It wasn’t the kind of reunion Shinsuke Nakamura, Katsuyori Shibata, or Hiroshi Tanahashi were hoping for.
The three Japanese wrestlers were photographed together at Antonio Inoki’s private funeral, which was held on October 13th. Nothing has been announced regarding any public funeral for Inoki as of yet; however, if it’s anything like Rikidozan’s, Giant Baba’s, or Mitsuharu Misawa’s, then it’s expected that tens of thousands of people will come to pay tribute.
Shinsuke Nakamura, Tanahashi, and Shibata were dubbed “The New Three Musketeers” because they were intended to follow in the footsteps of New Japan’s original Three Musketeers – Hashimoto, Muto/Muta, and Chono – as the company’s top stars. In that sense, the three of them were the New Japan equivalent to WWE’s “OVW Four” – Cena, Orton, Lesnar, and Batista – all of whom became top stars in the company.
Inoki had a hand in training all three of them, but Nakamura was special. Inoki made Nakamura his personal pet project during the early 2000s and pushed him to the moon. Under Inoki’s tutelage, Nakamura fought in real MMA fights (and finished with a 3-1 record) and won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in December 2003 at only 23 years old.
The early Nakamura experiment achieved mixed results; while it was great for New Japan to be booking a new star so strongly, Nakamura’s lack of experience and refinement caused him to fall short of fan expectations. Shinsuke Nakamura spent the rest of the 2000s flirting with the main-event scene, but it wasn’t until the 2010s began that Nakamura changed his persona to the now-famous ‘King of Strong Style’.
Katsuyori Shibata, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi at Antonio Inoki's wake.
The New Three Musketeers reunited under unfortunate circumstances. pic.twitter.com/73VHPCQ1Og
— Ciarán (@CiaranRH93) October 14, 2022
But by that point, his spot as company ace had been taken by Tanahashi. They had been rivals for years, and while Inoki was grooming Shinsuke Nakamura to be his new golden boy, Tanahashi went on foreign excursion and brought a more lucha-libre-inspired style back to New Japan. And after much John Cena-style fan rejection, Tanahashi got over and became New Japan’s unquestioned ace.
As for Shibata, his time in New Japan was similar to Lesnar’s in WWE: he started off being booked strong and then left the company when he was needed most to pursue MMA ventures. But unlike Lesnar’s, Shibata’s fighting career was largely disappointing with a 4-11 record. Shibata returned to New Japan and spent years trying to re-ingratiate himself among the fans and his fellow NJPW wrestlers.
Although neither Shinsuke Nakamura nor Katsuyori Shibata would ever achieve heights similar to Tanahashi, both would still go on to have career-defining moments. Nakamura was the first wrestler to make something valuable out of the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and defended in some true MOTY-level classics. As for Shibata, he had a career renaissance of sorts that ended prematurely when he fought Kazuchika Okada in one of the most intense and hard-hitting matches in modern history.