As mentioned in my Match of the Week entry a few weeks ago, Wrestle Kingdom 9 was the first New Japan Pro Wrestling event I ever watched, and was what truly got me into puroresu. The main event of that show was Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and although it wasn’t my favourite match of that night (Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi garnered that particular honour), it was what clinched my fandom of the promotion.
That main event was part of a long rivalry spanning four years and several incredible matches between Tanahashi and Okada, which ultimately culminated in Okada finally defeating Tanahashi for the title at the next year’s Wrestle Kingdom, solidifying himself once and for all as the Ace of NJPW. Nevertheless, despite that loss, and the wear and tear from years of carrying the promotion on his back becoming increasingly evident, Tanahashi still held onto the belief that HE was the Ace of the promotion. He even changed his own entrance music to Love and Energy, a thumping electronic J-anthem which is set to the backdrop of a “Go Ace” chant on loop.
Fast forward to Sakura Genesis 2018; Okada had successfullyretained his IWGP Heavyweight Championship in a gruelling encounter with Zack Sabre Jr to continue a reign that started all the way back in June 2016, equalling Tanahashi’s record of 11IWGP Heavyweight title defences in a single reign. There was only one thing Tanahashi could do to preserve his record, to prove what he was probably the only one to still believe – that the he was still truly the Ace of the company. He promptly challenged Okada to a title match at the annual Wrestling Dontaku event the next month. Okada, seemingly dismissive of his old rival who he thought he had firmly in his rear-view mirror, bemusedly acceded to Tanahashi’s request. The title match was set, and the two old foe were set to do battle one more time.
Although Okada had overtaken his old rival in terms of in-ring skill and drawing power, the fan support that his predecessor enjoyed never did become as fervent in his favour. This was evident from before the match even started, as the crowd was firmly behind Tanahashi in his quest for reclaiming what was once practically part of his own skin. Tanahashi milked the adulation for all of what it was worth, soaking up the loud Tanahashi chants after the bell rang. Despite this, it was Okada who established himself first once the action actually got underway, and he made this known to the antagonistic crowd bypulling off his signature “cocky pat on the opponent’s chest” taunt early.
Nonetheless, Tanahashi went on to lock Okada in a headlock for several minutes, with the aim of grinding down his opponent and building as much momentum as he possibly could. The fans showed their appreciation for this, but their joy would not last long as Okada locked in a headlock of his own. He followed this up with his first Rainmaker attempt, which Tanahashi dodged out of to lead into a great sequence of chain wrestling between the two men, culminating in Tanahashi whipping out his own classic taunt, the air guitar, as loud “Tanahashi” chants once again echoed around the Fukuoka Convention Centre.
In a call-back to one of the tactics he’d used to beat Okada in their early matches, Tanahashi proceeded to start working on Okada’s left leg. Okada cut this flurry off by hitting a dropkick on a top-rope perched Tanahashi, who skinned the cat to fling himself back into the ring, only for Okada to catch him and drop him with a Hangman’s DDT from the top rope. Okada followedthis up with another Hangman’s DDT from the guardrail to the floor. Tanahashi’s hubris in trying to prove he was still the Ace of old had once again got the better of him.
In an act of defiance to the fans’ alignment, Okada planted his boot on his downed opponent’s chest, inciting a chorus of boos from the Fukuoka crowd. He knew he was the villain in this story, and played to that perfectly in this singular moment. Although Tanahashi tried fighting back with forearms, all it took was one forearm for a pissed-off Okada to floor his opponent once again.With every comeback attempt by Tanahashi, there came a quicker, brasher reply from his (much) younger rival. Okada’s disdain for Tanahashi’s self-belief was evident, with him flashing a smirk at the fans as he continued to wear down his opponent.
Tanahashi finally found some breathing room after a neckbreaker to his opponent, which he followed up with several strikes and a flying forearm to boot. He proceeded to take proceedings back to Okada’s left knee with a dropkick. He once again postured to the crowd for too long after this, however, allowing Okada to swing momentum back in his favour, hitting his opponent with an elbow and spiking his head with a third DDT. After hitting an Ushigoroshi and a flying elbow, Okada whipped out his signature Rainmaker pose, to which Tanahashi immediately stepped up and got in Okada’s face in response.
This seemed to rev Tanahashi up, and he hit a dragon whip on Okada, sending his opponent to the outside and allowing him to follow up with a High Fly Flow to an eruption of elation from the crowd. Although it seemed like he finally had some real momentum on his side, he once again took too long in posturing to the crowd, which cost him as Okada swung a runningTanahashi over and into a vicious Tombstone Piledriver to the floor. After constantly trying and failing to connect with that Tombstone onto the floor in the Road to Dontaku shows leading up to the event, Okada had finally managed to hit the debilitating move on Tanahashi.
After both men just about managed to make it back inside the ringbefore the count of 20, the 2 warriors engaged in an exchange of strikes, all the while barely being able to get to their feet. “20 minutes have felt like 60”, stated colour commentator Don Callis, and with the effort both men put in, I wouldn’t be surprised if they both felt like it had been 120 minutes. Okada got the upper hand on this exchange, which further spurred the fans on to chant even louder for their hero. Okada took advantage of this by kicking his opponent while he was down. This only served to fire Tanahashi up, who managed to drop Okada a number of times with stiff uppercuts. It was Tanahashi’s turn to disrespect his opponent, getting in some kicks of his own on a downed Okada.
After countering a dropkick attempt by Okada into a snap suplex, Tanahashi hit his opponent with the first Slingblade of the match for a 2 count. Sensing his time was near, he sprinted over and climbed the top rope. Instead of hitting the High Fly Flow straight away, however, he took an extra 2 seconds to once again posture to the crowd. These extra seconds proved costly, as Okada rolled out of the way, sending Tanahashi crashing into the mat. This was followed by a series of dropkicks by Okada, followed by a Rainmaker attempt, which Tanahashi incredibly countered into another Slingblade. The crowd was fervent at this point, doing their best to will Tanahashi on to an incredible victory.
After blocking a Tombstone by Okada and attempting one his own, Tanahashi was hit with another dropkick by his opponent. Nonetheless, Tanahashi managed to finally get his own back by just about hitting a Tombstone of his own, which he followed up with a High Fly Flow to Okada in the middle of the ring. With past experiences of Okada kicking out of his finisher fresh in his memory, however, Tanahashi decided to go back to the top rope instead of going for the cover. This would cost him dearly, as Okada got his knees up just in time to block the move, preventing the double High Fly Flow that had handed him the loss at Wrestle Kingdom 9.
It was pure grit that would decide proceedings now. An incredible sequence of events followed – Okada set up for the Rainmaker, which Tanahashi dodged again, only for Okada to hit a huge German suplex. Tanahashi defiantly kicked out at 1, but Okada was having none of this, and went for another Rainmaker, which Tanahashi dodged again. After another dropkick by Okada, Tanahashi propped himself right back up to hit a Slingblade on his opponent. Tanahashi, once again sensing victory, perched himself back up to the top for the High Fly Flow. Okada had this well scouted, however, and Tanahashi was met by a crossbody dropkick on his way down.
It was Okada’s turn to sense victory, and he let out a primal scream indicating that he was sick and tired of playing around. He once again set up for the Rainmaker, which Tanahashi counteredto hit a Rainmaker of his own! Okada incredibly kicked out at 1, but he looked like he was on the rocks. Tanahashi was close to rolling back the clock, he was close to finally winning back the title he thought he’d never hold again, he was close to defending the last record he still had standing. He smacked his opponent around, imploring him to stay down. One smack too many, however, as Okada dodged out into another Rainmaker attempt by Okada, only for Tanahashi to land one final smack to his opponent.
Okada, as he had become accustomed to doing in the past 2 years since his last victory over Tanahashi, held on to Tanahashi’s wrist after the last failed Rainmaker attempt. It was this wrist control technique that had helped him finally vanquish his Tanahashi-shaped demons at Wrestle Kingdom 10, and it was that technique that had brought him so much success in the years that followed. Nobody had broken out of that wrist grab…until the first victim of the technique became the first man to break the hold, with Tanahashi incredibly slapping his wrist out of Okada’s hands.
It seemed like Okada had nothing left, and that Tanahashi had finally done what was needed to beat his career rival. In his last act of pomposity, he played to the crowd one final time, and promptly darted for the ropes to hit the Slingblade. What he did not realise, however, was that Okada still had a hold of Tanahashi’s trousers. That realisation would come too little, too late for Tanahashi, as Okada slung his opponent back in, and finally connected with a huge Rainmaker, to pin him for the 1…2…3. Okada had done it – he had defended his title for the 12thconsecutive time, he had broken the record, and he had beaten the incumbent record holder to do it. What was probably Tanahashi’s last chance at winning the big one had gone up in smoke, and it had happened at the hands of his greatest rival.
As if there was any doubt in my mind before this match, it has only furthered my belief that Okada/Tanahashi is THE G.O.A.T. rivalry in professional wrestling – not just in Japan, but in any country, in any promotion. I don’t usually like to bring out star ratings for matches as they’ve been done to death, but this was a definite 5* match in my opinion. If you are to watch just one match this month, it has to be this one. This will without a doubt be one of the matches of the year in any promotion once 2018 draws to a close. This was pro wrestling perfection.