Lately, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) has been the victim of some criticism.
A subset of fans has not been satisfied with its creative direction. The general sentiment is that the company's main event scene is too repetitious; there are too many recycled matches, and the booking is relatively superficial. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada dependably construct something reminiscent, whatever the case may be.
Like most classic matches, it was easy to look forward to this match before the bell rang. Okada and Tanasashi heated conflict has been a refreshing feud in wrestling’s confines. A deep-seated battle of supremacy with two warriors trying to prove who deserves the top spot.
The most refreshing part was that they would rather lose with dignity than take shortcuts to win. The characters know cheating would taint their victory and alter fan’s perception of their moral character. These men want the NJPW fans to remember them as role models who had the nothing but sportsmanship and class. However, the main reason is because the characters have too much respect for one another and their inner-selves. A shortcut would be disrespectful to their opponent and to themselves, for stooping down to that level.
The feud has mostly developed inside the squared circle with the wrestlers building off former matches to add new chapters to the conflict. Tanasashi being envious over NJPW fans raving about Okada’s performance at Wrestle Kingdom 9 in spite of losing, Okada seeking redemption and revenge for his loss at Wrestle Kingdom 9, and both wanting to prove they are the number one wrestler in New Japan all factored into the build.
The IWGP Heavyweight Championship title signified everything on the line. And with pride, retribution, vindication, legacy and supremacy at stake – Okada and Tanasashi worked a near perfect match.
The match told a gut-wrenching story of two relentless, lionhearted warriors urgently trying to vanquish one another. The back and forth nature of it personified a roller coaster with twists and turns nobody could predict, increasing the chaotic pace and razor-sharp intensity to greater and greater levels.
It is astonishing they implemented the match so effortless, due to the major risk involved doing matches like this. Much of it hinges on the wrestler’s instinctive natures while the template hinges on the steady intensification of the suspense and drama, to strengthen enough to reach the match’s apex. The hardest part is hitting the highest point on the nose instead of coming up short or overstaying its welcome. Most wrestlers who try this style do the latter, the worst-case scenario because fans excessively lose interest the more it goes on. The wrestler missed their mark, thus it is almost impossible to get the fans back – you have given them too much.
No doubt, wrestlers need a lot of ability and expertise to master it. It is about astutely studying the crowd, being able to sense where their emotions stand. It is about being physically endearing enough to keep up to the fatiguing pace and making sure your partner is on the same page as you, because one misstep could hinder the entire match. It is also about putting the pieces in their right spots to fit the context of the match, like making sure nothing is noticeably out of place or lacks sense. It is something this match achieved and then some.
Tanasashi is the cornerstone of NJPW and undoubtedly is one of the best big-stage wrestlers. He is like watching poetry in motion: so fluent, such a ring-general, meticulous and so very thoughtful – even on the fly. However, his selling ability is what makes him so great.
He understands everything about in-ring psychology. It is not just how he sells moves – it is the little things him knowing right amount of time to stay down after a move; his subtle facial expressions that brings the viciousness to life; or, his realistic sell jobs of fatigue or pain. All his subtle idiosyncrasies add up and separate him from the pack.
This match was one of the few where the multiple kick-out finishes logically fit the context, too. Both characters are strongly booked well and had enough history and build to do an ‘unstoppable force vs. immovable object’ match.
Besides, this match used finisher and signatures as if they were spice. They were not vocal point of the story. They sweetened it up by giving it an extra something, sending the match into an epic territory. The passion, emotion, realistic psychology and gut-wrenching storytelling did the lion's share, while the near-falls off finishers just made it more suspenseful (which is how it is supposed to be done).
They did not cram finishers into a small window, either. They spread them out, allowing stuff to have in between the finishes; meaning, wrestlers had to weaken their opponent more to set up their finisher..
The only blemish in this otherwise perfect match was Okada’s inconsistent limb selling. Tanasashi worked over the knee for a while. Okada sold it until he regained offense and did moves that involved him using his knee. Heblew off the limb work for his own convenience, an uncharacteristically amateur move by a seasoned veteran.
After three Rainmakers in a row for good measure, Okada finally dethroned the seemingly indestructible figure off his crone. It was just a wondrous culmination to one of the most historic feuds in wrestling history, two phenomenal workers wrestling a major match with major stakes on a major stage.
You cannot ask for more.