In Japanese wrestling, the foreign wrestlers – known as gaijin – have been a integral part of Puroresu since its earliest days. As a nation rebuilding following World War II, fending off foreign threats was always a big draw to reclaim Japanese national pride. From Rikidozan‘s early battles against Lou Thesz, Antonio Inoki vs Frank Gotch in NJPW’s infancy, and Giant Baba vs. Bruno Sammartino in All Japan’s early days, gaijin have always had a place in Japanese storytelling when it comes to pro wrestling. Since the inception of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 1987 (after having been a tournament years previous), the main title holders of NJPW’s top title have continuously fought back challenges from gaijin to keep the title around the waist of a Japanese wrestler. Of the 27 men to hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship since 1987, only six have not been Japanese wrestlers: Americans Vader, Scott Norton, Bob Sapp, Brock Lesnar, and AJ Styles, and Kazakhstan (formerly Russia)’s Salman Hashimikov. But not for lack of trying. Many of those 21 Japanese champions have fended off challenges from many more gaijin wrestlers.
And when current IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada faces 2018 New Japan Cup winner Zack Sabre Jr. at Sakura Genesis next week on April 1, 2018, it will be his seventh title defence against a different gaijin challenger. Should he retain, he will take sole position of the most title defences against a gaijin, breaking the two way tie with six with WWE Hall of Famer and 6x IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tatsumi Fujinami. Here’s a look at the top Gaijin Killers in NJPW history who defended or won the IWGP Heavyweight title against outside wrestlers.
6 – KAZUCHIKA OKADA, TATSUMI FUJINAMI
WWE Hall of Famer and NJPW legend Tatsumi Fujinami is a 6x IWGP Heavyweight Champion in a New Japan career that lasted from its inception in 1972 through 2006 (after being ousted as NJPW President). He fended off many challengers for the IWGP title in his reigns, including six gaijin – Fujinami fought back such legends as Ric Flair, Kerry Von Erich, Vader, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Sid Vicious and Tommy Lane (formerly of the Rock N’ Roll RPMs tag team in Memphis). But when Okada faced “The American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes at the NJPW G1 Special in the US last summer, he tied his outside challengers at six, having previously fended off Kenny Omega (multiple times), Bad Luck Fale, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor). Oddly enough, the only gaijin Okada has faced for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship have been members of Bullet Club. This weekend’s defence against Zack Sabre Jr. will be his first non-Bullet Club gaijin opponent.
5 – HIROSHI TANAHASHI
New Japan’s “Ace” and 5x IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi has done his fair share of keeping the IWGP’s top title in Japan, fending off five gaijin challengers including Giant Bernard (aka WWE’s Albert/NXT’s Matt Bloom), Karl Anderson, AJ Styles, Charlie Haas, and even Kurt Angle.
4 – KEIJI MUTOH/GREAT MUTA
An absolute icon of Japanese wrestling, Keiji Mutoh (and his alter ego The Great Muta) was a staple of NJPW from 1984 until 2009, when he passed the torch to Hiroshi Tanahashi as the new face of NJPW. Although he’s returned multiple times since, it’s usually in more exhibition style matches. But the 4x IWGP Heavyweight Champion fought of several gaijin in his reigns, including Sting, Scott Norton, Road Warrior Hawk and UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye.
3 – ANTONIO INOKI, RIKI CHOSHU, SHINYA HASHIMOTO
Antonio Inoki faced many foreign wrestlers throughout New Japan’s first decade, but once he got the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, he fought back challenges from “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, Dick Murdoch and Bam Bam Bigelow in his only reign. In fact, of his four title defences, three were against gaijin. Another legend, 3x IWGP Heavyweight Champion Riki Choshu, defeated Vader, Scott Norton and Kazakhstan’s Salman Hashimikov, and another 3x IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinya Hashimoto also defended against three foreign stars, Ric Flair, Scott Norton and William Regal (then Lord Steven Regal).
2 – YUGI NAGATA
One of NJPW’s breakout stars in WCW, Yuji Nagata is also a former 2x IWGP Heavyweight Champion, who defended his IWGP title against UFC fighters Bas Rutten and Josh Barnett in his reigns.
1 – KENSUKE SASAKI, KAZUYUKI FUJITA, HIROYOSHI TENZAN, SHINSUKE NAKAMURA
While they only faced one gaijin opponent during their reigns, these four former IWGP Heavyweight Champions did their part in honoring Japanese wrestling tradition and fighting off the foreign invaders, with 5x Champion Kensuke Sasaki and 3x Champion Kazuyuki Fujita both defending against Don Frye, while Hiroyoshi Tenzan defeated nWo’s Scott Norton. Shinsuke Nakamura’s only IWGP title defense against a gaijin (although he had several as Intercontinental Champion) came against Kurt Angle in 2008, when he unified the IWGP Heavyweight Championship with the IWGP Third Belt.