The rivalry between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada is a perfect case study in successful long-term thinking in pro-wrestling. New Japan’s bookers took their time with this feud and stretched it out over the course of several years. But the fans never got tired of waiting or lost their minds in anticipation. Instead, they understood the nuances of the larger story’s direction and appreciated the subtleties between individual matches.
Today we look at a match that exemplifies that approach perfectly. It isn’t seen as one of the top matches in their feud, but it’s still an awesome match in its own right. And one of the reasons for that is because the wrestlers decided to stretch things out and go in a different direction from the one everyone was expecting, which only made their next match even more highly anticipated.
It’s time for us to look back at the fifth singles match between Tanahashi and ‘Rainmaker’ Okada, which took place during the 2013 G1 Climax tournament.
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.
Four months earlier at Invasion Attack, Okada beat Tanahashi for the second time to re-capture the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. No longer considered a joke wrestler with a fluke win over the ace, Okada was now seen as a big deal in New Japan. He was the world champion and wanted to surpass Tanahashi in every conceivable way. But to do that, he had to overcome another big obstacle: the G1 Climax.
The G1 is NJPW’s premier singles tournament and has a lot of high stakes. That isn’t just because the winner gets a world title shot at the following year’s Wrestle Kingdom. It’s also because stablemates can face each other in singles competition. NJPW’s entire roster is split into perpetually-warring factions that trade wins and losses throughout the year, without one ever really achieving complete control. Wrestlers within those factions never face off in singles competition against each other, except during the G1. Once the G1 starts, personal glory trumps the stable.
The good news for Okada was that he, as a member of the CHAOS stable at the time, didn’t have to face faction leader Shinsuke Nakamura during the G1. The bad news for Okada was that he was in the same bracket as Tanahashi, and only one of them could advance to the finals.
For Tanahashi, the scars of his April battle with Okada were still fresh and he wanted revenge. He hoped that a win here would help him bounce back from a major loss and go back to the Wrestle Kingdom main event where he felt he belonged. For Okada, this was another chance for him to show that he was at least as good as Tanahashi. He had his big win, sure, but Okada had yet to beat Tanahashi more than once in consecutive singles matches.
So the question everyone wanted to be answered was, which of these two amazing wrestlers would win in the G1 Climax?
This match originally took place on August 10th, 2013 during NJPW’s annual G1 Climax tournament and has a 30-minute time limit. It was rated ****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how good the match looks now after so much time has passed.
Okada gets a clean break and pats Tanahashi mockingly. Tanahashi goes for a kick but Okada blocks and lands some stiff uppercuts. He goes for a dropkick but Tanahashi holds onto the ropes. Tanahashi charges, Okada counters and goes for the Rainmaker, Tanahashi counters into a small package and gets 2.5. Okada escapes from the ring. Great start to the match.
Okada gets back in the ring and the two wrestlers trade armlocks for a bit until Tanahashi counters into a leglock. Some chain grappling ensues with both wrestlers trading control back-and-forth. Okada wrestles his way into a side headlock but gets knocked down by a shoulder tackle. Okada whips Tanahashi into the ropes and Tanahashi goes for the dropkick to the knee but Okada dodges it. Tanahashi tries to kick that knee a second time but Okada dodges once more. He’s learning. Tanahashi fights out of a corner and lands a springboard crossbody as the five-minute mark passes.
Okada charges but Tanahashi counters into an armlock to weaken Okada’s main striking arm. Okada reaches the ropes but Tanahashi reapplies the hold and attacks the arm some more. Tanahashi applies a short-arm scissor and wrenches it hard as Okada tries to float over into a pin but can’t. Okada uses his long legs to reach the ropes and Tanahashi goes back to stomping on Okada’s arm. He wrenches Okada’s arm through the ropes and then charges, but Okada counters with a boot. Okada goes for the corner dropkick, Tanahashi goes for a boot, but Okada blocks that and lands a draping DDT instead. It’s great to see these two wrestlers coming up with new counters for each other.
Okada lands a swinging neckbreaker but Tanahashi gets a sudden second wind and lands hard body shots. He slams Okada and goes for the second-rope senton but Okada springs up and dropkicks him out of nowhere. Tanahashi falls ringside and Okada uses the barricade to crank Tanahashi’s neck. He maintains control by whipping Tanahashi into the barricade then booting him off of it, sending Tanahashi into the fans.
Tanahashi makes it into the ring at the count of seventeen and eats a running basement dropkick but kicks out. Okada applies the Deep In Debt submission hold and Tanahashi tries and fails to bridge or escape out, so he grabs the ropes for safety. But Okada doesn’t let go right away and makes sure to wrench the hold a bit more. Okada lands stiff forearms and then demands Tanahashi hit him back, which the ace does. Okada absorbs all of them like they’re nothing and plants Tanahashi with a swinging neckbreaker. He follows with the arm-trap neck stretch thing, and then shuts down another Tanahashi comeback attempt with hard strikes.
Okada goes for a senton but Tanahashi dodges it and then counters an Irish whip with a flying forearm. A second-rope senton gets Tanahashi a two-count. Tanahashi goes to whip Okada into a corner, Okada counters, but Tanahashi counters that into a dropkick to the knee and a leg clip. He follows with a second-rope frog splash directly onto Okada’s legs and a dragon screw leg whip, shutting down Okada’s advantage completely.
Okada rolls out of the ring for safety, but gets none as Tanahashi lands his High Fly Flow from the top rope to the floor. Okada takes more time getting back into the ring and eats another dragon screw when he does. Tanahashi goes for the Texas Cloverleaf but Okada reaches the ropes quickly, so Tanahashi stomps the hell out of his leg. Tanahashi goes to whip Okada off the ropes but Okada barely makes it three feet forward before collapsing. His legs are in that much pain. Tanahashi charges for a slingblade but walks into a flapjack out of nowhere.
Both men are down as the fans are split evenly between them. They go for their trademark forearm exchange but Okada’s leg gives out again and he collapses. He tries to muster enough strength for a cheap-shot, but collapses before making contact. Then he gets a sudden second wind and starts firing up. They go back and forth, neither man faltering. Tanahashi goes for a kick, Okada counters into a DDT. Heavy Rain slam. Tanahashi kicks out. Okada hobbles to the corner for his diving elbow and somehow lands it fully, but falls against the ropes due to pain in his leg. Rainmaker pose. Okada goes for his finisher, Tanahashi counters. He goes for a slingblade, no wait, he changes his mind and goes for the dragon suplex. Okada fights out. Arm-trap birding German suplex. Okada kicks out but Tanahashi maintains waist control. Tanahashi goes for the dragon suplex but Okada counters into the reverse neckbreaker. Both men collapse. The crowd is now firmly behind Okada.
Both wrestlers get up slowly and trade strikes, with Tanahashi maintaining his focus on Okada’s left knee. Okada fires back but Tanahashi lands hard slaps and then charges. Okada goes to counter with a dropkick but Tanahashi blocks it. Dragon screw leg whips. Texas Cloverleaf. Okada crawls to the ropes. Tanahashi pulls him away and sits back. But it isn’t enough as Okada gets to the ropes for safety.
Tanahashi does his own pose to mock Okada and charges, but Okada dodges and sends him into the ropes. He skins the cat and comes back in, ducks a clothesline, and connects with the slingblade. There are five minutes left as Tanahashi climbs to the top rope. High Fly Flow…misses. Okada rolls out of the way in time.
Tanahashi charges but Okada goes to counter into the reverse neckbreaker again, but this time Tanahashi counters into a sunset flip. But he doesn’t get the pin this time. Okada counters into the Red Ink submission hold (cross-legged STF). Tanahashi gets to the ropes right away. Okada goes for the Tombstone, Tanahashi escapes and dropkicks his knee. Tanahashi charges, Okada sidesteps and dropkicks his head. Tombstone Piledriver connects. Rainmaker, Tanahashi ducks and charges, Okada blocks, Tanahashi goes behind, and lands a Rainmaker of his own. Tanahashi drills Okada with his own finisher. Both men go down. Terrific countering sequence.
Tanahashi gets up first and lands a bridging dragon suplex for a 2.8-count and follows with the Styles Clash. But he’s done yet. High Fly Flow…connects with Okada’s knees. Okada’s in immense pain clasping his knee as Tanahashi lies motionless nearby.
Sixty seconds left.
Okada struggles hard to pull Tanahashi to his feet. He goes for the Rainmaker but Tanahashi elbows out.
Thirty seconds left.
He tries again and Tanahashi escapes but walks into a massive dropkick from Okada.
Ten seconds left.
Okada goes for another Rainmaker lariat but Tanahashi ducks it. Both men collapse. The bell rings as time runs out.
Match result: 30-minute time-limit draw
Wow, what a tremendous wrestling match. Those thirty minutes just flew by. These two wrestlers started off firing on all cylinders and never really slowed down. They made the most out of what they had and turned this into one of the best G1 matches of all time.
The time limit was a huge asset because it gave the match some much-much needed urgency. There was no room for either of them to get comfortable or stretch anything out. Time was against them, so both Tanahashi and Okada worked hard to find an avenue to victory. They worked their tried-and-tested formula once again, but this time with some added twists. Okada showed he had learned from his past mistakes by avoiding Tanahashi’s dropkick to the knee whenever possible, and remained one step ahead of Tanahashi for most of the first half of the match.
But while Okada stayed on the same path as before – attacking Tanahashi’s neck with savage precision – Tanahashi spiced things up by first attacking Okada’s arm and not attacking his legs until much later in the match. That two-pronged strategy by Tanahashi weakened Okada so badly that he became a one-legged and one-armed man in an ass-kicking contest. Okada sold amazingly for Tanahashi here. He could hardly stay standing as he tried to show his inner toughness by trading stiff forearms with Tanahashi. At one point, he couldn’t even run three steps without falling due to how viciously Tanahashi had destroyed his legs. And as the match wore on, it became harder for Okada to land any big moves because both his left knee and his right arm were no longer strong enough to help him win.
And while Tanahashi and Okada’s matches together have largely been defined by their explosive and wildly-unpredictable finishing stretches, they did even better than normal here. Tanahashi kept Okada (and everyone else, for that matter) guessing what he’d do, and took everyone completely by surprise when he faked a slingblade into a dragon suplex. And when he took a page out of Okada’s playbook and dropped him with his own Rainmaker lariat, it was an awesome piece of poetic justice and revenge for all of the cheap shots Okada had tried, like not letting go on a rope break or using the barricade for extra damage on a chinlock.
But the best part of this match by a long shot was how it ended. Both men collapsed off a failed Rainmaker and the time ran out. For the first time, a Tanahashi-Okada match ended in a draw. With that result, their score was 2-2-1. That inconclusive result left people wondering which of them was the better man. It didn’t just leave room for a possible rematch; it necessitated a rematch. And luckily, one would come two months later at the appropriately-titled King of Pro-Wrestling event.
My only real gripe with this match was that, despite the above praises, there was still a sense of repetition here. Though the match started off a bit different, it did also feel formulaic at times and some stuff they did didn’t really matter that much. There were some things that both Okada and Tanahashi did here that just didn’t make sense, especially since the exact same things happened in their previous matches. Okada went for the standing senton and missed once again, which gave Tanahashi the chance to regain control. And Tanahashi flew from the top rope and landed his High Fly Flow from the top turnbuckle to the floor. Okada had adapted to Tanahashi’s other biggest moves, but not these two. And seeing Okada still fall for the same traps five matches into their series just seemed out of place.
It’s a minor issue, but one that cannot be ignored. Yes, these two have a winning formula for their matches and stuck to it again here because they knew it worked before and would work again. But there’s always room to improve on a formula, even one as successful as this one. Those things didn’t necessarily harm the match, but they didn’t add much to it, either.
Even making slight variations – like Okada pretending to jump at first and then landing on Tanahashi when he rolled over, or Okada countering the High Fly Flow into a powerslam onto the mats – would’ve brought this match to the next level of greatness by adding some much-needed unpredictability to a match that’s largely formulaic.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was one of the best G1 Climax matches of all time. Tanahashi and Okada walked in as gladiators ready to fight to the death and pretty much killed each other to try and win. They fought valiantly and largely improved on an already-spectacular big match formula. And by the time the match ended in a draw, both wrestlers looked tremendous and better than ever. Okada looked as tough as ever by surviving Tanahashi’s brutal offensive strategy and Tanahashi was lucky to have dodged that last Rainmaker.
This was a much-needed chapter in the storied Tanahashi-Okada rivalry. Instead of doing straight for a tie-breaker since they had two wins each, they went to a draw to show how intensely they could fight. They answered a question that many fans had on their minds: what if Tanahashi and Okada had a time limit imposed on them? And the answer was simple: by this point in their rivalry, 30 minutes was not enough for them. They needed more time to wrestle, fight, kick out, reverse and counter each other. And luckily, those wanting a more decisive match result would get their wish in two months’ time.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.