The Japanese wrestling market, just like the American pro wrestling market, is not what it once was. The collapse of All-Japan Pro Wrestling, along with the death of Mitsuharu Misawa, have dealt significant injuries to the industry. The days of selling out the Tokyo Dome and wrestling producing the highest rated shows on Japanese television are long gone. During the darkest period of Japanese wrestling the top star in the country has been Hiroshi Tanahashi, who stands alone as the only icon from his generation.
Tanahashi picked up amateur wrestling in college, while he was attending Ritsumeikan University and was successful despite having little experience. His accomplishments on the mat attracted the attention of trainers from New Japan Pro Wrestling, and soon he was wrestling in the NJPW Dojo and made his in-ring debut in October of 1999. Tanahashi was instantly pegged by management as a potential superstar, and was teamed up with fellow trainees Katsuyori Shibata and Shinsuke Nakamura as the future stars that were going to carry the company. Tanahashi, Shibata and Nakamura were dubbed "The New Three Musketeers" in reference to Three Musketeers of Masa Chono, Shinya Hashimoto and Keiji Mutoh, the previous generation of wrestlers that had led NJPW to its greatest business success in company history.
Tanahashi immediately was given a push and in 2002, less than three years after his debut, Tanahashi defeated multiple-time IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Kensuke Sasaki in the G1 Climax in under three minutes. In Japan, where the climbing of the ladder happens slowly, one rung at a time, a victory like this is unheard of. In November of 2002, Tanahashi was involved in a domestic dispute that saw his girlfriend, a well-known television news reporter, stab Tanahashi in the back, hospitalizing the wrestler. The event was widely covered by the Japanese media, and Tanahashi's star began to rise even further while he recovered from his injury. When he returned to the ring in February of 2003, he drew a sold out crowd to take on Manabu Nakanishi.
From there Tanahashi would continue to rise, winning the IWGP U-30 Openweight Championship, a championship NJPW had for wrestlers under the age of 30. Eventually, Tanahashi would end up main eventing the annual January 4 Tokyo Dome show, dropping the championship to Nakamura in front of 46,000 fans, showing that Tanahashi had the ability to draw a huge audience. Tanahashi would continue to stand on the threshold of full-time main event status for the next couple years.
In early 2006, as a part of a talent exchange between NJPW and TNA, Tanahashi made his debut in the United States, wrestling AJ Styles at TNA's Final Destination PPV. He would then return to Japan and was named the number one contender for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, which was currently held by Brock Lesnar. When Lesnar no-showed the supposed title match, a tournament was held to crown a new champion, Lesnar was stripped of the championship. Tanahashi made it to the finals of the tournament were he faced Giant Bernard (Tensai/Albert in WWE). In a terrific match, Tanahashi dethroned the much larger Bernard with his trademark sling blade maneuver to capture his first world championship.
What separates Tanahashi from his peers is that he was a classic babyface during a time when wrestling fans had been conditioned to support the anti-hero. Particularly in contrast with his two greatest Japanese rivals, Kazuchika Okada and certainly Shinsuke Nakamura, both of whom are in the anti-hero mode, Tanahashi stood out as a classic babyface who fought from underneath, sold his opponents offense well and made tremendous comebacks. Tanahashi connected with the Japanese audience better than any other wrestler of his generation, it was not uncommon to see people crying in the audience after a big victory. His promos after shows are the stuff of legend in Japan and he controls an audience with the aplomb of a symphony orchestra conductor.
Tanahashi is by many measures, the greatest IWGP World Heavyweight Champion in history. His seven title reigns are the most all-time, and he also holds the record for most successful title defenses and combined days as champion. He has worked five star matches with up-and-coming Kazuchika Okada and the veteran Minoru Suzuki. No wrestler in the last 15 years has afilled with so many high-quality matches. NJPW has done good business over the last few years, but previously they had been in the hole financially during the late-2000s. While the talent that brought them to such heights began to age, NJPW struggled to create new stars to fill their shoes. The one constant was Tanahashi, who was a rock for the company, always being counted on to draw an audience and put on strong matches, no matter who he was facing. Tanahashi always ensured that fans that paid for the shows got their money's worth, which is exactly what the company needed at the time.
Next week #41 will be revealed, a foreign heel who became one of the biggest stars in the United States thanks to his violent antics.
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi