WWE and NJPW: Their On-Again, Off-Again Relationship

Former WWE CEO Vince McMahon had a well-known lack of interest in working with other major promotions. However, the forbidden door between the WWE and NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling) has opened intermittently over the past fifty years. And each time that door opened, something uncommon occurred, moments WWE refuse to acknowledge.

Bob Backlund defends his WWF World Heavyweight Championship against Antonio Inoki in Tokushima, Japan, on November 30th, 1979. Inoki would defeat Backlund for the title. Backlund would win it back in a rematch days later.
Bob Backlund defends his WWF World Heavyweight Championship against Antonio Inoki in Tokushima, Japan, on November 30th, 1979. [Photo: @WrestlingIsKing on Twitter]

The WWE and NJPW Partnership in 2021 That Never Was

In June 2022, the wrestling world was taken by storm when New Japan Pro Wrestling partnered with Tony Khan’s All Elite Wrestling to co-produce the wildly successful Forbidden Door pay-per-view. However, fans would have never been blessed with the Forbidden Door event had WWE and NJPW reached an exclusive partnership deal in 2021.

Reports started showing up in May 2021 about WWE being in talks with New Japan to become its exclusive partner in a move that would essentially cut AEW out of the picture.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Justin Barrasso, in an attempt to keep Danielson in the WWE, WWE’s Co-CEO Nick Khan opened lines of communication with New Japan, exploring ways for the two companies to collaborate.

Bryan Danielson would confirm later that year that WWE attempted to keep him in the company by offering him the liberty to also work in Japan.

At the time, founder and co-owner of AEW Tony Khan heard about this through trusted sources within New Japan. However, New Japan officials assured Tony that working with AEW was their priority.

Danielson would end up signing with AEW months after his WWE contract expired in April 2021, and partnership discussions between WWE and NJPW fizzled out.

It was one of the rare times in recent years WWE expressed a willingness to collaborate with another significant wrestling company.

Vince McMahon’s lack of interest in working with other major promotions is well-known. The former head believed that as his company holds the biggest market share, it had nothing to gain from cross-promotional programming.

However, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many top WWF wrestlers headed to Japan for successful tours with NJPW.

Antonio Inoki after winning the WWF Championship from Bob Backlund in Tokushima, Japan, on November 30th, 1979. It is a title reign not acknowledged by the WWE.
Antonio Inoki after winning the WWF Championship from Bob Backlund in Tokushima, Japan, on November 30th, 1979. It is a title reign not acknowledged by the WWE. [Photo: @DennyBurkholder on Twitter]

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Antonio Inoki Becomes WWF Champion: A Reign WWE Refuses to Acknowledge

After winning the first-ever Madison Square Garden Series Tournament in 1979, Antonio Inoki earned a title shot against Bob Backlund by defeating Andre The Giant in the finals.

In a nearly 30-minute encounter in Tokushima, Japan, on November 30th, 1979, Inoki would win his match over Backlund due to outside help. Indo-Canadian wrestling legend and wildman Tiger Jeet Singh ran to ringside, distracting WWF Champion Backlund to allow Inoki the opportunity to pin him for the victory.

And just like that, the title was taken off of Backlund right in the middle of his famous five-year run with the title. Inoki was the new WWF champ.

The WWF would reverse the results in a rematch between the competitors a week later. WWE has never acknowledged the Japanese legend’s victory. As far as WWE record books are concerned, Mr. Backlund’s reign is listed as one long uninterrupted five-year reign.

According to Bob Backlund in his book, Inoki was booked to win the WWF Championship to pop the Japanese audience during his Japan tour in 1979. There were never any plans for Inoki’s win to be mentioned to fans back home in America. Most fans didn’t even know about this title change unless they were a reader of publications such as Pro Wrestling Illustrated, which posted the results.

Successful Exchange of Talent Between WWE and NJPW Over the Years

Other wrestlers who successfully campaigned in Japan included the likes of Dynamite Kid, Pedro Morales, The Blackjacks, George Steele, Greg Valentine, Ivan Koloff, Buddy Rose, Tito Santana, Billy Graham, and innumerable others.

Moreover, in 1993, the then WWF Champion Hulk Hogan returned to NJPW for a tour along with his championship. The Hulkster faced the IWGP Champion, The Great Muta, in a dream match at that year’s Wrestling Dontaku. Hogan won that bout.

On the other side, throughout the golden era of wrestling, North American fans saw the likes of Tiger Mask, Akira Maeda, Riki Choshu, Yoshiaki Yatsu, and Antonio Inoki come to the WWF.

WWF Champion Hulk Hogan leg drops IWGP Champion The Great Muta at the Wrestling Dontaku event at Fukuoka, Japan, on May 3rd, 1993.
WWF Champion Hulk Hogan leg drops IWGP Champion The Great Muta at the Wrestling Dontaku event at Fukuoka, Japan, on May 3rd, 1993. [Photo: New Japan Pro Wrestling]

Shared Championships

The exchange of talents was not the only means of connecting the two sides; multiple WWF Championships were defended across two promotions.

In 1965, the then WWWF introduced its Junior Heavyweight Championship. The title was presented as the top prize for the smaller wrestlers in the company. The first title holder was Paul DeGalles, who won it at a house show. However, after Tatsumi Fujinami won it from Jose Estrada in January 1978, the championship moved to NJPW.

The belt, from there onwards, served as a New Japan Championship even though owned by the WWF. Japanese legends such as Tiger Mask, The Cobra, and Black Tiger held the title before it was abandoned due to the end of the two companies’ partnership.

In April 1994, the original WWWF version of the belt was used as a trophy for the first-ever Super J-Cup, which Wild Pegasus (Chris Benoit) won.

Just two years after the formation of the Junior Heavyweight title, the WWWF announced the formation of the International Tag Team Championship belts. Unlike the Junior Heavyweight title, the straps remained under the booking of the WWF for the majority of its tenure. They were abandoned in 1972 but were brought back in 1985 as the prize of the IWGP and WWF Series Tag Tournament winners.

Tatsumi Fujinami and Kengo Kimura defeated the team of Dick Murdoch and Adrian Adonis in the final. Unfortunately, the belts were again retired just months after WWF and NJPW terminated their partnership.

Along with these, the WWF International Heavyweight Championship was also defended occasionally in a New Japan ring, with the promotion’s top guys such as Fujinami and Riki Choshu also attaining the gold. However, the belt was declared vacant on July 19th, 1985, after Fujinami (in his third reign) went to a double disqualification with Super Strong Machine.

The WWF International Heavyweight Championship was officially retired on October 31st, 1985, when WWF and New Japan ended their working relationship.

Lastly, in 1978, Vincent James McMahon created the WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship. It was awarded to Antonio Inoki when the Japanese legend first arrived in the United States.

Since then, the belt remained in NJPW and was used by Inoki for his “shoot fight” matches. Inoki retired it in 1989, though the championship belt was used to represent the NJPW Greatest 18 Championship in 1990.

Antonio Inoki as WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Champion.
Antonio Inoki as WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Champion. [Photo: New Japan Pro Wrestling]

The WWE, NJPW, and AJPW Co-Produced Pay-Per-View

Even though the two sides had been working with each other for over two decades, it wasn’t until 1990 that the two had a co-produced pay-per-view.

In January of 1990, Vince McMahon appeared in the crowd of All Japan Pro Wrestling’s show at the Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. Vince then went on to shake hands with the promotion’s owner Giant Baba in what was indeed a groundbreaking moment.

Vince McMahon shaking hands with All Japan Pro Wrestling wrestler and promoter Giant Baba.
Vince McMahon shaking hands with All Japan Pro Wrestling wrestler and promoter Giant Baba. [Photo: All Japan Pro Wrestling]
After the event, WWF, AJPW, and NJPW would be co-producing a mega PPV from the Tokyo Domo, called the Wrestling Summit.

 

The event, on April 13th, 1990, drew around 53,000 fans. The PPV was structured as a twelve-match card with exclusive matches from each promotion and inter-promotional bouts.

The two main marquee matches for the night were Hulk Hogan vs. Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Bret Hart vs. Tiger Mask II (Mitsuhara Misawa).

Even though the entire event was filmed at the time, the footage of only five matches has seen the light of day. This card was the last time the three major promotions collaborated until years later.

Wrestling Summit was a WWE, NJPW, and AJPW co-produced pay-per-view that took place at the Tokyo Dome on April 13th, 1990.
Wrestling Summit was a WWE, NJPW, and AJPW co-produced pay-per-view that took place at the Tokyo Dome on April 13th, 1990. [Photo: WWE]

WWE and NJPW Relationship in Recent Years

In the case of the WWF and NJPW, it took decades for the two sides to work with each other again. This happened in 2015 when the now WWE reached out to NJPW with a special request.

The company wanted New Japan to loan them the legendary Jushin “Thunder” Liger for a one-night appearance. This led to Liger wrestling Tyler Breeze at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn.

This was the former IWGP Jr Heavyweight Champion’s first match under the WWE banner.

Five years later, on March 16th, 2020, it was announced that Liger would be inducted into that year’s WWE Hall of Fame class.

Now with Vince McMahon retired, fans are hopeful that perhaps the biggest company in the world can once again open its arms to other promotions around the globe. Many a dream match awaits.

Jushin "Thunder" Liger vs. Tyler Breeze at NXT TakeOver Brooklyn in 2015.
Jushin “Thunder” Liger vs. Tyler Breeze at NXT TakeOver Brooklyn in 2015. [Photo: WWE]

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Aarij Arifeen is a lifelong wrestling fan with a great interest in related literature. He is a moderator for r/AEWOfficial on Reddit, has had bylines on TheSportster.com, and resides in Karachi, Pakistan. He can be reached on Twitter at @itsAAA_Ridge or by e-mail at syedaarijarifeen@gmail.com.