The following essay was supposed to appear in the Voices of Wrestling 2020 NJPW Year-in-Review eBook but due to user error (my error!), it was mistakenly left out. It will be added to updated editions shortly but in the meantime enjoy this amazing piece of storytelling from Matt! -Rich Kraetsch
“One day, we all end up back in the soil.” -Manabu Nakanishi
On January 7, one day after the retirement of the legendary Jushin Thunder Liger, Manabu Nakanishi announced to the world that it was time for him to hang up his wrestling boots as well. While a former G1 Climax winner and IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Nakanishi’s announcement was met with a fraction of the fanfare as Liger’s, and the most commonly expressed sentiment from western fans seemed to be various expressions of “about time.”
For many New Japan fans, especially those who began following the promotion during the rise of Kazuchika Okada, Nakanishi represented little more than a broken-down husk of a wrestler, a man who probably should have stepped aside long ago. And to be fair to those fans, Nakanishi’s own words provided credence to their perspective. In his announcement, Nakanishi provided insight into his thought process for retirement when he stated, “As a result of a neck injury, I haven’t been able to wrestle at the level I wanted, and rather than drag things out, I wanted to draw a line in the sand.” He further expanded on his neck issues in a follow-up interview with Katsuhiko “GK” Kanazawa when he discussed his return from his neck injury back in 2012, “I mean it was quite something to get back to the point that I did, but I was still thinking ‘I can still do this!’, then ‘it’s only been six months since I came back, I can still get better!’ then ‘It’s only been a year!’ and on and on. I just never quite got back to where I wanted to be.”
The neck injury that Nakanishi was referencing was a result of a tag match on June 4, 2011, two years after his sole IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign, and six months before Okada’s return to New Japan as the rainmaker. The injury and rehabilitation kept Nakanishi out of the ring for over sixteen months, and by the time he returned to the ring he already largely felt like a figure from a bygone era. Unfortunately for Nakanishi, his ring work did little to dissuade this image. Never a man known for his agility or speed in the ring, his injury led to him moving slower and stiffer in the ring, and he started to become more reliant on those around him to produce entertaining matches. In the following years, Nakanishi would largely become a tag team wrestler, with a focus on matches involving young lions and his fellow Third Generation wrestlers, Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan (or as they are more affectionately known to many fans, the “New Japan Dads”).
And so for the past seven years, it largely felt like Nakanishi was playing out the string of his wrestling career. There were no more tournament final appearances in a New Japan ring, and his lone title reign was a thirty-seven day NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Championship with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Ryusuke Taguchi that involved zero successful title defenses. Additionally, with some notable exceptions such as his December 17th, 2016 clash against Nagata, Nakanishi’s matches began to frequently occur as the opening matches on cards, and had a sense of predictability and sameness to them that left them largely unnotable.
“I want to put everything I have into February 22. I want to head into this retirement having given everything I have and end things properly.” -Manabu Nakanishi
Heading into his last month as an active pro wrestler, there seemed to be very few people expecting much from Nakanishi’s final run other than a classy and touching retirement ceremony at its conclusion. In various interviews in the run-up to his final matches, Nakanishi stayed humble himself, stating “I’ll give it my all and try to win,” that he wanted to go out “swinging ‘til the end,” and asking the fans to simply “continue to support [him] to the end.”
While Nakanishi’s retirement announcement and initial interviews did not provide any details on the specifics for his final matches, there seemed to be little doubt that they would involve his fellow Third Generation members (either as partners or opponents), and in following with tradition they would conclude with Nakanishi looking up at the lights each night as he put over other wrestlers one last time on his way to retirement. After all, in post-Inoki New Japan, there are no happy endings for retiring wrestlers.
“I will finish as strong as I can. And these three [Nagata, Kojima, and Tenzan] will be behind me. So I can keep fighting without feeling alone.” -Manabu Nakanishi
As we neared the February 19, 20, 21, and 22 cards Nakanishi’s last matches were finally announced. For Nakanishi, the matches represented a final opportunity with his fellow old guard friends against a tour of the current best that New Japan had to offer. On the opening night Nakanishi’s Third Generation would square off against a Minoru Suzuki led Suzuki-gun team in an eight-man tag. The following night Nakanishi would welcome fellow veteran Tiger Mask to his team, this time to battle the original five members of Los Ingobernables de Japon. In their penultimate match they would take on a Jay White led Bullet Club team, and then finally conclude by taking on what was being billed as the Third Generation taking on “four of the greatest of the current generation” in Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Kota Ibushi and Hirooki Goto.
For Nakanishi, the announced cards represented a potential perfect ending for his career, a chance for the grizzled veteran to team with his closest friends, while making a last stand against the stables that dominated the current New Japan landscape. While often a dour man during interviews throughout much of his career, now Nakanishi focused extensively on the importance of friendship and loyalty, remarking of his upcoming partners, “They’ve always been at my side in some form or another. There’s a lot of thoughts and feelings that I want to share with them until the end.” And now the end was rapidly approaching.
On February 19, Nakanishi’s last stand began with Suzuki-gun launching an attack against his team before the opening bell of their match. In the chaos that followed members of Suzuki-gun repeatedly targeted Nakanishi’s injured neck, including Taichi making use of a chair, seemingly looking to end Nakanishi’s career a few days earlier than expected. However, even with the use of their underhanded tactics, Suzuki-gun ended up in a tougher than expected battle. After a back-and-forth affair, Kanemaru and El Desperado had managed to isolate Kojima in the ring and seemed to have him on the ropes…up until Nakanishi managed to fight his way back into the ring and make the save with a double-suplex on the junior heavyweight tag team, clearing the ring of Desperado, and allowing Kojima to land a giant lariat for the surprise feel-good win.
“Kojima got a win for us, thanks to that powerful arm…Three more left to go. Let’s keep fighting hard…the third generation, let’s fight strong.” -Manabu Nakanishi
The next night the Third Generation entered the ring as underdogs once again, this time against an LIJ team consisting of the current IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion, the Junior Heavyweight Champion, and two of the three members of the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Champions. As on the night before, Nakanishi once again played a pivotal role in the closing moments of the match, as just as EVIL looked to be on the verge of victory Nakanishi made a save for Kojima by hitting EVIL with his now rarely used Hercules Cutter. Seconds later Nakanishi used every last bit of strength he still had to clear the ropes and hit a plancha on the other members of LIJ, leaving EVIL alone in the ring to eat Kojima’s lariat, and earn the Third Generation another win. In helping his side secure a second straight upset victory, it looked like Nakanishi was truly following through on his promise to leave it all in the ring.
“All of them gave me strength, so we had to win this one. It’s been awhile for me to fly like that. I didn’t know I could do it…I just had to give it my all. I don’t think this is for me. There’ll be something else for me. But I want to give it all, because my companions are doing the same.” -Manabu Nakanishi
Night three, and Nakanishi’s Third Generation team found itself looking to notch their third straight victory, this time against a Jay White led Bullet Club team. Heading into the match it felt like Nakanishi & Co. had real momentum behind their backs, and consequently it no longer seemed out of the realm of possibility that they would find a way to continue their winning streak. However as the match progressed a new reality began to set in, as Nakanishi and his teammates appeared to be physically spent. Gone were many of the energetic exchanges from the previous two matches, replaced instead with Bullet Club slowing down the match while trying to choke the life out of their opponents. This strategy eventually led to BC successfully isolating Nakanishi in the ring, but just as he seemed on the verge of defeat, his teammates managed to clear the ring of everyone except Gedo. Sensing his moment, Nakanishi shakingly made his way to the top turnbuckle for maybe the last time in his career, and delivered a massive chop to Gedo’s head on his way down. He followed up on his aerial attack by hoisting Gedo into the Argentine Backbreaker in the middle of the ring, leading to the submission victory for his team.
“One more, tomorrow, against the best New Japan has to offer. Let’s end with a big win. Manabu Nakanishi still has more.” -Satoshi Kojima
“My teammates always support me, but I can’t rely on that. I have to show that I can stand on my own feet. I had that chance today, I couldn’t let it go waste…I got the win. Tomorrow, I’ll get my last one.” -Manabu Nakanishi
Making his way to the ring, Nakanishi could barely conceal his emotions as the Korakuen Hall crowd cheered him on one final time.
After an improbable winning streak, he now faced the toughest challenge of his retirement tour, as the Third Generation squared off against some of the biggest names from the next generation, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Kota Ibushi, and Hirooki Goto. As the opening bell rang, Nakanishi found himself alone in the ring with Okada. Perhaps spurred by frustrations over the Third Generation’s win streak, and the crowd approval they were receiving in response, Okada displayed an arrogance towards Nakanishi from the start, including trying to apply Nakanishi’s own Argentine Backbreaker to him in the opening moments of the match. The rest of Okada’s teammates seemed to share in his attitude, and as the match progressed each took turns to mock their opponents and generally present themselves as being above this spectacle.
Unfortunately for them though, the Third Generation team was here to fight, and led by Nakanishi they gave their younger opponents everything they had. After nearly fifteen minutes of action Tanahashi found himself on the top rope, ready to deliver what he hoped was the finishing touches on the match with his High Fly Flow, only to be met with a massive Nakanishi superplex that might have shaken the foundations of Korakuen Hall. Throwing caution to the wind Nakanishi climbed to the top turnbuckle and delivered a giant cross-body block. While Tanahashi kicked out of the subsequent pin attempt, Nakanishi could feel that his moment was at hand.
Shaking, he hoisted Tanahashi up into the Argentine Backbreaker, before switching it to the Hercules Cutter for another nearfall. Then, in trying to recreate the magic that won him the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Tanahashi over a decade before, he grabbed Tanahashi in a rear waistlock, and pushed him into the ropes in order to slingshot him into a German Suplex. This time though Tanahashi had teammates to break-up the move, and after which he was able to catch Nakanishi with a Sling Blade. While Nakanishi was able to kick out of the following pin attempt, it was obvious that momentum was quickly slipping away from the Third Generation team. In short order Nakanishi found himself isolated again in the ring against all four of his opponents, and this time it looked like there would be no escape. A GTR flowed into the Kamigoye, before a prone Nakanishi was picked up for a Rainmaker. As Nakanishi laid on the mat trying to will his body into action one last time, Tanahashi climbed to the top rope, and then came crashing down with the High Fly Flow. This time it turned out it was too much for Nakanishi to overcome, and all he could do was lie motionless while the ref counted 1-2-3 for the final time.
“I faced the best New Japan has, with the best partners I could have hoped for…Although I lost, I took everything they have. Just like in life, you have to face what’s coming to you.” -Manabu Nakanishi
“These last four days, I pulled out the best from him. And he was strong.” -Yuji Nagata
With the end of the match, the clock had finally struck midnight for Nakanishi, and his Cinderella Run had finally reached its inevitable conclusion. And with it, the former Olympian’s 27 year pro wrestling career was finished. As Nakanishi struggled to get back to his feet the crowd showered him with cheers of appreciation, many of whom were probably there in the same building eleven years prior when Nakanishi hoisted the IWGP title. Back then their cheers were an expression of their elation at the title change, but this time their cheers represented a thank you and goodbye. And while no one in the building could have known it at the time, their cheers for Nakanishi represented the last time that New Japan fans were able to cheer at the top of their lungs in 2020, as Nakanishi’s retirement show ended up being the promotion’s last event before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of shows, and altered the rest of the company’s year.
“Thank you so much for today. Even though I’m retiring, this isn’t my ending. I will live as a pro-wrestler until the day I die.” -Manabu Nakanishi