The Build Up
It was late 2004, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi were New Japan’s rising stars. By this time, Nakamura had already become the youngest ever IWGP Heavyweight champion, defeating Hiroyoshi Tenzan in 2003. Tanahashi too had captured some gold in 2003, in the IWGP U-30 Openweight championship. Interestingly, Tanahashi would go on to lose that title to Nakamura at Toukon Festival: Wrestling World 2005 in the Tokyo Dome, which was basically Wrestle Kingdom before it was known as Wrestle Kingdom. That was the first notable singles match the two had ever had, and the start of what would be one of New Japan’s greatest rivalries that continues to this day. But before that match in 2005, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi were besties. Well, maybe not besties, but they were a formidable tag team.
Meanwhile, in early 2004, Minoru Suzuki and Yoshihiro Takayama, two wrestlers known for their legitimate toughness, had captured the IWGP Tag Team titles from Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Osamu Nishimura, ending their brief 49 day run. Suzuki and Takayama had a dominant 294 day run as champs, a run that would’ve continued even longer, had they not vacated the titles on November 21st. Of course, vacating the titles was completely out of their hands. In an unsurprisingly physical, hard-hitting match against Kensuke Sasaki, Takayama suffered a cerebral thrombosis, which is a form of stroke. The stroke left part of his face paralysed, and he had to take about two years off from pro wrestling. Although in that time, he did do some colour commentary for Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Less than a month after the titles were vacated, they would once again be up for grabs on December 11th, 2004, at NJPW Battle Final in Osaka, Japan. One of the teams vying for the titles was the hungry, young upstarts, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi. The other team consisted of one half of the previous title holders who was trying to reclaim his vacated title – Minoru Suzuki, and the man who was in the match which sidelined the other previous champion – Kensuke Sasaki. To say Nakamura and Tanahashi would have their work cut out for them would be quite the understatement.
Now, while the titles were vacated, watching the pre-match video package, it looked like Takayama had hand-picked Sasaki to team with Suzuki, handing him his half of the tag titles. When coming to the ring, Suzuki and Sasaki actually still had the titles with them. I’m assuming that they had simply kept hold of the titles, even though they were technically vacated and Suzuki and Sasaki weren’t really the champions.
The match started and it’s clear very early on that Nakamura and Tanahashi are in for an uphill battle. Suzuki and Sasaki immediately take control and work over Tanahashi. After being dominated for nearly ten straight minutes, Tanahashi, who is now selling his leg like it could be broken, eventually makes a tag. Nakamura comes in hot, but is very quickly cut down and turned inside out by a Sasaki lariat. Now it’s Nakamura’s turn to take a beating, and boy did he take a long one. For about twelve minutes, Suzuki and Sasaki tear Nakamura to pieces. Nakamura tries to tag in Tanahashi multiple times, but is always cut off just before reaching his partner. Suzuki and Sasaki are in complete control and absolutely schooling the youngsters in tag team wrestling.
Nakamura finally makes a tag and Tanahashi has a Daniel Bryan-esque flurry of offense, including a suicida and a missile dropkick. Just when it looks like the match is turning around, Suzuki attacks Tanahashi’s injured leg, and quickly takes back control yet again.
A few minutes later, Sasaki has Tanahashi in a submission predicament, but Nakamura makes the save with what looked to be a Boma Ye on Sasaki (the cameramen didn’t get a clear shot). Nakamura has the advantage, but just like before, it doesn’t last long.
Finally, after countless hope spots (well, about three or four), almost completely worn out, Nakamura surprises Suzuki with a cross armbreaker out of nowhere. Suzuki makes the ropes, Nakamura makes a tag, and Tanahashi comes in. After almost thirty minutes, the match is finally turning around for Nakamura and Tanahashi. Sensing the shift in control, the crowd now comes alive with excitement. They know they’re in for something special.
The last five or so minutes of the match is simply beautiful. Wonderful double team moves, nearfalls and submission attempts by both teams. With Nakamura and Sasaki busy on the outside, Suzuki hits his Gotch piledriver on Tanahashi, a move that puts most men away, but Tanahashi kicks out. Suzuki then tries to put an end to things once and for all with Saka Otoshi – an inverted facelock takeover transitioned into a sleeper – but Tanahashi avoids the sleeper and counters with a small package. Suzuki kicks out, but Tanahashi immediately hits a bridging dragon suplex and gets the pin. After being dominated for nearly the entire match, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura are the new IWGP Tag Team champions. And boy did they earn it!
Nakamura and Tanahashi would go on to hold the titles for a very respectable 323 days, eventually dropping them to Cho-Ten (Masahiro Chono and Hiroyoshi Tenzan) on October 30th, 2005 in Kobe, Japan. In that time, they would successfully defend the belts on no more than four occasions. Not a lot considering the length of their reign, but it’s also not dissimilar to other reigns of that length. It’s also the only reign the two have had as tag team champions together.
Despite being just inside the top ten longest IWGP tag title runs, it’s not a reign which is often talked about, and has even been forgotten by some. My Japanese friend who’s been a fan of NJPW for a number of years, didn’t even realise they had been tag champs together until I brought it up.
While not memorable for some, I like that before these two guys would go on to face each other on a number of occasions, usually resulting in classic matches, they were actually a great tag team. It was pre-SWAG/YeaOh Shinsuke Nakamura, and pre-Air Guitar/High Fly Flow Hiroshi Tanahashi. It was 2004 and these two youngsters were on their way up. They are now both top guys in NJPW, and after watching how they won the tag titles in 2004, it’s not hard to see why.