5-Star Match Reviews: Shingo Takagi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – NJPW Wrestle Grand Slam 2021

tanahashi shingo

As I write this in late 2022, New Japan is at its coldest in years. Despite having a solid roster and some interesting international partnerships, interest in its matches and shows has taken a nosedive.

But how is this possible? How can a company that boasts talented wrestlers like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shingo Takagi be going through a cold spell, especially after achieving such great heights up to and including January 2020?

To try and answer that question, let’s look at the main event of a New Japan show in the Tokyo Dome…during the peak of the COVID lockdown.

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.

The story

Like every wrestling company, New Japan struggled once the COVID pandemic shut many industries down. Some companies adapted well; WWE, for example, created their ‘Thunderdome’ gimmick and had some interesting matches in front of socially-distanced crowds (some of which weren’t made up of actual fans but staff pretending to be fans). New Japan didn’t have that luxury. Like most Japanese wrestling companies, NJPW didn’t have a regular TV deal and so live gates and in-person attendance made up a MUCH bigger portion of their revenue. Without people, New Japan’s future looked grim.

By 2021 there was some hope in place as venues could host wrestling events again, albeit in front of greatly reduced crowds. This event, Grand Slam, had about 5,400 people in a cavernous dome that could hold well over ten times that number. It seemed like a pretty sad situation…though the company’s world title picture was similarly sad.

After Tetsuya Naito won the double gold dash at Wrestle Kingdom 14, he became the first person to hold both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles. At first he wanted to defend them separately. But before he could embark on that quest, New Japan was shut down due to the pandemic. A year later at Wrestle Kingdom 15, Naito lost both titles to Kota Ibushi on night one. and after Ibushi retained both titles against Jay White on night two, he decided on having the two titles unified. And with that, the IC title that both Naito and Shinsuke Nakamura worked so hard to elevate and make into something prestigious, disappeared. And the heavyweight title, which was New Japan’s premier title since 1987, was gone as well.

In its place was a new belt representing a new title that technically carried both previous titles’ lineages. But things got off to a rocky start with the new IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Ibushi’s reign as the new unified champion lasted only one month before he lost it to Will Ospreay. And then Ospreay didn’t hold it for much longer than that because he suffered a neck injury in May 2021. It wasn’t until Dominion 6.6 in June that New Japan finally had a stable champion in Shingo Takagi.

And while Takagi did achieve something important by beating Kazuchika Okada to win the title, he’d have an equally-important challenge in his first defense: Hiroshi Tanahashi.

Even as he reached his mid-forties, Tanahashi was a special wrestler. He had John Cena’s look and company loyalty combined with the wrestling skill of a Bret Hart or Eddy Guerrero and the charisma and ring presence of Shawn Michaels. He could always be relied on to deliver when called upon, which is what happened here.

This match was supposed to be Takagi defending against Kota Ibushi. But Ibushi couldn’t make the show because he developed pneumonia. And so, Tanahashi was brought in as a last-minute replacement.

While Takagi/Ibushi was seen as the bigger match-up in terms of freshness, Takagi/Tanahashi was more intriguing. Tanahashi was the heart and soul of New Japan and had been with the company for, at the time, almost two full decades. Takagi, on the other hand, debuted in 2018 and was still seen by some as an outsider from Dragon Gate and therefore not a “proper” NJPW guy.

This was Takagi’s chance to prove them all wrong while also protecting his title. While it was rare for titles to change hands so soon after a new champion was crowned, such title changes did occur. And if there was anyone that sold the idea that he could end Takagi’s title reign before it even started, it was Tanahashi.

But there was another problem: this was not the Tanahashi of the 2010s. Although Tanahashi did his best to look the same and wrestle in the same high-intensity and conditioning-heavy style that led to his outstanding epics in the prior decade, he had to face facts. His body was FAR more worn down here than it was even a few years earlier. That led to many people doubting that Tanahashi could win, especially since Takagi was younger and hit like a freight train. Tanahashi needed a miracle to win, but if there was anyone that could make people believe in miracles, it was Tanahashi.

The match

This match originally took place on July 25th, 2021.

tanahashi shingo

They lock-up and struggle for a bit until Tanahashi gets a clean break. That’s followed by a knuckle lock and Shingo overpowers Tanahashi, only for Tana to counter with a drop toehold into a leglock. Tanahashi rolls into a grounded headlock but Shingo wrestles out, leading to a chain grapple sequence followed by a stalemate.

Tanahashi wills the crowd on to clap for him (since they can’t cheer, because, COVID) and they lock-up once more. Shingo applies a headlock but Tanahashi shoots him off and counters with another drop toehold into a grounded headlock once more. Shingo tries pushing him off again but this time Tana holds on. It takes Shingo a few more tries until he’s finally to shake Tanahashi off. And when Tana tries knocking Shingo down, Shingo bounces off the ropes and knocks Tanahashi down instead.

Shingo stomps on Tanahashi’s belly and then lands two elbow drops. He misses a senton and Tanahashi answers with an elbow drop of his own. a corner whip is reversed and then a minor miscommunication occurs as Shingo fails to catch Tanahashi on a crossbody. But Shingo covers for it with a sudden Death Valley Driver out of nowhere followed by a clothesline to the floor.

At ringside, Shingo goes after Tanahashi’s ribs with stomps and kicks. He drops Tanahashi sternum-first onto the ring apron and when Tanahashi finally rolls into the ring Shingo’s ready for him with another belly double-stomp. Shingo hits a kneelift against the ropes followed by a clothesline and a vertical suplex for a two-count and then applies a grounded chinlock. Tanahashi powers up and escapes with a short strike combo. He charges…and runs into a back elbow/clothesline, and then Shingo hits a snap Backdrop suplex for another two-count.

Shingo goes back to the neck with what looks like an inverted grounded cobra clutch. Tanahashi gets a ropebreak, but Shingo mocks him from a position of control. Shingo takes three forearms to the face but tanks them like a boss and drops Tanahashi with a forearm of his own. Tanahashi blocks a Gory facebuster so Shingo DDT’s him and hits some Danielson-style collar elbows. Shingo charges for a sliding lariat…but Tanahashi ducks it and dropkicks Shingo’s left knee. Shingo hobbles around and goes for a kick with his right leg, only for Tanahashi to catch it with a dragon screw leg whip. Tanahashi gets a critical move to gain control of the match at the ten-minute mark.

Shingo reverses a corner whip but he’s too slow to capitalize and Tanahashi bounces out with a flying forearm. Tana hits a slam/second-rope somersault senton combo for a two-count and then teases a slingblade. He charges…and fakes Shingo out by hitting a dropkick to Shingo’s knee instead. Tanahashi goes for a Texas cloverleaf but Shingo grabs the ropes for dear life. Shingo narrowly escapes a corner charge and then catches Tanahashi’s boot and hits a corner lariat. Both guys no-sell each other’s strikes and then Shingo overtakes Tana with more jabs and chops. Then he charges into the opposite corner, only for Tanahashi to chase him and hit a corner dropkick. Then Tanahashi jumps onto the top rope. High Fly Flow to Shingo on the floor.

Back in the ring, Tanahashi hits a barrage of elbows to Shingo’s face in a corner followed by a running basement dropkick. Both guys block suplex attempts until Tanahashi turns it into a Twist and Shout corkscrew neckbreaker. He lands three of them and charges for a slingblade, only for Shingo to counter into a Gory facebuster. Tanahashi hits the ring hard on both his face and his knees. Shingo capitalizes with a wheelbarrow German suplex and a sliding lariat for a two-count and then kicks Tanahashi mockingly. But he kicks Tana one times too many as Tanahashi catches his boot and dropkicks Shingo’s other leg. Shingo tries brushing it off with a Death Valley Bomb. Tanahashi escapes and lands another dragon screw. Shingo gets his boot up to block a corner charge. Tanahashi catches it and hits yet another dragon screw, followed by a top-rope version as well. Then Tanahashi locks in the Texas cloverleaf. Shingo tries launching Tanahashi off but Tanahashi maintains the hold even as he loses his footing. Shingo almost taps when he gets a much-needed ropebreak.

Tanahashi teases a dragon screw through the ropes but Shingo blocks it, chops Tanahashi’s neck, and lands that same move on Tanahashi. Shingo follows with over-the-shoulder leg breakers and then does a combination elbow smash to the knee and drives it into the side of the ring. Shingo teases sending Tanahashi into the barricade. But somehow Tanahashi counters and tries a slingblade. Shingo ducks it and a Goto-style GTR headlock elbow drop.

After some recovery time, Tanahashi barely makes it in at the ref’s count of nineteen. The second he’s in the ring, Shingo hits him with another sliding lariat followed by his Made in Japan finisher. One, two, Tanahashi kicks out. Pumping Bomber lariat. Tanahashi kicks out again. Shingo tries his Last of the Dragon super finisher but Tanahashi elbows out, so Shingo hits a STIFF lariat. but Tanahashi remains standing. Shingo long one-two elbow barrage. Tanahashi roars defiantly. Shingo drops him with a head-butt and tries LotD again. Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. Tanahashi charges for another one. Shingo chases and lariats him against the ropes. Shingo tries another lariat. Tanahashi counters and tries a dragon suplex. Shingo blocks so Tana traps the arms and hits a bridging German suplex for a close two-count. slingblade connects. Shingo survives once more. Tanahashi goes to the top rope. High Fly Flow to a standing Shingo. Tanahashi goes for another one but Shingo grabs his leg to stop him. But not only does Tanahashi break free, but he channels Kota Ibushi and lands a Kamigoye knee strike to Shingo’s face. A second High Fly Flow connects. One…two…and thr – Shingo kicks out.

We’re thirty minutes in as Shingo avoids a dragon suplex. Tananashi tries that move a second time but Shingo counters into Last of the Dragon. But then he collapses. He can’t pin right away. Both men spend a long time on recovering the mat. A forearm exchange ensues and both guys struggle to stay on their feet. This time it’s Tanahashi who wins with his own one-two combo and a head-butt. Tanahashi charges again. Shingo hits some punches to the jaw and swings for a lariat. Tanahashi ducks it and hits a dragon suplex. But Shingo rolls onto his feet and charges for another lariat. Tanahashi ducks this one and hits a bridging dragon suplex. One, two, Shingo survives. Tanahashi slowly ascends the turnbuckle for another frog splash. Shingo stops him with head-butts to the chest. Another strike exchange ends with head-butts from Shingo. Then Shingo lifts Tanahashi onto his shoulders and hits a diving LotD. But he takes a few seconds too many to cover due to the pain he’s in. Shingo covers…and only gets a 2.9-count. A slap fight ensues and then turns into a discus lariat from Shingo. Then the champ hits LotD one more time. One, two, and three! Shingo pins Tanahashi!

Winner and STILL IWGP World Heavyweight Champion after 37:26: Shingo Takagi


This was a great match but nowhere near 5-Star level. It hit the A- level instead of A+. It had some solid action typical of a New Japan main event. But despite having so many great moving parts, it just didn’t come together as seamlessly as expected.

The match was a typical New Japan main event; if you had a checklist or a Bingo card of tropes or match features, you’d get through this one pretty quickly. It began with the usual technical exchange that, while solid, didn’t accomplish much. There was lots of mechanical wrestling and simple exchanges early on that prolonged the sense of stalemate between the champion and the challenger. Shingo had a solid strategy here as he targeted Tanahashi’s neck as much as possible. Even with a few surprises here and there, such as with his attacks on Tanahashi’s legs, Shingo never lost track of his goal. He came back to Tanahashi’s neck over and over, to the point that virtually every move he landed after the 25-minute mark was believable as a near-fall.

But as the match progressed, it veered into repetitive territory. Put simply, there was nothing new from either of these wrestlers. It was more of the same, with so many of the same moves being teased, reversed, and then landed at the expected points. These things don’t necessarily make a match bad; they make it predictable. The few moments of genuine surprise were eclipsed by an overwhelming sense of sameness that didn’t make this match stand out enough to warrant the highest of praise.

Although it was impressive that Tanahashi could still go at this level at his age and with his body being so worn down, his style has become repetitive and mechanical. Just like his archrival Okada, Tanahashi rarely leaves his comfort zone anymore. In this match, he hit the same moves at the same points, almost like he’s a wrestling subway train that always arrives at every stop before the eventual final destination.

For a guy with so many great matches under his belt, it’s disappointing that Tanahashi wrestled so rigidly and didn’t change things up until the final third of the match. While the match got exciting once Tanahashi started countering Shingo’s moves out of nowhere and grit his teeth to survive Shingo’s stiff strikes, the first fifteen minutes were largely pedestrian. Sure, Tanahashi showed off his usual technical know-how and teased starting an attack on Shingo’s legs. But all of that went nowhere and ultimately achieved nothing save for adding to the match’s runtime.

As a comparison, let’s compare this to a bunch of surefire top-tier wrestling classics that have one or more elements that make them way better than this match:

  • Tanahashi vs. Okada VI, King of Pro-Wrestling 2013: Tanahashi abandons his trademark righteousness and feigns an injury to take Okada by surprise, only for Okada to overcome this and beat Tanahashi for the second time that year.
  • Bret vs. Austin, WrestleMania 13: the famous double-turn. Bret entered as a hero and left the villain while Austin entered the hated villain and ended the match being cheered for refusing to give up.
  • Shingo vs. Okada, G1 Climax 2020: Okada spent most of the match building up his new Money Clip (Cobra Clutch) finisher and despite Shingo’s best efforts, Shingo ends up passing out to that move after a hellacious fight.
  • Four Pillars VI, June 9th, 1995: Kobashi spends ¾ of the match getting his leg destroyed, sacrifices himself by protecting his partner Misawa with his own body, and then has to watch from inches away as Kawada pins Misawa for the three-count anyway.
  • Tanahashi vs. Ishii, G1 Climax 2013: Tanahashi turns heel ten seconds into the match based on the crowd reaction and gets manhandled for it.
  • WALTER vs. Ilya Dragunov 2020: the standard-bearer for COVID wrestling matches, this one told a story of grit and perseverance despite having almost zero fans in attendance.

And once again, the selling in the match was a bit inconsistent. It’s hard to take a match seriously when one wrestler – in this case, Shingo – starts hobbling around to sell damage to his leg and then decides to sprint into a corner to prepare for a move because that’s the next spot that’s lined up. Shingo’s selling improved towards the end, but that one spot with the hobbling and the charge came at a critical juncture in the match. Shingo’s decision to do that spot cost him because Tanahashi was able to hit him first and then begin his own control segment. It just doesn’t make for a cohesive watching experience when two opposing applications of selling – deep and realistic followed by borderline-nonexistent – are juxtaposed together like this.

Final Rating: ****1/2

There’s some great action here and if you’re into long matches that make you question the wrestlers’ conditioning and whether or not they’re actually human, then you’ll have a good time here. But is this some sort of groundbreaking classic? No. It has some great moving parts but ultimately they don’t all come together as well as Shingo’s and Tanahashi’s earlier matches.

This is still a watchable match for sure, but don’t expect this to be on par with both wrestlers’ earlier classics. Takagi had a better COVID-era match with Okada in October 2020 and another great one with Bryan Danielson a decade earlier. As for Tanahashi, he’s had many matches way better than this one against the likes of Ishii, AJ Styles, Ibushi, Nakamura, Naito, and, of course, Okada.

Although Takagi is a great wrestler, I think he would’ve had a better match with Ibushi here, simply because Ibushi is crazier and meshes better with the sort of high-impact mayhem Takagi’s famous for. Tanahashi’s style made this match competitive; Ibushi’s style would’ve made it explosive. And in 2021, when New Japan was desperate to push forward, they needed something fresh and new to keep fans interested. Tanahashi, who represented the established and institutional New Japan style, was not what New Japan needed at this time, regardless of how well he wrestled.

Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.