An early version of this championship was introduced in 1983 for the winner (Hulk Hogan) of the IWGP League in 1983. Since then, the championship was defended annually against the winner of the IWGP League of the year. A new IWGP Heavyweight Championship arrived only in 1987, replacing the old version. The 1987 version was defended regularly and was the top championship of NJPW until the introduction of the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in 2021.
Throughout the history of the championship, several wrestlers were forced to relinquish the title due to an inability to participate in title defenses. When a wrestler had been injured or unable to compete for other reasons, tournaments were held to determine the new champion.
In 2006, Brock Lesnar was stripped of the title for refusing to defend it, claiming he was owed money by NJPW. The company went on to crown a new champion, while Lesnar kept the physical belt. He signed with Antonio Inoki's Inoki Genome Federation (IGF) in 2007 and lost the championship to Kurt Angle on the promotion's inaugural event. Angle later lost the belt in a unification match to the NJPW-recognized champion Shinsuke Nakamura in 2008.