Often when we look back at the history of pro wrestling the most enduring memories are that of the great rivalries: Rock v Austin, Dusty Rhodes v Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels v Bret Hart, John Cena v The Rock, the titans of the sport facing off on the grandest stages and telling tales of ego, personal animosity and violence. For New Japan Pro Wrestling it is no different and this last decade there was absolutely no more important rivalry than The Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi and The Rainmaker, Kazuchika Okada.
This was a clash of generations that saw the man who saved the company from financial ruin fight to hold his place at the top against the man who said he would take New Japan to the rest of the world. Over the years these men faced each other, each would be humbled and have to fight back in their own way as the battled over the top spot in the company. It was also this rivalry that would build New Japan Pro Wrestling up to once again become a global powerhouse in the pro wrestling industry.
It is no giant exaggeration to say Hiroshi Tanahashi saved New Japan Pro Wrestling. In the early 2000s the company was on the brink of bankruptcy after their focus on an MMA in ring style, worked shoot angles and usage of real MMA fighters both pushed away pro-wrestling fans and failed to attract a broader audience. Out of a crop of rookie Young Lions and alongside names like Shinsuke Nakamara and Katsuyori Shibata, Hiroshi Tanahashi was chosen to be one of the leading figures in a new era for the company and slowly but surely outshined all others as he grew to become the company’s top draw, The Ace of New Japan.
Tanahashi first won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 2005 and for the second half of the 00s would dominate the New Japan World Title scene. His blend of heavyweight technical wrestling, high flying speed and magnetic charisma re-established a local fan base and even began to draw some new western eyes to the company.
At the start of 2012 Tanahashi would defeat Minoru Suzuki at Wrestle Kingdom 6, the last in a long line of Japanese legends The Ace would dispose of on the way to setting a record eveven straight defences of the company’s top title. Given where Tanahashi was at it seemed like a complete mismatch when a young wrestler with just one win under his belt stepped up to be his next challenger.
That young wrestler was Kazuchika Okada, a product of New Japan’s Young Lion training program. He had just returned from a frustrating graduation excursion to T.N.A. where he was called Okato and served most notably as Samoa Joe’s henchman. On his return to New Japan at Wrestle Kingdom 6, Okada beat fellow Young Lion graduate Yoshi-Hashi in a match that received a lukewarm reception from the crowd and the wrestling media.
Tanahashi was not the only one giving Okada sceptical looks as the twenty four year arrogantly declared himself ‘The Rainmaker’ because, “he would make it rain money” and told Tanahashi he was the future of the company. The pair had met before when Okada was still a Young Lion and Tanahashi had won handily. However, even though no one else believed him, Kazuchika Okada believed every word he was saying and when Hiroshi Tanahashi walked into the next major show, New Beginning, he walked into one of the greatest ambushes in pro wrestling history.
In their first match Okada did nothing to ingratiate himself to a crowd that already saw him as an arrogant upstart opposite their hero Tanahashi, however The Rainmaker took the fight to an under prepared Ace from the moment the bell rang. As things got underway Okada landed the first strike and consistently one upped a Tanahashi who seemed to be going through the motions. By the time Tanahashi realised that he was in the fight of his life, it was already too late. His desperation turned a wildly telegraphed dives off the apron that Okada easily countered and desperate pin attempts off moves that would never finish the match. In contrast Okada can be seen smiling in the closing stages as he sees his plan coming off and in just his second singles match since returning to New Japan he beat the greatest IWGP Heavyweight Champion in the company’s history.
Okada’s first reign only lasted a few months but it was enough to put the fear of God in Hiroshi Tanahashi and mark a seismic shift in the New Japan heavyweight division. In one night Tanahashi had gone from looking unbeatable to humbled and distinctly vulnerable.
At their next meeting, a far more intense Ace would come in ready for The Rainmaker. While Okada had a chance to display his skill, the overriding message by Tanahashi from the moment he took the center of the ring and got the crowd chanting to the final decisive High Fly Flow was, “you may have beaten me once but I’m still the man in this ring.”
The meeting between Okada and Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 7, six months later would feel much more like the meeting of two equals than at Dominion. Okada had this time earnt the position opposite Tanahashi through winning the 2012 G1 Climax and was also beginning to earn the respect of the crowd. The gruelling match would see both men almost tentative to engage at first for fear of slipping up like they both had in their previous matches. Both would pull out new moves but ultimately The Rainmaker would fail to match The Ace at the biggest show of the year, a stage Tanahashi had made his own.
Finally Okada would pick up a win over Tanahashi and regain the IWGP Heavyweight Title in April 2013 at Invasion Attack. In perhaps their most critically acclaimed match, both men would empty their tanks with Okada putting in the performance of his career up until that point to finally beat Tanhashi without the element of surprise. After a year or so of back and forth The Rainmaker had finally caught The Ace, with the win cementing him as at least Tanahashi’s equal at the very top of the New Japan roster.
Okada’s growth would be emphasised with another win over Tanahashi in October 2013 at King of Pro Wrestling two months after the pair fighting to a time limit draw in their G1 Climax block match. Okada would also earn the right to defend the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 8 against Tetsuya Naito, only the second time since the birth of Wrestle Kingdom eight years previously that Tanahashi wasn’t involved in the heavyweight title match at the Tokyo Dome.
The pair would not face one another in a singles match for another year as the title scene they had dominated since 2012 would be interrupted by the debut of AJ Styles. Styles ambushed Kazuchika Okada at Invasion Attack 2014, a year after Okada had won the IWGP Title and then overwhelm The Rainmaker a month late at Wrestling Dontaku. It would be Tanahashi who would have to wrestle the title off the new Bullet Club leader later that year.
The intrusion of Styles forced Okada to fight through the G1 Climax to take the number one contenders position and set up what felt like a climax to the Rainmaker and Ace rivalry, a second meeting at Wrestle Kingdom 9, three years in the making.
While Tanahashi hadn’t beaten Okada since their Wrestle Kingdom 7 match two years before, even to this day when The Ace wrestles at the Tokyo Dome he goes from being a wrestling legend to a wrestling god. His connection with the crowd is what has always fuelled him and when he gets in front of thirty thousand fans all cheering for him it truly puts him on an untouchable level. In the previous eight years leading up to Wrestle Kingdom 9, Tanahashi had been beaten on that stage only once, by Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 2.
If Okada was going to surpass Tanahashi, he didn’t just have to beat him, he had to beat him at the Tokyo Dome.
Come the night though Okada couldn’t manage it. Despite Okada wrestling as well as he ever had, Tanahashi was just able to push himself further. The Ace ripped Okada’s knees to shreds with multiple Dragon Screw leg whips, kicked out of Okada’s finishing move The Rainmaker and hit a barrage of High Fly Flows to retain the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Then something truly unexpected happened, on his way out of the ring Okada broke down. As Gedo carried him out of the arena he wept openly at missing out on what had felt destined to be his moment.
These tears that rained from The Rainmakers eyes betrayed something that had been hidden up until that point, Okada’s humanity. Those tears showed he was more than the arrogant facade he put up, he was a man with wants and desires, a man who had given everything and failed.
To truly succeed Hiroshi Tanahashi as the top man in New Japan, Okada needed to be more than just respected by fans, he needed to be loved. The image of him weeping at Wrestle Kingdom would finally see him start to enter the hearts’ of New Japan fans.
For Okada himself it was those tears that would carry him to the next level. Okada was most likely as surprised as anyone at how freely they flowed when he missed out and the despair in that moment would steel him for his next meeting with The Ace.
Before that next meeting Okada would get a small taste of redemption, winning the IWGP Heavyweight Title off of AJ Styles who had beaten Tanahashi almost immediately after the Wrestle Kingdom 9 match. However for him to truly come back from the Wrestle Kingdom 9 loss he was always going to have to beat Tanahashi at the Tokyo Dome, a matchup that was sealed with The Ace winning the G1 Climax.
At Wrestle Kingdom 10 there would be no more chances for Okada, a loss would put him 0-3 down to The Ace on the biggest stage, if he was going to prove himself it was now or never. So at Wrestle Kingdom 10, fuelled by the confidence of knowing he could beat Tanahashi, the despair of the loss last year and for the first time the cheers of the crowd The Rainmaker was able to overcome The Ace at Wrestle Kingdom.
It was a match much like the year before with both men emptying themselves, Okada working hard on Tanahashi’s neck and Tanahashi ripping Okada’s knee with his Dragon Screw Leg Whips. However in the closing minutes when both men seemed like they could go on no further, in one of the most iconic images of New Japan history, Okada hit Tanahashi with a suplex and then held onto wrist control. This image that the camera lingered on and the ref even pointed to, said everything about where their feud had come to, they were equals but this year Okada refused to let go of his position, in the match, in the company and in the world of wrestling. With one final Rainmaker Okada sealed his position at the top of the company, the new Ace of New Japan and brought to a close the final chapter in one of the greatest feuds in wrestling history.
Both men go on to further feats of greatness, Okada faced Kenny Omega in what been hailed some of the greatest matches ever wrestled. Tanahashi would rise to the Heavyweight Championship level once more, beating Omega at the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 13. In somewhat of an epilogue to their main story the pair would even face each other again as Okada sought to break Tanahashi’s IWGP title defence record and they would even end up tagging together when common enemies forced them to put their past behind them. However it was those seven matches from 2012 to 2016 that elevated both Okada and Tanahashi as well as New Japan Pro Wrestling to a level that outside of the WWE they were arguably the biggest stars in wrestling and the biggest wrestling promotion. Certainly the success the company would have in the west and expansion into the USA would not have been remotely possible without the work of these two men at the top of the card.
Outside of its fan base New Japan Pro Wrestling isn’t known for storytelling. Every wrestling fan knows about the intense, athletic matches, the swagger of some of their stables and the pomp and circumstances of Japanese wrestling on the biggest stage. However in Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi you have one of the greatest pure wrestling stories ever told. It isn’t about who betrayed who or who said what to who on the mic but simply about a champion and a challenger facing off over the years, each match building off what had come before, each man growing and changing as a wrestler until one day the roles are reversed challenger has become champion.
Thanks for joining me for this week’s edition of Stories That Defined A Decade, completed just in time for Wrestle Kingdom 10, make sure you check back over the coming weeks as I explore more stories that shaped pro wrestling last decade. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the rivalry between The Ace and The Rainmaker in the comments below or on Twitter @Sir_Samuel. You can also find links to the other pieces I’ve written in the series below.