5-Star (7-Star?) Match Reviews: Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada IV - NJPW Dominion 2018, by Alex Podgorski

5-Star (7-Star?) Match Reviews: Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada IV - NJPW Dominion 2018, by Alex Podgorski

So I hear this Okada kid is pretty good.

He’s so good that, apparently, he and Kenny Omega had the best match of all time. Yes, according to the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, this match is THE single greatest professional wrestling match of all time. It’s better than any match involving Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Kurt Angle, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, AJ Styles, Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, Terry Funk, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Jushin Liger, or any other legendary star in the sport of professional wrestling. It was said to have been so mind-numbingly awesome that Meltzer went far higher than any rating in history for this match. When all was said and done, this match was rated ******* (seven) stars out of five. By comparison, the second-highest-ever rating he gave to a match was ******1/4 (6.25) stars, which also went to an Okada/Omega match. The Wrestling Observer website posted Meltzer’s full review of the match right here for free. The match was also reviewed by TJRWrestling’s John Canton, who rated it five stars out of five.

Clearly, Meltzer thinks incredibly highly of these two wrestlers. Or maybe, he got caught up in the incredible atmosphere of the match and it hypnotized him so much that he had to do something to tell the world that these two particular wrestlers were better than anyone and everyone to ever lace up a pair of boots.

Today we revisit this famous classic to see if it really is as awesome as the claims suggest. It’s the fourth and final singles matches between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega from Dominion 2018.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

This is the culmination of a two-year story for Kenny Omega. In August 2016, he became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win NJPW’s annual G1 Climax tournament. That win led to a title match at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in 2017, which Omega lost. That match was rated six stars by the Observer, only the third match to ever get that sort of rating. Six months later, Okada and Omega fought to a 60-minute draw and that match was said to be even better than their WK11 match (personally, I disagree with that notion). And two months after that, Omega defeated Okada in a non-title singles match during the 2017 G1 Climax tournament to advance to the finals. Thus the series between Okada and Omega was 1-1-1. And in NJPW, whenever the champion lost a singles match, that loss basically guaranteed a title shot to whoever beat them.

But Omega didn’t get his shot right away as he was preoccupied with other problems. Between August 2017 and June 2018, Omega had to deal with problems closer to home. Infighting in his Bullet Club stable took up a lot of his time, as did the sudden appearance of one Chris Jericho. Then he found himself torn between his Elite buddies the Young Bucks and his longtime friend Kota Ibushi, and that rivalry took up most of the first half of Omega’s 2018.

Meanwhile, Okada spent the same period breaking even more records. He had already broken Shinya Hashimoto’s record for longest single reign, and sought to surpass Hiroshi Tanahashi’s record for most successful defenses during a single reign, with eleven. After Okada beat Tanahashi at Wrestling Dontaku 2018 and made his twelfth successful defense, Okada knew there was only one person left to challenge. He had some unfinished business with Omega since they had a draw the prior June and Omega’s win was ‘tainted’ since Okada wasn’t at 100% going into it. Omega accepted the challenge but had his own parameters to add. He wanted a two-out-of-three-falls match with no time limit, and Okada accepted those terms.

Thus, the stage was set for the deciding match between Okada and Omega. Omega wanted to prove that beating Okada in the prior year’s G1 wasn’t a fluke, and that he had what it takes to be world champion. But Okada was definitely going to be a major challenge for him. If he managed to beat Omega a second time, he would have thirteen successful defenses and eventually pass Kenta Kobashi’s record 735-day reign as the longest and most successful in Japanese history.

Needless to say, this was going to be a monumental encounter.

The match

This match took place on June 9, 2018 in Osaka, Japan.

This is for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. They lock up and start a chain grappling sequence that ends in a stalemate and the crowd cheers both guys equally. They grapple some more and Okada begins working Omega’s neck with a front chancery and cravate. Omega wrestles into an armlock and gets a quick roll-up for two. Some more chain grappling follows and Okada targets Omega’s leg. They mock each other with chest slaps in the corner as the five-minute mark passes.

Omega charges for a corner V-Trigger but Okada dodges. Omega flips over Okada and charges but Okada catches him. Omega fights out and Irish whips Okada, Okada reverses and goes for a dropkick but Omega hangs onto the ropes and lands a basement dropkick to Okada’s knee. Omega follows up with a leapfrog bulldog, Okada dodges that and goes for the Rainmaker. Omega dodges that and goes for One-Winged Angel (OWA) but Okada fights out and both guys go over the rope and out of the ring.

They brawl ringside and Okada counters Omega and sends him back-first into the steel ring barricade. A running big boot sends Omega over the barricade and Okada gets a running start. He goes for a running crossbody…but Omega counters with a V-Trigger (1). He lands a huge knee strike to Okada’s stomach. Omega follows up by scoop slamming Okada onto a piece of barricade to further damage Okada’s back, then rolls him back into the ring for the first of what will be many two-counts.

Omega lands Danielson-style elbows to the collar for another two-count and then starts kicking Okada very hard in the shoulder blades. But instead of shouting, Okada taunts Omega and asks for more. Omega’s more than happy to oblige and finishes with a running dropkick to Okada’s head for a two-count as the ten-minute mark passes.

Omega chops Okada in the corner and lands a single-knee backbreaker for two, then applies a modified camel clutch to further stretch Okada’s back. Okada reaches for the ropes but Omega traps both arms. Okada reaches the ropes eventually and Omega shuts him down with hard chops to the chest. Omega charges but runs into a flapjack. Okada fights back, ducks Omega and lands a flying forearm, a corner elbow and a DDT for two. Okada applies a cobra clutch but Omega escapes by tossing Okada out of the ring. Omega goes for a plancha, Okada dodges and lands a springboard plancha of his own. Okada tosses Omega into the ring and goes for a top-rope dive but Omega charges so Okada rolls out. They block each other’s strikes and Omega lands a snap hurricanrana, followed by a running dropkick to the back of Okada’s head. Okada flies over the steel barricade. Then it’s Omega’s turn to fly. Springboard plancha. Omega gets amazing height and distance.

Back in the ring, Omega lands a Kotaro Crusher (leapfrog bulldog) for two. Aoi Shodou (Fisherman knee neckbreaker) by Omega. He charges for a V-Trigger. Okada sidesteps and goes for a German suplex. Omega lands on his feet. Okada blocks a V-Trigger. But can’t block a second one (2). Omega tries a poisoned Frankensteiner. Okada holds onto the ropes and lands a Bridging German suplex. Omega kicks out. Okada maintains waist control and goes for the Rainmaker but Omega escapes by pushing Okada into the corner. Okada fights out of a superplex as the twenty-minute mark passes.

Omega goes for a top-rope dragon suplex but Okada fights out and lands a Tombstone Piledriver on the apron. He follows up with a running dropkick that sends Omega off the apron to the barricade. On the replay it shows Omega landing hard kidney-first. Okada lands a hard forearm to the kidney and then lands a diving shotgun dropkick onto Omega for two. He follows with a scoop slam/diving elbow drop combo as Omega continues to scream out in pain. Rainmaker pose. Omega takes advantage with a snap dragon suplex. Omega charges. And flies through the air with a suicide dive.

 

Twenty-five minutes have passed as Omega tosses Okada back into the ring. Omega lands a diving dropkick to the back of Okada’s head for two and goes for a dragon suplex. Okada fights out but Omega cuts him off and goes for OWA. Okada escapes and goes for the Rainmaker. Omega hits first with a V-Trigger (3). Another OWA attempt. Okada fights out. Omega counters into Croyt’s Wrath (deadlift German suplex) and Okada kicks out again. V-Trigger (4). OWA…no, Okada escapes and lands a running dropkick. Followed by a gorgeous standing dropkick as well. Rainmaker lar—no, Omega ducks and counters into a Rain Trigger knee strike. Omega pins. Okada kicks out yet again. Double underhook piledr—no, Okada counters into a hurricanrana. Tombstone by Okada. Rainmak—no, Omega counters into a sunset flip. Wait, no, Okada reverses and cradles Omega. One, two, three! Okada gets the first fall!

Winner of the first fall after 28:47: Kazuchika Okada

After a two-minute rest period, the second fall begins.

The bell rings and they charge into each other. Omega lands hard forearm shots but Okada puts him on the top rope and dropkicks him out of the ring. Okada presses Omega’s neck against the barricade and then goes to whip him into it. But Omega puts the brakes on that, kicks Okada hard in the gut and goes for a quebrada, but Okada pushes him and Omega goes flying into another barricade. Draping DDT by Okada onto the ringside mats. Back in the ring, Okada tanks some weak shots but Omega starts hitting harder with chops. Omega charges but walks into a big boot. Cobra clutch by Okada. Omega escapes with a stunner. Omega charges, Okada tries to counter, but Omega counters Okada into a backdrop suplex. Followed by a second backdrop suplex onto the apron. Omega grabs a table, places it on Okada and diving stomps it. Omega sets up that table but Okada smashes him into the steel ringpost. In the ring, Okada lands a slam and goes for a senton but Omega gets his knees up. Omega goes for the ‘you can’t escape’ combo but Okada counters into a Heavy Rain/AA slam instead. shotgun dropkick by Okada, who then goes to the top corner. Omega cuts him off and lands an avalanche fisherman suplex.

Okada counters an Irish whip but Omega counters him and lands the ‘you can’t escape’ rolling fireman’s carry slam. He goes for the moonsault but Okada gets his knees up and lands a running uppercut. Okada points to the table and tries to back body drop Omega onto it. but Omega escapes and lands a running DDT. Omega goes to German suplex Okada off the apron but Okada holds onto the top rope. Just like in that Kurt Angle/Shawn Michaels match from WrestleMania 21. Okada keeps resisting. Omega switches to attempt a dragon suplex. Okada still fights out. Omega tries the OWA. Okada escapes and tries the Rainmaker. Omega counters into a poisoned Frankensteiner on the ringside mats. Omega gets into the ring first and the ref starts counting. Okada’s crawling around in random directions at the count of twelve. He barely makes it at the count of nineteen. And when he does, Omega drills him with a V-Trigger knee (5). OWA, countered into a Tombstone. Rainmaker, no, it’s countered into an uranage. Amazing counter.

Both men get up slowly and start trading strikes again. Snap dragon suplex by Omega. Dropkick by Okada. Omega reverses an Irish whip and lands a big dropkick of his own. Both men charge and Omega catches Okada with a Ligerbomb. Followed by a V-Trigger (6). Omega goes for the double-underhook piledriver again. Okada powers out. Omega goes for the sunset flip, but Okada cradles him like before with the first fall. Omega desperately kicks out and lands a V-Trigger (7). Double-underhook piledriver connects. Okada kicks out of a pin.  Another V-Trigger knee strike (8). One-Winged Angel! Omega gets the three-count! The score is tied up!

Winner of the second fall after 47:47: Kenny Omega

Another two minute break occurs and the third and deciding fall begins.

Okada starts getting up slowly as the bell rings for the third fall. Omega dashes towards Okada and lands another V-Trigger (9) to the head. Omega goes for OWA again, no, Okada counters. Rainmaker lariat connects. Both men go down, but Omega leaves Okada with a parting shot by kicking him in the head as he flipped from the Rainmaker. Okada crawls over for a pin. Omega kicks out of the Rainmaker.

Okada goes for a Tombstone but Omega blocks it and tries his own Tombstone but Okada blocks that. Both men struggle to stay on their feet and land sluggish strikes. Okada lands some uppercuts and whips Omega for the dropkick but Omega collapses against the ropes. Omega goes for a powerbomb but Okada resists, so Omega lands brutal palm strikes to Okada’s neck. Omega tries again, Okada answers with punches, but Omega counters into the Styles Clash. Omega rolls over for the pin. Okada kicks out. V-Trigger (10) to the back of Okada’s head. OWA, no, Omega collapses, unable to hold Okada up. Omega tries again, Okada counters into a Tombstone, No, Omega counters that into a wheelbarrow piledriver. Another pin and another kickout for Okada.

Omega talks to his second Kota Ibushi for a second and then ascends the top turnbuckle. Phoenix Splash by Omega. That’s Ibushi’s signature move. But Okada rolls out of the way. Okada dropkicks Omega hard. Tombstone, no, it’s countered into a V-Trigger (11). Followed by another one (12). And another (13). Then yet anoth—no, Okada catches Omega’s leg. Standing dropkick. Omega blocks a Tombstone. Okada lands another dropkick. Rainmaker connects. But OKADA collapses from exhaustion. Omega remains standing and then collapses shortly afterwards.

Both men are on their knees trading clubbing blows, barely connecting from sheer exhaustion. Omega resorts to head-butts. Rainmaker lariat out of nowhere! Okada maintains wrist control. Another Rainmaker. Okada collapses. Okada goes for a third Rainmaker. Omega ducks and lands a German suplex. Both men collapse again with Omega maintain the waistlock.  The crowd is now overwhelmingly behind Omega. Another German suplex connects. Okada counters the third one with a German suplex of his own. But he can’t get the bridge because Omega has a shoulder up. Okada goes for the Rainmaker again but Omega counters and connects with his third German suplex. Okada fights out of a waistlock with elbows. Omega answers with another poisoned Frankensteiner.

Omega uses the referee to get himself up and charges, but walks into a dropkick from Okada. Okada goes for another Rainmaker, but Omega counters into an OWA. Omega collapses and can’t pin. And Okada’s right on the ropes so it wouldn’t count anyway.

The crowd erupts in ‘Kenny’ chants as Omega powers up and lands yet another V-Trigger knee strike (14). Omega picks Okada up onto his shoulders. It’s over. One-Winged Angel!

One, two, three! That’s it! Omega wins the third fall, the match, and the title! Okada’s reign ends at 721 days!

Winner and NEW IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 1:04:50: Kenny Omega

 

Review

First and foremost, this is NOT the greatest professional wrestling match of all time. Not even close. I wouldn’t even call it the best match in NJPW history (THIS is), or even the best match of the Okada-Omega series (that honor goes to their first match). In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the WORST match of their rivalry, for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the elephant in the room: the gargantuan length of the match. Unlike their 60-minute draw, which got more tense and dramatic over time, this one felt slow and plodding at various points. By the time they were halfway through the match, the contest veered into that typical ‘sprint-recover’ pattern that got worse over time. Both guys spent a ton of time recovering and lying down, which seemed to stretch the match out instead of adding any real drama.

I understand that doing so was necessary, for them to sell their exhaustion and the accumulation of damage both guys received. But that only works well when those long ‘rest segments’ are accompanied by the action both slowing down and building up to key peaks, which didn’t happen here. Instead of there being a linear progression to the end, this match went ‘peak-valley, peak-valley’ over and over, like a rollercoaster. And while that’s great sometimes, it works best when there’s a single, final crescendo to build towards that’s better than all the rest. And unfortunately, this match’s crescendo occurred during the second fall, as both wrestlers had basically used everything they had by that point, leaving little in the way of higher excitement for the actual finish.

Secondly, both wrestlers’ performances were a bit disappointing here. Yes, I use the word ‘performance’ here because that’s how it came across: as an athletic performance instead of as a combat sport contest. Sure they had their share of trike exchange segments. But at no point did I get the feeling that this was a genuine grudge match, which is what it was built up to be.

Okada was a bit mechanical in what he did and showed much less spontaneity or adaptability than I expected. He did a few new things in this match like the sudden cradle and the top-rope suplex counter into the apron Tombstone. But by and large, Okada didn’t bring anything new to the table outside of his typical flashes of greatness in his drawn-out reversal sequences. For a match of this magnitude and for a rivalry this deep, I was expecting Okada to really bring out something special like he had in his rivalry with Tetsuya Naito. For that feud, Okada began using a cobra clutch because it was specifically needed to counter Naito’s offensive comeback. Here, Okada did his usual stuff and countered Omega more or less in the exact same ways as he had in their previous encounters. So in that sense, if you’ve seen earlier Omega-Okada matches, there isn’t much that’s particularly new from Okada in this match.

As for Omega, he did great but by no means was he amazing or worthy of being called the best wrestler in the world. He was a bit more subdued in his wackiness and tried to stay serious in this match, but he still showcased some of his worse habits. One minute he was selling damage to his back and kidneys as if he couldn’t even breathe, and the next he was charging with his V-Trigger spam like this was a video game match. Stuff like that just makes it hard to take him seriously as a hero (because he was the hero in this match people were meant to cheer for).

Sure, he and Okada wrestling for over an hour was a monumental display of athleticism and physical conditioning. But the actual psychological framework of the match was pretty much non-existent. Omega’s selling was spottier than Okada’s, and as much as I love to praise Okada for being legit one of the best wrestlers still active, I’ve noticed a pattern in his matches whereby he doesn’t sell his opponent’s offense consistently in many matches. But Omega seemed to drift into greater extremes once again. He never really slowed down his pace and maintained the same tendency for sudden bursts of speed during the closing minutes of the third fall as he did during the peak of the first fall. With Omega, I can’t help but compare his performance here to his 2016 G1 match with Naito because in that latter match Omega’s selling and adaptability was off the charts good. He fought like a pro wrestler in that one; whereas here, he never really showed he was trying to overcome any major pain, outside of that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kidney/ribs selling off the barricade smash.

And once again, Omega demonstrated a tendency for something that I personally despise: the thigh-slapping gimmick. I know it has been in the news recently with WWE, and personally I fully understand and support WWE’s decision to ban it. Everyone seems to do it to the point that it’s overdone. But Omega is particularly guilty of performing in a way that exposes and fortifies the phoniness of this gimmick. Not only did he land fourteen V-Trigger knees to Okada, completely devaluing that as a credible finisher, but he was seen slapping his thigh on numerous slow-motion replays. He wasn’t even trying to conceal it and relied on that gimmick too much to get a mild reaction at best out of the crowd. Realism is important to me when I’m watching a wrestling match. Even though pro wrestling is clearly scripted and wrestlers cooperate with each other, I think those that go the extra mile to make it realistic should be praised, and those that do the opposite – like Kenny Omega here – shouldn’t be.

That isn’t to say this match didn’t have anything great; far from it. The first fall was amazing, especially since Okada won not with a signature move or a finisher, but with a random counter pin. That was the best thing he could’ve possibly done because it gave the remainder of the match some much-needed unpredictability. Had he not done so, there wouldn’t be any reason to invest into any of the later potential pin-falls because viewers had been conditioned to only care about the big signature moves.

And in terms of story, they really hit it out of the park here. The one thing modern NJPW matches showcase more than anyone else around today is counter sequences. Here, Omega and Okada did a phenomenal job of building up their counters and creating incredible tension when each move was teased and countered. You had no way of knowing what was going to happen. When Okada won with that sudden pin counter, it gave this match a new edge that helped take it into a different direction.

Okada was smart because he became more brutal after the first fall, since he could’ve won via count-out and left with the title. And they also brought in elements that called back to their previous matches, which in turn rewarded investment into the entire feud and not just this standalone match. I think making reference to previous encounters in a feud and then repeating and then modifying them are a fantastic way to make a feud deeper and more exciting. If you know something worked in the past, you try to copy it again, only for your opponent to anticipate that and adapt accordingly. This match was littered with such references, which made it pretty damn fun to watch.

But by far the best example of storytelling here was during the conclusion. Okada went for a Rainmaker and HE was the one that collapsed first, not Omega. That both reinforced how much tougher Omega had become and how drained Okada was after waging war with Omega in such a grueling performance.

And it was such a grueling performance for both wrestlers because they did an amazing job of focusing on each other’s head or neck almost exclusively. Most of both wrestlers’ big moves were done to set up for big neck-targeting moves, such as Okada’s Rainmaker lariat or Omega’s OWA. So both guys just threw bombs at each other to damage those body parts to the point that neither man could really survive a major finisher. That made perfect sense, especially since Okada proved earlier on that a pinfall could come from anything. So when you take those two elements – a genuine sense of unpredictability and a laser focus on a specific body part – and combine them you get a formula that leads to a genuinely exciting spectacle.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Was this a great match? Yes. Should you watch it? Sure. Is it an incredible display of toughness, determination, conditioning, brutality and tension? Absolutely.

Is it the greatest professional wrestling match of all time? Hell no.

If you like professional wrestling to be more about athleticism, physical conditioning and performance, this is the match for you. I get the feeling Meltzer lauded this match so much because it was such an incredible display of human endurance above all else. But this is New Japan Pro-Wrestling we’re talking about. And NJPW has long prided itself on being a promotion centered on wrestling as a combat sport. And that combat sport presentation requires a commitment to realism and authenticity that I didn’t find here. Athleticism and conditioning are all fine and good; but if those come at the expense of realism, then the match fails to reach that higher echelon of historic greatness.

And yet, for all its obvious flaws, this match had an awesome inner story about Omega’s will to win that made his victory incredibly satisfying. It was the perfect conclusion to a brutal two-year story that had built up carefully over three prior matches that were likewise praised for their athleticism.

These two wrestlers put on what is quite possibly the greatest display of athleticism in modern pro wrestling. I can’t imagine how exhausted they were or how much pain they were in once it was over. To wrestle for over an hour at a blistering pace is an incredible feat of endurance that I don’t think will be replicated by anyone anytime soon. So while I do genuinely think this is an awesome wrestling match that every wrestling fan should see at least once, I also think it’s simply outclassed by many others, including earlier matches in the Okada/Omega rivalry.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.