(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada VII - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 9 (2015)

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada VII - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 9 (2015)

It’s time for another chapter in the greatest wrestling rivalry of the 21st century.

Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada is a masterpiece in long-term storytelling. There hasn’t been a wrestling rivalry this deep and intense since All Japan’s 1990s golden age with the Four Pillars of Heaven. These two wrestlers only fought in singles competition on rare occasion; and each time they did it was a treat. New Japan’s bookers knew they had something special with these two and did their best to make it a ‘slow burn’ story. And today we look back at what was supposed to be Okada’s crowning moment, the moment he dethroned Tanahashi to solidify himself as the company’s new ace.

Today we revisit the singles match between Tanahashi and Okada from Wrestle Kingdom IX on January 4th, 2015. 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.

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

This was the seventh singles match between Tanahashi and Okada since their feud began in February 2012. Their last match together was over a year earlier in October 2013. Perhaps to give fans some to breathe and digest the epicness of their feud, Tanahashi and Okada only wrestled each other in tag matches throughout 2014.

During that year, several important things happened that would lead to this match taking place. First, Okada went into Wrestle Kingdom VIII as the reigning and defending IWGP Heavyweight Champion. But for the first time in years, the heavyweight title was not in the main-event spot. Okada’s challenger was Tetsuya Naito, who had won the 2013 G1 Climax tournament. However, fan reaction to Naito had cooled and dropped below what NJPW officials wanted. Thus, a fan vote was held to determine which match would main-event WK8: the Okada-Naito Heavyweight title match, or the Tanahashi-Nakamura Intercontinental title match. The fans chose the Tanahashi-Nakamura match by an overwhelming margin, meaning that Okada, despite being world champion, was forced to play second fiddle to Tanahashi again.

Suddenly, Okada’s self-proclaimed status as ‘the new ace’ was shattered. The ace was the one in the show-closing main-event. Okada was the champion and he had beaten Tanahashi decisively, but he still wasn’t in that main-event spot. The fans loved Tanahashi so much that they wanted him in the main-event spot, regardless of whichever title he challenged for (it also helped that Tanahashi had an equally-long and storied rivalry with Nakamura, and fans were more interested in seeing them main-event than Okada and Tetsuya ‘Blandy McBlandface’ Naito).

Okada accepted this decision and vowed to make it into the Wrestle Kingdom main event one way or another. He had to wait a full year, but he was determined to do it.

Another problem soon emerged. After Okada beat Naito at Wrestle Kingdom and Hirooki Goto after him, Okada lost the title to the debuting AJ Styles. In less than a month, Styles took over the Bullet Club faction from Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) and defeated Okada to become the new IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Normally, losing the title to Styles wouldn’t be that big of an issue (because, duh, it’s AJ Styles). But the aftermath really underscored Okada’s problem. It was Tanahashi, not Okada, that swooped in and beat Styles later that year to become champion and effectively ‘save’ New Japan from the menace of the Bullet Club. Okada couldn’t get it done, so the ‘true’ ace had to do the ‘new’ ace’s job for him.

Without the championship, Okada couldn’t just call Tanahashi out and get a spot in the Tokyo Dome main-event. That left Okada with only one option: he had to win the G1 Climax tournament a second time. Which he did, and once more earned the right to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. But this time, there wouldn’t be any fan-voting shenanigans. Okada would get Tanahashi in the main-event and that was that. Finally, Okada would show to the world that he was better than Tanahashi and deserved to be called the new ace of New Japan.

Or would he?

The match

This match originally took place at Wrestle Kingdom 9 in the Tokyo Dome on January 4th, 2015. It was originally rated ****3/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up over six years later.

They start off with some excellent chain grappling that goes until Tanahashi applies a headlock. Okada counters into a headlock of his own and despite Tanahashi’s best efforts, he keeps it locked in. Tanahashi sends Okada into the ropes but gets knocked down with a shoulder tackle. Okada charges but Tanahashi ducks out of the ring to trip him up and goes back to his own headlock. Okada sends him into the ropes but he knocks Okada down this time. Another chain grappling sequence ends in a stalemate.

They lock up again and fight for control against the ropes, neither man getting control or a clean break. Okada eventually gets control, pats Tanahashi mockingly, and blindsides him with a cheap-shot forearm. Tanahashi takes exception and fires back with hard forearms of his own. Back-and-forth they go trading stiff forearms, elbows and uppercuts. Tanahashi gains control and slams Okada and goes to the second rope, but Okada uppercuts him so hard he falls off and out of the ring.

Okada’s in control as he whips Tanahashi into the barricade and boots him over it. Okada with a draping DDT onto the ringside mats. Okada drags Tanahashi towards the apron and goes for a Tombstone but Tanahashi resists with all his might. Tanahashi sights back, sidesteps, and goes up the ramp for a running charge. He sprints towards Okada for the slingblade…but Okada counters into a Heavy Rain AA slam. Damn, that has to hurt, especially since the ramp is made of steel and only has thin carpeting on top.

Okada rolls Tanahashi into the ring and lands the basement dropkick. He lands some corner forearms and whips Tanahashi into a corner but Tanahashi dodges yet still walks into a boot from Okada. Okada goes for the senton and misses once again, allowing Tanahashi to land a strike combination and a flying forearm smash. A second-rope flipping senton gets Tanahashi a two-count. He charges, but Okada counters with a flapjack.  Tanahashi elbows a charging Okada and goes for the springboard crossbody, but Okada dodges and rolls into the Deep In Debt Submission hold. Okada keeps it locked in for a while until Tanahashi reaches the ropes.

Okada lands a slingshot senton for two and he starts hitting Tanahashi with mocking strikes to the head. He dares Tanahashi to hit him and the ace does, but Okada fires back and demands Tanahashi hit him again. Okada gets a bit too cocky as Tanahashi fires back with a volley of forearms. They go back-and-forth with hard strikes and hold each other by the hair. Tanahashi looks to gain control. Okada fires back with uppercuts. Tanahashi counters an Irish whip. Okada goes for a kick, but Tanahashi blocks and elbows Okada’s foot. Big running dropkick from Okada. he sends Tanahashi flying across the ring.

Okada goes for the Heavy Rain slam but Tanahashi counters into a slingblade for two. Tanahashi charges into a corner but Okada counters and goes for the dropkick out of the ring. But Tanahashi blocks with a kick, only for Okada to fight back and go for a big top-rope move. Tanahashi fights out with elbows and head-butts. High Fly Flow…misses. Okada lands a big uppercut for two and gets the same from the reverse neckbreaker (air raid crash to the knee). Diving elbow drop by Okada. Rainmaker, no, Tanahashi counters into a roll-up for two. Tanahashi catches Okada’s boot but Okada fights out. Dragon screw leg whip by Tanahashi. Okada manages to counter a corner Irish whip but can’t get the running start he needs to charge. Tanahashi sees his opening and lands a dropkick to Okada’s knee.

Okada rolls out of the ring to recover but Tanahashi gives chase. He goes to whip Okada into the barricade but Okada somehow counters. Then Okada goes for the running boot, but again, he has no speed in his step so Tanahashi easily drop toeholds him and sends him careening into and over the barricade. But Tanahashi’s not done. High Fly Flow. He flies all the way past the barricade and onto Okada. The height and distance Tanahashi gets off that dive is amazing.

Tanahashi tosses Okada back into the ring and goes for another high Fly Flow but Okada dodges it. Okada goes for a Rainmaker but Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. High Fly Flow to a standing Okada. Okada rolls through and deadlifts Tanahashi into the Tombstone position, but then Tanahashi counters that with a Tombstone of his own. High Fly Flow to the back. Tanahashi goes for a second one. And he connects! Okada doesn’t get his knees up this time. One, two, thr—NO, Okada kicks out. Somehow, Okada kicks out of two perfect splashes from Tanahashi.

Okada fights out of a Texas Cloverleaf so Tanahashi drops him with another slingblade and steals his trademark pose. Tanahashi goes for a Rainmaker, but Okada ducks it…and drills Tanahashi with a Rainmaker of his own. Tanahashi goes flying end over end. The referee counts one, two, no, Tanahashi kicks out.

Both guys get up slowly and trade forearms, both fighting hard to power through the pain and showcase their fighting spirit. Okada goes for a Tombstone but Tanahashi counters into another roll-up for two. Okada goes for a boot, Tanahashi blocks and dropkicks his weakened knee. Tanahashi slaps the taste out of Okada’s mouth but Okada keeps coming back for more.

Okada falls to his knees but uses Tanahashi to pull himself up. Tanahashi goes for another slap, but Okada counters into a backslide. Tanahashi kicks out. Rainmaker, no, Tanahashi ducks. Dragon suplex, no, Okada blocks it, but can’t avoid the arm-trap bridging German suplex. Yet Okada still kicks out. Tanahashi tries for the dragon suplex again, Okada counters into a bridging German suplex for two. Okada maintains waist control and goes for a Rainmaker, but Tanahashi counters into a bridging dragon suplex for another two-count. Tanahashi charges…and runs into a picture-perfect standing dropkick. Rainmaker, no, roll-up, no, Okada holds onto the ropes. Inverted Dragon screw leg whip. Followed by another one through the ropes. High Fly Flow onto Okada as he’s tangled in the ropes. Another dragon screw and another High Fly Flow. And then one more. Tanahashi turns in midair RVD-style. One, two, three! Tanahashi retains his title and his status as New Japan’s ace.

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 30:57: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Post-match, Tanahashi celebrates in the ring as Okada’s manager Gedo helps him to the back. The camera zooms in on Okada’s face and he is crying. He is so overcome with emotion – anger, frustration, dejection – that he cannot contain himself. He lost in his goal to prove that he was the true ace. Now everyone thinks his words meant nothing. He cannot believe that he lost to Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom again.

Review

Once again, Tanahashi and Okada put on an epic match. This was fantastic. They packed so much more intensity into this match compared to most of their previous ones. They struck a great balance between relying on their tried-and-tested big match formula and adding a few new things into it. Though this match was nowhere near as good as their last match together, it was still great in its own right and still holds up pretty well today.

The match started off decently fast-paced and stayed that way for most of it. This was a shorter match than most of their last matches, and that was actually a benefit here. The match never dragged on at any point and no sequence felt stretched just to pad out the match’s length. And while the first half was filled with solid chain grappling and clever reversals, they really reached another level during the second half. That was when all hell broke loose but in a good way. They fought and countered each other non-stop. Both guys hit each other as hard as possible and neither man was willing to go down. They went so far as to steal each other’s big moves to try and win, which doesn’t happen often in New Japan. That underscored how personal this feud had become.

And the last ten minutes of the match were simply phenomenal. It was one counter after another. There was no way to tell what would happen. These two had become so used to each other’s biggest moves that they knew exactly what to do when the other came charging in with something. It was intense, crazy, and unpredictable.  And this was especially true when both Tanahashi and Okada kicked out of each other’s finishers whereas those same moves had ended matches earlier on in the feud. It showed how both wrestlers were evolving and adapting, and had to come up with new strategies to try and win.

There was much more of a personal edge in this match than before. Okada was more desperate and therefore more aggressive, as he showed with how he wrestled here. Instead of being his usual cocky and composed self, Okada brawled wildly and looked for an advantage wherever he could find it. He found one early on, when he landed a big Heavy Rain slam onto the barricade.

Or at least, that’s what I thought would happen because that would make the most sense. But instead of doing the smart thing and further destroying Tanahashi’s now-badly-weakened back, Okada did his usual mechanical neck-and-head-targeting routine. I think it would’ve been so much better if Okada spent more time attacking Tanahashi’s back – which would’ve made it harder for Tanahashi to do anything, especially dive – instead of playing it safe and relying on what worked in the past. If he was so desperate to win here, why didn’t he try out different strategies?

As great as the match was, I don’t think it was truly on the level of a 5-star epic. While these two did a great job changing things up and adding some variety to their usual sequences, those changes didn’t really happen until the second half of the match. The first half of the match, while technically-strong, was a bit boring. There was no spontaneity infused into anything they did. No last-second Irish whip counters at ringside or any blocks as Okada did the boot over the barricade. This was their seventh match together and a lot of what they did still felt so copy-and-paste. You’d think they’d constantly up the ante by this point and inject more spontaneity into the match but they never did.

I couldn’t help but compare this match to some of the 1990s All Japan classics. In many of those matches, the wrestlers fought in a way that made it impossible to predict what moves would be countered, blocked, reversed, etc. Anything from a big strike to an Irish whip into a hard surface to a key signature move could be attempted, but you wouldn’t know until the last possible second if it would land or not. Those wrestlers’ sense of timing and precision was second to none. Here, Tanahashi and Okada were very much beneath those guys in doing the same. There were a bunch of sequences that were carbon copies of what had taken place in earlier matches, which gave the match an unfortunate sense of predictability that was disappointing considering how wild and unpredictable the closing stretch was.

Lastly, I don’t do this often in these reviews, but I need to include Okada’s post-match reaction to his loss. The cocky Okada that had proclaimed himself ‘the new ace’ was moved to tears over his own failures. He tried so hard and got so far; but in the end, it didn’t even matter. All his hard work, adaptability and determination were for nothing because Tanahashi proved he was still the better wrestler. His reaction was heartbreaking because it sold how much this meant for him. It made the ending bittersweet. Tanahashi’s glorious celebration came at Okada’s expense. Luckily, Okada would bounce back from this loss and learned from his mistakes, and ended up having one more Wrestle Kingdom match with Tanahashi a year later.

Final Rating: ****3/4

I don’t think Meltzer is always right, but he was in this case. This match was great, but by no means was it one of the best matches of all time, or even one of the best in the Tanahashi-Okada rivalry. Any other pair of wrestlers could wrestle like this and they’d say it was their best match ever. For Tanahashi and Okada, it was a step down, but not by much.

It was a terrific match all in all, but a below the standard set by their matches at Invasion Attack 2013 and King of Pro-Wrestling 2013. Compared to those two matches, this one had some glaring flaws that made it great, but not historically-great.

Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this match didn’t reach that next level. Not only did it lack the elements that made those two earlier Tanahashi-Okada matches so legendary, but it also took place immediately after that awesome Nakamura-Ibushi match right before. And considering how much intensity, story and brutality those two wrestlers packed into twenty minutes, there was no way Tanahashi and Okada could top them, especially when half of this match was a re-hash of stuff we had seen before.

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