The Build Up
It was late 2004, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi were New Japan’s rising stars. By this time, Nakamura had already become the youngest ever IWGP Heavyweight champion, defeating Hiroyoshi Tenzan in 2003. Tanahashi too had captured gold in 2003, in the IWGP U-30 Openweight championship. Interestingly enough, Tanahashi would go on to lose that title to Nakamura at Toukon Festival: Wrestling World 2005 in the Tokyo Dome, which was basically Wrestle Kingdom before it was known as Wrestle Kingdom. That was the first notable singles match the two had ever had, and the start of what would be one of New Japan’s greatest rivalries that continues to this day. But before that match in 2005, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi were besties. Well, maybe not besties, but they were a formidable tag team.
Meanwhile, in early 2004, Minoru Suzuki and Yoshihiro Takayama, two wrestlers known for their legitimate toughness, had captured the IWGP Tag Team titles from Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Osamu Nishimura, ending their brief run. Suzuki and Takayama had a dominant 294 day run as champs, a run that would’ve continued even longer, had they not vacated the titles on November 21st. Of course, vacating the titles was completely out of their hands. In an unsurprisingly physical, hard-hitting match against Kensuke Sasaki, Takayama suffered a cerebral thrombosis, which is a form of stroke. The stroke left part of his face paralyzed, and couldn’t wrestle for two years. Although in that time, he did do some color commentary for Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Less than a month after the titles were vacated, they would be up for grabs on December 11th, 2004, at NJPW Battle Final in Osaka, Japan. One of the teams vying for the titles were the hungry, young upstarts, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi. The other team consisted of one half of the previous title holders who was trying to reclaim his vacated title – Minoru Suzuki, and the man who was in the match which sidelined the other previous champion – Kensuke Sasaki. To say Nakamura and Tanahashi would have their work cut out for them would be quite the understatement.
Watching the pre-match video package, it looked like Takayama had hand-picked Sasaki to team with Suzuki, handing him his half of the tag titles. When coming to the ring, Suzuki and Sasaki actually still had the titles with them. I’m assuming that they had simply kept hold of the titles, even though they were technically vacated and Suzuki and Sasaki weren’t really the champions.
The match started and it was clear very early on that Nakamura and Tanahashi were in for an uphill battle. Suzuki and Sasaki immediately took control and worked over Tanahashi. After being dominated for nearly ten straight minutes, Tanahashi, selling his leg like it could be broken, makes a tag. Nakamura came in hot, but was very quickly cut down and turned inside out by a Sasaki lariat. It was Nakamura’s turn to take a beating, and boy did he take a long one. For about twelve minutes, Suzuki and Sasaki tore Nakamura to pieces. Nakamura tried to tag in Tanahashi multiple times, but was always cut off just before reaching his partner.
Nakamura finally made a tag and Tanahashi had a Daniel Bryan-esque flurry of offense, including a suicida and a missile dropkick. Just when it looked like the match was turning around, Suzuki attacked Tanahashi’s injured leg, and quickly took control yet again.
A few minutes later, Sasaki had Tanahashi in a submission, but Nakamura made the save with what looked to be a Boma Ye on Sasaki (the cameramen didn’t get a clear shot). Nakamura had the advantage, but just as before, it doesn’t last long.
Finally, after three or four hope spots and almost completely worn out, Nakamura surprised Suzuki with a cross armbreaker. Suzuki made the ropes and Nakamura made a tag. In came Tanahashi. After almost thirty minutes, the match finally turns around for Nakamura and Tanahashi. Sensing the shift in control, the crowd came alive with excitement. They knew they were in for something special.
The last five minutes of the match are simply beautiful with wonderful double team moves, nearfalls and submission attempts by both teams. With Nakamura and Sasaki busy on the outside, Suzuki tried to put an end to things once and for all with Saka Otoshi – an inverted facelock takeover transitioned into a sleeper – but Tanahashi avoided the sleeper and countered with a small package. Suzuki kicked out, but Tanahashi immediately hit a bridging dragon suplex and got the pin. After being dominated for nearly the entire match, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura were the new IWGP Tag Team champions. And boy did they earn it!
Nakamura and Tanahashi held the titles for a respectable 323 days, eventually dropping them to Cho-Ten (Masahiro Chono and Hiroyoshi Tenzan) on October 30, 2005 in Kobe, Japan. In that time, they would successfully defend the belts on no more than four occasions. Not a lot considering the length of their reign, but it’s also not dissimilar to other reigns of that length.
Despite being just inside the top ten longest IWGP tag title runs, it’s not a reign often talked about, and has even been forgotten by some. My Japanese friend, a fan of NJPW for a number of years, didn’t even realize they had been tag champs until I brought it up.
While not memorable for some, I like that before these two guys would go on to face each other, usually resulting in classic matches, they were actually a great tag team. It was pre-SWAG/YeaOh Shinsuke Nakamura, and pre-Air Guitar/High Fly Flow Hiroshi Tanahashi. It was 2004 and these two youngsters were on their way up. They are now both top guys in NJPW, and after watching how they won the tag titles in 2004, it’s not hard to see why.