Top Ten Greatest NJPW Pro Wrestlers
This month fifty years ago NJPW held it's first ever event at the Ota Ward Gymnasium with Karl Gotch facing Antonio Inoki in the main event and in the 50 years since, some of the greatest have gone through one of Japan and the world's greatest wrestling promotions competing in some of wrestling's greatest ever matches. So in our first Historic Top Ten in a few months (darn you writer's block) we rank the Top 10 greatest New Japan wrestlers in it's long and wonderful history.
As usual we will use specific criteria to separate the Hiroshi Tanahashi's from the Captain New Japan's
Length and number of IWGP single's reigns (Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight)
Success in yearly tournaments such as G1 Climax, Super Juniors and New Japan Cup
Match quality (source material from Cagematch and Dave Meltzer's Star Ratings)
So who has been the top ace for New Japan Pro Wrestling over the past half century.
#1- Hiroshi Tanahashi
Tana's impact on NJPW is easy to see on the stats spreadsheet. Most IWGP Heavyweight Title reigns (8), only second to Kazuchika Okada on most combined days and most defences of New Japan's biggest title and the most matches rated 8,00+ by Cagematch voters tell the story of how great Tanahashi's career in New Japan has been but his impact historically will always by defined by his fifth reign of the IWGP Title.
As discussed in our Top Ten Greatest Title Reigns, Tanahashi's reign from 4/1/11 to 12/2/12 helped NJPW rise from a troubled 00's to the heights it would get to in the last decade.
Most NJPW matches with a 8.00+ rating from Cagematch
Hiroshi Tanahashi 109
Tomohiro Ishii 108
Kazuchika Okada 106
Tetsuya Naito 73
Kota Ibushi 70
Will Ospreay 60
Hiroki Goto 53
Kenny Omega 43
Shingo Takagi 40
Hiromu Takahashi 39
Dave Meltzer's Star ratings has given fifteen Tanahashi matches the 5 or more stars treatment with only Omega and Okada from NJPW outnumbering that total, putting him seventh on the list overall and tied 3rd most for singles matches with 5 stars+
At 45, Hiroshi is nearing the end of being at the top of the cards at New Japan but in his 20 years+ as a New Japan lifer, he has put himself in the position as our New Japan G.O.A.T
#2- Kazuchika Okada
With 5 IWGP Title reigns that saw Okada defend the belt 30 times in total in his combined 1,790 and counting days as IWGP champ, the current champion will surely be No.1 if we do an updated Top Ten when NJPW's Diamond Anniversary comes up in 10 years time. But for now with Okada trailing Tanahashi in the majority of categories in our stats, Tanahashi will beat Okada this time round.
One stat that Okada rules is the amount of stars that Dave Meltzer has given his matches. Dave has certainly made it rain with the snowflakes that he types out in his newsletter when rating Okada's matches in the last decade with 22 matches with 5 or more stars and 147 matches in all getting 4 or above stars.
Top performers according to Dave Meltzer's star ratings
*****- 10pts ****3/4-8pts ****1/2-6pts ****1/4-4pts ****-2pts
***** ****3/4 ****1/2 ****1/4 **** Total Points
1- Kazuchika Okada 22 25 35 31 34 822
2-Hiroshi Tanahashi 15 18 33 37 41 722
3- Tomohiro Ishii 8 30 32 27 29 666
4- Kota Ibushi 13 21 22 21 22 558
5-Will Ospreay 15 20 19 17 14 520
6- Tetsuya Naito 9 10 26 16 5 400
7- Kenny Omega 22 14 5 10 7 356
8- Jushin Liger 3 5 14 25 35 324
9- Hirooki Goto 2 6 14 24 33 304
10-Shingo Takagi 11 7 15 7 9 302
With Okada expected to add to his incredible stats in the next decade, The Rainmaker will be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the this decade
#3- Antonio Inoki
The founder of New Japan was the man for the first 15 years of the company which shouldn't be a surprise considering he owned the company at the time but when you look at the achievements without bias or knowledge of ownership structures of the New Japan, Antonio is the amongst top ever to step into a NJPW ring.
In the days before the IWGP Heavyweight Championship become the top linear title in New Japan, the NWF Championship was the main title in NJPW and Antonio would hold the belt on 4 occasions for a combined total of 2,551 days before vacating the belt to enter the title in the 1981 IWGP League, the precursor to the G1 Climax in which the winners would take home a variety of prizes which the combatants used as buy-ins for the tournament. Add the 325 days that Inoki's first and only reign as IWGP Champion lasted, which would be the first ever in the history of the title multiply Inoki's five reigns with the 2,876 days he presided as champ and it puts Inoki first in the IWGP/NWF Champ list
IWGP/NWF Heavyweight Title Reigns (Reigns x Days As Champ)
Reigns Combined Days as Champ Multiplied Total
1- Antonio Inoki 4 2,876 11,504
2- Hiroshi Tanahashi 8 1,396 11,168
3- Kazuchika Okada* 5 1,790 8,950
4- Keiji Mutoh** 4 1,238 4,952
5-Tatsumi Fujinami 6 785 4,710
6- Kensuke Sasaki 5 647 3,235
7- Shinya Hashimoto 3 1,052 3,156
8- Kazuyuki Fujita 3 478 1,434
9- Big Van Vader 3 451 1,353
10- Shinsuke Nakamura 3 390 1,170
Add his 10 victories in the World/MSG/IWGP League which was the yearly New Japan Heavyweight tournament before the G1 would become the traditional summer tournament for NJPW and Antonio's numbers make him one of New Japan's all time greats.
#4- Jushin "Thunder" Liger
Top of the Junior heavyweights on our list, Jushin would win the division's IWGP title 11 times, a record with the 2,245 days as champ more than double the next best junior heavyweight, Prince Devitt
IWGP/NWA/WWWF Junior Heavyweight Titles Reigns
Reigns Combined Days Multiplied Total
1- Jushin Liger 11 2,245 24,695
2- Tiger Mask IV 6 858 5,148
3-Koji Kanemoto 5 954 4,770
4- Tiger Mask I 5 875 4,375
5-Kushida 6 684 4,104
6- Minoru Tanaka 4 998 3,992
7- Prince Devitt 3 1,010 3,030
8- Tatsumi Fujinami 2 1,406 2,812
9- The Cobra 3 871 2,613
10- Shiro Koshinaka 3 702 2,106
Add Jushin Liger's success in the Super Juniors tournament, the Junior's equivalent of the G1 with 3 victories and five finals appearances with only Hiromu Takahashi having more wins and Liger's claim as the greatest NJPW Junior Heavyweight but the greatest Junior Heavyweight/Cruiserweight in wrestling history is legit.
Liger is also the only junior heavyweight lifer to make the top ten of the list of the best performers according to Dave Meltzer's star ratings and the junior lifer with most 8.00+ plus matches on Cagematch with 25.
Jushin Thunder Liger would be the one of the biggest gamechangers for wrestling in the 80s/90s with his larger than life character and his high-flying work. As the face of the division which was one of the inspirations of cruiserweight divisions in the USA, Liger's place in the history books of NJPW is without question.
#5- Tatsumi Fujinami
The protegee of Antonio Inoki first found success in the NJPW ring as a junior heavyweight with two long reigns as WWWF Junior Heavyweight Champion back in the day when the New York territory actually had a working relationship with another company that worked both ways (yes, I'm looking at you Impact). Fujinami's promotion to the heavyweight division would see Tatsumi win the WWWF International title, the secondary title of the mid 80's era of NJPW before winning the IWGP belt on six occasions, the second most behind Tanahashi's eight.
In an era where Fujinami's matches were not easily visible apart from die-hard tape traders advertising in the Wrestling Observer, the best indicator of the respect Fujinami had amongst those in the know was the three Best Technical Wrestler Awards won by Fujinami in three of four years (85, 86, 88) and the Outstanding Wrestler Award in 1988 as voted by Observer readers.
Fujinami is held in such esteem that he was part of the 6-man tag main event of the 50th anniversary show in early March to celebrate the different generations of NJPW. While Fujinami couldn't step out of his mentor Inoki's shadow and his teacher's pet reputation amongst fans during rivalries with cool heels such as Riki Choshu and Akira Maeda would have seen him in trouble like Naito would get himself into in the mid 10s, Fujinami's success in the ring is without any doubt.
New Japan's man of the 90's in the heavyweight division, Mutoh would end up being the standout of the Three Musketeers that trained in the NJPW dojo in 1984.
As mentioned in the Fujinami entry above, there was a lack of avenues for wrestling fans to watch NJPW action in the 20th century and that means it is hard to compare the stars of the 2010's to the stars of the 80's and 90's with the added argument that the likes of Dave Meltzer scores modern day wrestling higher than the action of the decades before. So it is probably best to compare Mutoh's achievements to those of his fellow Musketeers in the decade of their primes.
The Three Musketeers in NJPW in the 90's
IWGP Titles Days as champ Cagematch 8.00+ 4***+
Keiji Mutoh 3 986 14 39
Masa Chono 1 44 7 25
Shinya Hashimoto 3 1052 12 22
Mutoh would go on to win the GHC and AJPW Triple Crown making him one of just three to win all 3 major Japanese Heavyweight Titles (Kensuke Sasaki and Yoshihiro Takayama being the other 3) with Keiji main eventing Night 3 of NJPW's annual biggest event Wrestle Kingdom, making it 3 different decades that Mutoh main evented their year beginning extravaganza with the 2010's not seeing Mutoh in the Dome on Jan 4 showing Mutoh capability to roll back the years
#7- Shinya Hashimoto
It was hard to separate Mutoh and Hashimoto as seen by the stats above but one thing that Shinya did in the nineties that no other Japanese wrestler had ever done was be the largest drawing wrestler in a calendar year in 1995 and 1997 with Kazuchika Okada being the only other Japanese national to achieve that feat in 2020, an accolade that needs an asterisk for obvious reasons.
After a fallout with NJPW after flawed booking in his feud with Naoya Ogawa, Shinya would be the last of the Musketeers to win the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title in 2001 tragically Shinya passing away in 2005 after a brain haemorrhage which would leave fans of the era asking "what if" regarding the Hashimoto's career.
#8- Tetsuya Naito
Positioned just out of the Top Ten in the IWGP Champions Reigns list being 9 days off Nakamura's total number of 1,170, Naito's runs as Champ will be defined by it being overshadowed by other events with two of his three reigns happening in the pandemic and in front of limited capacity crowds. In Naito's three reigns, Naito would only defend the belt once in each reign on an average of one defence every 129 days. Compare that to Nakamura's average of a defence every 43 days and Okada's 59 day average.
The quality of the matches he wrestled would see Naito finish 6th in the Meltzer star rating list with nine 5-star matches to his name and a 4th place finish in the Cagematch list with 73 matches with a rating over 8.00
Naito will always be the example of how to turn the negative reaction he received in his emerging push as a main eventer babyface in 2013-2015 into a positive with the formation of LIJ and his run in 2018 to 2020 which would lead to so many What If moments had he beat Okada for the IWGP belt on Jan 4 2018 or if Naito's run did not co-incidence with the Coronavirus pandemic.
#9- Kensuke Sasaki
Every time we compile a Top Ten list as part of our series, a name pops up that surprises me and today, our winning entrant for that award goes to Kensuke Sasaki.
With a top ten placing in the IWGP Heavyweight Title reigns list thanks to five reigns with the first two lasting over 200 days each, one of just two in between 1997-2000 to hold the IWGP belt for two 200+ days reigns in that time (the other one being Keiji Mutoh), Sasaki would also flourish in August with plenty of stellar G1 performances.
G1 Climax/MSG League placings of multiple winners
Win-10pts RU- 8pts 3rd/4th-6pts 5th/6th-4pts 7th/8th-2pts
Wins Runner-Up 3rd/4th 5th/6th 7th/8th Points
1- Antonio Inoki 10 1 1 - - 108
2-Masa Chono 5 1 6 1 3 104
3-Hiroshi Tanahashi 3 3 5 2 3 98
4-Hiroyoshi Tenzan 3 1 2 4 1 68
4-Seiji Sakaguchi 2 1 5 2 1 68
6-Kazuchika Okada 3 0 5 0 1 62
7-Keiji Mutoh 1 3 3 1 1 58
8-Kensuke Sasaki 2 1 2 3 2 56
9- Andre The Giant 2 2 3 0 0 54
9- Shinsuke Nakamura 1 2 4 1 0 54
It's arguable to say that Sasaki was the acceptable face of New Japan away from the crazy idea of Inokism and the years after which saw NJPW struggle to find traction in a country that was in the grasp of Kobashi's superlative GHC Title reign and with politics playing a part in Sasaki leaving in 2005, we would never get to see a Kensuke Sasaki in his 40's in NJPW and without to see dream matches against the likes of Nakamura and Tanahashi.
#10- Tomohiro Ishii
When I came up with the idea for this Top Ten and formulated my stats for it, I thought I would have every guy in the ten be a former IWGP Champ. Then Tomohoro Ishii came along.
Despite not winning NJPW's biggest title, Ishii's in-ring work when in comes to quality of matches is up there with Hall of Famers such as Okada and Tanahashi. With eight 5-star matches helping him catapult into third on the Star Ratings List, Ishii's 108 matches with a 8.00+ rating is just one off Tanahahi's leading number.
Also, Ishii is in esteemed company with "Stone Pitbull" being one of just seven wrestlers to win more than 5 consectutive Wrestling Observer Awards in a single category with his five successive Best Brawler Awards.
Whether or not this makes Ishii Observer Hall of Fame worthy is a debate for another day but Ishii's accomplishments make him one of the New Japan greats.