Tanahashi versus Okada is the greatest pro wrestling feud of the 21st century.
No other duo anywhere in the wrestling world has been able to pull off more amazing wrestling matches together than these two. They have incredible chemistry together, and their matches have all been distinct yet exciting chapters in a larger narrative. Not since the glory days of All Japan Pro-Wrestling in the 1990s has there been such a masterful, high-quality feud.
And today we look at what is widely considered to be their best match together.
This is the fourth singles match between Tanahashi Okada since it began just over a year prior. Their first match was originally rated ****1/4 stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer. That match was pretty good by NJPW standards, but is remembered more (SPOILER ALERT) for Okada’s win than for its match quality. Their following two matches – at Dominion 2012 and Wrestle Kingdom 7 – were both rated ****3/4, and I might review those matches at a later point in time.
But this match was the first one to achieve the prestigious 5-star rating. Not only that, but it was also voted 2013’s Match of the Year by the Wrestling Observer’s fanbase. With such high praise the match must be extremely good. So let’s dive in and revisit this wrestling classic.
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.
There are two stories going on here, a short one and a long one. Both of these stories tie into each other. The short story is that Okada won the 2013 New Japan Cup (basically a King of the Ring-style tournament) and earned a shot at Tanahashi’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
The longer story is that Okada was looking to avenge his prior losses and prove that he wasn’t just a fluke. His first won over Tanahashi from The New Beginning 2012 was widely viewed as a fluke, especially since he lost the belt back to Tanahashi six months later and failed to regain it earlier in 2013 at Wrestle Kingdom 7. But the Okada of April 2013 wasn’t the same as the Okada of February 2012. During that 14-month period, Okada went on a massive upward progression in skill, technique and confidence. He went from being a cheesy rip-off of every rich American-style wrestler to an actual professional wrestling machine.
He improved so much that he was voted Most Improved by the WON in 2012. It wasn’t hard to see why; he had one amazing match after another, improving with each one, regardless if he won or lost. It soon became obvious that he wasn’t just a gimmick; he was in serious contention for replacing Tanahashi as company ace at some point down the road.
But to do that, he first had to overcome Tanahashi once again. This was no small task, seeing as Tanahashi was some kind of wrestling godsend for New Japan. He was, and to some people still is, the greatest pro wrestler of the last twenty years. His wrestling abilities were simply amazing, and he seemed to be incapable of having anything less than a great match with pretty much anyone. He was also stupidly over with the audience, getting positive reactions John Cena wishes he could get.
So with all of that, one big question remained going into Invasion Attack. Would the Ace of New Japan maintain his title(s), or would the Rainmaker prove himself to be more than a flash-in-the-pan fluke champion?
This match took place on April 7, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.
The bell rings and the crowd is split between both wrestlers evenly. Okada refuses a handshake after a failed lockup. They lock up again and Okada gets a clean break on the ropes, but pats Tanahashi’s chest mockingly. Tanahashi tries to reverse control on Okada but fails to do so and gets patted once more. Okada poses but gets kicked in the gut for his arrogance. Okada reverses a headlock into a hammerlock and then a headlock of his own and then takes Tanahashi down with a shoulder tackle. Tanahashi leapfrogs over a charging Okada, but Okada quickly goes for the Rainmaker. Tanahashi ducks and then goes for a Rainmaker of his own, which Okada also dodges. Then Tanahashi does the Rainmaker pose as we have a standoff.
Okada doesn’t like this and bitchslaps the Ace. Now it’s on. Okada lands stiff forearms and a big boot to Tanahashi. He goes to pin Tanahashi with his foot on his chest but the referee won’t do it. I guess he doesn’t like arrogant Okada, either. Okada follows with a chinlock but Tanahashi quickly escapes with elbows and forearms. He goes to whip Okada but Okada counters and sends Tanahashi into the corner. Tanahashi goes to charge out with a dropkick to Okada’s knee but Okada dodges at the last second. He’s learning from his past mistakes.
Tanahashi tries to capitalize on Okada showing off with a dragon screw but Okada fights out of it. He goes for a clothesline but Tanahashi counters into a Fujiwara armbar. There’s a great counter that’ll make Okada’s go-to Rainmaker weaker later on if Tanahashi can maintain the pressure on it.
Five minutes have passed as Tanahashi works over Okada’s lariat arm. Okada reaches the ropes with his foot, so Tanahashi maintains pressure by stomping on that same arm of Okada’s. He snapmares Okada and then smashes that arm hard into the mat. Tanahashi follows with more arm stomps and a modified armbar to further destroy that same arm. Tanahashi follows with short arm scissors, but Okada counters into a pin for a one-count. He keeps the hold locked in until Okada reaches the ropes with his foot. But before letting go, Tanahashi wrenches it one last time for extra damage. You know you’re a serious threat when perennial good guy Tanahashi has to start doing villainous things to beat you.
Okada escapes to the apron, only for Tanahashi to follow and apply a rope-assisted hammerlock. They trade elbows on the apron, but even landing one makes Okada writhe in pain. Tanahashi goes for another dragon screw but Okada elbows out. He lands a big boot followed by a huge apron DDT. Suddenly the match has shifted into Okada’s favor, giving him the advantage.
Back in the ring, Okada lands a swinging neckbreaker followed by a modified double-arm submission hold. That move puts immense pressure on Tanahashi’s neck, which will make it more vulnerable for all of Okada’s later big moves and his eventual finisher. Okada applies another crazy arm and neck submission hold as we pass the ten-minute mark.
Okada lands a falling neckbreaker for a two-count, slowly regaining feeling and strength in his battered right arm. He stomps on Tanahashi in the corner but Tanahashi fights back. Okada whips him in to a corner but Tanahashi blocks his charge and goes for a springboard crossbody, only for Okada to duck. Tanahashi eats canvas, allowing Okada to capitalize with his Deep In Debt submission hold (which, naturally, targets the neck). Tanahashi reaches the ropes, forcing Okada to let go. Okada tries to follow up but Tanahashi makes him back off with a kick to the arm. Followed by another. Then he goes for a third but Okada counters it into a dragon screw leg whip of his own. Wow, excellent counter. A snapmare/basement dropkick combo by Okada sends Tanahashi out of the ring. Okada continues the assault with a camel clutch using the steel barricade for added pain/pressure. Okada tries a Tombstone on the ringside mats, but Tanahashi fights out and pushes Okada back-first into the barricade. Great counter.
Tanahashi smashes Okada’s arm into the steel ringpost three times, regaining control of the match. As Okada tries to regain his strength, Tanahashi ascends the top rope. Then he flies. High Fly Flow crossbody! From the top turnbuckle to Okada on the floor below! Amazing.
Back in the ring, Tanahashi lands a corner crossbody and a flying forearm smash. Then he lands a dragon screw arm whip, to further destroy Okada’s main weapon. Followed by a second one. Okada tries to stop Tanahashi’s momentum with another elbow to the face, but he can’t even stand after landing one. That’s how much pain he’s in. Tanahashi starts landing uppercuts to that arm, but Okada somehow manages to keep fighting on. Tanahashi follows with a flurry of uppercuts and downward elbow smashes to that same arm. He’s basically trying to turn it into a sagging pile of useless flesh and render it completely useless. And so far, his strategy appears to be working. The psychology in this match is amazing. This is why Tanahashi is The Ace.
Tanahashi charges once again but walks into a flapjack from Okada. Both men take their time to recover as the crowd’s split evenly between them. Okada lands a running elbow to Tanahashi but still can’t follow through right away. He lands his reverse neckbreaker, then follows with a scoop slam and a diving elbow drop. But once again he can’t capitalize right away because of how weak his right arm is. He can’t even do his trademark Rainmaker pose fully and can only raise one arm up to do so.
Okada prepares the waistlock for the Rainmaker but Tanahashi fights out quickly. Okada goes for a Tombstone but again Tanahashi escapes quickly and then slaps Okada hard. Sensing an opening, Tanahashi charges for the slingblade…but walks into a huge dropkick from Okada. Okada tries to follow up with the Red Ink submission hold (cross-legged STF), but struggles to wrap both arms around Tanahashi’s chin. Okada tries and tries, but Tanahashi reaches the ropes before Okada can really do anything to him.
Okada goes for the Heavy Rain (AA slam) but Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. Tanahashi lands a dropkick and goers for the dragon suplex, but Okada fights out, only to get locked into a bridging straightjacket suplex instead for a close 2.50-count. Tanahashi lands a modified Falcon Arrow and goes for the frog splash, but Okada dropkicks him out of nowhere, sending him off the turnbuckle and down to the floor. Okada whips /Tanahashi into the barricade then boots him over it. He follows with a Randy Orton-style draping DDT from the barricade to the floor, doing more damage to Tanahashi’s weakened neck. The referee begins his ring count and Tanahashi makes it back in at a 19.5. But in returning, he walks right into a Heavy Rain from Okada. Okada goes for the Rainmaker again but once more Tanahashi escapes by brutalizing the arm with elbows and forearms to it.
Tanahashi charges and Okada sees this and goes for the dropkick again, but this time Tanahashi holds onto the ropes. He’s adapting to what he experienced earlier, sensing what his opponent will do. That’s the mark of a great wrestler. Okada gets to his hands and knees and Tanahashi dropkicks the badly damaged right arm. Tanahashi goes for a slingblade, but Okada ducks. Rainmaker…no, Tanahashi fights out of it with another blow to the arm. Dragon suplex, no, it’s countered. RAINMAKER! Okada lands the devastating Rainmaker! Tanahashi’s out. But Okada’s badly hurt. He damaged his own arm badly with that desperation move. Everyone from Gedo to the fans going nuts. They’re screaming for Okada to pin Tanahashi. It takes Okada almost a full thirty seconds to cover Tanahashi. The referee counts one…two…thr—NO! Tanahashi kicks out! Tanahashi kicks out of the Rainmaker lariat! The audience erupts in cheers for Tanahashi.
Okada tries to pick Tanahashi up but at first Tanahashi barely moves. After a second effort, he goes for a Tombstone, but Tanahashi counters into a victory roll for a two-count. Then Okada counters into the Red Ink again. This time he gets it in. Even more pressure is being put on Tanahashi’s neck. Okada applies as much pressure as he can, but Tanahashi’s not quitting. The fans are screaming. Yet somehow Tanahashi manages to reach the ropes, surviving another painful onslaught. This match is just crazy awesome.
Okada lands an elbow in the corner, still unable to land more than one strike at a time. He charges for a running elbow but Tanahashi dodges. Tanahashi charges next, but Okada blocks and places him on the top turnbuckle for the top-rope dropkick. But Tanahashi kicks him away and then lends a diving double ax handle to the arm once more. Followed by another dragon screw arm whip. High Fly Flow crossbody-style by Tanahashi. Followed by a slingblade and a bridging dragon suplex. One, two, no, Okada kicks out again. Another High Fly Flow, this time to Okada’s back. He goes for another one. High Fly F—wait, no, Okada gets his knees up. Both men get up slowly. Okada takes control with a dropkick to the back of Tanahashi’s head. He goes for a Tombstone but Tanahashi fights out. Both men struggle. Then Tanahashi escapes by wringing the arm. He goes for another elbow to the arm but Okada dodges. Rainmak-no, Tanahashi ducks and grabs the weakened arm with both hands. Tanahashi goes for a Tombstone. No, Okada counters. Tombstone Piledriver. RAINMAKER! One, two, three! That’s it! Okada wins.
Winner and NEW IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 35:17: Kazuchika Okada
OH MY GOD! That was AMAZING. It was breathtaking. It was spectacular. A true wrestling masterpiece just took place. That was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best pro wrestling matches ever. It was easily the best wrestling match of the 2010s decade. And it’s the best New Japan match of all time, no doubt about it.
The storytelling and psychology were off the charts here. Tanahashi dismantled Okada’s arm so thoroughly here. But instead of putting all the limbwork into one extended sequence, he kept coming back to it whenever Okada had any hint of momentum. By keeping Okada vulnerable, Tanahashi was able to maintain control and look for a weakness. But that weakness never came. Instead, Okada overcame the odds like a hero and managed to beat Tanahashi decisively for only the second time in their storied rivalry.
It was an entirely new phase in their feud, with both Tanahashi and Okada adapting and coming up with new strategies and stories to tell. Okada was aware of Tanahashi’s penchant for attacking the legs, so he dodged those attacks and protected his legs whenever possible. Seeing this in action, Tanahashi quickly adapted to focus on Okada’s right arm almost exclusively. In doing so, it set in motion a sequence that would lead to one of the best near-fall sequences I have ever seen. Even though this Okada was still a rising star, his Rainmaker lariat was already super over as a deadly finisher.
It was a big deal for anyone to survive it, and of course it made his attempts at the move all the more tense. So when Okada landed the first Rainmaker – despite his arm being all but destroyed – it was an amazing demonstration of iron will and determination. Yet Tanahashi kicked out of the Rainmaker, but only because Okada couldn’t pin right away because his arm was so damaged. That protected the move while also showing how tough Tanahashi was. And from there, everything leading up to the second Rainmaker was nothing short of spectacular. Tanahashi did his best to center his approach not on finding a new way to beat Okada, but around finding another way to stop the Rainmaker lariat. But he couldn’t do so, and ate a second one to even the feud at two wins for each of them.
What makes this such a gem of a match is the emphasis on story over flashiness. There has been a trend, especially since 2017, for wrestling matches to focus more on big ‘holy shit’ sequences and can-you-top-this insanity at the expense of scientific grappling. Tanahashi and Okada went in the opposite direction here, focusing on limb targeting and a clever combination of logical limb targeting and raw endurance. Tanahashi did his best to weaken Okada’s arm while Okada kept going for Tanahashi’s neck. Ultimately, it came down to which wrestler’s strategy was better, which turned out to be Okada’s. He put on such a convincing performance and made it seem like he was in real, excruciating pain from all the armwork Tanahashi had done. Yet despite enduring so much damage, he still managed to weaken Tanahashi’s neck enough to land a second and decisive Rainmaker for the win.
Final Rating: *****
As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t just an amazing wrestling match, but THE best NJPW match of all time. Which, given that company’s track record, is a monumental achievement. I definitely consider this to be somewhere in the top ten greatest wrestling matches of all time. It’s simply a perfect wrestling match, without a single flaw.
This match silenced all doubters about Okada. He proved he wasn’t just a fluke champion and earned his spot in the main event. And of course, Tanahashi did what Tanahashi does best: he put on a breathtaking wrestling match.
This was the peak of the Tanahashi/Okada rivalry, and it was a freaking masterpiece of a wrestling match. Although they’d go on to have a lot more matches together – many of which were likewise praised, and for very good reason – this one was their best performance. Everything clicked here: the story, the technique, the pacing, the logic, the drama, the near-falls, the atmosphere, the fans’ investment and reactions, all of it. If you ever want to see what good wrestling and simple yet consistent storytelling looks like, watch this match. I’ve watched a lot of highly-praised wrestling matches, but VERY FEW are better than this one.
If there was ever a reason to subscribe to NJPW’s New Japan World service, this is it.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.