New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) rivals none with its time of service equally over 51 years. The organization was created on January 13, 1972, with Kanji Inoki being named the first president, better known by his ring-name Antonio Inoki, also the founder. Inoki is responsible for training many of the world’s best wrestlers in the 1970s and 1980s along with being known for his mixed rules contest with Muhammad Ali in 1976 with over 1.4 billion viewers worldwide. Yearly NJPW hosts their version of Wrestlemania with an event named Wrestle Kingdom. Over its generations of existence, NJPW has been a haven for “hardcore” wrestling fans looking for more than WWE being their only form of wrestling entertainment. Now we will take a look at the current world champions of NJPW through July 2023, as we get ready for the second half of the year.
NJPW World Champions Through July 2023
IWGP World Heavyweight Champion-Sanada
As you will notice with NJPW championships, they are actually referred to as “IWGP” championships. The IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix) is the kayfabe governing body over NJPW. Thus, their titles bare the governing body’s namesake. Originally created in 1983, Hulk Hogan was the recipient after winning a 10-man round-robin tournament. The title would be defended once a year against the year’s IWGP League of the Year winner. The “regularly-defended” defended version of the title would come into existence in 1987 with Inoki earning the gold.
Sakura Genesis 2023 in April 2023 is when Sanada claimed the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship from the ever-popular, Okada. Many WWE-exclusive fans have probably never heard the name Sanada. According to PWI’s official rankings at the end of 2023, Sanada sat in the #3 spot in the top wresters in the world only behind (1) Seth Rollins and (2) MJF. Sanada was actually known for his tag-team work as a former two-time IWGP Tag Team champion with Evil. Sanada is your perfect exam of failing and getting back on your feet. In 2005, when trying to break into the business, Sanada tried out for the NJPW dojo, but could not even pass the introductory test. Now, he is the premiere name in Japan.
Sanada is very cerebral in the ring with every move he makes. He showed how dangerous he can be landing a magic screw on Okada. This is a neck-whip maneuver starting out looking like a DDT with the opponent’s feet on the middle rope. It is actually a banned move in the WWE. Sanada also has a knack of pulling the fans in closer and closer as his matches go. He gets you fully invested in everything he is doing in the ring. His finishing move, Deadfall, was created specifically to reverse Okada’s finishing move, The Rainmaker, which is a devastating clothesline similar to that of JBL in the Attitude Era of WWE.
IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion-Will Ospreay
The IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship is a rather new creation of NJPW, created in 2017. The establishment was to coincide with NJPW’s push to begin touring North America as a way to retaliate against the WWE, who had recently poached four wrestlers from their organization. The first champion would be crowned in a single-elimination tournament in which AEW Vice President Kenny Omega, would earn the title. The title now sits on the hands of Omega nemesis, Will Ospreay, who is in his second reign and the 18th title holder.
You will be hard-pressed to find a high-flyer more dynamic than Ospreay. Many actually worried for his health as a younger wrestling throwing all caution to the wind in death-defying maneuvers. Through becoming more seasoned in his career, he has bulked up and incorporated more power and technical attacks. Depending on how much stock you put into Dave Meltzer’s “Star Rating System,” Ospreay owns three of the nine wrestling matches in history that are scored six stars or higher. His style has drawn lots of controversy amongst die-hard old-school wrestling fans and the “new age” of wrestling fans.
The Controversial Match
Ospreay’s 2016 Best of the Juniors bout against Ricochet stirred much of the debate around Ospreay’s wrestling style. Due to much of the “aerobics” completed almost in total sync, many wrestling fans felt the bout was too rehearsed and missed the “realism” of a fight. In the same token, many fans appreciated the athleticism needed and their style influenced many wrestlers today, particularly with reversals. One of those leading the charge against the effects of the matchup on pro wrestling was former World Champion and Japanese mega-star, Vader. Vader admired the athletic ability of each wrestler but said it was more dancing than a true professional wrestling bout. William Regal even took to social media to comment on the Vader remarks. Regal stated it best by saying, “their style may not be for everyone but the effort was there. Every county in the world has different styles of professional wrestling.”
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion-Hiromu Takahashi
The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship was created in 1986 and remains pretty much the same since it’s conception. In order to qualify for this junior heavyweight crown, the wrestler must be under 100kg (22olbs.) A legend in literally every wrestling country of the world, Jushin Thunder Liger, holds the record with 11 title reigns. The title was introduced at New Year Dash 1986 in which Shiro Koshinaka would become the first champion defeating The Cobra in a tournament.
You will find very few wrestlers in the world more eccentric than the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, Hiromu Takahashi. If you are needing an example, look no further than his Wrestle Kingdom 17 entrance in January 2023. The “Time Bomb” made his entrance in a robe covered in eyeballs connected to the jacket with long optic nerves. In a triple-threat matchup, Takahashi led the charge to put a less than on-par opponent in a one-on-one with the referee. Takahashi and third opponent, El Desperado, stood outside the ring in the corners giving Blake Christian a chance to face off with the referee for a second. These are the type of crazy antics that entice and draw in fans along with unconventional wrestling style. He has the award to back it up too, being named Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s “Best Gimmick” of 2017.
Takahashi would become the 93rd reign holder of the title after winning the championship in a fatal-four way at Wrestle Kingdom 17 in January 2023. Wrestle Kingdom is NJPW’s version of WWE’s Wrestlemania. With now only a 25% chance to walk out of the Japanese “Show of Shows” with his fifth reign as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. Two of those reigns ended due to vacating the title by way of injury. After a grueling contest, Takahashi hit the side bomb on Master Wato for the victory. Considering the amazing names on this list of wrestlers you may not be familiar with, Takahashi is the one you should run to YouTube and check out.
NJPW World Television Championship-Zack Sabre Jr.
The NJPW World Television Championship was created in October 2022 as a way to commemorate the partnership between NJPW and TV Asahi, which made 50 years. TV Asahi is one of the five major cable broadcasters based out of Tokyo. A common trait of a television championship to fans of the former WCW, all Television Championship matches will have a 15-minute time limit. A 16-man tournament began in October 2022 and concluded at Wrestle Kingdom 17 in January 2023. Spanning four rounds of action, Zack Sabre Jr would go on to win the tournament, becoming the first and only NJPW World Television Champion thus far in the short history of the title.
Zack Sabre Jr is one of the organization’s most active wrestlers, competing in several other organizations including Ring of Honor (ROH) and Pro Wrestling Gorilla (PWG.) A bit different approach to wrestling as compared to Ospreay, Sabre is arguably the most technical wrestling in the world today. He was selected as the Wrestling Observer Newsletter “Best Technical Wrestler” of the year from 2014-2020 for seven-straight years. Sabre was also named their “Best Technical Wrestler of the Decade.” In addition to being a former three-time NJPW Tag Team Champion, he has also won the New Japan Cup twice (2018 and 2022.)
Strong Openweight Championship-Eddie Kingston
Created in April 2022, the Strong Openweight Championship is owned by NJPW mainly for operation in their United States branch of the organization. Their American flagship show, NJPW Strong Live, mainly features their American talent signed to the organization. The original champion was Tom Lawlor, who is now a member of the AEW roster. A veteran of professional wrestling for over 20 years, Eddie Kingston, is the current champion after defeating Kenta at NJPW Independence Day on July 05, 2023. Kingston serves as the fifth wrestler to hold the title and the sixth reign of the title’s history.
Eddie Kingston would earn his first reign as Strong Openweight Champion after defeating Kenta in the co-main event of Night 2 of the Independence Day show. Known as one of the best wrestlers with a microphone today, Kingston is leaps and bounds above many when it comes to speaking ability. With his bruising, in your face style, Kingston typically finishes his opponents with a spinning back hand and several suplexes along the way. Since joining AEW, Kingston has earned several four-plus star matches on the Meltzer scale including a five-star tag team match with partners Bryan Danielson, Jon Moxley, Ortiz, and Santana. If you are looking for a skilled promo-artist to bring you back to the late 90’s, check out Kingston with the mic.
IWGP Tag Team Championship-Bishamon (Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi)
A championship that has been around since December 1985, the IWGP Tag Team Championship has been held by some of the best and most well-known tag teams in wrestling history. The Steiner Brothers, The Hell Raisers (consisting of Road Warrior Hawk), and the team of Vader and Bam Bam Bigelow. The original champions were crowned at the conclusion of a tournament that saw the team of Kengo Kimura and Tatsumi Fujinami defeat Inoki and Seiji Sakaguchi.
The current champions of Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi (Bishamon) won the titles for a third time by defeating House of Tourtue and United Empire in a three-way tag team match for the vacant titles. This event took place at Dominion 6.4 in June 2023. No stranger to NJPW team gold, Yoshi-Hashi is a former member of the three-way team that held the Never Openweight Six-Man Championship, which holds the record for longest reign. Since his return to NJPW in 2012, Hashi has found himself in nearly every tournament held by NJPW, single or tag team. The team was even able to compete on the epic AEW/NJPW Forbidden Door pay-per-view in which they defeated Q.T. Marshall and Aaron Solo in June 2022.
You will find very few wrestlers you can cash in the NJPW resume as Hirooki Goto. A former two-time IWGP International and five time NEVER Openweight champion, he is in his fourth reign as a NJPW Tag Team Champion. Adding to his trophy case, Goto is also a G1 Climax, New Japan Cup, and Young Lion Cup winner. Pro Wrestling Illustrated ranked Goto #35 in their top 500 single wrestlers in the world in 2010. If you are looking for a solid, in-ring competetor, Goto is your man.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship-Drilla Moloney and Clark Conners
Similar to it’s singles title, the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship has a weight limit of 100kg (220lb) for each competitor in the ranks. Created in 1998, the first holders of the title were Shinjiro Otani and Tatsuhito Takaiwa in a tournament. There have been 53 wrestlers comprising 40 times and 71 reigns connected to the championship. The Young Bucks, Vice Presidents of AEW, hold the record for a team reign with seven different holdings. Currently, the Bullet Club War Dogs (Clark Connors and Drilla Moloney) hold the crowns after defeating Catch 2/2 on the NJPW Independence Day show earlier this month.
A former member of the rival group, United Empire, Drilla Moloney turned his back on his former mates to join the world-infamous Bullet Club and began to team with Clark Conners. A young wrestler in the infancy of wrestling on a world stage, Pro Wrestling Illustrated listed Moloney as #391 in their top-500 wrestlers in the world today. Joining the Bullet Club, arguably the hottest faction in pro wrestling, can’t do anything but help build the stock value of Moloney as he continues to grow in pro wrestling.
Another young talent and graduate of the NJPW LA dogo, Clark Conners, was awarded as Pro Wrestling Illustrated #261 of top-500 wrestlers in the world list in 2022. Learning from some of the best minds currently training in NJPW, Conners performed well early on in the Lions Cup before joining the Bullet Club and teaming up with Moloney. The team would instantly strike gold just shortly after uniting as a team. Conners, similar to his teammate Moloney, appears to be a rising star of the future for not only NJPW, but pro wrestling worldwide.
IWGP Women’s Championship-Mayu Iwatani
Though NJPW and their championships have been around for decades, it was not until one year ago in July 2022, that a IWGP Women’s Championship would be formally introduced. NJPW would enlist talent from their sister promotion, World Wonder Ring Stardom, to provide the talent to compete in the organization’s first tournament to crown a champion. Thus far, the championship has seen three reigns with Kairi winning a seven-woman tournament. Many WWE fans will recognize Kairi as “Kairi Sane” from here few years in the organization prior to her NJPW championship title reign.
Mayu Iwatani is the current champion after defeating Mercedes Mone, another familiar wrestler to WWE fans known as Sasha Banks, in April 2023 at All Star Grand Queendom. In 2017, Dave Meltzer referred to Iwatani (along with Io Shirai and Kairi) as three of the best women workers in the business today. Iwatani has the resume to back it up. Prior to NJPW partnering with World Wonder Ring Stardom to crown a champion, Iwatani has been crowned the two-time world championship, five-time Artist of Stardom championship, along with a one-time High Speed championship, one-time SWA world championship, and one-time ROH Women of Honor championship title. Pro Wrestling Illustrated has recognized her amazing wrestling ability as well naming her within the top-27 for three years in 2018, 2020, and 2022.
Strong Women’s Championship-Giulia
Even newer than it’s counter-part the IWGP Women’s Championship, the Strong Women’s Championship was created this year in April 2023. This title differs in that it is defended exclusively on American broadcast, NJPW Strong Live, with mostly American talent competing for the gold. A four-woman tournament took place on May 21, 2023, with Willow Nightingale defeating Mercedes Mone for the championship’s first reign. The second and current champion, Giulia, earned the title by defeating Nightingale at NJPW Independence Day Night 2 only July 05, 2023.
The 2020 Tokyo Sports Women’s Wrestling Grand Prize winner, Giulia, has already racked up quite the wall of awards within her first few years of experience in the squared-circle. Pro Wrestling Illustrated named her the #16 of the top-15 female wrestlers in the world for 2021. Giulia has been on the NJPW scene for years actually, competing in Wrestle Kingdom 15 and at Historic X-Over in 2022 where she teamed with Zack Sabre Jr. Though smaller in stature, Giulia brings the fight with her strength while mixing in high-flying maneuvers.
I am a life-long MMA fan who has been a fan since UFC 1. I was born in Illinois but raised in South Louisiana, home of many great mixed martial artists. I started martial arts at the age of 4 and continued into my adult years where I served nearly 10 years in law enforcement. I feel my job is to convey the stories of the MMA fighters we enjoy to watch and share their stories with the world.
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