Japanese wrestlers have made a huge impact in the history of wrestling. You hear all about the likes of Antonio Inoki, Rikidozan and Mitsuharu Misawa as legends of Japan. But did you know that there are a number of WWE wrestlers who also wrestled in Japan?
Former WWE Champions, King’s of the ring and hall of famer’s, known for their stints in WWE, have traversed the Pacific Ocean and tried their hand at wrestling in the land of the rising sun.
Of course, this list does not include wrestlers who made their name in Japan. You’d be hard pressed to find a fan of Finn Balor who didn’t at least know that he wrestled in New Japan prior to WWE. Or anyone that didn’t know that Mick Foley and Terry Funk wrestled in death matches in Japan in the 1990s.
Here are 10 WWE wrestlers that you may not have known ever wrestled in Japan. The bulk of these wrestlers performed for New Japan Pro Wrestling, but some wrestled for All Japan, or some smaller promotions.
If you want to read more about wrestlers who made their name in Japan, check out these articles below:
WWE wrestlers who wrestled in Japan
Brock Lesnar was one of the biggest stars in WWE since his debut in 2002. He had huge, high profile matches that he actually won against the likes of the Undertaker, the Rock and Kurt Angle.
He won the WWE Championship just 126 days after his main roster debut. defeating The Rock at Summerslam 2002. All of this makes him the fastest rising star in the history of WWE.
However, his initial WWE run lasted only two years. He grew tired of the travel associated with WWE, and hung up his boots after an ill-fated bout with Bill Goldberg at Wrestlemania XX in 2004.
Brock Lesnar in NJPW
It would only take Lesnar 18 months until he would return to ring, however. In October of the following, he made his debut for Japan for New Japan Pro Wrestling.
He would wrestle seven matches for New Japan over the course of six months. In his first match, he won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in a triple threat match against champion Kazuyuki Fujita and Masahiro Chono.
He would go on to face various New Japan staples, like Yugi Nagata, Shinsuke Nakamura and Giant Bernard. He would eventually drop the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but not to a NJPW wrestler, nor in a NJPW ring.
Lesnar had no showed a title defence for New Japan, and was thus stripped of the belt. Brock Lesnar insisted it was visa issues and unpaid fees which caused him to miss the show, and he refused to return the belt to New Japan.
Antonio Inoki, the Japanese wrestling legend, had set up his own promotion in 2007 called the Inoki Genome Federation. As Lesnar was still in possession of the IWGP Championship belt, and was never pinned to lose it, he still considered him the IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
So, he brought in TNA’s Kurt Angle, at the request of Brock Lesnar according to the Kurt Angle show podcast. Angle defeated Lesnar for the belt, to bring the Championship back to NJPW.
Speaking of Kurt Angle…
After leaving WWE in 2006, Kurt Angle signed for TNA. The lighter schedule helped with his recovery from injury and drug addiction, but also left him open to take bookings outside of the company.
His first trip to Japan took place in early 2007. At the NJPW 35th anniversary tour, the Olympic gold medallist tagged with Yugi Nagata to defeat Giant Bernard and Travis Tomko.
However, his next Japanese match would not be for NJPW, but would be for their title. As previously mentioned, he was brought in to take the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Brock Lesnar in the Inoki Genome Federation. After that, NJPW recognised him as the rightful champion, along with the current champion Shinsuke Nakamura.
Due to this, the pair had a title unification match at NJPW Circuit 2008. Nakamura defeated Angle to unify the titles and show once and for who was the true IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
He wrestled on and off for NJPW over the next year. His Japanese wrestling career culminated with a defeat to New Japan Ace Hiroshi Tanahashi, in a match for Tanahashi’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Bill Goldberg is a WCW legend, who has now spent longer in WWE than he did in WCW. He has been one of WWE’s top stars since he returned to face Brock Lesnar in 2016.
However, between WCW folding and Goldberg signing for WWE in 2003, he had a stint wrestling for All Japan Pro Wrestling.
In typical Goldberg fashion, his matches were short. He beat Satoshi Kojima in 4 minutes, then knocked off Taiyo Kea in even less. He then went to what Goldberg would call a marathon, and beat Rick Steiner in an eye watering 6 minutes.
His final match for the company was a tag team match. In it, he teamed with Japanese legend and WCW Alumni Keiji Mutoh to take on fellow former WCW tag team Kronik. Naturally, the two legends won, and that would be his last appearance for All Japan.
He signed for WWE after these performances. He impressed the team backstage, and would soon sign for the company and defeat The Rock of all people.
The last time he wrestled in Japan was 3 weeks after losing the World Heavyweight Championship in WWE. Bill Goldberg had already signed a deal to perform at the first Hustle-1 show, and that show happened to coincide with his return to WWE.
He defeated Naoya Ogawa in an awful 12 minute match, and never set foot in Japan again.
Despite his dark and chequered past, Jeff Hardy is one of the WWE wrestlers to have wrestled in Japan. Specifially, for New Japan Pro Wrestling, at their biggest show of the year – Wrestle Kingdom.
Hardy made the trip to Japan only once in his career. He wrestled at Wrestle Kingdom V, where he took on future IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Tetsuya Naito.
The match was bad. Jeff Hardy looked completely out of sorts. It was around the time of his drug troubles in TNA (Victory Road 2011 comes to mind), so it is quite possibly he was high. This is outrageous for such a huge match in the top Japanese wrestling company.
He botched fairly simple moves and looked completely out of his depth, despite being the TNA Champion. Even Naito couldn’t carry him to a good match, and it is not surprising that this was his only bout in NJPW.
You would be forgiven for not knowing John Laurainitis wrestled in Japan. I’d forgive you if you didn’t know he wrestled at all. He achieved his highest level of fame in WWE as the on screen Raw General Manager, and ushering in the era of “People Power”.
He famously main evented a pay per view against John Cena over a WWE Championship match between Daniel Bryan and CM Punk.
However, before he was John Laurainitis (and after, because it is his legal name) he was Johnny Ace, the master of the Ace Crusher!
Johnny Ace worked with All Japan in the late 1980s, during which time they had a partnership with the NWA. However, the partnership soon dissipated, but Johnny Ace decided to stay in Japan.
He found great success in All Japan Pro Wrestling. He was a multi time world champion, and one of the most famous and respected “Gaijan” (Foreign wrestler) in the company. Johnny Ace even can lay claim to having multiple five star match ratings from Dave Meltzer, when he tagged with “Dr Death” Steve Williams.
As part of the New Day, Xavier Woods has become one of the most decorated tag team wrestlers in history. He has won 11 tag team championships with Big E and Kofi Kingston, as well as one singles title.
Woods won the King of the Ring at Crown Jewel 2021. defeating Finn Balor to achieve a dream he has had since he was a young boy. He is also the host of UpUpDownDown, WWE’s YouTube channel based around gaming.
Woods had a number of tours for NJPW back in 2010, under the name Consequences Creed. Creed teamed with Kota Ibushi in the Super J Tag Team tournament.
Sadly the future King of the Ring winner and future G1 Climax Winner could not be victorious together. They fell in the first round to Kushida and Gedo, eliminating them from the tournament.
It was a small run for Woods, but he can say that he wrestled with the Golden Star himself. He is one of the WWE wrestlers who I didn’t know wrestled in Japan until researching this article.
Hamish is a writer and podcaster and wrestling fan who is a key part of the Atletifo team.
After playing countless hours of WrestleMania X8 on the Gamecube, he discovered Rey Mysterio getting his head crushed by The Great Khali, and thus a love for professional wrestling was born.
He is also a Media Graduate, as well as writing for multiple sites about Premier League football and the culture of Wales – his home country.