The Year of Years: Looking Back at Hiroshi Tanahashi’s Untouchable 2013

Hiroshi Tanahashi
Credit: NJPW

In 2013, Peyton Manning threw an NFL-leading 55 touchdowns en route to his fifth MVP award. It was a record-breaking year for the quarterback as he moved into the top spot in both TDs and passing yards for a single season. Manning rewrote the history books of his sport with that performance.

That same year, Hiroshi Tanahashi had his own historic stretch in the pro wrestling realm.

Like Manning, the New Japan Pro-Wrestling fan favorite was already a Hall of Fame lock when he tore it up in 2013. But each man found a way to outdo themselves in their late 30s. For both the quarterback and the wrestler, 2013 proved to be their most outstanding year.

For a guy of Tanahashi’s ilk, someone whose mantle is warped by the weight it carries with awards from Tokyo Sports, Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and Nikkan Sports, that’s saying something.

Luxurious hair at his shoulders, his fingers strumming his air guitar, the statuesque star has been the heart of New Japan for the bulk of the 2010s. Tanahashi topped himself year after year. He earned a boatload of awards from the Japanese press in the process.

His run in 2013 is unparalleled, though.

The Ace has his archrival to thank for much of that. He and Kazuchika Okada wrestled a series of thrillers on pair with the finest we saw from Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa and Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair in decades prior.

Add great showings at the G1, main-event thrillers at NJPW’s lesser known PPVs and some quality wars with Tomohiro Ishii. It’s no wonder the Ogaki, Japan, native dominated when it came time to hand out wrestling’s annual awards.

Tanahashi appeared four times in the top 15 of Voices of Wrestling’s Match of the Year countdown. He wrestled in the no. 13, no. 6, no. 2 and no. 1 matches, to be exact.

Two of his matches that year earned five-star ratings in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Plus, Tanahashi claimed three Wrestling Observer awards in 2013—Most Outstanding Wrestler, Wrestler of the Year, and Match of the Year, all by wide margins.

What a 12-month stretch. What a collection of classics. Read on to relive and remember Tanahashi’s 2013 performances, big bout by big bout.

January 4

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (Wrestle Kingdom 7)

The proverbial big-fight feel crackling around them, Tanahashi and Okada locked up in front of 29,000 fans. And so began a spectacular match and a spectacular year for The Ace of the Universe.

The slow-cooked first act saw Tanahashi pick apart his foe. The champ dished out pinpointed offense with bursts of speed and moves where he sprung into the air.

Tanahashi’s facial expression game was primo throughout. His disbelief when Okada kicked out of the High-Fly Flow, his intensity when on the attack, it all heightened the drama the wrestlers were creating.  A surging energy colored the final third of the bout as the finishers came flying.

In the end, Tanahashi was able to fend off Okada in a monumental main event that set the bar for Wrestle Kingdoms to come. Fans were reveling in the afterglow pure artistry with no idea that Tanahashi and Okada would surpass it just three months later.

Rating:  Classic

February 10

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Karl Anderson (The New Beginning)

Like Ric Flair did so often at his peak with his challengers, Tanahashi helped showcase The Machine Gun’s potential as a main eventer here. This IWGP Heavyweight Championship match remains the best singles showing of Anderson’s career.

A playful, smiling Ace masterfully worked over Anderson’s knee early on. When the match morphed into a brawl, Anderson uppercutted and clubbed his way to controlling the action.

The bout was a happy marriage of Anderson’s power and Tanahashi’s skill.

At one point, a Stunner on the railing left Tanahashi lifeless on the ringside floor. That led to one of the more dramatic moments of the night, a 19-count where he barely rolled under the ring ropes in time.  

Anderson fired off his best shots. He scored a succession of near-falls. And the crowd ate it all up.

The match served as an exhibition of what Anderson could do as a singles competitor. For The Ace, it was an early stop on a magical tour. He was just getting started.

Rating: Banger

Hiroshi Tanahashi and Karl Anderson
Credit: NJPW World

April 7

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (Invasion Attack)

The crown jewel of the storied Okada-Tanahashi rivalry came in the spring of 2013 in front of a blistering Ryogoku Sumo Hall crowd.

Tension simmered throughout this Shakespearean in-ring drama. Champion and challenger were two sticks of dynamite closing in on explosion.

An especially ferocious Tanahashi went after his opponent’s arm for much of the night. The tactician tried to eliminate Okada’s best weapon—the Rainmaker. And seeing The Ace get downright nasty as he pounced on Okada’s right arm was marvelous.

The highlights flooded in, wave by wave. A DDT on the ring apron that stood The Ace on his head. A slugfest against the railing. One of the most stunning High Fly Flows Tanahashi has ever pulled off, a graceful, sublime work of physical poetry.

Energy surged through all of it.

The resilient, fiery Tanahashi survived Okada’s submissions. They traded haymakers in a frenzied finish until the final blow, a moonshot of a Rainmaker.

Joe Lanza of Voices of Wrestling rightly called it “a pro wrestling masterpiece.” No argument there. This was simply one of the finest works of art ever crafted in a wrestling ring.

Rating: All-Timer

August 2

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tomohiro Ishii (G1 Climax)

Tanahashi vs. Okada gets all the love, but The Ace and Ishii had their own bonafide barnburners in 2013, too. The best of those came in August in the tournament where Ishii famously shines like no other.

Mat wrestling, aerial action and pier-six brawling all fused perfectly together.

Tanahashi showed off a toughness and tenacity that pulled you in. He excelled when it was time to fly and when it was time to trade fisticuffs with The Stone Pitbull. One extended strike exchange set the Korakuen Hall crowd on fire.

A joyously frantic pace made this so damn fun. Tanahashi’s emotions beaming as he sought to put away Ishii gave the action weight.

Add the electric final moments and you had a bout that could well have won MOTY if not for the Okada-Tanahashi epics.

Rating: Classic

August 10

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (G1 Climax)

In the thick of the G1, the rivals met once more. This time around, each man was badly in need of a win. They had both fallen short in three of their first four matches in the tournament.

Tanahashi and Okada could decide the other’s fate.

They played a familiar song, complete with the High-Fly Flow, Okada focusing on his enemy’s neck and Tanahashi going after Okada’s arm. A sense of desperation for a tournament win gave their usual match formula extra oomph.

The Ace grew increasingly aggressive as the match went on, his glorious locks heavy with sweat, his gait slowed by pain, measuring up his archenemy for heavy kicks.

In the electric-charged third act, Okada and Tanahashi absolutely wore each other out. The foes limped and gasped for air between each big move.

Okada failed to land his trademark Rainmaker in the closing seconds, Tanahashi instead dodging via pure exhaustion, collapsing on the mat. The time-limit draw meant there was still no decisive winner to this ongoing feud. Instead, we got a hell of a work of theater from two of the best to ever do it.

Rating: Classic

August 11

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito (G1 Climax)

Naito entered the G1 Final with his knee bandaged and his shoulder heavy with the proverbial chip on it. Tanahashi had already won the grueling tournament some six years earlier. He had already been IWGP heavyweight champ six times earlier. Meanwhile, Naito was a rising star on the verge of making his way into the top tier.

So, this crowning match served as a proving ground for the Stardust Genius and another chance for Tanahashi to elevate an opponent.

Naito’s knee, a weakness targeted all tourney, became a focal point for the story they would tell. The Ace went after it with gusto. He halted many a Naito rally with a swift kick to that weakened joint.

Spit flew into the air. The foes lit each other up with forearms.

Tanahashi fought until he exhausted every last drop in his tank. It wasn’t enough to keep down the man on the rise. A Phoenix Splash from Naito punctuated an emotional end to one of the all-time best finals of the G1.  

Rating: Classic

October 14

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (King of Pro Wrestling)

If you think of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches between these men dating back to February 2012 as an extended World Series of sorts, this was game seven. Tanahashi challenged the man who had thrust him out of the throne. If he lost, he promised to remove himself from the world title picture.

Those elevated stakes helped gave this bout a pulsing energy from the start.

Tanahashi and Okada delivered a little bit of everything on this night in Tokyo. The Ace zeroed in on Okada’s arm for some traditional work-a-limb psychology. A slugfest broke out in the middle of the action. And near the end, both men stole their rival’s signature moves.

An amped up Tanahashi shoved the ref as he grew more desperate to reclaim his championship. His passion overflowed on the screen.

By the time Okada nailed Tanahashi with the deciding Rainmaker, these two men had deepened their already great rivalry with a masterpiece of a match.

Rating: All-Timer

November 9

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tomohiro Ishii (Power Struggle)

Tanahashi excels at the 30-minute in-ring epic, but he can rock a slobberknocker, too. This collision against Ishii is proof positive.

A confident Tanahashi got in Ishii’s face, slapping the pitbull and trading blows. And whether he was the victim of Ishii’s methodical offense or dishing out strikes, he looked right at home.

Red chests and wobbly knees marked this speed-versus-power battle. Tanahashi and Ishii charged at each other in a full-throttle affair, bellowing out battle cries, trading suplexes with no regard for their necks.

Tanahashi, his lip bloodied, headbutted and hit The Stone Pitbull until he was able to put away the predator who had been tearing at him for 17-plus minutes.

Rating: Banger

December 23

Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tetsuya Naito vs. Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada (Road to Tokyo Dome)

Tanahashi capped off his MVP-worthy year with a tag team clash in Korakuen Hall against two champs—Nakamura, the IWGP intercontinental titleholder, and Okada, the holder of the heavyweight belt.

Tanahashi and Nakamura’s combined charisma made for plenty of entertainment. The former’s air guitar stylings paired perfectly with Nakamura’s rock-and-roll eccentricity.

Naito played the bigger part for his team, but Tanahashi shone in a supporting role. That included The Ace knocking heads during a hot tag.

The four stars composed a fun, high-energy contest. When time ran out, Naito, Nakamura, Okada and Tanahashi all lie spent in the ring, a human four-car crash laid out before us.

With that, the wrestlers had expertly set up two major Wrestle Kingdom bouts. Tanahashi, meanwhile, was set to go from one banner year to another.

Rating: Banger

Photo by Temaki

You can find all of these matches in full on NJPW World.

Be sure to check out the Manami Toyota installment of this ongoing series chronicling wrestlers’ best bell-to-bell years.