Noob Japan: Go Ace!

This edition of Noob Japan is something special to me. Well, they all are. But Hiroshi Tanahashi is someone I’d seen only a few times, yet he remained captivating all the same. That rock-star look and the charming smile gave him a look of an anime protagonist, of a wild-man. 

What I Know
This goes back before Hiroshi Tanahashi had ever stepped foot in a squared circle professionally. I’m talking about the 1980s and 1990s. The Three Musketeers was a name given to three men who would define the company’s strong style approach to wrestling. This trio consisted of Keiji Mutoh, Shinya Hashimoto and Masahiro Chono. All three would bring something new to the company in their own way.

NJPW would repeat this process again in the 2000s with The New Three Musketeers, this time consisting of Shinsuke Nakamura, Katsuyori Shibata and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Today, I am sticking with the story of Tanahashi. Come join me, as I take a High-Fly Flow into the great unknown.

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kenny Omega, January 4 2019 (Wrestle Kingdom 13)
Around the height of NJPW’s Western rise in popularity in the late 2010s, the product was hot. It was enough to capture my attention, trying as I might to ignore it due to gatekeepers. In 2019, more buzz kept floating around, and as the momentum grew some elite rumors started to seep into an unsuspecting world.

To make the feud against his oncoming bout with Kenny Omega spicier, both men were absolutely scathing towards one another in the build-up. Omega believed Tanahashi to be some geezer that just hates the evolution of pro-wrestling. Tanahashi accused Omega of lacking the traditional format of storytelling in wrestling, focusing way more on the high-flying action and reckless style than the drama.

Onto the match itself, Tanahashi enters to a raucous Japanese crowd in the Tokyo Dome, his inspiring theme song blasting through the stadium, his briefcase in hand. This was the face of a man who is setting out to defend the honor of tradition.

Omega’s turn to enter and his Devil’s Sky transitions into music from then-popular video game Undertale. I remember looking at his face, seeing the untold emotions that washed over him and wondering if this was his body telling us that this was it for him. That this was Kenny Omega leaving NJPW to join the literally just announced AEW. But, he had a performance to put on. Inhaling hopes and dreams and exhaling determination, Omega marches to the ring with the Young Bucks in tow. 

Credit: NJPW

Immediately, Tanahashi’s body language shows he has utter contempt and disdain for his opponent. He’d rather face anyone right now, but he has to strip the belt off of Omega’s waist for the good of his beliefs. 

As the bell rings, the competitors engage, each sticking with their preferred method of wrestling. Tanahashi’s style reminds me of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, something Kevin Kelly and Don Callis on commentary make mention of regarding the dynamic of the Ace with the Best Bout Machine Omega. The champion himself wrestles with a style not widely seen, a style that would encompass who he is as a performer. In the early goings-on, Tanahashi would start targeting the leg of Kenny, a theme that breaks down the champion throughout the match.

This is more than a battle for gold and glory; this is a fight for prevailing ideology and philosophy as to the concepts of progress and tradition. One man wants to change the world, the other wants to preserve it, a theme consistent in all of humanity. A debate settled in the language they share and speak best.

The match soon branches out into the NJPW cosmos, the Ace is sent over the barricade and into some commentators, incapacitating one poor soul who doesn’t even know what’s going on. To make matters worse for the veteran, Omega pulled out a table as if to say “you know you want to”… The temptation settles in, but is battled off by Tanahashi.

Back in the ring they collide once more, with Omega still in power but Tanahashi’s embers of the last flame still burn in fighting spirit as he blazes with a dragon screw leg whip and gaining control. Kenny respondes with a signature Kotaro Crusher and Tanahashi rolls out of the ring to safety.

Unfettered and freed from distraction, the Terminator Dive is in full effect and Omega executes the move amazingly, bookended with a disgusting thud. He folded Tanahashi’s ass like a bad hand at poker. Completely knackered, Tanahashi is immobile while Kenny tries to recuperate his knee. The referee continues his count; the world still turns regardless.

Kenny drags the fallen hero to the ring and repeatedly tries his One-Winged Angel, either ending in Tanahashi escaping or Omega’s crippled leg being his Achilles Heel. Perfect for an inverted dragon screw from Tanahashi, damaging the ligaments of the vulnerable opponent.

To cause further hellish torment, Tanahashi implements a Texas Cloverleaf, but he can’t sink it in, for he too has his own body issues, namely his lower back. Omega fights and fights, leaving Tanahashi no other alternative but to risk putting his everything in this hold, only for Omega to crawl out of it. Ever quick-thinking, Tanahashi transitions into a Styles Clash, one of the most striking visuals that stuck with me long after the match. 

Tanahashi seeks to end it with a High Fly Flow, but Kenny brings his knees up at the last second, offering Omega enough time to breathe life back into himself. This second wind gives him just enough inches to get back on equal footing until a Slingblade from Tanahashi shifts the momentum back into his favor.

Chekov’s table rears it’s forgotten face and Tanahashi sets Omega up on the table from earlier. The Ace plays a risky game, Omega’s game, as he sets for another High Fly Flow to Omega on the table. Like his instincts during the first attempt, Omega throws himself off the table at the last second and Tanahashi lands full-force, a spectacle of shattered wood.

Like Dante traversing the various levels of Hell, Tanahashi endures and endures all of which Omega inflicts upon him. Omega knows it will take more than a broken table, so any and every bit of devastation he can use, he does. The challenger is resilient, despite the crushing weight of his own body at this point, getting back up only to be sent down and leaving himself open as he guards his midsection. He’s weak and they both know it. But this isn’t any wrestler, this isn’t any match. This is Tanahashi, this is the Ace, this is the main event of the Tokyo Dome.

Tanahashi wills himself back up and each time pain becomes but a construct. He rises each time stronger than before with Slingblades and High Fly Flows aplenty. Omega’s body betrays him more and more. Ironically, this match was the best of both worlds as Tanahashi gets his old-school way while Omega defies the odds. This battle of philosophies swells as each man excels in his part. Tanahashi tells a story as old as time, while Omega opens up the possibilities of what is possible in tales of yore.

With the vigor of a young man, Tanahashi bursts back to the top rope and with one final Flow he wins the title. The champion his lost his crown and the battle is won.

When I first watched this match, I was livid. Omega was the one who opened the veil for me to become a fan of wrestling outside of WWE. This time, I grew to be on Tanahashi’s side as he switched styles and fought for his beliefs.

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Shinsuke Nakamura, August 16 2015 (G1 Climax 25 Final)
In the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, the G1 Finals were set. Two of the biggest stars of the 21st Century in NJPW were to face off once again. In the ring stood two wrestlers who had carried the company, the Ace and the King of Strong Style. The former “Super Rookie”, Nakamura had to change up his style and presentation to get to this point, while Tanahashi got over naturally after growing as a wrestler and facing adversity head on.

Nakamura had to face off against the trustworthy Ace and from the descriptions of the match I’ve heard, magic resulted. Now I get to see why, for the first time!

Tanahashi and Nakamura take a while to engage, but once they do, I notice there’s a small sense of desperation with Tanahashi. Tanahashi had to win this, to prove he was still New Japan’s Ace, regardless of whatever supernova Kazuchika Okada achieved in the meantime. Nakamura is still cool and calm, with all the mockery you’d expect. Something that I’ve noticed from this story and his Survivor Series 2018 feud with Seth Rollins in WWE is that he’s often the third wheel when someone else is the bigger threat.

Throughout this match, it’s a war of attrition and a struggle for either to gain an advantage over the other. Nakamura is at his best on the ground while Tanahashi excels on the ropes and in the air. Nakamura’s legs, elbows, knees and holds serve him well and nearly end Tanahashi on his conquests for greatness in this tournament, yet it all served him a mere drop of proverbial blood. The Achilles Heel of Nakamura is his legs, which is also his source of greatest power, and as Tanahashi whittles away at them across the thirty-plus minute match, the strikes from these legs lack in power as time marches forward.

Credit: NJPW

Nakamura does a great job of keeping Tanahashi grounded, but it is when his opponent does get around to taking flight that Nakamura is in trouble. Perhaps this is at its most clear near the end of the match when he allows himself into the Ace’s world that this is evident. The King of Strong Style’s greed and avarice leads him into foolishness on the ropes as he is felled by Tanahashi’s manoeuvres and delivers a High Fly Flow – as he falls down with him. 

Nakamura is mighty and splendid here. Certainly a top talent when at his A-game, and Tanahashi is the perfect dance partner. Tanahashi took the win that night and cemented himself as the eternal Ace. Maybe whenever Shinsuke Nakamura is done in WWE and finished all he could do there, he could move past his former rival.

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Minoru Suzuki, October 8 2012 (King of Pro-Wrestling)
Spending so many years at the top of the company, Tanahashi has lived and eaten well. He survived the woes of the MMA style that Antonio Inoki loved so dearly and kept NJPW afloat by remaining a professional wrestler. Though that previous match was a showcase against sometime well-versed in MMA in Nakamura, how would Tanahashi fare against someone who in essence actually is mixed-martial arts? Enter Minoru Suzuki.

Suzuki is of the pioneers of MMA with a side hustle in pro-wrestling. He was taught via legendary amateur wrestler Karl Gotch, who was often referred to by his Japanese pupils as “God”. Clearly Tanahashi is out of his league here. He’s dealing with a monster ripped straight from a Junji Ito manga. He walks into Ryogoku Kokugikan to the tune of Kaze Ni Nare.

Tanahashi walks in, beloved as always, with the IWGP title across his waist. This must feel like an ordinary day to him, but something haunting lies in wait.

The bell starts the match and a cautious lock-up begins. Suzuki is quick on the offense, cold and calculating, using his catch skills to subdue Tanahashi. This isn’t the fear. Not yet.

Tanahashi makes a mockery of Suzuki when he secures a hold of his own, and strums across him as though he were a guitar. You don’t do that with Suzuki. He pulls on Tanahashi’s long, luscious flowing hair until he is released. Suzuki is great at locking opponents in at the right time with his advanced grappling skills, and as he hangs on to the ropes, he holds on to the champ.

This isn’t some average wrestler that Tanahashi has to compete with. It’s a man who was moulded by the style of wrestling beyond Inoki’s dreams. Tanahashi is dealing with a literal demon who will drag him into the realm of nightmares. And Suzuki will do it while licking his lips with that harrowing grin.

Most of the match consists of dark twists and agonizing holds that Tanahashi and his limbs are lucky to survive. The universe grants the Ace one boon, an opportunity to trip up his frightening opponent and gain some ground for once in this match.

Credit: NJPW

To show there is no depths that he won’t sink to, Murder Grandpa Suzuki uses his teeth to rip off tape and bandage to expose Tanahashi’s weak spot and put him back in the pit of hell and despair he thrives in.

Suzuki lodges in a barrel of offense, yet Tanahashi is able to keep up with some of his own, including a Texas Cloverleaf, only Suzuki welcomes the pain with yells of anguish as he attempts to powers out. Tanahashi initiates a figure-four leglock that lasts over two minutes with Suzuki writhing, all the while still talking shit to Tanahashi. Eventually Suzuki forces a rope break, stills this fares not well for the catch-as-catch-can wrestler.

Hobbling about in misery, or so it seems, he baits Tanahashi into thinking that the match was shifting to his favor. A sudden dropkick puts the tide back into Suzuki’s favor, either by pure willpower or evil genius.

From the classic strong style slap fights to holding Tanahashi into near unconsciousness, Suzuki struggles to get the job done. Tanahashi gains upward momentum with Slingblades and High Fly Flows. No matter how many times Suzuki can catch him, Tana escapes and with one last High Fly Flow, the champion wins, but likely changed forever by this experience. There’s few who have wrestled him to the levels that Minoru Suzuki has. That’s the thing with Murder Grandpa, however. It’s not a matter of winning, it’s a matter of surviving. He plays to win, no matter what he breaks to achieve it, a tree rooted in evil and anguish. 

Yet Tanahashi walks free and still…IWGP Heavyweight Champion!

This match is cherished among NJPW fans, landing the promotion its first five-star match from Dave Meltzer in almost 12 years. That was the power of the promotion’s biggest star going against a villain so believable in dethroning the champ.

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Scott Hall, September 9 2001 (NJPW G1 World 2001 – Tag 3)
Now to humble beginnings, as an American legend had a short but vital match in the career of the man who would one day become the ace of his promotion and save it from darkness. 

I’ve made it clear how much I’m a fan of Scott Hall. His time in the NWO and as Razor Ramon will live on for forever. He was already a legend at this point, an incredibly huge star. His opponent tonight was a very young Hiroshi Tanahashi. Simple work for the Bad Guy, right?

Smooth as butter and dripping with machismo, Hall enters the ring to “Ready or Not” by The Fugees, ready for an upcoming match with Keiji Mutoh after some previous tag team successes.

Tanahashi was ready for what was one of the biggest matches in his short career at that point. 

This match is short, but effective. Starting with the trademark flick of a toothpick, Hall is at his most Scott Hall. He dominates the less-experienced talent, disrespecting him with slaps to the head while keeping him in an arm-hold. Tanahashi gets little offense or defense. Hall just ragdolls him with slams and flips whenever he’s not stretching him into oblivion. All with the pose of a man overflowing with bravado. He then dispatches Tanahashi with a Razor’s Edge and proceeds to motion for a microphone, thinking that the only thing keeping him from victory was time.

Hey. Mutoh Keiji. If you ever step in the ring with Scott Hall, this is gonna be you.”

Famous last words. Tanahashi sneaks in with a surprise roll-up and gets the win over a legend. Hall is irate and the early shine of a star is born.

This moment was huge for Tanahashi, as Scott Hall was someone who sought to elevate people in their careers. This was no exception. I chose this match to end on, because it was simply a nice and short little story that puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. I know this isn’t about Scott Hall, but I miss you, man.

Credit: NJPW

My Thoughts and Feelings
Man, was it amazing to see some of the matches that embody the greatness of Hiroshi Tanahashi. Revisiting some classics and experiencing greatness, I saw just how vital someone like Tanahashi is. 

I wanted Kenny to win as I watched their match in 2019. He was my hero and I wanted him to stay in Japan. Tanahashi was just some guy to me back then. Watching it now, I didn’t have heat with Tanahashi. Instead, this was something unique. Both men were babyfaces and heels simultaneously in my eyes, fighting for ideals rather than true gold. As the match went on I even found myself shifting to Tanahashi’s side. 

The match with Nakamura really exemplified the desperation for glory when both men had nothing left to prove. It told its story effectively and made the thirty-plus minutes feel like fifteen.

The Suzuki match gave me total John Cena vs Brock Lesnar at Summerslam vibes, albeit with a different ending. These three matches forced Tanahashi to work a style on each respective wrestler’s level, sort of how Tanahashi worked in a style associated with Jon Moxley when NJPW and AEW collided at Forbidden Door. Tanahashi, even at his age, is a versatile performer who can do almost anything you ask of him. Sometimes consistency is key, with change-ups as needed. That’s Tanahashi. That’s talent.

That’s the Ace.