This is the match that changed how the world viewed Okada. It turned heads and made convinced many people that he wasn’t being booked as champion just to swerve people. This match proved to the world that Kazuchika Okada was indeed as great as his mouthpiece (and NJPW’s booker) Gedo claimed him to be.
Today we revisit what is widely regarded as Okada’s first classic: his first championship defense against future rival Tetsuya Naito.
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.
Less than a month earlier, Kazuchika Okada stunned the pro wrestling world by defeating then-NJPW ace Hiroshi Tanahashi to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Viewers around the world (but especially in Japan) were stunned that the legendary Tanahashi would succumb to someone like Okada. At the time, the general perception of Okada was that he simply didn’t belong in New Japan. His ‘Rainmaker’ gimmick was so Americanized that it felt completely out of place in NJPW. Many people believed Okada was going to be nothing more than a transitional champion, and that his match for the title was only great because it was ‘carried’ by Tanahashi. So Okada wanted to prove to everyone that he could stand on his own and didn’t need Tanahashi to prove he was a great wrestler. And he proved that by having his first title defense on the 40th anniversary of NJPW first opening.
His opponent for this historic event? Tetsuya Naito.
I should point out that this is not the same Naito as today’s. Instead of Tranquilo Naito we have bland, white-meat babyface Naito, who has zero personality and cuts the blandest promos ever, despite being a competent wrestler. So in that sense think of him as 2015-16 Roman Reigns, when Vince McMahon had marionette strings surgically implanted into him.
This match originally took place on March 4th, 2012 and was rated ****3/4 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up after so many years and so many changes to both wrestlers involved.
This is for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. It is the second-ever singles match between Okada and Naito and the first one under Okada’s new Rainmaker persona. The bell rings and the crowd are in Naito’s corner, except for a few people that chant for Okada. The match starts with a great chain grappling sequence that ends in applause from the crowd. Naito gains control with an armlock and continues to grapple Okada to the mat. Okada counters into a headlock and begins working Naito’s neck to weaken it for his Rainmaker lariat finisher. Okada keeps the headlock cinched in deep and knocks Naito down with a shoulder tackle. Okada kicks Naito’s head mockingly and charges, but Naito dropkicks him right in the knee. Okada starts hobbling around. Naito kicks his knee again. Naito snapmares Okada and lands a running senton for a one-count and transitions to working Okada’s legs as the five minute mark passes.
Naito transitions into an Indian deathlock and drags Okada away from the ropes. Naito gets tons of cheers and applause as he wrenches the deathlock even more, increasing the pressure on Okada’s leg. Okada crawls to the ropes, so Naito kicks his knee as he stands up. Okada can barely stand as Naito targets his left knee relentlessly. But Naito gets cocky as Okada catches his leg and hits him with a big boot. Tombstone Piledriver out of nowhere. Naito’s neck gets jammed and he rolls out of the ring. Okada takes advantage by stretching Naito’s neck through gaps in the steel barricade and kicking that barricade to jam it into Naito’s neck. Back in the ring, Okada applies a weird double-arm abdominal stretch sort of move, which appears to twist every single part of Naito’s body.
Naito slumps over so Okada lands a neckbreaker and Naito continues to roll around selling his neck. Okada lands some forearms in the corner and starts gloating, but Naito fires up and lands his own barrage of strikes. To which Okada answers with a dropkick and a flapjack. Then he floats over into Deep in Debt, a painful-looking submission hold that looks like a cross between a crucifix hold and a cravat hold. Okada cranks Naito’s neck even more. Naito gets to the ropes with his foot and starts firing back. He kicks at Okada’s knee to make stop his momentum. Naito charges to dropkick the knee again. Okada dodges and lands a senton for two. He lands a rib breaker and goes for a jumping elbow drop. Naito rolls to safety and then Irish whips Okada. But Okada counters with a forearm smash and whips Naito into a corner. Okada charges, Naito dodges. Springboard dropkick to Okada’s knee. Both men collapse. The audience chants loudly for Naito.
Okada rolls out of the ring but Naito baseball slide dropkicks him into the barricade. Naito follows with a knee breaker and a running dropkick that sends Okada over the barricade. Naito carries Okada and clips his knee and then wraps his knee up through the barricade. Apron dropkick to the barricade. Okada’s knee gets smashed.
Okada appears to be in immense pain as he struggles to get back into the ring. He eventually makes it, but Naito pounces on him with another knee breaker and a dropkick to the knee. Leglock by Naito. He’s putting even more pressure on that damaged knee. Okada tries to roll to the ropes but Naito has him trapped. Okada eventually makes it to the ropes but the damage appears to have been done. Okada struggles to get vertical and Naito kicks at his knee some more. Naito charges into the corner but Okada sidesteps. Naito tries to maintain control with a kick to the knee and jumps onto the top turnbuckle. But Okada cuts him off with a standing dropkick. Naito flies off the top rope and out of the ring. Okada recovers and then follows Naito. Tombstone on the ringside mats. Okada risks damaging his knees even further but he’s willing to go that far to beat Naito.
Okada tosses Naito back into the ring and lands a big DDT and applies the Deep in Debt submission hold once again. Naito squirms in pain as the crowd chants his name. Eventually, Naito catches the ropes with his foot. Okada scoop slams Naito and lands a diving elbow drop. Rainmaker pose. Okada signals the end. Rainmaker lar—no, Naito counters into a leglock. Fantastic counter. Each time Okada reaches for the ropes, Naito pulls him further back. Okada looks like he’s about to tap out. Then somehow, Okada reaches through to another rope, forcing a break. This match is awesome so far.
Naito lands another knee breaker and Okada fires back with a ton of forearm smashes. Okada whips Naito but Naito fires back with a Shawn Michaels-style flying forearm smash. Naito lands some jump kicks. Bridging German suplex. Okada kicks out. Super Frankensteiner. Bridging dragon suplex. Okada kicks out of those as well. Naito lands Gloria (a type of side powerslam) and climbs the top rope for the Stardust press. Naito dives…and Okada rolls out of the way.
Both men get up slowly and charge, but Naito connects with a dropkick to Okada’s knee. Naito charges the corner, Okada gets a boot up. Naito charges again, but this time walks into a reverse neckbreaker. Okada pins. Naito barely kicks out. Heavy Rain slam. Naito kicks out again. Rainmaker…no, Naito counters into a roll-up. Okada kicks out at 2.9. Okada counters a charging Naito and waistlocks him. Rainmaker, no, Naito counters again. Wait, no, Okada goes back to the waistlock. German suplex, Naito lands on his feet. Naito charges once again, Okada ducks and then catches Naito in the rear waistlock. Rainmaker Lariat! Okada gets the three-count! Okada wins the match and retains his title!
Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 28:50: Kazuchika Okada
That match was fantastic. Just awesome. It was the first time these two fought one-on-one in five years and they had just amazing chemistry. It’s simply mind-blowing how two wrestlers that had only fought one-on-one once before could put on such a technically-sound, unpredictable, exciting wrestling match. But they did, which says a lot about how skilled both of them were and still are.
The story of the match was a battle between two opposing strategies. Naito targeted Okada’s leg while Okada targeted Naito’s neck. Both men focused on those body parts intensely and frequently. They wrestled smartly and went back to those weakened body parts whenever they could, which made later moves more likely to result in a realistic and decisive fall. That approach was great because they built on top of what they did earlier in the match as it progressed.
And Okada in particular showed some adaptability as he caught on to Naito’s strategy and learned to dodge Naito’s charging dropkicks. Minor details like that are important; it’s always refreshing to see a wrestler take a move early on in a long match and then learn how to avoid falling into the same trap later on. Not only does that make the wrestler look smarter, but it also makes the match itself more unpredictable. And as I’ve said before in other reviews in this series, unpredictability is a critical factor in creating a genuinely classic wrestling match.
As the story unfolded, Naito looked like he had the upper hand until Okada landed that surprise Tombstone. And from there, it became a question of which wrestler would capitulate first, and that was Naito. No matter how many times Naito went back to the leg, Okada refused to give up. He looked to be incredibly close to tapping more than once, but steeled his resolve enough to make a comeback. once that happened, Naito abandoned his strategy and started throwing bombs at Okada, which was spelled disaster for him. Naito had no way of countering or surviving Okada’s Rainmaker lariat; so once Okada had it ready, Naito was doomed.
And yet, this wasn’t a decisive win for Okada; instead, it was an opportunistic victory as Okada landed his Rainmaker out of nowhere. In that sense, Okada didn’t beat Naito, but he merely survived Naito’s onslaught. But it was a big win for Okada all the same, and it showed that he could put on tremendous matches and wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan flavor of the month sort of performer.
My only real gripe in this match was that Okada’s selling the leg was a bit spotty. Granted, it wasn’t as blatantly inconsistent as in his later matches with people like Kenny Omega. But it was still noticeable enough to make it hard to invest in Naito’s strategy because Okada would limp around one minute and walk like a normal person the next. When I look at these big matches, with so many wrestlers spending so much time targeting each other’s legs and knees, I always have one particular match in mind for comparison: The AJPW Four Pillars tag match from December 3rd, 1993. There is a very specific moment in that match that, to me, is the gold standard for limb selling. Kenta Kobashi had spent a long time targeting Toshiaki Kawada’s left knee, which had a history of weakness and injury. But Kawada soldiered on, and at one point landed a bridging German suplex. But he couldn’t hold the bridge for more than a one-count because he succumbed to the pain himself. He released his own bridge because he couldn’t hold himself in that position, much less hold his opponent.
It was a marvelous example of selling that made that match so much better. Kawada was desperate to win, but couldn’t even do something as simple as a bridge because he was in so much pain. That sort of realism and psychological depth is way up there in its own realm of awesomeness; and when I watch these modern classics I expect something similar. I had hoped Okada would apply at least some of that realism here, especially since Naito spent a good chunk of the match working his leg and applying different leg-targeting submission holds. But he didn’t go as far as Kawada did back in 1993, which was disappointing. He sold very well in parts, but it wasn’t as consistent or as realistic or deep as I was expecting.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was Okada’s first big match with someone other than Hiroshi Tanahashi and he really succeeded in changing people’s opinions of him. Most people still saw his win as a fluke and questioned Gedo’s sanity for putting the belt on him. But with this match, Okada proved that there was good reason to trust in Gedo’s booking decision. Okada and Naito put on a great match here, for sure. I just don’t think it’s a perfect 5-star epic because it has some minor flaws that are hard to ignore.
And yet, I still strongly recommend watching this match. It’s still impressive how well these two wrestled despite it only being their second-ever singles match together. They fought as though they had dozens if not hundreds of singles matches together. Their chemistry together – and therefore the actual in-ring wrestling – was just that good.
There’s the added bonus of how this match planted the seeds for an even longer storyline. Naito would get his revenge against Okada in the 2012 G1 Climax, which he would then go on to win. By doing so, Naito would then face Okada at Wrestle Kingdom VII. But the circumstances of that match would lead to Naito turning tranquilo and becoming arguably the most popular and charismatic NJPW wrestler of the past decade. And that story would also lead to an incredible four-year story of Naito overcoming Okada that wouldn’t conclude until Wrestle Kingdom 14 in 2020.
And to think the seeds of that awesome story were first planted here.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.