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The Ace. What’s Left for Hiroshi Tanahashi to Conquer in 2021?

3 years ago Pw_photo2mass


The Ace. What’s Left for Hiroshi Tanahashi to Conquer in 2021?

By: Zack Heydorn

It’s the hair.

Remember Wrestle Kingdom 15? This year, how could you forget it, right? Not only was it the biggest show of the year for New Japan Pro Wrestling, it was also the largest pandemic wrestling show since the beginning of the COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020.

Wrestle Kingdom looked different this year. Crowd noises were tempered down to claps and foot stomps, masks were pleasantly seen in abundance, and instead of the echo of chops in the ring filtering into the backdrop of the audience, they eerily bounced off the walls of the cavernous Tokyo Dome.

Normalcy arrived in the form of Hiroshi Tanahashi. New Japan’s perennial top act, premiere star, and legend of the Dome made his presence felt as he walked to the ring. For perspective, Wrestle Kingdom has happened 15 times. Hiroshi Tanahashi has wrestled 15 singles matches at the event. Tanahashi is Mr. Wrestle Kingdom. Plus, you know, the hair.

In that moment, we were all reminded of a very important fact. Tanahashi is still the man.

Like the rest of the world, “the man” had a bizarre 2020. In what was sure to be the start of a longer-term story, Tanahashi kicked things off with a loss to Chris Jericho at Wrestle Kingdom 14. He then teamed up with Kota Ibushi to win the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship. Tanahashi’s losing streak continued from there. Golden Ace quickly lost the tag team titles to the Dangerous Tekkers, he amassed a losing record in 2020’s G1 Climax tournament, and then lost to KENTA and therefore his opportunity to wrestle for the IWGP United States Championship. 2020 was the year of losing for the “Ace.”

Tanahashi wasn’t just losing on the scoreboard, either. The tone around him was different. Main events were few and far between.

The tag-team division that he anchored took a back seat to singles stories involving Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, Jay White and others. The commentary team regularly pointed to his long history with New Japan and openly debated whether that history had taken its toll on Tanahashi once and for all.

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Jay White by @taigaphoto_pw

Photo credit c/o: Twitter/taigaPhoto_pw

2021 was a refresh for the world and for Hiroshi Tanahashi. The calendar marked a new start and Tanahashi was pounding the door down. At Wrestle Kingdom 15, Tanahashi defeated the young up-and-comer and member of The Empire, Great O- Khan. Given the nature of 2020 for Tanahashi, the victory over O-Khan was never a given. Like every wrestling company in the world, New Japan is furiously building its next batch of pillar stars. Given O-Khan’s push, it was safe to assume he was next in line for one of those spots, with Tanahashi representing a means to get him there via a significant win over a legendary act.

O-Khan didn’t win the match, but he won the war. Time with Tanahashi in the ring is priceless in terms of the practice it provides for the art of wrestling, but the psychology Tanahashi used in the match to tell a story got O-Khan over with the crowd in a more impactful fashion than a traditional win would have.

There is the root of Tanahashi’s 2021. He’s putting new stars over and setting the table for the future of the company he built, while also staying at the top of the card as a premiere star.

It’s a tricky balancing act, but one that Tanahashi can pull off with a few key feuds and programs.

First up? The Empire.

What better way for New Japan’s newest faction to truly gain some traction than to throw down and battle with the company’s living legend? The history is there and the foundation is set, as Great O-Khan is a member of that group. Will Ospreay is the leader, and after the Wrestle Kingdom that the stable has had, they need to rebound. Tanahashi vs. The Empire is a smart direction for a multitude of reasons. First, it involves a faction. This allows for Tanahashi to keep his credibility and beat on the lower guy of the group (O-Khan) ahead of taking on the group’s leader (Ospreay). Second, Ospreay is clearly being groomed for a big role in the company. He will eventually need a signature win on a signature stage in order to achieve the star status that the company has groomed him for. Three, the story tells itself: the new blood faction in The Empire challenging the old guard in Tanahashi. It’s not unique, but it’s effective. It makes for an intriguing product that can exemplify the in-ring expectations that New Japan Pro Wrestling fans have around the world.

Next up? Shingo Takagi.

Hiroshi Tanahashi is scheduled to face Takagi on the New Beginning tour on January 30th. This is smart booking personified. Takagi is coming off a brutal battle with Jeff Cobb at Wrestle Kingdom 15. The match is one of his best ever for the company and transitioning from that to an encounter with Tanahashi makes sense as a way to keep up momentum around him. With a win or a loss in the match itself, Takagi wins as the light of Tanahashi elevates him and primes him for a larger and more prolonged push later in the year.

Last – and I’m not sure I should go here, but, Cody Rhodes. I call bosh, baloney, rubbish on any downplaying of an AEW and New Japan talent partnership this year. We’ve seen AEW open up its arms to welcome talent from Impact Wrestling. Why not New Japan? Especially given all the history that many of the top AEW stars have there. That partnership opens up a delicious array of smart business opportunities and matches for fans including Kenny Omega vs. Kota Ibushi, something like MJF vs. Naito, and yes, Cody Rhodes vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi. Earlier this year, Cody called himself “the Ace” on television and Hiroshi Tanahashi himself delivered a video message to Chris Jericho on the Jericho Appreciation Night episode of AEW Dynamite.

Seeds planted. Tanahashi vs. Cody Rhodes isn’t a 5-star mat classic waiting to happen. Think of the story, though. The face of AEW colliding head-on with the face of New Japan Pro Wrestling is narrative heaven and it gives Tanahashi another chance to fully embrace the role of premiere star and keep him hot for future showdowns against important young talent.

That’s quite the year. No jobs, no undermining his presence, no losing streak, just solid matches and programs in which he’s protected while elevating his opponents.
Plus, need I remind you of the hair again?

Tanahashi is a star. He is still the man and he can only remain effective in the role of bringing New Japan into a bright new era if he stays strong as a star himself. Neutralizing his equity and cashing it in relentlessly hurts him and also creates diminishing returns for the new stars going over him.

Hiroshi Tanahashi is a once-in-a-lifetime pro wrestling act. Yes, you use those, but you honor and protect them too. That’s 2021. It can be the man’s year. Just remember that hair.

Hiroshi Tanahashi Monthly Puroresu Promotional Artwork

This article first appeared in Monthly Puroresu Issue #3

Written by:

Based in Chicago, I've been a part of the news media business since 2007. I've worked in various capacities for Monthly Puroresu since 2020. n both print and broadcast roles. After graduating from Illinois State University, I have freelanced for Wade Keller at PW Torch among other wrestling outlets. I've been working