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5-Star Match Reviews: Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14

okada naito njpw wrestle kingdom 2020

On January 5th, 2020, one of the greatest professional wrestling matches in modern history took place. It was the culmination of a subtle but well-crafted storyline that started eight years earlier. It was said to be the magnum opus of Gedo’s abilities as New Japan’s booker. And the match itself was so satisfying and provided such catharsis that it just has to be revisited once more.

In early 2020, I reviewed New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom event for TJRWrestling when the show first aired. And when the second night’s main event aired, I was absolutely amazed by how good the match was. But I didn’t review it for this series at that point; as I’ve stated before, I intentionally wait a while to review matches as they happen so that my reviews aren’t influenced by the biased hoopla and discussions that come about when a match is still fresh in fans’ minds.

Now that enough time has passed, I figured it’s time to review the first genuine classic of the 2020s. It’s the epic singles match between Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito from NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 14.

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

Once upon a time, there was a young kid named Tetsuya Naito. Naito had dreams of becoming New Japan’s biggest and brightest star, and vowed to do whatever it took to achieve that dream. He modeled himself after New Japan’s then-ace Hiroshi Tanahashi and carried himself as plucky, white-meat babyface. And like his hero, Naito vowed to continue pushing forward, no matter what came before him.

At first things started off strongly for him. Nicknamed ‘the Stardust Genius’, Naito had some mild success teaming with Yujiro Takahashi as the team ‘No Limit’, until it was time for Naito’s singles push. That push led to some early title shots, and although he lost those challenges and suffered an injury that put him on the shelf for eight months, he persevered all the same. He thought the fans would appreciate his never-say-die attitude and that his character of an adversity-defying warrior would make him into a respected and admired hero.

Enter the Rainmaker.

When Kazuchika Okada returned from excursion, he basically burst Naito’s bubble. In the span of a year, Okada went from being a cheap Ted DiBiase/Randy Orton knockoff with an inauspicious debut that the fans rejected en masse to one of the best wrestlers in the world. Okada’s rise to the top of the New Japan kingdom was nothing short of marvelous, and he matched the arrogance of his new persona with incredible in-ring skill. He was so good that he managed to defeat Hiroshi Tanahashi – the established ace and Naito’s hero – not once, but twice.

Undeterred, Naito pressed forward to achieve his dream of being New Japan’s next star. And his next pivotal step in reaching that goal came in the summer of 2013 when Naito won the 2013 G1 Climax tournament. That victory guaranteed him a world title shot at Wrestle Kingdom 8 four months later. At the time, Naito was convinced that, with that win, nothing would prevent him from main-eventing New Japan’s biggest and most important show of the year.

Except something did stop him from doing so: the fans. Despite his positive demeanor and perseverance in the face of adversity, the fans did not like white-meat Naito at all. Even as he stared down Okada in a big pre-WK encounter, the fans reacted poorly to him. Thus New Japan’s power-brokers did something unique: they gave the fans a choice. The fans were to vote on which of two matches would headline Wrestle Kingdom: either the Okada/Naito match for the IWGP Heavyweight title, or a match between Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura for Nakamura’s IWGP Intercontinental title.

The fans chose the Tanahashi/Nakamura match in overwhelming numbers. And while this decision did a lot to elevate the IC title from a midcard belt to something prestigious and proved once again how beloved Tanahashi and Nakamura were, it was a devastating blow to both Okada and Naito, especially Naito. Okada was embarrassed that he wasn’t in the main-event despite being world champion and that Tanahashi still loomed above him. For Naito this fan result stung much more. To him, that fan vote was less praise for the importance of Tanahashi, Nakamura and the IC belt and more of a rebuke of the personality Naito portrayed. As if that wasn’t enough, Naito lost to Okada at WK8. Just like that, Naito’s dream of becoming New Japan’s biggest star faded.

But not for long.

After suffering such stinging losses, Naito finally realized that something needed to change. He couldn’t be the same person anymore, especially as he saw things change around him. Thus, after a year of doing very little, Naito went to North America and spent months wrestling for CMLL in Mexico and Ring of Honor in the US and Canada. Once those tours ended, Naito returned to Japan. But something was different about Naito now. Gone was the plucky, generic, goody-two-shoes babyface that tried to emulate Tanahashi. In his place was an unshaven man with long, unkempt hair. This man sauntered down to the ring without a care in the world. He was detached. He was apathetic. He was arrogant.

He was tranquilo.

The new Tetsuya Naito emerged in mid-2015 and soon began his gradual rise to the top. Soon after his return, he recruited Takaaki Watanabe (the future EVIL) to his side and the two of them formed the Los Ignobernables de Japón stable. In doing so, Naito became a full-fledged villain that did not care one bit about New Japan’s traditions or its fans. In fact, he literally spat on those traditions and cared little what the fans thought of him. And although he lost most of his big matches at that time, he began to climb up the ranks.

In April 2016, Naito got his first measure of revenge when he defeated Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight title, thanks to interference from LiJ’s newest member SANADA. For the first time in over two years, Naito felt somewhat vindicated. His dream had come true: he was world champion. But it was short-lived as Okada recaptured that title from Naito only two months later. But that brief stint as champion gave Naito a taste of what it meant to be the brightest star, and so he vowed to get that back. He began this new climb with the 2016 G1 Climax tournament. And although he didn’t make it to the finals, he did take part in one of the greatest professional wrestling matches of all time in the semi-finals.

From there came a symbolic feud as Naito began feuding with Hiroshi Tanahashi, the man he once idolized and after whom he had modeled himself in the past. But that was no longer the case. Naito was a new man, a man that forged his own path to the top. Naito defeated Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 11, and in doing so killed the part of himself that still held onto Tanahashi’s ideals of pro-wrestling. From there, Naito climbed further and further. Despite losing a high-profile match to Tanahashi at Dominion 2017, Naito bounced back to win the 2017 G1 Climax tournament. Once again, Naito earned a shot at the IWGP heavyweight title. But this time, Naito was adored by the fans. Those same fans that rejected him 3-5 years earlier had now embraced him fully and were fully supportive of him main-eventing Wrestle Kingdom.

And so, Naito reached the main-event and faced Okada for the title. This was to be his moment, his ultimate vindication for what he had suffered. But once again, something went awry.

At Wrestle Kingdom 12, Naito had his main-event match all but won. For a good portion of the match leading up to its finish, Naito was in control. All he had to do was pin Okada and he’d be champion again and the Tokyo Dome would erupt in cheers for him, just like how he had envisioned. But in that moment, something came rushing back. For one brief moment, Naito was no longer tranquilo. The plucky ‘Stardust Genius’ of yesteryear came back from the dead and clouded Naito’s mind. Blinded by those emotions and the desire to be New Japan’s hero, Naito didn’t pin Okada when he had the match won. Instead, he climbed the top rope for his Stardust Press top-rope diving splash finisher. He wanted his win to be exactly as he had planned it, with the fans cheering him on as he dove from the top rope. But Okada dodged his dive. Naito hit the mat hard. His moment of glory vanished before his eyes. That moment of hesitation and grandstanding was all Okada needed. Naito couldn’t recover from that error in judgment and Okada used it to bounce back and pin Naito clean.

Once again, Naito found himself in a position of failure. But even worse, now, was that he was once again stuck with something that had been bothering him for years. Once more, Naito found himself in a love-hate relationship with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

Shortly after the 2016 G1, Naito won the Intercontinental title for the first time. And as hard as he tried, he just couldn’t escape that title as the years went by. On one hand, New Japan needed someone at the top level to carry that title to maintain its prestige after Nakamura had elevated it into something valuable and worthwhile. And to do that, they settled on Naito once Nakamura left. But for Naito, it was something worse. It was his albatross, his participation trophy. It was the constant reminder of Naito’s failure to reach the top of the mountain. Whenever Naito looked at that title, it reminded him that he was a great wrestler but not the best. He had to sit in the A-tier with his “prestigious” IC title as wrestlers like Okada, Omega, Tanahashi, and then Jay White surpassed him into the S-Tier. Because of that, Naito loathed the IC title. Whenever he wrestled, he’d swing that title belt as hard as he could and throw it into the air with all his might. He had to carry it as champion, but he cared not about the belt’s condition. As far as he was concerned, the belt could break and fall into a thousand pieces. That was why Tanahashi attacked and humbled him at Dominion 2017 in the hopes of restoring honor and respect to the title. But Naito beat Tanahashi afterwards and continued his title-throwing ways, until he realized that the IC belt was his ticket to the main-event.

After spending the better part of four years carrying that albatross, Naito gambled on a risky decision. As 2019 drew to a close, Naito found himself in interesting company. He, Ibushi, and White all had the same goal: of becoming dual champions at Wrestle Kingdom 14. For Ibushi this wasn’t a problem; he won the 2019 G1 Climax tournament and was guaranteed a title shot at WK14. Jay White didn’t have any issues with this either; he beat Naito at Destruction in Kobe 2019 to win the IWGP IC title, and he was more than fine with challenging world champion Okada, since he beat Okada clean at Wrestle Kingdom 13.

But Naito? He had nothing; no contract, no rematch clause, no mechanism to grant him a single title match, much less two. But as all this arguing and discussion between those three challengers took place, world champion Okada looked on, amused. Though he himself didn’t care at all about this…Double Gold Dash…he decided it wasn’t his decision to make. Instead, Okada decided to let the fans decide. Okada asked the New Japan fans to vote on whether such a thing would happen. And much to Naito’s delight, they approved it. Those same fans that had voted Naito out of a Wrestle Kingdom main-event six years earlier had now voted him in. Everything that Naito had experienced with regards to the fans had come full circle.

And so came Wrestle Kingdom 14. For the first time in the event’s history, WK was held over two nights. To accommodate the Double Gold Dash, there were two title defenses on the first night. In the penultimate match, Naito defeated White to regain the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. And right after that in the main-event, Okada retained the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Kota Ibushi.

And thus the stage was set. This was it, the conclusion of a feud that had been slowly building over the previous eight years. Okada had usurped the rising star spot that Naito had once claimed for himself. They wrestled several times over the years and Okada won in the most important matches while Naito only won in fluke contests here and there. And now it was time to settle things once and for all. Would Okada prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the best wrestler in New Japan history by defeating two world-class challengers on consecutive nights? Or would Naito’s eight-year odyssey finally end with his coronation as dual champion and New Japan’s brightest star?

The match

This is the tenth-ever singles match between Okada and Naito. It’s a winner-take-all match for both Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship and Naito’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

The bell rings and the fans appear to be more behind Naito than Okada. Naito spends the first two minutes playing it cool and trying some mind games with Okada. They eventually lock-up and trade control against the ropes until Okada gains the upper hand. That’s follows by a high-speed sprint with leapfrogs and ducks that ends in a back elbow from Okada. Okada maintains his advantage with a corner whip into a DDT for two. He lands a springboard senton onto Naito and applies a chinlock, and then lands a basement dropkick after Naito tries to escape but fails to do so. Suddenly Naito fires back with forearms and an arm drag/elbow/dropkick combination. Naito follows with the corner sweep/dropkick combo, which gets him tons of applause. Naito goes for a neckbreaker but Okada elbows out and goes for a boot, only for Naito to block and sweep him down. Naito drags Okada onto and then off the apron and lands a neckbreaker to the floor.

Naito stomps on Okada’s neck then lands another neckbreaker in the ring for a two-count. Naito stomps on Okada’s head, which angers Okada into hulking up and attacking. But Naito dodges him exactly as planned and lands a single-knee backbreaker followed by a full nelson with his legs. Naito’s doing a great job attacking Okada’s neck to setup for Destino while also weakening his main lariat arm. After a ropebreak that takes a longtime for Naito to let go, Naito lands some stiff elbows to Okada’s neck in the corner. He follows that with a cravate hold that, again, puts immense pressure on Okada’s neck; and each time Okada tries to fight out Naito lands another forearm to said neck. All of a sudden Naito spits on Okada and sends him into a corner but Okada reverses. Naito elbows out of a corner and charges, but runs into a big boot from Okada. Just like that the complexion of the match has changed.

Okada lands some forearms followed by a flapjack. He attempts another boot but Naito catches it. They trade forearms. Okada fires back with an uppercut and goes for his reverse neckbreaker. Naito rolls through. Okada reverses that with a jackknife rollup and connects with the neckbreaker to the knee. Scoop slam/diving elbow combo, followed by a Rainmaker pose. Okada goes for his finisher but Naito elbows first. Okada goes down but Naito controls his wrist. Naito lands more huge elbows to Okada’s neck. Okada dodges one and charges but runs into a spinebuster. Naito follows with a super Frankensteiner. Naito attempts his Gloria side powerslam but Okada escapes with forearms. Naito teases a forearm but kicks Okada instead. Naito’s getting cocky. Okada answers with a massive shotgun dropkick. That’s what you get for being arrogant, Naito. Okada charges towards Naito twice but Naito blocks. That forces Okada to go for the corner dropkick. And he connects. Naito falls to the floor.

As Naito tries to recover ringside, Okada lands a knee smasher, driving Naito’s knee into the floor. That causes major problems for Naito since Jay White decimated that body part the night before. Okada goes for a knee breaker onto the announce table. Naito fights back with forearms to the neck. But Okada’s too determined. He connects with the knee breaker. Naito’s badly weakened knee gets smashed into the table. Naito starts crawling as the ref starts to count. Naito’s still far from the ring at the count of fourteen. He collapses at seventeen. Then again at nineteen. Finally, with one burst of adrenaline, Naito pushes himself into the ring to save his change at glory. But Okada’s waiting for him with a diving shotgun dropkick. One, two, no, Naito still kicks out.

Okada waistlocks Naito and, despite Naito hitting elbows, lands a German suplex. He goes for a Rainmaker lariat. Naito ducks and lands a rope-assisted tornado DDT. Both men collapse as the fans start chanting for Naito. Naito’s slow to get up but he manages to land a Gloria side slam. He moves sluggishly and tries to fight through the damage to his knee. But despite that pain, Naito soldiers on and places Okada on the top rope. Diving Poisoned Hurricanrana! Naito spikes Okada on his head! one, two, Okada kicks out again. Naito attempts Destino. Okada elbows out. Naito answers with an enzuigiri with the good leg. Okada reverses an Irish whip, ducks a forearm, and tries another Rainmaker. Naito ducks and applies a front chancery and then connects with a flying forearm. Okada escapes Destino. Naito follows with a rolling koppu kick. Okada fires back with his picture-perfect dropkick. Naito fires up and lands Destino! One, two, and thr – NO, Okada kicks out at 2.9!

Naito teases the end and goes for another Destino. Okada counters into a Rainmaker. Naito dodges, only for Okada to land another dropkick. Both men collapse again. The crowd is erupting in cheers for both wrestlers. The forearm exchange begins. Both men have massive grins on their faces as they hit each other as hard as possible. Back and forth they go. Then Okada goes for yet another Rainmaker. Naito hits first with a massive bitchslap and goes for a slam. Okada escapes that and connects with a discus Rainmaker. Another Rainmaker, no, another Destino, no, Tombstone Piledriver connects. Rainmaker lariat connects. One, two, thre – no, Naito survives.

Okada signals the end with a sitout Tombstone but Naito escapes. Both men are beyond exhausted by this point but still keep fighting. Okada picks Naito up but he spits in Okada’s face. Okada answers with another knee smasher. And then another. The fans shower Okada with boos. Okada doesn’t care as he lands a third knee smasher. That’s followed by yet another Rainmaker lariat. Okada maintains wrist control and lands yet another one. Okada goes for one more. Naito counters with Destino! But Naito jams his knee in the process. He takes a split second to clasp that limb as he crawls over for a pin. One, two, no, Okada kicks out. Naito slams Okada and goes to the top rope. He’s going for the Stardust Press, the same move that cost him the title two years earlier. But this time Naito connects. Naito corrects the wrong from Wrestle Kingdom 12. He pins…and Okada kicks out. Screams and cheering echo throughout the Tokyo Dome. Naito tries for one more Destino. Okada resists and tries for a Tombstone. Naito counters into a Valencia Emerald Flowsion-type move. DESTINO CONNECTS! One, two, three! That’s it! Naito wins! Naito’s eight-year odyssey has come to an end. Tetsuya Naito is double champion!

Winner of the Double Gold Dash and NEW IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 35:37: Tetsuya Naito

Review

What an absolutely spectacular wrestling match. Talk about awesome. Even with the slow start that’s typical of Okada main-event matches, the match was outstanding thanks to a second half that just flew by. And while I don’t think it’s one of the best matches of all time, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most satisfying and cathartic contests from the past two decades. There was something magical at play here in the form of excellent storytelling. This was the perfect meeting of multiple story elements all coming together in one of the best examples of long-term booking ever. It was like the pro-wrestling version of The Avengers: Endgame, in that it was a long-term storyline that reached its zenith and logical conclusion after a long and arduous struggle.

Both wrestlers entered this match not at 100% thanks to the baggage from their respective matches from the night before. Okada was battered from waging war with Ibushi while Naito had major battle scars (mostly a weakened left knee) courtesy of Jay White. But while Okada tried different things to keep Naito down and even went down a (sort of) underhanded path by attacking Naito’s knee, Naito stayed focused and maintained an unrelenting assault on Okada’s neck. The majority of Naito’s key moves all weakened that body part, which led to his near-falls becoming more and more believable with time. By the end, the match reached a point where any move – even one that doesn’t target the neck, like the Stardust Press – could’ve conceivably ended the match and it would’ve made sense. But Okada fought through incredible pain and punishment, only to be felled by the move that was named after the very theme of this story: Destino. Destiny. A spinning inverted DDT that targets the head and neck.

Everything about this match’s conclusion was just so…perfect. All the storyline threads and more subtle story elements that emerged over the years all came to a conclusion here. From Naito finally accepting the IC title instead of treating it like a piece of garbage, to him connecting with the Stardust Press, to overcoming the pain in his knee and thereby returning to the babyface he first portrayed that the fans hated but now embraced, to the simple fact that Naito beat Okada like he was meant to in his dreams, all of it felt so satisfying in the end.

But the ending wasn’t the only great part here. This match had something that had been lacking in many Okada matches and many Naito matches: consistent selling. Not only did both men really sell exhaustion, but Naito had a major challenge in the form of selling his leg properly and making it feel important. In many of these modern New Japan matches, I’ve seen wrestlers get their legs utterly thrashed, only for the victim to bounce back seconds later and act as if said damage was completely inconsequential. Thankfully that wasn’t the case here. Naito was forced to slow down due to how badly his knee was damaged. There were moments where he couldn’t keep up momentum or follow through with big moves or pins because of that knee. It even came to a head when he went for one Destino, only for him to delay pinning by a second because of that knee. Naito had overcome one of his own limitations as a wrestler here: instead of no-selling for the sake of getting his moves in, he got his moves in while also making his opponent’s offense actually mean something. He made both himself and Okada look good, which is always refreshing to see in these big matches.

As for Okada, well, there isn’t much that needs to be said about him. Okada was Okada: a terrific big match wrestler with a great sense of timing, execution, and grit. He took an ungodly punishment from Naito and dished out punishment in equal measure. He acted like a competitor here and took whatever avenue necessary to win, even if it meant getting booed. And even though he was Naito’s equal in terms of delivering great in-ring wrestling here, he was a side character in the story. This was Naito’s match, Naito’s moment. It was about Naito overcoming everything that had stood in his way before, including Naito’s own demons. Naito overcame those, Okada, and what few doubters still remained. He proved everyone wrong once and for all and showed just how amazing of a wrestler he could be.

Final Rating: *****

This match deserves nothing less than a perfect 5-star rating. It was, and still is, simply glorious. I haven’t felt such satisfaction in a wrestling storyline in ages. Not since Kenta Kobashi’s twelve-year struggle to score a major win over the mythical Mitsuharu Misawa has a wrestling storyline satisfied me so much. And while there have been a lot of matches that featured better in-ring action and hold up better than this one, the fact that this match concluded an eight-year slow build of a story in the best possible way more than justifies its rating.

Naito had spent eight incredibly long years working his way to the top. That odyssey was filled with more ups and downs than most wrestlers get through their entire careers. Most people thought Naito would get his big win two years earlier at 2018. But to be honest, delaying his victory until this match was a stroke of storytelling genius. Yes, the fans wanted Naito to win earlier and some people thought that this win was a case of too-little-too-late. I disagree.

Long-term storytelling is becoming increasingly rare across all forms of entertainment, including pro-wrestling. This match proved that being patient and taking the time for a story to reach its proper conclusion gives the consumer WAY more satisfaction than rushing an ending to create a premature climax that ultimately isn’t justified.

Thanks for reading.