Welcome back one and all. Here at the Lion’s Vault we are waking up from our extended winter slumber to say good-bye to another New Japan elder statesman, Manabu Nakanishi.
Last week Nakanishi rallied the other New Japan dads for one last run together, and we as fans were treated to Nakanishi putting in some of his performances in years as his team went on an unexpected winning streak before the inevitable bittersweet ending when they fell to the current stars of New Japan in Nakanishi’s final match. And so with Nakanishi’s final match in the rearview mirror, it feels appropriate for us to sit down together, enjoy a monster morning, and look back at a couple of historic Nakanishi matches against high profile opponents.
Manabu Nakanishi vs. Genichiro Tenryu
January 4, 2004
Wrestling World 2004 [Match 13 of 16]
Tokyo – Tokyo Dome
Spoiler Free Teaser: A straightforward match told in three acts, as a 53-year-old Tenryu and a relatively young Nakanishi work to prove they are the toughest big man on the block. ***¼
So honestly, my favorite piece of context for this match is the Google auto-translate of the match title “Clumsy War,” which somehow manages to be hilarious, appropriate, and awesome all at the same time. For those who care about such things, in 2004 Nakanishi was five years past his G1 victory, and had largely cemented his role as an upper midcarder while never really threatening for a singles title. Meanwhile, Tenryu was winding down his latest freelance run in AJPW, and this match marked the start of one of his busiest years ever in New Japan.
As mentioned earlier, the match itself is straightforward and feels like it is structured into relatively distinct segments…all of which are performed reasonably well in what feels like a fairly quiet Tokyo Dome crowd (despite an announced attendance of 53,000…oh for the days of ridiculously inflated numbers). The first act is the most simple, as it is essentially an extended chop battle where they take turns trying to turn each others chests into something resembling ground beef. Oh, and Nakanishi delivers an extremely awkward atomic drop that looked like it could have broken a hip. In the end, they are only semi-successful in their respective attempts to brutalize each other with chops, and so they go ahead and progress into the big moves part of the match which involves mostly 50/50 work and some really hard hits from Tenryu. Finally we get to the finishing sequence, where Nakanishi takes over the match and strings together a number of trademark spots before unexpectedly finishing off the dazed Tenryu with a fisherman’s suplex of all things.
Match Rating ***¼ – Despite Tenryu’s advanced age, he was still seen as a big star in Japan at the time, and so this ended up being a quality victory for Nakanishi who took a lot of punishment before putting away the veteran. While there were a couple of “as advertised” clumsy moments, the match was mostly just two grumpy big men beating the piss out of each for ten minutes in fairly enjoyable fashion.
Manabu Nakanishi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (IWGP Heavyweight Championship)
May 6, 2009
Dissidence [Main Event]
Tokyo – Korakuen Hall
Spoiler Free Teaser: On an emotional night in Korakuen Hall, the seemingly fading star of Manabu Nakanishi battles the younger Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The end result is another example of Tana’s big match greatness and a memorable main event for a hot Korakuen crowd.
First, a big thank you to NJPW for uploading this match (along with some other matches recently!), as it is always great to see historic content being added to the archives. Man, sometimes I forget how different Tana looked a decade ago, while I have to say that Nakanishi largely looks the same as what he does today. At this point, we are now nearly a full decade after Nakanishi’s G1 victory, and while he has had the occasional IWGP title match since then, he has mostly floated around the upper midcard while younger wrestlers (like Tanahashi) have begun to pass him by in the NJPW pecking order.
The action starts off with Tana trying to outclass Nakanishi on the mat, but Nakanishi manages to hold his own for the most part, often using his power advantage as a way to frustrate the champ. This causes Tana to quickly move on to Plan B, which in this case involves speeding up the match…which seems to be paying dividends right until the point that Nakanishi catches him with a big suplex on the outside. This leads to another strategy change on Tana’s part, as he quickly moves on to Plan C, which is working over the big man’s legs with dragon screws, strikes, and various submission holds.
For the first time in the bout it appears that Tana has found his winning formula, as the leg work allows him to control and frustrate the much larger man…all while giving Tanahashi an opportunity to exude his cocky heel attitude more and more. By the time Nakanishi begins his comeback with his patented big man missile dropkick and clumsy plancha the crowd is raucous and rallying behind him. This causes Tana to try to regain control by going back to the leg, but the subsequent High Fly Flow is countered into a giant superplex that puts both men down. From this point on both men are trying their damndest to put each other away, and as with many of Tana’s best matches they only sprinkle in a couple of nearfalls while still keeping the crowd invested every step of the way. In the end Nakanishi manages string together a sequence of high impact moves that all target Tana’s neck, finishing things with a stun gun immediately into a German suplex for the big upset victory to the delight of the crowd! Nakanishi looks genuinely moved by the moment/reaction, and Yuji Nagata rushes into the ring to congratulate his friend while Kotetsu Yamamoto (who was head trainer in the dojo when Nakanishi was training) is in tears at the announcer’s table.
Match Rating ***¾ – Very, very, very good match with a fantastic structure, and where the emotion was nearly off the charts at times…but also a match where it felt like there was just enough little things lacking (such as Nakanishi not selling the leg more), that for me left this match falling just short of greatness. Still, this was a really fun match with a great ending and a memorable outcome that represented the high point of Nakanishi’s career.
While I do not think many would argue that Nakanishi had one of the greatest in-ring careers from a New Japan wrestler, what he did have was a great career filled with memorable moments that we can celebrate and cherish as fans. If you would like to see some more of his memorable matches in addition to the above bouts, I would recommend checking out his G1 victory over Keiji Mutoh, his finals loss to Kensuke Sasaki in the following year’s G1, and his out of nowhere barnburner of a match against Yuji Nagata in 2016 that was probably his last great singles match.