Some wrestlers have amazing chemistry together. We’ve heard time and again about certain wrestler pairing yielding great performances. Austin/Rock, Mankind/Undertaker, Bret/Owen, Flair/Steamboat, the list goes on. But there’s something special when two wrestlers can only face each other a handful of times and still put on historically-great matches.
This is yet another example of that latter situation. The two wrestlers facing off here teamed together countless times but only competed against one another six times over an eight-year period. And yet, both of them were so great that they put on a historically-great match once again. Or so many fans have said.
Today we look back to see if their final match together was indeed worth all the praise. It’s time to revisit the singles match between Kazuchika Okada and Shinsuke Nakamura from New Japan’s 2015 G1 Climax tournament.
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.
Going into this match, Nakamura and Okada had the exact same number of points. But only one of them could advance and face the winner of the A-Block. And in this case, the man awaiting one of them in the finals was none other than Hiroshi Tanahashi.
As I’ve mentioned before, both Nakamura and Okada have long and rich histories with Tanahashi. Nakamura and Tanahashi go way back, having come up together around the same time during New Japan’s dark period of the early-to-mid-2000s. In a way, they were NJPW’s version of John Cena and Randy Orton. Both were young rising stars that the company had high hopes for and pushed to the moon. They teamed together many times and faced each other even more over the years. But while Nakamura was the company’s first choice as new ace, his time on top was nowhere near as successful as Tanahashi’s. In terms of wrestling style and presentation, Nakamura represented New Japan’s past while Tanahashi represented its future. Nakamura, at the time, was a no-nonsense MMA fighter-type wrestler with zero personality. Meanwhile, Tanahashi was the exciting and charismatic high-flyer that dragged New Japan into the 21st century by his teeth. By the beginning of the 2010s, it was clear that Tanahashi had surpassed Nakamura and would continue to do so. There was no way Nakamura would ever achieve the same success as Tanahashi and deep down that irked him to no end. So even though they spent most of their time apart, whenever they did cross paths Nakamura was sure to take advantage of such opportunities to vent his frustrations.
Okada’s story is more recent, having started in 2012. But in that three-year timeframe, Tanahashi and Okada managed to create one of the greatest and most exciting rivalries in New Japan history. It was one of huge surprises, determination, success, failure, resolve, and above all else, incredible pro wrestling. Okada had not faced Tanahashi since Wrestle Kingdom 9 eight months earlier. If he won here, he would face Tanahashi and hope to avenge his WK9 loss.
But there was another important factor here as well; Okada was defending heavyweight champion. If he somehow won this match and then beat Tanahashi, then he’d be free to choose his own challenger for the next Wrestle Kingdom dome show. And while New Japan’s roster was filled to the brim with top-level talent at the time, there was only one guy he’d want to face: Tanahashi again. Imagine, Okada beats Tanahashi in the finals of the G1 and then lets Tanahashi face him again. The sheer arrogance on display would make even the righteous Tanahashi give in to anger and rashly accept. For Okada, nothing would make him happier than to defeat Tanahashi on as many occasions as possible.
But to get there, he’d have to beat Nakamura here first. In terms of history, these two men had only faced each other in singles competition five times before. Three of those matches were many years earlier when Okada was still a rookie and Nakamura was already established. Okada lost all of those matches and then went on excursion for a few years. And since they were stablemates, the only times they wrestled each other one-on-one were in the G1. Going into this match, they were 1-1, with Nakamura winning in 2012 and Okada winning in 2014. This was the tie-breaker, the match that would determine which of them was better and who would face the Ace in the finals.
This match originally took place on August 15th, 2015. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. The winner of this match faces Hiroshi Tanahashi in the finals on the following night.
Nakamura has a taped-up left elbow as he teases locking up with Okada. Some early amateur grappling ends in a stalemate. Nakamura wrings Okada’s left arm but Okada quickly counters that onto Nakamura. Nakamura does some clever counter-wrestling into a headlock but Okada gets a clean break and then mocks Nakamura while posing. With a huge grin on his face, Nakamura walks up to Okada and hits a big forearm. Okada hits back and sends Nakamura into the ropes. He goes for a dropkick but Nakamura uses the ropes to avoid it. Okada ducks a Boma Ye and a dropkick and goes for the Rainmaker. Nakamura ducks it, leading to another stalemate.
Nakamura goes after Okada’s leg but Okada tries to grapple out. In response, Nakamura goes for a grounded sleeper but Okada gets a ropebreak and goes to ringside to recover. Nakamura goes after him with a kneelift and Irish whips him into the barricade. Wait, no, Okada reverses and it’s Nakamura who hits the barricade. Okada follows with a huge dropkick. Nakamura flips over the barricade and hits the concrete hard. Okada follows with a DDT onto the ringside mats to further target Nakamura’s neck Nakamura writhes in pain and struggles to his feet but makes it into the ring before the referee’s count of twenty.
Back in the ring, Okada hits a neckbreaker for a one-count and applies a cross-arm stretch with his knee in Nakamura’s back. Nakamura gets a ropebreak but Okada takes his time letting go and sends him into a corner. Okada mocks Nakamura with his own take on Nakamura’s vibrations stomp and chokes him in the corner. Nakamura hits back with forearms but Okada lands a kneelift of his own followed by a slam/slingshot senton combo to shut Nakamura down. Okada hits a snapmare/running dropkick combo and goes to lift Nakamura off the apron but Nakamura hits a big kick. Nakamura gets a burst of adrenaline and pulls Okada out of the ring. He lifts him onto the barricade and hits a running kneelift to the chest. That gives Nakamura some crucial recovery time.
Okada gets back into the ring so Nakamura hits his own vibrations corner stomp and some grounded knees to Okada’s head. A single-leg dropkick gets Nakamura a two-count and he goes for a suplex. Okada blocks it so Nakamura stomps on his instep and charges but runs into a flapjack. Okada hits a former uppercut followed by a DDT. That’s followed by another running uppercut that gets Okada a two-count. Okada slams Nakamura and goes for a diving elbow drop but Nakamura gets to his feet so Okada lands safely. He charges but runs into a big knee strike, followed by a corner running kneelift from Nakamura. Nakamura hits an enzuigiri and goes for the inverted Exploder but Okada elbows out and counters with an Air Raid Crash neckbreaker. Nice counter. Okada follows with a Heavy Rain neckbreaker slam and pins but only gets two. He goes for a Tombstone but Nakamura resists and lands a counter spinning wheel kick. Nakamura follows with a backstabber/inverted Exploder combo and sets up his finisher. Boma – no, Okada dodges. He charges into a corner but Nakamura boots him and hits a second-rope knee attack. One, two, kick-out by Okada.
Nakamura charges for the Boma Ye again. Okada drop toeholds him and rolls him up for another two-count. Nakamura charges at Okada but ends up on the top rope. Okada dropkicks him to the floor. But he doesn’t give Nakamura time to breathe. Tombstone Piledriver on the ringside mats.
Okada breaks up the referee’s count at sixteen and tosses Nakamura back into the ring. He connects with his slam/elbow drop combo and teases his finisher. Rainmaker – no, Nakamura hits first with a high kick and goes for a Landslide. Okada blocks and lands a backslide. Nakamura remembers what happened a year earlier and hits first with a brutal knee strike. Both men collapse.
After a long recovery period, both wrestlers get to their feet and trade forearms. Nakamura sinks down so Okada capitalizes with more forearms. But that only angers Nakamura as he hits back even harder. Okada fights on with uppercuts. Nakamura strikes back with knees and an ax kick. Boma Ye connects. One, two, and th – Okada kicks out. Landslide Samoan Driver by Nakamura. Okada kicks out again. Nakamura tries the Boma Ye once again. He charges with all his might…and runs into a standing dropkick. Amazing counter by Okada. He goes for the Rainmaker but Nakamura elbows out. Except Okada was anticipating that exact counter and uses it to hook in another backslide…into a Rainmaker lariat. Nakamura’s mouth guard goes flying out of his mouth. Okada goes for a second Rainmaker. Nakamura blocks with a knee but Okada blocks that and spins him into a German suplex. Wait, Nakamura counters into an armbar out of nowhere. But he opens himself up in the process. Okada flips him over and drills him with another Tombstone Piledriver. Okada signals the end. Rainma – flying armbar by Nakamura. Another awesome counter. Okada clasps his hands together to avoid the submission hold. Nakamura snakes his legs through Okada’s arms to try and break his grasp. Okada fights to his feet. Nakamura counters into a triangle hold. Okada tries to stand up to power out of the hold but only makes it worse. Nakamura switches back to the full armbar as Okada sinks down to the mat. Nakamura wrenches Okada’s arm with all his might. Okada taps instantly! Nakamura wins and advances to the finals!
Winner after 23:31: Shinsuke Nakamura
That was an excellent match. It was much better than the previous two G1 matches these two had together. It was way more unpredictable, exciting, tense, and believable. Both wrestlers fought incredibly well and gave it their all. But most importantly, this match had a phenomenal closing sequence that led to a much-needed surprise finish.
The match was filled with tremendous high-spots and logical wrestling from the beginning. Okada was his usual mechanical self (which is both a good thing and a bad thing). It was good because he put in a lot of effort and told a great story while targeting Nakamura’s neck for his lariat finisher. But it was bad because he did the same things we’ve all seen from him before with only a little bit of variation. Okada hit all his usual big moves and did some unique counters and move orders to soften Nakamura up. But this time, it was Nakamura who out-performed Okada, which is a rare thing in itself. Nakamura had learned from their previous matches and adapted his strategy accordingly. He had better counters for Okada and had trained himself to fight through the pain Okada caused him. Nakamura came across as the underdog here and did an amazing job convincing viewers he was fighting through extreme pain to keep going. Whether it was something subtle like constantly clasping his neck or something overt like sinking downwards during a strike battle, Nakamura put on a spectacular performance here. He made people believe that Okada had beaten him so badly that he was on the verge of passing out and him hitting anything was a titanic struggle.
Nakamura had a much tougher time landing anything on Okada so he made the most out of every opportunity he got. He hits Okada brutally hard and stacked one big move on top of another before pinning because he knew that keeping Okada down was a difficult task. And even after being spiked on his head over and over, Nakamura refused to give up. Once the closing counter sequence began, Nakamura used his speed and striking advantage to hit first. But Okada caught on quickly and soon began answering Nakamura’s counters with more creative counters of his own. that led to an incredibly tense final five minutes and to one of the best finishes I’ve seen in years from New Japan.
Nakamura had spent so many years winning with his Boma Ye that many people forgot that he also had a second finisher: the flying armbar. When Okada decided to go to the same well that won him their match in 2014, Nakamura had the setup he needed. Okada knew that he needed to hit multiple Rainmakers to keep Nakamura down; but by doing so he gave Nakamura the perfect opening. Nakamura countered Okada’s second lariat with a beautiful armbar and relied on legitimate submission grappling – something Okada wasn’t particularly good at – to win the match. It was so refreshing to see a New Japan match actually end with a tap-out. So many of these historically big matches have ended the same way, with the submission holds being used as ‘wear-down’ tools instead of as actual finishers. And in this case, the finish coming out of nowhere made complete sense because Okada basically fed Nakamura his arm and Nakamura would’ve been stupid to ignore such a golden opportunity to make Okada tap out.
But that great finish also highlighted one of Okada’s biggest weaknesses as a wrestler: his rigidity.
As soon as I saw Nakamura’s taped elbow, it reminded me of a random match between JBL and the Undertaker from SmackDown in 2005. JBL’s ribs were taped up in that match, which caused the Undertaker to notably changed his usual match structure. He built around those taped ribs (because, as commentator Tazz pointed out, ‘a lightbulb had gone off in ‘Taker’s head’), which made the match more commonsensical and exciting. I expected Okada to do the same here, to exploit an obvious vulnerability to make it easier for him to win. But he didn’t. Instead, he maintained his usual strategy of targeting the head and neck to setup for his Rainmaker finish. And while he did a great job of both doing that and using new and creative means to counter Nakamura, he still didn’t deviate from his normal strategy. Building around a single finisher can make matches boring and predictable, especially when only one move ends matches. That conditions viewers to anticipate kick-outs from every other supposed ‘near-fall’, which in turn robs the match of most of its tension. That’s why Nakamura’s surprise at the very end was so welcome. He built the match up for his Boma Ye knee strike, but when that failed, he had another weapon up his sleeve that he could rely on to win.
This is one of the reasons I think wrestlers should have more than one finisher. Using the same move over and over leads to predictability, familiarity, boredom, and contempt. Keeping things different leads to more unexpected twists and therefore more excitement. Nakamura’s sudden but logical decision at the end of this match showed exactly how well that approach can work.
Final Rating: ****3/4
If you’re going to watch any match between Okada and Nakamura, watch this one. It’s by far the best match they’ve had together and one of the best matches of the year. Nakamura was on fire in 2015, even though many people believed that he stopped giving it his all years earlier. Okada was his usual self, but then again that’s like saying that Shawn Michaels was great as expected. He earned praise for his tenacity and skill, even if he was repetitive in what he did.
Seeing this match reminded me of how great Nakamura can be in the ring and how far he has fallen over the past six years. Hid job right now might be easier, but you can be sure that his legacy in wrestling will mostly include stuff from his New Japan days.