Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Great Wrestling Champions: Kazuchika Okada (2016-2018)

Welcome to the second installment of The Great Champions, here at Enuffa.com, where I examine a wrestling championship reign that made a financial and artistic difference to the industry.  Today's entry is topical; we just saw the end of one of the greatest title reigns I've had the privilege to witness in my thirty-plus years as a wrestling fan.  It's the record-shattering fourth IWGP Championship run of "The Rainmaker" Kazuchika Okada!


For those of you not familiar, Okada is New Japan's current Ace (what they call their top star), whose landmark rivalry with his predecessor Hiroshi Tanahashi served as a transition from one top dog to another (Tanahashi is unanimously credited with bringing NJPW out of its mid-2000s downturn and reinvigorating the product).  Their numerous main event matches together captured the imagination and raised the bar for in-ring storytelling, for some even eclipsing Misawa-Kobashi as Japan's greatest wrestling feud.

The 6'3" Okada came up through NJPW's dojo system, took an excursion overseas (as all dojo grads do), and returned with a new look, a new, charismatic heel persona, and a prodigious understanding of how to work a main event-level match.  Okada's ability to adjust to his opponent's style and thus make every big match different from the last, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail and arguably unparalleled expressiveness in the ring, have made him in the opinion of many the best wrestler alive today.

At WrestleKingdom VI, having won his first match back in the company, Okada challenged Tanahashi for the IWGP Championship, and defeated him only a month later, at the age of 24.  That the company put such stock in such a young man, and that Okada earned every raining dollar of it, is nothing short of staggering.  Okada lost the title back to Tanahashi in June of 2012 but won it back the following April, keeping it nearly a year this time.  Their multi-year rivalry helped raise the profile of the championship and New Japan as a whole, and by the time he'd won his third title (from AJ Styles), Okada was ready to assume Tanahashi's former mantle.  At WrestleKingdom 7 and 9 he'd failed to beat Tanahashi at the company's biggest event (actually leaving WK9 in tears), but at WK10 he finally achieved that elusive accomplishment, solidifying his status as NJPW's new It Guy.  His third IWGP Title run would come to an end a few months later at the hands of another new main eventer, Tetsuya Naito, but he'd regain the championship only two months after that.


Thus began what would become a truly legendary 720-day reign.  The sheer number and variety of scale-breaking classic matches, coupled with the commercial growth it brought the company, is astonishing.

Okada defeated Naito at Dominion 2016 in a very good 29-minute battle whose result shocked a lot of people.  Early 2016 seemed to be Naito's coronation, as he more or less stepped into Shinsuke Nakamura's former spot, the charismatic anti-hero.  He handily won the New Japan Cup and challenged Okada at Invasion Attack, and it felt like Naito and his Los Ingobernables stable would rule the roost for the time being.  But Okada put a quick end to Naito's first (and thus far only) IWGP Title run, which amazingly never hurt Naito's incredible drawing power (This would come up again 18 months later).



As generally happens after Dominion, the IWGP Title wouldn't be defended for a few months due to the champion's involvement in the annual G1 Climax tournament (I'm still unclear why the champ is in the G1 since the prize at stake is a January 4th Tokyo Dome title shot, but I'm not complaining), and Okada delivered multiple ****+ outings over the four-week tour, against Naomichi Marufuji (in an upset loss that would lead to a rematch that fall), Hirooki Goto, CHAOS stablemate Tomohiro Ishii (a ***** classic), and another rematch against Tanahashi at the end of the tourney that shockingly went to a 30-minute draw.  Okada fell short of the G1 finals but nonetheless represented the IWGP Title well, as he had the previous year.

He'd face two of the three men who beat him in the G1 later that year on separate PPVs, first Bad Luck Fale in a non-title match at Destruction (this match was fine but Fale matches rarely exceed "fine"), and then in a stupendous IWGP Title match against Marufuji at King of Pro-Wrestling.  NJPW's Ace and Pro Wrestling NOAH's Ace delivered an indisputable 28-minute classic, with Marufuji dominating much of the action until the finisher-heavy third act, when Okada nailed multiple Rainmakers to narrowly retain.  This was the match that for me really signaled Okada's arrival as The Guy.  He delivered an amazing main event without familiar opponents like Tanahashi, Nakamura or Styles, and it was clear New Japan was gonna be just fine with Okada steering the ship.


This would be Okada's final title defense of 2016; he'd spend the remainder of the year in tag matches to allow him to rest up for the Tokyo Dome, and his first-time battle with G1 winner Kenny Omega.  The wrestling industry was about to have its socks rocked the fuck off.

Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega would be a milestone moment in pro wrestling; a basically perfect 47-minute main event opus split into three distinct acts, that had fans and wrestling journalists almost unanimously praising it as one of the greatest matches of all time (It earned six stars from Dave Meltzer, his first such rating in 23 years).  Defying many fans' expectations, Okada incredibly retained the title over his white-hot challenger, seven months into the only-ever IWGP Title reign to eclipse a full calendar year.  New Japan had caught lightning in a bottle with this feud, and it was just beginning.


Okada's next challenge would be very different, as one night later the Suzuki-Gun stable would return to NJPW after a two-year NOAH stint, its leader Minoru Suzuki attacking Okada and demanding a title match.  The bout took place a month later at A New Beginning, a very different kind of marathon than his action/drama-packed Omega match.  Suzuki spent much of the bout's 41 minutes torturing Okada's legs, bending and twisting the champion in every submission hold he could concieve.  Okada withstood vast sums of MMA-style punishment and eked out another win, adding a good vs. evil, psychological classic to his resume.

The third great 2017 Okada match took place at the company's 45th anniversary show in March, as Okada faced Tiger Mask W (Kota Ibushi) in a non-title main event that began as a friendly exhibition and turned into a Strong Style war.  Ibushi's distinctive style came through here, albeit slightly muted, but he brought out his aggressive side in the last third of the bout, hammering Okada with (illegal) closed fists and nailing his signature moves like The Last Ride.  But Okada landed three unanswered Rainmakers to put away his masked foe and continue an already award-worthy year.


For me Okada's second-best match of 2017 was his Sakura Genesis title defense against New Japan Cup winner Katsuyori Shibata.  Okada had already demonstrated his incredible versatility by this point in his fourth reign, but this match brought out Okada's ability to fucking fight.  This match was an absolute 38-minute WAR, with Shibata dragging the champion into HIS domain and Okada going along willingly, trading spine-tingling strikes with his nigh indestructible challenger and only retaining after three Rainmakers.  The result was Shibata's best, and unfortunately last match, the crowning achievement in an incredible career as a legit pro wrestling badass.  Shibata sadly suffered a hemotoma due to dehydration coupled with years of unprotected headbutts.  As of now his in-ring future is still very much in doubt.


Okada's streak of truly great big matches ended at five, when at Wrestling Dontaku 2017 he defended against Bad Luck Fale.  The bout was fine for what it was, but with Fale's limitations the ceiling on his matches is fairly low, and no one bought the idea that he might win the title.

Fortunately Okada's next defense at Dominion would be a rematch with Kenny Omega, and this time it seemed a lock that Kenny would get the duke.  This epic main event cut a tremendous pace, made even more impressive by the fact that it would go a full hour.  In almost every 60 minute draw the participants start out slow and end up telegraphing that they're going long, but Okada and Omega kicked off this match like it was a sprint, grappling ferociously at the start and building another epic encounter that referred back to the first.  Omega attempted another top rope dragon suplex, Okada set up a table at ringside hoping to backdrop Kenny through it, etc.  My favorite spot of the match occurred late, as Okada went for The Rainmaker clothesline on an exhausted Omega, and Omega simply collapsed mid-move, leaving Okada to swing at the air and stumble to the mat - a moment ingenious in its logic and simplicity.  In the end the story of this rematch was that while Okada was able to put Kenny away in 47 minutes in the first match, he couldn't get the job done here in sixty.  Meanwhile Omega's second failure to capture the title had humbled him, and his new Bullet Club stablemate Cody Rhodes smelled blood in the water.


Only a few weeks later Okada defended against Cody at the G1 Special, the first all-NJPW show promoted on American soil.  Cody set out to prove that he could succeed where Kenny had failed, clearly with designs on becoming not only the new champion but the new Bullet Club leader.  Okada outlasted and outmaneuvered Cody in a pretty excellent 27-minute main event that instantly became Cody's best match yet.

Having survived over a year with the title, Okada would now enter the G1 Climax tournament as the IWGP Champion for the third consecutive year.  His tourney run this time was absolutely dominant over his first six matches, as he defeated Michael Elgin, Satoshi Kojima, Toru Yano, Tama Tonga, Sanada, and Juice Robinson, often stealing the show.  His streak ended though with a major upset loss to Evil (in a stellar contest), and after going to a 30-minute draw with Minoru Suzuki (in a grueling duel that may have overshadowed their New Beginning epic), the B Block would all come down to Okada vs. Omega once again.

The third chapter of this unbelievable feud was a completely different match than the first two, as there was now a 30-minute time limit and the action had to be balls-to-the-wall.  Okada was battling neck issues, and the kinesiology tape on his neck became a bullseye for Omega.  The 2016 G1 winner leveled Okada with repeated snap dragon suplexes (one on the ring apron) and pulled out all the stops to make sure this shorter bout would have a winner.  24 minutes in Omega landed a definitive One-Winged Angel to finally defeat Okada in the middle of the ring and tie the series 1-1-1.  Omega hadn't won the championship but he had proven he could beat the champion.  This match was absolutely superb and for me surpassed their previous one.  Omega would go to the finals but lose to Tetsuya Naito in a mindblowing spectacle, setting up the WrestleKingdom 12 main event.  But first....


Having lost to Evil in the G1 tournament, Okada would next grant him a title shot at King of Pro-Wrestling.  Their title match wouldn't quite live up to the tourney one, but this was still a gritty, tonally evolving match that helped elevate Evil and created a little bit of doubt about whether Okada's championship would survive.  With Okada's seventh successful title defense, the stage was now set for WrestleKingdom 12, and a rematch from four years earlier.

In 2013 Tetsuya Naito upset Hiroshi Tanahashi in the G1 finals to earn a WrestleKingdom main event match with Okada.  The company saw in Naito great potential to be one of its future main eventers.  The only problem was his bland, white-meat babyface persona didn't click with the audience, and a poll was conducted to decide which match would actually headline WrestleKingdom 8 - Okada vs. Naito for the IWGP Title, or Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the Intercontinental Title.  The fans chose the latter, and Naito's crowning moment was tarnished.  While the match itself was technically fine, it lacked the urgency a title match should have, and the audience never really bought into Naito possibly dethroning Okada.

Fast-forward four years and we saw a very different Naito, who went from boring babyface to rogue villain to iconoclast anti-hero, becoming arguably New Japan's biggest box office draw in the process.  This main event would be about Naito claiming the main event spot he thought he should've had in 2014 and becoming the new face of the company, not to mention helping draw the biggest Tokyo Dome crowd in two decades.  And for 34 dramatic, intense minutes it looked like he'd do just that; virtually no one in the business thought Okada had a chance of retaining here.  Naito wrestled like his old babyface self, stubbornly going for the Stardust Press on multiple occasions, as if to prove that he was always good enough to be the man.  But amazingly Okada gutted it out once again, dropping Naito with a Tombstone/Rainmaker combination to defy EVERYONE'S expectations and retain once again.  Virtually everyone thought New Japan's booker Gedo had lost his mind - "This was Naito's moment!  There's no one left for Okada to beat!  This'll kill their box office!"  In hindsight it seems obvious - Gedo was building an all-time legend in Okada, while moving the chess pieces around to maximize New Japan's international drawing power - but on January 4th, 2018 Naito's failure to finally recapture the gold seemed baffling.


From there Okada moved on to another LIJ member, Sanada, who challenged him for the title at New Beginning.  To their credit, both Okada and Sanada made the audience think Sanada had a chance of scoring the upset of all upsets, with some punishing offensive flurries and a dramatic closing sequence.  After 32 minutes of action Okada retained, but as with every Okada title defense, he made his challenger look great even in losing.

For the 46th Anniversary show Okada handpicked CHAOS stablemate and Jr. Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay as his non-title opponent, and the resulting match, while not on par with Okada-IbushiMask from the year before, was a fun main event.  Ospreay was never really portrayed as being on Okada's level but he showed he could hold his own in a somewhat competitive match.  This played out a bit like an exhibition, but a very entertaining one.

Back to serious business, Okada's next title challenger was a relative newcomer to NJPW, who'd just come off an absolutely starmaking performance in the New Japan Cup tournament.  Zack Sabre Jr. delivered four classic bouts, cleanly defeating Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi, Sanada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, in what has to be considered the most impressive NJC run of all time.  Sabre was presented as an absolutely deadly grappler, whose counterwrestling was so airtight an opponent dare not even throw a strike, lest he give Sabre a free limb to work over.  The IWGP Title match at Sakura Genesis played off this principle, with Sabre frustrating Okada at nearly every turn.  Sabre's unparalleled submission skills appeared to be Okada's downfall, but the champion took advantage of Sabre's injured shoulder and eventually nailed three Rainmakers to retain at the 35-minute mark.  This grueling battle was an incredible showing by both men and established Sabre as newly arrived main event talent.  Once again Okada helped make a star, and tied Tanahashi's all-time record for consecutive title defenses.  And with that in mind....


Tanahashi promptly challenged his old rival for the title and the record.  Their match would take place at Wrestling Dontaku, and if Okada retained he would now have broken every IWGP Title record except one - Tanahashi's seven reigns.  Tanahashi had the crowd almost unanimously behind him in this match, as they desperately wanted to see the old Ace climb the mountain one last time.  But Okada would not allow it.  In a dramatic, story-filled, 35-minute opus, Okada put the final nail in the coffin of Tanahashi's claim to the Ace mantle, pinning the former champ with a single Rainmaker and setting a new record for IWGP Title defenses in a single reign.


If there were any doubt that Okada's fourth reign is the greatest in modern history, that had now been wiped clean.  But Okada had one more challenger he needed to face.  In the Dontaku post-match promo, Okada called out Kenny Omega, proposing a no time limit match at Dominion.  Omega accepted on one condition: that the match also be best-of-three.

The two natural rivals, who in three matches had wrestled a total of 131 minutes and only scored one fall apiece, would now face each other in the ultimate rubber match.  Okada and Omega kicked off the first fall at a ferocious pace, wrestling like they were in a G1 match with only 30 minutes to work with.  There were ring apron tombstones, top rope dives over the barricade, copious V-Triggers, and a brutal, ribs-first fall onto the outside railing.  But one thing neither man could do was hit his finisher.  28 minutes in Okada countered a sunset flip to pin Omega and take the lead.  The second fall featured much heavier drama, loads of reversals, a double stomp onto a table, and most importantly the first One-Winged Angel of the night, which was good for a match-tying pin for Omega.  A glassy-eyed Okada could hardly reach his feet for the start of the third fall, and only survived by countering another OWA into a Rainmaker to reset the fall.  Both men spent much of the third fall just trying to stay upright, trading feeble strikes and acting mostly on instinct.  Omega hit Okada with a Styles Clash and missed a Phoenix Splash attempt.  Okada went for a Rainmaker but had so little in the tank he simply collapsed mid-move.  The closing stretch was full of finishers and reversals, until both men were draped, barely conscious, over the bottom rope.  Kenny used his last burst of energy to hit the mother of all V-Triggers, followed by a match-winning OWA that put an end to the most incredible title run I've ever seen.  It was a bittersweet moment as Omega stood victorious, reuniting with The Young Bucks and incorporating his best friend Kota Ibushi into a new group called The Golden Elite.  The once-in-a-lifetime championship reign of Kazuchika Okada was now in the history books, its fitting conclusion occurring as the result of probably the greatest match of all time.


But amazingly at Okada's young age, he almost certainly has many more groundbreaking matches and moments (and title reigns) ahead of him.  At age 30, Kazuchika Okada has already logged one of the most illustrious wrestling careers ever, competing in some of the greatest bouts anyone's ever seen, and it's very possible he hasn't even peaked yet.  His is a singular career in the annals of pro wrestling, and his fourth championship reign will forever be revered as a creative and commercial peak in New Japan.


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