A lot of people call this the best match in the Tanahashi-Okada rivalry. That’s a very bold statement to make, considering just how awesome their matches have been up to this point. Then again, these are two of the best pro wrestlers of the past twenty years, if not longer. Their matches together are said to be better than many of history’s best matches, including the standard-bearer for multi-match series, the Flair-Steamboat trilogy.
But how? How is it possible for a series in New Japan to be considered better than the fabled Flair-Steamboat matches and every other legendary rivalry since then in terms of great in-ring wrestling? There’s only one way to find out.
Today we look back at the legendary heavyweight title match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika from the perfectly-named King of Pro-Wrestling event from 2013.
Check out Tanahashi/Okada 1 here and then Tanahashi/Okada 2 here. Last week we posted Tanahashi/Okada 3 right here and then Tanahashi/Okada 4 was posted last year. Meanwhile, Tanahashi vs. Okada 5 was posted last week 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.
This was the sixth singles match between Tanahashi and Okada since Okada became ‘The Rainmaker’ in 2012, and their fifth title match. Going into this match, their record stands at two wins each, two losses each, and one draw. Their most recent match was the 30-minute draw in the G1 Climax tournament two months earlier. That draw basically required that this match take place. Okada had two wins against Tanahashi, but never more than one match in a row. Meanwhile, Tanahashi was able to beat Okada in at least two consecutive matches, which he did at Dominion 2012 and then at Wrestle Kingdom VII.
So even though Okada was the champion and had beaten Tanahashi before, something still bothered him. Even with the gold and the acclaim and the growing adoration of the fans, Okada felt that people still saw him as inferior to Tanahashi. Tanahashi was still the ace, with or without the title. And Okada wanted to change that. He wanted to dethrone Tanahashi completely and make it so that he – Okada – would be seen as the ace.
So each man had something to major to gain here. For Tanahashi, it was obvious: a chance to reclaim the coveted IWGP Heavyweight Championship and break yet another record. For Okada, it was deeper than that: it was his chance to break the tie and get a third win over Tanahashi. If he could manage that, there would be no denying that he was, at the very least, on the same level as Tanahashi, at the very top of the New Japan mountain.
This is for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The bell rings and Tanahashi charges right away with a dropkick that misses. Okada goes for one right after but Tanahashi blocks it and goes for the Texas Cloverleaf. Okada reaches the ropes and they have a tense standoff. Insanely hot start to the match. They lock up and Tanahashi applies a full nelson. They exchange holds until Tanahashi applies a headlock and refuses to release it on an Irish whip. Okada escapes the headlock eventually but gets taken down with a shoulder tackle.
Tanahashi goes back to the headlock several times for the next few minutes, putting more and more pressure on Okada’s neck. And each time Okada gets a clean break, Tanahashi goes right back to it. Okada sends Tanahashi into the ropes and ducks down but Tanahashi sees him and reapplies the headlock. Clever counter. Eventually, Okada reverses the headlock on Tanahashi and takes him down with a shoulder tackle of his own. Okada follows with a slam/senton atomico combo, followed by a swinging neckbreaker for a one-count.
Okada lands some forearms to the neck in the corner, then whips Tanahashi, but Tanahashi reverses. Tanahashi charges but eats an elbow and Okada goes for the top rope dropkick, but Tanahashi fights out. He jumps forward but Okada ducks, landing awkwardly on one leg in the process. The referee tells Okada to back off but he’s reluctant to do so. Okada lifts him up and charges for a running attack but Tanahashi can’t even stand. The ref checks on Tanahashi again, and as we get a replay of his jump, Tanahashi goes for a surprise roll-up on Okada. One, two, no, Okada kicks out at two. Tanahashi then jumps up and dropkicks Okada’s knee, before performing an air guitar routine as if nothing was wrong with him. Yes, Tanahashi fakes injury, but did an amazing job of selling it like it was real. Interestingly, some people actually applaud Tanahashi’s antics (while lots still boo), even though it was such an underhanded thing to do. Then again, he’s so tired of Okada that he’s willing to stoop to such low tactics to win.
Tanahashi goes for a dragon screw leg whip but Okada fights out. He charges but Tanahashi counters into an arm drag into an arm lock. Once again, Tanahashi’s going for the arm to weaken the Rainmaker lariat. He wrings the arm and applies a short arm scissor hold, which Okada tries to counter into a pin but fails. Eventually, Okada reaches the ropes forcing a break.
Tanahashi kicks away at Okada’s arm, stopping any attempt at a comeback from the champion. Okada tries to push Tanahashi away with forearms, but can’t land more than one at a time. I don’t know why he doesn’t just resort to using his left arm, though. Okada falls to the mat in pain, allowing Tanahashi to drops some knees on his arm and smash the arm into the canvas. He lifts Okada up and Okada tries a comeback, but Tanahashi shuts him down with a flying forearm smash. He slams Okada and dives off with a second-rope senton splash, but Okada rolls out of the way. Tanahashi goes for a kick but Okada counters with a dragon screw to Tanahashi. There’s a nice bit of poetic justice for Tanahashi for faking a leg injury earlier.
Having seemingly recovered some strength in his arm, Okada starts hitting Tanahashi with forearm smashes. He lands a snampare/running basement dropkick combo, followed by a flapjack for a two-count. Tanahashi reverses Okada’s whip into the corner and charges, but Okada ducks, sending Tanahashi stomach-first into the turnbuckle. That allows Okada to land his standing corner dropkick, which sends Tanahashi flying down to the floor below.
Okada whips Tanahashi into the barricade and then boots him over it, and follows with a draping DDT using the barricade for leverage. Back in the ring, Okada lands a DDT then locks in the Deep In Debt submission hold, cranking Tanahashi’s weakened neck even further. Tanahashi escapes by getting his foot on the rope, but Okada takes his time letting go, again as revenge for earlier. Okada slams Tanahashi and goes to climb the top rope, but Tanahashi cuts him off and slams him down hard. Okada catches Tanahashi mocking him by doing his Rainmaker pose, and they start slugging it out. They go back and forth with elbows smashes, and even go so far as to hold each other by the hair. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, they really don’t like each other at this point.
Tanahashi wins the elbow exchange but Okada lands one more surprise attack. He whips Tanahashi and goes for a big boot but Tanahashi counters into a dragon screw leg whip of his own. He follows with a flying crossbody into the corner and goes to whip Okada. But Okada reverses and goes for his dropkick, which Tanahashi has completely scouted and avoids, and then dropkicks Okada’s right arm again. Dragon screw arm whip by Tanahashi. Followed by another. Then followed by a ton of elbows and uppercuts to the arm and another arm whip. He’s trying to render that arm useless. Tanahashi stomps away on Okada’s arm until Okada reaches the ropes. The referee asks Tanahashi to back off but he refuses, stomping away without mercy. He even starts head-butting Okada’s arm until the referee has to literally drag Tanahashi off of Okada. That’s how intense the rivalry is between these two men. Tanahashi’s going to levels of viciousness and desperation completely uncharacteristic of such a righteous man.
Tanahashi charges into the corner but Okada tries to counter into the reverse neckbreaker. But he has no strength left in his right arm and can’t hold Tanahashi up with only one good arm. This allows Tanahashi to escape into a sunset flip, which Okada counters into an attempt at his Red Ink submission hold. He gets the legs locked in but can’t do anything with his right arm. He basically has half a submission hold and can’t do anything. Tanahashi’s quick to escape the hold by grabbing the ropes.
Tanahashi lands a standing armbreaker using the top rope then goes for a kick to the arm, only for Okada to land a desperation big boot. Both a reverse neckbreaker and a Heavy Rain slam get Okada two-counts. He follows this with a diving elbow drop, using the bad arm to show his fighting spirit. He makes a half-Rainmaker pose, since he can only extend one arm. Okada goes for the Rainmaker lariat but Tanahashi counters into a double ax handle to the arm. He lands a dropkick to the knee and follows with a Gedo Clutch, but Okada kicks out at 2.9. That really angers Okada’s manager Gedo, who yells at Tanahashi from ringside.
Tanahashi tries to capitalize on this, but Okada counters. Rainmaker! Okada lands the Rainmaker lariat! But he can’t follow up. His arm is too badly weakened. After what seems like forever, Okada crawls over for the pin. One, two, no, Tanahashi kicks out. Okada follows with Red Ink. The submission hold is locked in. but only for a few seconds as Okada can’t maintain the hold. He tries again and locks it in, keeping it cinched in longer this time. But once again, he can’t keep it on long enough to do real damage due to his arm. Amazing ring psychology on display here.
Okada goes for the Tombstone but can’t lift Tanahashi up. Tanahashi lands more elbows to the arm, which only angers Okada more. He charges for a lariat, but Tanahashi ducks and a dragon suplex. Okada somehow gets to his feet, so Tanahashi follows with a slingblade. Both men go down. Okada gets up first and charges but runs into a dropkick from Tanahashi. He follows with a High Fly Flow onto a standing Okada. Then he tries a second one, but Okada rolls out of the ring. But that doesn’t stop The Ace. High Fly Flow to the floor! Holy shit. That was crazy. Tanahashi tries to capitalize on this, but Okada counters. Tombstone Piledriver. On the ringside mats. Both men go down again.
The referee begins his ring count and Okada gets in at sixteen while Tanahashi BARELY makes it at nineteen. The counting resumes in the ring with both men getting up by the count of eight. Both men struggle to stay on their feet as Okada lands a forearm and Tanahashi attacks that same arm again. They continue this back-and-forth exchange until Tanahashi starts firing back with slaps. But that only angers Okada as he lands two huge dropkicks. Rainmaker lariat. No, Tanahashi ducks. Rainmaker lariat by Tanahashi. He drops Okada with his own move. One, two, no, Okada kicks out, Tanahashi lands a Styles Clash. But he doesn’t go for the pin. He’s going to the top rope. High Fly Flow to the back. He’s STILL not done. High Fly—NO, Okada gets the knees up. Okada survives. The fans erupt in Okada chants.
Okada lands a dropkick to the back of Tanahashi’s head. Tombstone, no, Tanahashi reverses. NO, Okada counters that. Okada’s Tombstone Piledriver connects. Rainmaker—no, Tanahashi counters. Dragon supl—no, Okada escapes. Another Rainmak—no, Tanahashi ducks. Okada ducks Tanahashi again. A backslide gets countered. Rainmaker lariat by Okada! He drills Tanahashi with the Rainmaker! One, two, three! There’s the match. Okada wins! Okada breaks the tie and takes the lead in the series! Fans jump out of their seats for him!
Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 35:17: Kazuchika Okada
HELL FREAKING YES! That was terrific. Once again, Tanahashi and Okada put on an epic for the ages. This is exactly why their rivalry is so revered. It was another spectacular match that had everything you could possibly ask for in a 5-star wrestling match. It was exciting. It was dramatic. It was unpredictable. It was intense. It had a big fight atmosphere thanks to an electric crowd. This match is definitely up there as one of the best pro wrestling matches to ever take place.
Just like before, Tanahashi and Okada applied the same formula they had been using since early 2012. That formula worked wonders once again. Okada largely stayed in his comfort zone and attacked Tanahashi’s neck whenever and wherever possible. But he also pulled out a few key surprises, such as landing Tanahashi’s signature dragon screw, which was done more to mess with the ace than to weaken a body part. It worked, because it made Tanahashi angrier and more desperate to win.
As for Tanahashi, he once again showed why he is a pro wrestling master. Just like at Invasion Attack, he attacked Okada’s arm unrelentingly and with surgical precision. He kept changing things up and busting out counter and after counter and went back to Okada’s main striking arm many times. It reached a point where Okada struggled very hard to land much of anything, which gave the better-conditioned Tanahashi a critical advantage, at least for a while.
And speaking of Tanahashi, I loved the little story early on with him feigning the leg injury. He sold it in the most realistic way possible, even going so far as to fall over because he was unable to stay standing for a ‘planned spot’. It looked like the match was going to be stopped then and there, only for Tanahashi to lure Okada into a false sense of security with a quick pin and a dropkick to the knee out of nowhere. Was it underhanded? Yes, but it made sense. Tanahashi knew Okada was guarded and had adapted to his strategy; so instead of going down the same road he did something completely unexpected with something that was outwardly villainous. Not only did Tanahashi showcase wrestling smarts, but also some character development. He was always such a pure, righteous hero that rarely showed any malice in anything he did. But Okada had gotten under his skin so badly that he was forced to make an exception.
For Tanahashi to betray his principles and his righteousness only underscored just how badly he needed to beat Okada. That only added to this match’s drama because it exposed fans to a different side of Tanahashi. New Japan’s unwavering hero had a dark side; he had vices and human weaknesses. Okada had become such a pain to him that he had so resort to cheap tricks and overt aggression. It was storytelling 101 and it was tremendous.
And once again, their match concluded with an amazing counter-wrestling sequence. What makes these Tanahashi-Okada matches so mesmerizing is that they came up with new and more exciting counters for each other with each passing match. Those unpredictable sequences got longer and longer, deeper and deeper, and far more intricate over time. But it wasn’t like more ‘modern’ matches which end in explosive bomb-fests that easily go into overkill territory. Here, the beauty was seeing if a move would land or if it would be countered or avoided. And if the move did fail, what would happen next? That tension and excitement was on full display here as both wrestlers layered everything earlier in the match in a way that led to a perfectly-crafted crescendo at the end.
Final Rating: *****
This match more than lived up to the hype. I knew it was going to be spectacular, and these two wrestlers still put on one of the best matches of all time. Even now, it still stands tall as one of the best matches in NJPW history. I cannot sing its praises enough. This is one of those epic matches that holds up tremendously well now and will still do so for decades to come.
But is it the single-greatest match in the Tanahashi-Okada series? I don’t think so, simply because the Invasion Attack was just slightly better than this one, but not by much. Both matches are equally amazing yet have slight differences that make them awesome in their own separate ways. And there is at least one more match in the series that just might be better than this one. Which one is that? Be sure to keep checking out this series to find out.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.