NJPW Spotlight is a series by Walter Yeates that highlights past and present members of the New Japan Pro Wrestling roster. This article highlights Hiroshi Tanahashi. The previous article in the series on Tetsuya Naito is available here.
Hiroshi Tanahashi was the leading force behind New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) coming out of their ‘Dark Ages’ between late 1999 – mid-2000s, with support from Yuji Nagata and Shinsuke Nakamura. His charisma, mic skills, lionesq hair, legendary selling ability, and his ability to bring his best on a nightly basis — especially during big events is why he is likely to go down as one of the best wrestlers of all time. United States centric wrestling fans will likely never given Tanahashi the credit his body of work warrants, scoffing at the notion that he is a better performer than many of their favorites.
He began his wrestling career after playing baseball and briefly participating in Freestyle Wrestling in college, passing the rigid NJPW Noge Dojo entrance exam in early 1998. His senpai (teacher) during his time at the dojo was former 5x IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion, and 6x IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion Tatsumi Fujinami. Tanahashi would make his debut on October 10, 1999, and was defeated by fellow 4th generation NJPW Noge Dojo Young Lion Shinya Makabe (now known as Togi Makabe). Tanahashi actually published a photo of himself from his debut match the day this article was published.
— 棚橋 弘至 (@tanahashi1_100) April 26, 2020
Between early 2003 until the beginning of the ‘Golden International Expansion’ era in February 2012, Tanahashi was the main pillar in NJPW while the company was struggling financially due to a slew of reasons beginning at the end of the ‘Inoki-ism’ era. Tanahashi was such an established draw at that point his popularity would only begin to rise as he entered into a now-legendary program with the then green Kazuchika Okada, helping to make Okada into the international draw that he is today.
During his legendary career, Tanahashi has been a GHC (Pro Wrestling NOAH) Tag Team Champion, RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Champion, CMLL World Tag Team Champion, CMLL World Trios Champion, 3x (current w/Kota Ibushi) IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, 2x IWGP Intercontinental Champion, and a record 8x IWGP Heavyweight Champion. On top of his title accomplishments, Tahanashi has also drawn a lot of money for NJPW from ticket sales, merchandise, meet and greets, and through New Japan World.
Wrestling Observer journalist Dave Meltzer compares Tanahashi to Bret Hart for his excellent ability to tell stories in the ring and his impeccable execution. Unlike Hart, Tanahashi is known for his unselfishness — having help make nearly every draw in NJPW over the past decade besides Evil, Sanada, and Tomohiro Ishii.
Tanahashi continues to flourish in the ring past his 40th birthday, including helping draw the first Super No Vacancy house at the Tokyo Dome for wrestling in approximately twenty years at Wrestle Kingdom 13 when he and Kenny Omega were in the marquee main event.
Hiroshi Tanahashi’s legacy will be that of the only modern wrestler to lead a company out of a financial hole into an international player in professional wrestling during the modern era. NJPW sold over 460,000 tickets in 2019, the second-highest amount in the world, they would have never reached such heights if not for Tanahashi’s relentless work ethic and determination during times when not nearly as many eyes were on the NJPW product.