This is going to be a three-parted write up. The first will follow the history of Japanese Junior Heavyweight Wrestling up until the early 2000s, while the second one will cover the time up until now. And for the third part I’m going to put on my most creepy Nostradamus cape and try my luck on an outlook for Junior Heavyweight Wrestling in the future and who of today’s elite junior heavyweights will pull a ‘Ibushi/Omega/KENOU’ and graduate successfully to the heavyweights? Now let’s get started on the very exciting, popular beginnings of Junior Wrestling in Japan.
When talking about the greatest wrestler in the world today, there are a lot of different answers: Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi, some may argue that it is somebody from WWE. Obviously, there is not definite answer to this discussion and everybody has a subjective opinion on a matter like this. Although there is a pocket of competitors that is not often considered: Junior Heavyweights. Shouldn’t somebody like KUSHIDA, Will Ospreay or Ricochet also be mentioned in this conversation?
While in America Cruiserweights were mostly just an afterthought and the perception of “Vanilla Midgets” was not only prevalent in WCW, but also in WWF, which was always a ‘big man territory’, there still have been exceptions like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio or nowadays Daniel Bryan who would be considered a cruiserweight normally and had success in the states. In Japan though, Heavyweights and Junior Heavyweights were always very much two separated divisions.
The real story of Junior Heavyweight Wrestling not only in Japan, but probably worldwide has to start with two names: Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask. Their matches in the early 80s revolutionized how wrestlers of smaller stature are perceived then and today. The breathtaking athleticism, their impeccable in-ring chemistry, as well as moves and sequences that were well ahead of its time, really made them bonafide stars in the 80s of Japan. Neither of these men ever held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship that was first introduced in early 1986. They fought mostly over the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship, which was mostly defended in NJPW after Tatsumi Fujinami brought the title over to Japan in the late 70s.
This just shows that Junior Heavyweight Wrestling was not really a point of interest for fans in Japan in the 70s and 60s. Back then, the matches were dominated by the “evil foreigner gets conquered by a Japanese star” – narrative. Normally, it was the more intimidating, menacing or physically imposing the foreigner was, the better. That’s why wrestlers like Abdullah The Butcher or Tiger Jeet Singh were such great box office draws in Japan.
It was 1986 when both All Japan and New Japan first introduced their respective Junior Heavyweight Championships. In All Japan, the division was actually more determined by the actual weight of the competitors more than their style. What I’m trying to say by that is, that the style of the All Japan Junior Heavyweight Division wasn’t that much different from the heavyweights. Slow-paced and methodical, AJPW never put much emphasis on a flashy style for their Junior Heavyweights. So it doesn’t come too surprising that hard-nosed Masanobu Fuchi was the staple of the All Japan Junior Division for over two decades.
New Japan was completely different in that regard. With names like Kuniaki Kobayashi, Shiro Koshinaka and Hiroshi Hase as the early flag-bearers of the division, it wasn’t until the late 80s / early 90s when NJPW’s Junior Division hit its golden age. Arguably the best Junior Heavyweight of all time, Jushin Thunder Liger, spearheading an incredible array of talent including Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit), Black Tiger , Great Sasuke, Norio Honaga and many others with the Super J Cup in 1994 as the absolute pinnacle of this generation.
It was that event, which was basically the greatest point Junior Heavyweight wrestling ever reached in Japan. The Super J Cup brought Junior Heavyweight wrestling internationally to the forefront. While Chris Benoit as the Wild Pegasus won the tournament in the end, there were outstanding performances by Liger, Sasuke and Black Tiger. The rise of true appreciation and popularity of Junior Heavyweight Wrestling as a style, began to slowly dripple down to the North American scene. Shortly thereafter the kinds of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit or Chris Jericho were competing in ECW with their brand of wrestling and also the luchadores from Mexico like Juventud Guerrera, Psychosis or La Parka, were granted chances in the US. As we all know, at last WCW’s Cruiserweight Division brought Junior Heavyweight wrestling first to a mainstream level.
But what happened to Junior Heavyweight wrestling in Japan after the great Super J Cup? Well, in All Japan the 90s had some very good junior bouts featuring Masanobu Fuchi, Yoshinari Ogawa or Dan Kroffat, but they were always overshadowed by the incredible main event scene at that time. In New Japan, while the level remained high up until the late 1990s, new competitors entering the division changed the style of wrestling often to more ground-based affairs. The likes of Koji Kanemoto or Shinjiro Ohtani brought out some classic matches using the more mat-based style extensively.
In 1996, one of the most amazing collections of title gold was assembled to crown the very first J-Crown Champion. Everybody in the tournament was the Junior champion of an organization and in the end, it was The Great Sasuke who held the eight different belts. But it was from there on out, that the rise of Junior Heavyweight Wrestling came to a halt. Even though the quality remained on a high level, the popularity of junior heavyweight wrestling began to decline.
After All Japan suffered the big exodus, the division completely crumbled and for almost two years, there wasn’t a AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Champion. NJPW drifted into Inokism and also the juniors didn’t really profit from that product style. Bookers like Riki Choshu very much deemphasized the Juniors as well. But it didn’t completely deteriorate in Japan.
There were glimmers of hope for Junior Heavyweight Wrestling in Japan: first, captaining his Ark of Destiny, Mitsuharu Misawa, at that point owner of Pro Wrestling NOAH, and secondly a promotion that would open the gate for Junior Heavyweight Wrestling as a main selling point: Dragon Gate. And where would all that leave a legend like Jushin Thunder Liger? Find out in the second part of this story!