The past few years have seen a feud so good, and so widely praised, it’s hard to find more to say about it.
Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi’s rivalry hasn’t just defined their own careers; it’s defined the modern day state of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Their matches are always great, of course, but what sets this feud apart is the overarching story that’s been told. Dave Meltzer-awarded 5-star matches aren’t so special anymore. Yes, they remain the mark of a truly excellent bout, but their greatly increased frequency over the past few years means that a match has to be more than mechanically superb to stand out.
I’d suggest that Okada and Tanahashi’s recent clash at Destruction in Kobe – which did indeed receive five stars – is a good example. It’s fantastic in a vacuum, but surrounded by the respective legacies of either man, it becomes something far greater. Let’s take a look.
Background: Kazuchika Okada’s arch-rival of the past two years has been Kenny Omega, but despite their once-in-a-lifetime chemistry, it isn’t yet the defining feud of The Rainmaker’s career.
That belongs to his rivalry with the previous ace of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi. The pair have clashed numerous times in high-profile matches, the earliest of which led directly to Okada’s ascent into superstardom. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship has been traded between the pair, or robustly defended against one another – often in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom – and although the overriding story has been that of a younger star looking to snatch the old lion’s crown, the pair have truly galvanised one another’s reputations in the process.
Recently, with Okada, Omega, and Naito appearing to rule the roost in New Japan, Tanahashi appeared to have taken a step down the card. That was, at least, until this year’s G1 Climax. The old hand shockingly won the tournament, besting Okada’s points total to win A Block, before knocking off the effervescent Kota Ibushi in a thrilling final.
As per recent tradition, Tanahashi then received a briefcase granting him a title shot in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. The briefcase-holder must defend it in the build-up to January 4, but since its inception, nobody has managed to defeat the G1 winner. This can perhaps be seen as a deflating piece of booking, as such matches arguably lack real tension when the briefcase never changes hands.
That wasn’t the case this year.
If anybody could have realistically secured a Wrestle Kingdom title shot at the last moment, it would surely have been Okada. Despite suffering a difficult few months after losing his title to Omega, The Rainmaker had slowly started to find his old confidence. Gone were the balloons and the rapid, staggering ring entrances. The old Okada may not have been completely back, but he was getting there. Could he snatch Tanahashi’s briefcase in the process?
The Match: Predictably, both men start the match cautiously – but it’s not too long before the big strikes begin to fly. Yes, the pair may have one another expertly scouted, but this is still a fiercely competitive rivalry that can bubble over into hatred at the drop of a hat.
The pair work one another’s legs, Tanahashi because its a tried and tested tactic of his, Okada in a far more sadistic and ruthless sense. The crowd are firmly behind the older man as Okada gains the upper hand over him, targeting the knee and refusing to give the G1 winner any breathing space. Tanahashi goes for a couple of big moves but misses, clutching his knee in agony each time. A figure four leglock is clamped on, but Okada can’t stop his foe from making the ropes.
Tanahashi fires up, but Okada is totally unfazed, asking his opponent to throw more strikes. After shaking off a pair of trademark Tanahashi Dragon Screws, Okada cranks up the pressure further and becomes more heelish than we’ve seen him in a while.
He sets Tanahashi up top and tries to Dropkick him to the floor, but the more experienced man hangs on. This serves to only fuel Okada’s aggression, as he goes after the leg with a renewed cruelty. He even smiles at one point, enjoying the pain he is inflicting.
The pair battle to the outside, and suddenly we’re reminded that despite taking a beating in this match so far, Tanahashi is the man in form, and the man with all of the momentum on his side. He nails Okada with a dramatic Tombstone on the floor, a move The Rainmaker has given him several times in the past.
Not content, he goes up top and crushes Okada with a High Fly Flow to the outside. It takes its toll on the knee, slowing Tanahashi somewhat, but the momentum of the bout seems to have been totally reversed with a few big moves.
Desperately (or carelessly?) Tanahashi goes for another High Fly Flow – this time inside the ring – only for Okada to get his knees up in time. It’s a sequence that really demonstrates the desperation of Tanahashi to put The Rainmaker away quickly, given the fact that he hasn’t beaten him for so long. The pair drew in the G1 Climax, a result that was good enough for Tanahashi to progress to the final, but hardly a confidence-booster in the context of this bout.
We approach the closing stages of the match as the High Fly Flow connects again – but Okada’s earlier work pays off, as Tanahashi is too concerned with his knee to make the cover. He goes for a second, but Okada astonishingly Dropkicks him out of mid-air. He drags Tanahashi to his feet and hits the Tombstone, but the briefcase-holder does everything he can to evade several Rainmaker attempts. Finally, Okada nails a spinning version of his finisher but doesn’t go for the cover, instead, pulling up his opponent to deal more damage. Tanahashi takes full advantage, nailing a Dragon Suplex for a crazy near fall.
The pair head up top for the grand finale and Okada teases something devilish (a super Tombstone, maybe). Tanahashi fights him off with an old-fashioned slap to the face, before perfectly executing the most jaw-dropping move of the match. He knocks Okada off the top rope, and as his opponent falls, dives after him with an incredible variation of the High Fly Flow.
Wasting little time, Tanahashi springs back to the top rope like Randy Savage in his prime, crushing Okada’s back and ribs with two further finishers. It’s enough.
Aftermath: After the match, things somehow get even more dramatic. Jay White runs out and attacks both competitors, as well as Rocky Romero and a handful of young lions. CHAOS boy YOSHI-HASHI runs out to make the save, only to commit one of the most unfortunate botches of the year. He slips on his way down the ramp and crashes into the side of the ring, but still bravely makes his way in there (with a busted-open face) and attacks White.
The New Zealander maintains the upper hand and looks ready to finish Okada off with a chair, only for The Rainmaker’s mentor (and New Japan booker) Gedo to run out and stop him. Except, shockingly, he doesn’t! Gedo turns on his former protege, cracking him with the chair and forming a new allegiance with the most dangerous young force in the promotion.
The Wrestle Kingdom main event is still far from clear-cut, but the most likely outcome still seems to be Tanahashi vs. Kenny Omega. Okada, however, looks to be out of the picture for the first time in years. The Rainmaker has headlined the last four January 4 shows, twice against Tanahashi, once against Omega, and this year’s victory over Tetsuya Naito.
His Wrestle Kingdom opponent must surely be Jay White, with the most successful New Japan star of a generation looking to put the ruthless upstart in his place.
There are still multiple options open to New Japan, a situation they seem to thrive in. Wrestle Kingdom is now annually relied upon to be one of the best shows of the year, and with this set-up, it looks as though they could be set to repeat the trick.