(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada IX - NJPW G1 Climax 2016

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada IX - NJPW G1 Climax 2016

Hiroshi Tanahashi. Kazuchika Okada. For most modern fans, this is the greatest feud of the past decade. It spanned thirteen matches over the course of seven years. It featured barn-burner after barn-burner. Their matches told such a deep, intense, and exciting story that nothing has managed to match it anywhere else in the world. There might be a handful of rivalries from previous decades that might match or surpass it, but even then it’s debatable.

Today we continue our track through their tapestry of a story by visiting one of their ‘lesser’ matches. It wasn’t a 5-star epic according to the Wrestling Observer, but it was pretty close to it. it was said to have been amazing when it first came out, and that’s saying something. This match took place on August 12th, 2016, and New Japan also showcased two more stellar matches right afterward, one on August 13th and one on August 14th. Looking back now, does this match deserve to be in the same conversation as those other two? Is it better than either one or both? Or was it overrated? There’s only one way to find out.

Let’s revisit the singles match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada from the 2016 G1 Climax Tournament. 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. And their 8th match together from Wrestle Kingdom 10 can be found 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

Eight months earlier, Okada finally achieved his dream. After years of struggling, he beat Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom. In doing so, not only did he get the main-event win that had eluded him twice before, but he also supplanted Tanahashi as New Japan’s ace. Tanahashi, New Japan’s wrestling god, was no longer at the top of the mountain. He had been cast aside by a better man. And he accepted that fate like a man and moved on to other things.

In the months leading up to this tournament, both Tanahashi and Okada were preoccupied with other rivalries. Tanahashi had entered a feud with Kenny Omega and The Elite and spent most of his time in six-man tag matches. Meanwhile, Okada was taking on new challengers for his title. But his reign ended when Tetsuya Naito beat him at Invasion Attack 2016 after Naito’s buddies from Los Ignobernables de Japon and the debuting SANADA attacked him. Okada had to deal with them throughout the spring and early summer until he recaptured the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the fourth time.

But the G1 changed things. Omega and Naito, Tanahashi’s and Okada’s new respective rivals, were in a different tournament block. With the G1, Okada had to deal with a new set of challenges. If he got pinned during the G1, that person could challenge him for his world title (which is what happened with NOAH’s Naomichi Marufuji, who was visiting for this tournament). Meanwhile, Tanahashi saw that he and Okada were in the same block and decided that it was time to see if Okada had grown into the big shoes of being company ace, or if he – Tanahashi – was still the better wrestler.

The match

This match originally took place on August 12th, 2016 during New Japan’s G1 Climax tournament. It was originally rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Looking back now, let’s see how well it holds up.

A great technical exchange opens the match as the crowd chants for Tanahashi. They lock-up and Okada does the mocking chest pats he usually does, but this time Tanahashi does the same and then slaps him in the mouth. Okada fires back with forearms and a running shoulder tackle. Tanahashi leapfrogs over Okada, Okada goes for the Rainmaker and goes for a sunset flip, Okada counters with a jackknife and then deadlifts Tanahashi up and hits him with the reverse neckbreaker to the knee. Okada’s not done. He lands a big dropkick followed by a diving elbow drop. Rainmaker pose. He waistlocks Tanahashi. Tanahashi escapes the rainmaker lariat with a cradle for a two-count and dropkicks Okada’s knee. Great start to the match.

Both men take a while to recover and then Okada lands a senton atomico for a one-count. Okada applies a unique-looking double leg arm-trap stretch that puts tons of pressure on Tanahashi’s shoulders as he’s forced onto one side to avoid being pinned. Tanahashi basically does a sit-up in midair against gravity but Okada still knocks him down and gets a two-count. Tanahashi fights back and goes for a dragon screw off an Okada big boot but Okada blocks. Okada fights out of another dragon screw attempt to Tanahashi dropkicks his other leg instead.

Tanahashi brutalizes Okada’s left leg with kicks, knees, stomps and submission holds until Okada reaches the ropes. He follows with a double leglock that targets both knees and Okada tries to fight out with stiff chest chops. Tanahashi doesn’t let go so Okada resorts to dragging himself – and therefore Tanahashi – to the ropes. Okada counters a corner Irish whip and charges (slowly) but gets booted before he can do anything. Tanahashi rushes him but Okada answers with a big back body drop. Okada starts making a comeback with back elbows and tackles. He lands a corner clothesline and a DDT then kips-up, but looks ti still be in pain as the ten-minute mark passes.

Okada lands a running uppercut for a two-count and locks in the Red Ink submission hold. Tanahashi crawls to the ropes but Okada tightens the hold just as Tanahashi gets close enough to reach out and grab the ropes. He gets a ropebreak eventually and kicks at Okada’s knees but eats an uppercut for his efforts. Tanahashi bounces out of a corner with a flying forearm out of nowhere. The two men trade strikes in the middle of the ring and Tanahashi wins with a big uppercut. They dodge corner clotheslines from each other and Okada dropkicks Tanahashi out of the ring.

Okada whips Tanahashi into the barricade and goes to boot him over it. But this time Tanahashi catches his leg and dragon screws it using the steel barricade. There’s something new. Tanahashi returns to the ring and then ascends the top rope. Frog Splash from to the floor.

Tanahashi breaks the referee’s count to drag Okada back into the ring. But before he can, Okada cuts him off and drops him with a Tombstone Piledriver right on the ringside mats. The referee starts counting both men again. Okada gets in at sixteen out of twenty. Tanahashi barely gets in at 19.5. Okada goes for a missile dropkick. Tanahashi dodges and lands a dragon screw. That’s followed by an inverted one on the same leg. Tanahashi goes for the Texas cloverleaf. Okada reaches the ropes before he can apply it fully. Tanahashi goes for a slingblade. Okada tries to counter into a Tombstone. Tanahashi escapes and charges. Okada counters and goes for Heavy Rain (which is like John Cena’s AA). Tanahashi counters it into a slingblade in midair. Great counter sequence.

Okada escapes a dragon suplex and tries to fight out of an arm-trap German but can’t. Tanahashi drops him on his head and bridges but only gets two. Tanahashi goes for the High Fly Flow but Okada uppercuts him first. Both men struggle on the top rope, trying to throw each other off of it. Tanahashi elbows Okada down and soars through the air. High Fly Flow…misses. Okada lands a sick dropkick to the back of Tanahashi’s head. Followed by a gorgeous standing dropkick. Raimaker la—no, Tanahashi lands a rainmaker slingblade. Both men collapse again.

Tanahashi charges into a corner but Okada goes for the reverse neckbreaker. Tanahashi lands on the apron and the two of them trade forearms. Okada gains the advantage and charges for a boot. But Tanahashi catches it again and stunners it off the top rope. He follows with a dragon screw to the floor. He applies the Texas Cloverleaf in the ring. Okada fights and fights and then makes it to the ropes.

Five minutes left in the match.

Okada reverses an Irish whip and goes for a dropkick but Tanahashi holds onto the ropes and lands a reverse slingblade. Okada gets dropped on his face. The crowd erupts in cheers as he climbs the turnbuckle. High Fly Flow to the back. Tanahashi’s not done. He goes for another… and Okada gets his knees up.

Three minutes left.

Okada avoids a dragon suplex by grabbing the ropes and then goes for a Tombstone. But Tanahashi reverses it and Tombstones Okada instead. He follows with some kind of standing slingblade/neckbreaker and goes back to the top rope.

Two minutes left.

Tanahashi dives. Okada dropkicks him in midair. He goes for the Rainmaker. Tanahashi ducks and slaps him hard. Tanahashi charges. Okada ducks and lands a German suplex and goes for the Rainmaker again. Tanahashi slaps him once more. But Okada maintains wrist control. And drills Tanahashi with a vicious Rainmaker Lariat! But Okada’s not done. He wants to end this definitively. He goes for another one. Tanahashi counters into a bridging Dragon suplex. One, two, no, Okada kicks out at 2.9.

One minute left.

Tanahashi goes for the standing twisting neckbreaker. Okada counters with a Tombstone. One, two, kickout. Okada tries a Rainmaker. Tanahashi ducks and tries his own Rainmaker. Okada ducks and goes for yet another one. Tanahashi ducks and lands another slingblade.

Thirty seconds left.

Tanahashi goes to the top rope.

Twenty seconds left.

Tanahashi connects with a standing High Fly flow. But it’s not enough to keep Okada down.

Ten seconds left.

Tanahashi connects again with the High Fly Flow.

One…two… THE BELL RINGS! Time has run out. Tanahashi took one second too many.

Match result: 30-minute DRAW

Review

That was an excellent wrestling match. Those thirty minutes just flew by. It was one of the best examples of a time limit making sense and being used to its maximum. And even though it had a lot of repetition and a pretty boring middle, I think that this was overall a solid and exciting wrestling match.

Since this was their ninth singles match, Okada and Tanahashi went out of their way to do something different in this match to make the contest unique. That’s why they opened with a blistering back-and-forth sequence and lots of high-impact moves early instead of the usual feeling out sequence that tends to get stretched out. Okada tried his best to maintain control during the first third, but Tanahashi proved himself the cleverer of the two by attacking not one but both of his knees. You would think he would’ve learned his lesson by now and been far more careful when it came to extending or exposing his legs when facing Tanahashi, but he didn’t and, alas, it led to a retread of familiar territory.

The middle of the match was largely forgettable with both guys hitting the same big moves that they had done before. Tanahashi dove from the top rope to the floor, which is amazing in a vacuum. But when you see it in every match opposite Okada it starts to lose its lustre, especially when there’s never any deviation in the sequence. I don’t think it would hurt for Okada to, for instance, pull a John Cena and counter the High Fly Flow into a big slam or something. Doing so would make Tanahashi second guess doing that risky dive and would make the match more unpredictable.

And once again, Tanahashi’s extensive legwork was for nothing because, a) it didn’t parlay into the finishing sequence that much; and b) Okada’s leg selling was once again spotty at best. It isn’t a matter of how deeply or how realistically he sells at this point. It’s more about how Okada structured this match. Here, he took multiple kicks and submission holds to his legs, yet soon afterwards he was running, jumping and kicking as though they were fine. There was barely and hint that all of Tanahashi’s legwork had any meaning to the match. As a result, those long limbwork segments came across more like time wasters than something meaningful that could lead to a submission victory.

That said, the last ten minutes of the match were absolutely, mind-numbingly awesome. Tanahashi and Okada created some new sequences and upped their reversal game once again. They kept reversing and countering each other during that final third like no one else. They knew each other so well and had each other so well-scouted. They were masters at building up those sequences and leaving viewers watching with anticipation over how they would end. It was a perfect example of making a finishing stretch dramatic and unpredictable.

Both guys also added elements of previous matches to push this larger story forward. Okada included the ‘wrist-control’ element that became crucial in their Wrestle Kingdom 10 match and Tanahashi kept finding clever ways to land his frog splash finisher that got the job done more often than not. That led to one of the most exciting finishes in New Japan History. Tanahashi was off by literally one second. One second. Had the referee had enough time to hit the mat one more time Tanahashi would’ve won. Maybe it was exhaustion, maybe it was desperation, or maybe it was cockiness. Whatever it was, Tanahashi had to land the High Fly Flow to win. But time was against him and he ended up drawing with Okada instead of getting the win he so desperately needed.

With that draw, the series between Tanahashi Okada went to 4 wins for Okada, 4 wins for Tanahashi, and two draws. But worse, the draw decision also had immediate consequences. By drawing, both Tanahashi and Okada only got 1 point in their block. Because of that, they tied for second place in their block and neither would advance to the finals of the G1. Instead, that honor went to, of all people, Hirooki Goto, who went on to face Kenny Omega in one hell of an exciting G1 Climax finals contest.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This match would’ve been much better if there was a bit more consistency to it. As much as I like Okada as a wrestler, I think he had an off day here. His inconsistent selling was pretty glaring here as it had been in his other matches with Tanahashi. And while normally I can overlook that if it’s minor, his lack of consistent selling was so critical to the progression of the match’s story that it prevented this match from reaching any higher level of greatness. And while some might call this a MOTYC, I just don’t see it. Especially considering that, despite some novelty and unique twists, the match featured a lot of repetition of stuff these two had delivered before.

That’s not to say it’s an outwardly bad match; Okada and Tanahashi have had worse matches but they’ve also had better. The final ten minutes make up for any slowness and disappointment during the middle. When they want to, these two wrestlers can produce magic together. Their chemistry is insane. The story between them is marvelous. The wrestling technique is world-class. That’s why this match, despite its flaws, is still so highly-recommended.

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