From the beginning, there has only been one ace.
Since New Japan Pro Wrestling rechristened the Jan. 4 Tokyo Dome show in 2007 as Wrestle Kingdom, the one constant atop the card has been Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Known as “The Ace” of New Japan, Tanahashi stands alone as the premier star of Wrestle Kingdom. “Mr. Tokyo Dome” has worked all 14 shows, with the only quirk being last year’s two-night event, where he worked a must-see match against Chris Jericho on Jan. 5 instead of the traditional 4th. Throughout the first 14 editions of Wrestle Kingdom, Tanahashi has been the main event for the show on nine separate occasions, once even in an Intercontinental Championship bout against Shinsuke Nakamura that received top billing over the prestigious IWGP Heavyweight Championship match.
But wrestling continues to evolve, and Father Time refuses to halt its forward momentum, even for a performer as brilliant as the innovative, charismatic, and seemingly timeless Tanahashi. No longer the child dreaming about a match against Tatsumi Fujinami or the young man poised to elevate the company to new heights, the now 44-year-old finds himself in a new role.
This year, on the familiar date of Jan. 4, Tanahashi will find himself at home in the Tokyo Dome with a stranger in his house. Instead of wrestling for the company’s future against Kenny Omega, a match at Wrestle Kingdom 13 that featured a finish that will stand the test of time for its symbolism, or facing off against Jericho in a dream match, or even slaying Keiji Mutoh in the Dome, like he did a dozen years ago, Tanahashi now prepares to lace his boots in preparation for a star wrestler’s most meaningful responsibility.
Tanahashi needs to put forth a memorable match at Wrestle Kingdom 15 not to add to his iconic past, or even to enhance his present status, but rather so he may build the future. And while prognostications over the next big star in wrestling change by the week, New Japan officials have high hopes for a legitimate, prolonged stretch of success–both commercially and in the ring–for 29-year-old Tomoyuki Oka, who will wrestle Tanahashi on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom by the name of Great-O-Khan.
“He is tough,” said Tanahashi, speaking to Sports Illustrated through a translator. “He is not just about bending the rules, he’s got a solid submission arsenal as well.”
Tanahashi has carved out a career of making the most of big moments, relishing opportunities to do the unthinkable in the Dome and conquer unbeatable opponents. His fiery comebacks have overcome the likes of Omega, Mutoh, Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, “Switchblade” Jay White, as well as New Japan mainstays like Satoshi Kojima and Minoru Suzuki. He possesses an elusive extra gear that propels his matches into an entirely different realm of greatness, but says we won’t know if that same characteristic will define O-Khan until the bell rings.
“That is up to him,” said Tanahashi. “It is about who he wants to be in that ring.”
Wrestling Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom usually means the opponent is a bona fide star (think Jericho at Wrestle Kingdom 14 or Omega the year prior) or headed in that direction (Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 7 or White at Wrestle Kingdom 12). While the future appears bright for Great-O-Khan, the present situation surrounding Wrestle Kingdom is much murkier. As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the globe, it is also affecting Wrestle Kingdom, which will, at most, have a limited number of people in the crowd. This current situation is a stark contrast to prior Wrestle Kingdoms, where the crowd would explode when Tanahashi hit his signature high fly flow off the top rope.
A particular moment of pride for Tanahashi remains Wrestle Kingdom III, when he proved to the company in a match against Mutoh–who is the legendary Great Muta–that he was the man destined to lead New Japan into its golden age.
“That was the match at the Tokyo Dome on Jan. 4, 2009,” recalled Tanahashi. “Being in the ring and looking out at the fans enjoying watching us wrestling, it made me proud of this sport.”
In addition to Wrestle Kingdom 10, which was a masterpiece of a match that saw Okada outlast his rival, another Tanahashi classic at Wrestle Kingdom took place two years ago. Somehow, and perhaps because it was Omega’s final match with the company, this match still does not receive its just due in the pantheon of greatest matches to ever take place at Wrestle Kingdom. In addition to their match, which was sensational, there was an outstanding long-term build to the bout that began after Omega seized the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Okada that prior June, while Tanahashi overcame injuries to capture the G1 Climax that August.
“Kenny Omega is a great wrestler, and he brought a new set of values to New Japan, but ones that were very different to what traditional New Japan is about,” said Tanahashi. “I went into that match wanting to get New Japan back on track, and I think I was able to do that.”
Tanahashi is approaching the twilight of his career, but pro wrestling offers its performers a longer period between sunlight and dusk, so the end of his career is not in sight. Neither age or success have dimmed his ambition, as Tanahashi would undoubtedly relish two more title reigns, making him a 10-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion. But there is no gold on the line this Jan. 4, and no main event to fulfill. That won’t change Tanahashi’s approach, seeking to repay the prizes and riches he has attained from pro wrestling by helping its future. And while he may say otherwise before entering the bout, despite his “Ace” status, Wrestle Kingdom 15 is far more about Great-O-Khan’s future than Tanahashi’s past.
“There is no doubt that the pandemic has hurt the wrestling business,” said Tanahashi. “With the time I have left in my career, I want to make pro wrestling thrive once again.
“This match is about whether Tanahashi can come back to the front line, back to the main event, back to the championship hunt. I’ll make this match the start of my revival.”