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Cafe Puro (9/28/15): Chronicling V11—Ranking Tanahashi's 2011-2012 Title Defenses


Before his career would even end, Hiroshi Tanahashi will have a spot in any Hall of Fame as one of the greatest professional wrestlers who ever lived, truly a "Once in a Century Talent," as New Japan Pro Wrestling would often remind you. And one of the reasons would be his historic fifth title reign for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, known for achieving V11, aka 11 successful title defenses. By doing so, he now holds the record for the most championship defenses in history, an achievement anyone would envy.

Today, we are going to do something very different. Seeing as though title defenses in some cases have been severely undervalued in many situations as of late (Nikki Bella, Brock Lesnar, and Dean Ambrose benefited from the lack of title defenses during their championship reigns), it's high time we highlight the importance of title defenses through Tanahashi's 2011-2012 run. Ever since he defeated the freelancer, Satoshi Kojima, for the title at Wrestle Kingdom V, he's taken on all comers from different walks of life. And with that, we will rank all 11 title defenses based on match quality and importance to the reign. 

Take note: due to NJPW's new business model in highlighting other championships in the main event, this record is expected to live for a very long time. And in the case of Tanahashi, he certainly deserves the honor. So without any further adieu:

11. Toru Yano (November 12, 2011)

A Yano match is a Yano match, so you know what to expect. It's Yano being a total heel against the face of the company, a man whose intention was to get back the title Yano stole from him some time back. So as a champion without a title, Tanahashi wanted to make sure that he not only defeat Yano in the main event, but also get back the title through physical means. In terms of relevance, this became an appetizer before the main course of his reign, which we'll talk about later on.

10. Charlie Haas (May 14, 2011)

It seemed unusual to see Charlie Haas's name in the list (and he's a fighting machine in his own right). And while the match did not really live up to much hype and fanfare as compared to the other matches on this list, this match was more historic than anything. This marked the first time that NJPW had a tour in the United States (through Jersey All-Pro Wrestling), an idea that seemed like a pipe dream a long time ago. This is also the second time that the biggest title in NJPW was defended in the United States, a big deal indeed for a title that has a lot of prestige going on. What the match lacked in hype and intensity, it made up in terms of history.

9. Giant Bernard (July 18, 2011)

Today, he's known as Jason Albert, NXT color commentator, or Matt Bloom, head coach of the WWE Performance Center. Prior to that, he was a legendary tag team wrestler in New Japan and a destroyer known as Giant Bernard, who was in the middle of a historic title reign in his own right along with Karl Anderson. In exchange for giving Tanahashi an IWGP Tag Title shot (more on this below), the Ace of New Japan gave him an IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match.

In a rematch from the crowning of a new IWGP Heavyweight Champion years back, the newest encounter showed how much Tanahashi has grown from young lion to Mr. Main Event. Bernard showed everyone that while he is primarily a tag team wrestler, as a singles competitor, he has a lot to show everyone, and management has certainly taken notice. He may not have gotten the title reign he deserved, but he was still a mega player as one half of Bad Intentions.

8. Satoshi Kojima (February 20, 2011)

After Kojima lost his title at Wrestle Kingdom V, the rematch would be inevitable, and he got his wish a month later. It was during this time that Kojima was still a fighting machine, ready to be put in any main event. Tanahashi's resilience overcame Kojima's experience and power, which led the former to his V1 defense of the title.

This time period is also important due to the fact that by this time, Kojima was already leading a group of lackeys in the form of Taichi, TAKA Michinoku, Nosawa Rongai, and MVP. Yes, Montel Vontavious Porter. This group, Kojima-gun, would last a few months until Minoru Suzuki made his NJPW return and ousted him from the group, renaming it to what it is known today: Suzuki-gun.

7. Shinsuke Nakamura (Part 1, May 3, 2011)

Before he became the King of Strong Style, oozing with swag, Nakamura was still the leader of CHAOS and the man who has a lot to show in terms of being a serious badass. So when they fought each other on May 2015, it was a continuation of the rivalry that spanned their entire career. And while Nakamura lost this particular encounter, it wouldn't be the last time they would meet each other.

6. Yuji Nagata (Part 1, April 3, 2011)

Before the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and the NEVER Openweight Championship, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was the only big deal for singles wrestlers in NJPW. So when Yuji Nagata, a man that continued to defy age, won the 2011 installment of the New Japan Cup, the prize was very clear: a shot at Tanahashi's belt. And on April 2011, they fought one another to a championship battle between the current generation and the previous generation, with the younger Tanahashi overcoming another third generation wrestler in Nagata. Nagata lost the match, but he would have a more pressing issue some months later that would seriously call his attention—one with historical implications.

5. Hirooki Goto (June 18, 2011)

Goto was in a crisis during this time. After going through different stages of his career, he knew he had to make some changes. So some time after Wrestle Kingdom V, he decided to leave Japan and undergo an excursion with CMLL, in order to develop more as a complete wrestler. The result? He came back and fully embraced the "samurai" persona he has on to this day. It was a monumental moment because we really thought it would be the day that he finally gets his due: an IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign. But alas, it did not happen as Tanahashi retained the belt successfully. He did, however, get to team with Tanahashi to compete against Bad Intentions for the IWGP Tag Team titles following the match.

4. Tetsuya Naito (October 10, 2011)

Understanding Naito now means you have to look at where he has been previously. People loved Naito so much, fans had no problem chanting his name before this match even began. It was a case of current Ace taking on a potential new Ace when Tanahashi and Naito fought each other, a rematch from the G1 Climax match previously when Naito pulled the upset over Tanahashi before reaching the Finals. And while Naito did lose the finals of the G1, he was rewarded with a title match months later due to his momentum and rising popularity.

The match was as hot as expected, with Naito almost being able to pull off the same upset as some time back, but Tanahashi, ever the veteran, pulled off a victory just before he would see his own momentum being dashed. Naito's bout with Tanahashi became a defining moment in the rise of his career to where he would be today. But like Goto, his time has yet to come.

3. Shinsuke Nakamura (Part 2, September 19, 2011)

Before the idea of a main event shot at Wrestle Kingdom became part of the prize for winning the G1, it was traditionally practiced that the winner would get a title shot sooner rather than later. And in the case of Shinsuke Nakamura, he had the chance to avenge his loss from some months back. This also marked Nakamura's first ever G1 victory despite his already impressive resume, and the last time that a title shot was rewarded just a few months after a G1 victory.

With that red hot momentum behind Nakamura, he challenged Tanahashi a second time for the title, hoping that the story would be different this time around. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be as the curse of the G1 winner not winning the title would begin by this time. Since then, no one has won the title after winning the G1, something Tanahashi himself will be avoiding next year when he faces Okada for the title.

2. Yuji Nagata (Part 2, December 4, 2011)

Nagata is known for a lot of things. He's Mr. Anti Aging these days, but he is also Mr. IWGP for being a true ambassador for the title in a very dark time in the company. He's also known as Mr. V10, for the most title defenses at that time. Knowing that Tanahashi would attempt to tie Nagata's record, the latter decided that if the former deserves to pass his record, it had to go through him.

And so, it happened: Nagata got another chance at the title, and a chance to stop Tanahashi from achieving his record. In a moment that shocked old school fans who witnessed Mr. Anti Aging's growth for years, Nagata lost his match to Tanahashi, effectively tying the record for most title defenses. Tying the record is one thing, but to break the record...

1. Minoru Suzuki (January 4, 2012)

...Tanahashi had to go through one of the best wrestlers on the planet, who happens to be a legitimate badass and a foundation of modern day MMA at the same time. And at Wrestle Kingdom 6, he fought Minoru Suzuki in an NJPW vs. Suzuki-gun showdown at the main event, with a Tanahashi win making him Mr. V11. Interesting too, since Suzuki is a rival of Nagata, and a win would show Suzuki that he is much better than Nagata at this point in his career.

In a truly defining moment, after the High Fly Flow, Tanahashi made history by becoming the first and only person to defend the title successfully for 11 consecutive times, a crazy feat that took exactly one year to achieve.

There is also a second reason why this is significant. At this same event, a certain someone made his return to NJPW and challenged Tanahashi to a title match, giving the ace an opportunity to extend his record further to V12. But this did not came to be as in his first ever championship opportunity, this someone defeated Tanahashi on February 12, 2012 in what is known today as the "Rainmaker Shock."

The guy's name? Kazuchika Okada.

Photo from NJPW


Lance Tan Ong has been a banking guy for the past few years but a wrestling guy for most of his life. And after checking out matches of Mitsuharu Misawa and Shinya Hashimoto at an early age, he's also pretty much a puro guy as well. Currently checking out WWE (mostly NXT), NJPW, DDT, and other promotions that catch and demand attention. He currently handles NJPW news and coverage for Smark Henry.

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