Tonight’s main event of Kenny Omega defending the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Cody Rhodes (which has the added stipulation of full leadership of Bullet Club) is more than a grand finale for the “Bullet Club is Fine” storyline of the past year. It’s only the 8th time in the history of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship that two gaijin (or foreign talent) have competed over the title itself. The last time it happened was in May of 2006, when then IWGP Champion Brock Lesnar defended his title against Giant Bernard (aka WWE’s Prince Albert and WWE Performance Center head trainer Matt Bloom). While it’s not entirely surprising, considering that the bulk of the IWGP Champions (55 of 66) are homegrown Japanese talents, but considering that the 11 non-Japanese IWGP Heavyweight Champions didn’t defend against more may be. Here’s a look at the other seven gaijin match-ups for New Japan’s biggest prize.
May 3, 2006 – Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Giant Bernard
Following his departure from the WWE the first time, Brock Lesnar ended up in NJPW (during arguably New Japan’s lowest point), where he defeated IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuyuki Fujita and Masa Chono in a triple threat to win the title at NJPW Toukon Souzou New Chapter at the Tokyo Dome. Lesnar held the belt for 280 days and during the 2006 New Japan Cup, he defended against Giant Bernard. While Bernard may have been a midcard guy with the WWE, he was a Superstar in NJPW, where he was a 2x IWGP Tag Team Champion, as well as part of the dominant tag team Bad Intentions with a pre-Bullet Club Karl Anderson.
November 9, 1998 – Scott Norton (c) vs. Lodi; November 2, 1998 – Scott Norton (c) vs. Van Hammer
Technically these weren’t NJPW booked matches as WCW’s Scott Norton – a member of nWo Japan as well as the WCW branch – had both of these title defences on WCW booked episodes of Monday Nitro on back to back weeks. He faced two members of Raven’s Flock, Lodi and Van Hammer, in successive title defenses.
June 12, 1990 – Vader (c) vs. Stan Hansen
It was sixteen years between Lesnar vs. Bernard and the next gaijin vs. gaijin title match booked by New Japan, and that was at NJPW Battle Line Kyushu in Fukuoka, Japan in the summer of 1990. It was the second time Vader had battled his rival Stan Hansen, who was the All Japan Triple Crown Champion at the time, making the match even more special – it was two gaijin warriors battling, each the gaijin champion of the top two promotions in Japan. The match ended in a DQ, when Hansen was disqualified.
February 10, 1990 – Vader (c) vs. Stan Hansen
The pairs first meeting for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was only a few months earlier, at NJPW Super Fight In Tokyo Dome. The match ended in a double count out, as Hansen was again a special guest from All Japan. This was also the infamous match where Hansen poked out Vader’s eyeball – literally.
September 20, 1989 – Vader (c) vs. Bam Bam Bigelow
In the fall of September 1989, at NJPW Bloody Fight Series 1989: Super Power Battle In Osaka, Vader had his first title defense of his second reign as champion (having defeated Riki Choshu for the belt that past August) against another of his gaijin rivals in Bam Bam Bigelow. Vader and Bigelow would have some classic matches in New Japan, that ushered in a new era for big men, not only in Japan, but around the world.
May 25, 1989 – Salman Hashimikov vs. Vader (c)
The first time two gaijin met for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was the match that ended Vader’s first reign as champ, when Russian Salman Hashimikov defeated Big Van Vader at NJPW Battle Satellite 1989 In Osaka for his first and only IWGP Heavyweight title.