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A YEAR IN PICTURES: 2002
To talk about 2002, naturally, you must first take a look at what was happening as 2002 was beginning. Yuji Nagata was a new rising star. As a New Japan wrestler, Keiji Muto was about to end a great comeback year. Something called "Tenkoji" was the coolest thing around. No one expected Bill Goldberg or Joanie Laurer would be wrestling in Japan. Not too long ago, a K-1 kickboxer named Mirko Filipovic from Croatia had defeated Kazuyuki Fujita in under 30 seconds. FMW was in one piece. Naomichi Marufuji was expected to have a fantastic year on top of NOAH's junior heavyweight division. Manabu Nakanishi was still wrestling like Riki Choshu, with bushy hair. And Bob Sapp was a nameless pro wrestler recently cut after WCW went out of business.
"I was scared for a moment. Just for a moment. What happened?"
So on the night as we prepared to countdown into 2002, one of pro wrestling's all-time gambles was taken. In a story that has quickly become one of puroresu's tragic fables, Yuji Nagata was pitted in a shoot fight against Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic. Nagata entered the fight with an amatuer wrestling background. However, he would never have the opportunity to show his wrestling ability, as one of the best kickboxers in the world knocked him out after only 21 seconds.The physical pain CroCop submitted to Nagata on that night could not be compared to the pain seen on Nagata's face after the fight, above -- nor the pain Nagata's career would feel every day after the end of 2001.
The year 2002 had begun. On January 4, at New Japan's annual Tokyo Dome show on that day, instead of a huge walk-up after Yuji Nagata's shocking upset over Mirko CroCop, New Japan saw a heavily papered, quiet Dome. While Jun Akiyama and Yuji Nagata battled on top of the card for Akiyama's GHC Heavyweight Title, unbeknownst to most everyone, Keiji Muto quietly had his last match in a New Japan ring in a tag match with Hiroshi Hase against Osamu Nishimura and Tatsumi Fujinami. No more than two weeks days later, a bombshell would be dropped.
"I am in love with All Japan now. I want to spread puroresu love."
On January 15, New Japan's IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, Kendo Kashin announced that he would refuse to re-sign with the company when contracts for wrestlers expired on January 18. Another top junior heavyweight, Koji Kanemoto had yet to decide whether or not he would resign with the promotion. What would follow would be even bigger.
The next day, January 16, after 17 years of service to New Japan, Keiji Muto announced he too that he had no intentions of re-signing on the 18th, citing Antonio Inoki's constant influence of mixed martial-arts in the pro wrestling product. All future dates Keiji Muto was booked for were canceled and his IWGP Tag Team Title (held with Taiyo Kea) was to be returned. In the name of his catchphrase, "puroresu LOVE," Muto announced he would be joining All Japan Pro Wrestling as a full-time member. Muto claimed he was acting alone, however, rumors ran wild about what wrestlers, including Satoshi Kojima, might follow Muto to All Japan. It also seemed Kendo Kashin wanted to join All Japan also.
More New Japan wrestlers seemed reluctant to re-sign with the promotion they had been a part of for years. With it now certain that Satoshi Kojima would follow in Muto, Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Michiyoshi Ohara put off re-signing to take time to weigh their options.
Meanwhile, Kensuke Sasaki vowed to stay by New Japan and protect it, no matter who left, saying, "[Muto's] departure is shocking. It does not seem that he moves by himself. I expect other wrestlers will follow in his footsteps. I will work with Chono with the wrestlers that remain." Tenzan on the other hand, gave no comment.
Finally, on January 23, by the time Muto officially left New Japan and Tenzan and Ohara resigned, Satoshi Kojima officially announced that he was leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling. Kojima would join Muto in going to All Japan. However, because of his pride for his tag team with Hiroyoshi Tenzan, he said his two scheduled appearances for New Japan in the Tokyo Korakuen Hall for January 24 and 25 would go on as scheduled (although he only ended up wrestling on the 24th).
"Even in a different place. Even in All Japan. Do your best!"
On January 24, in a match billed as "Tenkoji Last Match," Satoshi Kojima had his last match as a New Japan wrestler. It was not the best Tenkoji match, but it will certainly go down as one of their most famous. Against Osamu Nishimura and Kensuke Sasaki, Tenzan pinned Nishimura after a 16-minute match. Kojima received a great, emotional response from the crowd he was about to leave and even received good wishes from Sasaki after the match. Then left in the ring were only Tenzan and Kojima. They seemingly quietly gave each other their respect and Kojima bowed out of the New Japan ring. As Kojima walked to the back, Tenzan took the microphone and stepped on the second rope. "Koji. Koji. Even in a different place. Even in All Japan. Do your best!" Kojima could only tearfully bow and smile before walking away from the New Japan fans for what everyone thought would be the final time.
Tenzan commented after the match, "I do not think that this is the end. We are Tenkoji forever. Some people may think differently, but we did our best together. The way he chose was different from my choice, but I hope his choice turns out the best for him. I thought about it and decided to stay in New Japan. I cannot stop him. I can't change his mind. His feelings are different. There may also be the chance that Satoshi Kojima could wrestle in the New Japan ring again one day."
On February 17, Pro Wrestling NOAH saw arguably its best show in the history of the promotion. NOAH's second Nippon Budokan show was highlighted by a great tag match between the juniors of New Japan and the juniors of NOAH. Then the main event finally saw the return of Kenta Kobashi after a 14-month absence due to elbow and several knee surgeries on both knees. Tagging with his old partner, Mitsuharu Misawa to fight Jun Akiyama and New Japan's Yuji Nagata, the match itself was a success, however, for Kobashi physically, it was not. Kobashi would need another five months to make a full return.
"This is All Japan Pro Wrestling."
Toshiaki Kawada finally brought the Triple Crown back to All Japan on February 24 in the Tokyo Nippon Budokan, defeating Keiji Muto in his first match since leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling. It was a win that many had wanted for far too long. Finally, the man who had stayed by All Japan was their champion. However tragically, for the second time in his career, Kawada was forced to vacate the title barely a month after he won it. Not only did All Japan lose their champion, they lost one of their their greatest wrestlers and one of the few links to the All Japan of old. It would turn out that Kawada would not return within the year.
February 24 turned out to be a busy night. In the Saitama Super Arena, one of the best shows in the history of mixed martial-arts was happening: PRIDE 19. The card saw a great comeback win by Carlos Newton over Jose "Pele" Landi as well as a nostalgic battle between Don Frye and Ken Shamrock.
On March 2, ZERO-ONE had its best show since it became a regular running promotion. One year after ZERO-ONE's inaugural event, the show was highlighted by two exciting junior bouts, Shinya Hashimoto vs. Masato Tanaka and Naoya Ogawa vs. Shinjiro Otani in the main event. The Ryogoku Kokugikan also saw a surprise visit from Masahiro Chono to do television commentary. Their first anniversary show would set the pace for what would be an entertaining year for ZERO-ONE.
Keiji Muto and Taiyo Kea had won New Japan's IWGP Tag Team Title in 2001. When Muto left the promotion, the title was vacated. This left New Japan to have a tournament to decide new champions. The final round came down to a newly united version of Team 2000 within Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Masahiro Chono against Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi on March 24. To end their "Hyper Battle Series" tour, they had an excellent show, which included fifty minutes of New Japan juniors vs. T2000 juniors, as well a world class main event to crown Chono and Tenzan new champions.
After February 1, New Japan Pro Wrestling had essentially made Masahiro Chono their head booker in place of Riki Choshu. Then in April, after learning that he would not be included in making booking decisions for New Japan's May 2 Tokyo Dome show, Choshu handed in his resignation. He had his last match in a New Japan ring on April 25 in his home area of Tokuyama. After the match, Choshu rushed out of the arena, not answering many questions from the press. There were many rumors about what Choshu would do next. Some believed he would start his own promotion, while there were also rumors of working with All Japan for one-shot deals in the Budokan.
"...I am afraid of no man on earth. I fight them all."
At PRIDE 20 one of PRIDE's top fighters met one of K-1's top kickboxers. In one of the most intense matches of any kind in a long time, Vanderlei Silva went toe-to-toe with arguably the world's best kicker. With no judges, the match ended as a draw when the fight went distance after five three-minute rounds. However, this fight further established Vanderlei Silva as the best in his weight class, even fighting a heavyweight, as would have won by decision had there been judges.
"My gimmick is wrestling."
A legend not only in the US, but in Japan just as much (if not more), Lou Thesz passed away on April 28. Without a doubt, Mr. Thesz was one of the most important figures in the history of professional wrestling, worldwide. The Japanese fans will remember him most for his legendary matches with Rikidozan. Nicknamed by the Japanese fans, "tetsujin" (ironman), Thesz wrestled in eight different decades, having his last match in December 1990 in Japan at age 74 against Masahiro Chono. He would also make an appearance in 1993, in Korakuen Stadium (where he and Rikidozan had wrestled), to present his world heavyweight title for a UWFi match between Super Vader and Nobuhiko Takada.
New Japan's second Tokyo Dome show of the year was a very multipromotional show. With involvement from Big Japan, Zenjo, Michinoku Pro, ZERO-ONE and NOAH, they were able to make it a profitable show also. They had (at the time) puroresu's biggest TV draw, with Naoya Ogawa teaming with Shinya Hashimoto against Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Scott Norton. From the top were two New Japan vs. NOAH matches. Yuji Nagata succeeded in his first IWGP Heavyweight Title defense, defeating Yoshihiro Takayama in a very submission-based match. Then in the main event two of puroresu's biggest stars throughout the last ten years, Mitsuharu Misawa and Masahiro Chono, met in a dream match that ended in a thirty-minute draw.
Former FMW president, Mr. Shoichi Arai was found by a passer-by at around 6:20am on May 16 in Mikumoto Park in Katsushika-ku, Tokyo. He was immediately taken to the nearby hospital, but could not be helped. Arai was found with a note, written to his family regarding suicide. After the failures and eventual shutdown of FMW, Arai ended up owing about 300 million yen (about $2.38 million) to various creditors. Arai had been FMW's ring announcer since 1989, and had been president since 1995. He was 36.
"Today's match truly became one of the matches for our history." - Osamu Nishimura
On June 5, in Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Masahiro Chono defended their IWGP Tag Team Title against Osamu Nishimura and Manabu Nakanishi in a match that ended in a draw when time-limit expired after 60-minutes. It was the first one-hour draw in New Japan since Antonio Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami did it on August 8, 1988. In a classic tag team spot, Nakanishi sold a knee injury, which he had to leave the match to go the back for, leaving Nishimura to fight by myself, only to return later. There would also be another injury in the match, but of a more real variety, when Nakanishi caught Tenzan with a knee, which broke his nose. It was a truly oustanding match that earned acclaim from Japanese fans and English-speaking fans alike.
Satoshi Kojima gained his first experience as a promoter, organizing what was a pro wrestling show like never seen before. On June 9, "BAPE STA! PROWRESTLING" was held in Zepp Tokyo. The event reflected Kojima's interests in fashion, with its camouflage ring and with fashion designer NIGO in attendance.
"[What do you think Don Frye is going to try to do to you?] Probably punch me."
At PRIDE 21, on June 23, in his fight Don Frye, Yoshihiro Takayama went right in from bell and immediately began trading punches with Frye. Frye and Takayama exchanged punch after punch for an incredible amount of time. The result left Takayama with maybe the most swollen face in short history of mixed martial-arts. Takayama would lose the fight, but his lose was only on paper. With his heart and pure toughness, Takayama had won the appericiation of the fans and immediately became one of the most popular players in pro wrestling.
"When Muto came to All Japan, I knew things would change."
When Motoko Baba announced that in October, she would be stepping down from her position with All Japan Pro Wrestling on June 24, the power struggle between Genichiro Tenryu and Keiji Muto to become the next president of All Japan began. Masanobu Fuchi (with Toshiaki Kawada, the only other native to stay with Mrs. Baba after Misawa left) quickly supported Muto to become president. Muto made interesting comments about how he wanted to "paint All Japan the color of Muto," and begin a "new Royal Road." Tenryu not only wanted to become president, but especially did not want Muto to be president. He said that wrestlers like Fuchi and Kawada represented the "original Royal Road," saying he wanted to bring that out in All Japan.
All the while, Toshiaki Kawada was out, recovering his injured knee. He would later give an interview saying, "All Japan changed, but I have not changed."
"I don't have any regrets. Today, I leave Zenjo."
After wrestling for Zenjo for fifteen years, Manami Toyota had her last match for the promotion on July 6. Immediately after losing the WWWA World Singles Title to Kaoru Ito, she took the microphone and announced she was leaving. The next day she appeared in Chigusa Nagoya's GAEA promotion to announce she would be wrestling for GAEA. Toyota made her GAEA debut on July 14.
On July 7, ZERO-ONE held its second biggest show of the year at the Sumo Hall in front of 8,800 fans. It was the quintessential ZERO-ONE card offering, if nothing else, variety; junior heavyweights and super heavyweights, flying wrestlers and power wrestlers, 80s tribute gimmicks and 80s superstars, performers old and young, fat and thin, short and tall, good and bad. Naoya Ogawa defeating The Predator in their first ever cage match highlighted the show.
Leading up to a July 17 challenge for the Triple Crown against Genichiro Tenryu, Satoshi Kojima said he would study Stan Hansen's "Western Lariat" in order to win the Triple Crown. While in New Jersey, Kojima was shown by Hansen himself how to throw the left-armed version of the lariat. Then, with Hansen in attendance in the Osaka Prefectural Gym, Kojima not only used what he had learned to better his own version of the manuever, but in a final lariat attempt, swung his left arm at Tenryu, emulating exactly the way Hansen used to use the lariat. However, all of this wouldn't be enough. Tenryu defeated Kojima to retain the Triple Crown, but the effort Kojima expended in the match would further solidify him as one of All Japan top wrestlers.
"This belt must be protected from Fujita, Takayama, Yasuda, and all other foreign enemies."
Exactly a year after losing to Mark Coleman in the Sapporo Dome, back in Sapporo, Yuji Nagata submitted Bas Rutten in the main event of New Japan's July tour finale. Nagata survived kicks, headbutts, ankle holds and even a Shining Wizard before catching MMA legend Rutten in the Nagata Lock II, scoring a massive win for pro-wrestling in his third IWGP Heavyweight Title defense.
After chants of "Kea, Kea," and the debut of a new version of the Hawaiian smasher, Taiyo Kea achieved the biggest win of his career when he defeated Genichiro Tenryu in the Nippon Budokan on July 20. In a post match scene reminiscent of Mitsuharu Misawa's celebration after beating Jumbo Tsuruta on 6/8/90, Kea was hoisted on the shoulders of his new generation friends to the cheers those in attendance.
One of the big surprises of 2002 was the second annual Fire Festival that ran from July 28 to August 4. Gathering wrestlers from all major indy promotions; WEW's Kintaro Kanemura, WMF's Tetsuhiro Kuroda, BattlARTS' Yuki Ishikawa, K-Dojo's Taka Michinoku, NWA's Steve Corino and UPW's King Joe, along with ZERO-ONE's Shinjiro Otani, Masato Tanaka, Hirotaka Yokoi and Kohei Sato. During the league, Otani and Tanaka defined Burning Heart with their classic 16-minute battle. Tanaka, bloodied and battered, avenged his loss to Otani almost a year prior. Otani finally won the league for a second consecutive year after defeating Kuroda in the final.
As Masahiro Chono defeated Yoshihiro Takayama in the final of New Japan's G1 Climax, New Japan's invasion of outside forces finally came to a head. After the match, a brawl broke out between New Japan's wrestlers and the fighters, Takayama, Tadao Yasuda and Kazuyuki Fujita. Yuji Nagata looked to his fellow wrestlers and called upon them to come together to fight the foreign enemy. Then Antonio Inoki came in the ring, telling everyone but Nagata and Fujita to leave the ring. Their staredown made it appear emanate that they would finally have their rematch in the Tokyo Dome on October 14.
After the "foreign enemy," and the beginnings of what would then be created as the Makai Club, stormed off, the G1 champion, Chono gave his words to the crowd with a newly united New Japan Pro Wrestling, "Every year this is our battlefield. We fight in it everyday. A hundred-fifty matches every year. They fight here twice a year. This is our motiviation now. This ring will go up!"
On August 28, PRIDE and K-1 came together to hold the largest martial-arts event ever. In the Tokyo Kasumigaoka National Stadium, the largest crowd for a pro wrestling or mixed martial-arts show ever in Japan, came together to see PRIDE compete against K-1. By far the most exciting fight of the night -- maybe the most exciting fight of the year -- Bob Sapp manhandled PRIDE Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, only for Nogueira to comeback and defeat Sapp with an armbar. The show would not be without contraversy though, as Olympic judo gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida scored a very questionable win over jiu-jitsu and mixed martial-arts legend, Royce Graice. Then in the main event, in his return match, Kazushi Sakuraba's bad luck would continue when his fight against Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic was stopped when Sakuraba's eye swelled shut at the end of the first round.
In All Japan's two-day run at the Tokyo Nippon Budokan, fans finally saw Bill Goldberg's long-awaited Japanese debut. It was Goldberg's first match in any ring, though, in nearly two years. Acquired by K-1's Kazuyoshi Ishii in his alliance with Keiji Muto, in his two matches in August, he dominated Satoshi Kojima, then Taiyo Kea, beating them both within minutes.
On September 8, Ultimo Dragon's Toryumon held their biggest show in the history of the promotion. In a card highlighted by T2P vs. Toryumon matches and the exhibition return of Ultimo Dragon, the Ariake Colesium was main evented by Toryumon's Dragon Kid vs. M2K's Darkness Dragon in a two-out-of-three falls, masacara contra masacara match. It was a grueling lucha style match, ending with Dragon Kid getting the emotional win and revealing Darkness Dragon as the former MAKOTO.
Pro Wrestling NOAH held their third Nippon Budokan show on September 23. The show put on two top-quality matches, with Akitoshi Saito and Jun Akiyama winning the GHC Tag Team Title from Takeshi Morishima and Takeshi Rikio. Then in the main event, Mitsuharu Misawa regained the GHC Heavyweight Title from Yoshihiro Takayama in one of the best matches of the year, though the match would leave Takayama with various injuries that would keep him out of the ring for three months.
On September 26, Atsushi Onita held a very rare pro-wrestling event in Afghanistan. Although it probably wasn't one of the best shows of the year, it was certainly one of the most unique and news worthy. The show, infront of 400 Afghan fans, once again preached that wrestling is universal; an art that transcends languages, nationalities and politics.
At All Japan's 30th annivesary party, it became official as Motoko Baba stepped dwon and Keiji Muto became the new president of All Japan Pro Wrestling. Two weeks earlier, Muto had made a deal for a monthly teleivision program with Fuji Television. Later that night, he appeared on Fuji Television with K-1's Kazuyoshi Ishii, where the viewers were supposedly let in on their secret meeting as they talked about "WRESTLE-1."
In K-1's "Opening Round" show of their annual Grand Prix tournament, on October 5, the phenomenon known as Bob Sapp went full-scale. In the main event, Sapp defeated long-time K-1 star Ernesto Hoost by doctor's stoppage at the end of the first round. Sapp's huge victory would be followed by many outrageous photo opportunities in pro wrestling publications and network television appearances that would make him the biggest star in mixed martial-arts, kickboxing and pro wrestling.
Out of nowhere on October 6, Kensuke Sasaki announced his resignation from New Japan Pro Wrestling. Kensuke gave his reasoning being that New Japan took his scheduled fight in Pancrase against Minoru Suzuki away from him while he was injured and gave it to Jushin Thunder Liger, although there appeared to be something more to the story. With Riki Choshu, Keiji Muto and Satoshi Kojima, Kensuke followed the long line of big names to leave New Japan in 2002.
Yoshihiro Takayama was scheduled to wrestle Manabu Nakanishi at New Japan's October 14 Tokyo Dome, but with Takayama's injury in his match with Misawa, New Japan had to find a replacement. What would have been a disasterous attendance was saved when Bob Sapp was booked to wrestle Nakanishi in his pro wrestling debut in Japan. And his first pro wrestling match was as outrageous as himself, giving Nakanishi a huge powerbomb, biting the ropes, and eventually winning by countout. The show also saw Joanie Laurer in her first big match in Japan, losing to Masahiro Chono.
In the main event, Yuji Nagata finally got his chance to fight Kazuyuki Fujita. Before the match, he said that he wanted Fujita to wear gloves and fight to the best of his ability, saying, "That is the real thrill in pro wrestling: to use your maximum power in the ring. I want to see all of my opponent's power. It makes me the best that I can be." In match for Nagata's IWGP Heavyweight Title and to tie the five vs. five single series between New Japan and the Foreign Enemy, Nagata took his biggest win of the year.
October 20 was a big night for joshi puroresu. The top joshi promotion, GAEA and the distant number-two, Zenjo both ran shows in the Kawasaki area. Zenjo, with Momoe Nakanishi challenging Kaoru Ito for the WWWA World Singles Title in the main event in Kawasaki City Gymnasium, went up against a loaded GAEA card in the Yokohama Bunka Gym, with Manami Toyota challenging AAAW Singles Champion, Chikayo Nagashima. Both shows saw new champions -- Zenjo officially crowning Momoe Nakanishi as their top wrestler -- but by far, GAEA beat out Zenjo, drawing 6,100 fans.
On October 26, in the Fukuoka International Center, a New Japan match went the distance for the second time in 2002. Masahiro Chono and Yuji Nagata wrestled only the third one-hour draw in New Japan Pro Wrestling's history. Champion and challenger showed incredible talent, skill and stamina, proving themselves worthy, not only of such an occasion, but of wrestling for such a major title.
Just days after blowing his knee out again, Keiji Muto, as Great Muta, challenged Genichiro Tenryu for the Triple Crown at All Japan's 30th anniversary show in the Tokyo Nippon Budokan. It was an emotional day, as Nick Bockwinkle, The Destroyer and other wrestlers who wrestled with the late Giant Baba were there was Motoko Baba gave her farewell to the All Japan fans. Despite wrestling that match in worse condition that he usually wrestles in, Muta won the Triple Crown, making him the first wrestler with a gimmick to win the legendary title.
"There are organizations at the moment becoming similar to K-1 and PRIDE. True pro wrestling does not happen there."
Riki Choshu and his partners announced the opening of a new promotion on November 12: Fighting World of Japan. They announced that the opening card would be on March 1, 2003. Several wrestlers and non-wrestlers soon joined, including, Yoshiaki Yatsu and referee Tiger Hattori and Masa Saito, who had left New Japan.
"Very, very delicious!"
In the most American-style pro wrestling show ever put on by a major promotion, Keiji Muto ran "WRESTLE-1" on November 17. The show consisted mostly of big-name stars doing short matches, as Masaaki Satake, Abdullah the Butcher, Sam Greco, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Satoshi Kojima, Masahiro Chono on commentary, a last-minute fly-in of Bill Goldberg, and of course, Bob Sapp over Great Muta in the main event, all wrestled in the Yokohama Arena.
"Thank you for twenty-two years."
On November 24, in the Tokyo Dome, before 52,228 fans, former UWF-I promoter and top fighter, Nobuhiko Takada retired. In putting an end to a twenty-two year career, he lost to, but made up Kiyoshi Tamura (who had once left his UWF-I promotion). After his fight, Takada gave thanks to the fans, then encouraged Kazushi Sakuraba, who then won his main event fight. The show also saw Hidehiko Yoshida have his first vale tudo match (his fight with Royce Gracie was under special rules) against Don Frye in an upset first-round submission win, which made many people start to take Yoshida much more seriously.
On the morning of November 27, probably most bizzare story of the year happened. New Japan wrestler, Hiroshi Tanahashi was stabbed by girlfriend, Hitoma Hara, an employee of Samurai TV. Hara stabbed Tanahashi in the upper right shoulder, coming very close to his lung, where his life may have been at risk if he was not a muscular wrestler. This was seen as an embarassment to New Japan Pro Wrestling, leading to many apologies by New Japan and Hiroshi Tanahashi himself, who after getting out of the hospital, said he was happy just to be alive.
All Japan's twenty-fifth annual tag league ran from November 11 to December 6. Unlike previous recent years, there was no final, the winners being decided on points only. Satoshi Kojima and Taiyo Kea won the league after defeating Shinjiro Otani and Masato Tanaka on the final day of the tournament in the Nippon Budokan, and, as a result, became the forty-seventh All Japan World Tag Team Champions.
K-1's tenth annual Grand Prix tournament came to a head on December 7 before a sell-out crowd in the Tokyo Dome. Although Bob Sapp had already defeated Ernesto Hoost in the first round, Semmy Schilt, Sapp's scheduled opponent, was injured in his PRIDE fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, so that setup for a rematch of the Hoost vs. Sapp fight. The rematch was a huge ratings success, scoring a 33.4 television rating, the highest ever for K-1 as Sapp defeated Hoost for the second time. However, in the process of defeating Hoost, Sapp broke his hand, so Hoost took his place where Sapp would advance. After losing in the tournament twice, Hoost went on to win the tournament, out-lasting Rey Sefo and Jerome LeBanner, taking an unparalleled fourth K-1 Grand Prix.
ZERO-ONE's December PPV featured three notable moments; Wataru Sakata defeated Naohiro Hoshikawa in the finals of the World-1 Junior League, All Japan went 2-0 against ZERO-ONE after Kendo Kashin defeated Kazhuhiko Ogasawara and Satoshi Kojima defeated Shinjiro Otani. Then in the main event, Matt Ghaffari handed Naoya Ogawa his first pinfall loss in four years to win the NWA Intercontinental Tag Titles for himself and Tom Howard.
While K-1 seemed to be at its peak, its figurehead promoter was in trouble. Kazuyoshi Ishii was formally charged with corporate tax evasion on December 27. Ishii admitted his guilt and immediately after being charged, stepped down from his postition with K-1 after more than ten years behind the company. The bad publicity hurt K-1's image and caused them to cancel their show scheduled for January 2003, leaving their future uncertain.
The year 2002 closed with Antonio Inoki's third annual New Years Eve party. As with the previous year's event, there was an Inoki vs. K-1 theme. The triple main event featured a retirement, a rematch and a fight between Japan's biggest monster and their biggest babyface. The winner of Inoki Festival 2001's main event, Tadao Yasuda, lost in the opening match to Jan Nortje. Maasaki Satake's near ten-year career came to an end against Japan's biggest new star, Hidehiko Yoshida.
In one of the biggest rematches of the year, Kazuhiko Fujita fell to Cro Cop after a unanimous decision. While losing, Fujita was not humiliated and gained the fans' support as they chanting his name through the fight
In the main event and final match of 2002, the phenomenon, Bob Sapp defeated Yoshihiro Takayama with an armbar. The win not only further solidified Sapp's undeniable power, but sent a message to the world that his talent lay not only in his strength and knockout ability, but in technique also. His win over Takayama leaves many questions open for 2003.
Thanks to Alistair Nixon; Photo credits: Nikkan Sports, SANSPO, SponichiAnnex, Yomiuri Sports, SportsNavi, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Photo Battle, All Japan Pro Wrestling.