Crowning Underachievements: Tag Teams Collide at NJPW’s 50th Anniversary

Not everyone can be a superstar in professional wrestling. Indeed, the entire history of the business is littered with more “journeymen,” “good hands,” jobbers, midcarders, curtain jerkers, also-rans and never-weres, then your rare, bona-fide mainstream names and pop culture icons. But hey, someone has to fill the slots on the card, and they can’t all be winners, right?

On 3/1/2022, New Japan Pro Wrestling held its 50th Anniversary Event from Tokyo Nippon Budokan. The pedant in me wants to point out that the actual date of the very first NJPW show was 3/6/1972, the company has observed the date closely enough, if not exactly on it, when they’ve had to. It was a pageant and spectacle, from the opening ceremony showing numerous NJPW stars from the days of yore, from Tatsumi Fujinami and Yoshiaki Fujiwara (both of whom were in the main event), the UWF traitor Akira Maeda, Keiji Muto, Jushin Thunder Liger, Masahiro Chono, even the classic ring announcer Hidekazu “Kero” Tanaka, down to, well, the main event, with stars of yesterday and today battling it out.

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But those are the names we remember from the fifty year history of the company. Rare is it that you find anyone who remembers the names of Shunji Kosugi (winner of the very first Young Lions Cup in 1985, beating the future Liger, Keiichi Yamada; he was forced to retire on 4/10/1988 after a severe back injury), Naofumi Yamamoto (to be fair, he is better known as Yoshitatsu, from WWE, NJPW and AJPW) or Takumi Honjo (dojo trainee from 2016, had six matches, and quit).

The annual Heavyweight Champion vs. Junior Champion that takes place on the NJPW Anniversary shows was a little different this year. For one thing, it was not the main event; that was reserved for Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Tatsumi Fujinami vs. Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr., and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. For another, it was not a singles match. Instead, the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada wrestled the IWGP Junior champion El Desperado the next night instead, in an opening round New Japan Cup 2022 match. In its place was a match between Heavyweight and Junior Tag Team champions, as Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI) took on Team Six or Nine (Ryusuke Taguchi & Master Wato).

What really set this apart, is that despite everyone in the match being a current belt-carrying champion, each man in this match has been seen over the years as an underachiever, a joke, a comedy wrestler, or just plain bad.

The Heavyweights

YOSHI-HASHI was likely never on anyone’s radar as a potential star. Debuting on 6/8/2008, he only had a handful of wins, including a shock win against AKIRA in 2010’s edition of Best Of The Super Juniors, before going to Mexico through 2011, where he worked rudo in CMLL with Shigeo Okumura & Taichi, losing his hair to Rush on 8/1/2011. On his return, he joined Shinsuke Nakamura’s CHAOS stable, changed his name to YOSHI-HASHI, and promptly lost in under five minutes on 1/4/2012 at Wrestle Kingdom VI to another excursion returnee, the future top man in the entire company, the Rainmaker, Kazuchika Okada. After that, YOSHI-HASHI had few title shots here and there, both tag and singles, but never really amounted to much. He was always just … there.

Hirooki Goto, on the other hand, looked like he had the makings of a future top guy in NJPW. Debuting in 2003, and winning the 2005 Young Lions Cup, Goto had made something of himself … up to a point. Prior to last year, despite winning the New Japan Cup three times (2009, 2010, and 2012), both sets of IWGP tag team titles, the IWGP Intercontinental belt twice, the World Tag League twice and G1 Climax in 2008, Goto has been more defined by what he HADN’T achieved.

NJPW 50th Anniversary

Goto has the ignominy of having had eight different shots at the IWGP Heavyweight title, and never winning any of them. From 2007–2016, he faced off against the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura, Keiji Muto, and three times each versus Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, and came up short each and every time. Goto has not been seen as a serious contender for the top belt since 2016, despite numerous runs as the NEVER Openweight Champion, and generally considered to regularly have one of the best matches of the night at Wrestle Kingdom year on year, usually for said Openweight title. It did not help his cause when, in storyline, he joined the CHAOS stable in March 2016, a mere month after waging war on the stable’s new leader Okada, a move seen as emasculating Goto by many fans, making him a lapdog to the Rainmaker. With each passing month, the likelihood of Hirooki Goto ever being IWGP champion wanes further, and even a “sympathy reign” looks increasingly improbable.

What changed for the pair? Last year’s record-setting reign as NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champions. Goto and YOSHI-HASHI, along with Tomohiro Ishii, held those titles for 454 days (8/9/2020 – 11/6/2021), with 9 successful defenses. It was YOSHI-HASHI’s first title of any kind in his 12-year career up to that point. For Goto, it seemed as if he’d plateaued with these belts, seen by many up til then (including myself) as comedy titles. Instead, with surprisingly good matches to boot, Goto, YOSHI-HASHI and Ishii were the longest-standing champions in NJPW at points during 2021 and elevated the titles. Their title matches were often bright points in a very down year for NJPW. And indeed, the reign elevated Goto & YOSHI-HASHI too. The pair would go on to win the 2021 World Tag League, and at Wrestle Kingdom 16, were able to parlay that into being the new IWGP Heavweight Tag Team champions, beating the popular Dangerous Tekkers (Taichi & Zach Sabre Jr.) in the process.

The Juniors

Regarding their opponents at the Anniversary, Hirai Kawato debuted on 1/3/2016 alongside another rookie, Teruaki Kanemitsu, and looked the lesser of the two. However, Kanemitsu suffered a spinal injury in late November 2016, and was out until December 2018, for what would be his final professional wrestling match. Kawato, in the meantime, stepped up, and showed he would not wash out as some predicted, becoming the runner up in the 2017 Young Lions Cup. However, his excursion in CMLL as Kawato-san was panned by many, including lucha libre die-hards, who thought he was an ill fit in Mexico, despite winning a title during that time (the CMLL World Lightweight title that he won, held for 129 days, had no defenses, and then was stripped for reasons never given. As an aside, title reigns in CMLL can often be described as “goofy.”).

After losing his blue hair to Dulce Gardenia on 1/1/2020, Kawato returned to Japan. In a re-debut delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown that saw NJPW suspend operations for three months, Kawato was repackaged as Master Wato, to much hype, and a lot of guffaws from wrestling Twitter. Despite some decent matches against Yoshinobu Kanemaru and DOUKI, Master Wato himself just sort of faded into the background, not doing much of anything, until a late run in last year’s Best Of The Super Juniors tournament, and a shock tag match win over the IWGP Junior champion El Desperado gave him a title shot this past February that he, ultimately, came up short on.

As for Ryusuke Taguchi, he has been mostly seen as a comedy or joke wrestler. To be fair, a lot of that is because most of the time, Taguchi is a comedy or joke wrestler. Taguchi has made a name with modern NJPW fans as being the guy who makes fun of other wrestlers, sometimes takes on ridiculous alter egos like Masked Horse or Pro Wrestler Sengoku Enbu, is obsessed with the number 69, and uses his ass as a weapon in matches (the Flying Hip Attacked, innovated by Shiro Koshinaka).

At the same time, the Funky Weapon was also part of the extremely popular Apollo 55 tag team with the future Bullet Club founder (and future Finn Balor in WWE), Prince Devitt, with whom he won the junior tag titles four times, with two other reigns with other partners too. He is also a 2x-IWGP junior champion (the 51st and 69th champion, to be exact), 3x-NEVER 6-man champion, and also the winner of the 2005 Young Lions Cup, and the 2012 Best Of The Super Juniors. To top it all off, he can actually wrestle, possessing one of the best ankle locks in the business.

NJPW 50th Anniversary

Taguchi & Kawato, as Team Six or Nine, hadn’t had great success, and indeed, at Wrestle Kingdom 16, Taguchi chose to challenge for the junior tag titles partnering with Rocky Romero instead of the young Master, without success. However, in a 4-way match for the belts on 2/19/2022, Six or Nine pinned Tiger Mask IV to become the 69th junior tag champions. It’s almost like it was fated to be that way.

The Match

Which brings us to the Anniversary, and the annual Champion vs Champion match. The match itself was fine. It was a basic wrestling match, back and forth between two babyface tag teams. It will not be looked at as a match of the year candidate, and in many respects, besides just being Fun, there isn’t much to recommend going out of your way to re-watch it.

What it does show, is that sometimes, despite being an underachiever, or a joke, or not living up to your full potential, pro wrestling does occasionally reward hard work and persistence. YOSHI-HASHI, especially, put in the work in 2021, and deserved not only his accolades, but reassessment and respect from fans. Both teams worked hard to be where they were, and their hard work, especially in the disappointment that was 2021 in NJPW, has paid off for the good.

And they are not the only ones. Seiya Sanada, after six years in NJPW, finally holds a singles title. He, too, has been looked at as a chronic underachiever since his debut in Keiji Muto’s All Japan Pro Wrestling in 2007. El Desperado is now a 2x-IWGP junior champion, and even retained against the overwhelming favorite to beat him, Hiromu Takahashi, at Wrestle Kingdom 16 in January.

Not everyone in pro wrestling can be the top draw, the superstar. If the New Japan 50th Anniversary event shows anything, it does show that you don’t always have to be the top draw in order to get your just rewards. Goto/YOSHI-HASHI v. Taguchi/Wato wasn’t a classic, but it didn’t need to be. Sometimes, just being that steady hand is enough to get you appreciated after all.