Yuji Nagata will soon compete on AEW Dynamite for the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship, taking on the ‘Death Rider’ Jon Moxley. The announcement was met with incredible excitement by fans of Japanese wrestling, particularly those that have followed Nagata’s career in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. But many fans are unfamiliar with ‘Blue Justice’, who has not competed on TNT in 23 years. Nagata’s legendary aura, for those unfamiliar with him, may need explained: does the ‘legend’ label come from his age or his accomplishments?
Even before joining the professional wrestling industry, Yuji Nagata was a talented athlete. A successful Greco-Roman style amateur wrestler, Nagata would meet one of his most famous pro-wrestling rivals during this time: a young man by the name of Minoru Suzuki. Though he debuted for New Japan on the 14th of September 1992, Nagata also represented Japan in various iterations of the Asian Wrestling Championships, placing fifth in 1993 and fourth in 1994.
Like many of the top talents throughout New Japan’s history, Yuji Nagata’s journey began in the NJPW Dojo. Arguably the greatest producer of talent in the wrestling industry, the Dojo has trained the likes of Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Keiji Mutoh, Masahiro Chono, Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger, Último Dragón and many, many more.
However, as with most NJPW Dojo alumni, Nagata’s initial success in his home promotion was limited. In order to progress past their status as a Young Lion (the name given to those yet to graduate from the Dojo, named after the Lion featured on NJPW’s logo), young talent are required to go on a learning excursion. Talent will generally be sent to one of three countries: the United Kingdom, Mexico or the United States.
Nagata’s excursion began in February 1997 and took him to the booming WCW promotion. For many fans this will have been perhaps the first or only time that they watched Nagata work. He was, like many Japanese wrestlers of the time, paired with Sonny Onoo, who also acted as his translator. Onoo had managed the likes of Akira Hokuto and Último Dragón to championship successes. However, his time with Nagata would not be so successful.
Though his WCW tenure undoubtedly had its highlights, including a victory over Último Dragón at World War 3 in 1997 and a tournament victory in the WCW World Tag Team Title Contenders League in 1998, Nagata returned to Japan after just 18 months. He lost just over half of his matches during his time in America and failed to win any titles. New Japan, however, clearly had plans for the ‘Blue Justice’.
Just one month after his return to Japan, Nagata challenged Scott Norton for the vacant IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Though he went on to lose the match, it was a clear sign of the successes to come. His performance in the 1999 G1 Climax, the first time he entered the revered tournament, certified him as a main event level talent. Nagata finished joint-first in the A-block, though a deciding match between himself and fellow block-topper Keiji Mutoh ended in Mutoh’s favour.
On the 28th of August that year, Nagata teamed with Manabu Nakanishi (a man he would go on to team with countless times until Nakanishi’s retirement in 2020) to win the IWGP Tag Team Championship. Their reign lasted for 327 days, though it would prove to be the only time the two men would hold championship gold together.
In the early 2000s, the Japanese wrestling scene was undergoing huge power shifts. Chief among the reasons for this was the mass exodus of All Japan Pro Wrestling talent led by company ace Mitsuharu Misawa. Two of his fellow ‘Four Pillars of Heaven’, Kenta Kobashi and Akira Taue, joined him. The majority of All Japan’s talent, despite being the biggest promotion in the country at the time, were leaving to form a new promotion: Pro Wrestling NOAH.
New Japan had been entering a decline prior to NOAH’s launch, but the huge media attention in the exciting new promotion meant more changes were coming for New Japan. Some, such as the beginning of a cross-promotional relationship with All Japan, served to create dream matchups between the biggest stars of two companies who generally had very little involvement with each other. Others, however, damaged the company greatly.
Company owner and founder Antonio Inoki had a keen interest in combat sports, dating back to his famous bout with Muhammad Ali in 1976. The match is noted to this day as a precursor to modern MMA. Noticing that MMA was overtaking professional wrestling in terms of popularity, Inoki sought to prove that New Japan really was the ‘King of Sports’ by involving the company in MMA. He attempted to transform the product into a pseudo-shoot style of wrestling, with the goal of bringing a greater sense of legitimacy to the company.
To achieve this goal, Inoki made two major decisions: to involve prominent MMA fighters in pro-wrestling, and to involve New Japan’s wrestling stars in MMA. In the early 2000s, Inoki would make one of his numerous forays into the MMA business. Funded partially through siphoned New Japan funds, a show known as Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye was put on every New Year’s Eve for three years.
This coincided with Nagata’s breakthrough to the upper-echelons of New Japan. In 2001 he finally defeated living legend Keiji Mutoh (The Great Muta to many fans) to win his first G1 Climax after reaching the semi-finals of the two previous tournaments. With age on his side, it seemed that New Japan had perhaps found their next ace. However, the philosophy now known as Inoki-ism would damage many talents, but there was perhaps no bigger victim than Nagata. In many ways he seems to be one of the clearest examples in wrestling history of being the right talent at the wrong time.
Nagata, despite his lack of MMA training, was selected to face off in an MMA bout with Mirko Cro Cop. Nagata entered the match with the fanfare associated with the prestigious G1 Climax victory he had achieved; Cro Cop, however, entered the match with a background as a Croatian kickboxing champion. In just 21 seconds, the reigning G1 champion lost the match. Just two years later he was entered into another MMA fight, lasting just over a minute in what would be his last foray into mixed martial arts. Though Nagata would still go on to have a successful career, the high-profile losses harmed his image for years to come.
The ill-advised MMA involvement went far beyond Nagata, however, as Inoki during this time also booked Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger in a Pancrase bout with Minoru Suzuki. Liger, who also had zero MMA experience, lost in under two minutes.
Thankfully, fans of ‘Blue Justice’ were finally able to witness his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship win on the 5th of April 2002. One of his only two reigns with the title, Nagata nevertheless had a record-setting reign. Eclipsing Shinya Hashimoto’s previous record of nine defences, Nagata successfully defended his champion on ten occasions, setting a record which would stand for nearly a decade. Though both Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada have since bettered his record, Nagata is still one of just three men to register double figures for his defences of NJPW’s top prize.
After losing the title to Yoshihiro Takayama, Nagata maintained his position near the top of the card. He continued to feature in prominent spots throughout the years, including a high-profile match in the AJPW/NJPW supershow Wrestle Kingdom in Tokyo Dome (now known as Wrestle Kingdom I) for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. This match, which saw Nagata lose after being choked out, was to be one of his many bouts with Minoru Suzuki.
It was five years before Nagata would reach the top of New Japan again, as 2007 saw the now seasoned and reliable company man regain much of his momentum from previous years. On the 21st of March, Nagata set one of his legendary records as he became the first man to win both the New Japan Cup (2007) and the G1 Climax (2001). His reward for winning the Cup was a match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on the 13th of April. His opponent for the match?: a young Hiroshi Tanahashi, a man seemingly well on his way to becoming the next ace of New Japan, a position Nagata had never managed to achieve.
Defying expectations, Nagata won the title and began his second and final reign with the Heavyweight Championship. In stark contrast to his previous, record-setting reign, Nagata lost the title in a rematch against Tanahashi just six months later. Though he would not main event Wrestle Kingdom II, he was given the honour of appearing in the huge cross-promotional match scheduled for the event; Kurt Angle vs. Yuji Nagata was the semi-main event of the show, with the two former amateur wrestlers facing off for the IWGP 3rd Belt Championship. Though Nagata lost the match, New Japan soon unified the title with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Whilst Nagata could not return to prize to New Japan, the younger Shinsuke Nakamura was able to defeat Kurt Angle to unify the titles.
Now a New Japan stalwart, Nagata spent many of the next years settling personal grudges and defending the honour of New Japan. He won Zero1’s top title, the World Heavyweight Championship, during a feud between the two companies. He formed the stable known as Seigigun (Blue Justice Army), mentoring Wataru Inoue and Mitsuhide Hirasawa (joined by Super Strong Machine). Hirasawa would leave soon after to go on a learning excursion, with his replacement being the hulking King Fale, better known to fans today as Bad Luck Fale, whom Nagata helped to train. With Inoue, Nagata once again won the G1 Tag League in 2010.
Minoru Suzuki returned to the company late in the 2010, immediately attacking his old rival Nagata. Though Suzuki had the clear upper-hand in their previous meetings (defeating Nagata in both amateur and professional wrestling), Wrestle Kingdom V saw the fierce rivals face off once more. Finally avenging his multiple defeats, Nagata defeated Suzuki, though their feud has continued on and off for a decade since.
Though he was entering his 40s, Nagata showed no signs of slowing down as the world entered the 2010s. Similar to his surge of momentum in 2007, 2011 was something of a resurgence for the leader of the Blue Justice Army. He won his second New Japan Cup, even defeating Shinsuke Nakamura in the final of the tournament. Though he lost the resulting title match against defending champion Hiroshi Tanahashi, Nagata also found major success outside of New Japan, laying the groundwork for a record he remains the only man in history to have ever achieved.
A mere week after his loss against Tanahashi, Nagata entered the venerated All Japan Pro Wrestling Champion Carnival. Despite his status as an outsider, Nagata won the tournament on his first attempt after defeating Seiya Sanada (now New Japan’s SANADA) in the final of the tournament. Though he was unable to dethrone Triple Crown holder (and All Japan company ace) Suwama, Nagata nevertheless became just the fourth man to win both the G1 Climax and the Champion Carnival, the two singles tournaments in Japanese wrestling with more history than any others.
Just two years later, Yuji Nagata set his a record that remains unequalled in all of wrestling history. Taking part in the 2013 edition of Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Global League (now known as the N-1 Victory), Nagata was successful in winning the tournament on just his second attempt. With his successful Global League campaign, Nagata ensured that his name will forever be etched in the history books for an incredible unique achievement. As it stands, Nagata is the only man in all of wrestling history to have won the three major men’s singles tournaments in Japan: the G1 Climax (2001), Champion Carnival (2011) and Global League (2013). Nagata remained loyal to New Japan throughout the entirety of these runs with NOAH and All Japan.
Nagata’s success in NOAH was greater than in All Japan, however. The 8th of February 2014 saw him win the GHC Heavyweight Championship, the top title in the company. He defended it successfully on four occasions, even against the likes of KENTA, before ultimately losing the title to Naomichi Marufuji. This was his second championship reign in NOAH, as he briefly held the GHC Tag Team Championship in 2003 with Hiroshi Tanahashi. Much like his career in New Japan, Nagata succeeded both by himself and with partners in NOAH.
Since his major successes in 2014, Nagata has largely transitioned to a role as a trainer and mentor to younger talent, particularly the Young Lions. His on-screen persona as a tough, well-respected legend reflects his real life status. Though he has had numerous runs in all of New Japan’s major tournaments, his success has been limited. In his final two G1 Climax tournaments, Nagata finished bottom of his block; the 2017 tournament was his last.
His last major New Japan success came in 2016. A mutual battle for respect had roared into life between Katsuyori Shibata and The Third Generation (Manabu Nakanishi, Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima). Shibata had been one of the young talents expected to carry New Japan to a new golden age in the mid-2000s. Along with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, he was part of the group known as ‘The New Three Musketeers’, three bright young talents that were to lead the company in the same manner as the original ‘Three Musketeers’ (Keiji Mutoh, Masahiro Chono, and Shinya Hashimoto).
The Third Generation were some of the key faces during the dark days of New Japan. The New Musketeers should have helped to bring the company out of their struggles. Instead, Shibata left in 2005. Rather than just disrespecting his peers, he had disrespected his elders. Yet he had returned to New Japan and started to win titles, claiming the NEVER Openweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 10 after defeating Tomohiro Ishii. To truly be welcomed back into the fold, Shibata was put through his paces by the legends he left behind.
‘The Wrestler’ dispatched both Tenzan and Kojima in successful title defences before he came up against Nagata. For the first time in eight years (and currently the last time), Nagata defeated Shibata on the 3rd of May 2016 to win the NEVER Openweight Championship. Though the reign lasted little over a month, it forced Shibata to respect his elders. Shibata won his title back, as well as the love and respect of the New Japan fans. With potentially his last singles title reign, Nagata helped Shibata to truly earn his place back in the company.
Though the peak of his career came at a time when New Japan had yet to enter the new golden age it is currently enjoying, Nagata’s accomplishments speak for themselves. His induction into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 2018 highlighted the high esteem the legend is held in by those within the professional wrestling industry. His illustrious record in tournaments may remain unique for years to come. Having faced off against the best of the best throughout wrestling history, Nagata has excelled across three different decades. As New Japan continue to bring exciting new talent through the Dojo, they can be sure that they will be helped along the way by a truly incomparable talent.
A living legend in every sense.
For those that want to explore the work of Yuji Nagata, a list of his recommended matches has been assembled. Many of these matches are readily available on njpwworld.com:
- Yuji Nagata and Takashi Iizuka vs. Toshiaki Kawada and Masanobu Fuchi (14/12/2000) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Keiji Mutoh (12/08/2001) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata and Jun Akiyama vs. Kenta Kobashi and Misuharu Misawa (17/02/2002) – Pro Wrestling NOAH
- Yuji Nagata vs. Akira Taue (06/06/2003) – Pro Wrestling NOAH
- Yuji Nagata vs. Kenta Kobashi (12/09/2003) – Pro Wrestling NOAH
- Yuji Nagata vs. Kensuke Sasaki (04/01/2004) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (13/04/2007) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Kurt Angle (04/01/2008) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (03/04/2011) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Suwama (19/06/2011) – All Japan Pro Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Naomichi Marufuji (05/07/2014) – Pro Wrestling NOAH
- Yuji Nagata vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (26/07/2014) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Katsuyori Shibata (01/08/2014) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Tomohiro Ishii (08/03/2019) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling
- Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki (17/06/2020) – New Japan Pro-Wrestling