Gunning For The IWGP Dream: Karl Anderson vs Hiroshi Tanahashi

Credit: NJPW

Karl Anderson will assuredly be remembered for his bountiful career as a tag team wrestler. Having racked up tag championships across continents and promotions, there’s a guaranteed seat for him among the pantheon of tag team wrestling greats. More-so in the past than today, Anderson has taken the spotlight for himself by competing in singles action, such as in the G1 Climax, most notably the G1 Climax 22 where (as he’ll be sure to tell you!) he made the finals.

However, one of Machine Gun’s singles matches prominently sticks out as being above the rest. February 10th 2013, The New Beginning in Hiroshima, Karl Anderson challenged Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and it is widely heralded as the best match of his career.

Credit: NJPW

Throughout 2012, Anderson made his mark as a singles competitor within New Japan: he made the semi-finals of the New Japan Cup; reached the aforementioned finals of the G1; unsuccessfully challenged Okada for the “right to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship” and separately challenged Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship; and finally, in November, he reached the final of a tournament to crown the first NEVER Openweight Champion, losing out to Masato Tanaka (a brutal Bernard Driver through a table not enough to earn the win). His crowning achievement for the year would be winning World Tag League for a second time with tag team partner Hirooki Goto.

Despite numerous opportunities to strike singles gold in 2012, he was unable to fire that final bullet in the chamber for victory. Yet when the annual tag tournament arrived, he definitively delivered as he always does, but the ever-elusive singles championship never seemed to be in the stars for Anderson.

In his sixth reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Tanahashi was 6 months deep and had 5 successful defences. Little did we know that 2013 would be regarded as possibly the greatest year of Tanahashi’s career, bolstered by the iconic rivalry with Okada that had begun in 2012. Anderson would be an integral part of the legendary year Tanahashi was about to have, helping the Ace lay the foundations for classics to behold in the coming months.

Anderson has always touted his achievement of being a G1 Climax finalist (rightly so), but what’s less known is that he beat Hiroshi Tanahashi that same night to make the final. At the time, Tanahashi was the champ but Machine Gun’s precision shooting put the Ace down, and it would be the catalyst for Anderson’s challenge six months later at The New Beginning.

Going into the championship match, there was one indisputable fact that Tanahashi, Anderson, and every fan watching knew: if Anderson hit the Gun Stun, it would be all over.

Credit: NJPW

The video package before the match puts an emotional emphasis on Anderson’s dream of wanting to become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion: the footage showing a young Anderson in wrestling gear and images from his life, all leading to this very match and moment. At the time, Anderson had even said in interviews that he had rejected offers from WWE, instead choosing to stay with NJPW to achieve his dream of being the champ. This was a pre-Bullet Club Anderson – still loved instead of loathed by fans in Japan – and he was making his first challenge for the top prize in NJPW, attempting to turn dreams into reality. A simple story, but often the simplest stories can be the easiest to get behind, and the Hiroshima crowd were firmly behind Anderson. The electric crowd was euphoric, initially cheering at a 50-50 split, but they soon become sole fans of Anderson, wanting to see the man who has come so close, so often, finally achieve his dream.

An arrogant Tanahashi focuses on Anderson’s knee in vintage fashion, whilst Anderson ensures every single move he hits is concentrated on Tanahashi’s neck. Machine Gun gives the Ace a VIP pass to the neck-destruction-tour, the setlist compiled of TKOs, Bernard Drivers, BT Bombs, and every other shot that Anderson can deliver from his arsenal. With every big move he lands the crowd is certain that Anderson has won, the near-falls all so agonisingly close to being a three-count.

Unable to play his greatest hit, Anderson’s dreams suffer a cruel twist of fate when his own pièce de résistance leads to his undoing: one final attempt at the Gun Stun ends in tragedy as Tanahashi spins through to hit his own Gun Stun instead. A kick-out at two kept Anderson alive, but it only delayed the inevitable, an immediate follow up of two High Fly Flows, putting an end to Anderson’s IWGP dream.

Credit: NJPW

The connection Anderson had with the crowd was staggering. It’s a testament to his ability, that he truly had fans believing he would become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. History, stats, all of that was forgotten in the moment, because for 25 minutes the crowd believed in Anderson and his dream. It’s the power that only comes when the stars align and blesses us with something special and memorable, the gift that lets us forgo logic and reason in light of being in the moment; that fleeting thought that gets more and more prominent as the suspense intensifies, a reminder of why we love pro-wrestling.

It wasn’t a match between the two strongest or two quickest – it was a match between two sublime storytellers. For Tanahashi, it may have been another great match to add to his never-ending list, but for Anderson, it was his first chance to showcase himself at the highest possible level in all of pro-wrestling. Anderson delivered in the grandest way possible, and it will forever live on as the Machine Gun’s best.