Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura are two of the best wrestlers of the 21st century. Both men came to New Japan Pro-Wrestling around the same time and they seemed to be joined at the hip from the beginning. They were partners and rivals. They’ve won championship gold together and stolen it from each other. They’ve had many classic matches over the years, and both of them were integral to saving New Japan from itself during its darkest days.
And today we revisit the best match they’ve ever had together. It’s their classic singles match from the 2015 G1 Climax Tournament.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Tanahashi and Nakamura have a long and storied past. They were partners and rivals throughout the 2000s, when New Japan was going through its dark age. After Antonio Inoki nearly killed his own company with one bad decision after another, he tried to redeem himself by creating future stars for the company. He put his faith in two rookies, Tanahashi and Nakamura, in the hopes they’d carry the company.
At first, Inoki chose Nakamura as the company’s next big thing. He was pushed Brock Lesnar-style, winning one accolade after another as their ‘super rookie’ including a run as IWGP Heavyweight Champion at only 23 years old. But Nakamura floundered as NJPW’s supposed new ace for a number of reasons. The biggest of which was that Nakamura symbolized NJPW’s past. He was a generic ‘angry MMA fighter’ with great knowledge of wrestling fundamentals but could not grasp wrestling showmanship. Tanahashi was his opposite: a smiling, flashy high-flyer with a more ‘worldly’ approach to wrestling. Imagine a Japanese John Cena wrestling like Eddy Guerrero in his prime while still retaining Cena’s freakish tenacity and unyielding company loyalty. That’s Tanahashi.
As the years went by, Tanahashi eventually eclipsed Nakamura to become New Japan’s ace. He carried the company through the mud with his teeth from its nadir to its highest peak. By 2012, Tanahashi was widely seen as the greatest pro wrestler on the planet, and that reputation still holds true today, almost a full decade after his peak as a wrestler.
As for Nakamura, he underwent a major transformation sometime around late 2009/early 2010. Instead of being the blandest wrestler in Japan, he went full speed ahead with a new personality. The MMA focus and simplistic entrance was replaced with a wacky hairdo, leather trunks, and a Michael Jackson/Freddie Mercury-inspired presentation. He still kept some of his amateur grappling credentials; but most of his matches changed to be structured around mocking his opponents and smashing their faces in with his Boma Ye knee strike finisher.
As the 2010s decade progressed, the new Nakamura and company ace Tanahashi had many great encounters. They mostly fought in tag matches but they also had some awesome singles matches as well.
But nothing on this level.
This match was the final match of the 2015 G1 Climax tournament. Tanahashi and Nakamura were the top-scoring wrestlers in their respective blocks, and this match would determine which of them would earn the right to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom in the following January.
For Nakamura, this was his chance to try and surpass Tanahashi, which was something that he wasn’t able to do in years. The two of them had main-evented Wrestle Kingdom two years earlier and Nakamura had lost. And even though many people considered Nakamura as the bigger star, Tanahashi was still the company ace and it would take A LOT to unseat him from that pedestal.
But for Tanahashi, winning this match – and the tournament – had a much deeper meaning. You see, Tanahashi was embroiled in a bitter feud with someone else at this time; Kazuchika Okada. If Tanahashi won this match – and kept his briefcase – he’d face Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 10, since Okada was champion. Their feud had surpassed Tanahashi’s rivalry with Nakamura in terms of significance to New Japan. Okada had lost to Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 9 eight months prior to this match, and Tanahashi wanted to prove to everyone that he was still the ace, no matter what Okada accomplished. But again, to get there, Tanahashi had to beat Nakamura once again, which was a very difficult task.
This match originally took place on August 16th, 2015. It was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
After soaking in the crowd, the two of them tease locking up for a long while. Tanahashi gets a waistlock off their second lock-up and Nakamura counters into an armlock. Tanahashi quickly counters into his own and then wrenches Nakamura’s arm hard, and Nakamura immediately wrenches his arm away because that arm is taped up at the elbow. Good on Tanahashi to show what wrestling is by exploiting a weakness instead of ignoring it.
A fantastic chain grappling sequence ensues as Nakamura escapes another armlock on the weakened arm and looks to out-grapple Tanahashi. He works the arm some more following another standoff and then gets in a deep headlock that Nakamura struggles to shake off. Tanahashi keeps going back to headlock takedowns but Nakamura eventually escapes, only for Tanahashi to tackle him back down. Tanahashi goes for a cravate but Nakamura rolls out.
Five minutes have passed as Nakamura starts knocking Tanahashi down. This is followed by an extended amateur/MMA grounded sequence and Tanahashi escapes one transition after another, leading to yet another stalemate and loud applause from the fans. Nakamura teases landing some quick kicks, but tries one time too many as Tanahashi catches and elbows his leg, and then lands a Ric Flair-style chop block to his knee. Tanahashi starts working Nakamura’s leg over but Nakamura eventually powers up to his feet. They trade elbows and Tanahashi kicks Nakamura’s knee again. Tanahashi stretches that leg again and goes for the Texas Cloverleaf but Nakamura pulls himself to the ropes quickly. You can tell from his urgency that he was desperate to avoid that submission hold.
Tanahashi lands some corner strikes and teases doing Nakamura’s ‘vibrations’ stomp, but decides against it and slams Nakamura instead. He goes to the second rope, but Nakamura cuts him off with a sudden kick to the side of the head (with the bad leg). Tanahashi goes falling out to the ringside area as Nakamura falls back to the match clutching his left knee.
Nakamura goes out to Tanahashi and lands some stiff kicks and a running knee lift. Tanahashi gets back into the ring at the count of thirteen (of twenty) as Nakamura tries to get feeling back into his knee. Nakamura applies a chinlock and lands a jumping knee drop for two as the crowd chants for Tanahashi. Nakamura lands some mocking kicks to Tanahashi but Tanahashi stares daggers at him and no-sells. Nakamura mocks him as asks if he wants more and Tanahashi nods enthusiastically. Tanahashi fights back to his feet and goes nose-to-nose with Nakamura, but Nakamura drops him back down with a hard knee to the gut. Nakamura goes for his corner stomp, but Tanahashi grabs his leg. But before Tanahashi can land a dragon screw, Nakamura cuts him off with knees lifts. An Irish whip sends Tanahashi into the ropes but Tanahashi answers with a flying forearm. A senton combination gets Tanahashi another two-count.
Tanahashi lands some uppercuts and a second-tope rolling senton for two. Tanahashi whips Nakamura but Nakamura counters and lands a spinkick to Tanahashi’s head. Nakamura boots Tanahashi into a corner and lands the vibrations stomp, and then lands a second one with the other leg. But Tanahashi grabs Nakamura by the leg, and spins it with great force so that Nakamura has one leg in the ring and one on the apron. Then Tanahashi grabs Nakamura’s bad leg. Dragon screw leg whip. Nakamura falls out of the ring. Amazing psychology by Tanahashi.
Nakamura has barely any time to recover as Tanahashi jumps onto the top rope. High Fly Flow to the floor. Tanahashi has balls of steel doing that. Tanahashi tosses Nakamura into the ring but Nakamura kicks him off the apron. Tanahashi goes down hard, and it takes him up to the count of eighteen to get back into the ring. he and Nakamura start trading stiff elbows to the face. Nakamura’s tougher in this regard, but Tanahashi refuses to go down. Each time Nakamura absorbs those strikes like a boss, Tanahashi staggers but keeps going.
They keep going back and forth, neither one wavering. Nakamura wins the exchange and goes to Irish whip Tanahashi. But Tanahashi reverses and it’s Nakamura that goes into the corner. Tanahashi charges but Nakamura ducks, leaving Tanahashi exposed on the top turnbuckle. Massive running knee lift to the stomach by Nakamura. Followed by a Backstabber and an inverted Exploder. Nakmura teases the Boma Ye. He charges…but Tanahashi dropkicks his bad knee. Sick counter by Tanahashi. Both men go down in the middle of the ring.
Tanahashi stomps on Nakamura’s bad knee some more but Nakamura keeps on fighting. Nakamura counters an Irish whip with a knee lift and goes for the spinkick combo again, but this time Tanahashi catches his leg. Inverted dragon screw leg whip. Texas Cloverleaf. Tanahashi puts a world of pressure on Nakamura’s knees, and then sits back as far as he can to maximize the pain. Nakamura screams out in pain as he reaches the ropes.
Nakamura lands a modified Falcon Arrow and climbs to the top rope. High Fly…no, Nakamura dodges. Tanahashi lands hard on the mat. Boma Ye to the back of the head! But Nakamura cant capitalize on it right away because of his knee. So Nakamura goes to the top rope. Jumping Boma Ye! But he’s STILL not done. Nakamura goes for a third one. He charges…no, Tanahashi avoids it. Jackknife clutch. Nakamura kicks out. Both men charge. Nakamura gets a knee lift and an axe kick. Sliding knee strike. One, two, thr—no, Tanahashi kicks out at 2.9.
Nakamura goes for the Landslide slam but Tanahashi escapes and lands a standing swinging neck whip. Slingblade. High Fly Flow to a standing Nakamura. Followed by a second one. HIGH FLY FLOW! That’s it! One, two, thr—NO, Nakamura kicks out. Wow, what an amazing near-fall. I thought for sure that was the end.
Tanahashi goes for a dragon suplex but Nakamura fights out. So, Tanahashi goes for an arm-trap German suplex but Nakamura fights out of that, too. Tanahashi answers by bitchslapping Nakamura. He doesn’t take too kindly to that. Landslide! Both men are down again. The crowd is split down the middle, cheering and chanting for both guys equally.
Both guys get up slowly and trade elbows some more. Tanahashi starts channeling the fans and powers up enough to land some big uppercuts as Nakamura starts faltering. But then Nakamura gets a sudden second wind and explodes into a barrage of knee strikes. He goes for another standing knee lift. Tanahashi catches his leg. Nakamura hits Tanahashi as hard as he can but Tanahashi doesn’t let go. Another dragon screw leg whip. Tanahashi goes for another slingblade. Nakamura counters into the flying armbar. Tanahashi tries to roll over into a pin. Nakamura counters back into the armbar. Tanahashi holds on for dear life to avoid the submission hold. Tanahashi counters it and gets to his feet to escape. BOMA YE! Tanahashi kicks out again! The crowd is going absolutely nuts.
Nakamura carries a nearly-unconscious Tanahashi to the corner and places him on the top rope. He goes for the Landslide from the top rope, but Tanahashi fights out with elbows to the face. Nakamura starts falling but holds onto the top rope with one arm. High Fly Flow in midair! Bridging dragon suplex. Nakamura kicks out. High Fly Flow to the back. Followed by another maximum impact High Fly Flow.
One, two, three! Tanahashi wins the G1!
Winner of the 2015 G1 Climax tournament after 32:15: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Holy Shit, that match was amazing! What an absolute epic in professional wrestling! Tanahashi and Nakamura tore the house down. They more than delivered here. That was without a doubt one of the best G1 Climax matches of all time, which is saying a lot considering how much greatness has come from that yearly tournament.
These two wrestlers were absolutely neck and neck from bell to bell. In watching this match, some might conclude that the first half was mundane and the legwork irrelevant. I’d disagree with those assessments. Tanahashi and Nakamura jockeyed for control for a very long time, and it took a while before either man got any sort of advantage. The opening grappling sequences were awesome because they both gave the match an air of legitimacy and realism, and it helped further the story that these two were so evenly matched. Even though both guys hit each other quite hard during those opening minutes, it wasn’t until Tanahashi landed the first dragon screw that the match really kicked into high gear.
And once he did, Tanahashi followed a simplistic but logical path to victory. He attacked Nakamura’s knee with surgical precision, which acted as both a defensive and offensive strategy. Not only did he weaken Nakamura to the point that he slowed down and could barely stand; but he also weakened Nakamura’s main striking knee to the point that multiple Boma Ye knee strikes weren’t enough to keep Tanahashi down long enough for the three-count. Sure, Nakamura had to rely on that big move for the most part. But there was some subtlety in his mannerisms that showcased great selling as the match wore on. As the damage to that knee piled up, Nakamura became more desperate, sacrificing precision in his strikes for raw power. But not even that additional power behind his knee strike could do the job, especially since he’d land that Boma Ye and collapse from the pain due to Tanahashi’s earlier legwork coming back to haunt him.
And once that avenue closed for him, Nakamura had to rely on other possibilities to win the match. The flying armbar out of nowhere was awesome, but Tanahashi was able to grapple out of it. And the Landslide was cool too, but Nakamura seemed to lack enough force to hit it fully. So he got desperate and went to the top rope, but that was Tanahashi’s domain and he proved why that is by busting out a High Fly Flow that took Nakamura – and everyone watching – completely by surprise.
It was wrestling psychology 101 in its most basic form applied perfectly in a high-stakes match. And once Nakamura’s offensive arsenal was emptied, his days were numbered as Tanahashi spammed multiple high-impact finishers before getting a decisive three-count.
Final Rating: *****
This match was insanely good when it first came out and it still holds up now. It had everything you could ask for in a historically-great match: great technical wrestling, incredible psychology, nail-biting tension, off-the-charts-drama, unpredictable twists and turns, and a hot crowd that gave it a genuine big-fight atmosphere.
This was definitely a star-making performance for both wrestlers. Even though both of them had already put on classic matches before this one, it still stands tall as one of the best matches either man has ever wrestled. This is a must-watch for any New Japan fan, and especially for anyone that likes watching Nakamura and bemoans what he has become since coming to WWE.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.