Tanahashi vs. Okada is the gift that keeps on giving.
Each time you watch one of their matches, you’re in for a treat. These two wrestlers have one of the best feuds in pro-wrestling history. The chemistry between them is incredible. Their story keeps taking these exciting and surprising turns while still telling a fantastic larger narrative. And the action in the ring is so good that future generation of wrestlers will be inspired to copy their winning formula.
Today we look back at another one of their masterpieces. It’s a match that combines their incredible athletic talent with a complex and layered story that gives the match an extra level of tension and excitement. And in my opinion, it’s one of their top three matches ever. Why? Read on to find out.
Let’s revisit the twelfth Tanahashi-Okada singles match from Destruction in Kobe 2018.
Check out Tanahashi/Okada 1 here and then Tanahashi/Okada 2 here. You can read about Tanahashi/Okada 3 right here and then Tanahashi/Okada 4 was posted last year. Meanwhile, Tanahashi vs. Okada 5 was posted recently, and here’s Tanahashi vs. Okada 6 as well. The Okada/Tanahashi match from Wrestle Kingdom 9 was the 7th match and it’s posted here. And their 8th match together from Wrestle Kingdom 10 can be found here. The 9th match at NJPW G1 Climax 2016 is here and my review of their 10th match in 2018 is right here. Here’s the 11th match also from 2018.
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.
One month earlier, Tanahashi and Okada faced off in the G1 Climax tournament. That match ended in a 30-minute draw, but Tanahashi earned enough points in the tournament to advance to the finals, which he then won. Tanahashi won the tournament and the right to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 13. But something was still bothering him: he didn’t actually beat Okada.
The G1 was Tanahashi’s chance to defeat Okada, which is something he hadn’t accomplished since January 2015. It bothered him that Okada kept beating him whenever they had big singles matches to the point that the ever-optimistic Tanahashi starting doubting himself. Had his time come and gone? Was he no longer good enough to carry New Japan on his shoulders? Would he become a ‘New Japan Dad’ and spend the rest of his career relegated to lesser matches while other wrestlers surpassed him?
Tanahashi could not accept this as his fate. He wanted to prove that he could still go. He wanted to show the world that he still had a lot left in the tank. And to do that, he needed the satisfaction of beating Okada decisively. That’s why he put his Wrestle Kingdom challenge rights certificate on the line against Okada at NJPW’s September Destruction PPV. If Tanahashi won, he would’ve proved to the whole world that he wasn’t washed up and he could still wrestle at his standard even as his body kept wearing down over time. And he knew that, if he dangled this carrot in front of Okada, then Okada would bring his A-game and Tanahashi would get maximum satisfaction out of defeating him. But if Okada won, he would take Tanahashi’s place at Wrestle Kingdom and challenge world champion…who at the time happened to be Kenny Omega.
Though Omega had no direct role in this match, his status as IWGP Heavyweight Champion meant a lot to both Tanahashi and Okada. For Okada it was obvious: his loss to Tanahashi at Dominion is what caused his downward spiral into madness. And since he didn’t win the G1, his only ticket to regaining his former glory would be beating Tanahashi here. But Tanahashi had his own reasons to get his hands on Omega. Simply put, Tanahashi and Omega didn’t like how each other wrestled. Omega was vocal in his criticism of Tanahashi as being ‘old’ while Tanahashi castigated Omega’s ‘empty’ wrestling style being a bad influence on New Japan. Think Bret-Shawn vibes, only strictly on-screen.
This match meant so much for both wrestlers. Okada needed the win to get another chance at the title he lost two months earlier. Tanahashi needed the win to prove to everyone that he wasn’t beginning the downside of his stellar career. Going into this contest, the series between them was 5 wins for Okada, 3 wins for Tanahashi, and 3 time-limit draws. With those statistics and two equally-justifiable storyline possibilities looming overhead, this match really could’ve gone either way. But which one of them would win?
This is for Tanahashi’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship Challenge Rights Certificate (i.e. his briefcase). The match begins with an excellent chain grappling sequence that ends with a one-count rollover pin for Okada. They lock-up and Okada gets Tanahashi on the ropes. There’s no mockery this time as Okada nails him with an elbow to the mouth. Okada follows with a boot to the face but Tanahashi marches forward and gets in his face. The brawling begins. Hard forearm strikes to the face. Okada demands more and so does Tanahashi. Okada lands a kneelift and sends Tanahashi into the ropes. Tanahashi counters with a hiptoss. Okada jumps on a corner charge but Tanahashi slides out of the ring and grabs Okada’s leg on his way out. Tanahashi elbows Okada’s knee and slams it into the side of the ring as the five-minute mark passes.
Okada gets onto the apron but Tanahashi dropkicks him back down and then lands a plancha onto him from over the top rope. But Tanahashi lands badly and hurts his left knee on that dive. Tanahashi looks to be in extreme pain as he hops back into the ring on one leg and the referee checks on him to see if he can continue. Meanwhile, Okada, not wanting this to be a repeat of King of Pro-Wrestling 2013, dropkicks Tanahashi’s knee to stay on the attack. Okada lands a knee smasher, drops some elbows on Tanahashi’s knee, and then rubs his foot into it as Tanahashi screams in pain. He spends the next few minutes attacking that knee and asking the ref to check on Tanahashi to see if he can continue. Tanahashi perseveres, so Okada charges but Tanahashi gets an elbow and goes for a second-rope crossbody. But he’s too slow and too weak on the dive. Okada easily dodges him and Tanahashi eats canvas.
Ten minutes have passed as Okada applies a deep leglock to further destroy Tanahashi’s knee. Tanahashi gets a ropebreak but Okada takes his time letting go, which gets boos. Tanahashi lands some body shots out of desperation but Okada ignores them completely. He fires up and hits elbows to Okada’s face and Okada taunts him even more. Okada answers with a single kick to Tanahashi’s leg and Tanahashi shakes his head like a madman saying ‘no’. Okada goes for another kick to that same spot. Tanahashi catches his leg, dropkicks the other one, and clips the first leg. He follows that with a dragon screw leg whip. Now both men are down with weakened legs.
Both men charge but Tanahashi scores first with an ax handle and some splashes, but he doesn’t pin because, well, he can’t. His leg’s still giving him so much trouble. But he keeps fighting the pain and somehow lands a second-rope flip senton for two. Tanahashi musters enough iron will to charge for a slingblade, but Okada avoids it and lands a running back elbow. Okada whips Tanahashi into a corner and Tanahashi barely makes it there as Okada follows with a DDT for his own two-count. Okada goes for a reverse neckbreaker. Tanahashi fights out and attempts his twisting neckbreaker. Okada escapes and goes for a DDT. Both men ducks lariats from each other. Tanahashi lands a dropkick to Okada’s bad knee. Great sequence.
Fifteen minutes have passed as Tanahashi charges at Okada but he counters into the reverse neckbreaker to the knee. Okada hurts himself in the process but fights through the pain to land a shotgun dropkick. Both men fight in the corner. Okada places him on the top rope for his out-of-the-ring dropkick. Tanahashi tries to fight out. Okada kicks him in his bad leg and connects with the dropkick. But Tanahashi doesn’t fall to the floor. He holds on and tries to sit up. But Okada strikes first with punches to the knee. The referee orders some Young Lions to help Tanahashi out of that spot as he appears to be trapped. Once he’s free he collapses from the pain. Okada shoves the referee aside and lands a knee breaker into a Figure-4 leglock. Great psychology displayed by Okada. Tanahashi tries to push one of Okada’s feet off to loosen the pressure. The fans rally behind Tanahashi. He pushes Okada’s foot off of his as Okada pushes back. Tanahashi tries to roll onto his stomach to reverse the pressure but Okada rolls right back. He spends almost two minutes in the Figure-4 until he finally reaches the ropes.
Twenty minutes have passed as Okada smashes Tanahashi’s knee into the ringside mats. Suddenly, Tanahashi catches Okada off guard and drops him with a Tombstone Piledriver. Where did that come from? Tanahashi climbs onto the apron at fifteen. Okada doesn’t move. But Tanahashi doesn’t enter the ring; he climbs the turnbuckle. High Fly Flow to the floor! The crazy bastard dives onto Okada. he must have a death wish or really want to spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair.
Tanahashi tosses Okada into the ring and hobbles to the ropes for a slingblade. But Okada catches him and goes for a Rainmaker lariat. No, Tanahashi counters with a twisting neckbreaker. His slingblade connects but Okada kicks out at two. With essentially one leg, Tanahashi goes back to the top rope. High Fly Flow connects…with Okada’s knees. Both men struggle to their feet and then try to Tombstone each other. They muster all their strength to try and hoist each other up, but Okada’s knee gives out and he staggers.
Both men hobble about as they trade forearms back and forth. Okada starts kicking Tanahashi’s head in open mockery. Tanahashi fires back with uppercuts. Okada answers with a massive dropkick to his knee. He goes to whip Tanahashi into the ropes but Tanahashi collapses midway across the ring. Okada goes for another knee breaker but Tanahashi counters into a sunset flip. Okada kicks out and Tanahashi lands a dragon screw. He charges for a slingblade but Okada connects with a standing dropkick. Okada goes for the Rainmaker, Tanahashi ducks and goes for a dragon suplex but Okada escapes that and lands a Heavy Rain AA slam. But Tanahashi’s hulking up. Somehow he’s on his feet before Okada. He charges for a slingblade, no, Okada counters into a Tombstone. Wait, no, Tanahashi reverses into a Tombstone of his own. Okada escapes and goes for the discus Rainmaker. But Tanahashi cuts him off with a stiff slap. Okada’s stunned for a moment but he still dropkicks Tanahashi in the back of his head. Rainmak—no, slingblade by Tanahashi. High fly Flow connects! Tanahashi actually lands his frog splash finisher without Okada dodging or getting his knees up. But Tanahashi can’t pin right away. The pain is too much. He takes a few seconds and covers. One, two, NO, Okada barely kicks out. This is awesome so far.
Thirty minutes have passed as Tanahashi goes back to the top rope. He goes for another dive but Oakda dropkicks him in midair. Okada lands a Tombstone Piledriver and signals the end. Rainmak—no, Tanahashi ducks. Then Okada ducks one. Tanahashi follows by ducking another one. They both spin out…and Okada lands a discus Rainmaker. Okada goes for another one. Tanahashi dodges and lands a bridging dragon suplex. One, two, Okada kicks out. Tanahashi goes to the top rope. Okada dropkicks him out of desperation. Then Okada climbs the same corner and goes for a TOP-ROPE TOMBSTONE PILEDRIVER. Good God, don’t do it. Tanahashi fights out but Okada tries again. Tanahashi fights out again and again. Okada balances himself on the second rope as Tanahashi stands on the third rope. Then he pushes Okada and dives at the same time. Holy Sh*t, what an incredible move. Tanahashi’s High Fly Flow connects.
Tanahashi climbs the top rope and lands another HFF to a standing Okada. But he’s still not done. He goes back to the same corner and his knee nearly gives out in the process. But he makes it to the top. And dives one last time. HIGH FLY FLOW! One, two, three! Tanahashi wins. He retains his world title contract and finally beats Okada!
Winner after 35:34: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Oh my God, what an astounding wrestling match! It was epic, it was intense, it was unpredictable, I could go on. They finally put on match that rivals their two epics from 2013 in terms of greatness. This was easily a MOTYC for 2018 thanks to some of the best wrestling storytelling you’ll ever see.
The whole story of the match was about Tanahashi’s extreme sacrifices and his iron will to win. He hadn’t beaten Okada in almost four full years and that was getting to him. And since this match also had his spot at Wrestle Kingdom on the line, the pressure got to Tanahashi but in a good way. It forced him to go the distance, to dig deeper into his bottomless well of energy and grit than ever before. He survived one of Okada’s most vicious onslaughts and lived to tell the tale.
Tanahashi tried to be the aggressor from the beginning but his desperation early on cost him deeply. That plancha – a move he used very rarely – caused him to hurt his knee badly. Okada saw this and took advantage of it like any smart wrestler would. For the remainder of the match, Okada went back to that knee whenever he could and tried to render Tanahashi completely immobile. But it didn’t work. Despite the unimaginable pain, Tanahashi soldiered on and fought through. He put on one of the most heroic performances of his entire career to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to win. Even though he screamed out in pain, even though he could barely walk at multiple points, even though he could barely mount a sustained offense, he kept going. For over thirty minutes he struggled to maintain any continuous momentum because he had to fight both a determined and aggressive Okada and his own body giving up on him.
Tanahashi, like his American counterpart John Cena, never…gave…up. His passion, determination and willingness to sacrifice his own well-being for his goal made him come across as both a great wrestler and as a heroic character. He left this match looking like an indestructible force and won without harming Okada in the slightest.
On the contrary, Okada looked like the most vicious wrestler in the world here. He remembered the last time Tanahashi acted like he was so injured, which was at KOPW 2013. In that match, Tanahashi put on a masterful performance and successfully lulled Okada into a false sense of security that nearly cost him the match. And Okada wasn’t going to let lightning strike in the same place twice, even with him being in this weird state of mind. Despite presenting himself as something of a crazy person, there was lucidity in Okada’s actions. He mangled Tanahashi so badly that it looked like Tanahashi could’ve tapped out, which almost never happens. He was sadistic in his torturing of Tanahashi, but he knew that was absolutely necessary given how tough and unrelenting Tanahashi was and had been.
And when Tanahashi started to overcome Okada’s onslaught, he had to rely on that which had brought him victory before: surprise. As always with these two, they concluded their match with a long countering sequence that kept everyone watching on the edge of their seats. Counter after counter, Tanahashi and Okada knew each other so well and seemed to have answers for each and every move they hit. Okada went to the Rainmaker well time and again because it had beaten Tanahashi before. And this time he landed a discus Rainmaker for extra punctuation, even after Tanahashi had blocked one earlier. But in the end, Okada became a victim of his own folly. He landed the discus Rainmaker but didn’t pin right away. Instead, he attempted another one, only for Tanahashi to counter Okada’s surprise with one of his own.
And in his own desperation, Okada teased something absolutely vicious: he tried to land a Tombstone from the top rope. Such a move would’ve destroyed Tanahashi’s neck and Okada’s knees in the process. But even though he never actually landed the move, that showed Okada’s own desperation to win. These two wrestlers had been joined at the hip since 2012 and winning meant so much to each man.
Final Rating: *****
This match was a masterpiece. It was quite possibly the most emotionally-charged, story-driven match of the entire Tanahashi-Okada series. It featured some of the most realistic selling and drama out of any pro-wrestling match out there thanks to Tanahashi’s career best performance. For years I’ve heard people calling Tanahashi the John Cena of Japan. At first I thought that was due to how both of them looked similar. After watching this match, I now understand how Tanahashi was able to be as big of a hero to New Japan’s fans as Cena has been to WWE’s.
These two wrestlers managed to create yet another career performance out of each other. Their chemistry here was off the charts. The action in the ring, above it, and outside it, was spectacular. The drama was unbelievable. It was simply that damn good. After so many consecutive matches that were either over-hyped or disappointing in some way, it’s refreshing to finally see a Tanahashi-Okada match that really deserves the 5-star rating. Absolutely must-see wrestling.