This week I’ve decided to try something new as a Wrestle Respawn feature, where I take a look at a pro wrestling Championship that is no longer active and explore what the belts history was and analyse whether it was a success in its intended goal(s). Along the way we’ll take a look at a few key matches from the belts history. We’ll start things off with a Title that had an interesting premise built around the notion of helping develop the skills of younger wrestlers, in the form of the IWGP U-30 Openweight Championship.
Created in 2003 by New Japan Pro Wrestling, the IWGP U-30 Openweight Title had a special stipulation that stated only wrestlers under the age of 30 were allowed to challenge for it. The idea was that having a Title for only the younger wrestlers on the roster would give those wrestlers a chance to earn important experience, as well as giving them an opportunity to feature in matches of more importance than just standard singles matches.
In storyline the Title came about at the suggestion of younger wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi, and it would be he who would be most associated with the belt, holding it for a combined 976 days. It was Tanahashi who first won the Title in April of 2003, defeating Shinya Makabe in a tournament final, and over the course of his two reigns he would rack up a pretty impressive 14 successful Title defences. Along the way he would wrestle the likes of Hirooki Goto, Toru Yano, Naomichi Marufuji, Katsuyori Shibata, Ryusuke Taguchi, Daniel Bryan, Davey Boy Smith Jr and Yoshi-Tatsu, all of whom would go on to work for some of the biggest wrestling companies in the world.
New Japan was struggling at the time the Title was introduced due to former wrestler now turned executive Antonio Inoki filling the cards with Mixed Martial Artists and kickboxers, most of whom didn’t know how to wrestle, and often booking them to batter the actual pro wrestlers. Tanahashi himself fell victim to these MMA imports on more than one occasion. However, his IWGP U-30 Title defences were often decent matches when he was given some time to have them, and they not only helped him get a foothold but also his first ever singles Tokyo Dome Main Event, as he defended the Title against fellow up and coming youngster Shinsuke Nakamura on the 4th of January 2005.
The Title’s End
Sadly that Tokyo Dome Main Event represented the zenith of the belt, as Nakamura won it but then decided he couldn’t be bothered to actually defend it, thus meaning the title had to be vacated. Tanahashi defeated Yano in a tournament final to regain the Title, but by that stage its prestige had been hampered a bit by the Champion caring so little for it, and Tanahashi not being able to win it back by defeating Nakamura meant he was kind of a lame duck Champion as a result, especially as Nakamura had already won the IWGP Heavyweight Title by that stage in his career.
Nakamura’s treatment of the Title essentially made it look like a belt a top guy wouldn’t bother about, which meant Tanahashi ended up looking almost lesser for continuing with it. He did manage to notch a few more Title defences, but by 2006 he was swiftly approaching the age of 30, at which point he wouldn’t be able to defend the Title anymore. As a result he announced that he would be vacating the Title, with his sights now set on the IWGP Heavyweight Title instead. With Tanahashi no longer in the Title hunt, the belt itself didn’t really have a star to carry it anymore and New Japan quietly retired it.
Was it a success?
In some ways I’d say that the Title was a success, yes. It helped prepare Tanahashi for his future as “The Ace” of the company, as he was required to defend the Title against different types of wrestlers, which taught him how to be versatile, a trait he would need when eventually holding New Japan’s top Title in the latter half of the 00’s. To put things in perspective, Tanahashi vacated the Title in June of 2006 and would then go on to win the IWGP Heavyweight Title just a month later. The turnaround was that quick from being U-30 Champ to being the top guy in the company.
However, the Title was so intrinsically linked to him personally that it never really had a chance of recovering once he decided to move up. I understand that they probably couldn’t do a big “passing of the torch” moment where Tanahashi could have dropped the belt to someone like Goto because he was getting the IWGP Heavyweight Title so soon afterwards, but him just dropping it made it two times that someone had essentially passed the belt over in favour of going for something else, and there’s only so many times that a belt can survive that sort of treatment.
Another issue is that there wasn’t really a readymade successor that they could have given the belt to at that time who wouldn’t have really felt like a step down in comparison to Tanahashi. Goto could have possibly worked in that role, but he was already off on excursion in America and Mexico, which ruled him out. Really, once Tanahashi was too old to hold it and had moved on to other things the belt didn’t really serve any purpose anymore. New Japan had finally started to get away from the excess and silliness of the Inoki days, and younger guys were getting pushed already out of necessity in order for the company to survive, so having a specific belt for that purpose didn’t really make any sense.
Ultimately the IWGP U-30 Title was an interesting idea that naturally ran its course and the company decided to move on from it. It wasn’t an outright failure, but it was hardly a roaring success either. It did play a part in Hiroshi Tanahashi’s development into the star he would eventually become though, and I think that will eventually be its enduring legacy above anything else.
One bonus of having a subscription to New Japan’s VOD service NJPW World is that it not only allows you to keep up to date with the current New Japan product, but you also can have access to archive footage as well. There are three IWGP U-30 Title matches to be found on NJPW World, and you can find reviews of all three of them below, along with an additional match from New Japan’s YouTube page.
If you fancy signing up to NJPW World then it’ll cost you 999 Yen a month, but you get a decent amount for that price, and they are continuing to re-dub some of the classic matches with English commentary, giving English speakers even more reason to give the service a try. I’ll post links for all of the matches reviewed if you fancy visiting the site and signing up.
New Japan Pro Wrestling: Wrestling World 2004
Tokyo Dome – 4th January 2004
U-30 Openweight Title
Champion: Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs Yutaka Yoshie
The belt wasn’t recognised by the IWGP (International World Grand Prix) board until November of 2004, so the early defences of the belt weren’t overseen by them. Yoshie had a background in Judo and had debuted for New Japan back in 1994. His early years in the company hadn’t seen him do much, and a horrible injury of a broken leg in 1995 had really hampered his progress. In 1998 he had gone away on “excursion” (A common practice in Japanese wrestling where younger wrestlers are sent abroad to gain experience) to Germany and had come back with a much bulkier physique. He and Tanahashi had actually been the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions at one stage prior to this, so they knew one another well going into this match.
Tanahashi is one of the biggest stars in the history of New Japan these days, but he looks so young here. He’s almost an embryo! He has a terrible hair cut too, looking like he could be a low level villain from side scrolling beat-em-up or something. The wrestling in this one is decent, but I keep finding myself transfixed by what looks like an elderly businessman a couple of rows back who couldn’t look more bored for the opening exchanges before finally showing some interest when Yoshie uses his sizeable girth to crush Tana with a butt splash.
The main story of the match is based around Tana working over the bigger Yoshie’s legs in an effort to take him out of the contest, and Yoshie sells that well, although the bored businessman doesn’t seem that impressed by it all. Well he can get stuffed, as these young lads are working hard and having a solid, if not exactly flashy, battle. Hey, there’s a place for flashy and a place for a hard fought contest, and this one definitely feels like it should be the latter, especially when Yoshie starts crushing Tana in the corner and he does a fantastic eyes glazing over sell job for it all.
Tana actually manages to both body slam and suplex the hefty Yoshie at certain points, which is certainly impressive when you consider he had to be in the 300 pound range at least when this match happened. Yoshie for his part moves pretty well for a guy his size, although he does start to tire after a certain point due to having to lug all that excess baggage around with him. At one stage Yoshie even flattens poor Tana with a Thesz Press from the second rope, but Tana manages to survive it and kick out at two.
The only real disappointing aspect of the match is the lack of crowd reactions, as the two men are working hard and doing some nice stuff, so you’d hope the crowd noise would be a bit better. That being said, New Japan wasn’t doing especially good business at the time so I’m guessing the pretty cavernous Tokyo Dome wasn’t especially full, so creating some atmosphere isn’t exactly easy in that situation. Eventually Tana is able to weather the storm of his bigger opponent and actually manages to get a very nice Dragon Suplex of all things to put Yoshie away and retain his Title.
You can watch this match by clicking HERE
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: HIROSHI TANAHASHI
That was a good match that suffered a bit from lack of crowd reaction, but featured some good effort from both men and gave Tanahashi the chance to have a hard fought victory at the company’s traditional big event of the year
New Japan Pro Wrestling: King of Sports
Ryogoko Kokugikan – 28th March 2004
Wire Mesh Deathmatch
U-30 Openweight Title
Champ: Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs Kazunari Murakami
Murakami was not only a pro wrestler but also competed in Mixed Martial Arts, mostly for the PRIDE organisation. During this time he was part of an evil group called Makai Club, a group mostly made up of people from the world of MMA who worshipped Antonio Inoki like a God. Inoki was also an executive in New Japan at the time and known as someone with a pronounced ego, so having a group specifically designed to kiss up to him was right up his alley and not really a surprise at all.
This match is a bit different in that it takes place inside a cage, with the only way to win coming from knocking your opponent out. The match itself is actually taking place in an empty arena, because New Japan wasn’t really used to putting on cage matches and didn’t want to disrupt a live show by having to set up and take down the cage structure whilst the event was actually going on. Seeing as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to fans not being allowed to attend events, this scenario is something I’m sadly far too familiar with these days.
The match doesn’t even have a ref, as the cage instead gets locked and both men are left to get on with it like this is a martial arts movie from the 70’s or something. There’s an odd atmosphere to the match due to there being no crowd, but the action is pretty good and the cage set up is interesting to look at, so it has that going for it at least. In Japan a popular style of pro wrestling is known as “Shoot Style”, which essentially means the two wrestlers will try to make the match appear like a real MMA fight, which often means lots of strikes and submission attempts on the mat. Due to Murakami having a legitimate fighting background they work in Shoot Style elements to the match, but they also retain traditional pro wrestling spots, such as choking on the ropes and throwing one another into the ring post.
Some of the shots both men throw at one another look and sound pretty vicious, as it appears they are both laying everything in due to the nature of the match not really leaving them much place to hide. As a result it makes for quite visceral viewing, and at times it even borders on being a tad uncomfortable. A large portion of the match is dedicated to Murakami laying a whupping on Tana, and he sells it really well. There are some shenanigans with one of Murakami’s seconds breaking his way into the cage, only for one of the commentators to drag him out again. This one is turning into organised chaos!
Both men end up bleeding as they continue to clobber one another, which leads to more people breaking into the cage, with one of them attacking Murakami for some reason. I’m not entirely sure who it is, but he’s a big tattooed bloke who looks just the sort of chap you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. With everyone finally out of the cage, Tana and Murakami are allowed to finish the match off in a one on one scenario, which sees them brawling at ringside against the cage wall, where Tana stomps away at Murakami and drives his face into the cage, which leads to the commentator coming in and deciding that Murakami is out, thus leading to Tanahashi picking up the win by KO.
If you want to watch this one you can do so by clicking HERE
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: HIROSHI TANAHASHI
This wasn’t necessarily “good”, but it was different from the norm, which made it an interesting watch. The combination of the hard hits and blood meant it was a match that not everyone could enjoy due to the high level of violence and gore, but it was a solid effort from both men in an unusual match type, even if they didn’t quite stick the landing when all was said and done. Not speaking Japanese made it much harder to follow what was going on as well, as when people were running in I didn’t know who they were and it made the match a tad more difficult to understand than it would have been if it’d had English commentary
New Japan Pro Wrestling: Toukon Festival
Tokyo Dome – 4th January 2005
IWGP U-30 Openweight Title
Champ: Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs Shinsuke Nakamura
Nakamura wrestles in WWE today, but back in 2005 he was only a few years into his career. Despite his relative inexperience though, Nakamura had received a sizable push in New Japan, winning the IWGP Heavyweight Title at the age of just 23 in December 2003, before having to vacate it due to injury. The reason he won the Title so early on in his career was because he had a legitimate martial arts background and had been able to win some MMA fights, so Antonio Inoki decided to push him to the moon as the “Super Rookie” long before he was actually ready.
New Japan’s traditional big event of the year is always on the 4th of January, as that is a holiday in Japan, with the event taking place at the Tokyo Dome. Normally the Main Event of the Tokyo Dome features a match for the IWGP Heavyweight Title or a big special attraction featuring huge star names. In 2005 though New Japan decided to try something different and instead Main Evented the Dome with a match between Tanahashi and Nakamura for the IWGP U-30 Title as a way to show off the company’s two brightest youth prospects.
Tanahashi and Nakamura would go on to have many more matches together and forge themselves quite a rivalry, but this was the first ever singles match between the two. The problem was that, seeing as he’d already been the IWGP Heavyweight Champ, Nakamura was at a level beyond the IWGP U-30 belt at this stage, so him challenging for it didn’t really make sense unless it was in aid of elevating the belt. That would require Nakamura to win the belt and then defend it though in order to make it mean something. Either that or Tanahashi would need to get the big win to show that he was on a former IWGP Heavyweight Champ’s level, this elevating the belt in the process. As it turned out, neither of those scenario’s was on the cards.
For some reason they’ve gone with an English speaking ring announcer here, which strikes me as being odd considering probably a large portion of the crowd probably won’t understand what he’s saying. As an English speaker myself I appreciate the thought, but so long as you have a graphic up for each guy in English, I’m perfectly happy for the ring announcing to be in Japanese. Heck, if anything it’s preferable because it usually always sounds cool.
Nakamura actually wants a handshake to start, but Tana rebuffs him and we’re off to the races. We see that Katsuyori Shibata is watching from ringside, who along with these two was considered the trio who were supposed to lead New Japan into the next generation. Shibata would end up taking his own path by leaving New Japan, but when he eventually returned he would go on to become a beloved member of the roster until a serious injury would cause him to retire just as he was hitting his stride after year’s of promise.
The wrestling on display here is really good, with both men starting on the mat and then building up to bigger moves like suplexes and back breakers. You can tell the crowd is far more invested in this one than they were in Tanahashi’s match from the previous year, as you can consistently here people yelling encouragement towards their favoured wrestler. We get a pretty insane spot where Tanahashi does a big TOPE SUICIDA to the floor, which sees him merely clip Nakamura at best and going flying over him into the technical area. That looked all kinds of brutal, but thankfully Tana seems to be in one piece and can continue on. Thus far they’ve made the most of their opportunity and shown they deserve their Main Event position.
Tana gets to control things for a signifcant part of the middle section of the bout, with Nakamura selling well and Tana’s stuff looking good, with Nakamura actually bleeding from the mouth, suggesting he must have bit his tongue at one stage. Interestingly Tana works a Dragon Sleeper at one stage, which looks a lot like SANADA’s “Skull End” submission hold in the way he sets it up and applies it. Eventually though Nakamura gets to make the comeback, and looks good in the process, getting some nice looking big moves to get himself back in the fight.
The closing section of the match is done well, with both men getting their share of big moves and counters, with the match being designed as to show that both men are on one another’s level and to make you think that the contest could truly go either way. Tana is acting far more cocky and snide than Nakamura is, which is partially done to make you want to see Nakamura make the cocky Tana pay, whilst also letting you know that Tana isn’t going to back down against the former IWGP Heavyweight Champ. Eventually though Nakamura’s superior submission skills make the difference, as he is able to wear Tana down with a sleeper hold and then locks in an arm bar, which forces Tana to tap out.
This match is available on NJPW World by clicking right HERE
WINNER AND NEW CHAMPION: SHINSUKE NAKAMURA
This was an excellent match that laid the table for more contests to come between the two. I enjoyed Tana being the more brash of the two, as it made you want Nakamura to fight his way back into the bout when he was on the defensive in the middle portion, and they did a nice finishing sequence that was built more around drama and holds as opposed to lots of high spots and kick outs. It was a very good way to close out a big show and, if they’d managed to get Nakamura to stick with the belt and defending it, it likely would have elevated the Title itself
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Korakuen Hall – 25th December 2005
IWGP U-30 Openweight Title
Champ: Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs Hirooki Goto
We close on what will hopefully be a Christmas Cracker, as Tana defends the belt against the upcoming Goto. Goto would go on to become a big part of the New Japan roster, and still is to this day, but at this time he was still a younger wrestler starting out. In 2006 he would go on excursion to America and Mexico, before coming back with a samurai themed character. He would eventually go on to have numerous Title reigns, but none of them included a run with the IWGP Heavyweight Title, which as of this writing has still eluded him and probably always will.
Goto gets to shine on Tana a bit in the early going, with Tana bumping around for him to make his offence look good and just generally giving him a lot. Its fun to see how much Goto has changed over the years, as he was so young here and these days he looks much more world weary to say the least. Eventually Tana decides it’s time to go to work, and he unloads with some big suplexes and throws to get himself back into the match, which sets us up a period of the match where he works Goto over and wears him down.
Goto looked good on offence and he does a good job being on the defensive too, selling well and showing some good fire to keep kicking out against his more experienced opponent. Tana does a good job too, with his offence looking nice and him using some nice subtle facial expressions to show that Goto has rattled him a bit with his opening attacks and he’s none too happy about getting shown up like that. He punishes Goto in a Boston Crab at one stage, as if to make a point that “You do NOT walk here and show me up rookie!”
Watching this match does kind of show why it was a good idea for Tanahashi to move one from this division once New Japan entered 2006, as he’s clearly a level above, the nontheless very game, Goto here and it was probably time for him to go after the main singles belt in the company. It’s just a shame they didn’t have a natural successor lined up, as they could have continued to get some use out of the belt and used it to prepare them the way Tana had been prepared. Certainly getting to have a pretty competitive match with Tana has helped Goto here, even though it’s unlikely he will win (And nor should he really, he’s punching above his weight and just doing well in this scenario will help him, even if he loses).
Goto gets to kick out of some of Tanahashi’s main moves and survive some more of his punishing submission moves, but they don’t go for the big comeback and instead go for a finish of Tana wearing his less experienced opponent down until the referee finally decides to stop the match when Goto is locked in a Dragon Sleeper and cannot escape. It works well as a finish as it gives Tana a decisive win but allows Goto to look gutsy because he didn’t submit and he bravely lasted as long as he could until the referee stepped in to bring it to an end.
This one is up on New Japan’s YouTube page and you can watch it by clicking HERE
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: HIROSHI TANAHASHI
This was a good match that told an engaging story and featured some good wrestling. It did a good job encapsulating what made the IWGP U-30 belt a good idea, as it allowed Goto a chance to shine and have a reasonably competitive match with a more established wrestler, but also kind of foreshadowed the issues the belt would face going forward, as Tana was clearly a step ahead and a level above of Goto, and it really showed here. He was at the point where these matches were helping others, but the belt itself wasn’t really doing much for him anymore, which is probably why he’d give it up 6 months later, essentially causing the belt to be killed off in the process