One of the biggest surprises this past Monday at NJPW King of Pro Wrestling was KUSHIDA losing his IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship to Will Ospreay, ending his fifth reign with the title at 120 days. KUSHIDA was having a remarkable year in 2017, winning this year’s Best of the Super Juniors and WCPW‘s Pro Wrestling World Cup, as well as capturing his 5th IWGP Junior Heavyweight title and first ROH World Television title, which he lost just two weeks prior to Kenny King at ROH Death Before Dishonor XV. With the victory, Will Ospreay becomes the first English wrestler to hold the prestigious Junior Heavyweight title and just the 10th gaijin (or foreigner) to hold the title since it was introduced in 1986. Since Shiro Koshinaka first held the title as it’s inaugural champion, there have been 78 different reigns by 36 different men.
— 新日本プロレスリング株式会社 (@njpw1972) October 9, 2017
Here’s a look at the first nine gaijin to capture the elusive IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship in NJPW.
OWEN HART, May 27, 1988
The very first non-Japanese winner happened just a few years after the title was created and it was Canada’s Owen Hart that captured that first honor, when he defeated Hiroshi Hase for the belt in May of 1988. NJPW had a strong working agreement with Stu Hart and Stampede Wrestling during the 80’s, so it wasn’t uncommon for Stampede’s young talent to do tours with NJPW or NJPW’s young lions working for Stampede (Hase and Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger both received early training in the Hart Dungeon). Owen Hart’s reign was a short one, only 28 days, before he lost it back to the first champion, Shiro Koshinaka, but Owen Hart will forever be remembered as the first gaijin to wear the IWGP Junior Heavyweight gold.
CHRIS BENOIT (as PEGASUS KID), August 19, 1990
Two years after fellow Canadian and Stampede Wrestling alumni Owen Hart won it, Chris Benoit – who competed as the masked high flyer Pegasus Kid at the time – became the second Canadian and gaijin to win the title, defeating Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger for the belt, ending Liger’s 200-day reign. Benoit held it longer than Hart, for 74 days, before losing it back to Liger in a rematch.
SABU, May 3, 1995
The first American to hold the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title, ECW’s iconic “suicidal, homicidal, genocidal” Sabu, beat NJPW legend Koji Kanemoto for the title at Wrestling Dontaku to win the belt, but lost it 42 days later back to Kanemoto in a rematch.
JUVENTUD GUERRERA, November 29, 1999
Mexican Lucha Libre has been a huge influence in NJPW’s Junior Heavyweight division, with such champions as Jushin Liger and El Samurai, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the first Mexican luchadore actually became IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. WCW’s Juventud Guerrera accomplished the feat, defeating Jushin Liger on WCW’s Monday Nitro. Unfortunately, “The Juice” fractured his arm and was unable to compete in the rematch the following Monday night, and his replacement, fellow WCW luchadore Psicosis, lost the match and Juvie’s title back to Liger, after only 7 days as champion.
ROCKY ROMERO (as BLACK TIGER), October 8, 2005
Nowadays, Rocky Romero is best known for his work in the Junior Heavyweight tag team division with Roppongi Vice, but early in his NJPW career he competed under the mask as Black Tiger IV. It was under the Black Tiger mask that Romero won his IWGP Junior Heavyweight title, the second American to do so, during a feud with the legendary Tiger Mask. While the previous four gaijin had relatively short reigns, Romero held the belt for 134 days, before losing it back to Tiger Mask.
LOW-KI, September 21, 2008
The third American to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title, Low-Ki did so on three separate occasions, although his first reign was undoubtedly his best. Low-Ki defeated Tiger Mask for his run and held the belt for 105 days before losing back to Tiger Mask. He won his second title four years later on May 3, 2012 from Prince Devitt (for 87 days), then his last reign started on October 8, 2012 when he beat Kota Ibushi, but it proved to be his shortest run, at only 34 days.
CARISTICO (as MISTICO), August 15, 2009
For much of the late 2000s, Mistico was regarded as one of the greatest luchadores in the world out of CMLL in Mexico. He joined the WWE in 2011 and became the original Sin Cara, before being released in 2014. But in 2009, he became the second Mexican to capture the IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship, defeating Tiger Mask at the 2009 G1 Climax for the title. It was short lived, however, as he lost it back 85 days later. Since his WWE departure, Mistico rebranded as Caristico (due to someone else carrying on the Mistico gimmick in his absence).
FINN BALOR (as PRINCE DEVITT), June 19, 2010
He may not have been the first, but the most successful gaijin to hold the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title is Ireland’s Finn Balor, who was a NJPW staple for years as Prince Devitt (and founder of Bullet Club). At Dominion in 2010, he dethroned current Pro Wrestling NOAH star Noamichi Marufuji for the title and held it for 364 days on his first of three runs. On September 19, 2011, he defeated KUSHIDA in a tournament to win the vacant championship, holding it another 227 days. His third run was his greatest of the three, when he won it on November 11, 2012 from Low-Ki and held it for an astounding 419 days (second only to Liger’s record of 628 days). His combined days of holding the title of 1,010 also places him second all-time behind Liger, making him not only the greatest foreign star to hold the belt, but one of the greatest in the division’s history period.
KENNY OMEGA, January 4, 2015
Kenny Omega became the third Canadian to hold the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title and first since Chris Benoit fifteen years previously when he defeated Ryusuke Taguchi for the title. He’s a two time Junior Heavyweight Champion, defeating KUSHIDA for his second one on September 23, 2015. He’s since moved up to the Heavyweight division, but he still remains one of the more successful Junior Heavyweight champions of the past few years.