(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada II - NJPW Dominion 2012

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada II - NJPW Dominion 2012

The rivalry between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada has become mythic in pro wrestling circles. People have compared it to older classics like Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat, and many other famous rivalries. As of April 2021, they have had thirteen singles matches together ever since Okada first became the Rainmaker. Today we revisit their second match in that rivalry, the one that solidified Okada as much more than just a ‘flash-in-the-pan’ gimmick.

Today we look back at Tanahashi vs. Okada II from NJPW Dominion 2012. My review of their first match in 2012 is right 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

Four months earlier at The New Beginning, Okada shocked the entire wrestling world by beating Tanahashi. His win was the upset to end all upsets. It was the most shocking win in an incredibly long time. How could Tanahashi, a wrestler so talented and skilled that he was literally and rightfully called the ‘once-in-a-century wrestler’, lose to Okada, a Ted DiBiase/JBL wannabe? People thought that Gedo, NJPW’s booker, had either gone insane, or was desperate to get a ratings spike, or both.

But in the four-month span between The New Beginning and this show, something changed. Okada actually proved himself to be a more-than-capable wrestler. He wasn’t all presentation. He actually showed he could wrestle incredibly well when the time called for it (which, as world champion, was all the time). In his first-ever world title defense, Okada beat Tetsuya Naito at NJPW’s 40th Anniversary show in an amazing match (I reviewed that match here). Then, at Wrestling Dontaku 2012, Okada bear Hirooki Goto, which was important because Goto, like pretty much everyone else, had underestimated Okada and it cost him. So Okada had shown people that he actually was really good, but there was one obstacle that he still had to face: Tanahashi.

Tanahashi wanted to regain his title and Okada accepted. The stage was set for the biggest rematch in NJPW history following the biggest upset in New Japan history. But it was no longer an open-and-shut case. People wanted Tanahashi to win because they absolutely loved him. But Okada had proven that he wasn’t just a cheesy gimmick and that hidden beneath all that pomp and grandeur was an actually talented wrestler.

So who would win, the ace or the new kid on the block?

The match

This match originally took place on June 16th, 2012 at NJPW Dominion. It was originally rated ****3/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, and was voted the pro wrestling Match/Fight of the Year by both Tokyo Sports and Nikkan Sports, two of the most prestigious and respected sports publications in Japan. Now, almost a decade later, let’s see how well this match holds up.

The bell rings and Tanahashi soaks in the crowd’s adulation. They start off with some quick technical exchanges that end in standoffs. Tanahashi establishes control with an armlock but Okada quickly counters into his own. Some tremendous chain grappling follows and Okada tries to power out but Tanahashi out-wrestles him into a deep headlock. Okada sends him off the ropes and goes for a shoulder tackle, but unlike in their first match, Tanahashi doesn’t go down this time. But he does on a second one and suddenly Okada’s in control.

Okada misses a standing senton and counters a back body drop with a hard kick. Okada goes to whip Tanahashi into a corner but Tanahashi counters. Okada goes to get his feet up expecting a charge, but Tanahashi ducks and slides out of the ring, grabs Okada’s leg, and smashes it into the ring post. Fantastic counter by Tanahashi. He’s already looking to weaken Okada’s leaping ability, which will make it harder for Okada to run, kick and kneel, which in turn severely limits what he can do to fight back.

Back in the ring, Tanahashi lands a knee breaker and clips Okada’s leg Ric Flair-style. Tanahashi starts working that leg over like a true pro by stomping and kicking it, then applies a leglock that Okada struggles hard to escape. He does eventually and tries to fight back, but can barely stand as Tanahashi kicks his leg once more. Tanahashi goes to the second rope for a dive, but Okada cuts him off with an uppercut where he would normally land a dropkick. Tanahashi falls off the top rope but skins the cat and lands more hard strikes. He whips Okada into a corner and Okada barely makes it over there. Tanahashi charges but Okada counters with the corner dropkick. Tanahashi falls out of the ring and Okada uses that counter to recover.

Okada hobbles over and whips Tanahashi into the barricade then boots him over it. He applies a chinlock on Tanahashi through the gaps in the steel barricade, putting immense pressure on Tanahashi’s neck in the process. In the ring, Okada locks Tanahashi in the Deep In Debt submission hold, again targeting his neck with that painful hold. Tanahashi struggles and squirms but eventually reaches the ropes. Suddenly Tanahashi fires back by kicking Okada’s weakened knee and then bitchslaps him hard. Tanahashi charges…but eats a huge dropkick for his efforts. A snapmare/running basement dropkick combo by Okada gets him a two-count. Arm-trap body-stretch thing by Okada. I don’t know what that move is called, but it looks painful as Okada looks like he’s stretching Tanahashi’s entire upper body. A swinging neckbreaker gets Okada another two-count.

Tanahashi gets a sudden burst of adrenaline as he fights back with elbows. But Okada’s too much for him and drops him with uppercuts. Okada whips Tanahashi into a corner and misses an elbow smash, allowing Tanahashi to land a barrage of body strikes. Tanahashi counters an Irish whip with a Shawn Michaels-style flying forearm. He follows that with another flurry of strikes. Okada counters an Irish whip into a corner and charges, but Tanahashi dropkicks his bad knee. Great counter by Tanahashi.

Okada goes for a boot but Tanahashi counters with a dropkick to the bad knee and then dropkicks Okada out of the ring. High Fly Flow from the top rope. Tanahashi is a crazy man.

On the apron, Tanahashi goes for another dragon screw but Okada resists by pulling Tanahashi’s hair. Big mistake. Tanahashi answers by dropkicking Okada’s bad leg and then landing the dragon screw. Texas Cloverleaf hold. Tanahashi looks to make Okada tap out. Okada senses danger and dashes towards the ropes. Tanahashi goes for a slingblade but Okada counters into a flapjack. DDT by Okada, followed by the Deep In Debt submission hold. Again Okada targets Tanahashi’s neck with brutal precision. And he lands some hard elbows to Tanahashi’s head for good measure. Tanahashi gets to the ropes after a long struggle, and this time Okada obeys the rules and lets go right away.

Okada’s in control as he slams Tanahashi and lands a diving elbow drop. He does the Rainmaker pose and signals the end. He goes for the Rainmaker lariat, Tanahashi blocks, Okada counters into a fireman’s carry, Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. Awesome counter. Tanahashi fires up. Okada lands a huge dropkick to the back of Tanahashi’s head. The crowd erupts in cheers, and this time they cheer for both wrestlers.

Okada lands a kick and goes for the reverse neckbreaker (air raid crash to the knee) but Tanahashi counters into a sunset flip for two. He follows with two dragon screw leg whips and then applies the Texas Cloverleaf again. In the middle of the ring this time. Okada tries to grab the ropes, but Tanahashi pulls him away and sits back deep. And yet, Okada still musters enough strength to grab the ropes. A roar of applause reverberates through the arena. Tanahashi does his own pose to mock Okada.

Okada elbows out of a German suplex but Tanahashi ducks a clothesline and does for the dragon suplex. Okada fights out, so Tanahashi traps the arms. Arm-trap bridging German suplex. Okada kicks out. Modified Falcon Arrow. High Fly – no, Okada rolls out of the way. Tanahashi charges, Okada counters into the reverse neckbreaker and pins but gets only two again. Heavy Rain fireman’s carry neckbreaker. Tanahashi kicks out at two again. Rainmaker, no, Tanahashi ducks and charges. Okada counters into a Tombstone. Wait, no, he can’t land it because of the damage to his knee and Tanahashi escapes. Both men blocks kicks. Bridging Dragon suplex. Okada kicks out. High Fly Flow to the back. Followed by a second High Fly Flow, but Okada gets his knees up.

Both men get up slowly and trade sloppy strikes. Okada with forearms, Tanahashi with kicks to Okada’s knee. Okada takes control with stiff forearms and uppercuts. Okada tries for the Tombstone, but still struggles to lift Tanahashi up because of the knee. That allows Tanahashi to counter into a Tombstone of his own. Slingblade, no, Rainmaker, no, dragon suplex, no, Rainmaker, no, Slingblade connects! High Fly Flow! One, two, three! Tanahashi wins! Tanahashi regains his title!

Winner and NEW IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 28:06: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Review

Fantastic wrestling match. These two wrestlers put on an amazing display of toughness, technique, and psychology. That match was much better than their first encounter. Everything seemed much more focused and more unpredictable. And while their first match was notable because of the unexpected finish, this match was awesome because it was anyone’s guess who would win from bell to bell.

Tanahashi clearly learned from his mistakes in their past match by being far more focused and careful here. He did whatever he could to prevent Okada from getting any major advantage. And while Okada did land some critical moves that nearly spelled doom for him, he wasn’t able to land nearly as many as he did in their first match. And a major reason why was because Tanahashi went much farther and deeper in attacking Okada’s legs.

Tanahashi knew that Okada liked to spam dropkicks, running moves and the Tombstone, all of which require healthy knees. So to prevent Okada from getting the most out of that simple-but-sound strategy, Tanahashi kept going back to Okada’s knee throughout the match. He used the Texas Cloverleaf twice, spammed dragon screw leg whips, and instead of doing a typical standing forearm exchange, Tanahashi attacked Okada’s knee at every opportunity. By the end, Tanahashi’s strategy had worked perfectly.

Despite all his best efforts, there was no way Okada could land the Tombstone, which was critical as a setup for the Rainmaker. Okada tried to weaken Tanahashi’s neck with alternate moves, particularly the brutal-looking Deep In Debt submission hold and the air raid crash knee neckbreaker. But that wasn’t enough. Okada had to land the Tombstone, but couldn’t. His knee was just too weakened. And no matter what he did, Tanahashi proved too much for him. All of his desperate attempts to land the Rainmaker failed because Tanahashi had managed to avoid taking as much damage to the neck as he had in their first match.

It was tremendous storytelling once again from these two, and it came as vindication for Tanahashi. He got revenge for his loss to Okada four months earlier. But by no means was this a devastating loss for Okada, nor was it the end of his title aspirations. Yes, this was a decisive win for Tanahashi. But it took so much for Tanahashi to keep Okada down that Okada looked like a million dollars in there with the ace.

But it wasn’t a perfect, 5-star epic. While this match was indeed outstanding, it did have some minor flaws in it. There were some moments in the middle that just seemed a bit dull and forgettable. It just came off as a bit strange. The opening few minutes had some solid chain wrestling and the final ten minutes were awesome. But the middle portion was just…there. Okada did seem a bit lost in what to do when he wasn’t selling for Tanahashi and it showed. His selling of the leg was a bit spotty once again, as he veered back and forth between ‘barely able to stand or walk’ and ‘charging at high speed’ more than once. It wasn’t as bad as some other wrestlers would do in later years (*cough* Omega *cough*) but it was still noticeable and detracted from the match.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This match was awesome, and rightfully deserved all the praise it got when it first took place and all that has come since then. The white-hot Osaka crowd only added to this match and made it feel like a genuine big fight. Tanahashi and Okada managed to draw viewers in with their incredible wrestling and counter-wrestling. They put on a clinic in wrestling psychology. They knew they had something great from the moment they first locked up in their first match and in this match they knew exactly how to improve on an already-successful formula.

Considering how epic the Tanahashi-Okada feud has become, this match has largely been forgotten compared to their later matches. It may be inferior to them when compared side by side (especially to their spectacular fourth match from Invasion Attack 2013), but it’s still an amazing match on its own. And since NJPW World is only 999 Yen per month, it’s worth it to see matches like this one.

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