Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo, Japan
(reviewed 09/18/2018) This is a cool match for how it seems to resolve this story while leaving ideas to explore in the coming years. I’m not sure if this was necessarily meant to be their final meeting, what with Tanahashi putting it all on the line (depending on your sources he vowed that if he lost here he’d either A. never challenge Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship again, B. never challenge him again during this reign, or C. never challenge for the belt again period), but in any case this match does well to set up Okada’s downfall in 2014, embarrassment in 2015, and eventual triumph in 2016.
Coming into this match the score over the last two years is 2-2-1. Six matches in just under two years is a lot and there was a lot to the idea that this match would have some kind of definitive closure. One thing I love about how this match comes together is that these two stopped meeting in tag matches on smaller shows after Invasion Attack, with the 30 minute draw in the G1 being the only time these two have locked horns since then. That feels like an important note here, as Okada is completely unprepared for what the challenger brings to the table. Tanahashi uncharacteristically tries to come out the gate guns blazing, running at the champ with a dropkick at the bell, and while Okada’s able to avoid it he’s not ready when the ace immediately slows things down and begins grinding out a headlock. It frustrates the most confident young man in the world, to the point that when he exasperatedly goes for one of his big early counters in the corner dropkick, Tanahashi’s able to effortlessly boot him away and leap over him. When he does that, though, he comes down on his leg weird and immediately collapses, writhing in pain. Ignoring the referee’s pleas, Okada tries to keep the match going but Tanahashi can’t even stand up. As we take another look at the spot in slow motion, Tanahashi apparently grabs a small package to get Okada off his feet before connecting with a dropkick to the knee. Tanahashi leaps up afterward, no worse for wear after all, and it draws a level of booing from the crowd that the man’s not heard in years. Nonplussed, he strums away on his air guitar and tosses it to his audience before going back to work.
A lot has been said over the years about how Tanahashi wrestled this match like a challenger, not an ace, and that’s why it’s so great. For me he’s still wrestling like the ace of the company, as his ideas here aren’t born of desperation but rather determination. He’s continuing to learn from his mistakes—as well as Okada’s—and he’s adamant in his application of fully-formed strategies. Back in April the arm work wasn’t enough to take Okada down, so over the summer he combined it with more of his leg work. That wasn’t enough to beat him during regulation time, so here he tries it again when he’s got more room to work with. His main focus is returning to the man’s arm, being sure to use effective holds in a way he didn’t back at Invasion Attack, but he’s also careful to be occasionally plugging away at Okada’s legs too, both as a distraction technique as well as to put money in the bank in case he finds himself on the wrong end of a pair of knees. Along the way he’s utilizing all sorts of dirty tricks and general meanness, thinking that if Okada’s shitty attitude has gotten him so far over the last 22 months then maybe there’s something to it. A lot of this, right down to specific sequences and uncommon moves, is ripped right from the G1 draw but it’s done in a far, far better way and manages to make ideas from that dud of a match feel like a natural escalation of this feud.
Where this match falls off for me, unsurprisingly, is on the champion’s end. I’ll start with some compliments, I guess. Okada’s selling is waaaaaaay better here than it was in the G1. In general I think the guy is so much better at working with/around arm pain than something as debilitating as a leg injury. While it’s better here than at the G1, it doesn’t reach the levels of the Invasion Attack match since Okada once again has lost the fire that has done so well for him at various points over the years. It’ll pop up here from time to time but it doesn’t feel ardent enough to make this truly great the way that April match is truly great. On top of that he’s still just doing the same old shit that he was doing two years ago, sort of limply going after the old man’s neck, doing less here to it than he basically ever has before. Despite all that he still wins in the end, without really capitalizing on Tanahashi’s mistakes and without applying a thorough game plan. I realize there’s value in the idea of a young guy muscling through a feud on the sheer power of youth, especially since Okada’s inability to change is eventually gonna cost him big time against AJ and in his next match against Tanahashi, but it feels like a real shallow way to approach this feud’s sort-of-half-conclusion.
That doesn’t make this anywhere near bad, of course. Tanahashi’s half of the match is really incredible, being one of his best career performances. Okada isn’t outright bad either, so even if this feels like a one man show it’s not exactly a carryjob. But in the context of this feud it feels like a step down, both as a continuation of Invasion Attack and as a pin in a story that basically stops for the next 14 months. So much of this feud has been about Tanahashi learning to reckon with the next generation and finding that even his best, most innovative efforts aren’t always enough and Okada coming to learn what it takes to combat way more experienced opponents once they wise up to his shtick, so when the latter lacks the fire or the strategy to overcome his elders in a compelling way it sort of leaves me cold in the end when I’m meant to see this as the crowning of a new age.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: As a wrestling match, Shawn/Taker isn’t meant to signify quite as much as this Okada/Tanahashi match, I think. Sure, it’s two of WWE’s most respected guys essentially fighting to call the biggest show of the year their show, but to me that’s not nearly as meaningful as an era-defining generational feud. Even then, Shawn/Taker carries with it this self-importance that is far too top heavy to ever hold up to scrutiny. I think this match suffers because one man doesn’t put in the work to make it feel bigger (which, God, is such a weird complaint coming from me), but in the end I think it’s mostly evened out by Tanahashi’s stellar performance.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25