Who is the true ACE of New Japan? A look at the Tanahashi-Okada trilogy
January 3, 2016
Guest Writer: Brandon Morrison
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Nope, I don’t mean Christmas (though I wish you and yours a belatedly merry one). I also don’t mean New Years (ditto for that one too). I mean that it’s time for the biggest professional wrestling show on the planet, not named Wrestlemania. On Monday, January 4th 2016, New Japan Pro Wrestling will present their annual Tokyo Dome Show: the 10th Wrestle Kingdom. At this event the main event will be, for the third time in the last four years, an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match featuring Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. And truth be told, this is probably the biggest wrestling match that any promotion will put on at any point this year. This will be the 8th match in their rivalry, which spans from February of 2012 to today, and in preparation for this final confrontation between the two top performers in NJPW, Greg McNeish and I, Brandon Morrison, would like to take you on a retrospective look at the previous seven matches between the two, see where we’ve been, and try to extrapolate where this latest entry in the series might take us.
When it comes to what makes any rivalry the biggest of it’s generation, there is one defining quality that sets it apart. Whether it’s Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock, Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes or any number of other great rivalries that you could look back on, they all share a similar trait. The story of their rivalries are told in the ring, in their matches. But the true story of their rivalries are told between the lines of those matches, soaked deep in the story of the characters. The wrestling is the form of art that these performers use to tell their stories, but the drama and theater of their stories comes from the characterizations that they lay out for the audience. And nobody, ever, has done a more immaculate job of making every moment count to create dynamic and multi-faceted characters that carry new and distinct goals, hopes, and dreams to each match, than Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada. Every time they meet there has been growth and regression on both sides, the very goals they bring to winning each mach have changed, and there’s always a greater aura to each time they come together. It is a depth of character and story that we aren’t accustomed to, either in wrestling or in entertainment in general, so it’s understandable that it has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. As we look back at each step in the journey to January 4, 2016, hopefully it will become apparent just how deep and rich the landscape Tanahashi and Okada have built, truly is.
The first match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada came on February 12, 2012 in Osaka at the New Beginning. Tanahashi came into this match as the unrivaled Ace of the Universe; not just in NJPW, but in all of professional wrestling. He wasn’t just the reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion, he was the most dominant champion in NJPW history. He had just broken the record for defenses in a title reign, with his 11th at Wrestle Kingdom 6 against Minoru Suzuki and had ruled NJPW for over 400 days. And this absolute brat, Okada, was challenging him for an IWGP Title shot after having one of the most nondescript matches on the Wrestle Kingdom card against YOSHI-HASHI? This was going to be the easiest title defense of Tanahashi’s reign, and he treated it as such. Tanahashi was playing air guitar, putting on a show for the crowd, and had not a care in the world for the bum across the ring from him. But this match echoed the iconic fight at the end of the movie Rocky, between Rocky and Apollo Creed, where at the end of the first round Creed’s cornerman said the following: “He doesn’t know this is a damn show. He thinks it’s a damn fight. Now knock this bum out so we can go home.”
The only problem for Tanahashi was that Okada had duped him. Okada came into this match with the specific goal of catching Tanahashi with his pants down and taking advantage of the opportunity. The way the light switch flipped, and Okada went from looking uncomfortable and undeserving to completely cocky and self-assured is still jarring, to this day. Every warning sign that this kid is going to change the world is on display here, and if it had been any other wrestler on the other end of it Okada would have blown them right out of the water. But the Ace of the Universe, even wholly unprepared, is able to stay in the fight for longer than anyone else would be able to, but the young prodigy felled him and took the IWGP Heavyweight title.
The next four months tell parallel stories for Tanahashi and Okada, leading up to their match at Dominion on June 16, 2012. Okada needed to prove that he wasn’t a fluke. Dominant wins over Hirooki Goto and Tetsuya Naito were a first step on that road, but neither man was a true main eventer or star. Okada needed a real scalp to prove that he didn’t just get lucky in February, and he would get that opportunity when Tanahashi challenged for the IWGP Title. For Tanahashi, his honor was at stake. He did not come into The New Beginning prepared and did not respect his opponent, and he got burned for it. The months that followed were a journey of redemption that led back to Okada, and the opportunity to prove that when he is at the top of his game he is still the Ace of the Universe and the best wrestler on the planet.
When we get to Dominion, there is an almost complete flipping of the script from when Tanahashi and Okada first met. Okada comes into this match feeling like he’s taken Tanahashi’s best shot already and he’s feeling it. He is going to come in here, blow out Tanahashi and END the Ace of the Universe…and he absolutely is not prepared for the desperation on the other side of the ring. There’s no showmanship, there’s no air guitar or any of the games. Tanahashi simply HAS to have this match and that is his only goal for being here. His pride and honor will not allow him to lose and he spends almost a half hour blowing Kazuchika Okada out of every cannon he can get his hands on to try and win. That it takes Tanahashi nearly a half hour and three distinct finishing stretches to finally put Okada away is a credit to the unnatural skills and growth rate of Okada. He has no business staying in the fight with a completely fired up Tanahashi, and any other man that had been in that ring on that night would have wilted in short order. And though Okada eventually fell to Tanahashi, it was plainly obvious that it was only a matter of time before they’d cross paths again, with the IWGP Title on the line.
The third match between Tanahashi and Okada comes at Wrestle Kingdom 7 in Tokyo Dome, on January 4, 2013. In the 6 and a half months between meetings, the biggest change between the two comes in the form of Kazuchika Okada once again shocking everyone, this time by winning the 22nd G1 Climax. With that victory, Okada was guaranteed the right to challenge the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. And Okada wanted to cash that opportunity in at the Tokyo Dome on January 4th, which was a major divergence from tradition as the G1 Winner was usually the first challenger for the championship. Through the fall, both men successfully defended the title and the challenge rights, until they were locked in to meet at Wrestle Kingdom.
What makes the air of this match so much different than the first two, is that this is the very first time you ever see Kazuchika Okada’s confidence shaken. When Tanahashi comes to the ring, skipping and posing with the J-Rock band BREAKERZ, and even refusing Okada’s attempt for a staredown and choosing to go pose on the the turnbuckle instead Okada was rattled. Tanahashi was absolutely back in his element as the champion at the Tokyo Dome, and Okada was visibly questioning if the moment was too big for him, for the very first time. But because he is an absolute prodigy, Okada shakes that off quickly and proves that he is on (or at least very close to) Tanahashi’s level. This is the first time these two have met as something approaching equals, and because of that this is the first match that they’ve wrestled that feels like it fits into Tanahashi’s basic formula of matches. In that way there were no surprises that it was a back and forth match with both guys having the better of the action, but as the match dragged on Tanahashi’s opponent had exactly one opportunity to win the match. That was Okada’s last-gasp sneak attempt at a Rainmaker, that ended up countered into a Sling Blade. They wrestled another 3 minutes but it was already over at that point, as Tanahashi-formula matches tend to be.
The first three matches in their series had such an interesting growth and development to them: The New Beginning match was all about Okada catching Tanahashi with his pants down, and striking before he could react. The Dominion match was akin to John Cena vs. Brock Lensar at Summerslam 2014. You will never see a more dominating blowout in a NJPW main event, with Tanahashi dominating the action, and yet it still took three finishing stretches to fell Okada. At no point did Okada feel like he was going to win, but it took Tanahashi absolutely dropping a mountain on Okada to finish him off. The match at Wrestle Kingdom was the most balanced match as both men had their chances at winning. Not only did Tanahashi have to drop a mountain on Okada to win, but he found out that Okada was rapidly approaching becoming a true equal that could actually beat him. That certainly seemed to be the arc of the story, and we were going to take a break, let both men grow and develop some more, and then see where they’re at. But then the script changed and Okada won the 2013 New Japan Cup, and the right to challenge Tanahashi again for the IWGP Heavyweight Title, at Invasion Attack on April 7, 2013.
The tone of this match is nothing like the previous three, even though we’re only 4 months removed from Tokyo Dome. For most of 2012, Okada’s confidence was a false bravado totally born of youthful indiscretion. The way he pulled himself up by the bootstraps after his loss to Tanahashi to win the New Japan Cup bore a true confidence in Okada. He had spent the previous year telling himself that he belonged on this level, and now he actually believes it. Okada knows he can be, and should be, the Ace of New Japan and the only obstacle in his way to accomplishing that goal is Hiroshi Tanahashi. So he will remove that obstacle himself. And with Tanahashi just re-establishing himself as the top guy in NJPW, the stage was set for this match to not be a wrestling match, but a battle of wills. From Tanahashi stealing Okada’s poses, to Okada reenacting his victory pose from their first match with his foot triumphantly on Tanahashi’s chest as he does his Rainmaker Pose, every big bomb they drop, every counter to a counter to a counter. Every movement the two of them make isn’t about winning a wrestling match, it’s about dominating the opponent and breaking their will. That’s why Tanahashi’s offense mostly consists of trying to render Okada’s Rainmaker arm useless, to the extent that he would strike Okada’s arm during forearm strike exchanges, until he could force Okada to crumple in pain. All of that, of course, leads to Tanahashi being the first person to ever kick out of the Rainmaker, which was earned by the amount of effort the put in laying that foundation. The big difference in this match is that where other Tanahashi opponents, and Okada himself, would have wilted previously, Okada found that deep reserve of fighting spirit. He found what he needed to, in his soul, to match Tanahashi and then exceed him. In terms of Japanese culture, he ascended to a higher level of being because the strength of his opponent forced it out of him, and then he conquered his foe.
The next three months were defined by a changing landscape. Okada was consolidating his hold on the IWGP Heavyweight Title in defenses against top challengers like Minoru Suzuki and Togi Makabe, while Tanahashi was being dragged through the muck as he took the very first visits to the Bullet Club. Even through varying tribulations (Tanahashi losing to Prince Devitt at Dominion, while Okada beat Devitt at Kizuna Road), the deck was reshuffled at the 23rd G1 Climax, when Tanahashi and Okada were drawn into the same block with their match scheduled for the penultimate day of the tournament. With both men holding to form as favorites in the tournament, they came into their match on August 10, 2013 with the winner having the inside track to winning the block. The lead-up to this 5th match is special in the series because this was the very first time that Okada seems more in control of himself and the moment than Tanahashi. Okada comes out all business, because he wants to defend his G1 Climax title and he knows to do that he’s just got to beat Tanahashi. And he just proved at Invasion Attack that he can do that, so he’s nothing but confident. Tanahashi, meanwhile, is a shell of himself. He is acting like Hiroshi Tanahashi; the Ace of the Universe, but it’s all a facade. And it shows as this is the first time in their series that Okada takes the middle of the ring on the ringing of the bell, with Tanahashi being left to circle him and close the distance. The change in dynamic carries right into the match because Okada has an answer for EVERYTHING Tanahashi throws at him in the early portion of the match. And not only does he have the answer for Tanahashi, but any time he gets the smallest opening, he blows right through Tanahashi. Tanahashi has lost matches before but it has been a very long time since anyone had dominated him. The match doesn’t turn until Tanahashi gets so desperate for a hole that once he sees that opening on Okada’s leg, he tries to amputate it, with one sequence being defined by Tanahashi stomping Okada’s leg 18 consecutive times, having referee Red Shoes Unno have to tear him away from Okada, and almost getting the crowd to turn on him. When Okada decided that he was just going to power up and blow through all of Tanahashi’s work on his leg, he was so much better than Tanahashi that Tanahashi’s only hope was to throw away any desire to win the match, and simply survive to the 30 minute time limit, which he was able to do, by maybe 30 seconds. It was an amazing display of storytelling, even if the match itself was less inspiring than earlier efforts, because this was the match that openly changed the script that Tanahashi was no longer the measuring stick of the rivalry. It had changed that Okada’s standing at the top of the company was now the starting point of where their rivalry was defined by.
That shift carried through to their rematch at King of Pro-Wrestling on October 14, 2013. With this match being for the IWGP Heavyweight Title, it would also decide the existential question of whether or not Tanahashi is the SOLE Ace of NJPW, or if Okada has closed that gap completely and is on that level. And everything the two of them do together is soaked in that dynamic. Tanahashi is absolutely rattled, whether it’s the way he physically carries himself, the fact that at the bell he comes out for a running dropkick and chases a quick pinfall before he and Okada finally have a standoff, or the way that Tanahashi not only threw out his moral compass but sold his soul to remain the Ace. No point in the match defines this more than when he did a leapfrog over Okada from the second rope and tweaked his knee. Okada wants to go after him because he smells blood but Red Shoes makes him give Tanahashi space. Tanahashi uses the opportunity to get a nearfall on a roll up and then hits a running dropkick, before getting up and spitefully air guitarring and then smashing the guitar. Tanahashi came into this match knowing that he couldn’t control Okada anymore and this was the first time Tanahashi has been that vulnerable in nearly half a decade. In order to hold onto his position, he was willing to sell his soul, sully his pride and honor, pay any price necessary (including declaring he’d never challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Title again, if he lost) to win the match.
And that dynamic turns this into one of the most mournful wrestling matches ever, because Tanahashi sold himself out, and it meant nothing because Okada had found his perfect form. Tanahashi could play dirty, he could focus his entire offense on stopping Okada’s Rainmaker arm, he could hit Okada with a Rainmaker or multiple High Fly Flows, but it didn’t matter. Okada was simply going to walk through all of it and win the match. And that played out in one of the most beautiful, subtle sequences ever seen in a wrestling match. After Tanahashi’s last gasp, which ended with Okada getting the knees up to counter the final High Fly Flow, Red Shoes went about checking on both men. As he’s with Tanahashi, Okada makes it to his knees, looks up at Red Shoes and physically waves him aside as he gets up to send the match into it’s finishing stretch. It is poignant, and again mournful, to watch Tanahashi go down this path and sink to these depths, and it all be for naught. The final sequence amplifies this, with Tanahashi running the gamut of counters for the Rainmaker – Dragon Suplex, Sling Blade, and backslide attempts – before Okada locks Tanahashi’s arm off of the backslide and puts him down with a Rainmaker. Tanahashi spent the entire match staring at the gallows, and that was the moment the guillotine finally crashed down. Not just on this match, but on Tanahashi’s time as The Ace.
The story of Okada and Tanahashi’s existences after KOPW 2013, as they always seem to with these two, ran in parallel: Both men spent the next year trying to prove themselves once again. Okada needing to prove that he should be the man carrying NJPW, as he and Tetsuya Naito lost their Wrestle Kingdom 8 main event spot to Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura due to a fan vote, in an absolute travesty. No matter what Okada did, he was still looking up at the shadow of Tanahashi, and then he got railroaded by the debuting AJ Styles who beat him for the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Okada was able to salvage his year when he beat Nakamura to win the 24th G1 Climax, but his redemption wouldn’t come until he could win the title in the Tokyo Dome. Tanahashi’s tale was also about proving himself, in his case proving that the Ace of the Universe is not dead and gone. Tanahashi lost himself trying to hold Okada off and by the time he lost at KOPW 2013, he was a shell of what he had been. And Tanahashi didn’t even hit rock bottom until after he beat Nakamura to win the Intercontinental Title, which Tanahashi valiantly tried to claim was as important as the IWGP Heavyweight Title to lie to himself that he was still important. Tanahashi didn’t start to find his spirit and honor again until he took another trip to the Bullet Club, to face AJ Styles, who he defeated to win the IWGP Heavyweight Title back from.
That set the stage for their 7th encounter, on January 4, 2015, at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom. What is amazing about these two is that when you think they’ve shown every trick of the trade possible to grow and expand their characters, they find a new way to surprise you. That was on full display from the very first moment of Okada’s music starting and his big screen changed to racing up a mountain path to an enormous golden gate that opened itself to show Okada’s name graphic. They couldn’t have been less subtle about the intention that Okada’s journey has brought him to this match to declare himself as the Ace of NJPW. Then Tanahashi’s screen starts at the Tokyo Dome and then launching into the stars and beyond to the ends of the universe. Because he is the Ace of the Universe. And Okada is the Next Ace. And they are both Aces at the same time and place, and they are going to fight as Aces, and possibly Gods. As such, they don’t even pretend to partake in parlor tricks, there is no staredown, no attempt to psych the other person out. They already know that none of those tricks will work because both men have attained their perfect forms as wrestlers at the same time, and the only thing to do is beat the other person until they can’t answer the bell. Which they did, in a 30 minute match that feels more like a sprint than any match in their series. There wasn’t an economy of motion, like their other matches, but there was still no wasted motion either. They just set a pace that was going to break one of them, and they wrestled until that happened, and it happened that Okada was the one that had his heart broken this time. Tanahashi then sears that hurt onto Okada’s soul by absolutely throwing his victory in Okada’s face, as Okada mournfully cries at his loss. The only thing that display guaranteed was that Okada would find his way back to Tanahashi…in time, they would meet again.
And that time is now as Okada and Tanahashi have taken quite the journey back to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10. Both men hit real lulls coming out of last year’s Wrestle Kingdom. In a basic trope of Japanese culture, your perfect form is not sustainable. You can maintain it for only so long, but eventually you will crash from it and be vulnerable for a period of time. And so it was for both Tanahashi and Okada. Tanahashi lost the IWGP Heavyweight Title in his next defense against AJ Styles and then spent the rest of the first half of 2015 unable to decisively beat Toru Yano. Okada, by contrast, was targeted by Bullet Club’s Bad Luck Fale, and spent the first 4 months of the year in a rivalry with him. Okada shook his funk first, and won the IWGP Title back from AJ Styles at Dominion on July 5th. Tanahashi didn’t come out of the other side until the 25th G1 Climax, which he was able to win in the finals over Shinsuke Nakamura, to lock up his spot in the Wrestle Kingdom Main Event.
As is the case with every other match, this one has it’s own distinctive vibe with it’s own expectations attached to it. This time, when Okada and Tanahashi come together it won’t be as a rookie vs. the Ace. It won’t be as men trying to prove themselves. It won’t be as equals and it won’t be about defending their positions as The Ace of NJPW or even about the IWGP Heavyweight Title. The only thing that matters this time is conquering the other person, maybe once and for all. They’ve wrestled seven times and the series is tied 3 wins and 3 losses apiece, with a draw mixed in. The person that wins this match, isn’t just the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and he isn’t just THE Ace of NJPW. The winner of this match is the champion of Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, and that is more important than any other accolade you could put in front of them. This match is going to be their “Thrilla in Manilla”, the iconic third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, that they described as being as close to death as they ever came in their lives.
That’s why this match matters, and why this series matters, more than any other in wrestling. This is why Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi are, unarguably, the greatest pairing of opponents in wrestling history. They have infused NJPW and the wrestling world with their aura so completely, that they will have wrestled 8 times in almost 4 calendar years (and only twice in the last 26 months), and the atmosphere is so encompassing that people feel like they have wrestled each other much more often. But unlike many other pairings, where the matches in their series find a familiar pattern and stick with it, Okada and Tanahashi never fail to be sickeningly ambitious in their storytelling. They never cut corners, they take chances that mere mortals could only wish to take, and they paint a deep and robust portrait with each masterpiece they put together. If you only count the number of matches they’ve had you are doing yourself a disservice in missing out on a true master class on how to be the best in the world at your craft, because you are dismissing two of the very best wrestlers in the world near or at the height of their power telling one of the most powerful coming-of-age stories in wrestling history. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for: To be told great stories. And there is no greater story in wrestling than Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada. Neither Greg, nor I, can wait for January 4th to get here, and we hope that after reading this retrospective, you’ll share our unabashed enthusiasm.
– Brandon Morrison is the chief of staff of Greg McNeish, who co-hosts New Japan review podcasts with Wrestleview.com’s Jason Namako on Radioinfluence.com.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @BMorrison1016