Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada
Number One Contender’s Match
Kobe World Hall, Kobe, Japan
(reviewed 09/23/2018) If it wasn’t clear by the way I’ve been reviewing these Tanahashi/Okada matches lately, it was all in anticipation of this match. Last month my friend Quentin Moody suggested that the members of our oft-referenced Slack chat watched all their matches in order, one per day, in advance of this battle for Tanahashi’s G1 briefcase, referring to such a group endeavor as our “book club”. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea but thought it’d be a good way to revisit a bunch of well-received matches I hadn’t seen in years, so I dutifully watched them all and uploaded each review day by day. It’s been a rewarding experience on some level even if I haven’t loved all these matches, but it’s also left me very, very tired. Usually I don’t review matches that regularly, relying on short bursts over time to get me by, and more than that these matches are long, weighty affairs with one guy who has grown into one of the more exhausting wrestlers in the world today. It’s been a lot to take in. The matches I reviewed two weeks ago, ten days ago feel simultaneously so far away but also so familiar. I guess it’s fitting, then, considering what this match is like.
This is their second-best match to me. I don’t think anything can ever really compare to the Invasion Attack match but this one gets relatively close. Like with WK10, this one feels like coming full circle. It’s an escalation and conclusion of themes we saw at Dontaku and twice during the G1 in Tanahashi’s matches with Okada and Ibushi, but more than anything this is a return to form for the ace. You might call it How Tana Got His Groove Back.
The match doesn’t start well for Tanahashi. Okada clocks him during the familiar early rope break and he likewise starts cranking on his leg, a reflection of a strategy that worked well for Okada last time and foreshadows what’s to come here. Before long Tanahashi finds his feet and starts going after the kid’s legs himself but when he takes a chance on a house show dive he comes down hard on his knee. It halts the match for a few minutes and during that time Okada remembers how much the briefest bit of legwork slowed Tanahashi down last month as well as the bitter sting of defeat by draw. Once things get back underway he immediately keys in on the veteran’s injury with the fiercest and most focused approach we’ve seen from him in ages. He’s not so indestructible as he was back in May but he’s ten years Tanahashi’s junior and not working on a bad wheel, on top of being more than willing to play dirty to get ahead. In a lot of ways this feels like the Okada of 2012/2013, this antagonistic young shithead who’s so rough around the edges but capable enough in certain ways to bowl through people. When he’s forced to fight through an injury of his own, his pained efforts feel more like desperation than stupidity. Like how he needed a win back at Invasion Attack to cement his place among New Japan’s best, he needs a win here to get back on top of the mountain and that calls for hurting yourself to hurt somebody else more. A desperate need will drive a man to desperate measures, especially one who’s already gone over the edge.
Tanahashi, though, stays the course. He’s devastated by Okada’s legwork but he make a pair of smart decisions, stemming from veteran experience: he bets on his toughness to carry him through and he keeps plugging away at Okada’s leg. Tanahashi’s resiliency was always a big theme of his title reigns and the first half of this feud, but as he approached and then passed over the age of 40 that became less and less of an option. Somehow, miraculously, he was able to tap into that well again during this G1, fighting through a career’s worth of accumulated agony to win the tournament for a third time. When Okada applies a new, dirty trick to a scarily effective degree, Tanahashi doesn’t panic. He can’t afford to panic. Instead he follows the game plan and fights fire with fire. When he can he also goes after Okada’s neck, a strategy that’s paid off well for other people over the last year or so. More often than not these ideas cost him something in return, as Tanahashi comes down hard on his back to connect with a dragon screw neckwhip, or on his knees with a Tombstone. This culminates with the first High Fly Flow he manages to land, a huge shot that he can’t capitalize on due to crashing down onto his legs so hard.
But he survives, because that’s what he does. Even when Okada blocks the High Fly Flow or manages to hit the Rainmaker, Tanahashi survives it because he’s tough, because for twenty years he’s had to do everything to prove he’s tough in spite of his long hair and his pretty boy looks and his distinctly non-NJPW style. But more than his toughness or his tenacity or his charisma or even his age, I love Tanahashi because he’s a guy who learns from his matches. It doesn’t always pay off, because intelligence can’t trump everything in this world, but it means that he’ll never fail for long. In this match Okada focuses too much on what brought him success back at WK10 or in the G1, this idea that a bit of innovation can take you a long way. He’s right on some level but he fails to look at the bigger picture. He forgets the lessons of his two year title reign and all of Tanahashi’s losses against him, that staying tough and sticking to what you know is sometimes exactly what you need. That’s what Tanahashi does here. He realizes that staying the course is what it took when this desperate, crazed Okada came gunning for him again. He realizes that even if his body’s breaking down to a greater and greater degree, he’s on such a roll right now that he can’t slow down without coming to a stop. He’s gotta power through. Even when he can’t leap over the ropes like he used to, he crawls underneath to climb back up and crash down onto the canvas. It’s all he’s ever known. In a lot of ways it’s all that’s ever worked.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: When I think about how much something like how Tanahashi climbs the ropes for those final High Fly Flows makes me feel and I compare it to that gif I linked of Shawn doing the same thing, this isn’t even close.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25