(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada III - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom VII (2013)

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada III - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom VII (2013)

Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika had the rivalry to end all rivalries. Their bitter feud lasted nine years on and off and had many ups and downs for both wrestlers. Their war is a perfect example of long-term storytelling in professional wrestling being told slowly and paying off further down the road.

Each one of their matches had a specific theme that made the story so exciting. The first one was all about Okada shocking the world and shaking Tanahashi’s confidence. The second was about Tanahashi getting revenge and evening the score. And today, we revisit the third chapter, the rubber match that would determine who was the better man.

Today we revisit the third-ever Tanahashi-Rainmaker Okada singles match from NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom VII event. Check out Tanahashi/Okada 1 here and then Tanahashi/Okada 2 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

Six months earlier, Okada lost the title to Tanahashi at Dominion 2012. Tanahashi got his revenge, but Okada wasn’t done with the main-event picture, not by a longshot. Determined to regain that glory, Okada entered the G1 Climax tournament and eventually won it. In doing so, Okada earned the right to challenge the IWGP Heavyweight Champion (read: Tanahashi) in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW’s biggest show of the year.

Going into this match, Okada hoped to avenge his loss at Dominion and recapture the title once again. But Tanahashi was now a bigger challenge for Okada than ever. He no longer treated Okada as a joke to be ignored and had proven he could beat Okada, as long as he didn’t get hit with the Rainmaker.

The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher for either man. Tanahashi and Okada, for the world title, in the main event spot on New Japan’s biggest show of the year. Could Okada make prove that his win wasn’t a fluke, or would Tanahashi reign supreme once again and stop Okada’s conquest dead in its tracks?

The match

This match originally took place at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom VII event on January 4th 2013 in the Tokyo Dome. It was rated ****3/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see if this match still holds up.

This is for Tanahashi’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Okada gets a clean break and pats Tanahashi’s chest mockingly. Tanahashi scores a clean break on a second lock up and mocks Okada with his own pose. Tanahashi fights out of as headlock but gets knocked down with a shoulder tackle. Okada applies another deep headlock but Tanahashi wrestles out into his own and then tackles Okada down. After a long standoff, Okada wrestles into an armlock but Tanahashi counters into a leglock to start working Okada’s legs. Okada quickly counters into a hammerlock and the two counter each other back and forth for a while.  Okada eventually gets Tanahashi into a corner and charges, but Tanahashi blocks him and lands a springboard crossbody. Tanahashi charges but Okada blocks and goes for the jumping corner dropkick, but Tanahashi hits him first.  Tanahashi looks to fly but Okada kicks the ropes and Tanahashi gets crotched. Top-rope draping DDT by Okada. Great counter.

Tanahashi rolls out of the ring but Okada gives chase. He applies a deep chinlock using the barricade for extra pressure, and then kicks the barricade as well. Ouch, that has to hurt Tanahashi’s neck. Tanahashi rolls into the ring but Okada takes advantage with a quick basement dropkick for a two-count. Okada follows with his arm-trap-neck-lock-thing that applies tons of pressure on Tanahashi’s already-weakened neck. Okada lands some corner stomps but Tanahashi fires back with brutal forearm smashes. Okada tries to shut him down, but Tanahashi fires back with a stiff bitchslap. Tanahashi charges, Okada sends him into the ropes, only for Tanahashi to skin the cat. Tanahashi charges, but Okada counters into a flapjack for another two-count.

Okada applies the Deep In Debt chinlock and Tanahashi tries to alleviate some pressure by bridging, but to no avail as Okada rolls over and reapplies it. Clever wrestling there. Okada slams him and goes for the senton but Tanahashi dodges (for the third match in a row). Okada lands a corner boot and whips Tanahashi, Tanahashi counters only to eat another boot, but then fires up and lands a flying forearm. Tanahashi gets sent into the ropes again but bursts out and dropkicks Okada’s knee. He follows with the chop block, but soon after both men are on their feet trading forearms and holding each other by the hair.

Okada demands Tanahashi hit him in the face and Tanahashi obliges. Okada fires back with uppercuts and goes for a big boot, but Tanahashi counters with a dragon screw leg whip. Okada goes out of the ring. High Fly Flow from the top rope to the floor. That move always looks amazing.

Tanahashi rolls Okada into the ring and goes for the Texas Cloverleaf but Okada grabs the ropes for safety. He goes for another dragon screw but Okada fights back and then lands a dragon screw of his own on Tanahashi. DDT by Okada followed by the Deep In Debt submission hold again. Okada cranks Tanahashi’s neck as hard as possible. Tanahashi struggles but makes it to the ropes.

Okada goes to the top rope for a diving elbow, but this time it’s Tanahashi who gets his knees up. Tanahashi goes to the top rope but Okada cuts him off. Okada goes for a big top-rope move, Tanahashi fights out, and Okada dropkicks him to the floor. Okada drags Tanahashi onto the entrance ramp and goes for a Tombstone, but Tanahashi fights out, so Okada knocks him down and goes up the ramp for a running start. Okada dashes at full speed, but Tanahashi counters into a slingblade on the ramp. Tanahashi walks to the ring to break the ring-out count and pulls Okada back to the ring. Because he doesn’t want a count-out win; he wants to win with honor and dignity.

In the ring, Tanahashi lands a running corner crossbody and goes for another slingblade, but Okada counters into the fireman’s carry. Wait, no, Tanahashi counters that into a slingblade. Tanahashi fires up. Falcon Arrow. High Fly – no, Okada gets the knees up again. Reverse neckbreaker (air raid crash to the knee). Tanahashi kicks out. Heavy Rain fireman’s carry neckbreaker. Another kick-out. Diving elbow drop connects. Rainmaker pose. Okada locks the waist. Rainmaker lar—no, dragon suplex, no, Okada fights out, no, arm-trap bridging German suplex. Okada kicks out. Tanahashi maintains control. Bridging dragon suplex. Okada kicks out again. Slingblade. High Fly Flow. One, two, thr—no, Okada kicks out. Tanahashi can’t believe it!

Tanahashi lands more dragon screw leg whips and applies the Texas Cloverleaf. Tanahashi pulls Okada to the middle of the ring and sits down deep. Okada lifts his hand up to tap but still fights on. Then in a sudden surge of adrenaline, he reaches the ropes. Tanahashi attempts another slingblade but Okada counters with a dropkick.

Both men pull themselves up using each other for leverage. Okada suddenly gets a burst of speed and goes for the Rainmaker. Tanahashi ducks and goes for a slingblade. Okada sees this and goes for a dropkick but Tanahashi saves himself by holding onto the ropes. Okada ducks a slingblade. Dropkick to the back of Tanahashi’s head. Tombstone Piledriver. Rainmaker, no, countered into a slingblade.

Both men struggle to their feet. Okada goes for another Tombstone but Tanahashi resists. Okada lands forearms to Tanahashi’s neck. Tanahashi answers with a dropkick to Okada’s bad knee. Tombstone from Tanahashi. High Fly Flow to a standing Okada. that’s followed by a second High Fly Flow. One, two, three! Tanahashi retains his title.

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 33:34: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Review

As a standalone match, it was still great with strong technical wrestling, and straightforward, logical psychology. But for a Tanahashi-Okada match, that was disappointing. It was nowhere near as great as many of their other classics. In fact, it was inferior to their previous encounter at Dominion 2012, and in the same atmosphere as their first-ever match from The New Beginning 2012.

Despite their best efforts, neither Tanahashi nor Okada brought that much new stuff to the match. There was an unshakeable sameness here that made the match come across as slower and less exciting. This was especially true during the first half. The wrestling was technically sound, but it came across as really slow and dull, leaving the real excitement to only come in during the final third of the match. And a white-hot finishing stretch doesn’t always justify having a meandering opening, which is what took place here.

There was also a major lack of depth here, especially considering how great their Dominion match was six months earlier. Tanahashi and Okada did a lot of the same stuff as in their earlier matches, but didn’t go as far with any strategy. Tanahashi did his usual stuff to weaken Okada’s leg but Okada barely sold it. Okada attacked Tanahashi’s neck but never parlayed that into a believable near-fall sequence. They tried to shake things up a bit by introducing some new moves like Tanahashi getting his knees up to stop Okada’s diving elbow and Okada landing the top-rope draping DDT early on. But those new things fell to the wayside as both wrestlers did more of the same stuff they had in their earlier two matches. Things got really intense and exciting in the closing ten minutes, but the rest of the match was completely forgettable.

All in all, it felt like they simply scratched the surface in terms of telling the story they wanted to tell. Tanahashi did his best to avoid the Rainmaker and Okada came across as Tanahashi’s equal, even in defeat. And yet, things just seemed off here in terms of pacing and raw excitement. I got the feeling they saw this match as an experiment. They knew they had more than thirty-minutes to kill, but didn’t really know how to fill that time. And while they didn’t do the wrong thing by going in the opposite direction with high-speed bombs right out of the gate, little to nothing they did during the first ten-to-fifteen minutes mattered at all.

Final Rating: ****1/2

Although it was technically sound and impressive for a standalone match, this match just doesn’t hold up now to the praise it was given. Most of the actual wrestling was great, and from a psychology perspective, Okada fought hard to weaken Tanahashi, even if his strategy started becoming repetitive. But this was a case of two wrestlers trying to stall for time and not knowing how to do so properly. And not only that, but the story lacked the ornate excitement that was on display in both of their previous encounters. Yes, even their first match had more raw drama, even if the wrestling wasn’t as good.

What’s funny, though, is that this match is one of the worst of Tanahashi and Okada’s respective careers; but if most other wrestlers had a contest like this they’d proclaim it as one of their best. Luckily, the Tanahashi-Okada rivalry, by and large, only improves from here.

The fourth match in the Okada/Tanahashi from 2013 was posted last year, so you can read that here.

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