(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kazuchika Okada vs. Naomichi Marufuji Double Feature (G1 Climax & KOPW 2016), by Alex Podgorski

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kazuchika Okada vs. Naomichi Marufuji Double Feature (G1 Climax & KOPW 2016), by Alex Podgorski

I’m doing something different this time: I’m reviewing two matches in one entry. The reason I’m doing this is because the second match is so deeply tied to the first that they cannot be separated. The first match creates the second one, and parts of the first story’s match bleed into the second one. So basically you’re getting a 2-for-1 deal with this review.

Today we review two matches between two of Japan’s top wrestlers: NJPW’s Kazuchika Okada and NOAH’s Naomichi Marufuji. The first one was their singles match in the 2016 G1 Climax Tournament and the second was Marufuji’s title shot against Okada at King of Pro-Wrestling 2016. Both matches have been highly praised by both wrestling fans and commentators. Now, let’s look back to see if these two matches are indeed as good as they say.

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

In 2015, NJPW reformed their working relationship with NOAH, which led to a year-long feud involving NJPW’s Suzuki-gun stable invading and taking control of NOAH. Sadly, that rivalry was poorly-booked, which led to poor ticket sales and viewership for NOAH, which in turn led to that relationship souring. To try and make amends, NJPW invited Marufuji, NOAH’s president and ace performer, to NJPW’s annual G1 Climax tournament.

Kazuchika Okada vs Naomichi Marufuji – NJPW G1 Climax Tournament, July 18th, 2016

This is a G1 Climax singles match between Okada and Marufuji, who are in the same tournament block. There’s a rule in New Japan that if the defending champion gets pinned in singles competition, whoever pins them is pretty much guaranteed a title shot somewhere down the road. Let’s see if Marufuji, an outside from NOAH, can make that happen here.

This match originally occurred on July 18th, 2016, on the first night of the 2016 G1 Climax tournament. It was originally rated ****1/2 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see if this match really was that good.

The bell rings and the crowd are firmly behind Okada. After some teasing, they lock-up and Okada wrestles his way into an armlock. They both channel Tiger Mask and try to escape, but Okada manages to maintain wrist control. Okada takes Marufuji down with a shoulder tackle, then they crisscross and Marufuji dodges two Rainmakers. Okada dodges a multitude of kicks from Marufuji, leading to a standoff and loud applause from the crowd.

They lock up again and Okada gets a clean break on the ropes, then pats Marufuji mockingly. An angry Marufuji runs but gets kicked in the gut and eats a basement dropkick from Okada. Okada lands a swinging neckbreaker for two and applies a facelock. Marufuji crawls to the ropes, then reverses an Irish whip into a corner. Okada counters him and prepares for his standing corner dropkick but Marufuji fights out. Marufuji dives off the top rope and lands a dropkick onto Okada’s arm as he held onto the ropes. Okada screams out in pain and escapes the ring. Sensing an opportunity, Marufuji gives chase and smashes Okada shoulder-first into the steel ringpost. He continues the onslaught by crushing Okada’s hand between pieces of the steel barricade. Okada slowly returns to the ring and Marufuji applies an armbar but Okada reaches the ropes quickly. He tries to fire back with forearms but doing so causes him too much pain. Marufuji answers with hard chops to the chest as Okada staggers around the ring virtually helpless. Marufuji lands more stiff shots on the corner and wrenches Okada’s weakened arm some more. He lands a corner splash and goes to whip Okada but Okada reverses and lands a big back body drop.

After recovering, Okada begins his comeback with running forearms and counters another Irish whip from Marufuji with a running forearm. Now it’s Okada’s turn to land a corner splash and follows that with a DDT. A running uppercut gets Okada a two-count. He’s still struggling with that arm. He slams Marufuji and goes to the top rope for the elbow drop but Marufuji moves so Okada rolls through. Okada charges but Marufuji confuses him and lands a big clothesline of his own. Okada rolls out of the ring and holds himself up with one arm on the apron.

Bad idea.

Marufuji spots this and dives over the ropes and onto Okada’s injured arm some more. Marufuji smashes Okada’s hand into the apron and stretches it around the ringpost. Back in the ring, Marufuji continues to target Okada’s right arm with kicks and stretches, weakening his patented Rainmaker. Marufuji applies a fujiwara armbar that goes on for quite a bit until Okada reaches the ropes. He maintains control with chops to the chest and forearms to the arm, but Okada counters Marufuji’s Irish whip with a desperation flapjack.

Both men get up and trade hard strikes in the middle of the ring. Neither one backs down and Marufuji wins the exchange. Okada tries to counter his whip again, but Marufuji counters his counter into a dropkick that sends Okada back out of the ring. Plancha by Marufuji. Okada tries to reverse a whip into the barricade, but Marufuji stops himself from hitting the steel and jumps onto the top turnbuckle. Shotgun dropkick from the top rope hitting Okada’s shoulder. Marufuji pins. Okada barely kicks out. Marufuji signals the end. He goes for the shiranui (Sliced Bread #2), no, Okada fights out. Marufuji goes for a flip, Okada catches him. Reverse neckbreaker. Diving elbow drop. Okada poses, signaling the end. Rainmak—no, Marufuji fights out. More hard strikes from Marufuji. Shiranui—no, Okada dropkicks Marufuji onto the top turnbuckle.

Okada hoists him into the Tombstone position. Marufuji escapes and hits more kicks. He charges…and walks into a dropkick from Okada. Rainmaker, no, Marufuji reverses. Okada out-grapples him into a Bridging German Suplex. Rainmaker attempt again. Marufuji bicycle knees Okada’s arm. Massive hook kick. Bicycle knee strike. Pole Shift (Fisherman Piledriver) from Marufuji. One, two, three! Marufuji wins. Okada has been pinned.

Winner after 19:07: Naomichi Marufuji

 

Review

I liked this match. It had a good story from the beginning with Marufuji targeting Okada’s arm almost right away. Marufuji knew that was Okada’s main Rainmaker arm so he needed to neutralize it quickly. And as much as Okada tried to play the tough guy, he wasn’t able to withstand Marufuji’s onslaught. He sold like a boss for Marufuji, giving more legitimacy to Marufuji’s chops and armwork. And even though Okada was NJPW’s ace here, Marufuji was older and more experienced, which enabled him to have Okada scouted for most of the match.

It was a shocking loss for Okada, especially since it was to an outsider like Marufuji. In winning, Marufuji earned a shot for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship later in the year. We’ll get to that review shortly.

And yet, I can’t see this match as being on the same level as five-star classics. While Marufuji’s strategy was executed perfectly, I think the match lacked some raw excitement to bring it to that next level. And even though the crowd really bought into Okada’s struggle to withstand Marufuji’s onslaught, I really think the way they laid their match out left something to be desired. It was clear from how this match progressed that it was a setup match. It was clearly meant to conclude in a later contest instead of being a standalone story.

I also didn’t like how Okada kept using his right arm as an offensive weapon even after all the damage Marufuji did do it. A great example of this was his diving elbow drop. He had a completely healthy left arm he could’ve used for this purpose, yet chose to use the weakened right arm. Maybe he was trying to tell the story of trying to pretend he wasn’t in pain. Or maybe he was trying to tell everyone that he was in pain but it wasn’t as bad as Marufuji made it look. In my opinion, that story would’ve been better told if he was forced to reverse everything and use his left arm for everything. That would’ve shown Okada to be adaptable to a dangerous situation while also selling the gravity of Marufuji’s damage to him.

Final Rating: ****1/2

This match was solid by Okada’s standards but nothing mind-blowing. It was all about making Marufuji into a credible threat, which they accomplished by having Marufuji dismantle Okada’s signature lariat arm and then kick the crap out of him. And while the match succeeded in its intended goal, it just wasn’t as exciting as other Okada singles matches. Both he and Marufuji fought well here, but because it was obvious they were leading to a second half to this story, this match by itself doesn’t hold a candle to what Okada had done in the past and would do in the future.

If you’re a fan of a wrestling match in which a new challenger comes in and proves themselves worthy of challenging for the title right away, you’ll find something to like here. Especially since Marufuji seems to be immune to the effects of time, as he both looks and wrestles like it’s 2006 and not 2016. And that’s saying a lot, considering the brutal and taxing style he trained in.

 

Kazuchika Okada vs Naomichi Marufuji – NJPW King of Pro-Wrestling 2016

This match originally took place on October 10th, 2016. It was rated ****3/4 (in other words, nearly perfect) by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see if that rating still makes sense now.

This is for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The bell rings and the crowd are behind Okada as usual. Nothing happens for the first minute and they lock up. Marufuji lands some Tiger Mask-style flips and takes Okada down by his arm, which gets loud applause. He applies an armlock until Okada reaches the ropes, and on the clean break Okada pats him mockingly. Okada dodges a sudden charge and goes from a headlock to a shoulder tackle on Marufuji. Marufuji sends Okada to the ropes and jumps in preparation for a leapfrog, but Okada holds onto the ropes and catches Marufuji off guard with a big boot and a back body drop. Okada lands a neckbreaker for two and applies a facelock. Marufuji crawls to the ropes so Okada snapmares him and lands a basement dropkick that sends Marufuji out of the ring.

Okada goes to whip Marufuji into the barricade but Marufuji counters that on him and then lands a running bulldog over the barricade. That was clever. Marufuji gets a spattering of chants as he smashes Okada’s face into the ringpost and lands a big kick through the ropes and onto Okada’s face. Okada returns to the ring at the count of 14 (of 20) and Marufuji lands some brutal chops to Okada’s chest. He applies a grounded headlock and Okada reaches the ropes quickly. Okada tries to fire back with forearm shots but Marufuji stops him dead in his tracks with another chop. Both guys fight hard, trading strikes and refusing to back down. Marufuji wins this exchange and goes for a facelock of his own, followed by a figure-4 neck lock. With Okada in that hold, Marufuji grabs his right (lariat) arm and starts stretching it. Okada pushes himself towards the ropes to break the hold, but not before Marufuji gives him a parting shot in the form of a stomp to the elbow.

Marufuji lands more hard chops to Okada’s chest and he slumps down in the corner. He applies a cravat and again Okada tries to fight out but just gets shut down with more chops. Marufuji whips Okada into the corner but Okada dodges his charge, and then winds up and lands a big running forearm smash. Okada begins his comeback with some running forearms and counters Marufuji’s counter with a DDT. Marufuji dodges a corner charge but the two of them continue countering each other until Okada lands his standing corner dropkick, sending Marufuji down and out of the ring.

At ringside, Okada whips Marufuji into the barricade but Marufuji stops himself and kicks Okada hard. He teases a Shiranui using the barricade but Okada escapes and both guys hit each other hard. Okada answers with a huge running crossbody over the barricade and into the fans. Eventually, Okada gets Marufuji back in the ring and charges towards a corner. But Marufuji blocks this and multiple other charges in the corner and then unloads a flurry of brutally hard strikes. A big thrust kick drops Okada and both men collapse. Okada goes for an Irish whip but Marufuji flips through into his own dropkick that sends Okada back outside. Marufuji goes to suplex Okada over the top rope but Okada overpowers him and Marufuji lands on the apron. Marufuji gets the upper hand with a big chop to Okada’s chest. Piledriver on the apron! Damn, what a brutal landing for Okada.

Okada barely makes it back to the ring at the count of 18 and as soon as he does, Marufuji dropkicks his shoulder for a close two-count. Marufuji lands a corner splash and charges but talks into a flapjack from Okada. Both men get up slowly. Marufuji leapfrogs over a charging Okada, they block each other’s kicks and Marufuji lands another big chop. Marufuji charges but walks into a reverse neckbreaker. Scoop slam and diving elbow drop by Okada. Rainmaker pose. Okada goes for his finisher. Marufuji escapes with a cobra clutch and neck scissors. Fantastic counter. He’s putting on double the pressure on Okada’s neck. Okada looks like he’s fading. The ref raises his arm to see if he’s conscious. It falls one…twice…no, Okada still has some life left in him. He gets to his feet so Marufuji lands a backstabber. Now Marufuji signals the end. He goes for the Shiranui, Okada escapes and lands a big uppercut. They both charge at each other. Marufuji lands a big thrust kick. Okada answers with a dropkick. Marufuji goes flying across the ring.

Both men get up slowly and trade strikes. This goes on for more than two minutes with both men hitting each other as hard as possible. Okada looks to be worse for wear, but he demands Marufuji keep hitting him. Marufuji obliges and Okada succumbs to all the pain and falls to his knees. Marufuji lands two more chops and whips Okada, but Okada counters. He goes for his standing dropkick, but Marufuji holds onto the ropes. Marufuji charges again, but this time the dropkick connects. Okada goes for a Tombstone, Marufuji counters into a thrust kick. Shiranui, it’s countered into a German suplex. Okada maintains waist control. Rainmaker, no, Marufuji counters into a bicycle knee.

Both men get up slowly and Okada charges to the corner. Marufuji dodges and lands another bicycle knee lift. The referee checks on Okada since he might be knocked out cold. Marufuji signals the end. Shiranui connects. One, two, no, Okada kicks out. Marufuji goes for the Fisherman Piledriver but Okada resists, so Marufuji kicks him in the chin again. Okada looks to be out cold, yet Marufuji doesn’t pin for some reason. He goes for another Shiranui, no, Okada counters into the Rainmaker! Rainmaker connects. Both men go down. Okada maintains wrist control. Okada pulls both of them up and goes for a second Rainmaker. But Marufuji counters. Small package. Okada narrowly escapes. Bicycle knee is blocked by Okada. Rainmaker, no, Marufuji counters into another set of hard kicks. Bicycle knee strike. Okada slumps against the ropes. Marufuji goes for another. Okada catches him. Tombstone Piledriver. He goes for a second one. No, he changes course mid-move. Emerald Flowsion! Big middle finger to Marufuji. Rainmaker lariat. One, two, three! There’s the match. Okada retains!

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 28:00: Kazuchika Okada

Review

I watched this match right after their G1 Climax encounter as that match set this one up. And to be honest, I think that those two matches should’ve been combined into one. Their G1 Climax match was almost pure wrestling and psychology with little spectacle, while this match was mostly spectacular drama with much less psychology. And because those two things were split, I think this match could have been better.

The first match was carried by the story of Marufuji working Okada’s Rainmaker arm to the point that Okada couldn’t use it to land any forearm shots, much less his finisher, reliably enough to win. Once Marufuji had that weapon neutralized, he had multiple avenues to choose from that could head him to victory. He chose one and dropped Okada on his head with the Pole Shift. Knowing that Okada losing was rare and that Marufuji had a golden opportunity to beat Okada in a high-stakes NJPW vs. NOAH dream match, I went into this match expecting Marufuji to, at the very least, focus on the arm as much as he did in the G1 match.

Yet Marufuji barely did any of that here, save for a few small strikes to the arm. There was never a point in this match when Okada was in any real danger like he was in their first match. With his main weapon more or less fully intact, it became less a question of ‘can Marufuji beat Okada’ and more ‘how long before Okada drops him’. Those are two completely different storytelling mindsets. While Marufuji did manage to shoot Okada down a few times with his punishing strikes, he never really reached a point where he was seconds away from victory. Stopping someone’s momentum and beating them aren’t the same thing, and Marufuji never really crossed the threshold from the former to the latter. Because of that, there was never a convincing moment whereby Marufuji could win the match. Although it was blatantly obvious that Okada was going to Wrestle Kingdom in three months to face Kenny Omega, this match did nothing to create the slightest possibility that Okada could possibly lose.

That’s not to say this match wasn’t great; far from it. Whereas the G1 match saw Marufuji in control for most of the match, both wrestlers were more evenly-balanced in this one. The in-ring action was intense and brutal. Marufuji chopped the ever-loving shit out of Okada’s chest, and the sound it made was as if a gunshot was going off with each one. And Marufuji strategy here was to target Okada’s head and neck, which was an awesome setup for his big moves during the final stretch of the match. The piledriver on the apron was awesome, and the way Okada sold his disorientation made it actually quite convincing that he might not make it back to the ring. But he did, because these big matches NEVER end in count-out victories.

Okada looked way tougher than he normally does by absorbing lots of punishment from Marufuji. Despite being taller and outweighing his opponent, Okada actually struggled to keep up Marufuji and keep him down. It wasn’t until the end of the closing stretch that Okada really looked to be in the driver’s seat and in a certified winning position. That says a lot about Marufuji’s tenacity and ability to survive. But still, by that point, Marufuji was only surviving, merely delaying the inevitable. He hadn’t done enough to weaken Okada to the point that something quick and unexpected like his quick small package could work decisively.

And Okada showed how storytelling skills when he dropped Marufuji with the Emerald Flowsion, which was Marufuji’s mentor Misawa’s big move. NJPW’s current ace dropping the current NOAH ace with NOAH’s former ace’s finisher in an NJPW ring in front of a crowd bigger than any NOAH has had in years. It doesn’t get any more symbolic than that. It was a great storytelling device and acted as an enormous middle finger to Marufuji from Okada. And it happened in the right place at the right time. If there was ever a time for Okada to add a symbolic twist on his typical main-event formula, this was it. and he handled it perfectly.

I also really enjoyed the sudden counters both guys used on each other, especially in the last eight minutes. Marufuji used his superior quickness to his advantage, and seemed to have Okada scouted until the very end. But he got a bit too arrogant with the Shiranui attempts, especially since Okada already kicked out of one. And it was that decision of Marufuji’s ended up costing him the match. Had he gone in a different direction, maybe this match would’ve had a different ending.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This match would be up there with some true 5-star epics if it combined the key elements from their earlier G1 climax match. Marufuji had scored a rare pinfall victory over Okada in that match, yet in this match, he never really went back to that strategy even though it worked. In this match, Marufuji seemed more concerned with looking tough and fighting Okada in a hardnosed brawl. But that approach came at the cost of what should’ve been his primary goal: winning.

Here, he put on one hell of a performance and lasted a long time against the nearly-invincible Okada. But that’s just it; all Marufuji did was last a long time. He fought hard but never reached a point where he was really Okada’s equal in this match. While Marufuji did show the things that made him world-famous in the first place – his speed, his explosiveness, and his creativity in the ring – those things never led him to a moment where he could conceivably beat Okada a second time. Okada was just too strong and too determined for Marufuji on this night.

This match makes for a pretty good near-thirty minutes, but I’m disappointed that it could’ve been so much better. The tools and strategy were there for Marufuji to use. Relying on what worked for him in the G1 Climax would’ve been a completely logical thing to do here, especially with much higher stakes. Instead, Marufuji and Okada wrestled a typical Okada main-event match. And while it’s still very good, even after almost five years, it could’ve been better.

That said, like with the G1 match, you’ll find something to enjoy here if you love crazy back-and-forth contests with lots of explosive offense and tense near-falls. Both these men were aces of their respective companies, and they definitely showed why that was the case with this match.

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