The Champion Carnival is a professional wrestling tournament held by All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). The tournament is also known by the nickname Haru no Saiten "Spring Festival" and is sometimes abbreviated to CC. Created by AJPW founder Giant Baba, the tournament has been held annually since 1973 and is the longest-running singles tournament in professional wrestling, while also ranking as the most prestigious event in the AJPW calendar. It is considered a successor to the World League, held by Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA) between 1959 and 1972, predating the New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) G1 Climax tournament by a year.
The tournament is held in a round-robin format, where all participating wrestlers face each other once with the winner being awarded two points and the loser none. A draw results in both wrestlers being awarded a point. After all wrestlers have faced each other once, the top two wrestlers advance to the finals to determine the tournament winner.
Baba himself holds the record for most Champion Carnival wins, having won the tournament seven times. Other notable winners include Abdullah the Butcher, Jumbo Tsuruta, Keiji Mutoh, Mitsuharu Misawa, Stan Hansen and Toshiaki Kawada. Three wrestlers have won both the Champion Carnival and the G1 Climax; Mutoh, Satoshi Kojima and Yuji Nagata.
From 1959 to 1972, the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA), run by Rikidōzan, held a tournament called World League (also known as the "World Big League"), which featured both Japanese and foreign professional wrestlers. Rikidōzan himself dominated the annual tournament early on, however, after his death in 1963, the tournament was won six times by Giant Baba and once by Antonio Inoki. JWA folded shortly after both Baba and Inoki left the promotion to create All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) and New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), respectively. Both men took the concept of World League with them to their new promotions, with Baba creating the "Champion Carnival" in 1973 and Inoki creating the World League in 1974, later renaming it G1 Climax.
The first Champion Carnival took place only six months after Baba had founded AJPW. The initial tournament was held in a single-elimination format and was intended for AJPW's heavyweight wrestlers such as Hiro Matsuda, Samson Kutsuwada and Thunder Sugiyama. For the tournament, Baba also recruited several foreign wrestlers, such as Baron Scicluna, The Destroyer, King Curtis Iaukea and Mark Lewin. Baba himself won the inaugural tournament, defeating Lewin in the finals. A year later, AJPW presented the second Champion Carnival, which most notably introduced former Olympian Jumbo Tsuruta, who eventually went on to become one of the promotion's top names. Baba also won the second Champion Carnival, this time defeating Mr. Wrestling in the finals. Heading into the 1975 Champion Carnival, Baba changed the tournament's format. Now the four wrestlers who advanced to the semifinals in the single-elimination tournament were put into a round-robin tournament, where the wrestler with the best record would be declared the winner. Baba went on to win the tournament for the third year in a row, defeating Gene Kiniski in the finals. A year later, the single-elimination portion of the tournament was eliminated and the Champion Carnival was changed to a pure round-robin tournament, a format it holds to this day. The 1976 tournament was the first Champion Carnival not won by Baba. It was instead won by Canadian Abdullah the Butcher, who defeated Baba in the finals. Baba went on to win the tournament four more times, winning a total of seven out of the ten first Champion Carnivals. In early 1980s, AJPW loaded the Champion Carnival with some of the top foreign wrestlers in the world, including Billy Robinson, Bruiser Brody, Dick Slater, Jack Brisco, Stan Hansen, Ted DiBiase and Terry Funk. However, after rival promotion NJPW took over as the number one promotion in Japan with a record-breaking business streak, AJPW decided to put the Champion Carnival on hiatus, not wanting the tournament to be overshadowed by their competitors. The hiatus lasted from 1983 to 1991.
In 1991, AJPW had overtaken NJPW and was again the top promotion in Japan, boasting a roster of top foreign wrestlers mixed with top Japanese wrestlers. The 1991 tournament showcased several younger wrestlers, including Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada, who bypassed the promotion's aging veterans and went on to become the promotion's cornerstones for the next decade. However, despite the emergence of the younger wrestlers and the participation of foreign wrestlers such as Doug Furnas, The Dynamite Kid, Johnny Ace, Johnny Smith and Mick Foley, the 1991 tournament was won by an AJPW veteran Jumbo Tsuruta, who defeated Stan Hansen in the finals. The 1992 tournament was booked around the storyline of the "young lions" challenging the veterans for AJPW supremacy. Stan Hansen went on to win his first Champion Carnival, defeating Mitsuharu Misawa in the finals. Despite losing in the finals, the tournament made Misawa a star, someone earmarked to occupy the promotion's top spot. A year later, Hansen again defeated Misawa in the finals. The 1993 tournament was also noteworthy for introducing rookie Jun Akiyama. In 1994, Toshiaki Kawada became the first of the "young lions" to win the Champion Carnival, defeating "Dr. Death" Steve Williams in the finals in a match that has been called "arguably the greatest Carnival tournament match of all time". For the next several years the tournament was dominated by AJPW's younger wrestlers with Kawada repeating his win, Mitsuharu Misawa winning two tournaments and Kenta Kobashi one tournament. The 1997 tournament ended in a rare three-way draw between Kawada, Kobashi and Misawa, resulting in a round-robin playoff between the three, where Kawada emerged victorious.
On January 31, 1999, Giant Baba died, leaving the promotion in the hands of Mitsuharu Misawa. The 1999 Champion Carnival was the first one not booked by Baba. As the new booker, Misawa made a controversial decision to leave Stan Hansen out of the tournament, while giving Vader the win in the finals over Kenta Kobashi. Problems between Misawa and Giant Baba's widow Motoko Baba led to Misawa exiting AJPW in 2000, taking 26 out of the 28 Japanese AJPW wrestlers with him to form the new Pro Wrestling Noah promotion. Struggling to cope with the loss of the majority of its roster, AJPW eventually hired NJPW wrestler Keiji Mutoh to lead the promotion. Mutoh went on to win the Champion Carnival three times (2002, 2004 and 2007), before leaving the promotion in 2013, after which he was replaced by Jun Akiyama.
In recent years, several outsiders have won the tournament, with freelancer Minoru Suzuki winning it in 2009 and 2010, NJPW representative Yuji Nagata winning it in 2011, and Big Japan Pro Wrestling (BJW) representative Daisuke Sekimoto winning it in 2016. 2013 saw Jun Akiyama finally win his first Champion Carnival, twenty years after his debut appearance in the tournament.
List of winners
|1976||Abdullah the Butcher||1|
|1979||Abdullah the Butcher||2|