5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada XI – NJPW G1 Climax 2018
Tanahashi vs. Okada is the biggest rivalry of the 2010s. It has been hyped up as this mythical, ceiling-breaking feud that has set new heights and expectations. Every single one of their matches is said to be top-tier in virtually every respect. But is that really the case? Have these two wrestlers had such tremendous chemistry together that EACH AND EVERY ONE of their singles matches has been a GOAT-level contest? There’s only one way to find out.
Today we continue our review of the Tanahashi-Okada rivalry with their eleventh singles match from NJPW’s 2018 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. The 9th match at NJPW G1 Climax 2016 is here and my review of their 10th match in 2018 is right 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.
There are three overlapping stories at play going into this match. First, this is the third G1 Climax meeting between Tanahashi and Okada. They’ve fought in both the 2013 and 2016 tournaments, and both those matches were 30-minute draws. Thus, both men had a reason to want to get one over the other in this match.
Second, Tanahashi was leading by points in his tournament block with Okada close behind. By the time this match was announced, Tanahashi needed only to draw to advance to the final. Meanwhile, Okada needed a win to surpass Tanahashi and move on to face the winner of B-Block.
Lastly, and most importantly, Okada had undergone a major personality change ever since he lost his world title to Kenny Omega two months earlier at Dominion. New Japan doesn’t believe in something as silly as a ‘rematch clause’; and since Okada failed to retain his belt, he was in no position to challenge for it again. Okada’s entire personality had been ‘the champion’ for so long and now he no longer had the belt that represented the championship. He felt like an empty man, like a piece of him was missing. That loss had such a big psychological impact on Okada that he began doing weird things. He died his hair red. He started carrying balloons to the ring and behaving like a ‘party animal’. He seemed to have a detached attitude when it came to wrestling, as if things didn’t matter as much to him now that he was no longer world champion.
With all of that at play, this was a highly-anticipated match-up. Tanahashi was getting close to setting another G1 Climax record while Okada still hoped to prove that he still had some of his greatness still left in him. But something else was bothering Tanahashi as well: he hadn’t beaten Okada in singles competition since January 2015, so in more than 1,300 days. He wanted to prove that he still could beat Okada, and this match seemed like the perfect opportunity for him, especially with Okada’s new personality clouding his judgment.
This match originally took place on August 10th, 2018.
After a tense feeling out process, Okada charges with a running dropkick but Tanahashi dodges it. Okada counters an Irish whip and goes for another dropkick but Tanahashi holds onto the ropes to avoid that one too. They continue dodging and ducking each other’s strikes, leading to an early standoff. That’s followed by a long chain grappling sequence with lots of early holds and reversals that goes on until Okada gets Tanahashi on the ropes and pats his chest. But Tanahashi lands a forearm right away instead of letting that mockery sink in. Okada fires back with forearms with his own and whips Tanahashi, but Tanahashi counters into a hiptoss. Tanahashi slows the match down by working over Okada’s left leg with a several different yet equally-punishing holds as the five-minute mark passes.
Tanahashi twists Okada’s leg into the ropes and continues to stretch it. Okada dodges a corner charge so Tanahashi pulls his leg and smashes it into the ringpost from outside. In the ring, Tanahashi goes for a slam but Okada resists and clasps Tanahashi’s torso for a Tombstone attempt. Tanahashi escapes and lands more kicks to Okada’s knee and then charges into a corner. Okada dodges, goes for the corner jumping dropkick, but gets kicked in the face. Tanahashi charges but walks into a Tombstone. Wait, no, Tanahashi escapes and goes for a kick. But Okada counters Tanahashi with a dragon screw leg whip. Terrific counter by Okada.
Okada drags Tanahashi out of the ring and smashes Tanahashi’s right knee – the one with chronic problems – into any hard object he can find. He lands some knee smashers onto the ringside mats and uses the time Tanahashi spends selling to recover from Tanahashi’s earlier legwork. Tanahashi makes it back into the ring but gets his knee jammed into the canvas right away. Okada gets some revenge by twisting Tanahashi’s knee into the ropes and then dropkicks that fully exposed joint as the ten-minute mark passes.
Okada lands some forearms but Tanahashi starts no-selling and fires back. He goes for a kick and hits Okada hard before Okada can land another dragon screw and then drops Okada with his own dragon screw. Now both men’s legs are weakened. Tanahashi gets up first and lands a strike combo followed by a flying forearm off an Irish whip. He works through the pain in his leg as he lands a second-rope somersault senton for a two-count. He goes for a slingblade, but Okada dodges, charges, and lands a big back elbow. Okada follows with a big running elbow and a DDT for his own two-count. Okada goes for the reverse neckbreaker. Tanahashi escapes and goes for a dragon screw. Okada tries to resist, so Tanahashi dropkicks Okada’s other leg. But Okada fires back with a huge shotgun dropkick. He follows with another diving shotgun dropkick that blasts Tanahashi in the chest. Okada fires up and fights through the pain in his knee as he retakes control of the match. Okada goes for a Tombstone, no, Tanahashi counters and lands a Tombstone of his own. So much for Okada having control.
Both men get up and start trading stiff forearm shots. They go back and forth and this time it’s Okada that falters first. Okada tries to fight back but Tanahashi nails him with a big uppercut. Okada fires back again with more uppercuts. He charges but Tanahashi ducks and he ends up on the apron. Then Tanahashi dropkicks him so hard he flies off the apron and hits the steel barricade extremely hard. Tanahashi climbs to the top turnbuckle. High Fly Flow to the floor. Tanahashi lands on Okada but his knees hit the floor hard.
Tanahashi gets in the ring to recover right away and Okada gets up at the count of ten. But he can’t get into the ring because his knee’s giving him too much trouble. The referee reaches fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Okada barely gets into the ring by sticking his torso through the ropes. That gives Tanahashi the opportunity he needs. Dragon screw leg whip through the ropes. Followed by a dropkick to the knee and another dragon screw by Tanahashi. Okada’s leg is just getting mangled at this point. Tanahashi applies the Texas Cloverleaf. Okada crawls to the ropes but Tanahashi pulls him back and then sits down, maximizing the pull on Okada’s legs. Okada still tries to crawl. Tanahashi answers by transitioning into a Styles Clash. Awesome counter. Tanahashi goes to the top rope. High Fly Flow misses.
Less than ten minutes remain as both wrestlers recover slowly. Okada gets up first and dropkicks Tanahashi in the back if his head. He hobbles over and whips Tanahashi into the ropes, goes for a standing dropkick, but misses as Tanahashi holds onto the ropes again, just like earlier in the match. Tanahashi charges for a slingblade. Okada’s dropkick connects this time. he goes for the Rainmaker. Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. Both men collapse again.
Both men start getting up while trading forearm strikes again. Okada gets to his feet first and lands an exceptionally-hard forearm smashes. He goes for the Tombstone but Tanahashi holds on. They go back and forth trying to Tombstone each other. Okada get him up – no, Tanahashi counters with a twisting neckbreaker.
Five minutes left.
Tanahashi lands two more twisting neckbreakers and lands a slingblade. The referee counts one, two, no, Okada kicks out. Tanahashi goes back to the top rope. High Fly – no, Okada dropkicks Tanahashi in midair. Okada connects with the Tombstone Piledriver and signals the end.
Three minutes left.
Okada goes for a Rainmaker lariat. Tanahashi escapes and goes for a dragon suplex. Okada escapes and tries his finisher again. Tanahashi ducks and goes for a slingblade and gets dropkicked. He ducks another Rainmaker. Okada keeps trying…and connects with a discus Rainmaker lariat. What an impact. But Okada isn’t done. Another Rainmaker, no, Tanahashi counters with an inside cradle pin. One, two, no, Okada barely kicks out. Tanahashi ducks another Rainmaker and lands a bridging dragon suplex. Okada kicks out again at 2.9!
One minute left.
Okada goes for another Rainmaker. Tanahashi elbows out but Okada still holds onto him.
Thirty seconds left.
Okada goes for another Rainmaker. Tanahashi lands a big slap first and goes to the top rope.
Ten seconds left.
High Fly Flow connects. One, two, thr—no, Okada kicks out.
Tanahashi goes to the turnbuckle again. But the bell rings. Time has run out.
Match result: 30-minute DRAW
But even with the draw, Tanahashi gets enough points to advance to the finals to meet the winner of the B-Block.
It’s at this point in the rivalry that things are really starting to get repetitive between Tanahashi and Okada. They put on a strong performance once again, but watching this match I know for a fact that I’ve seen all this before. And while I’m not denying that them putting on matches of this caliber at this point is still impressive from a physicality and conditioning perspective, it’s just not that exciting or entertaining to watch when you can predict exactly what’s going to happen with so little deviation.
The match followed the standard Tanahashi-Okada formula, meaning that it had a solid and technical start, a slowed-down middle, and a sprint for a conclusion. Things started off a bit differently here with some quick early counters and then the limbwork segment took a surprising turn. Instead of responding to Tanahashi’s limbwork with high-impact bombs, Okada gave Tanahashi a taste of his own medicine. Okada tried to take advantage of one of Tanahashi’s own injuries and use Tanahashi’s leg-targeting moves against him to try and slow him down. Once that story started being told, it became a question of whose strategy was stronger. Unsurprisingly, it ended up being Tanahashi’s because he was able to slow Okada down more and keep him grounded long enough to land his bigger moves like the top-rope splash.
But beyond those minor elements, this was every Tanahashi-Okada match that you’ve seen before. Just like some of their earlier matches, you could have a BINGO scorecard and cross out specific things they did that were common to all their contests, it was that formulaic. Tanahashi did the same old limbwork, landed the same splash to the outside, locked in the same Texas Cloverleaf and had the same counters for Okada as before. Okada was a bit wilder than normal here, but not by much. He still spammed dropkicks, went for the Tombstone a lot, hit a lot of forearms, and went for countless Rainmakers. Even the closing counter sequence, which has historically been the best part of these matches, was underwhelming given how far they had gone in the past.
Worse, Okada seemed less focused and less driven than he was in earlier matches. He just wasn’t there when it came to showing desperation or drive while Tanahashi remained laser-focused as always. Maybe that was part of his new gimmick, but it really took away from the match. He didn’t seem to have much of a strategy beyond going for dropkicks, Tombstones, the Rainmaker, and Tanahashi’s knee. He had the tools in front of him, but seemed to struggle with how to put them together into a cohesive and winning strategy. When comparing this match to their previous encounters, that lack of focus and strategy from Okada really makes this match come across as inferior.
There was also a fatal flaw in Okada’s closing stretch: he didn’t go for a pin off the twisting Rainmaker. In earlier matches in this tournament, Okada started spicing things up by adding a spin/discus to his Rainmaker to give it more power. According to the commentators, that discus lariat had got him wins each time he used it in this tournament. And yet, he didn’t do that here. Instead of pinning Tanahashi after landing that devastating move, he tried to go for another one. Maybe he thought one wasn’t enough to keep Tanahashi down long enough. But that hesitance cost him the win here. Okada’s insistence on going for a second follow-up Rainmaker gave Tanahashi time to recover enough to get a final burst of strength needed to survive to the 30-minute mark. It just seemed like unnecessary showboating on Okada’s part and it felt out of place here.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Tanahashi and Okada knew they struck on what they perceived as a winning formula a long time ago and reapplied it here. And just like two years ago, they tried to use the time limit to their advantage to create a more tense final stretch. Except their 2016 G1 match was better in every respect. Despite their attempts at novelty and excitement, this match lacked the pure drama and perfect structure found in that earlier match. And while the action itself was unreliably impressive, it was another step down from what they had done in previous matches.
Ultimately, this Tanahashi-Okada match is very much skippable. Their earlier matches were much better and still overshadow this one to this day. It didn’t really introduce anything new to the story despite Okada’s attempts at portraying a man that lost his mind. It was novel, sure, but that novelty didn’t translate into a genuine 5-star match.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.