In theory, 2016 should have been a banner year for Kazuchika Okada. He began by defeating his long-time rival Hiroshi Tanahashi in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10, retaining his IWGP Heavyweight Championship title and solidifying his status as ‘Ace’ of New Japan Pro-Wrestling in the process. At least, that was the story being presented and, while fans were happy to cheer along as Okada proved himself once and for all against Tanahashi, their adulation seemed less fervent than it had just a few years previously.
Okada entered the main stage of New Japan Wrestling at The New Beginning 2012, shocking the pro-wrestling world as the young upstart who dethroned Hiroshi Tanahashi, the iconic central figure of NJPW. Tanahashi was still immensely popular, but significant sections of the audience were beginning to tire of seeing his name at the top of every card and then here came this brash youngster thrust into the spotlight, a newly minted member of the CHAOS stable and with an influential presence at his side in the form of the often outspoken Gedo.
If Tanahashi represented the establishment, Okada and his upset first IWGP title reign was a signal to fans that things were about to change. Ultimately, that change took longer than Okada would have liked and, as his feud with Tanahashi became ever more protracted, somewhere along the way Okada became the very establishment figure he was originally fighting against. Fast forward to 2016 and in Okada’s eyes, in Gedo’s eyes and in the promotion’s eyes he has donned the mantle of ‘Ace’, but whether the fans agree is another matter entirely.
Tanahashi certainly doesn’t. A few months after their Wrestle Kingdom 10 match Okada had lost the title and Tanahashi reverted to calling himself the ‘Ace of the Universe’, resumed wearing ring gear with ‘Ace’ emblazoned upon it and (after the joint shows with ROH in February) co-opted Moose’s chant for himself, encouraging crowds to chant “ACE!” at every opportunity. What’s more, in spite of Okada reclaiming his title shortly before the biggest tour of the year (the 26th annual G1 Climax), it was Tanahashi who was chosen to main event more shows that Okada in their tournament block.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, the man who cost Okada his title (albeit, for just a few short months), ‘Los Ingobernable’ Tetsuya Naito. Since returning from Mexico last year and forming Los Ingobernables de Japon with EVIL, BUSHI & SANADA, Naito’s popularity has grown immensely. Always considered a popular figure because of his spectacular in-ring ability, he seemed to lack the charisma to take him to the next level and some unfortunate injuries further hampered his career. But that all changed with his newfound attitude, penchant for rule breaking and his anti-authoritarian streak that has seen him attacking officials and embarrassing NJPW management.
One of Naito’s main points of contention is the blatant favouritism NJPW shows towards Okada, especially in the wake of the high-profile departures of Nakamura, Styles, Anderson & Gallows to WWE earlier this year. NJPW President Takaaki Kidani reportedly said they would offer Okada “whatever it takes” to commit his future to New Japan and announced a 200 million yen project to make Okada the face of the promotion. Naito feels (perhaps with good reason) that he isn’t being given a fair shake of the stick, that he just isn’t palatable to NJPW management and that, while Okada will be given opportunity after opportunity, Naito will always have to fight for his opportunities and greater recognition.
This has seemingly struck a chord with the NJPW audience, Naito embodying the salaryman thumbing his nose in the face of his superiors. Plus, it helps that Naito and his newfound swagger has made for a hugely entertaining act over the past year, albeit one that’s proved to be a big headache for Kidaani and co. The result has seen swathes of Los Ingobernables merchandise dominating arenas, those same fans who booed him a few years ago cheering him like never before and chanting along with his catchphrases. It’s even seen fans begin to turn on Okada when the two have faced off in the ring, but not yet in numbers to phase The Rainmaker, nor to convince the powers that be that New Japan should alter course.
In essence, Okada and Naito have exchanged roles, but with one stark difference: there will be no easy path to the top for Tetsuya Naito. Especially now that Okada, the former anti-establishment figure, is such a heavy focus of NJPW’s marketing, with numerous magazine spreads, talk show appearances, adverts and anime credits to his name this year alone. But perhaps Naito realises that. In interviews he’s seemed resigned to the fact that he’ll never be able to catch a break with the decision makers in the promotion, yet that admission only serves to further the fan’s growing admiration for him. And as the newly crowned IWGP Intercontinental Champion he has the chance to indirectly turn that admiration against Okada and make the fans question which is really the top prize and, by extension, who is the top champion in NJPW.
And what of Okada? He may have the title, he may have the backing of NJPW management, but with all of that comes increased responsibilities. As he’s (somewhat arrogantly) stated himself, the promotion is now ostensibly borne upon his shoulders, yet in what should be his most triumphant year to date, he’s being upstaged by the man New Japan had written off and overlooked in favour of the tried-and-tested or the latest imported talent. It’s not just the fan’s reactions either, it’s evident in Okada’s performances between the ropes. While 2016 has seen a number of great Okada matches, there’s a steady, workmanlike feel to his output. To those who have been critical of what they deem as overly formulaic matches on Okada’s behalf will have seen little to alter their opinions this year.
Perhaps the gilded veneer of The Rainmaker is starting to wear thin, or perhaps he’s struggling under the weight of expectations. Whatever the case may be, between the ungovernable rise of Tetsuya Naito and Hiroshi Tanahashi’s stubborn refusal to go quietly into the night, something needs to change if Okada is to truly be seen as the top guy in fan’s estimation and to cement his status as ‘Ace’ of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Yet if things pan out the way a fair few fans expect them to, it could be both of Okada’s greatest obstacles facing off in the audience’s most anticipated match at Wrestle Kingdom 11 next January. It would certainly make for an interesting parallel: Okada’s big main event at Wrestle Kingdom 8 denied by the fans distaste for Naito at the time, then three years later Okada’s grand stage at Wrestle Kingdom 11 usurped by his greatest rivals, past and present.