Before I decided to write this piece I wasn’t too passionate about Yuji Nagata or his inclusion into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. This is what makes Observer Hall of Fame season so much fun, a random conversation with a colleague (some guy named Chris Harrington, not sure you’d know him) sparked something in my mind to go study Nagata and here we are.
Do I think he’s a HOFer? Probably not but it can’t hurt to study and see if maybe I’m wrong. Better yet, maybe we discover something about his credentials and someone decides to vote for him based off this study.
Another note, while I’m currently well versed in Japanese wrestling, I’m still relatively new to the game so while I can study and watch as many videos, classic matches or breakdown attendance figures, I do lack the context of those who followed Puro intently during the 90s and early 00s. If I forget to mention a match that you consider profound, don’t take it as a slight but rather as ignorance.
Before we begin, a quick recap of the criteria for inclusion into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame from Dave Meltzer himself:
“The criteria for the Hall of Fame is a combination of drawing power, being a great in-ring performer or excelling in one’s field in pro wrestling, as well as having historical significance in a positive manner. A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.”
Let’s see what Nagata has to offer.
We’ll start, as always, with a look at drawing power. For the purposes of this study I will be using a spreadsheet curated by Jason Campbell over at ProWrestlingHistory.com. You can view and download the spreadsheet I used at http://prowrestlinghistory.com/supercards/eventinfo.xls. In the interest of consistency, what I’m considering a “top match” for the Nagata dataset is what Campbell has listed as the “top match”. It’s far too hard to look through history and pinpoint exactly what matches were considered the top matches for over 30 years worth of wrestling data. To keep things as consistent and precise as possible, we’re going with Jason’s designations.
My first bit of research looked at Nagata’s drawing record at the Tokyo Dome while a member of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Nagata’s first Tokyo Dome top match came at NJPW’s Indicate Of Next (October 8, 2001) when Nagata teamed with fellow WON Ballot member Jun Akiyama to take on Hiroshi Hase and Keiji Mutoh. This would mark the first of five straight Tokyo Dome top matches for Nagata (vs. Akiyama, vs. Takayama, vs. Fujita and vs. Barnett). Nagata would go on to have a top match in seven of the 10 Tokyo Dome shows from October 2001 to January 2004, an impressive run by any standard.
Looking at attendance figures, events with a Nagata top match averaged 43,286, an impressive number at first glance but less so when we look at the larger picture.
Using a dataset spanning from 2000 to 2014, Tokyo Dome shows averaged 34,724. Breaking that number down by year gives us a better idea of overall attendance trends:
- 2000: 49,167
- 2001: 49,500
- 2002: 45,667
- 2003: 31,750
- 2004: 37,500
- 2005: 27,667
From 2006 to present, NJPW has ran only one Tokyo Dome show:
- 2006: 31,000
- 2007: 18,000
- 2008: 20,000
- 2009: 27,500
- 2010: 20,000
- 2011: 18,000
- 2012: 23,000
- 2013: 29,000
- 2014: 35,000
During his long IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign, attendance plummets before picking up briefly for his main event against NOAH star Yoshihiro Takayama. Nagata’s top match follow-up vs. Sasaki (a show main-evented by Shinsuke Nakamura and Takayama). I’d be remiss if I exclusively blame Nagata for plummeting attendance during this period. This time period was in the heart of Antonio Inoki’s MMA/wrestling hybrid New Japan. Wrestling World 2003, featuring Josh Barnett and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in the top two matches, saw a 22k drop in attendance from the previous January 4 Dome show. These were bad times and only recently has New Japan consistently recovered.
In another destruction of his drawing power, Nagata fought in Inoki’s Bom-Ba-Ye 2001 & 2003 and was destroyed by both Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipović and Fedor Emelianenko. Actually, destroyed may be putting it lightly, Nagata lasted a total of 1:23 and many believe that too hurt his drawing power during this time.
Regardless, it would be another three years before Nagata was back to a top spot (January 2007 vs. Minoru Suzuki & January 2008 vs. Angle) and again, these numbers are lower than both the year prior and the year after.
You’ll also notice the trend lines for both Nagata top attendance and attendance show that while Nagata’s early runs were above average, he fell off a cliff fairly quickly, much more of a harsh fall than overall New Japan attendance.
All told, from 2000-2008 overall Tokyo Dome attendance averaged 36,875 while shows with Nagata in a top spot averaged 37,889. This helps his case a bit but the plummeting numbers during his title reign definitely raises some red flags.
In the interest of fairness, I decided to look at Nagata’s drawing power at Nippon Budokan where he had some of his most famous matches including his September 2003 battle with Kenta Kobashi.
First of all, how awesome was NOAH? Look at that consistency in their early days! Anyway, Nagata is completely insignificant one way or another.
Looking simply from 2001-January 2004 (Nagata’s last match in Budokan), average NOAH attendance was 16,256 while shows with Nagata in a top match averaged 16,200. Budokan does nothing to help or hurt Nagata.
Let’s last look at Sumo Hall to see if we can see some type of pattern:
Again, Nagata shows no strong drawing power for Sumo Hall shows either. I included a trend line for both NJPW Sumo Hall attendance from 2000-2008 and attendance for Nagata’s top matches and you’ll see the near-perfect correlation. The average numbers reflect that as well:
- NJPW Sumo Hall Average (2000-2008): 8,645
- Nagata Top Match Sumo Hall Average (2000-2008): 8,714
From a pure drawing standpoint, it’s not looking good for Nagata. When he got to the top of NJPW, they were at their highest peak and by the time he dropped the title (granted it was after a historically long title reign) NJPW was at one of it’s lowest points attendance-wise.
Adding to his resume (or lack there of) Nagata showed no significant drawing power in NOAH or in Sumo Hall shows for New Japan Pro Wrestling. If Nagata is going to have a Hall of Fame case, he’s going to have to do so in the other two criteria.
I admitted in the lede that most of my first-hand knowledge of Nagata comes either from WCW or recent New Japan Pro Wrestling. This, of course, leads me to have a less than stellar perceptions of Nagata as a worker. In preparation for this piece, I went through some of his most recommended matches from various sources, top rated matches from Dave Meltzer and the like. While I know have more of an appreciation, I’m not sure I’d put Nagata in an elite class of workers. I like some of the stuff and he definitely isn’t bad by any stretch but he’s missing that extra gear or extra something that makes a Hall of Fame worker.
In particular, any time Nagata is matched up with a HOF worker like a Kobashi or Mitsuharu Misawa, Nagata sticks out like a sore thumb. Even fellow HOF candidates Taue and Jun Akiyama seem to outclass Nagata in their matches. Again, that’s not to say Nagata is bad, we’re talking about legendary workers here. But there’s not many Nagata matches I watch where I think THIS is a HOF worker.
Nagata has 16 **** or above matches, which is a solid figure and he certainly has the longevity of good matches with multiple opponents but there’s nothing about Nagata’s in-ring that stands out to me. A quick look at his opponents in one on one **** matches tells the tale of someone who didn’t necessarily have a great match that was unexpected, it’s a who’s who of all-time great workers: Taue, Kobashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, Katsuyori Shibata, Tomohiro Ishii, Kensuke Sasaki, Kurt Angle, Minoru Suzuki.
That he got a **** match out of Osamu Nishimura is a feather in his cap but Nishimura is an outlier among that list.
Among super casual fans, Yuji Nagata may be one of the most famous Japanese wrestlers ever due to his run in WCW during their Monday Night War success. He didn’t have a profound run with the company but at the time his and manager Sonnoy Ohno stuck out like a sore thumb. Of course, this website isn’t for super casuals and among Wrestling Observer voters, Nagata is not in the pantheon of famous Japanese performers. Any influence argument made for Nagata will come simply from longevity and being one of the longest reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champions ever (4th longest reign, 2nd in title defenses).
In full, Nagata spent 717 days as a major world champion, good enough for 21st since 1980. Everyone else near or around Nagata on the list are either already Hall of Famers, have not reached the ballot or guys who recently came onto the ballot, including CM Punk. Combine this with Nagata’s rank for of 26th all-time in Wrestling Observer Wrestler of the Year points and we finally have a real case for Nagata.
Adding another positive to Nagata’s resume is his high number of top third matches in front of crowds of 10,000+ (Japan). Nagata ranks 15th alongside a number of contemporaries and guys also recently added to the Observer ballot:
- 10. Jun Akiyama (ballot)
- 12. Hiroyoshi Tenzan (ballot) – on ballot as a tag team with Kojima
- 13. Akira Taue (ballot)
- 15. Yuji Nagata (ballot)
- 17. Satoshi Kojima (ballot) – on ballot as a tag team with Tenzan
Arguments are ongoing about both Taue and Akiyama’s inclusion and both of them have stronger in-ring resumes than Nagata. This poses a huge problem for someone like Nagata who needs all the help he can get. Worse yet, the list of 10k+ isn’t as star studded as you’d imagine. Tenzan and Kojima both have little prayer of getting in and the 16th and 17th guys on the list: Yoshihiro Takayama and Manabu Nakanishi have had their own troubles. Takayama fell off the ballot in both 2003 and 2005 while Nakanishi has yet to make an appearance. While it’s a nice list to be on, it doesn’t demand entrance into the hallowed Halls.
Looking finally at Match of the Year points, Nagata ranks 60th among performers below Bobby Fulton, Kota Ibushi, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Kyoko Inoue, Michael Hayes and Hulk Hogan. Not exactly a star-studded cast of all-time great in-ring performers (even if I love a few of them).
Nagata was apart of some of the biggest storylines in NJPW history including the invasion of UWFi and the NOAH vs. NJPW story but he is hardly presented in such a light and doesn’t give off the aura of a legend, even in his matches today. While there’s a profound respect for Nagata, he is simply not a legend enough where influence would be a major factor. He demands a hard look, but outside of some appearances on Wrestler of the Year ballots and his long IWGP title reign, there’s not a whole hell of a lot there.
The list of in-ring accomplishments for Nagata is long and definitely helps his case, especially given the number of different promotions he had success with while still being loyal to his home base (NJPW). He was a 2011 All Japan Pro Wrestling Champion Carnival winner and held AJPW’s Tag Titles with Kendo Kashin. He’s a former GHC Heavyweight and Tag champion in NOAH as well as winning the company’s Global League Tournament in 2013. Nagata also held the World Championship in Pro Wrestling ZERO1 as well as winning the Tokyo Sports Fighting Spirit Award in 2011.
His NJPW accmplishments speak for themselves, two-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, two-time Tag champion, 2001 G1 Climax Winner, 2000 and 2010 G1 Tag League winner and lastly New Japan Cup champion in both 2007 and 2011.
I went into this piece with a fairly open mind but I don’t think there’s anyway you can make a rational vote for Yuji Nagata as an Observer Hall of Famer. He has a solid resume, was one of the longest reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champions and is a respected member of the New Japan roster, is that enough to rank you among the all-time greats? I don’t think so. I thought WrestlingScout.com summed up Nagata’s career nicely:
“It has been opined that Yuji Nagata is one of the greatest workers of millenium. He was able to have excellent matches with almost any opponent and although he is past his peak, he still has the potential to step up and put out an amazing performance. Nagata could be situated as the polar opposite of Antonio Inoki. He was a legitimate high-level wrestler who was brought into the pro-wrestling game with little fanfare. After working in the midcard of the biggest pro-wrestling company of the era, he returned to Japan and was slowly worked into the upper midcard. He was sacrificed in a couple shoot fights against two of top heavyweight fighters in the world, in their primes, which killed his credibility. He was somewhat rehabilitated with a lengthy reign and exceptional performances as New Japan spiraled into its darkest period. Yuji Nagata has demonstrated consistently excellent in-ring work for over fifteen years, remained loyal to New Japan and is best known for his two losses against Mirko Crocop and Fedor Emelianenko…. It seems fitting that it was Inoki’s obsession with legitimacy led to one of the company’s greatest talents, Nagata, losing in a shoot and being damaged for the remainder of his career. When all is said and done and people look back at Yuji Nagata’s legacy, hopefully his exceptional work in the ring and lengthy reign overshadows those two losses and the fact that he was on top of a sinking promotion in a declining scene. He has been more loyal to his home promotion than any of his contemporaries and is being rewarded as the promotion is back on top again.”
That’s really the essence of Nagata, he’s a solid worker who was loyal (perhaps to a fault) to his company. His company has re-emerged as one of the top in the world which can paint him as a legend who stuck it through the bleak times but when you’re one of the top guys during said bleak times, it’s hard to turn that into much of a positive.
His drawing power isn’t significant enough for us to give him any credit and the plummeting attendance with him on top is also troubling. I don’t think it’s enough to make him a negative draw and the Sumo and Budokan numbers prove that, but even those show nothing more than status quo. With how important drawing power is to inclusion in the HOF, it’s hard to make a tangible case for Nagata.
I like Nagata and I would be interested to hear a positive argument for his enshrinement but if I had a ballot, I would say no to Nagata now and forever.