Match of the Year Candidates: Tanahashi vs. Okada

Wrestle Kingdom 9 was one hell of a show back on January 4th. It’s the show that finally got me into the New Japan product, and introduced me to some of my favorite wrestlers. It also had two potential Match of the Years. You know it’s going to be a good year for wrestling when people are talking about Match of the Year four days into the year.

I talked about Nakamura vs. Ibushi last time from WK9. This time it’s the main event, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP title.

The Players
Hiroshi Tanahashi: If you compare Tanahashi to anyone in WWE, it would easily be John Cena. Like Cena, Tanahashi has been on the top of the company for several years. Like Cena, he’s slowly being pushed aside for a new wave of wrestlers. And like Cena, he has his fair share of resentment built towards him, though it is nowhere near the levels of hate that Cena gets. Tanahashi is still considered the Ace of New Japan, and is still very popular with most audiences. It helps that he is also a great wrestler. His favorite moves are the Slingblade, which is sort of a modified running neckbreaker, and the High Fly Flow, a frog splash that he will usually hit several times a match, in all manner of positions and variations. Tanahashi has held the IWGP belt more times then anyone, as has more title defenses then anyone.

Kazuchika Okada: Okada is almost a picture perfect wrestler. If there was one New Japan guy who could come into WWE tomorrow and main event, it’s Okada. After a quiet debut and some time in TNA, Okada returned to New Japan as “The Rainmaker”, full of cockiness and arrogance and riches, even going so far as to join CHAOS, a group of popular heels. Since then, he has won the IWGP title twice, and twice won the G1 Climax tournament. His favorite moves are Heavy Rain, an Attitude Adjustment style suplex, and the Rainmaker Clothesline, a short-armed clothesline that, to this point, no one has kicked out of.

The Story
Ever since Okada debuted as “The Rainmaker”, him and Tanahashi have been fighting over the IWGP title. Each of Okada’s title wins has come from beating Tanahashi. For his second title reign, Okada held the belt for almost a year, defeating several contenders, including Tanahashi. For his part, Tanahashi said that if he was unable to beat Okada, he would not challenge him again. This opened up a spot for a new challenger, American wrestler AJ Styles. Styles beat Okada for the belt, meaning Tanahashi could challenge for the title again. Which he did, and eventually won the belt back. Meanwhile, Okada won the G1 Climax, a 22 man round robin tournament, beating his fellow CHAOS member Shinsuke Nakamura in the finals. This essentially set Okada as the number 1 contender leading to another match with Tanahashi, then one at the biggest show of the year.

An important quality of their story has been respect. Tanahashi has been on top of New Japan for years, and Okada desperately wants his spot. Even when Okada was IWGP champion, he was often overshadowed by Tanahashi, including Tanahashi main eventing Wrestle Kingdom 8 instead of Okada. Furthermore, it was Tanahashi who was able to beat AJ Styles for the belt, not Okada. Okada has to prove to himself that he is better then Tanahashi, almost as much as he wants the IWGP title.

The Match
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi (champion) vs. Kazuchika Okada.

Like the last match I reviewed from Wrestle Kingdom 9, the first time I watched this was with the English commentary of Jim Ross and Matt Striker. And while they do a fine job, this time I’ll be watching with the Japanese commentary to get a better feel for the energy and to stay focused on the match. It opens with a video package that I can’t understand a word of. Fortunately, you don’t have to understand the words to get the picture. Also, Okada wears a suit very well.

Okada comes out with a full Rainmaker entrance, with gold lights falling and flashing behind him, money falling from the ceiling, and wearing a ridiculously over-the-top cloak. The whole thing is extremely freaking cool, and does a better job showing off his character then any summary I could write. Tanahashi comes out with an elaborate background video and flames, air-guitaring his way to the ring, but still comes off as low-key after Okada’s entrance.

The crowd loudly chants for Okada as the two start, tentatively exchanging grapples and headlocks. They grapple against the ropes, each trying to get in a better position. Okada feigns a clean break when they hit the turnbuckle, and instead elbows Tanahashi in the face. Tanahashi is pissed, responding with a flying elbow, and the two go back and forth with elbow strikes, Tanahashi getting the upperhand with an uppercut. Tanahashi goes to the top rope, and Okada uppercuts him off, sending Tanahashi to the floor. Once out there, Okada hits Tanahashi with a guardrail assisted DDT (I can almost hear Michael Cole screaming “Shades of Randy Orton!”), and tries to Tombstone Piledrive him on the entrance ramp. He can’t get Tanahashi over though, and Tanahashi rushes him, only for Okada to lift him on for Heavy Rain on the ramp! Okada throws Tanahashi’s limp body back into the ring and eventually traps him with Deep in Debt, a crossface submission.

Tanahashi reaches the ropes to escape the crossface, and Okada does an Eddie Guerrero style senton from the ring apron for a 2 count. He casually kicks and slaps Tanahashi as Tanahashi tries to fight back. The two exchange hard elbows, taunting each other, until Tanahashi catches a kick and elbows Okada’s knee. Okada lifts Tanahashi onto his shoulders for Heavy Rain, but Tanahashi counters into a Slingblade! The two make their way to the top turnbuckle, Okada trying to lift Tanahashi up for another Heavy Rain, but Tanahashi knocks him off and goes for High Fly Flow. Okada moves and attacks with a running European Uppercut. Okada hits a neckbreacker over his knee, but it only gets a two count.

A diving elbow drop from the top rope from Okada, and he taunts a fallen Tanahashi with the Rainmaker pose, arms held wide while the camera pans out as far as possible. He goes for the Rainmaker Clothesline, but Tanahashi counters into a rollup, then hits Okada with a dragon screw leg whip, twisting Okada’s knee. Tanahashi targets the knee with kicks and a dropkick, leaving Okada to roll outside the ring, barely able to stand. Another dropkick to the knee sends a running Okada into the crowd, and Tanahashi climbs to the top rope. Tanahashi flies off the top turnbuckle with High Fly Flow to a standing Okada on the floor! Tanahashi throws Okada back in the ring, and rolls through another High Fly Flow attempt as Okada moves out of the way. Okada goes for the Rainmaker, but Tanahashi counters it again, this time into a Slingblade. Tanahashi up top, and hits hits another High Fly Flow, but Okada catches him and rolls through, lifting Tanahashi into a Tombstone Piledriver. But Tanahashi counters, and hits Okada with a Tombstone of his own! Tanahashi hits high Fly Flow to the back of Okada, and then does it again. Okada kicks out at two, barely.

Tanahashi pulls Okada to his feet, and hits another Slingblade, then mocks Okada with a Rainamker pose. Tanahashi goes for the Rainmaker, but Okada counters into the Rainmaker of his own! Tanahashi kicks out and Okada is in disbelief!. They exchange elbow strikes, falling over each other in exhaustion, Okada attempting the Tombstone again, but Tanahashi counters into a rollup, then dropkicks Okada’s knee. Okada tries another Rainmaker, and Tanahashi counters again, throwing Okada over his head with a Straighjacket Suplex. Okada counters another suplex and hits a German Suplex. He goes for the Rainmaker again, and again it’s countered into another suplex. Okada hits a picture perfect dropkick, and desperately tries the Rainmaker, and Tanahashi reverses it into a Dragon Screw, twisting Okada’s knee. He traps Okada’s leg in the ring ropes, and hits another Dragon Screw. High Fly Flow with Okada’s knee trapped in the ropes! Another Dragon Scew to a downed Okada, and another High Fly Flow. Tanahashi climbs to the top rope one more time, and hits one more High Fly Flow, and finally scores the three count.

Winner: Hiroshi Tanahashi

After the match, OKada is helped out of the arena by his manager. He is openly crying, collapsing on the floor in tears at being unable to win while Tanahashi air-guitars in the background.

The story of this match was Okada being unable to do what he wanted, as Tanahashi was ready for everything Okada could throw at him. He countered the Rainmaker Clotheline several times, and when Okada finally did hit him with the move, Tanahashi did the unthinkable and kicked out. Okada wasn’t able to use the Tombstone Piledriver, and wasn’t able to his specialty submission move Red Ink. Instead, he went repeatably back to the Rainmaker, and Tanahashi was ready with a different counter nearly every time. The move that had been Okada’s calling card was rendered useless by Tanahashi, who was able to hit his own signature moves nearly at will. Okada was dismantled in this match, both physically and emotionally, and would have a long road to get back on his feet.

On first viewing, I liked this match more then the previous MOTY candidate, and I think that it all comes down to Okada. He’s just so good at what he does that he immediately becomes someone you can understand. You coul practically see the desperation in his face as he tried again and again to hit his Rainmaker Clotheline. After rewatching the two matches though, I think I like the Intercontinental match better. This match was still very very good though, especially the ending. I love how Tanahashi attacked Okada’s leg with multiple dropkicks and dragon screws, and how it led to the finish with Okada’s leg being trapped in the ropes. There were just a few times in the match that weren’t excellent, so I’m ranking this one behind the other match with ****1/2.

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