Imp’s NJPW Adventure
Before I signed up to NJPW World last Christmas I knew almost nothing about New Japan Pro Wrestling’s history. I’ve been watching for 3 and a half years now, but only really know the odd reference here and there. I knew about Masahiro Chono because of his appearances in the hilarious annual Gaki No Tsukai: Batsu games, The Great Mutah thanks to WCW and Jushin Thunder Liger because that Beast God is omnipresent. Hell, I still feel like I know next to nothing, my thorough Japanese wrestling education is only 1 year old to be fair.
With NJPW’s planned continued expansion into the US in 2018 and the hype generated by the Canadian dream match of Omega vs Jericho, I’m assuming there are others who also fit into the bracket of ‘Interested, But Know Piss All’.
So this series is going to be a record of my attendance at the New Japan School of Professional Wrestling. The stories behind the upcoming big matches, the promotion’s deep history and of course, maybe a quick stop for a deathmatch or two.
My fellow columnist David Fenichel has done a fantastic guide quickly filling you in on all the matches for Wrestle Kingdom 12. However, I’m just going to concentrate on one. The top two guys in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Kazuchika Okada vs Tetsuya Naito.
Okada vs Naito: 4 ½ Years in the Making
New Japan may be promoting the January 4th show as a ‘Double Main Event’, but don’t be fooled, this is the true main attraction of Wrestle Kingdom 12. The ‘Ace’ of the company, Kazuchika Okada, defending what will be his 564 day IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign. Against one of the most popular wrestlers in NJPW today, Tetsuya Naito, leader of the Los Ingobernables de Japon faction.
But the thing with New Japan is that there’s always way more to their stories beyond their one paragraph synopsis. The Okada vs Naito rivalry specifically has four and a half years of history! And their respective characters arcs are a vital part to the tale. The road to Wrestle Kingdom 12 didn’t start with Naito winning the G1 Climax 2017 tournament this past August, nor did it start when he won it in 2013. This story starts in 2012, with Kazuchika Okada’s return from excursion and Naito’s big push as the next Tanahashi.
First, the story of the champion…
Who here actually remembers Okada’s time in TNA? He was Samoa Joe’s lackey, pretty much playing a role from The Green Hornet because that movie was out at the time and TNA were nothing but highbrow entertainment. Well, that was Okada on excursion, a stage New Japan’s Young Lions go through for seasoning. And my God, the man is nowadays completely unrecognisable from his TNA days. When he returned to New Japan they slapped some gold hair on him, made money rain from the sky and declared him the ‘Rainmaker’. Because he’s money, or he has money, or he likes money… something to do with money. Probably all three.
He had the look, but New Japan wanted to push him hard. So he made his in ring return at the grand stage of Wrestle Kingdom 6 against Yoshi-Hashi, and the match sucked balls. It sucked balls hard. It was slow, clumsy and the super cool finisher ‘The Rainmaker’ felt sloppy and flat out wasn’t a clothesline. Fast forward to the end of the night, Ace of New Japan Hiroshi Tanahashi had just defended his title against Minoru Suzuki, when none other than Kazuchika Okada walks out and challenges him to a championship match! That’s right, at the end of the biggest show of the year, this rookie walked out and challenged the World Champion. Everyone laughed at him, Tanahashi accepted and laughed him off.
Imagine a promising rookie like Velveteen Dream challenging Roman Reigns at the end of this year’s WrestleMania, a feeling like that. Except Tanahashi has been over for years and actually gets cheered during his matches.
Tanahashi was THE man at the time, he was regularly described to Western fans as the John Cena of NJPW. But the Okada that turned up on February 12th was almost unrecognisable from the man we saw at Wrestle Kingdom, he was quick, fluid, hard hitting and caught Tanahashi off guard. The champ payed for not taking Okada seriously, when he realised what was happening it was all too late. Okada seemed to have counters for everything Tanahashi was throwing at him. He hit the Rainmaker properly for the first time and dethroned the Ace! He actually won!
June 16th 2012, Dominion in Osaka, Japan. Tanahashi got his rematch. No excuses this time. He took Okada seriously from the very start, no playing around, on this night he meant business. Tana had counters for Okada’s moves, he’d prepared and was back to win back his crown. The match was incredible, with counter after counter, but Okada had grown cocky over his time as champion and Tanahashi capitalised with a High Fly Flow (a beautiful frog splash with force). He won back the title, his crown of Ace, but their story was just beginning. Okada wasn’t just a flash in the pan, he wanted to become the new Ace.
Match number 3 of one of the best in ring rivalries I’ve ever seen. January 4th, Wrestle Kingdom 7, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Okada met over the title once again. This time both men were serious, Okada had been grounded by losing the title back in June and Tana treated Okada as a true threat to his title. Both men threw everything at each other in an amazing contest, seemingly draining each other to the point of fatigue. In the end Tanahashi was somehow able to dig deep and best his foe, but Okada had proved himself as a main player in New Japan. His quest to become ace wasn’t over and The Rainmaker would return.
NJPW have this annual tournament called the New Japan Cup, where the winner gets an IWGP Heavyweight Championship opportunity at the next big show. In 2013 this was Okada’s avenue back to the top, defeating Hirooki Goto in the final to earn match number 4 in this epic rivalry. April 7th, Invasion Attack, Tanahashi and Okada once again put on a classic.
However Tanahashi had just beaten Okada twice in a row at that point, he felt as if he had Okada’s number. In their last meeting he targeted Okada’s arm, so he went in with the exact same tactic. But, this was a different Tanahashi, maybe he’d just had enough of this Okada kid and wanted to be done with him. He mocked Okada, taunted him and tried to hit the Rainmaker as an insult. Tana zoned in on Okada’s arm, if the Rainmaker was going to be hit, Okada would have to go through pain to do so. And exactly that happened, but because of all the punishment Tanahashi had put him through he couldn’t make the cover in time for the 3. However a determined Okada hit another Rainmaker and, in clear pain, won back his title.
Seriously, watch this match, it’s arguably my favourite out of all of them. The way the match builds is perfect and the final 5 minutes have to be seen to be believed. And we’re not even close to being over yet!
This was a crowning moment for Okada, just when we thought Tanahashi had won the rivalry, he wins the New Japan Cup and fights through agony to become champion once again. Now all Okada had to do was prove himself, prove to us why he is worthy of the moniker of ‘Ace’. However, things didn’t go to plan. This was when our two stars crossed, with the 2013 G1 Climax.
The G1 Climax is a month long gruelling tournament of which the winner gets a Money In The Bank style contract for a main event match against the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at Wrestle Kingdom. Or at least that’s what is meant to happen. The 2013 tournament came down to Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Tetsuya Naito, the latter of which had been pushed for years as the next Tanahashi. Things didn’t feel quite right, but he was very talented inside the ring. Naito defeated the Ace and all the build behind him was now coming to the test, this was his opportunity to become a top main event player for New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Naito flopped. At the final show before Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan sets up their feuds with challenges and confirms already known matches by having the challenger walk down to the champion. When Naito walked out you could hear a pin drop, one of the most awkward encounters I’ve ever seen (I highly recommend watching it for a good laugh). New Japan panicked, things weren’t looking good for their two building blocks for the future.
Okada defeated Naito, he retained his title but he wasn’t the main event. Hiroshi Tanahashi winning the Intercontinental Championship was. 2014 was meant to be HIS year, but he had it taken away at the last moment. Unfortunately for the golden haired money man, this was only the start of a bad year. As a certain Bullet Club was on the rise, and they had a new face to run the place. None other than AJ ‘Goddamn’ Styles! In his very first match in New Japan Pro Wrestling AJ Styles defeated Kazuchika Okada and shook the world. AJ Styles would hold the title for over half a year, the Bullet Club had certainly shook everything up.
The year which should have been Okada’s year, instead turned into his redemption. There was only one way to reach the main event, the G1 Climax. Okada went through the gruelling tournament and faced Shinsuke Nakamura in the final for the opportunity to main event Wrestle Kingdom 9. And he won! His redemption had begun, the only question was who would he be facing? AJ Styles was champion, but in November a certain someone defeated him and changed the shape of Wrestle Kingdom. That man was of course, Hiroshi Tanahashi. If Okada wanted to claim his place at the top, he had to beat THE ‘Ace’.
July 5th 2015, Kazuchika Okada once again gets an opportunity of redemption at Dominion. However AJ Styles had won back the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Okada had his chance to defeat the man who had started his downfall the year before. And defeat the evil gaijin (foreigner) he did! Okada finally had his opportunity to walk into Wrestle Kingdom as champion and truly cement himself as Ace of the company. There was just the question of who would win the G1 Climax? The G1 Climax 2015 final was incredible, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi put on an instant classic. In the end, Tanahashi was able to best his long time rival to earn yet another Wrestle Kingdom main event. Something he had become synonymous with over the years.
This was when a huge, sudden shift took place. A certain exodus happened with multiple wrestlers leaving, Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson & Doc Gallows all left NJPW for WWE. This left open spots to fill and my God did two wrestlers fill the living hell out of those spots. The leaders of the two biggest factions in New Japan today, hell perhaps the two biggest factions in the world! The first, Kenny Omega, the 3rd leader of the Bullet Club. The second man to step up the plate, Tetsuya Naito, leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon (LIJ). A lot had changed since Wrestle Kingdom 8, Naito was a little bit more… tranquilo.
Both factions had really cemented themselves, Omega had become a Heavyweight after years as a Junior and was making waves in the Intercontinental Championship scene. Whilst Naito had really captivated fans in the evolution of both his character and the faction he founded. New Japan Cup 2016, Tetsuya Naito bested Hirooki Goto and earned his moment. His first IWGP Heavyweight opportunity since his main event flop 2 years prior, this was what Naito had been building up to. At Dominion Okada defended his title against a very, very different Tetsuya Naito. However this Naito had something up his sleeve, Los Ingobernables de Japon was only just getting started, SANADA made his NJPW debut hitting Okada with the ref distracted! Naito won the championship!
Okada wasn’t going to make the same mistakes Tanahashi did, he walked into the rematch with purpose. In a strong Okada city, where the previous was a strong Naito city, he bested Naito and made a statement, Okada’s the Ace of New Japan. If Naito wanted to best Okada again, he’d have to win the G1 Climax. Unfortunately for the tranquilo one, Kenny Omega was standing in his way. Omega shook the New Japan world and became the first ever gaijin to win the G1 Climax. Naito would face Tanahashi for the Intercontinental Championship, but that’s a whole other story for another day.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I assume you know what happened next. Okada and Omega put on an absolutely incredible match at Wrestle Kingdom 11, where the whole 6 stars jokes started. A match so good 5 stars just weren’t enough! Omega had a breakout year, whilst Okada had one of the best years of any wrestler period. After Omega, Okada bested the veteran Minoru Suzuki and had a brutal classic against Katsuyori Shibata. Then he had an arguably even better match against Omega at Dominion, before we then arrive at the G1 Climax.
2017 G1 Climax final, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Kenny Omega vs Tetsuya Naito for the opportunity to face Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. However this time Naito is able to best ‘The Cleaner’ and finally gets his opportunity in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. His redemption is finally complete, Naito gets to grab hold of that main event victory that was so cruelly taken away in 2014. Or does he? For the ‘Ace’ Kazuchika Okada stands in his way.
There is no doubt that these are the two top men in New Japan today. Kenny Omega is white hot, but he’s not the main event. He’s not the one with a 4 year arc to get to this point, he’s not the one who’s been on a 6 year journey to establish himself as the ‘Ace’. In many ways, Kazuchika Okada is in the same place Tanahashi was a few years back. He is the ‘Ace’, he is the man and this would be Tetsuya Naito’s crowning moment. Everything Naito has been doing since 2014 has led to this exact point, but can Okada replicate what Tanahashi did?
Okada had to fight, get knocked down, pick himself back up, climb his way to the position he is in today. In order to truly be Tanahashi’s replacement, isn’t his journey only just beginning? If Naito beats him in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, is he truly the ‘Ace’? Tanahashi became synonymous with the January 4th main event, now Okada must do the same. 564 days as champion is a startling stat, but for the ‘Ace’, the main event of Wrestle Kingdom means everything.
And that’s it! The story of Kazuchika Okada in NJPW. Both a great example of how important character arcs can be and why it can be difficult to jump right in to New Japan. Stories/arcs build over years, but my God is it worth the investment.
Join me next time for Part 2 of the story of Wrestle Kingdom 12’s main event, the challenger Tetsuya Naito!
Follow Imp on Twitter: @TheDamnImplicat