5-Star Match Reviews: Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi VIII - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 (2016)

5-Star Match Reviews: Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi VIII - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 (2016)

Of all the Tanahashi-Okada matches that have taken place, this is widely regarded as their best. Many people have called it the perfect wrestling main-event match and a prime example of why the ‘Meltzer gave this X stars because Tokyo Dome’ cliché exists. Not only was it considered a perfect wrestling match, but the readers of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter voted it the 2016 Match of the Year. Yes, it was considered so good that nothing over the following 361 days was able to top it.

Clearly, if a match had that much praise, then it must be fantastic, right? Let’s find out.

Today we look back at the eighth singles match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and ‘Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada from Wrestle Kingdom 10. Check out Tanahashi/Okada 1 here and then Tanahashi/Okada 2 here. You can read about Tanahashi/Okada 3 right here and then Tanahashi/Okada 4 was posted last year. Meanwhile, Tanahashi vs. Okada 5 was posted recently, and here’s Tanahashi vs. Okada 6 as well. The Okada/Tanahashi match from Wrestle Kingdom 9 was the 7th match and it’s posted here.

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

One year earlier, Okada failed to beat Tanahashi on the biggest stage in New Japan, Wrestle Kingdom. He came so close but still lost to Hiroshi Tanahashi. Okada was so dejected that he left the arena in tears. But despite suffering that embarrassing loss, Okada was determined to find a way back into the Tokyo Dome main event one way or another.

He didn’t have to wait too long, because Tanahashi lost the IWGP Heavyweight Championship back to AJ Styles one month after Wrestle Kingdom 9. New Japan did this because they wanted Okada as champion but didn’t want him facing Tanahashi once again and so soon. Styles’ reign was short, as Okada beat him in June 2015 to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the third time. By recapturing the gold, the roles were now reversed. Okada was the champion going into WK and Tanahashi had to be the challenger. And despite the wear-and-tear on his body catching up with him, Tanahashi still managed to win the 2015 G1 Climax (which included an amazing finals match against Shinsuke Nakamura that I reviewed here).

Thus, the stage was set for yet another huge encounter between Tanahashi and Okada. But this time, Tanahashi was challenging for the title that Okada held. Okada had proven he could carry the brand as champion, but he still needed this big win to prove he was now the new ace.

The match

This is for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The bell rings and the crowd are already making tons of noise. They lock up and Okada gets a clean break on the ropes. He pats Tanahashi mockingly and ducks a quick right hand and lands a forearm smash. They lock up again and once more Okada ducks a forearm and knocks Tanahashi down. On the third attempt, Okada gets a knee lift and grabs an arm, then ducks another forearm. But this time Tanahashi ducks Okada and then drops him on the return. After a standoff, they trash talk each other and Tanahashi slaps Okada, who answers with a barrage of forearms. Tanahashi counters a whip into a corner but Okada bounces back with a big boot. Okada goes straight to work on Tanahashi’s neck with a cravate to soften him up for the Rainmaker. Tanahashi quickly grapples out into an armlock and rolls Okada over for a one-count and then some chain grappling leads to a neck scissor for Tanahashi.

Tanahashi counters a headlock into a hammerlock on Okada, and then applies his own deep headlock and refuses to release it as Okada tries to send him off the ropes. Okada counters back into his own headlock, but Tanahashi counters that with a knee breaker and then clips Okada’s leg. Tanahashi spends the next few minutes working over Okada’s leg and then goes for a Figure-4, but Okada kicks him away. Okada charges into the corner but he has so little power in his step that he looks like he barely touches Tanahashi. He tries again in another corner but gets elbowed for his efforts. Tanahashi lands a corner crossbody, but Okada counters and rolls over. He goes for the Tombstone, but Tanahashi escapes and lands on the apron. Tanahashi goes to throw Okada into the corner, Okada counters with a dropkick out of nowhere. Tanahashi falls to the floor and Okada gets precious time to recover.

Okada whips Tanahashi into the barricade then boots him over it, having recovered some of his leg strength. Actually, he seems to have recovered all of it because he drills Tanahashi with a running crossbody splash over the guardrail. Wow, that looked great. Back in the ring, Okada lands a senton atomico for two and then applies a chinlock to further weaken Tanahashi’s neck. Tanahashi fights out and charges into a corner, and Okada counters and places him on the top turnbuckle for his dropkick, but Tanahashi kicks Okada first. Tanahashi goes for his second-rope senton but Okada rolls out of the way.

Okada lands a corner elbow and a DDT, then kips up to show how he has recovered. He lands a running uppercut for two and then applies a double-arm stretch to again work over his opponent’s neck. Tanahashi fights out again but also gets shut down with elbows to the neck again. Okada charges, Tanahashi sees him running and goes for the dropkick to the knee, but Okada dodges. He learned his lesson from their past matches. He goes for a standing senton, but Tanahashi rolls out of the way. Tanahashi charges, and walks into a flapjack. Wait, no, Tanahashi blocks it but gets whipped into the corner anyway. But then he charges out. Dropkick to Okada’s weakened leg. He lands that move after all.

Tanahashi starts making a comeback and shuts down an Okada boot with a dragon screw leg whip. Okada rolls out of the ring and Tanahashi goes to the top rope. Okada cuts him off before he can fly like he always does. Okada tries to lift Tanahashi up for some big move, but Tanahashi fights out and counters. Dragon screw leg whip between the corner and the ring post. Followed by another one through the ropes. Tanahashi’s still not done. Slingblade on the apron. Frog Splash from the top turnbuckle to the floor. Tanahashi is a madman!

Okada makes it back into the ring at the count of 19 of 20 and eats a second rope splash to his legs from Tanahashi. Tanahashi goes for the Texas cloverleaf but Okada resists with all his might and reaches the ropes. Tanahashi continues his assault on Okada’s leg with stomps and kicks. Tanahashi charges into the corner. Okada counters and goes for the reverse neckbreaker. Tanahashi counters that into a sunset flip. Okada jackknife rolls over and hoists Tanahashi up. Reverse neckbreaker connects. Okada does major damage to Tanahashi’s neck while damaging his own leg in the process. That’s how badly he wants to win.

Both men get up and start brawling in the middle of the ring. The crowd chants along as they trade hard forearm smashes back-and-forth. Tanahashi lands an uppercut and charges but runs into a dropkick. Followed by three basement dropkicks to the face for a two-count. Okada balances himself on the top rope. Springboard shotgun dropkick. Tanahashi kicks out. Diving elbow drop. Rainmaker pose. Rainmak—no, Tanahashi ducks and charges, only to walk into a Tombstone. Wait, no, Tanahashi counters into a victory roll. Okada kicks out. Okada goes for a boot, Tanahashi blocks and dropkicks the other leg. Another dragon screw leg whip on Okada’s bad leg. Tanahashi charges for the slingblade. Okada sees him coming and goes for a dropkick. Tanahashi blocks that and lands yet another dragon screw. Texas Cloverleaf! Okada has nowhere to go as he screams out in pain. He looks like he’s going to tap out at any second. Then somehow, somehow, Okada musters enough strength to crawl to the ropes.

Tanahashi goes for a slingblade, Okada counters and goes for a fireman’s carry, but Tanahashi counters that into a standing twisting neckbreaker. Slingblade connects. High Fly Flow! Okada dodges and goes for a Tombstone. Tanahashi counters into another twisting neckbreaker. Okada holds on. Tombstone Piledriver. Rainmaker lariat connects! One, two, th—no, Tanahashi kicks out. Okada can’t believe it. High Fly Flow by Okada. He steals Tanahashi’s finisher…only for Tanahashi to kick out. A second Rainmaker—no, Tanahashi counters into his own. Tanahashi steals Okada’s finisher and lands a Rainmaker! Both men collapse. The crowd is going absolutely nuts.

Okada tries to maintain control but Tanahashi kicks his knee from a grounded position. Okada powers through and goes for another Tombstone. Tanahashi escapes and goes for an elbow, but Okada counters him. Rainmake—no, Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. Bridging dragon suplex. Okada kicks out. High Fly Flow to the back. Tanahashi fires up. a second High Fly Flow. It’s over. The referee counts one, two, thr—NO, Okada kicks out! Okada’s still in this. People are jumping out of their seats for these guys.

Tanahashi goes back to the top rope and taunts Okada to get up. Tanahashi flies through the air for another High Fly Flow…but Okada dropkicks him in midair. Okada sinks his boots deep into Tanahashi’s abdomen. Tanahashi squirms around the ring in immense pain. Okada goes for a German suplex. Tanahashi fights out with elbows and then bitchslaps Okada. He charges…but runs into a perfect standing dropkick from Okada. Rainmaker, no, Tanahashi ducks and charges. Okada counters into a German suplex. Rainmak—no, Tanahashi slaps him down before Okada can swing his arm. But Okada maintains wrist control. He refuses to release Tanahashi’s arm. Rainmaker lariat connects. That’s followed by another one. And then a third one! Three Rainmakers in a row by Okada. One, two, three! Okada wins. He is now the ace of New Japan!

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 36:01: Kazuchika Okada

Review

Once again, Tanahashi and Okada tore the house down with an epic main-event. This match was just awesome. You could just tell that this was special. The match oozed this sense of legitimacy, tension and history. And boy did they ever deliver once again. This match, like most of their previous encounters, was one of the best in New Japan history. That said, this was not a 5-star, perfect match, and was nowhere near as good as their two best matches from Invasion Attack and KOPW.

Let’s start with what made this match so awesome. First, the actual wrestling and counter-wrestling was fantastic. Their formula worked wonders once again. Okada targeted Tanahashi’’s head from the very beginning and spent a long time softening it for all his big moves later on. And to keep things fresh, he abandoned some stuff he had used in earlier matches (like the Deep In Debt chinlock that went on forever) and relied more on throwing bombs to weaken the nearly-indestructible Tanahashi.

And speaking of Tanahashi, he was his usual awesome self with his constant reversals, intense offense and bottomless well of endurance and determination. When people, me included, describe him as a cross between Eddy Guerrero and John Cena, this is the match that exemplifies that description. In this match, he combined Eddy’s technical wizardry, understanding of wrestling psychology and incredible technique with John Cena’s intensity, conditioning, charisma, and ability to control a crowd. Seriously, no one in New Japan can get the crowd to make noise like Tanahashi can.

Speaking of the crowd, they were way louder than any of the previous Tanahashi-Okada matches. They were absolutely rabid here. They screamed and cheered more like an American crowd, which created an even crazier big fight atmosphere. And during the biggest near-falls, they absolutely lost their s**t. They screamed as Okada kicked out of Tanahashi’s double HFF sequence. It was like something out of 1990s All Japan when the crowds were at their wildest. Their emotional investment made a major difference and helped make this match feel like the biggest fight of the year.

Both Tanahashi and Okada went far further in their quest to make this into a more personal story when they stole each other’s finishers. Tanahashi had stolen Okada’s Rainmaker before, but this was the first time Okada landed Tanahashi’s frog splash on him. It showed that both guys were as desperate as ever, considering stealing one’s opponent’s finisher rarely happens in New Japan. That was critical here because it made this match feel more like a new chapter in their feud instead of a repetition.

And of course, there was the story of ‘maintaining wrist control’, which has since become a critical piece of big Okada matches. Okada had failed to win in his previous big match with Tanahashi because Tanahashi was able to escape Okada’s control and had a counter for pretty much every move he made. This time, Okada came in with a subtle but important strategy: he wouldn’t let go of his opponent’s wrist no matter what. Having wrist control was integral to Okada landing the Rainmaker and landing it more than once if necessary. That was crucial here. Once he had Tanahashi in his crosshairs and maintained wrist control, it became much harder for Tanahashi to do his typical counters, reversals and escapes.

The closing sequence, with all those reversals and counters, was once again amazing. It was next-to-impossible to predict what would happen, how something would be countered, and whether either Tanahashi or Okada would kick out. And the best part was, at this point into their rivalry, it was more likely than ever that neither wrestler’s main finisher – the Rainmaker and the High Fly Flow – would be kicked out of. That’s one of the marks of a great pro wrestling match. Both wrestlers here did a marvelous job of creating real false finishes out of each Rainmaker and HFF that connected. The audience believed any one of those moves would end the match; but Okada and Tanahashi kicked out of them several times. Those true near-falls made this match amazing, but at the same time weakened it as well.

Both Tanahashi and Okada have basically conditioned viewers to know that the match would only end via Rainmaker or HFF. There was no way any other move would be anything less than a near-fall, and even though Tanahashi loved to work over Okada’s legs, Okada had never tapped out to Tanahashi’s Texas Cloverleaf and wasn’t going to break that trend here. So in that sense there was no reason to believe in the near-fall sequences because they weren’t true near-falls. They were just moves done to ‘exhaust’ either guy, which makes some sense but also comes at the expense of believability and tension.

I can’t help but compare this match to some of the All Japan classics from the 1990s because many of those were masterclass contests that still stand head and shoulders above most modern matches. More often than not, the best of those AJPW matches were the ones where you couldn’t see the finish coming. Each wrestler had weakened their opponent so badly that any move could lead to a pinfall. And the best part was that most of those guys had more than two moves that could potentially lead to a pinfall. Because of that, the overwhelming majority of false finishes in the closing stretches of those matches were believable because the audience had been conditioned to believe that multiple moves signaled the end of the match.

In this match, it was the opposite, despite Tanahashi’s and Okada’s best efforts. Neither man had gone to any length to convince the audience that the match could end via Tombstone Piledriver, dragon suplex, slingblade, German suplex, or anything else. It was Rainmaker or HFF, that’s it. And while both guys here did a phenomenal job in setting up those moves, it also limited the avenues they could take to win, which made the match more predictable and therefore less exciting.

And once again, there was something Okada did that weakened the match overall: he sold Tanahashi’s legwork inconsistently. He sold his knee like its ligaments were torn to shreds, and then minutes later he landed a running crossbody at full sprint. Doing so made Tanahashi’s leg attacks mean nothing; and while in some matches that issue of his was hardly noticeable, it was very obvious here. I mean, it’s always cool to see a pro wrestler do something that shouldn’t be possible. But just ‘getting your moves in’ at the expense of psychology and selling your opponent’s offense is the wrong approach to making yourself look good.

Both guys put so much emphasis on those big reversals and kick counters, especially the dragon screw leg whips that Tanahashi loves to spam. Unfortunately, those big moves didn’t have as much of an impact on the match as they would’ve if Okada actually slowed down, sold better, and didn’t respond with leg-based offense soon after taking such damage to his knees.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This might as well have been two entirely different matches. Most of the stuff before Tanahashi’s dive from the top was a bit slow and not particularly deep, while everything afterwards was off-the-charts amazing. It really did live up to the hype as one of the best matches to ever take place in the Tokyo Dome, but it still fell short of the standard Tanahashi and Okada set for themselves. They wrestled a spectacular match in front of a rabid crowd that hung on to every move they did. Unfortunately, the match just wasn’t as exciting as some of their earlier matches together. Add to it some inconsistent selling and a lack of believability in their near-falls and you’re left with a match that ends up in the shadow of its predecessors.

This is still a match that’s definitely worth watching, especially if you’ve invested a lot of time and emotion into this storied rivalry. But I have to be honest here. A lot of hype around this particular match is overblown. Just because a match happens in the Tokyo Dome does not automatically elevate it to legendary status. There have been many matches that have taken place in smaller venues – including some featuring Tanahashi and Okada in singles competition – that have featured better wrestling.

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