On June 11th, 2017, something unique in pro wrestling happened. In the main event of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annaual Dominion event, a matchh between IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and challenger Kenny Omega, the roles of protagonist and antagonist switched place mid match. Not just for the duration of their “six and a quarter star” classic 60 minute draw, but for the remainder of their rivalry to date. Unlike the classic “double turn” between Bret Hart and Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13, something far more interesting and nuanced took place in what many have called the best match they’ve ever seen. With the one year anniversary of that classic match only about a month a way, I thought I would examine exactly what happened, and talk about why it was one of thebest pieces of story telling in wrestling history.
The story of course starts back on january 4th, 2017 at Wrestle Kingdom 11. In that match, the story told was undoubtedly the story of Kazuchika Okada, and his first main event on Japanese wrestling’s biggest stage as the now unquestioned ace of the company. In Kenny Omega he had the perfect foil, a cocky, arrogant gaijin (a term that means “foreigner” in Japanese, and depending on who you talk to, can be seen as a pejorative) who has his own plans and designs on being the face of New Japan. Especially in the face of the company’s western expansion plans.In that match Okada overcame both his overconfident nature, and the world class abilities of Omega to validate his position as “Ace”of the company. He was able to avoid Omega’s devastating finishing maneuver, the “One Winged Angel” (A one armed, electric chair driver), and despite Omega kicking out of the champ’s vaunted Rainmaker clothesline multiple times, he was able to secure a ping all victory in a 47 minute classic.
The story of these two combatants would pick up nearly six months later. After Omega avenged his loss in the New Japan Cup, and Okada defeated Omega’s “Underboss” in the Bullet Club faction, Bad Luck Fale, it was Okay who challenged Kenny to the rematch, setting the stage for one of the most unique pieces of storytelling in wrestling history.
On June 11th, 2017, at the famous Osaka-jo Hall, in the main event of NJPW’s Dominion show, Omega and Okada would square off again. At the start, everything seemed the same. Omega, under his moniker “The Cleaner” came out with his usual mix of gravitas and anime villain flair, while Okada brought with him the aura that simply declares to the world that he is a star, and something special. As the match began, it was clear that despite being in the traditional villain role, Omega, through his strength of personality and his stellar ring work had has share of fans in the crowd. It was this, combined with Okada’s nebulous status over the years between fan favorite or antagonist that set the stage for what was soon to come.
The early part of the match was fought at a breakneck pace considering how long the previous match between the two had gone, with Okada tweaking his knee early, but Kenny failing to press that advantage at any time after the twenty minute mark of the match. After several swings in momentum, including an incredible counter of a drop kick into a power bomb by the challenger, it was Okada who had the upper hand. Despite this, he was unable to pin Kenny Omega’s shoulders to the mat. This led to the first of the two things that switch the roles of the men in the ring, and cement this match as an all time classic.
Okada had brought out a table earlier in the match, set it up outside the ring on the floor, and he now placed Kenny on top of it. He then climbed to the top turnbuckle, and with an epic elbow drop, sealed his fate with the crowd for the evening. While some cheered, the majority of those in the crowd began to either boo, or murmur with disapproval, in the way only great Japanese wrestling crowds can. The face of their company, the Golden Boy champion, had gone beyond the bounds of sportsmanship and attempted to injure his worthy challenger, and the fans were not pleased. For the first time, Kenny could be seen as being truly worthy of sympathy. He had fought hard to this point with fighting spirit, not taking advantage of an injury to the champion, and now in frustration his opponent had committed a shameful act. What happened next would change their rivalry forever.
Newest member of Omega’s faction Bullet Club, Cody Rhodes came out, flanked by the other members of the group, seemingly in concern for his stable mate. It would seem that he was worried about him and as Omega fell victim to several of Okada’s Rainmakers, Rhodes held in his hand a towel, which he then moved to throw in, thereby ending the match. The other members of Bullet Club, knowing the last thing The Cleaner would want is to have the match stopped, and perhaps sensing that Cody’s motives were less than altruistic, blocked his advance and argued with him. While this argument raged, Okada went to press his advantage and then it happened….the moment where Kenny Omega went from preening, vainglorious antagonist, to the hero in danger, rising to the occasion. He countered Okada’s attempt at a Rainmaker and landed one of his patented “V-trigger” bicycle knee strikes. He then ripped the towel away from Cody, and went on the attack. This was his moment. This was Han Solo returning to save Luke, or Rocky saying “cut me Mick.”. It was every likeable, but morally ambiguous rogue rising to the occasion, if only for one night.
The crowd exploded with a furor to root Omega on, as their roles had now entirely changed. Those two moments, Okada crossing the line and Omega refusing to surrender at his most dire moment had completely changed the roles of the combatants in the story. It was now KENNY’S story. He was the focal point, and after his furious rally he finally hit the One Winged Angel….
Many people I have spoken to have felt that the matches ending was booked incorrectly. That it should have been Omega crawling to cover Okada as the bell rang to signify that the rematch of one of wrestling’s all time greatest matches would end in a draw. I have to respectfully say that those people are crazy. When Okada stuck his legs on the ropes before referee “Red Shoes” Unno could count three, the story changed. Yes, Omega had taken the role of protagonist, but in that role he had fired his best shot, and Okada, the unbeatable champion, was able to fend him off. At that point, the story became about Kenny Omega surviving the match. It became about him not giving in now, where he hadn’t earlier when Cody attempted to make the decision for him. This was exemplified in one of the greatest moments I have ever seen in a wrestling match. With Okada pushing for the victory, and the challenger at the end of his powers, the champion set him up for one more Rainmaker clothesline. As he pulled Kenny towards him to slam him to the mat with his arms, Kenny collapsed before the blow could land, Okada’s momentum carrying past the fallen Omega. Okada would eventually hit another of his deadly lariats, but in his exhaustion, he would be unable to crawl on top of his prone opponent and pin him before the bell signaling the sixty minute time limit had been reached, and that the match was a draw.
While not as obvious, or in your face as other matches where the wrestlers roles switched during the fight, the story that was told, which set in motion the longer term story of making Kenny Omega into a full blown fan favorite, was pro wrestling is at it’s absolute best. An art form that uses the poetry of violence and struggle to evoke powerful emotional reactions in the audience. When done right, these reactions are involuntary, and unstoppable. Rarely before or since has it been done this well, but I would imagine it’s only a matter of time until these two try to replicate those type of reactions again.