In some pro wrestling, you can have a winner and a loser, but in the best pro wrestling, everyone can be a winner. This is what Shingo Takagi and Hiroshi Tanahashi achieved in the main event of the NJPW Wrestle Grand Slam in the Tokyo Dome show.
Main eventing New Japan’s third Tokyo Dome show of the year, Shingo was set to defend his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship against Kota Ibushi. However, with an aspiration pneumonia diagnosis, the ‘Golden Star’ has been forced to take time off, leaving Takagi without a challenger for the Tokyo Dome. Enter Hiroshi Tanahashi.
The ‘Ace’ was New Japan’s saviour yet again; main eventing the world famous Tokyo Dome for the first time since 2019, Tanahashi proved he remains one of the best in history at the age of 44.
In 2021, Tanahashi has produced two Match of the Year contenders against Shingo Takagi (the first in January, and the second just last week) alongside strong NEVER Openweight contests versus both Great O-Khan and Jay White. It’s quite incredible that over two decades into his career, Tanahashi is still able to be counted as one of the world’s best.
This is testament to his characteristic reliability. He’s remained at the pinnacle of NJPW for many years, and has done so completely selflessly. Many of wrestling’s top stars have been selfish and only concerned with their own career advancement (I’m looking at you, Hulk Hogan), whereas the ‘Ace’ has instead focused on elevating New Japan as a promotion, and the wrestlers within it.
Tanahashi captured his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 2006 after Brock Lesnar left the company in an unstable situation (perhaps another one for the selfish champions list). Eight years on, it seems as if Tanahashi is signed to an oath to protect his promotion at all costs. In doing so, he’s become the company’s most loyal servant.
The pandemic has changed NJPW hugely, with this new era of New Japan booking acting as a real downgrade from the world renowned years pre-pandemic, highlighted by Omega vs Okada and the Rainmaker’s rise. However, Hiroshi Tanahashi hasn’t changed — he’s remained New Japan’s ever-constant.
Throughout 2020, NJPW’s ‘Ace’ was a permanent fixture of the heavyweight tag team division, joining forces with Kota Ibushi to face off against Dangerous Tekkers. This is a critical example of Tanahashi’s versatility, reliability and sheer importance. He managed to improve the tag team picture, perhaps even reviving it, which is no easy feat for such a long-time underwhelming division.
This year, his focus turned back to the singles division, with him capturing the NEVER Openweight Championship from Shingo Takagi at the start of the year and losing it to current champion Jay White after a successful defence against Great O-Khan in between.
Tanahashi and Takagi put together a masterpiece. They exchanged vicious strikes in a conventional heavy-hitting NEVER encounter, which simultaneously offered great, pin-point body part work, of which Tanahashi is the maestro.
Not to be outdone, they engaged in another war just a few months later, this time in the Tokyo Dome. While their second encounter didn’t quite reach the immense level of their first, it’s a cemented Match of the Year contender all the same. Tanahashi cleverly targeted Shingo’s leg – something he does better than any other – in what was a showpiece body part match. It was truly a match fitting of the Tokyo Dome main event.
The Wrestle Grand Slam main event is the most recent proof of Hiroshi Tanahashi’s ‘Ace’ status. Tanahashi ensures that not only does he remain the greatest, but that his opponents are elevated to his lofty level too. This is the fundamental aim of a company ‘Ace’, as their role is to build a promotion with themselves at the pinnacle as its most prized competitor.
Tanahashi even recently appeared (via video) on AEW Dynamite, challenging the IWGP US Heavyweight Champion, Lance Archer, to a championship match. The date: August 14th. The event: Resurgence (in Los Angeles).
NJPW trusts him to be a central figure of their important US expansion. The ‘Ace’ is clearly trusted by New Japan more than just about every other of the company’s wrestlers, so he continues to be given these high-profile positions.
For New Japan Pro Wrestling, Hiroshi Tanahashi has been, and continues to be, the ever dependable ‘Ace’. He’s perhaps even the greatest wrestler in NJPW history, proving himself as the most important asset in their extensive main event arsenal.
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