Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs Kazuchika Okada
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, Osaka, Japan
(reviewed 09/13/2018) I watched this last year on its fifth anniversary so I have a better memory of it than any of these other older Tana/Okada matches. Last year I recall being into just how restrained this match felt in comparison to the later bouts but now my appreciation is twofold. I appreciate A. how this brings a compelling end to Tanahashi’s record-breaking reign and B. how it started me on the long, winding road of falling in love with the guy.
In February 2012 I was a freshman in college. Due to the natural hustle and bustle of higher education, I watched less wrestling during college than at any point in my life before or since. Likewise it was a time in which my tastes changed a lot, both in and out of wrestling. One thing remained standard, though: I hated Hiroshi Tanahashi. I hated his dumb hair. I hated his weird body. I hated how he used this bizarre combination of mat wrestling and highflying. I didn’t exactly hate long title reigns or dominant top guys, but coming up in the days of people on forums screaming about Super Cena I was certainly fickle about such things and didn’t like what I saw from this particular run. It’s not like I thought he was keeping people down with this year-long reign or that there was a better alternative available, but I hated that it was so different from the New Japan I loved, the New Japan of Shinya Hashimoto and Kazuyuki Fujita and the like.
Then came Kazuchika Okada. To call him unassuming is almost an understatement. There seemed like no chance that he could win here. Tanahashi was well into his fifth reign with the IWGP belt, tying for second on the list of most reigns behind Tatsumi Fujinami’s six. With 11 defenses over 404 days, he’d beaten Yuji Nagata’s record for most successful defenses and was only a few months out from breaking Hashimoto’s record for longest single reign. He was far and away the most popular guy in the company. Who was Okada, this lanky dork with awful hair fresh from an utterly uneventful TNA run, to challenge Tanahashi? It was the easiest gimme defense imaginable.
Okada came prepared though. He came focused. He didn’t underestimate his opponent. Tanahashi dismisses his challenger early on and gets punked with a shoulderblock for his troubles. He slaps on a headlock instead of applying any of his usual opening strategies and fails to grind the guy down in any meaningful way. Before long Okada takes advantage with a clever reversal, sending the champion toppling off the top rope with a dropkick. He immediately keys in on Tanahashi’s neck, cranking it over the guard rail and applying these wacky holds from his lucharesu days. It doesn’t completely neutralize Tanahashi but it puts him back on his heels and forces him to pull out his tried-and-true methods. He cuts the challenger off with some slaps and elbows, utilizing a strike game that Okada (so far) has failed to match. Likewise he goes after the kid’s leg, though not to the degree that Okada can’t pull out a reversal at will, even ones that wind up hurting himself in the process. As if to punctuate that, a Tombstone piledriver out on the floor takes a lot out of Tanahashi and nearly ends this with a countout, though Okada’s hardly worse for wear by the time the champ drags himself back to the ring. Tanahashi fucks up in thinking that his little bit of leg work, started later in the match than usual, will be enough to stop a hungry 24 year old.
And really, that’s what I love about this match. I love that it puts the onus for losing on Tanahashi. Sure, Okada was far more prepared coming in and has this one kill move that no one’s going to kick out of for years (looks better here than at most any point after this too, in no small part due to being easily the most explosive thing Okada does all night), but if Tanahashi was more focused on what got him to five IWGP title reigns, 11 defenses, and 404 days then he’d probably be walking away with the gold around his waist. Watching this in 2012 I liked that it was a shock, that it was fresh, that it finally served Tanahashi the comeuppance I thought he somehow deserved. Here in 2018 I love that it paves the way for the part of Tanahashi’s career that won me over on the guy. It starts with the series of mistakes in this match. He’ll get the belt back before long, but soon after that he realizes his time on top of the mountain is drawing to a close and he’ll have to start taking drastic measures to remain relevant. Eventually his body will break down and it’ll be hard to watch him work, to the point that I practically write him off completely in June 2017. Then he’ll return with this unbelievable series of matches the year after and it’ll be like nothing else I’ve seen.
There’s this hype package before the match that details how we got here. It starts by revisiting Tanahashi’s 2011, in which he dominated the year as this charismatic, virtuous, exceptional champion, someone who very easily was the the promotion’s MVP.
Watching that video here I was sort of shocked by how charmed I was by it, in a way I know I wasn’t six years ago, and it’s because the subsequent six years of struggle endeared me to this guy in a way that nothing from the first half of his career ever had. It took watching a man slowly lose his place in the world and fight against that undeniable fate to make me love him, in the same way that it made me love some of my favorite wrestlers ever. We’re still a long way off from that with this one title change in early 2012 but this, the first step on that lengthy journey, is great in its own right.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: It’d be easy to poke some holes in this match, I think. Nothing in this match hits nearly so hard as the best stuff from Shawn/Taker, other than maybe the finish. Okada’s selling isn’t quite as hammy as it’d become years later but it’s still pretty goofy here. Likewise he almost goes out of his way to do moves onto his knee, which almost always annoys the hell out of me. You could argue that it very directly plays into the story of the match, with Okada winning despite his inexperience (read: stupidity) because Tanahashi didn’t do enough to stem the tide of youthful exuberance, but it still feels at least a little egregious to me.
Poking little holes in this match isn’t enough to drag it down below Shawn/Taker, though, because I think it succeeds in telling a similar story better than the two Texans could. Shawn/Taker is, in part, about two old men betting their legacies against each other. Tanahashi/Okada is the tragedy of a man who isn’t even all that old yet betting his legacy without looking at his cards. Two men suffer humiliating defeat in these matches, but one ends with me hating the loser as much as ever and the other ends with me opening up to him for the first time. Easy decision.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25