a concise summary of the promotion's journey to present day
New Japan was formed in 1972, when Antonio Inoki broke away from the JWA to form his own promotion. Many JWA wrestlers joined him and the promotion was fully functional soon after it was founded. By 1973 they had a television program on the future Asahi TV, and the first big feud began as Tiger Jeet Singh came to battle Inoki. Singh was a terrifying wrestler to the Japanese fans, and Inoki's battles with him would become the stuff of legends. Inoki wasn't alone however, as he also had natives Seiji Sakaguchi and Strong Kobayashi helping him fend off the gaijins (foreign wrestlers) that invaded the promotion on each tour.
Unlike wrestling today, in the 70s and 80s the wrestling promotions were dependant on American wrestling stars coming over for tours. These weren't new wrestlers looking for experience, but rather champions such as Karl Gotch, Billy Graham, Bob Backlund, Stan Hansen, Hulk Hogan, and many others. But Inoki got his big break in 1976, when he faced off against the great Mohammad Ali in a legitimate battle. The fight was a little too legitimate as both were afraid to approach the other and it ended in a long draw, but the press and bragging rights for Ali gave him more press in Japan then any other promotion was getting at the time. His reputation as a legitimate tough fighter led to Inoki taking on a variety of boxers in New Japan such as Chuck Wepner and Willie Williams, with Inoki almost always coming out the victor.
Wrestling continued to change as they entered the 1980s. While for the first 10 years New Japan and All Japan (also created in 1972) co-existed peacefully, they began to finally start to take each other's gaijins and other stars as the rivalry heated up. This included wrestlers such as the British Bulldogs, Abdullah the Butcher, and Stan Hansen jumping promotions during this time period to whoever offered the biggest check. Inoki would get another coup, however, when Satoru Sayama became Tiger Mask in 1981. Tiger Mask significantly raised the popularity of Jr. Heavyweight wrestling in Japan, and for many years to come New Japan was the home of the premiere Jr. Heavyweight action. Tiger Mask would abruptly retire in 1984 however, as he and many other wrestlers (including Takada and Fujiwara) left New Japan to create the UWF. Also during this time, Riki Choshu and his army left as well. Suddenly depleted of many of their stars, Inoki stayed in the forefront and even though he was getting older continued to be the most popular wrestler in the promotion.
To help raise the New Japan brand, in 1983 Inoki decided to no longer use the NWA titles and use their own New Japan tournaments and titles to crown champions. This lead to the formation of the International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP), and a yearly tournament was held to find the top wrestler in the world (note that for the first few years it was not a title, but only a yearly tournament). In 1983 the first tournament was held, with Hulk Hogan defeating Inoki in very controversial fashion to be crowned the first tournament winner. Inoki won the following year, Andre the Giant won in 1985, and Inoki was victorious in 1986 and 1987. After the 1987 tournament, Inoki decided to make the winner a defending champion, and the first IWGP Heavyweight Champion was crowned. In 1985 the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship was created (Fujinami and Kimura were the first champions), and in 1986 the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship was founded (first held by Shiro Koshinaka).
In 1985, many of the wrestlers that left to create the UWF were back, with Takada and Maeda leading the charge. This led to a hot feud that lasted several years, with New Japan vs. UWF highlighting many events. By 1988 they had left again however, to create a new UWF as they still were not pleased with Inoki's vision of pro wrestling. In 1987, Choshu and many of the wrestlers that went with him also returned, and New Japan was back at full strength again. In December of 1987, Big Van Vader debuted in the promotion and defeated Antonio Inoki in under five minutes, the first time Inoki had been pinned in singles action in many years. This lead to a riot at Sumo Hall that got New Japan banned from the arena. It took the New Japan fans time to adjust to Vader, but once they did he became one of the most feared gaijins in the promotion. In 1989, Yamada became Jushin Thunder Liger, and Liger would lead the New Japan Jr. Heavyweight division to be one of the best in the world during the 90s.
In 1991, New Japan held the G1 Climax for the first time, and the tournament was such a success that it has been held every year since then. In 1992, New Japan wrestled in the Tokyo Dome for the first time, another tradition that took place at least once a year after that. Also in 1992, New Japan entered into a feud with WAR, with Genichiro Tenryu leading the charge. This led to Tenryu defeating Inoki at the Tokyo Dome in 1994, the last person to pin Inoki in his career. After this, Inoki began a very popular retirement countdown, ending with him defeating Don Frye in front of a sold out Tokyo Dome in 1998. Tokyo Dome business was great for New Japan from 1992 to 1999, as they frequently had over 50,000 fans in attendance. In 1995, Inoki wrestled Flair in Korea in front of over 100,000 people, the largest crowd to ever see a wrestling show.
In 1996, the nWo craze from WCW invaded New Japan, with Chono leading the charge. This was a departure from the "Fighting Spirit" style of fighting as many of the matches were more storyline based then based on brutal strikes and submissions. The exception to this was Shinya Hashimoto, who was one of the biggest stars in New Japan along with Masahiro Chono and Keiji Mutoh. Also in the mid-90s, the Jr. Heavyweight division frequently was the most popular match on the show as Liger, El Samurai, Kanemoto, Benoit, Ohtani, and Ultimo Dragon set the bar for Jr. Heavyweight wrestling that many feel has not been reached since. In 1999, Naoya Ogawa (backed by Inoki) made this mark in New Japan as he defeated Shinya Hashimoto and later forced the New Japan star to "retire" from wrestling. This saw another shift of focus in New Japan, away from the storyline based entertainment as the nWo was disbanded to a focus on MMA-style action.
Inoki was always obsessed with being viewed as legitimately tough, as he was, and he wanted the other wrestlers in New Japan to have the same reputation. This led to MMA fighters participating on New Japan events and New Japan wrestlers fighting in MMA events. While some wrestlers had success (such as Fujita and Nakamura in a limited capacity), other New Japan wrestlers such as Yuji Nagata and Liger were embarrassed in their MMA matches with Nagata in particular losing steam due to his MMA match. This change in style led to the departure of some of New Japan's stars who were not interested in the MMA style fighting, including Keiji Mutoh and Satoshi Kojima whom both left for All Japan Pro Wrestling. By 2004 the MMA craze in New Japan was dying down, even though Fujita still had a big role in the promotion as part of Inoki's main team of wrestlers.
By 2005, Inoki was forced out of New Japan as the company was losing money due to a significant decrease in business, which many attribute to poor booking and the focus on MMA style matches. After a failed experiment bringing in Brock Lesnar, in 2006 the promotion finally began showing signs of life as costs were drastically cut and the promotion began focusing on the wrestlers in-house. They also decided to only run the Tokyo Dome once a year in January instead of multiple times a year as they were having trouble getting 25,000 fans into the building which held over 60,000 people. The promotion finally found an ace with Hiroshi Tanahashi, with Shinsuke Nakamura being his main rival. In 2010, New Japan had an attendance of over 40,000 in the Tokyo Dome, showing the growth of the promotion in the last several years. New Japan has had a very up and down history but continues to be one of the largest promotions in Japan and one of the highest grossing promotions in the world.