Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Tokyo Dome, Tokyo, Japan
(reviewed 12/31/2016) Well, here goes nothing. They kick things off with some chaining and striking, each man trading the advantage until Tanahashi begins to target the champ’s leg. Okada fumbles in making a comeback, feeling the effects of the legwork, but it doesn’t stop him from hitting a one-legged springboard dropkick (with the worked leg, mind you) to send Tanahashi off the apron and to the floor. The leg continues to not bother him as he lays into his usual offense both in and out of the ring, focusing mainly on Tanahashi’s perennially-injured back and neck until Tanahashi turns the tide again. The ace employs a dragon screw legwhip between the turnbuckles, which is an interesting bit of environmental work I don’t think I’ve ever seen, and follows it up with a neat-in-theory apron slingblade and High Fly Flow to the floor. Okada takes his sweet time getting back in the ring afterward in fairly ham-fisted, dramatic fashion, only to receive another High Fly Flow, this time to his legs. Painting with broad strokes, Okada’s selling is fairly solid, especially as he has Red Shoes help him when his leg is caught up in the ropes. He awkwardly scrambles into the Air Raid Crash onto the knee spot to even things up at one point, injuring his knee in the process, which is always a sort of spot I’m mixed on and doesn’t feel good here (because Okada isn’t really portrayed as a dumb character, so him just “forgetting” about his injured leg feels silly, and it’s not like he was in danger of getting pinned immediately so needing to hit the move out of desperation also rings hollow). He follows it up with no less than three running dropkicks, a goddamned springboard dropkick, and a top-rope elbow drop onto the leg without an inkling of ill effects, so that’s fun. Tanahashi avoids the Tombstone and does so more clever legwork, and when Okada tries to hit his big dropkick to cut him off, Tanahashi catches him and slaps on a pretty good cloverleaf for a big spot. A miscommunication ends with a pretty nasty-sounding slingblade, but Okada avoids the subsequent High Fly Flow in what actually feels like a big moment, mostly due to how hard Tanahashi eats it on the way down. Okada connects with the Tombstone and the Rainmaker, and Tanahashi kicks out which, I think, is the first time the move was kicked out of cleanly? If not, it’s only the second time or so, and while it’s not as big as it should be, it’s a sufficiently big spot. Okada continues with a High Fly Flow (not selling his leg after landing on it, for you keeping score at home), and Tanahashi likewise steals the Rainmaker for a double down that pleases the people. Some more reversals back and forth lead to a pair of High Fly Flows from Tanahashi for a nearfall. Okada’s facials afterwards are pretty goofy, but I like ‘em. Another HFF attempt is reversed into a dropkick, and for once this sort of spot looks pretty good. Tanahashi, feeling it now, sells it real big and scrambles to avoid a German suplex, slapping the young man down before eating a pretty lackluster dropkick to the face. A big floaty German from Okada leads to another Rainmaker attempt, but Tanahashi again slaps his way free. However, Okada retains his grip on the man’s wrist and it gives him just enough leverage to yank the man right back in for the lariat, which is really a pretty cool spot in theory but the execution is too over the top. There’s a big zoom in on it, with Red Shoes pointing and the commentary team oohing and aahing. In more of a subtle, natural setting, I’d really love that spot, and, to be fair, even in this overblown fashion I think it’s pretty neat, but it’s simply another example of these big NJPW matches being built to feel huge and glamorous and coming across empty and disingenuous in doing so. Even when they create something real and compelling, it has to be excessive and dramatic, squeezing out every ounce of reality in it. In the end, keeping hold of Tanahashi’s wrist allows Okada to pull him in for two more half-Rainmakers, finishing him off with a full-sized one for the win, finally defeating his generational rival at the Tokyo Dome. Without the saccharine pageantry of the wrist lock and the deeply annoying on-again off-again leg selling from Okada, this is actually a match I like a lot. Not MOTY level by any means, but a very good match with neat spots and some good ideas. But because this is NJPW and the Tokyo Dome and everything has to be huge and harped on, and because Okada is one of countless wrestlers today who have a binary concept of selling, this ends up being a match I like that is deeply, systemically flawed.