Late Thursday night New Japan Pro Wrestling announced that longtime headliner and Wrestle Kingdom main event mainstay Kazuchika Okada would be leaving the promotion at the end of January when his contract expires.
Okada is about to be a free agent after over a decade with NJPW where he notably held both the IWGP Heavyweight(5) and IWGP World titles(2) 7 times for a combined 2,043 days. He is, if nothing else, truly an icon in Japanese wrestling concurrently respected by all wrestling fans.
While his bouts in the NJPW ring have featured showcases of some of the truly great, noteworthy matches even if we exclude the Tanahashi, Omega and Ospreay series, if we set nostalgia aside for a moment and really consider what NJPW and Okada need and deserve right now it makes nearly no sense for them to continue the present relationship in the current wrestling climate.
Some might recall the “once upon a time” of NJPW’s resurgence well over a decade ago and how much of that hinged on the rise of great wrestlers like Okada, Tanahashi, Nakamura and Naito over the course of several years. Those four, among others especially in the junior division, truly led NJPW back to prominence over the last 10 years. The crux of that however is what they and the company needed at the time: a fresh coat of paint and a youth movement to spark the company at home and to a lesser degree internationally.
There was an understanding then that they needed to focus on the future, double down on it and lean into those would-be stars in the present, and if you need any further proof of their impact, all four of them held the previous incarnation of the IWGP title 19 times, while Tanahashi and Okada occupy the top two spots for all-time combined days reigning as IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
During their time on top they battled each other interchangeably, often in Tokyo Dome main events. The general importance of those four, disregarding the generational divides between them, calls back to varying periods when NJPW leaned heavily into three or four wrestlers to carry the company. First it was Muta, Hashimoto and Chono, and later on the company branded Tanahashi, Nakamura and Shibata as the new Three Musktateers to follow in the footsteps of the previous trio. This ultimately set the tone and paved the way for Okada to step forward among others.
The running theme however is change, and understanding it’s necessary for the company (any company really) to survive and and more importantly thrive.
If you’re a New Japan fan, we’ve arrived at that moment once again.
The truth of NJPW in 2024 is Tanahashi is nearing retirement, and I imagine that’s closer to the near future than not given his recent appointment as company president. Shibata will likely never work in NJPW again, and Nakamura is trending toward spending the rest of his career in WWE. Naito has become a very old, battered 41-year-old world champion, Sanada is still a project to a degree despite his recent world title reign; even then he’s 35 now. Will Ospreay is bound for AEW.
Everyone else that has mattered in the NJPW main event scene has moved on.
(We don’t talk about EVIL.)
All of the above has been the reality over the last several years without even broaching the status of Okada in 2024. Although Tanahashi was critical to NJPW’s survival, Okada has been the most important wrestler in the company since 2012 when you account for his title reigns, their durations, and who he’s worked with since his rise as “The Rainmaker.” With all of that being said though, realistically what’s left for him after 10+ years in the company anchored by 7 major title reigns? Furthermore, how does Okada hanging around on the cusp of a title run help the company going forward when its major players have been filing out one by one for quite some time. Further consider what Okada has been doing since last spring (dream matches outside NJPW while co-holding the trios titles with Tanahashi and Ishii). Should he stay, truthfully how long will it be before he re-enters the world title picture, and tacked onto that, who does that help or serve?
Answer: It doesn’t help NJPW grow for the future aided by the past’s successful recipe, and it serves just to pile on accolades to an already remarkable career.
It’s time for Okada to move on, it’s the best move for both himself and NJPW as a whole.
Now is the time for the company to double down on its young workers like Shota Umino, Yota Tsuji and Ren Narita (Three Muskateers 3.0), as well as some of the key people in David Finlay’s Bullet Club. None of this can happen with Okada lingering near the title picture, and if he wasn’t, then why should he waste his time idling for nostalgia sake when he’s turning 37 himself this year?
It’s time. Time for Okada to move on, and for the next generation of Young Lions to step up.
If only to keep EVIL far, far, far, far, far……………far, far away from the IWGP title.
Very far away.
Where Will Okada Hang His Fancy Robes?
I think straight away we need to step away from the obvious answer and at least consider he might stay in Japan and work either NOAH or AJPW. It seems ridiculous considering monetarily he’d be better off in NJPW and obviously the U.S., but also consider he has a young family and his wife only gave birth to their first child in August 2022. There’s no guarantee he even wants to leave Japan. Those are real options, even just in the short term.
Sticking with the theme of realism though, it’s safer to assume he’s bound for the U.S. in some capacity as that’s the best move for him career-wise. Consequently, that gives NJPW the space to retool its roster with a new generation.
As for where he goes next, the quick answers are WWE or AEW. As for which he chooses, that’s truly a matter of what he wants at this point and I would assume what’s good for his family. Financially either option is probably a better deal than what he’d get staying in Japan, so then I think what matters secondly is his legacy and what footprint he wants to leave behind when he retires. At 37, and considering his recent matches with Bryan Danielson and Will Ospreay last weekend, he still has plenty left to offer.
Both companies have their own sets of realities he’d need to weigh, but from a pure wrestling perspective there’s nothing in his style that would truly be nerfed in a WWE run, so I don’t think him heading to WWE is that ridiculous and if he were to want to cement himself in wrestling history, a potential WWE title run would help stamp that without even getting into the mostly fresh matchups that would await him. That being said, is the trade off worth it to him and his family for him to be on the road as much as a WWE schedule would demand? That’s at least where a AEW landing spot would benefit him personally, combined with the freedom to stay in Japan should he choose (as opposed to moving) and also work where he pleases within reason. The drawback however is that there are few people in AEW that Okada hasn’t already worked with, and I’m not sure Tony Khan would know what to do with him if he can’t go “ooooo let’s do this match, this match, AND this match” out of the gate. It’s a balance of options and in his position I don’t know that any of us know what we would do. That’s up to him and what he wants for himself, his family and what cements his legacy is his eyes. I honestly think either destination is equally likely. It comes down to what he wants to do, and he definitely has options.
It’s arguably the best part of the current landscape–that someone of Okada’s calibre has mobility and options available to him to wrestle wherever he pleases, and he’s earned that equity no matter what. While there’s surely a lack of certainty as to where this leaves NJPW in the long term where their success hinges on its young crop of talent, for us as fans, whether Okada’s destination is another Japanese promotion, WWE or AEW, we will have some great matches ahead of us no matter where he chooses to make it rain.