Finding life outside of the WWE seemed like a very difficult task for pro wrestlers a couple of years ago, but that’s starting to change. Not only are New Japan paying their talents respectable fees, but they’re also giving them the luxury to perform with other promotions at the same time. This is an absolute 'no no' when it comes to the WWE and how they do business.
After the recent Wrestle Kingdom 11 event, the pro wrestling fan base was buzzing from the show that was put on by the company. The night was highlighted by some terrific displays in the ring, along with various former WWE stars appearing at the event. The likes of Billy Gunn, Cody Rhodes and C.J. Parker were among the WWE alums to take part in the show. Time and time again, the promotion manages to take old WWE talent and add a couple more years to their life span.
New Japan staying hot is, without a doubt, good for the world of wrestling. However, it should be noted that the company has been around for a very long time. Founded by the great Antonio Inoki, the company was founded way back in 1972. For you history buffs out there, that’s seven years before the WWE officially launched their product in 1979.
New Japan has seen several shifts throughout the years. One of the most interesting parts of the promotion is seeing the slew of former WWE talent thathave travelled overseas to join the company. This article is going to document 15 of those former WWE stars. So without further ado, here are 15 former WWE stars you never knew that appeared for New Japan, enjoy!
15 Andre The Giant
One of the first places Andre wrestled was in Japan, who had a booming wrestling scene throughout the course of the 1900s and continues to have a strong fanbase to this day. Andre wrestled for the International Wrestling Enterprise in 1970, a Japanese promotion.
As of March 26th, 1973, Andre would take his popularity to the main stream culture, joining the WWE and going on a remarkable unbeaten streak. He quickly became the main attraction of the company. Once Vince Jr. took over, he prohibited wrestlers from wrestling with other promotions, although Andre was one of the rare Superstars that was allowed to do so. Andre was allowed to work for New Japan in 1984, even though he was still under contract with the WWE, a near impossibility for someone today. His most memorable match for the promotion came in the mid 80s, when he took on some guy named Hulk Hogan.
Following Chyna’s brutal WWE release, she wisely decided to take her talents elsewhere, joining New Japan Pro Wrestling for a very brief amount of time. So brief, that fans don't often remember she appeared for the promotion.
She would debut for the company in 2002 during an anniversary show, appearing as a special guest referee in a bout that featured North American legends in The Steiner Brothers. In the months that followed, she would take her talents to the ring, appearing in several matches for the promotion and taking on men throughout her journey with the company. Following her final match with the company, Chyna took an extended hiatus from the wrestling business and would not appear for a major promotion until 2011, when she briefly joined TNA Wrestling.
13 Kurt Angle
What makes working outside of the WWE so unique is the amount of flexibility wrestlers have. Instead of being locked into one company, almost every other promotion allows its performers to work other events while under contract.
Leaving the WWE and joining TNA in 2006, Angle decided to broaden his horizons by stepping foot in the squared circle overseas with New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2007. Angle’s run with the company was actually longer than what most people think, as he was a part of the promotion until 2009. His most noteworthy cameos included matches at Wrestle Kingdom, taking on A.J. Styles at the G1 Climax and even teaming up with the great Shinsuke Nakamura.
Surprisingly, Japan wasn’t the only country that Angle spent some time in. He even joined AAA Mexico for a brief stint in 2012. We hope Angle can add to his resume with one final pit-stop at the WWE.
12 Bret Hart
Before stepping foot in a WWE ring, which would ultimately take place in the mid 80s, Bret paid his dues by wrestling around the world. He had almost ten years of experience before inking a WWE deal.
Hart started off his journey as a referee believe it or not, playing the role of an official for his father’s company, Stampede Wrestling. Once he decided to pursue an in-ring role, Bret looked to the Japanese style to gain experience. Hart lost a lot of matches right out of the gate, but the experience he earned was priceless.
Along with being the face of Stampede Wrestling, Hart would broaden his horizons by competing with some of the very best in New Japan, like Tiger Mask. In 1982, Hart travelled overseas to compete in a match against the talented wrestler. It was another loss, but, more importantly, yet another stepping stone to his brilliant rise. Shortly after, Hart would catch the attention of the WWE and join the company in 1984.
11 Owen Hart
A big reason why the Canadian wrestlers worked such a smooth technical pace was their ability to learn from the best at a young age. Before entering the WWE, a slew of Canadians learned the Japanese style and those all-time greats include the previously mentioned Bret Hart, the late Chris Benoit, WWE legend Chris Jericho and, another great we’ll never forget, Owen Hart.
Like his older brother, Owen took the wise decision to wrestle overseas and learn the Japanese style before joining a major North American promotion. While wrestling for his family’s territory of Stampede Wrestling, Owen also decided to branch out and joined New Japan in 1987, partaking in several tours. Owen had a plethora of highlights during his stint, which included memorable bouts against Jushin Liger and The Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit). His most noteworthy accomplishment was winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, becoming the first non-Japanese wrestler to do so in the promotion’s history.
10 Chris Benoit
Like the two previously mentioned Hart family members, Chris Benoit took a similar route, flopping between Stampede Wrestling and New Japan back in the mid 80s. Before stepping foot in the ring overseas, however, Benoit spent a year in a Japanese Dojo perfecting his craft. His hard work paid off as Benoit became a huge hit in the promotion under his masked alias of The Pegasus Kid.
Benoit became famous for putting on five star matches on the regular. He was finally awarded his first major title, capturing the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship defeating the legend Jushin Thunder Liger. His stint with the company would last until the 90s. Benoit would finally branch off to ECW and later become a known face to the North American market when appearing with WCW.
9 Ric Flair
First and foremost, WOOOOOOOOOO. Okay, now what we got that out of the way, let's discuss Ric Flair and his time in Japan.
Believe it or not, Flair got his first taste of Japanese action all the way back in 1973, joining the IWE promotion. He would again partake in action with New Japan once WCW formed an agreement with the promotion. That would lead to a mega WCW/New Japan Supershow, which was featured in the Tokyo Dome and highlighted by The Nature Boy himself in 1991.
Flair would return to the promotion in a losing effort in 1996, suffering a defeat in a IWGP Heavyweight Championship match against Shinya Hashimoto. In addition, Ric even took part in the prestigious G1 Climax tournament. Looking at his body of work, there really wasn't much Flair didn’t do.
8 Daniel Puder
So far on this list, we have looked at some iconic names. We decided to take a break for one entry and discuss one of the most random former WWE stars to appear in New Japan, Tough Enough winner Daniel Puder.
With a background in MMA, fans actually got excited when assessing his potential with the WWE. Many fans saw Ken Shamrock-like potential in Puder. Despite winning a contract, his run flopped and he's only remembered for almost ripping off Kurt Angle’s arm in a SmackDown segment.
His dismissal left a bitter taste in his mouth, but he decided to stay in the wrestling business. He initially fled to Ring of Honor and would later make the random decision to join New Japan in 2010, almost five years after his WWE departure. He lost his first match to the champion, Shinsuke Nakamura, and flopped around tagging with Shinsuke for the remainder of his stint. That was the end of his wrestling career.
7 Scott Hall
Let's turn our focus back to the prominent faces on this list with The Bad Guy, Scott Hall. Like most of the wrestlers coming out of the 80s, Hall was well travelled, spending time with various promotions, which included the old NWA, AWA and WWC. Scott would finally rise to prominence with the WWE and that would continue during his WCW run.
Following Scott’s final WCW appearance in 2000, he would go on to make some brief cameos for ECW and New Japan Pro Wrestling. While overseas, Hall took part in some tag matches alongside familiar faces like former WCW star Scott Norton, who found success on the Japanese circuit. Following his short run with NJPW, Hall defected to the WWE and returned to the company for the first time in six years. Today, Hall is the proud father to his son Cody Hall, who is currently employed by New Japan.
6 Shelton Benjamin
WWE fans were shocked to find out that Shelton Benjamin had been released by the company back in 2010. With so much skill and being relatively young at the time, Benjamin chose to pursue his career on the indie scene. He would join Ring of Honor and, in 2012, work overseas as a member of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Joining the promotion, Benjamin joined forces with another WWE alum, MVP. The two would take part in Wrestle Kingdom VI in January of 2012. The two would pick up a victory and stay with the promotion for a while. Benjamin stayed on board until 2015, which saw him compete at Wrestle Kingdom 9, losing in an eight man tag match. He would return to the indie scene, joining Pro Wrestling Noah and later signed with the WWE. However, his return was cancelled because of a torn rotator cuff.
5 Jeff Hardy
From 2007 to 2009 Jeff Hardy enjoyed the peak run of his career, becoming the WWE Champion and the face of the company for a brief amount of time. Hardy would capitalize on his popularity once he left the company becoming the prominent face of TNA as the promotion’s champion.
TNA would give Hardy a tremendous opportunity to showcase the company on a grand stage at Wrestle Kingdom. Hardy would appear for the first time with the company defending his TNA Championship at the fifth Wrestle Kingdom in 2011, taking on Tetsuya Naito. Hardy was a huge hit with the Japanese crowd and he ultimately retained the championship in his brief cameo. Other two notables that went out just before Jeff on the night included Kota Ibushi and Prince Devitt himself, Finn Balor.
4 Brock Lesnar
In what was considered to be a shocking departure at the time, Brock Lesnar left the WWE for a potential NFL career. Things didn’t work out as Brock would have hoped, as he was the final cut made by the team. After failing to make the team, Lesnar would go back to the world of pro wrestling, this time taking his talents overseas.
Before stepping foot in the ring, the WWE was infuriated as he possessed a no-compete clause in his contract. After the negations were finally put to rest, Lesnar finally joined New Japan. He instantly made history (something he would do a heck of a lot in the future) winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in his debut match. At the time, it was a rarity for a non-Japanese wrestler to win such a championship. His run would unfortunately came to an end in 2006 when he was forced to vacate the title because of visa issues. Brock would return in 2007, taking on Kurt Angle in a champion versus champion match, which saw Kurt reign victorious. That would be Lesnar’s final match until 2012.
3 Hulk Hogan
If you were paying close attention earlier in the article, you might have saw Hogan’s name in relation to New Japan. A surprise to many, Hulk Hogan actually had two stints with the promotion, one in the 1980s and his second in 1993, after he parted ways with the WWE.
His 1993 return was highlighted by a super fight, when he took on the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the time, The Great Muta. Not surprisingly, Hogan reigned victorious in the match and enjoyed two positive runs both times he fought overseas.
His most memorable moment in Japan however came outside of the ring, when he bashed the WWE Championship, claiming it wasn’t even comparable to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Hogan made the claim that the WWE Championship looked like a toy. His fanbase in North America didn’t take too kindly to his words. However, as we've learned over the years, it wasn’t the only time Hulk put his foot in his mouth.
A journeyman throughout his career, Sting had an illustrious career which saw The Stinger travel around the world. His big break came in 1987 when he joined Jim Crockett Promotions, which was later changed to World Championship Wrestling.
Sting would get a couple of cracks at the New Japan Wrestling scene. His first took place at the WCW/New Japan Supershow, when he teamted up with the popular Great Muta against the team of The Steiner Brothers. Sting would appear one more time in 1995, losing his US Championship to the New Japan wrestler Kensuke Sasaki. A little later on, The Stinger would completely alter his character helping to revolutionize the business utilizing his iconic crow character.
After nearly three decade of being in the business of professional wrestling, Sting finally chose to join the WWE in 2014, ending his career with the company.
1 Stone Cold Steve Austin
Signing Steve Austin in 1991, WCW had big plans and saw the potential in Austin. Thankfully for the WWE’s sake, those big plans did not manifest themselves and the relationship between both sides ended on a bitter note.
During Austin’s WCW stay, he would take part in a New Japan event during the WCW’s relationship with the company. In September of 1992, Austin took on Masahiro Chono for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The bout took place at New Japan’s Battle Hold Arena. The match was glorified for a botch that saw Austin reverse a tombstone and drive his opponent straight on his neck. Unfortunately, Austin would suffer the same fate years later after he was piledriven and nearly paralyzed by the late Owen Hart.