It’s been said that the mark of a truly great wrestler is their ability to have a great match with anyone. Well today we put that theory to the test with one of the most famous wrestlers active today, Kazuchika Okada.
Many wrestlers and wrestling fans consider Okada to be THE best wrestler in the world. He has an extensive catalogue of great matches and he seems to be able to pull them off on a regular basis. That said, his best matches were against his contemporaries, i.e. wrestlers still in their primes when facing him. This was true for wrestlers like Tanahashi, Omega, Nakamura, Naito, Marufuji, Ishii, Shibata, Ibushi, and Takagi. All of those wrestlers were either of similar age as Okada or were still considered in their primes. But how would Okada fare against someone much older and worn down? That’s what we’re going to find out now.
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.
Okada was on fire in 2017. He was unquestionably the top wrestler in New Japan and possibly the world. He already had three of his career best matches in the span of six months with his first two matches with Kenny Omega and one with Shibata. This positive momentum of his, coupled with his status as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, made him the favorite to win his tournament block and possibly the entire tournament as well.
The same could not be said of Kojima.
Kojima, whom most readers may recognize from his recent match with Jon Moxley, was very much past his prime in 2017. He was most famous for following Keiji Muto to All Japan in 2002 and being the workhorse that saved that company for the rest of the 2000s. But even though he was an All Japan regular throughout the 2000s, he still competed for New Japan here and there. Then in 2010 he re-signed with New Japan and enjoyed one last run at the top with a G1 Climax win and a second run as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. But once he lost that title and a subsequent rematch, Kojima fell down the card. It wasn’t long before Kojima found himself in ‘New Japan Dad’ territory. Years of carrying All Japan on his back and swinging his lariat arm like he was Stan Hansen took a severe toll on his body. People were concerned about his physical condition as far back as his 2010 return. With that in mind, expectations were low when Kojima entered the 2017 G1. His field was filled with way healthier and quicker wrestlers: Minoru Suzuki, Kenny Omega, SANADA, EVIL (who was actually entertaining at the time), and of course, Okada. Kojima knew he was outmatched in every respect but he was determined to fight on as much as he could.
For Okada, this match was less a serious competition and more a test of his skills. Everyone with a functioning brain cell could predict that Okada would win. But because of that, the match was automatically robbed of any sense of suspense or unpredictability. As such, Okada had a much taller order given the circumstances: could he actually put on an entertaining match with Kojima? With Okada being handicapped due to the results being visible a mile away, could Okada make the most of these circumstances and pull off a performance befitting his reputation?
This match originally took place on July 27th, 2017. It was rated ****1/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
The crowd is clearly behind Kojima as the match begins. Okada mocks the fans for chanting Kojima’s name and blindsides him as the bell rings. The crowd boos this but Okada seems to like their reaction. Kojima hits some elbows but Okada ducks a big one and goes for a Rainmaker lariat. Kojima ducks and goes for his own running lariat but Okada ducks that. Okada charges and runs into a big shoulder tackle which gets cheers. Kojima hits some weak stomps and avoids another Rainmaker. He charges into a corner but Okada blocks and hits his dropkick that sends Kojima to the floor. Okada sends Kojima into the barricade, then boots him over it, and then uses it to drop him with a ringside draping DDT. Okada pretends that the booing is bothering him so he takes his frustrations out on Kojima’s buddy Tenzan. The crowd cheers for Tenzan but the ref keeps the two wrestlers apart.
The ref finally starts counting Kojima out but Kojima gets back in at the count of sixteen. Okada mocks the fans some more and hits a running basement dropkick for a two-count. He looks down at Kojima pitifully and then hits some very obvious mocking/insulting stomps to Koijima’s back. Okada applies a chinlock but Kojima fights out and hits an uppercut. The crowd boos extra loud as Okada poses with his boot on Kojima’s chest. The ref refuses to count such an insulting pin so Okada lets Kojima (try to) get back up. Kojima hits some soft punches that Okada doesn’t sell at all. He’s not no-selling them to ignore the pain; there’s no pain there to begin with. Speaking of pain, Okada returns fire with a nasty elbow that echoes throughout the arena. He dares Tenzan to enter the ring but Tenzan ignores him and wills Kojima on. Okada picks Kojima up when suddenly Kojima hits Tenzan-style Mongolian chops. Okada cuts him off with a kneelift and sends him into a corner. Okada charges but Kojima sidesteps and lands a neckbreaker. Kojima begins a comeback with some running forearms. Then he channels Kobashi with some machine gun chops in the corner, only for Okada to hit back with an elbow. But Kojima hits back even harder and lands even more machine gun chops. Kojima sends Okada into a corner and charges but Okada dodges and hits an elbow splash. Okada goes for a neckbreaker but Kojima escapes and hits a DDT.
Kojima goes for a Cutter but Okada blocks it. Kojima reverses a corner whip but Okada counters a charge with a reverse neckbreaker. Okada follows with a diving elbow drop and then does his rainmaker pose to a mix of boos and applause. He goes for the Rainmaker lariat. Kojima escapes by backing him into a corner. Kojima hits a strike flurry and goes for a superplex. Okada fights out but Kojima answers with a lariat so strong it sends Okada falling to the floor. Kojima gets some critical recovery time as the ref starts counting Okada out. Okada returns at sixteen and Kojima tries to suplex him over the rope. But Okada lands behind Kojima and lands some big boots. Kojima blocks one but Okada answers with an uppercut. Kojima’s barely holding on as he hits more elbows before collapsing. He fights up and lands more corner chops as the crowd chants along. He follows with an elbow into another corner and Okada goes down. The crowd’s really behind Kojima now. Kojima ascends the top turnbuckle but Okada cuts him off. Okada lifts Kojima onto his shoulders but Kojima fights out and hits a diving RKO/Cutter. One, two, Okada kicks out. Brainbuster by Kojima. Okada kicks out again. Kojima pulls off his elbow pad and charges for a lariat. Okada ducks it and lands a German suplex. Okada goes for the Rainmaker but Kojima ducks. Lariat to the back of Okada’s head. Okada slumps to his knees. Kojima charges for another lariat. Okada ducks and hits the Rainma – NO, lariat by Kojima. One, two, and th – Okada kicks out. Both guys struggle to their feet. Kojima charges first. Okada ducks another lariat and lands a standing dropkick. He goes for another Rainmaker. Kojima ducks and hits a Misawa rolling elbow. Kojima goes for a sitout piledriver. Okada counters into a Tombstone piledriver. Rainmaker lariat connects. One, two, and three! There’s the match!
Winner after 15:26: Kazuchika Okada
That was surprisingly good given its limitations. It was an inferior version of Tanahashi vs. Ishii from the 2013 G1 in almost every respect. Both matches featured a usually-cheered top babyface being booed by an audience that clearly favored the plucky underdog. In both of those matches, the ace did what any business-savvy wrestler would do and adapted on the spot to capitalize on that different crowd reaction. Both Okada in this match and Tanahashi in his match added spontaneity into their matches to give the crowd exactly what they wanted: an underdog fighting for his life in a seemingly unwinnable situation. But where the two matches differ is in their conclusion. Ishii beat Tanahashi to give the fans the catharsis they were hoping for whereas Kojima lost as expected. But while this Okada/Kojima was nowhere near as competitive or exciting as the Tanahashi/Ishii one, it was still entertaining in its own right. And that was thanks to Okada showing way more personality than he had for a very long time.
For the first time since his first run opposite Tanahashi, Okada showed some much-needed arrogance. He didn’t see Kojima as being on his level and made that obvious to everyone watching. He didn’t sell for Kojima at all for the first half of the match. He didn’t show any urgency when Kojima was down, nor did he take Kojima seriously. He toyed with Kojima and took his sweet time because he knew that he was going to win. He even attacked Tenzan, who was just as injury-ridden as Kojima, possibly more so, to get even more heat from the crowd. And unlike Tanahashi, who treated Ishii seriously as soon as the crowd turned on him, Okada mocked the crowd for being stupid enough to cheer for Kojima over him. All of that made this crowd go all in for Kojima and made Kojima’s sudden comeback so much more exciting. Kojima looked to be completely screwed at first. All he could land on Okada were some very simple strikes and ‘fun’ spots that didn’t seem to do much damage.
Meanwhile, Okada was hitting Kojima so hard that he looked to be out cold more than once. With the card stacked against Kojima so heavily, he had to dig so deep to try and pull of a convincing comeback…which he did. Kojima didn’t have much left at this point in his career but he could still hit very hard with enough setup and effort. So he went with what he knew he could do well and clobbered Okada with head-targeting moves to soften up for his famous lariat. When he landed his lariat, Kojima made the possibility of winning semi-believable. And when he hit Okada with Okada’s own Rainmaker, Kojima winning became even more believable. For the first time since the match started, there was a sense of hope and optimism for Kojima. The fever dream of Kojima beating Okada became way less silly. That idea was so absurd at first, but Kojima made the impossible come closer to reality than anyone ever expected.
Kojima’s surprise lariats at the very end looked lethal. His simple strategy of targeting Okada’s head and neck was perfect. He was famous for hitting a lariat with almost Kobashi or Hansen-level power and Okada sold both Kojima’s enzui lariat and his Rainmaker counter like he was out cold. But Kojima was very much a glass cannon. He hit brutally hard but couldn’t take that much damage himself. Once Okada caught onto Kojima’s strategy, he hit a small handful of moves and smashed Kojima into smithereens with his own head-targeting moves and a brutal Rainmaker. It made sense for Okada to win with only one Rainmaker lariat instead of multiple since Kojima’s body was barely holding together at that point. But damn if Kojima didn’t compensate for his frail body with an incredible will to win that made him much harder to keep down than originally expected.
Final Rating: ****
By no means was this meant to be some kind of major epic. And yet, it’s pretty fun for a short throwaway match. Okada wasn’t just his usual mechanical self here; he showed more personality than he has in a long time. His newer and more pronounced gimmick of ‘guy that wrestles incredibly well’ was fine and all, but there’s something special in seeing that skill being combined with personality and storytelling. Okada went above and beyond to take what could’ve been a bland and predictable one-sided squash and made it into something exciting. He adapted on the spot and used Kojima’s strengths and weaknesses to his advantage.
I’ve called Okada mechanical and robotic before in my reviews because he showed so little flair in his matches beyond his checklist poses and taunts. But he proved that he could be a much more interesting personality in this match. He also showed how important playing to a crowd is. The crowd loved Kojima more so Okada took advantage of that to make the match better. That sort of spontaneity and on-the-spot adaptability is always better than ignoring a crowd completely and letting them voice their opinion in other (read: less desirable) ways.