New Japan has enjoyed a very long run as the home of the best in-ring wrestling in the world for over ten years. Before AEW came along and became the hot topic in wrestling, most fans praised New Japan as the biggest alternative to WWE’s juggernaut.
Even as COVID spread around the world and shut down wrestling as we know it, New Japan’s wrestlers still managed to pull off amazing matches.
But were all of those matches really that great? Or were they simply better than the average at during the same time? Today we look back at another match that took place under COVID conditions and so it had restrictions placed on it. And yet not only was it amazing, but according to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer, it was better than matches that took place with fans. That’s high praise, so let’s take a look at this big match.
It’s time to revisit the singles match between Kazuchika Okada and Shingo Takagi from the 2020 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.
Both Okada and Takagi were in the same G1 tournament block and their match was hyped up as a very big deal. Even though Takagi had been with New Japan since 2018, this match marked the first time that Takagi and Okada had ever faced off one-on-one. What’s more, both of them were trained by the same people. Okada was trained directly by Ultimo Dragón himself while Takagi was the first graduate of Dragón’s Toryumon wrestling school. Both of them started wrestling within a month of each other back in 2004. Toryumon would later become Dragon Gate and Takagi would spend the next fourteen year as one of Dragon Gate’s biggest stars while Okada trained in Mexico and then went to New Japan.
Prior to this match, Takagi had tried working his way up the ranks from junior heavyweight to full-fledged heavyweight. It took a while but he eventually became a heavyweight after his performance in the 2019 G1 tournament. But this year, Takagi hoped to not only cement himself as a heavyweight, but to try and become world champion. He wasn’t content having a slow and methodical run in New Japan; he was determined to become as big a star as possible in such a short period.
Meanwhile, Okada was at yet another crossroads. He overcame his ‘personality issues’ that came about after his loss to Omega at Dominion 2018 and made it back to the top of the mountain by early 2020. And even though he lost the world title to Tetsuya Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 14 (in a f**king awesome match), he was back as the current ace. But he needed to change things up with his move-set. And to keep with his existing logic of targeting his opponent’s head and neck, Okada decided on a simple cobra clutch submission hold, which he called the Money Clip. His goal was to get that move over as his new big move to give his big matches some more variety and unpredictability. Personally, I have no idea why Okada chose the cobra clutch as his new hold. Years earlier during some of his first matches with Tanahashi, Okada used some great submission holds like the Deep In Debt and the Red Ink, both of which did the same job as the Money Clip while also having the added benefit of looking cooler. The cobra clutch was boring, especially by 2020 standards. But hey, Okada gambled and decided on something simple as a believable finish. After all, he got a simple lariat over, so maybe he figured he could get the same results out of one of the oldest and blandest submission holds ever.
This match took place on October 10th, 2020, on the same night as this great match between Ishii and Cobb and this match between Ibushi and Suzuki. This match was rated *****1/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, making it one of the greatest matches EVER according to his rating system. Let’s see if that high praise is still well-deserved.
The two of them trade holds and do some chain grappling to start things off. Okada gets a clean break on the ropes and pats Takagi mockingly. He goes for the shoulderblock but Takagi bounces backwards and knocks Okada down. Takagi avoids a standing dropkick and knocks Okada down again. They sprint around the ring dodging each other until Okada lands a snapmare/basement dropkick combo that sends Takagi to the floor. Takagi returns to the ring but Okada rushes him and lands a swinging neckbreaker. He hits some stiff elbows to Takagi’s neck and Takagi tries fighting back but Okada maintains control. Okada slams Takagi and attempts a senton atomicó but Takagi rolls out of the way. Okada teases a plancha but Takagi sidesteps and pulls Okada down, causing Okada to hit the apron face-first. Then Takagi takes a page out of Okada’s playbook with a ringside DDT.
Takagi chokes Okada using the ringpost and then smashes him into anything metal he can find. He goes after Okada’s now-weakened ribs with a slingshot stomp back into the ring. Then he follows with a slam/elbow drop/senton combo for a two-count and Okada’s already slowing down because he’s having trouble breathing. Takagi applies a bodyscissor to further target Okada’s ribs but Okada gets a ropebreak. Takagi elbows Okada’s lower back and then a vertical suplex gets him a two-count so he steps on Okada’s face and kicks him mockingly. Okada fights up and hits forearms but Takagi shuts him down with a big chop. Takagi hits a kneelift by the ropes and charges but Okada counters with a flapjack. Takagi counters an Irish whip but Okada ducks a clothesline and hits a flying forearm. Okada follows with a corner elbow/DDT combo for his own two-count. He for the reverse neckbreaker but Takagi resists. Takagi counters an uppercut into a Gory facebuster attempt but Okada blocks. Takagi reverses a corner whip, catches Okada’s boot on an attempted counter, and hits a big corner lariat. Takagi charges for his running Pumping Bomber lariat, Okada blocks, Takagi swings around for a discus lariat, Okada counters with a fireman’s carry, Takagi escapes and goes for a German suplex, Okada elbows out, and Takagi sends him into the ropes and lands a pop-up Death Valley Driver. Awesome sequence. One, two, Okada kicks out.
Takagi kicks Okada’s head mockingly but that turns into another quick counter sequence that ends in a successful reverse neckbreaker for Okada. The two trade stiff elbows until Takagi out-strikes Okada and sends him into a corner. Takagi blocks another boot but this time Okada ducks his follow-up lariat and lands his dropkick to the floor. Okada gets critical recovery time and then goes for a Tombstone on the ringside mats. Takagi blocks and tries to shoot Okada into the barricade but Okada reverses, sending Takagi into it instead. Okada follows with a draping DDT to the floor using the apron, but he hurts himself a bit doing that move due to to Takagi’s earlier work on his ribs.
Back in the ring, Okada tries another Tombstone but Takagi blocks again. Okada goes to the ropes but Takagi cuts him off with a sudden burst of strikes and a big lariat. Takagi tries the gory facebuster. Okada counters with the Money Clip. He tries pulling Takagi backwards but Takagi counters into the Noshigami/Gory Faebuster. Takagi follows with a wheelbarrow suplex and covers for a two-count as Okada gets a ropebreak. Takagi hits Danielson-inspired collar elbows and charges for a basement lariat but Okada counters with a standing dropkick. Tombstone piledriver connects! Okada locks in the Money Clip again. Okada has it locked in for a good long while before Takagi reaches the ropes. Okada goes to the top rope but Takagi cuts him off. Okada tries knocking Takagi down but Takagi hits harder with head-butts. Takagi lands a top-rope superplex but only manages a two-count. Takagi hits another corner lariat. Okada fights out with forearm strikes. Okada reverses an Irish whip but misses his standing dropkick. Takagi charges for a sliding lariat but misses. Okada hits an uppercut. Takagi lariats the back of his head and charges into a corner. Okada boots him and hits a shotgun dropkick. Takagi bounces up and hits a sliding lariat. Both wrestlers collapse.
Takagi blocks another tombstone so Okada hits more uppercuts. Takagi escapes Okada’s next Tombstone attempt and head-butts the back of Okada’s head. He taunts Okada to hit him harder and Okada does. But that just fires Takagi up and he hits his own one-two elbow barrage. Okada sinks down and then crumples completely as Takagi hits a short-range running elbow smash. Takagi teases his Last of the Dragon finisher. Okada escapes it and goes for the reverse neckbreaker. Takagi tries a sunset flip counter but Okada pulls a British Bulldog with a counter cover for a two-count. Spinning Tombstone Piledriver into the Money Clip. Takagi reaches out for the ropes. Okada counters with a backslide into an arm-trap Rainmaker lariat. Takagi tries hitting a lariat of his own before Okada connects with his second Rainmaker. But Takagi’s hit does nothing, so he resorts to a head-butt. The two duck more big strikes from each other. Then Takagi hits a Rainmaker on Okada! Takagi goes Okada’s rainmaker pose and charges for a Pumping Bomber. Okada boots him first and charges for a lariat of his own. Takagi chases him and hits a knee on the ropes. Takagi charges again. Okada ducks the lariat and tries a spinning Rainmaker. Takagi blocks and hits his Made in Japan half-nelson driver. One, two, Okada kicks out. Pumping Bomber lariat connects. One…two…thr – Okada kicks out.
Five minutes left.
Takagi tries his LotD again but Okada elbows out so Takagi hits another standing lariat. He tries LotD yet again but this time Okada escapes and reapplies the Money Clip. Takagi throws him off but Okada hits another shotgun dropkick. Okada blocks another Pumping bomber and hits a spinning Rainmaker. Okada locks in the Money Clip in the middle of the ring and asks the ref to check on Takagi. Takagi starts fading so the ref goes to call the match. But Takagi pulls on the ref’s shirt and then fires up. Okada cuts him off with a backbreaker with the Money Clip still locked in.
Three minutes left.
Takagi tries everything he can to escape, from hair pulling to swinging wildly. Okada tightens the hold as the ref leans in to hear Takagi give up. But Takagi doesn’t give up. Like Steve Austin twenty-three years earlier, Takagi passes out. The referee calls for the bell. Takagi never gave up.
Winner via referee’s decision after 27:45: Kazuchika Okada
Post-match, Okada celebrates as some New Japan young lions try and resuscitate Takagi. They apply pressure to his chest and are selling this like he legitimately passed out. After a minute or so, Takagi rolls out of the ring and staggers around to regain his bearings. He motions to Okada that this isn’t over and needs to be helped around a bit. But again, just like Austin, Takagi refuses help and walks backstage by himself.
This was another excellent match typical of main-event-level Okada. As expected of modern New Japan, it was a high-octane bomb-fest with really fun near-falls towards the end. It was back-and-forth from start to finish. There was an interesting story of both wrestlers hitting moves on each other and then adapting on the spot later on when those same moves were attempted. The second half had this great sense of edge-of-your-seat tension. But most importantly, this match put story above athleticism with Okada getting his new finisher over.
Much like Kurt Angle vs. The Undertaker at No Way Out 2006, this match was about establishing a new hold as a big deal. But unlike that earlier match, this one was successful. Okada’s wrestling strategy was brilliant. He targeted Takagi’s head and neck with everything he had so that it would be easier for him to lock in the Money Clip. He also managed to slow Takagi down significantly, which was no small feat given Takagi’s amazing conditioning and explosive offense. Once Takagi was unable to escape Okada’s Money Clip, Okada put the move over by wrenching it tight one last time. At that moment, Takagi passed out. He had refused to give up directly but his body gave up on him. The referee called for the match to end because it was obvious that Takagi was completely out. Once this match was over, Okada accomplished four things:
- He beat Takagi in their first singles match together;
- He secured two more points in the G1 tournament;
- He got his submission hold over as a big deal; and
- He met expectations and put on an awesome match with Takagi that was as fun and exciting as it was competitive and compelling.
Both wrestlers had almost identical strategies here: weaken the head and neck for their respective finishers. Takagi went in a different direction at first by targeting Okada’s ribs to slow him down. But once Okada started his comeback and began hitting his big moves, Takagi had to abandon that strategy and just throw bombs at Okada. But instead of finding himself at a disadvantage for changing approaches mid-match, Takagi bounced back quickly and caught up to Okada thanks to how hard he hit and how hard he fought to survive everything Okada dished out at him.
In terms of action, it was one of the most refreshing Okada matches in recent memory thanks to Takagi. This barrel-chested man walked the fine line between cruiserweight and heavyweight because he hit with the power of a heavyweight with the speed and agility of a cruiserweight. Takagi used those traits coupled with a bombastic and explosive arsenal to throw a monkey wrench into Okada’s usual main-event match formula. Okada has really become a mixed bag. On one hand, Okada’s conditioning is amazing and he always puts on solid matches with good psychology/logic and displays great athleticism. But those great things come at a cost: Okada has settled on a winning formula that works way more often than not, but he stays with it so rigidly. That has caused him to become repetitive and therefore predictable.
But Takagi forced Okada to do things a bit differently. Takagi hit so many split-second counters all throughout the match and not just during the final act when Okada likes to do all those crazy reversal sequences. Because of Takagi’s approach, Okada had to be extra careful here. Takagi hit him many times early on but later on in the same match Okada countered the very same moves that Takagi had hit him with to create more exciting interactions between them. And while we’ve seen that sort of stuff from Okada before, this was one of the few Okada matches in which that sort of countering and reversing was present through most of the match instead of just being saved for the final few minutes.
So in this match, Takagi was the better wrestler while Okada was the better storyteller. Takagi moved faster, hit harder, and more dynamic in terms of what he used to try and win. Meanwhile, Okada was more adaptive to Takagi’s moves and more consistent with his chosen strategy. Whereas Takagi tried to land any move to win, Okada was determined to win with the Money Clip and nothing else. He stayed true to that goal and built the entire match around seeing it through. That did mean that parts of the match got boring, especially during the early and middle portions with the same spots and the same two-counts that never achieve anything.
And as usual, the last ten minutes or so were fantastic. The counters, reversals, finisher teases and thefts, all of it was just great. Everything from earlier in the match just kept building up to that sequence and from then on it was anyone’s match. Even though Okada was the company ace, he wasn’t infallible. Takagi had been in lockstep with him from the very begging and actually came close to beating Okada more than once. Even without the typical cheers and roars of the crowd, this match had a great closing sequence. They did their best to make up for their inability to cheer with nonstop coordinated applause that clearly showed how enthusiastic they were about this contest.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Many fans have argued that Okada is in fact the best wrestler active today. After watching this match, I find it hard to come to a conclusion on that statement. On one hand, he had yet another amazing match with Takagi here. It had the typical pros and cons of a main-event-level Okada match but he and Takagi made up for that with a mix of great storytelling from Okada and some refreshing action from Takagi. On the other hand, Okada, like many modern wrestlers, is highly formulaic and doesn’t really venture out of his comfort zone that often, especially when he’s the one in control of the match.
So if you’re also on the fence about Okada’s status as the best wrestler active today, I think the best solution would be to watch a lot more Okada matches and then decide for yourself. This match is a good starting point, especially since it showed how Okada fares against someone he’s never wrestled one-on-one before.