WWE is often the first thing that fans experience when they step into the world of wrestling. When you venture outside the WWE Universe you often encounter new wrestlers in new surroundings; one of the most exciting of these new surroundings is New Japan Pro Wrestling. While the current product is a great alternative to WWE, that doesn’t mean that you should ignore New Japan’s past. It just so happens some of the familiar faces from New Japan’s past are quite familiar to you. There are many WWE Superstars past and present who have had memorable experiences in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
When The Beast Incarnate left WWE his first goal wasn’t UFC, it was the NFL. When that didn’t work out he went back to what he knew: wrestling. In October 2005 Lesnar debuted in New Japan in a triple threat match for the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Lesnar won, becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion. He successfully defended the title three times, beating Shinsuke Nakamura, former sumo wrestler Akebono, and Giant Bernard (aka WWE’s Albert). Lesnar left New Japan abruptly in 2006, taking the title with him. Brock kept hold of the belt until 2007, when he dropped it to Kurt Angle in Japan. His run only lasted 7 months but Lesnar is still undefeated in New Japan with a 7-0 record.
Andre the Giant
When people think of the Eighth Wonder of the World, they think of the WWF and Andre vs. Hogan at Wrestlemania 3. However, Andre wasn’t just exclusive to the WWF as he wrestled all over the world. In Japan his home was New Japan Pro Wrestling, wrestling almost 500 matches from 1974 to 1986. Andre was literally the biggest foreigner in New Japan history.
AJ first wrestled for New Japan in 2008 but that run was nothing compared to what came later. In 2014 Styles returned with a bang, jumping IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and joining Bullet Club. He would then beat Okada for the title, repeatedly showing that he had Okada’s number in title matches until he lost the title to Hiroshi Tanahashi. Styles won the title back in 2015, losing it when Okada finally managed to beat him in a title match. During his time in New Japan he won over the fans with his incredible title matches and two phenomenal G1 Climax tournaments. When Styles got the call from WWE in 2016 he left on a high note with a fantastic match against Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 9. He only had a two year run but in terms of match quality AJ is one of the best foreigners in New Japan history.
Before joining WWE, Eddie made his reputation in WCW. However, his wasn’t the only place that Eddie made a name for himself in the 90s. Eddie first wrestled in New Japan as part of the 1992 Top of the Super Juniors Tournament, along with Fit Finlay and 2 Cold Scorpio. A year later, Eddie Guerrero donned a mask and started wrestling as Black Tiger. Under this new identity Eddie became a regular in the New Japan Junior Heavyweight division, regularly appearing in tournaments including the much loved Super J Cup tournament in 1994. The high point of his 200 match long New Japan career was winning the 1996 Best of the Super Jr tournament, where he beat Jushin Thunder Liger in the final.
Gallows and Anderson
The former WWE Raw Tag Team Champions debuted in April last year after making their name in New Japan. As part of Bullet Club, they dominated New Japan’s tag team division, winning the titles three times and holding the belts for over 600 days. Anderson joined New Japan in 2008, rising up from the bottom to become a dominant force in the tag team division and the G1 Climax. The Bullet Club co-founder’s trademark was his incredibly dramatic and fast paced finishes. Gallows initially made his name in WWE as Festus and Luke Gallows before joining Bullet Club in 2013 as Anderson’s tag team partner.
He is arguably the most well known wrestler on the planet. While most people on this list appeared in New Japan before or after their WWE runs, Hogan’s time in New Japan coincided with his WWF career. Hogan wrestled in New Japan from 1980 to 1985, which covers his time in AWA and the start of Hulkamania. Hogan was one of New Japan’s biggest and most popular US stars, adapting to the Japanese style and relying on his Axe Bomber clothesline instead of the Leg Drop. Hogan’s time in New Japan saw him face names like Bob Backlund, Dusty Rhodes, and Andre the Giant, challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight title and even defend the WWF Heavyweight title.
Daniel Bryan’s career saw him travel to many places before he ended up in WWE, and one of those places was New Japan. While his Japanese career was remembered more for his time in Pro Wrestling NOAH, Bryan appeared in New Japan between 2002 and 2004. Wrestling as “American Dragon,” he fought the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Hirooki Goto and even Tyson Kidd. The pinnacle of this run was winning the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles with Curry Man, a “Hot & Spicy” wrestler who may or may not have been Christopher Daniels.
The current Raw GM had a very short career in New Japan. Angle had his first New Japan match before he won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Brock Lesnar in 2007. His second match saw him defend the belt at Wrestle Kingdom 2 against Yuji Nagata. The highlight of Angle’s New Japan career was his third match, when he lost the belt to Shinsuke Nakamura in a title unification match. The last match of Angle’s eight match NJPW career was in 2009, an IWGP Heavyweight title match against Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Before joining NXT, the current Smackdown Live star’s home was New Japan. Debuting in 2002, Nakamura was called a super rookie when he won the IWGP Heavyweight title in 2003, becoming the youngest Champion. Nakamura held the belt three times, having an amazing rivalry with Hiroshi Tanahashi. The end of Nakamura’s New Japan career was entwined with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, a belt that he held five times between 2012 and 2016. Nakamura’s greatest strength in New Japan was not his techniques or his strikes, it was his ability to constantly evolve and refresh his act. For example, watch Nakamura in 2008 and 2016 and then compare it to Randy Orton in 2008 and 2016.
He may have been born in Ireland, but Finn Balor was made in Japan. With a lack of opportunities in Europe or the U.S.A., Fergal Devitt travelled to Japan in 2006 to join New Japan Pro Wrestling. Renamed Prince Devitt as Fergal was too hard to pronounce, he rose through the ranks before becoming a dominant force in New Japan’s Junior Heavyweight division. With two Best of the Super Junior tournaments and 1000 days as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion to his name, no foreigner has achieved as much success in the division. Devitt then turned heel in 2013, founding Bullet Club with his friends Karl Anderson, Tama Tonga and Bad Luck Fale. Before he signed with WWE in 2014, Devitt was being positioned as a serious challenger for the IWGP Heavyweight title. His legacy in New Japan is his dominance in the Junior Heavyweight Division and great matches against the likes of Kota Ibushi and Naomichi Marufuji.