limitations and wrestles around them. And when it’s a big match, he still goes out to make them feel big.
Personally, I enjoyed his GHC Heavyweight Title reign. I can understand those who didn’t, and I still feel like Kiyomiya should have been the one to end it. But his reign served its purpose, which was to add to Muto’s legacy as only the third person to have held the GHC, IWGP and Triple Crown. And it got attention all over the world of wrestling.
How much does he have left in the tank? We never thought he would ever do a Moonsault again, but him pulling it off in the Marufuji match was the cause of his downfall. He put everything into that one move and when Marufuji was able to kick out, he had nothing left.
Each match in the block stage has a 30 minute time limit. That may work against Muto, because he’s not usually energetic enough to get a match over and done with quickly. All of his title matches went close to or over the 30 minute mark. His wrestling style is to be slow and methodical and try and wear down his younger opponents. But with the clock ticking, he might need to change his game plan.
Whether that will work for him or not is another matter. But I can honestly say I don’t mind Muto being in the N-1 Victory this year. His presence alone makes the tournament feel bigger. And his matches against Sugiura and Kiyomiya will be big main events.
Debuted: December 2015
Current: GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x2)
Former: GHC Heavyweight Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 4th. Winner in 2018. Finalist in 2020.
The Supernova enters his fourth tournament and so far he has a great track record. His first Global League happened in 2016 during his rookie year so that went about as well as you would expect. He was in Canada on his foreign excursion during the 2017 edition, before winning the tournament in 2018, beat Sugiura for the GHC Heavyweight Title which he held all through 2019.
He declined to enter the very first N-1 Victory on account of him already being the champion and he beat the winner, Kenoh, in their title match. He lost the belt to Shiozaki in early January 2020, and entered the N-1 Victory as a result. Beating Shiozaki secured him a place in the finals, but he fell to Nakajima.
And, for like a lot of us, 2020 into 2021 has been a rough time for him. He had an incredible title reign that lasted over a year that showed him as a present ace, NOAH’s bright hope for the future. He lost the belt before the global pandemic started. He lost to Muto in August. He lost the finals of the N-1 Victory. He lost to Kenoh for the GHC National Title.
It felt like he would avenge the Muto loss and reclaim the GHC Heavyweight Title in March this year…. But it wasn’t to be. He then lost to Masato Tanaka. NOSAWA Rongai via count out but he was bloodied and humiliated in the process. He then lost to Yoshinari Ogawa.
After the split of The Aggression (Arisa Nakajima & Masa Kitamiya), Kiyomiya was selected as Masa Kitamiya’s new tag partner to face Nakajima & Manabu Soya for the vacant belts. Kiyomiya pinned Soya in that match and the two became the new GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. Kiyomiya faced Nakajima in a singles match and the two wrestled to a half hour draw.
So, Kiyomiya looks to be getting back on track. But ever since NOSAWA bust him open, he’s been wilder. More chaotic. The bloodlust has opened a vengeful side as he has been attempting to get retribution against NOSAWA and now The Great Muta, as both have left him bleeding.
This will be his third match against Muto. Muto has beaten him both previous times. The Great Muta cut his forehead with the steel hook used on the turnbuckles in a tag match. He’s beaten Sugiura and Soya before, the latter in their one and only singles match. But Muto still stands above him.
I honestly think Kiyomiya stands not only a good chance of winning his Block but the entire N-1 Victory for the second time. But the result of that Muto match is what determines whether he will advance or not in my eyes.
Debuted: April 2007
Former: Wrestle-1 Champion (x2), Big Japan Strong World Heavyweight Champion, Wrestle-1 Tag Team Champion (x3), AJPW World Tag Team Champion (x3) and AJPW All Asia Tag Team Champion (x2)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 2nd.
Soya joined NOAH in April 2020 after the folding of Wrestle-1. At first, I was happy to see the big hoss join the NOAH roster. I’d been a fan of his ever since he and Seiya Sanada (before he went all caps lock) were All Asia Tag Team Champions and they had a great series of matches against Strong BJ (Daisuke Sekimoto & Yuji Okabayashi).
I feel like Soya could offer a lot. But since he joined the NOAH roster he has lost almost every single high profile singles match. Sugiura on his first singles match. He won a tournament to face Nakajima for the GHC National Title the very next night but lost in their title match. He’s lost to Taniguchi. Shiozaki. Kiyomiya. Masaaki Mochizuki. Daiki Inaba. And Kazuyuki Fujita (twice).
His win/loss record is not the best, to put it mildly. And unfortunately, he has found himself as the loss post in the Kongo heavyweight ranks. That to me is a massive shame as a motivated Soya is just as good the majority of hoss wrestlers in Japan. He could be having bangers with Sekimoto, Okabayashi and Hashimoto in Big Japan; or filled the Yuji Hino role in DAMNATION for DDT.
But you know what? Yes, Soya is very likely to lose, probably at the bottom of his Block. But, then again, a lot of wrestlers would lose against Sugiura, Muto and Kiyomiya. Soya just has awful luck to be in the same block as the three of them. And who knows – maybe he’ll get an upset victory. He could beat Sugiura and earn a rematch for the GHC National Title. He could catch Muto by surprise and be the reason he doesn’t advance.
I know in my heart of heart’s that Soya ultimately is going to go 0 for 3. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be rooting for him. The man went all in on joining NOAH and Kongo especially so he deserves to have some support.
Debuted: March 2008
Former: GHC Heavyweight Champion, GHC National Champion, Michinoku Pro Tohuko Junior Heavyweight Champion (x3), GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x2) and GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x2)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 5th. Winner in 2017 and 2019.
The only person to have won two tournaments. He won the Global League on his first entry in 2017, beating Go Shiozaki in the process. And he would then go on to beat Eddie Edwards, the first and so far only gaijin to hold this belt, the GHC Heavyweight Title.
He won the very first N-1 Victory 2019 by beating Sugiura in the finals. Sugiura had ended Kenoh’s reign with the GHC Heavyweight Title in March 2018 so this was a measure of redemption for him. However he was unable to beat Kiyomiya for the GHC Heavyweight Championship.
Kenoh has not challenged for the GHC Heavyweight Title since he and Shiozaki went to a 60 minute draw in August last year in a Heavyweight vs National Title vs Title match.
His reign with the GHC National Championship would come to an end in March this year with a loss to Kazuyuki Fujita. And he unfortunately caught Covid-19 not long after which resulted in him being briefly hospitalized.
Returning to the ring he was not long after challenged by The Great Muta whom he would lose to in a singles match. Although he did manage to beat former Kongo member Kitamiya in the main event of the Kongo produced DIAMOND 4 show.
Heading into this year’s N-1 Victory, Kenoh has momentum. NOAH have announced a second Nippon Budokan show to take place on January 1st, 2022. That date also happens to fall on Kenoh’s birthday. And Kenoh made plenty of noise while he was GHC Heavyweight Champion that he was going to bring NOAH back to the Budokan. He may not have done it alone but he got to semi-main back in February. So he’d love to main event the next time.
Kenoh has faced all three of his opponents in the Block. He beat Kendo Kashin in March this year in his final successful National Title defence. He and Daiki Inaba went to a 30 minute draw in the 2017 ZERO1 Fire Festival. And he lost to Masaaki Mochizuki in the 2019 N-1 Victory, the same year he won it.
I could see Kenoh winning his Block. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him reach the finals. Could Kenoh win it for a third time? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. Kenoh against Marufuji has not happened often and never for a title.
Debuted: January 1994
Former: Dragon Gate Open The Dream Gate Champion (x3), Full Impact Pro World Heavyweight Champion, ZERO1 International Junior Heavyweight Champion, GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion and DG Open The Twin Gate Champion (x3)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 3rd
Other Tournaments: Toryumon El Numero Uno 2001 winner. 2002 finalist. Dragon Gate King Of Gate 2006 winner. 2008 finalist. All Japan Junior Battle Of Glory 2014 finalist.
In Dragon Gate, Mochizuki is one of the oldest active on their roster. In NOAH… Well you have Sugiura, Muto, Kashin, Sakuraba, Tanaka, Saito, Fujita and Funaki in this tournament who are all over 50 or pushing close to it. So 9 out of 16.
But do not let Mochizuki’s age fool you. You could take 10 years off his age and you would believe it. 15 years you could believe. Hell, you could even take 20 years off and Mochizuki would make you believe it. There must be a fountain of you in Japan and Mochizuki, Sugiura and Tanaka have all found it.
He still has the energy of a much younger man. He still has the same fire and the snap in those kicks. Kenoh, Nakajima and Funaki all kick hard, absolutely. But Mochizuki is right up there with them. And he has the experience of someone who has been wrestling for the past 27 and a half years. Because he has.
Mochizuki was always one of my favourite wrestlers in Dragon Gate. He always had incredible chemistry with Shingo Takagi, YAMATO, BxB Hulk and Akira Tozawa. So when he was announced for the N-1 Victory 2019 with matches against Nakajima and Kenoh, ohhh boy.
And then he and Marufuji won the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Title’s in early 2020. And then the M’s Alliance was formed with Mochizuki as a founding member meaning Mochizuki would be spending almost as much time in a NOAH ring as he would Dragon Gate.
In last year’s N-1 Victory he took Kiyomiya to a 30 minute draw on the opening night. He then beat the then GHC Heavyweight Champion, Go Shiozaki during the Block stages. But losses to Sakuraba and Kitamiya saw him fall short of winning the Block.
He’s already beaten Kenoh once. He’s never faced Kashin or Inaba in singles matches. Mochizuki on his best day’s is one of the best wrestlers in the world. And he rarely has day’s off. I would love to see a singles match between him and Marufuji as the two can be seen as the biggest representations of their respective promotions.
Debuted: May 2013
Former: Wrestle-1 Champion (x2) and Wrestle-1 Tag Team Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 1st
Other Tournaments: Wrestle-1 Grand Prix 2019 winner
Before starting this write up I always thought Daiki debuted as part of Wrestle-1. But their debut show didn’t happen until September 2013. As it turns out Inaba’s debut in a Japanese promotion was in Wrestle-1 but he had wrestled in Mexico and then Canada before then. You see he entered the All Japan dojo where he was trained by Muto and Shuji Kondo but sent abroad to hone his training but when he returned to Japan, Muto and many others had left All Japan to form Wrestle-1.
It’s basically the second All Japan split but it doesn’t get anywhere near as much recognition as the NOAH split did as the NOAH split was more severe. But Inaba was there from the first Wrestle-1 show to their last. He was their greatest success story as he held the Wrestle-1 Championship twice.
He first won the belt, and it was his very first championship to boot, in August 2016 from KAI, making the one successful defense over KAI in a rematch before losing the belt to Masayuki Kono. Winning the Wrestle-1 Grand Prix in 2019 over Shotaro Ashino in the finals saw him then beat T-Hawk to win the belt for the second time. But again after the one successful defense, he dropped it to someone very familiar with NOAH viewers – Katsuhiko Nakajima.
Nakajima is not in his Block but he does get the opportunity to face the Kongo leader, Kenoh. They have faced each other before. Both were entered in the ZERO1 Fire Festival in 2017 and they wrestled to a 30 minute draw. But that was back when Inaba was a former Wrestle-1 Champion and Kenoh was yet to win the Global League and become GHC Heavyweight Champion. It will be interesting to see Inaba vs Kenoh in 2021.
Inaba has not had a smooth ride since Wrestle-1 folded and he joined NOAH in June last year. He made his debut in an Ace vs Ace match against Kiyomiya but lost. Then he lost to Kitamiya. He was not selected to take part in last year’s N-1 Victory which must have been a blow.
He beat fellow former Wrestle-1 Champion Soya in November. But he was injured not long after and had to take almost 5 months off. Upon his return he challenged Kiyomiya to a rematch but would fall short again. He would be announced as an entrant for the N-1 Victory 2021 but history would repeat itself again as he lost to Kitamiya in his next singles match.
So he is 1 for 5 in singles matches in NOAH. And Kenoh and Mochizuki are not going to be easy singles matches. Kendo Kashin is also tricky enough to cause issues as Shuhei Taniguchi found out. In a perfect world I would have loved for Kenoh and Inaba to be in close contention for winning this block and face off on the final say.
But Inaba has Kashin while Kenoh and Mochizuki have their rematch. So I can only hope Inaba has a good showing and moves into the upper midcard as a result.
Debuted: September 1992
Former: AJPW World Junior Champion, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion (x2), AJPW World Tag Team Champion and IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 1st
Other Tournaments: NJPW Young Lion Cup 1996 winner, NJPW Best Of Super Juniors 1999 winner, Ring Of Honor Best Of American Super Juniors 2005 winner, NJPW New Japan Cup 2005 semi-finalist and AJPW Royal Road 2016 semi-finalist
Originally this spot was occupied by Kazunari Murakami but he is suffering from a sciatic nerve so has withdrawn from all wrestling until he has healed. His spot was then up for grabs between King Tany and Kashin.
Now Tany, whether as Shuhei or Maybach Taniguchi has appeared in 10 out of the 11 previous Global League/N-1 Victory’s. So it felt like it was his match to win. However Kashin was a lot sneakier than he expected. The two brawled to a count out draw originally. And then when the match was restarted back in the ring, Kashin surprised Tany with a cheeky pinfall hold to get the three count.
You remember how you feel every year when Toru Yano is in a G1? Well take away the comedy. You remember how you felt every year Takashi Iizuka was in a G1? Well make him a lot less intimidating and wild. And that is where Kendo Kashin will be.
Just looking at Kashin’s Title history and performance in other tournaments and you can see that Kashin has done well in the past. Even before Inoki went full Inoki-ism with his hard on for MMA hybrid wrestling, Kashin showed potential. And won the Best Of Super Juniors and IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship before his MMA career even began.
But at the turn of 2000, Kashin’s worst qualities came out. He had a second reign with the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title but vacated it when he jumped ship to join Muto in All Japan. Then he won the AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Title but vacated it when he left AJPW to freelance and did return to NJPW.
He achieved a little notoriety when he was the only New Japan wrestler from Japan sent to America to compete in Ring Of Honor’s Best Of The American Super Juniors which was a one night tournament. Kashin, as Dragon Soldier B had a poor tournament. Not in regards to success as he beat Matt Sydal, James Gibson and Black Tiger IV (Rocky Romero) to win it. But he was slated by the audience and those who watched the show on tape because he gave a lazy, half-assed performance. And the fact that he won was just a further dig.
Now I may be misremembering but I always thought the ROH BOASP was to determine an entrant into NJPW’s BOSJ. Kashin was entered into the New Japan Cup where he reached the semi finals but was not included in the BOSJ that year. So maybe the spot was for the New Japan cup and I’m wrong. Him being in that year’s G1 would suggest that if they did decide to remove him from the BOSJ they wouldn’t have placed him in the G1.
But a google search and a few reviews of that show confirm that the winner was supposed to be in BOSJ and Dragon Soldier B, Kendo Kashin, whatever you want to call him wasn’t. It might be another complete coincidence but Kashin was gone from NJPW a few months later. He popped up in Inoki’s new IGF promotion and even wrestled Kurt Angle but would take long breaks from wrestling and pop up in IGF, All Japan, DDT and Finland of all places.
He’d been on another year long break when he joined the NOAH roster in June 2020 as part of Sugiura Army. But his role was to be a distraction and nuisance to Sugiura Army’s opponents. And a nuisance to Sugiura himself too.
One wrestler he heavily annoyed was Kenoh before and during their GHC National Title match in March this year. I’m sure that Kenoh is absolutely delighted he has to face Kashin again. And Mochizuki and Inaba are soon to find out how joyful that can be.
Debuted: January 2004
Former: GHC Heavyweight Champion, GHC National Champion, Wrestle-1 Champion, GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion (x3), AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Champion, GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x5) and AJPW All Asia Tag Team Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 10th. 2020 winner. 2018 finalist.
Other Tournaments: NJPW Young Lion Toukan 2004 finalist and AJPW World Junior Heavyweight League 2006 finalist.
Nakajima was the well deserved winner of last year’s N-1 Victory. There was no one more on fire than he was. He betrayed Go Shiozaki at the end of August when they were unable to win the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Title’s.
And, most shockingly of all, he joined Kongo. He joined the group where their leader Kenoh had only just beaten him the month before for the GHC National Title. Nakajima adopted Kongo’s red but took on a darked red. He became more sinister. More evil. He tapped into the dark part of himself that was always there but brought it more out into the forefront.
He ran through the majority of his Block winning 4 out of 5 matches in order to advance to the finals. Now he’d made the finals once before in 2018 but there’s an asterisk there. Marufuji had actually won their Block but had to pull out on the final day due to injury. So Nakajima, Kenoh and Kohei Sato had a three-way to determine Marufuji’s finalist replacement and Nakajima won.
However there was no rest time. That very same night Nakajima had to face the young Supernova Kiyomiya and the fresher Kiyomiya was able to beat him. But 2020 was a different story. It was Nakajima and Kiyomiya in the finals once again but both came in with the same rest time. And on that night Nakajima obliterated Kiyomiya at the end of the match to win the N-1 Victory.
The best storytelling is simple at heart. Nakajima betrays Shiozaki. But he doesn’t just get a Title shot because of that one act. He still has to prove himself and earn it. So all the history that had been between the two for over 15 years. All of their generational rivalry. All of their friendship. All of their drama from the fall out of the implosion of AXIZ. It builds to what felt like NOAH’s biggest match in quite some time.
It was not Nakajima’s night on that occasion as he failed to beat Shiozaki. But by the end of the year he was teaming with his old The Aggression partner and fellow Kensuke Office graduate, Kitamiya. And by March they won the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team belts together.
Of course Kitamiya would turn on him – after a successful defense too to make things even more awkward – and then would beat Nakajima in NOAH’s first ever steel cage match where Nakajima also had to have his head shaved as part of the loss. I stilll mourn for those glorious curls of his.
Kitamiya would also take the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Title’s as part of the split with his new partner Kiyomiya after they beat Nakajima and Soya. Nakajima would take Kiyomiya to a half hour draw not long after in a rematch of the 2020 finals.
So Nakajima does not enter this year’s N-1 Victory with the same momentum that he had last year. But you can never count him out. If there is one wrestler in NOAH who is deserving of another reign with the GHC Heavyweight Championship it’s Nakajima. His run from 2016 into 2017, while amazing in the ring, was during NOAH’s dark days so did not get the recognition or respect it deserves.
I’d love to see Nakajima with the belt again. Could he be the first person to win two N-1 Victory’s back to back? If anyone can do it, it’s Nakajima.
Debuted: August 1993
Former: GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 2nd
You’d be forgiven for looking at the data above and wondering how Sakuraba earned his spot and matches up with most everyone else. Well Sakuraba only won his first ever championship in wrestling last year.
But that’s in wrestling. Sakuraba is well known in MMA circles as the Gracie Killer. As a young man Sakuraba had the choice of wrestling or MMA and he chose wrestling. Well the shoot-style wrestling implemented by UWF-I. Although he didn’t achieve much success in wrestling, he did get himself noticed during the NJPW vs UWF-I feud.
When UWF-I folded and Kingdom was born from it’s ashes, there was a belief that they needed to prove that pro wrestling was stronger than MMA. So Kingdom wrestlers entered a UFC tournament to show their skills. Hiromitsu Kanehara was injured so Sakuraba was a last minute substitution. Sakuraba would go on to win the tournament and took the mic afterwards to declare that “pro wrestling is strong!”.
He enjoyed quite the successful MMA career after that and spent almost 15 years away from wrestling on a full time basis. But he never forgot wrestling or allowed it to leave his heart. He entered MMA fights as if he was coming out for a wrestling match. He had bright orange hair to stand out and sometimes wore a mask on his entrance. He definitely was a character and stood out in the MMA community.
It took until the end of 2012 before he returned to wrestling and he did so as a team with Katsuyori Shibata as Laughter7 in New Japan. He was there for almost four years but left in 2016. And other than 4 matches in 2017 he was completely off the grid until he debuted in NOAH in September 2019 as part of Sugiura Army.
The tag team of him and Sugiura ended up being quite the combination and they won the vacant GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Title’s at the end of August, Sakuraba’s first and so far only title in pro wrestling. That title victory saw him entered into last year’s N-1 Victory.
That was his very first singles wrestling tournament since 1997. 23 years. And, considering he’d only had 9 singles matches in the 8 years since he’d returned to New Japan, he handled himself pretty well. Yes he lost to Shiozaki, Kiyomiya and Soya, but he managed to beat Mochizuki and Kitamiya.
He has lost Title matches to Kenoh, Sugiura and Marufuji since then but each title match has gotten longer and Sakuraba has had to push himself further and harder. If anything those matches have set himself up for a big N-1 Victory this year.
I know I for one can’t wait for his matches against Nakajima and Tanaka.
Debuted: July 1993
Former: ZERO1 World Heavyweight Champion (x5), DDT KO-D Openweight Champion, NEVER Openweight Champion, IWGP Intercontinental Champion, ECW World Heavyweight Champion, FMW Double Champion, GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, Wrestle-1 Tag Team Champion and ECW World Tag Team Champion (x2)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 4th
Other Tournaments: ZERO1 Fire Festival 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2017 winner, 2010 and 2013 finalist, DDT D-Ou Grand Prix 2020 winner, NEVER Openweight Title Tournament 2012 winner and FMW Young Spirit Tournament 1995 winner
When all is said and done, Masato Tanaka has more than made his mark in history. Champion in FMW. The only Japanese wrestler to hold the ECW World Heavyweight Championship and his series with Mike Awesome is still revered today (although those chair shots…. Oooft). Synonymous with the ZERO1 Fire Festival as a 7 time finalist and 5 time winner. 5 time ZERO1 World Heavyweight Champion who only just lost the title on August 15th.
He was only the second ever IWGP Intercontinental Champion. The first ever NEVER Openweight Champion. He’s shared the ring with all of NJPW’s Three Musketeers along with AJPW’s Four Pillars. There are very few wrestlers in Japan who Tanaka has not faced in singles or tag matches. He’s faced Nakajima in the one singles match before and both Sakuraba and Kotaro Suzuki in tag matches before.
His history with NOAH began all the way back in 2003. He did a short tour in early 2003, did a couple of matches in 2012 but then returned to NOAH in a big way in 2014. Finding himself someone with a similar view point as him of hit hard, hit fast in Takashi Sugiura the two became the tag team of Dangan Yankees.
They found success straight away as they won the Global Tag League 2014 and the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Title’s in their first attempt. And they held those belts for over 7 months and lost the belts to TMDK, Mikey Nicholls & Shane Haste, in their 5th defense.
If you only know Tanaka from those chair shot filled ECW days, you’re doing the man a disservice. Those chair shots prove that he can take a beating and keep going. It doesn’t matter how hard you hit him. Elbows, fists, kicks, and yes even weapons. Tanaka can absorb an unGodly amount of punishment and dish it out just as well.
I can’t wait for all three of his matches. He’s faced Nakajima twice before, 2012 and 2017, and won both. But 2012 was right before the jump to heavyweight. And 2017 was after Nakajima had lost the GHC Heavyweight Title but I would argue that Nakajima is a better wrestler now. Sakuraba and Suzuki are both first time singles matches for all of that trio.
And he has been victorious in 5 Fire Festivals. He won the tournament to crown the very first ever NEVER Openweight Champion in New Japan. This is his fourth N-1 Victory so he knows the score very well before now. Tanaka is dangerous. And he’s a danger to everyone else in his block.
Debuted: December 2001
Former: GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion (x4), ZERO1 International Junior Heavyweight Champion, ZERO1 World Junior Champion, Wrestle-1 Cruiserweight Champion, AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Champion, AJPW GAORA TV Champion, GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x5), Wrestle-1 Tag Team Champion and AJPW All Asia Tag Team Champion (x2)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 2nd
Other Tournaments: NOAH Global Junior League 2018 winner, AJPW Junior Battle Of Glory 2015 and 2015 winner, ZERO1 Tenka-Ichi Junior Tournament 2016 and 2017 finalist
Before Kendo Kashin replaced Kazunari Murakami, Kotaro Suzuki was due to be the only junior in this year’s N-1 Victory. And this is not his first Global League/N-1 Victory. Suzuki entered the second Global League in 2011, just weeks after he’d lost the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship to Katsuhiko Nakajima – One of his opponents in C Block.
Suzuki has the opportunity to enter this year’s N-1 Victory as GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion. He faces HAYATA for the belt on the 3rd of September. If he does win the belt he will be the first GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion to enter a Global League/N-1 Victory while still champion.
While last year’s N-1 Victory was taking place, Suzuki still held that belt. He beat Seiki Yoshioka before the N-1 even started and Haoh on the final night of the tournament. But last year no juniors were included. 2011 was the first year that juniors were able to take part. 2013 was the last year before now that juniors were involved.
So Suzuki has a lot of weight on his shoulders. And that weight is quite literal as he gives up a good amount of it to his opponents. Nakajima and Sakuraba are not that far from him, but Tanaka is absolutely heavier than him.
Suzuki can claim to have done something that no one else has done. He is the only person to have challenged for the GHC Heavyweight Championship while being the current GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion. That happened on a NOAH show in England as a special attraction main event between the two singles champions.
While the singles champions have faced off against each other, the GHC Heavyweight Title has been on the line only the once and it was in that match. So it’s easy to forget that Suzuki once challenged for the belt due to it occuring in England and it happening towards the very end of Sugiura’s record breaking reign.
Ten years ago Suzuki lost his matches to Shiozaki, Akiyama, Morishima, Trevor Murdoch and Takayama but he did draw against Yoshinobu Kanemaru and beat Kento Miyahara and the super heavyweight Yutaka Yoshie. So Suzuki could pull off a surprise or two.
He’s had a trilogy of matches against Nakajima. They went to a 30 minute draw in October 2009. Suzuki beat Nakajima to retain the GHC Junior Heavyweight Title in March 2011. But Nakajima beat Suzuki in September of that year to take the belt from him. Meaning they haven’t faced each other in a singles match in over 10 years. And since Suzuki returned to NOAH at the end of 2018 after a six plus year absence, they’ve only faced off in a tag team match in March 2021. So they are long overdue for a match.
And he’s only faced Tanaka in tag matches in 2003, 2012, 2014 and 2016. Just four tag matches over 13 years and he’s not faced him in over 5 years. He’s only faced Sakuraba once in a tag match in September 2019. So Suzuki definitely does not know those two opponents as well as Nakajima. Even though Suzuki is a junior, do not sleep on him.
Debuted: September 2011
Current: GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x5)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 7th. 2016 finalist
It seemed like 2016 was Kitamiya’s biggest year. In only his second Global League entry, after almost two years of Suzuki-Gun dominance over NOAH, Kitamiya was the surprising force that powered his way to the finals. Yes he lost that match to Minoru Suzuki but the message was clear – Kitamiya had arrived.
He’s had multiple GHC Heavyweight Title matches since then, but is yet to win the big one. Before this year, he hadn’t challenged for the belt since early 2019, near the very beginning of Kiyomiya’s reign. He was second in Kongo and that’s where it seemed like he would peak.
However, 2021 has been a big year for Kitamiya. He reunited with Nakajima as The Aggression, and they won the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Titles in March. He challenged Keiji Muto for the GHC Heavyweight belt in April in a losing effort. The Aggression came to a violent end when Kitamiya turned on Nakajima. He then beat Nakajima in NOAH’s first ever steel cage match where Nakajima also had to have his head shaved as part of the loss. Then he and Kiyomiya won the vacant GHC Heavyweight Tag Team belts.
And that was just the first 7 months of 2021! I can absolutely see Kitamiya going far in this year’s N-1 Victory. Maybe as far as 2016, where he reached the finals. Maybe even further, winning the entire tournament. Maybe to be the one to beat Marufuji and become the new GHC Heavyweight Champion and win his first ever singles title.
Kitamiya’s tagline is “Go For Broke” and he’s going all the way this year. We know he’s got the potential. It genuinely felt like the arrival of a new main eventer five years ago but then his momentum fell by the wayside. In 2017, he started his team with Nakajima that was over five years in the making. In 2019, he was a founding member of Kongo with Kenoh, Atsushi Kotoge and Yoshiki Inamura.
Kenoh is now the only remaining member of that original line up. Kitamiya left Kongo as soon as he turned on Nakajima, but he did not do so with any animosity. In fact he thanked Kenoh on his exit. But he’ll have watched Inamura leave Kongo and how his career has flourished since then – he’ll no doubt want to achieve the same.
I see the GHC Heavyweight Title in Kitamiya’s future. Hopefully sooner rather than later. He does have a hard task ahead of him in his Block alone with Funaki and Fujita. Saito he was beaten a lot by in his early years but he’s won their last two matches with Saito not having won a match between them since 2018.
If he wins his block, he’s then got potential names like Kiyomiya, Muto, Kenoh, Mochizuki, Nakajima, Tanaka, etc to beat. But with the year that he’s had, I absolutely believe he can do it.
Debuted: March 1985
Former: Triple Crown Champion, ZERO1 World Heavyweight Champion, RJPW Legend Champion (x3), AJPW World Tag Team Champion and DDT KO-D Tag Team Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 1st
Other Tournaments: AJPW Champion Carnival 2010 finalist
Of all the names I was hoping for and was most excited to see be in the N-1 Victory, Funaki was at the top of that of that list. For a 52 year old with an MMA background, he has kept himself in amazing shape.
Like Sakuraba, Funaki went from wrestling into MMA. But Funaki had a lot more success on his return to wrestling after a 16 and a half year break. Yeah, he went from the end of 1992 until the end of August 2009 without stepping in a wrestling ring. But Keiji Muto, an old friend from their New Japan young lion days, convinced him to come back to wrestling.
The two won the All Japan Real World Tag League 2009 together and then the World Tag Team belts shortly after. He then reached the finals of that year’s Champion’s Carnival where he lost to Minoru Suzuki.
If you’ve never seen Funaki’s feud with Yuji Nagata in 2012, get right on it. If you want hate and fire, you’ll get it in spades. Their feud started at Wrestle Kingdom VI where Nagata smashed Funaki’s eye socket. Funaki had to take six months away from the ring to heal but when he returned, he returned with a vengeance.
He beat Nagata in July. And then that win saw him challenge NOAH’s Jun Akiyama for the All Japan Triple Crown belt he held. Funaki not only beat Akiyama to win the belt back, he absolutely dominated Akiyama and won in under 5 minutes.
Suwama would take the belt from him 7 months later in March 2013. And then a few months later Muto left All Japan to form Wrestle-1 and Funaki along with many others left with him.
When Wrestle-1 and ZERO1 entered into a small feud, Funaki would beat Kohei Sato in July 2014 to win the ZERO1 World Heavyweight Championship but then lost it back to him in September.
Funaki would then turn freelancer in 2015 and bounce around promotions after, mainly Real Japan Pro Wrestling where he won their Legend Title three times. He wrestled names like Daisuke Sekimoto, Shinjiro Ohtani and one of his D Block opponents, Kazuyuki Fujita.
Fujita is his only opponent he has wrestled in a singles match and Fujita won that match. He’s only faced Kitamiya in one tag match. He and Akitoshi Saito have never even been in the same ring together.
He’s not been in a singles tournament in over 8 years. But, to his benefit, he has managed to wrestle a good amount of singles matches and against a variety of opponents in NOAH, GLEAT and Real Japan. I can’t wait for his matches against Kitamiya and Fujita.
Debuted: November 1996
Former: GHC National Champion, IWGP Heavyweight Champion (x3), RJPW Legend Champion and IGF Champion
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 1st
Other Tournaments: NJPW G1 Climax 2005 finalist
That G1 Climax mentioned above? Fujita’s last tournament in wrestling before this one. 16 years inbetween tournaments. That’s crazy to me.
But, to be fair, Fujita is a crazy guy. Would he have been as successful if not for Antonio Inoki’s hard on for MMA? It’s debatable. He managed to get his first ever singles within two months of his debut. The person he beat? Akitoshi Saito. How’s that for a coincidence and a half!
He spent over three years in the New Japan midcard. He rarely received matches against the higher ups so he was no jobber to the stars but he never ever challenged for any title belts in New Japan. He wanted to leave professional wrestling and go into MMA full time but Inoki convinced him to only take a year out of wrestling 2000 into 2001 to fight in MMA but then come back to New Japan.
His return match was booked for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Scott Norton. Ol’ Ironhead had done pretty well for himself in MMA as he had Homer Simpson syndrome – A thick skull and can take a beating while waiting for the other guy to get tired. He beat Ken Shamrock because Shamrock started having symptoms of a heart attack while he was unable to put Fujita down!
So he made the right decision to bet on himself joining MMA. As he was brought back into wrestling to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in his first attempt. And his first ever challenge of any title belt of any kind in pro wrestling.
Fujita continued his MMA career while wrestling. Meaning he only returned to New Japan to defend the IWGP Heavyweight Title against Yuji Nagata and Don Fyre. He even beat Yoshihiro Takayama in an MMA match while he was IWGP Heavyweight Champion. He beat Kensuke Sasaki in October 2001 but got injured during MMA training so had to vacate the belt in January 2002.
If you wanted an example of how damaging Inoki-Ism was to New Japan, Fujita came in out of nowhere to win the belt in April. Only wrestled three more times, June and July to defend the belt, October to beat one of their biggest stars in a non-title match and then vacated the belt in January. Eight months, two defenses, the last one five/six months before he had to vacate the belt. He was Brock Lesnar before Lesnar even debuted in WWE!
MMA would become more of a focus as his New Japan appearances became more scattered. He lost a wrestling match to Takayama in the semi-finals to crown a new NWF Heavyweight Champion in August 2002. Then lost his first attempt to reclaim the IWGP Heavyweight Title against Nagata in October that same year. And he only wrestled the once in 2003.
When Bob Sapp had to vacate the IWGP Heavyweight Title in 2004 after just 66 days of holding it (yep, Bob Sapp, that really happened and truly was Inoki-Ism at it’s worst), Fujita came back to beat a young Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the belt for the second time. He had the one defense against a young Katsuyori Shibata but then lost the belt to Kensuke Sasaki.
That match could and probably will go down as one of the worst IWGP Heavyweight Title matches in history. You look at names like Fujita and Sasaki and think, really? These two who are known for just beating the crap out of their opponents. But imagine Fujita having caught Sasaki with a sleeper hold down on the mat. And then moving on to his back with Sasaki on top of him and the ref counting the three. Oh and that all happened in under 3 minutes. So Fujita lost the belt, in under 3 minutes, by basically pinning himself.
Sasaki was furious. The fans were disappointed and irate. It was a dark day for New Japan. So then Fujita left New Japan for a few months to return and then beat Hiroyoshi Tenzan in July 2005 to win the belt for the third time.
He entered the 2005 G1 Climax – his last tournament before now remember – as champion and won every single match in his Block. Tanahashi, Nakamura, even Toshiaki Kawada, they all fell to Fujita. But he lost in the finals to Masahiro Chono.
So Chono as G1 winner got a straight singles match against Fujita right? Inoki laughs at your foolish naivety. Inoki adds Brock Lesnar (funny how I mentioned him earlier, huh?) to the match to make it a three way. This is October 2005. Lesnar’s first wrestling match since WrestleMania XX in March the previous year. His New Japan debut. And Lesnar wins the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. By pinning Chono, not Fujita. Actually I apologize to Bob Sapp. That was the worst thing of Inoki-Ism.
Fujita basically retired after that match for several years until he popped up in Inoki’s IGF promotion where he of course won their belt. But his matches were sporadic and he took lengthy breaks.
He made his NOAH debut in late 2019 as part of Sugiura Army and was built up for a GHC Heavyweight Title match against Go Shiozaki which took place in March. Now people either love or hate that match. They went almost 60 minutes and they spent half that time staring at each other, barely moving.
But the match, the first main event in the no fans era of the global pandemic, made worldwide press due to how…. Unique it was. Fujita definitely has an aura about him, whether you love or hate him. He beat Kenoh a year later for the GHC National Title but lost it in his first defense to Sugiura.
I never expected Fujita to be in the N-1 Victory but I’m happy he is. His matches against Kitamiya, Funaki and Saito are going to be wars.
Debuted: December 1990
Former: GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (x5)
Global League/N-1 Victory Number: 9th
Saito has always been a nearly-was. He joined New Japan in 1992 and became involved in the feud between NJPW and WAR, but despite the feud lasting close to two years, it never elevated Saito out of the midcard. He found himself surpassed by the Third Generation of Nagata, Fujita, Tenzan, Kojima, Nakanishi, etc by the mid to late 1990’s.
He never once challenged for any belts in New Japan the entire six years he was there. So after a singles loss against Fujita in December 1998, Saito left New Japan and pro wrestling as a whole for almost two years.
So it was a surprise when he made his debut in the newly founded NOAH in October 2000. He joined his mentor Masashi Aoyagi and then impressed Jun Akiyama enough to be offered a place in his Sterness stable as Akiyama’s second in command.
The two reached the finals to crown the very first ever GHC Heavyweight Tag Team champions in October 2001, eventually winning the belts in September 2002. They made five successful defences before losing them to Kenta Kobashi and Tamon Honda in June 2003.
He received his very first GHC Heavyweight Title shot in October 2004, where he lost to Kenta Kobashi during his epic reign. Saito was then Takeshi Rikio’s first ever challenger but the match failed to set the Budokan alight, also showing that NOAH really had no plans for the man who ended Kobashi’s reign.
In 2008, he and Bison Smith formed a tag team. They won the Global Tag League and the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team belts straight after. Saito, unfortunately, was the man involved in the move that ended Mitsuharu Misawa’s life. But he was in no way solely responsible for his death. He regrettably was the one to cause the bump which added on to the millions that Misawa had taken in his career.
He had a very emotional title challenge against the new GHC Heavyweight Champion, Go Shiozaki, at the first Mitsuharu Misawa Memorial show. But the tragedy near Saito would not end as Bison Smith would pass away in late 2011, so Saito lost another friend.
In early 2012, he reunited with Jun Akiyama to win the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team belts again from the New Japan team of Bad Intentions, Giant Bernard and Karl Anderson to put an end on the NOAH vs New Japan feud that started in early 2009.
But other than tag team success, Saito has never won a singles championship. He challenged Go Shiozaki for the GHC Heavyweight Title on June 2020 to mark the 11th year of Misawa’s passing – the last time he had challenged for that belt was in June 2012. So an 8 year gap inbetween title matches.
He’d entered all eight of the Global League’s but was phased out by the time the N-1 Victory was created to replace it. So it was a surprise when he was announced to return in this year’s N-1 Victory. Especially as his stock hasn’t risen since and can only decline. I was definitely surprised he was entered over King Tany as Taniguchi is the leader, the king, of Funky Express.
You’d be fine to expect Saito to lose every match in his Block. Not like he won’t be throwing bombs on his way down. But he could get a surprising victory.
And that’s all 16 wrestlers in this year’s N-1 Victory and the Four Blocks they are in.
My third and final piece will cover how to watch each show, what matches are taking place and my predictions for what may go down.
I hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope it has helped build up your anticipation for the N-1 Victory!