If the Wrestling Observer is to be believed, then Kazuchika Okada might be the best pro wrestler alive today. As I write this in February 2022, Okada’s list of accomplishments in wrestling continues to get longer.
He was voted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame with 92% of the vote, the third-highest number ever. He’s a 6-time world champion, and one of his reigns was the longest in New Japan history. He’s won the most prestigious singles tournament in modern wrestling, the G1 Climax, three times. He and his matches have been showered in accolades and praise by publications including the WON, Tokyo Sports, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and Nikkan Sports. And although he’s only 34 years old, he has already had 22 5-stars-or-higher matches in his career. By those metrics, he must be an amazing, industry-changing wrestler. And today we look back at one of his more recent classics to see if the praise was indeed deserved.
Today we look back at Okada’s world title match against Kota Ibushi from 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.
This is the fourth-ever singles match between Kazuchika Okada and Kota Ibushi. Going into this match, Okada was 2-1 over Ibushi, with Ibushi winning the most recent match between them. Ibushi hoped to even the score against Okada by beating him and also hoped to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
This had proven to be a struggle for Ibushi for many years. Even though he had been with New Japan for seven years at this point, he still had his detractors. He wasn’t seen as a New Japan guy as much as more established wrestlers like Okada, Tanahashi, or Naito. Many people still saw him as an outsider given his history and how he wrestled. With this match, Ibushi hoped to prove all those doubters wrong and show the world he could be a champion like Okada.
Speaking of Naito, he was another player in this story. In the lead-up to this edition of Wrestle Kingdom, Naito, Ibushi and Jay White all argued about who should face Okada for the heavyweight title. All of them wanted to unify Okada’s world title with the IC title in what was called the Double Gold Dash. Okada didn’t care which of them he faced; he was a fighting champion and he’d take on all comers. So to make everyone happy, Okada announced that he’d face one wrestler on night One and another on Night Two. Naito would face Jay White in a rematch for the IC title while Okada would face 2019 G1 Climax winner Ibushi. If Ibushi beat Okada on Night One, he’d have to face either Naito or White on Night Two (spoiler alert: considering how WK14N2 ended, Ibushi didn’t leave a happy man).
But for this night, Night One, it was finally time to see if Ibushi could really carry the company and be a main-eventer. He already stole the show at Wrestle Kingdom once before and now he hoped to do it again. But his opponent was Okada, a wrestler that somehow defied all expectations when it came to wrestling consistency and conditioning. Okada always seemed to be at 100% in the ring and out-fought and out-performed whoever challenged him. Even Tanahashi, a wrestler considered less a man than a god in New Japan (including by Ibushi himself) couldn’t keep pace with Okada.
So with all of that in mind, could Ibushi do it? Could he live his dream and become world champion by dethroning the most accomplished world champion in New Japan history? Or would Okada do what he did best and add another feather to his cap by dropping yet another brave soul with his dreaded Rainmaker lariat?
This match originally took place on January 4th, 2020 at Wrestle Kingdom 14, Night One. It was rated *****3/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It’s one of the highest ratings in New Japan history, and only one match (somehow) topped it in 2020. Let’s see how well it holds up now.
This is for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. They start off with some chain grappling and hold exchanges. Ibushi escapes a pin at one and takes control of Okada’s arm with a hammerlock and that leads to an excellent technical exchange that culminates in a stalemate. There’s lots of matwork and not much else as the five-minute mark passes. Okada knocks Ibushi down with a shoulder tackle and poses, thinking he’s in control but Ibushi kips back up. Then they trade forearms. Ibushi ducks a Rainmaker and hits a martial arts rush. He drops Okada with a roundhouse kick and lands a moonsault splash for two. Ibushi starts working Okada’s neck with various holds and Okada starts crawling to the ropes but Ibushi traps his arm. Okada does make it to the ropes so Ibushi stomps his back in frustration.
Okada tries to fight back with forearms but Ibushi shakes his head to the crowd and lands a nasty kick to Okada’s chest. Ibushi sends Okada into the ropes but Okada counters with a flying elbow and then follows with his corner forearm/DDT combo that gets another two-count. Okada follows Ibushi to the floor and then drives him back-first into the barricade. Then Okada goes one step further and DDTs Ibushi onto the mats from over that same barricade.
Okada tosses Ibushi into the ring and pins but only gets a one-count. Ibushi tries to act tough as Okada looks down at him and fires off an elbow. Okada gets to his feet and orders Ibushi to hit him and Ibushi does. Okada trash-talks Ibushi into getting hot and hitting more elbows, but Okada tanks them and drops him with another DDT. Okada follows with a facelock and then cuts Ibushi’s escape attempt off with an elbow to Ibushi’s leg. Ibushi manages to land a counter dropkick but he hurts his own knee in the process.
Ibushi tries a comeback with forearms and a jumping middle kick off an Irish whip counter and suddenly has no damage on his knee. Okada reverses a corner whip and misses a charge, and then runs into a counter powerslam from Ibushi, which is then followed by a second-rope moonsault that gets Ibushi another two-count. Ibushi sends Okada into another corner and suddenly he’s much slower and in pain. He tries to capitalize on Okada’s sudden weakness but Okada counters a charge, puts Ibushi on the top turnbuckle, and dropkicks Ibushi to the floor.
Okada whips Ibushi into the barricade, boots him over it, and then lands a running crossbody over it and into the stands. He tosses Ibushi back into the ring (while still dealing with pain in his ribs) and locks in his Red Ink cross-legged STF submission hold. Ibushi makes it to the ropes despite Okada’s best efforts so Okada follows with his scoop slam/diving elbow drop combo and then does the Rainmaker pose to signal the ‘crazy counter’ portion of the match. Ibushi ducks a Rainmaker lariat and goes for a Pélé kick/backflip kick. But something goes wrong. Ibushi spikes himself on the mat. His head hits the mat with a sickening thud and the crowd ‘oohhh’ noticeably. Well done, Ibushi. Okada tries to capitalize with a Tombstone. Ibushi counters that with a wheelbarrow piledriver/Bastard driver. Both men collapse to the mat.
Ibushi gets up first and charges at Okada but Okada boots him first. Okada charges for a shotgun dropkick. Ibushi dodges and lands a jumping foot stomp to Okada’s ribs. Okada goes to the floor. Bad idea. Ibushi connects with the triangle moonsault. Ibushi throws Okada into the ring and hits a springboard dropkick. He charges a corner but Okada blocks and goes for the reverse neckbreaker. Ibushi counters that and hits a Last Ride powerbomb. One, two, kick-out. Ibushi channels Nakamura and goes for the Boma Ye knee strike. Ibushi charges…and runs into a standing dropkick. Okada staggers about the ring to capitalize on that sudden change in momentum. Tombstone Piledriver connects. Okada goes for the Rainmaker. Ibushi gets to the safety of the ropes. Okada starts raining forearms on Ibushi’s back as he clings to the ropes for dear life. Okada lands a huge uppercut and Ibushi goes down. Then he pulls Ibushi up and lands another uppercut. But this time Ibushi barely moves. Okada hits another one and Ibushi doesn’t even turn his head. A third uppercut does absolutely nothing to Ibushi, who now has that vacant expression on his face. Oh dear God. The alter-ego has awakened.
Okada hits another stiff uppercut and Ibushi just stands there scratching his chin. Okada switches to a chop and the beast is unleashed. He lands a STIFF palm strike. Okada lands a shotgun dropkick (which is usually a big move) and Ibushi bounces right up before Okada. Ibushi nails Okada with stuff punches. The referee warns Ibushi about close-fisted punches. But those warnings fall on deaf ears. Ibushi kicks Okada as he lies on the mat helpless. Then he lands a MASSIVE stiff punch to Okada’s head. Damn, Ibushi hits him with a sickening thud. Okada covers his head to protect himself but Ibushi continues raining stiff punches. But the referee won’t disqualify him. The ref hooks Ibushi’s arm to stop the punching, so Ibushi switches to stiff kicks, all while the fans boo Ibushi loudly. Ibushi ignores all of that and stands on the second rope. He pulls Okada up and tries to land the same over-the-rope suplex as he hit on Nakamura five years earlier. But Okada blocks with uppercuts. He goes for a Tombstone, no, Ibushi counters and goes for a lawn dart. No, Okada escapes and hits a high kick. Tombstone on the apron! Both men collapse again.
The referee starts counting and Ibushi makes it into the ring at the count of 19.75. Okada capitalizes with a reverse neckbreaker to the knee and pins for a two-count. Heavy Rain AA slam. Another two-count. High-angle German suplex. Okada goes for the Rainmaker. Ibushi elbows out and lands a vicious lariat. He tries the same rope suplex from earlier and this time he connects. Ibushi dead-lifts Okada over the rope and drops him with a German and Okada lands hard. Ibushi pins but once again only gets two. Ibushi tries the lawn dart again. Okada counters with a spinning Tombstone. Rainmaker la – no, Ibushi hits his own lariat first. Boma Ye connects. Okada kicks out of a pin. At one. Ibushi follows with a second one to the back of Okada’s neck. Okada escapes yet again. A high kick connects with Okada’s head and Ibushi traps both of Okada’s wrists. Kamigoye knee strike! It’s over. One, two, thr – NO, Okada survives! Incredible near-fall. Ibushi tries for the same knee strike again. Okada dodges with a jumping dropkick. Both men go down again. The look on the ref’s face is priceless. He can’t believe that both men are still moving or that the fans are still so firmly split between both competitors.
Both men get to their knees and start trading forearms. They fight to their feet until Okada gets the upper hand (or, forearm, in this case). But Ibushi powers up and hits a martial arts rush, followed by another roundhouse kick to Okada’s neck. Ibushi continues the onslaught with spinkicks. He drags Okada to the top rope and hooks his arms for a diving Tiger Driver. Okada blocks and hits some forearms and Ibushi goes down. Okada goes for a diving dropkick. Ibushi pulls a Kenny Omega and answers with a midair sitout powerbomb. One, two, Okada kicks out. Phoenix Splash…misses. Spinning Rainmaker. Okada traps the arm. Rainmaker lariat connects. One, two, and thre – NO, Ibushi kicks out at 2.9999! That has to be one of the closest calls of Okada’s career. Okada maintains wrist control. A third Rainmaker connects. Followed by a fourth. Okada knows it’s not enough. He goes for a fifth. Ibushi ducks and lands another high kick to Okada’s face. V-Trigger knee! More shades of Omega. Kamigo – no, Okada counters with a Michinoku Driver. The fifth Rainmaker connects! One, two, and three! There’s the match! Okada has finally put Ibushi down!
Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 39:16: Kazuchika Okada
I don’t agree with Meltzer’s assessment that Okada has had 22 5-stars-or-higher matches. Many of those supposedly-perfect matches actually had some flaws or issues with them that, in my opinion, render those matches a bit overrated. This was one such a case. Despite having some great tension and excitement thanks to some great chemistry and Ibushi’s awesome character work, the match was hampered by some really poor decisions that ultimately hurt the match.
Let’s start with the good stuff here, which would be everything after Ibushi’s powerslam. After realizing that going down the technical wrestling route or the flashy high-spot route weren’t viable options, Ibushi decided he had to risk everything and summon his twisted alter ego. He realized that the only way to beat Okada…was to beat Okada up. Ibushi went from being his usual self to something far more sinister at the right time, and that transformation, however short, made this match into something refreshing. Okada was no longer in the driver’s seat and couldn’t rely on his usual cocky demeanor and relatively mechanical match structure. He found himself in a fight against a man that, at least for storyline purposes, was willing to kill him to win. Everything up to that point was rendered moot and so Okada had to cover himself up in order to survive. He found himself more on the defensive than he had been in a very long time, which forced him to go the extra mile to keep Ibushi down. I loved this story because it put Ibushi over as a credible threat.
Once that switch was flipped, the stink of indie matches and wrestling a blow-up doll that long hang heavy around Ibushi dissipated. Instead, Ibushi created this aura of danger, unpredictability, and fear. He scared the arrogant Okada so badly that Okada had to rely on overkill to keep Ibushi down for the three-count. It was as if Okada was looking at a vampire and realized that a stake through the heart wasn’t going to be enough; Okada was going to need a stake through the heart, plus garlic in the mouth, plus cutting off the vampire’s head, plus enough holy water to baptize a small country. And in the end, Ibushi came off looking stronger than ever. Sure, he lost the match, but he looked valiant in defeat. It was a textbook case in how to make a star out of someone while still having them lose the match. Even though Ibushi lost, Okada had to go to incredible lengths to both survive Ibushi’s onslaught and keep Ibushi down long enough. Of course, that was to be expected because Ibushi showed that he could get a sudden burst of energy at the last minute.
Once Okada began spamming big moves and finishers, most fans saw it as a waiting game. It was basically a foregone conclusion that Ibushi was done and that Okada was simply putting the final nails in his coffin. Then, unexpectedly, Ibushi made one last-ditch effort to regain control and for one brief moment it looked like Ibushi would steal the win. And while that moment did disappear as quickly as it appeared, it showed how Ibushi was still a danger so long as he was conscious. Small wonder, then, that Okada had to smash him into oblivion with 5 Rainmakers and many other high-impact bombs.
But even with that great story and the fun wrestling through which it was told, the match wasn’t without its flaws. Early on, Ibushi started selling his knee but then stopped selling shortly afterwards, presumably because he knew there was no extended leg-working segment to follow. Okada did the same with his ribs. He sold them for a while, but then completely forgot about them once Murder Ibushi came out and started using Okada’s face as a punching bag. And of course, there was that one awkward moment when Ibushi spiked himself unnecessarily. Plus, there was a moment that made me second guess what was happening. If close-fisted punches were banned, why didn’t Ibushi get disqualified? Was the referee so determined to ‘maintain the integrity of the title match’ by not letting it end in a DQ that he was willing to let Ibushi get away with breaking the rules so flagrantly? It was a moment of inconsistency that was too hard to ignore, especially when big New Japan matches tend to have more airtight logic about them.
And yet, those were all small details, but together they were too much to ignore. Imagine listening to a great song, only for the audio file to have a split second of bad audio in it. Just when you’re getting into it, something like that jolts out at you and weakens your overall experience.
That leaves us with the major flaw in the match: the plodding first half.
Absolutely nothing happened during the first ten minutes of this almost-forty-minute match. That’s the problem with these big Okada matches. He sticks to his formula so rigidly that he robs his own matches of any major spontaneity. Sure, there was a little bit of variety early on that made this match a little different than what Okada usually does, but not enough to make this match stand out from his better matches. With few exceptions, Okada builds these matches out as these long epics that don’t get truly tense until the final ten minutes. And while there’s certainly good reason to do that – drawing things out and trading bombs early makes it easier to believe that any move could conceivably end the match – that strategy only works if viewers truly believe that any move will end the match.
Since 2012, Okada has built his matches around only two moves: the Rainmaker lariat and later the Money Clip submission hold. I have yet to see a match with a post-2012 Okada in which he has won with anything other than those two moves. None of his other big moves – the Heavy Rain AA slam, the reverse neckbreaker, his dropkick, his ringside DDTs, the Tombstone, or even his bridging German suplex – have won him a match. All of those big moves have been used to make his Rainmaker more likely to end the match once it connects. That logic is sound, but only if the Rainmaker is successful on the first hit. For several years now, Okada has been forced to land multiple Rainmakers to win. Because of that change in how his matches end, he should change how he starts his matches accordingly. But he doesn’t. Even with Ibushi trying to make things exciting early on, Okada still did precious little during the opening minutes. And since most of that early work didn’t lead to anything in the end, Okada and Ibushi could’ve shaved off at least ten minutes and would’ve had a much better match since the story didn’t really kick off until much later into the fight.
Final Rating: ****3/4
There are some matches in which an outstanding, edge-of-your-seat second half makes up for a less-than-thrilling first half. This was not one of those cases. Even with one of the most unpredictable and wild finishing sprints to ever come from Okada (which is saying a lot, considering it’s basically his calling card), the overall match was hampered by a slow-as-molasses first half. Nothing special happened in the first ten minutes and there wasn’t anything of note until Okada hit a turnbuckle too slowly and started having rib problems. But those issues – along with Ibushi selling much of anything – were completely gone by the second half. With so much wasted motion and inconsequential wrestling, the match should’ve started with Ibushi going all Jeckyll/Hyde on Okada and going from there.
That’s not to say the match isn’t great; even after such a slow start I still think it’s nearly perfect. It’s just that this match isn’t in that upper tier of greatness in my opinion. The finishing stretch alone is great and Ibushi did a great job of pulling Okada out of his comfort zone and beating the piss out of him. It’s just that when you’re exposed to so much of the same wrestler, it gets tedious watching the same match over and over with little variety among those contests. While it’s undoubtedly impressive that he can have such long and intense matches on such a regular basis with pretty much every opponent, not even Okada is immune to the negative effects of time. Even a connoisseur of fine steak will grow dissatisfied if they eat the same Michelin-star meal on a regular basis.