Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs AJ Styles - Wrestle Kingdom 10 (Jan 4th, 2016)
In 2011, New Japan Pro Wrestling took a brave step into a new era, crowning the first ever IWGP Intercontinental Champion, and on US soil no less. MVP stood tall at the end of a seemingly menial 8-man tournament, but it’s in the ten years since that the title has risen to the pinnacle of pro wrestling.
Shinsuke Nakamura is much to thank for that, with his image forever etched in close proximity to NJPW’s big white belt, but in the more recent reigns of Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito and Kota Ibushi, the title was elevated further still. This made its recent unification with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship evermore frustrating and baffling, as its prestige was suddenly wiped clean.
Over the years, many a great wrestler has contested for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, with them producing a myriad of stellar, must-see matches – making deciding the best five no easy feat. With an honourable mentions list too long to even dabble in, let’s forgo the prelude and head straight into the 5 best IWGP Intercontinental title matches ever.
5. Kenny Omega vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – New Beginning in Niigata (Feb 14th, 2016)
Shinsuke Nakamura’s departure from New Japan in early 2016 left the IWGP Intercontinental Championship vacated for the first and only time. The solution: Kenny Omega vs Hiroshi Tanahashi for the vacant title.
This of course made the match one steeped in history and meaning, which was clear when Omega sent his cornermen (Yujiro Takahashi and Cody Hall, remember him?) to the back, in order to fight Tanahashi mano a mano.
The packed crowd in Niigata willed Tanahashi on, but injuries to his right shoulder plagued him and led to his struggle against the then Bullet Club ‘Cleaner’. It was a match where Omega’s fitness advantages and the ‘Ace’s characteristic fighting spirit locked horns spectacularly – worthy of its spot on my list.
Many would categorise pro wrestling as a fusion of sport, drama and entertainment, and this match encapsulated the sentiment perfectly.
4. Tetsuya Naito (c) vs Kota Ibushi – G1 Supercard in MSG (Apr 6th, 2019)
Jeopardy is vital in all top pro wrestling action, with every Tetsuya Naito and Kota Ibushi encounter carrying copious amounts. Their first match in the USA took place at NJPW’s thrilling G1 Supercard in Madison Square Garden during 2019’s WrestleMania weekend, and with it came palpable excitement.
Naito and Ibushi battled their usual high-thrills style, marrying drama with athleticism and their spectacular character development skills. The two rivals had an affinity for dropping each other (and themselves) on their heads, a dually frightening and exciting formula. Hurricaranas, poisonranas, swinging-DDTs, German suplexes over-the-ropes, and Destinos landed these two adversaries squarely on their heads in a sickening amount of exhilaratingly dangerous bumps.
Naito took the strategy to wear down the ‘Golden Star’, a change from their matches previous to this IWGP Intercontinental title showdown. However, he was met by Ibushi’s “car-crash” (as Colt Cabana described on commentary) arsenal of offence in a match for the ages.
3. Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs AJ Styles – Wrestle Kingdom 10 (Jan 4th, 2016)
Any list detailing the IWGP Intercontinental title is incomplete without at least one mention of the ‘King of Strong Style’. His Wrestle Kingdom 10 defence against the ‘Phenomenal One’ was a history-defining and world class match.
In what can only be described as a “dream match”, Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles both fought their final singles match for New Japan, before jetting off to WWE soon thereafter. It was an emotionally charged battle, with Shinsuke and AJ proving why they were (and still are) considered among the very best wrestlers in the world.
Nakamura mocked Styles in his usual exuberant way in the early goings, with this only adding to the drama and tension of the tantalising encounter. The match had crunching strikes, submission battles, slick transitions, a crowd at elated fever pitch and every other possible element you would want from a match of such great magnitude.
It still stands as the most thrilling of wrestling matches, even over 5 years on, with the moment they shared post-match forever etched in pro wrestling history.
2. Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs Minoru Suzuki – New Beginning in Sapporo Day 1 (Jan 27th, 2018)
Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the longest match this list delivered the grandeur of a stellar New Japan main event. It avoided the tropes which weigh down the overly long NJPW main events (especially of these last couple years), as each move, each moment, and second carried meaning.
Hiroshi Tanahashi and Minoru Suzuki have had multiple world class matches against one another, with this 2018 battle over the Intercontinental belt a worthy addition to the list.
Suzuki introduced a chair into this match-up, before his vicious kicks became the order of the day. The duo are a perfect pairing, the driving fighting spirit of the champion meeting the insurmountable toughness and striking proficiency of the sadistic challenger.
Tanahashi’s primary focus became the right leg of the ‘King’, while Suzuki took aim at the champion’s pre-injured knees. This match was truly phenomenal, with two of the best to ever lace up a pair of boots doing battle in a brutal war inside NJPW’s sacred squared circle.
1. Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs Kota Ibushi – Wrestle Kingdom 9 (Jan 4th, 2015)
It’s easy to tend towards completely hyperbolic terms when discussing a wrestling match, but this Wrestle Kingdom 9 encounter makes hyperbole impossible. It’s one of the best matches of all time, and the outright best to have the IWGP Intercontinental title on the line.
Wrestle Kingdom is New Japan’s biggest annual event, the WrestleMania of Japanese wrestling, so with it comes a plethora of stunning matches from over the years. In 2015, Wrestle Kingdom 9 was a customarily stacked card with NJPW icon Shinsuke Nakamura’s Intercontinental defence against Kota Ibushi the much anticipated semi-main event.
The match was pure perfection, delivering everything you could ask of such a high-profile affair. From gripping character work to delightful combat, this was the perfect pro wrestling match.
Nakamura’s entrance was one befitting a king, but it was the match that ensued which proved he was pro wrestling royalty. Both men exuded strong-style finesse, with a wonderful array of offence both inside and out of the traditional style. It had everything. A must-see match for any wrestling fan, no matter their persuasions.
In my book, Nakamura vs Ibushi is the best IWGP Intercontinental Championship match to ever take place. With the title now unificated, it’s matches like these that the championship will be remembered by most predominantly. A legacy well worth keeping a hold of.
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