5-Star Match Reviews: Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 13 (2019), by Alex Podgorski

5-Star Match Reviews: Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 13 (2019), by Alex Podgorski

Those that follow the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer have asked him if he ever re-rates matches he’s seen and praised with his precious star-ratings. His response, by and large, has been no. But there have been a few exceptions. The match we’re looking at today was the first time of three that Meltzer changed a rating for a match. He adored this particular match so much that he initially rated it as being more than five stars out of five. But then, he said it was so good that he upgraded it even further beyond that. Clearly, Meltzer thinks this match is absolutely fantastic, that it’s a must-watch match that’s better than almost anything over the past thirty-plus years of professional wrestling.

But is it? That’s what we’re going to find out on this revisit.

Today we look at Kenny Omega’s last match (to date) for New Japan Pro-Wrestling: Omega’s championship defense against Hiroshi Tanahashi from Wrestle Kingdom 13.

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 a bit of a long and nuanced story, but it’s very important to set the tone for the match.

At Dominion 6.9, Omega defeated Kazuchika Okada to become IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Two months later, Hiroshi Tanahashi won the annual G1 Climax tournament, earning the right to challenge for said championship. And from there a bitter war of words began. In post-match interviews, promo segments, and on Twitter, Omega and Tanahashi tore into each other. And these weren’t just petty insults, but deep-cutting condemnations from both sides.

As Omega embarked on his heavyweight championship run, he derided Tanahashi as “a piece of shit playing a hero” and “an embarrassing old f**ker”. These insults were directed at Tanahashi because of his ‘structured’ wrestling style and that he represented a wrestling philosophy that, in Omega’s opinion, was outdated and irrelevant. Omega wanted to change the landscape of New Japan, and vowed to do so by being wrestling counterculture and doing things his way.

Meanwhile, Tanahashi denounced Omega’s wrestling style as lacking ‘Kishotenketsu’, a Japanese term for a dramatic framework that features an introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. Tanahashi saw Omega’s explosive style which emphasized memorable moments over story as being empty. At one point he said that he “feels nothing” when watching Omega wrestle and stated that only the last five minutes of any Omega match actually matter. These have been, and to some degree still are, very strong criticisms towards Omega as a pro wrestler.

Ironically, Tanahashi had once been the victim of the very criticisms he was now laying on Omega. When he was first ascending in New Japan, the fans outright rejected him à la John Cena circa 2006-2011. Tanahashi was this flashy, high-flying pretty boy whose emphasis on drama and theatrics was the antithesis of the ‘pure’ strong style on which Antonio Inoki had founded NJPW in the first place.

And it was Tanahashi that basically had to drag New Japan through the mud by his teeth during their dark period to bring it to where it is now. In essence, Tanahashi believes that there’s a right way and a wrong way to wrestle and be champion, and he based this on his position as (former) ace. Tanahashi wanted New Japan to remain successful and on the ‘right’ path he had set it on when he was on top, and saw Omega as the antithesis to that goal.

Tanahashi also wanted to end Omega’s reign because Omega’s style was starting to bleed into other wrestlers around him. Younger wrestlers like Tetsuya Naito, Will Ospreay, and Hiromu Takahashi were all following Omega’s example. Their matches began to center on spectacle and flashy high-spots, instead of doing things the Tanahashi way, in which those things were merely extras to be added on top of an already-dramatically-sound story as punctuation.

Of course, there was another personal reason for Omega to hate Tanahashi. Tanahashi won the 2018 G1 Climax by beating Kota Ibushi, one of Omega’s closest friends and someone with whom Omega has a deep and storied past in Japan. And in the months leading up to this Wrestle Kingdom match, Ibushi found himself stuck in the middle of the Tanahashi-Omega war. Tanahashi saw Ibushi as someone that could be the top guy, but wouldn’t be as long as he associated with, and wrestled like, Omega. This wasn’t just a personal barb aimed at Omega; Tanahashi referenced that lack of individual success as the reason the Golden Lovers split up in the first place.

Meanwhile, Omega saw his friend Ibushi as someone that could stand out on his own two feet and didn’t need to be pigeonholed into adopting someone else’s formula to succeed. This put Ibushi in a difficult position: he was torn between a man he saw as his closest friend (Omega) and a man he saw as his god (Tanahashi). Ultimately, he chose to follow neither man and forged his own path (in another delightful piece of subtle storytelling, Ibushi named his big knee strike finisher the ‘Kamigoye’, which roughly translates into English as ‘greater than god’).

Wrestle Kingdom 13: Omega vs. Tanahashi | Sneak Peek

Thus, there was to be more at stake at Wrestle Kingdom than just Omega’s World Title. That showdown also had New Japan’s future at stake. It was a battle of opposing ideologies when it came to professional wrestling. Tanahashi represented the traditional, structured style; while Omega saw wrestling as malleable and constantly evolving. Tanahashi loathed Omega’s wrestling style as being a flash-in-the-pan momentary burst that was unsustainable in the long term. Omega viewed Tanahashi’s philosophies as outdated and believed that wrestling had to evolve instead of staying monolithic.

Ultimately, this would be a high stakes battle between two of New Japan’s best and most beloved wrestlers. One was the ace that had shown the iron will and determination and was respected and admired for being the best New Japan had to offer. The other was an outsider that chose a different path and made it to the top his own way, and had reached a level of popularity equal to or possibly greater than Tanahashi’s because of his nontraditional way of doing things.

But as deep and engrossing as this story is, there was also a second story unfolding at the same time. While this narrative and its related events took place in front of the camera, something else was brewing behind the scenes. Three weeks after Tanahashi won the G1 Climax tournament, a special wrestling event called All In took place in the United States. That highly-successful event was the impetus for Cody Rhodes to begin the creation of All Elite Wrestling (AEW). Soon after initial announcements were made, The Young Bucks, then a tag team split between New Japan and Ring of Honor, announced they were going to join Rhodes in AEW and be exclusive to that new company. And since the Bucks were so close to Kenny Omega, it seemed obvious that they’d try to get him to join as well. Although Omega wouldn’t make an official decision until after this match, the conclusion was pretty much foregone. NJPW books storylines WAY in advance, so naturally they’d want to know if the gaijin that carried their world title would be with them for the long haul. So some people watched this match expecting Omega to lose, while others watched with the feint hope that he’d win and somehow wrestle for two companies at once.

The match

This is for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship (and the future of New Japan) it originally took place on January 4th, 2019 and was rated 5.5 stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and later upgraded to 5.75 stars out of five.

The bell rings and the crowd is split between both of them. Their first lock-up goes nowhere but on the second attempt Tanahashi bitchslaps Omega. That’s an uncharacteristic move from the supposedly-wholesome Ace. They lock-up again and Omega gets Tanahashi on the ropes. Omega does a goofy slow slap and Tanahashi responds with a second bitchslap. Enraged, Omega charges with stiff forearms and a hard slap of his own. Tanahashi reverses Omega’s Irish whip but eats a kick. Tanahashi boots a charging Omega and goes for a corner crossbody but Omega counters into an attempt at the One-Winged Angel (OWA). But Tanahashi counters into an abdominal stretch. Omega fights out. Tanahashi counters into a cradle. Omega kicks out. Tanahashi starts working the leg Ric Flair-style and Omega tries to escape with more hard slaps. But Tanahashi absorbs them like they’re nothing and a slap exchange begins. Omega eventually reaches the ropes, breaking the hold.

Tanahashi kicks Omega’s leg and tries to Irish whip him but Omega can barely stand without the rope’s support. They trade strikes again and Omega lands a big knee left (using the bad knee, for some reason), followed by a Mutoh-style flashing elbow. Omega lands more hard kicks to the back, then does a corner foot choke. A backbreaker gets Omega a two-count and he starts working over Tanahashi’s lower back with stiff forearms. Tanahashi counters Omega’s third attempt at a forearm and starts fighting back. But Omega quickly shuts him down by winning a strike battle, then goes back to hitting stiff kicks to the back (with the good leg this time) and slaps to the face. A back suplex sends Tanahashi out of the ring.

Omega suplexes Tanahashi onto the apron as the commentators liken this rivalry to that between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels circa 1997. Omega whips Tanahashi into the steel guardrail but he stops a charging Omega with a dropkick. But not for long as Omega scoop slams Tanahashi over the guardrail and onto the hard announcer’s table. Kenny makes some silly faces as he lands an Asai moonsault using the guardrail, taking Tanahashi down with him. He continues his mockery by setting up a table, only for Tanahashi to cut him off. He teases tossing Omega into the table, before changing mid-move and tossing Omega back into the ring. They have another stiff strike battle and Tanahashi starts channeling fighting spirit. Tanahashi ducks a clothesline and lands a running forearm. Omega kicks Tanahashi away from the corner and goes for another kick, but Tanahashi counters. Dragon screw leg whip. Now Tanahashi’s in control.

Tanahashi lands a dropkick lands a second-tope somersault senton for a two-count. He goes for a slingblade but walks into a chop from Omega, who then followed with a Kotaro Crusher that once again sends Tanahashi out of the ring. Omega teases the Terminator but Tanahashi cuts him off with a sudden dropkick. Tanahashi charges, but walks into a snap hurricanrana. Again Tanahashi gets launched out of the ring. Suicide dive over the ropes. Omega lands with a sickening thud.

Both men get back into the ring slowly and Omega lands a brutal missile dropkick to the back of Tanahashi’s neck. He follows with a snapdragon suplex, but Tanahashi gets right back up and charges. But Omega ducks that and lands a second one. V-Trigger knee strike. OWA, no, Tanahashi counters, no, Omega counters. He goes for ‘You Can’t Escape’, but only lands the first half and collapses in the corner. Tanahashi takes advantage. Inverted dragon screw from the top rope. Oh man, that looks painful.

Tanahashi maintains control with a spinning suplex and a Texas cloverleaf at the twenty-minute mark. Tanahashi can’t sink the hold all the way in because doing so would hurt his lower back. Omega resists but Tanahashi eventually gets the full hold in. Omega tries to fight out but Tanahashi counters again. Styles Clash. Tanahashi goes to the corner. High Fly F—no, Omega gets his knees up. Both men go down in a heap. Omega gets up first and charges for a V-Trigger. Tanahashi dodges and Omega’s knee hits the turnbuckle pad hard. Tanahashi follows up with another dragon screw. Slingblade on the apron. Tanahashi looks like he’s going to toss Omega back into the ring, but then, in a reversal from earlier, places Omega on the table. Tanahashi ascends the top rope. High Fly Flow. Omega escapes. Tanahashi crashes and burns through the table.

Omega starts returning to the ring then changes his mind and places Tanahashi in the ring himself. Because he won’t be satisfied with a count-out victory. He places Tanahashi between two ropes and lands a diving double stomp to the back. Two folding powerbombs and a deadlift gutwrench powerbomb each get Omega a two-count. Omega charges for another V-trigger but Tanahashi counters into another slingblade. They both get up and the strike war continues. Both men hit each other incredibly hard. Omega lands desperation knee strikes as the thirty-minute-mark passes.

Omega lands a German suplex but Tanahashi shrugs it off. Tanahashi tries another counter but Omega counters him with his own Slingblade. High Fly Flow by Omega. Tanahashi kicks out at ONE! V-Trigger by Omega. Both men slump down. Omega pulls Tanahashi up and lands two more brutal knee lifts. He goes for a third but Tanahashi counters into another dragon screw. Tanahashi prepares to charge but Omega counters with a poisoned Frankensteiner. Another vicious running V-Trigger by Omega. Tanahashi remains defiant. Yet another knee lift. OWA. No, Tanahashi counters with his own poisoned Frankensteiner. Bridging Dragon suplex by Tanahashi. Omega kicks out. Tanahashi ascends to the top rope. High Fly Crossbody. Followed by a High Fly Flow! One, two, no, Omega kicks out. Tanahashi goes up again, but Omega cuts him off with a V-Trigger. Top-rope Dragon suplex. Tanahashi manages to land on his face!  Yet another running V-Trigger. OWA, no, Tanahashi counters out. Slingblade. High Fly Flow. One, two, three! Tanahashi wins!

Winner and NEW IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 39:13: Hiroshi Tanahashi

(Normally we post the video here, but recent NJPW matches are tough to find and frankly, we think the NJPW World subscription is worth it if you want to see the match.)

 

Review

This match doesn’t deserve a 5-star rating, much less anything above that. They wrestled a good match here, but that’s it; it was only good. There was nothing earth-shattering or historic in this match. They went long, but so what? They didn’t tell a consistent story throughout the match. Instead, whatever tale they tried to tell was only told in tiny tidbits.

The story here was about the ideological clash between Tanahashi and Omega. And yet, only Tanahashi actually demonstrated anything related directly to that narrative. Tanahashi tried to keep things ‘pure’ with his approach to wrestling, especially with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment early on when he glanced at the table Omega had set up, teased putting him on it, then deciding against doing so and went back to his style. But that ‘purity’ was tossed aside when Tanahashi set Omega up and went to dive through the table, only for Omega to escape leaving Tanahashi to eat table. And kudos to commentator Don Callis for calling Tanahashi a hypocrite, which gave more life to the narrative of the match.

But ironically, Omega didn’t do anything new here. For a guy whose entire attitude was that he did things differently and constantly changed things up, Omega fell into his own typical formula: lots of hard chops, a few big power moves, tons of running around and some explosive head spikes. This was the one time the story of the match basically required Omega to leave his comfort zone and really show he could be as different and malleable as he wanted wrestling to be, and he didn’t. He did the same Kenny Omega things people have been seeing from him since 2016 or possibly earlier, making the match feel weaker in comparison to his own earlier matches.

And once again, Omega showed why it’s so hard to take him seriously as a consistent wrestler. He basically no-sold everything Tanahashi did, especially the legwork. Tanahashi landed brutal dragon screw leg whips on both of Omega’s legs, yet he sprinted and dove like they were nothing. I think that whenever a big match like this goes long, the wrestlers involved should do their best to make sure stuff that happens early on isn’t flat-out ignored. I know it’s hard for any wrestler to remember something like that in a gargantuan endeavor like a sold-out world title main-event match. But in this case, it’s downright sinful for Omega to absorb so much leg damage from Tanahashi and completely ignore it. Once again, I’m bringing up Omega’s 2016 G1 match with Tetsuya Naito because his selling in that match was superb. Not only did it make him look like a tough badass, but it fit into the match perfectly. Here, it was as if Omega went into a regression from that earlier match and neglected to make Tanahashi’s hard work feel like it was part of the match’s larger story.

This isn’t to say that Omega was the only person to blame here. Although Tanahashi is usually amazing at wrestling, he was off his game here towards the end. His victory felt completely unearned. The final ten minutes were almost completely one-sided, with Omega being on offense for about 80% of it. Omega kept smashing Tanahashi with one V-Trigger after another, but Tanahashi kept fighting. Then, Omega had the match all but won with a top-rope dragon suplex and another knee strike. And yet, Tanahashi managed to counter the OWA into a slingblade and one Frog Splash, and that was enough to beat Omega. It was just so sudden and out of nowhere. It didn’t come across as a decisive win for Tanahashi. Instead, it felt more like the New Japan equivalent of a big WWE match that ends in a ROLL-UP OF DEATH! Considering how much this match meant to both guys and how big the stakes were, this match should’ve ended with a decisive bang. Instead, it ended with a whimper.

Final Rating: ****

These two wrestlers told an interesting story that didn’t really deliver. They tried to make it come across as bitter and personal, especially with all their strike exchanges. But to call this one of the best matches of all time is too much of a stretch. It had a bunch of interesting elements that, on this particular night, didn’t mesh well together. Tanahashi actually did most of the good work when it came to translating the lead-up story into an in-ring story, but lost his way at the end and left with a narrow victory instead of a decisive one. And Omega showcased some of his worst qualities here, particularly his insistence on no-selling and overreliance on the V-Trigger, which was only made worse since those two things were so interrelated in this match.

In a rare instance for New Japan, the story behind a match was actually more interesting than the match itself. The build-up here was tremendous, and it gave fans something they could really sink their teeth into. Both wrestlers had large camps of fans going into this match, and there was plenty of support for both throughout it. And yet, Tanahashi proved Omega right. He decried Omega for structuring his matches so that only the last five minutes matter. Well, that’s exactly what happened here. The viewer had to sit through almost forty minutes of ‘stuff’, most of which didn’t matter by the end anyway. Especially since all of Omega’s hard work was negated by a lightning-quick surprise comeback from Tanahashi that felt completely unearned.

There are much better Tanahashi matches out there and there are much better Omega matches out there. Do yourselves a favor and skip this one. It’s actually quite disappointing, especially given the names involved.

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