Since its inception in 1972, New Japan Pro Wrestling has been arguably the most prestigious wrestling company in the history of the country, besides All Japan Pro Wrestling. The good new for wrestling fans is Puroresu is more over than ever right now in the Western world.
According to color commentator Matt Striker, Puroresu is the answer to if wrestling is fake or not, since Japanese wrestlers implement a stronger and stiffer working style. There aren’t as many noticeable missed hits, since there’s a deep focus on making the art full contact.
There have been countless North American stars that have crossed over and competed for the promotion, including Hulk Hogan, Owen Hart, The Undertaker, and The Steiner Bros., and WCW diehards remember the joint shows that took place in the early to mid 1990s, too.
But apart from the gaijin, many Japanese legends cemented their legacies in their respective nation, including Antonio Inoki, Kenta Kobashi, Shoji Kai, Akira Maeda, Seiji Sakaguchi, and The Great Muta, to name a few.
Even Jushin Liger still wrestles under the NJPW banner to this day, not to mention potential future NJPW Greatest Wrestlers (the Hall of Fame, so to speak) like Taka Michinoku, Togi Makabe, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan.
Truthfully, the NJPW stock is rising, and it’s not hard to see why. Wrestle Kingdom 9 (the NJPW’s version of WrestleMania) was broadcast on pay-per-view on Jan. 4 through Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling, marking the first time the promotion was available for purchase through satellite providers in North America. The show proved to be stellar, and calling the action in English was Striker and WWE Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Ross.
With its digital service, NJPW World, available worldwide and rivals both the WWE Network and UFC Fight Pass for subscribers, American fans can now tune into AXS TV for a weekly hour-long show, with Mauro Ranello and MMA legend Josh Barnett on broadcast duties.
But it’s really about Japan’s homegrown talent, and those who have built a reputation under the promotion’s wings. Let’s look at a list of competitors that are currently taking the wrestling world by storm (honorable mentions include The Time Splitters, Rocky Romero, Hirooki Goto, and well, just about everybody else).
This listing will exclude stars from America that are being borrowed for the time being (more specifically, the ROH athletes).
10. Tomohiro Ishii
It took a while for Ishii to catch on with fans and come into his own, but he’s since been regarded as one of the toughest wrestlers in Asia. It only took 18 years for people to finally notice he’s one of the best in the world.
Not only does “The Stone Pitbull’s” style define everything that represents Puroresu, he went on a lengthy title run holding the NEVER Openweight Championship. He’s had some incredible duels against the likes of Tomoaki Honma and Katsuyori Shibata at last year’s G1 Climax 24, and eventually lost the title to Togi Makabe at Wrestle Kingdom 9 in an incredibly stiff contest.
9. Tetsuya Naito
Naito may very well be one of the most underrated wrestlers on the NJPW roster today. He can be found in the mid-card region more often than not, yet that doesn’t mean he hasn’t put through superb performances against some of the best.
He’s incredibly smart in the ring, and his fast-paced style of high-flyer-meets-technician doesn’t go unnoticed. He won 2013’s G1 Climax, but he hasn’t quite accomplished singles glory, in spite of winning the NEVER Openweight Championship. Opting to face Masato Tanaka once he won the prestigious tournament in 2013, he came up short against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 8 for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Nevertheless, Naito continues to impress, and the seasoned veteran — who has competed in both Mexico and New Jersey — seems destined for greatness as his career moves along. Maybe fans got to used to seeing him in tag team action, alongside Bullet Club member Yujiro Takahashi as No Limit.
8. Kenny Omega
Vowing to mop the floor with the entire Junior Heavyweight division as “The Cleaner,” Omega is no stranger to the wrestling world. Having defeated Ryusuke Taguchi to claim his first singles IWGP title earlier this year, the 31-year-old Canadian is amongst the hardest working pro-wrestlers in the entire universe.
He’s won PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles 2009, held two titles in NJPW (with a handful of Canadian titles, too), and had countless match of the year performances during his tenure.
Omega was a hot commodity last year, with almost every reputable promotion champing at the bit to sign him. In the end, he lent his services to Japan, which was fitting, since he’s a beloved athlete in Asia and speaks fluent Japanese. Omega will surely entertain crowds with his vast repertoire of inventive maneuvers and despite playing heel, it’s extremely difficult to root against him.
7. Katsuyori Shibata
If you can find someone who has a better kicking game than Shibata right now, we’d love to hear it.
Currently holding the IWGP Tag Team Championship with Hirooki Goto after defeating Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows of the Bullet Club, the 35-year-old Japanese veteran looks anything but, considering how handsome and calm he is all the time.
Despite having a pretty outstanding hairstyle, Shibata is as tough as they come, having competed for MMA promotions such as DREAM and DEEP, as well as fighting under the K-1 banner, too. He wasn’t exactly the greatest fighter, however, he did test his might against popular combatants such as Jason Miller, Kazushi Sakuraba, Hayato Sakurai, Ikuhisa Minowa, and Satoshi Ishii.
Since he can implement what he learned in the fighting world when he’s in the world of pro-wrestling, it gives him an edge nobody can refute. He’s arguably in the prime of his career as we speak, since his partnership alongside Goto is gaining much-deserved hype.
6. The Young Bucks
A great tag team needs to be innovative, compatible with each other, and hypnotize the fans with equal amounts of charisma and fortitude.
If you fancy that, look no further than The Young Bucks, made up of brothers Nick and Matt Jackson. The Americans are part-Rockers, part-Hardy Boyz, and part-Rock n’ Roll Express, yet at the same time, these merchandise movers are incomparable to their peers of the past.
They’ve held tag titles in NJPW, ROH, Dragon Gate USA, PWG, and Chikara, and rumor has it they’ve recently turned down a tryout for WWE. Not only have wrestling veterans singled them out for being disrespectful, they’re always be subject to being called “spot monkeys” or criticized for a lack technical work, but there truly hasn’t been a team as creative as the Californians in a long time. Every single Bucks match steals the show on any card, often headlining events because their matches are guaranteed to deliver and heavy on superkicks.
5. Kota Ibushi
When Ibushi lost to Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestling Kingdom 9 this past January (a five-star match on the Meltzer scale), Jim Ross immediately praised the DDT Dojo-trained competitor and claimed the losing effort would make him an instant star. There’s a chance “Good Ol’ J.R.” got them both confused, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
The truth of the matter is Ibushi is already a huge star, not to mention a household name in the world of Puroresu. After a long spell on the sidelines recovering from injury, Ibushi graduated to the heavyweight division, and will now be challenging some of the promotion’s most familiar faces.
His matches are a joy to watch, and “The Golden Star” mixes a martial arts background into his game that would make the likes of Samoa Joe and CM Punk proud. He’s won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times, took home top honors at Best of The Super Juniors 2011, and hoisted the IWGP Tag Team Championship with Omega in a tandem too advanced for its time.
4. AJ Styles
If you don’t know who Styles is by now, you’re doing this whole pro-wrestling thing wrong.
After spending the majority of his career at TNA, Styles jumped ship to NJPW, while still lending a hand to the Indy scene by making numerous appearances for ROH and PWG. He beat Kazuchika Okada at NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 2014, becoming the 60th champion in the company’s rich history. Not only has Styles looked sensational as of late, he’s still regarded as one of the most well rounded wrestlers practitioners of the squared circle. He’s been entertaining crowds in what has looked like the best years of his career, fronting the Bullet Club alongside Anderson, and battling Suzukigun leader Minoru Suzuki at this past year’s G1 Climax 24 in a breathtaking affair.
Apart from being voted “The Most Outstanding Wrestler” in the 2014 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards, many feel he’s subject to controversy, too, since his famous finisher, “The Styles Clash,” had severely injured the necks of Roderick Strong and Yoshi Tatsu not too long ago (even though the positioning of their bumps were debatable for some).
3. Shinsuke Nakamura
“The King of Strong Style” is perhaps Japan’s most adored wrestler these days, having won the hearts of his followers early on in his career when he became the youngest IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the tender age of 23.
The CHAOS member won the prestigious “Wrestler of The Year” in 2014’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards, presumably due to his epic encounters during the year against Ibushi, Okada, Bad Luck Fale and Prince Devitt.
Oozing with charisma and natural charm, his idols consist of Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson, and it’s apparent when watching his entrance down the ramp. You don’t need to understand Japanese culture to know he’s regarded as a rock star character that fits the billing of a madman.
He’s also Daniel Bryan’s favorite wrestler, and his strong striking style is out in full force during every single one of his matches, with his “Boma Ye” finisher a joy to watch every single time it hits.
2. Kazuchika Okada
The youngest singles competitor on the list may be one of Japan’s top stars, yet he’s already gaining a mass cult following in North America, courtesy of his work ethic and star power.
“The Rainmaker,” who usually is accompanied to the ring by his CHAOS stablemate and NJPW booker Gedo, has already won the New Japan Cup, the G1 Climax (2012 and 2014), and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship twice. We’ve already mentioned his wars against Tanahashi, but it’s worth looking into his other matches versus Styles, Nakamura, Goto, and Naito.
It seems as if the Japanese faithful will forever be divided as to whom the bigger star is, or more importantly, who they think the better wrestler is between him and his arch nemesis, Hiroshi Tanahashi. One thing he has on Tanahashi is age, and since Okada bounced back from being the victim of some terrible booking in TNA, his potential is limitless.
Unlike his counterparts on this list that have found success at a later age, Okada can be compared to Nakamura, and it remains to be seen if he accomplishes more earlier than his CHAOS partner. Standing over six feet tall and trained by Kenzo Suzuki and Ultimo Dragon, not to mention having two of the best moves on the planet (“The Rainmaker” and his patented dropkick), one would think his best years are ahead of him.
1. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Having headlined eight Tokyo Dome shows in his career, Tanahashi could actually be a bigger rock star than Nakamura in Japan. His long, flowing hair matches his immense frame, being one of the most physically gifted wrestlers in the promotion.
Not only has the record seven-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion tussled with Okada seven times, with every one of those matches being the very best ever, he’s revived Japanese wrestling over the past decade and put it back on the map. He’s been fighting off the bad guys like the Bullet Club and the Suzukigun stables, and always finds himself at the heap of every major card.
At 38 years old, his accolades speak for themselves. Not only has he competed for TNA and CMLL in Mexico (where he won two tag titles and the Universal Championship), he’s won the New Japan Cup in both 2005 and 2008, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, the IWGP Tag Team Championship, and also took home the IWGP U-30 Openweight Championship twice.
It doesn’t seem like Tanahashi is slowing down, and it’s very unlikely he’ll take his career anywhere other than Japan. With the Indy scene being as hot as ever, Tanahashi has traveled to compete in some ROH-NJPW supershows, and there’s a number of wrestlers he would have excellent matches against if that partnership continues.
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