Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada are said to be two of the best pro-wrestlers of all time. Their matches with their peers are said to be at a different level of quality. And their matches together are often considered among the best matches of all time. Their rivalry, which started in 2012 and had its most recent chapter in 2019, is widely lauded as the best, most critically-acclaimed wrestling rivalry of the 21st century.
But is that really the case, or is it a case of hyperbole and people being swept up in immediate post-match excitement? The only to find out is to look back at matches with an objective lens long after they’ve taken place. That’s what I’ve been doing with this series and that’s what I’m doing with this match here.
Today we look back at the tenth singles match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada from NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 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. Their 9th match from NJPW G1 Climax 2016 was reviewed here.
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 match took place during Okada’s historic, record-breaking fourth world title reign. That reign began in mid-2016 when Okada beat Tetsuya Naito after Naito and his buddies used shenanigans to steal the title from him. Over the course of almost two full years, Okada beat the following wrestlers:
- NOAH ace Naomichi Marufuji after Marufuji pinned him during the 2016 G1 Climax tournament;
- Kenny Omega (one victory at Wrestle Kingdom 11 and a 60-minute draw at Dominion 2017);
- MMA pioneer Minoru Suzuki;
- Former New Three Musketeer Katsuyori Shibata;
- Bullet Club’s super-heavyweight Bad Luck Fale;
- Cody Rhodes;
- Naito’s then-right hand man EVIL;
- 2017 G1 Climax winner Tetsuya Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 12;
- Naito’s other LIJ ally SANADA; and
- Suzuki’s Suzuki-gun right-hand man Zack Sabre, Jr.
With those victories, Okada had tied the record for most title defenses in a single reign with eleven. That was a major accomplishment as title reigns rarely got that long. But Okada wasn’t satisfied yet. He had tied a record, not surpassed it. To surpass it, there was only one thing he could do: he had to beat the other man with whom he now shared that record: Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Tanahashi knew this and challenged Okada for the title and Okada accepted. Their match was announced for Wrestling Dontaku 2018 and people were very excited about this. When taking pure statistics into account, Tanahashi and Okada were now considered the two best wrestlers in NJPW history. They held numerous records together, but Okada had surpassed Tanahashi’s one by one. This was another one he hoped to break to become the greatest IWGP Heavyweight Champion of all time.
But could he do it? Could Okada continue his incredible reign by surpassing the man that saved New Japan from itself during its dark age? Or would Tanahashi muster his bottomless well of endurance and tenacity to maintain his own record? There was a compelling case to be made for both sides so people were salivating at the prospect of seeing this match.
The stakes couldn’t possible by higher for either man. If Okada won, there would be no more doubts as to who was the better wrestler. But if Tanahashi won, he’d show that he still had something left in him and Okada would be stuck at Tanahashi’s side instead of being above him, which is what he had set out to do back in 2012.
This match originally took place on May 4th, 2018 at NJPW’s Wrestling Dontaku event. It was originally rated *****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. In other words, it wasn’t only considered to be the best match of the entire Tanahashi-Okada series to date; but it was also considered better than the overwhelming majority of all wrestling matches to ever take place. Looking back now, let’s see how the match holds up.
This is for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. They lock up and Okada gets a clean break on the ropes. Tanahashi tries to fake him out but Okada succeeds with the mocking pats to the chest. They chain wrestle and Tanahashi maintains an armlock despite multiple escape attempts by Okada. Tanahashi switches to a headlock and keeps it cinched in despite Okada’s many efforts to fight out. Eventually, Okada counters into his own headlock and begins an exchange segment with Tanahashi. Okada knocks Tanahashi down and goes for the Rainmaker, Tanahashi escapes and goes for a dragon suplex, both men chain grapple, and we get a standoff.
They lock up and Okada fights out of an armlock but gets his leg elbowed by Tanahashi. Tanahashi charges, escapes a Tombstone, and dropkicks the same leg he just elbowed. Okada dodges a corner charge, places Tanahashi on the top turnbuckle, and dropkicks him. But Tanahashi doesn’t fall to the floor; he skins the cat to save himself. But Okada grabs him and lands a top-rope-hung DDT and then boots him over the steel ringside barricade. Okada isn’t done as he lands another elevated DDT, this time using the barricade for leverage.
Back in the ring, Okada lands a running basement dropkick and does the Rainmaker pose with his foot on Tanahashi’s chest to mock him. Tanahashi fires back with elbows but Okada demands more, tanks all those hits and drops him with an uppercut. He hits a few forearms and taunts Tanahashi to hit him and Tanahashi obliges. Tanahashi pushes forward with forearms but Okada shuts him down with kicks and elbows. Okada applies a deep chinlock in the middle of the ring to do further damage to Tanahashi’s neck, which he has been targeting since the start of the match. Tanahashi tries to fight out but Okada stops him and cranks the hold as much as he can. Tanahashi tries to fight out of it. Okada stops him and goes for a swinging neckbreaker. But Tanahashi counters Okada’s counter and lands a neckbreaker of his own. Clever move there.
Tanahashi starts his comeback by ducking Okada’s attacks and landing some forearms. He lands big corner dropkicks and Irish whips Okada, but Okada reverses and sends Tanahashi into a corner, only for Tanahashi to bounce out and dropkick Okada’s knee again. Okada ducks a slingblade and lands a running back elbow, no-selling the damage to his knee all the while. A corner forearm/DDT combo gets Okada a two-count.
Okada slams Tanahashi and goes for a diving move but Tanahashi lands on his feet to Okada jumps down safely. They dodge corner charges from each other and Okada connects with a reverse neckbreaker to the knee. He slams Tanahashi again and lands a diving elbow drop. Then he poses for the crowd. But Tanahashi jumps up and goes nose-to-nose with him. Okada’s cockiness has angered Tanahashi once again. Okada blocks a kick but suffers a dragon screw leg whip for his efforts. Okada falls out of the ring and Tanahashi climbs the top rope. High Fly Flow to the floor.
At ringside, Tanahashi goes for a slingblade but Okada counters with a Tombstone Piledriver. Both men take a long time to get back into the ring. Okada enters at 17 and Tanahashi enters at 19.75. Both men get to their knees and start trading forearms. They get to their feet and continue hitting each other hart. Okada gains the upper hand and drops Tanahashi with some uppercuts. The fans chant for Tanahashi as Okada taunts him to get up. They start booing Okada as he mocks Tanahashi and kicks him in the head. Tanahashi starts making a fiery comeback with forearm shots. Okada staggers and drops to one knee, but remains cocky and defiant. Tanahashi answers with an uppercut. Okada goes down.
Tanahashi returns the favor and kicks Okada’s head mockingly. Okada reverses an Irish whip and goes for a standing dropkick but Tanahashi holds onto the ropes. Tanahashi charges for a slingblade, Okada tries to counter with a flapjack, but Tanahashi counters into a twisting neckbreaker. Slingblade connects. Okada kicks out of a pin and rolls out of the way for a high Fly Flow. He pushes forward with a dropkick to the back of Tanahashi’s head. That’s followed with a successful standing dropkick. No one does that move better than Okada. Okada goes for a Rainmaker lariat but Tanahashi counters into another slingblade. Now the fun really begins.
Both men are down in the middle of the ring. Okada gets up first and goes for a Tombstone but Tanahashi resists with all his might. Both men try Tombstoning each other but neither succeeds and Okada lands a massive shotgun dropkick to Tanahashi’s chest. Okada gloats as he thinks he has control but Tanahashi counters him and lands his own Tombstone. High Fly Flow to the back connects. Tanahashi goes back to the top rope. He dives…but Okada gets his knees up. Tanahashi dodges a rainmaker and goes for a lariat, but Okada counters with a bridging German suplex. Tanahashi fires up and gets up immediately. He dodges another Rainmaker and lands a dragon suplex. Then he charges. Okada answers with another dropkick. Tanahashi bounces up again and lands a slingblade.
Tanahashi goes for another high Fly Flow built Okada dropkicks him in midair. He signals the end with a Rainmaker, no, Tanahashi ducks and lands a Rainmaker lariat of his own. Okada kicks out at one! Okada refuses to be beaten with his own move.
Tanahashi lands some hard slaps to Okada that eventually bring Okada down. He goes for one more slap but Okada ducks and attempts another Rainmaker. Tanahashi slaps him first but Okada maintains wrist control. Tanahashi slaps first again to avoid another lariat. Okada tries using both hands to maintain control but Tanahashi’s slaps are too much for him and he staggers forward. Tanahashi powers up and charges for a slingblade. But Okada catches him and DRILLS him with a Rainmaker lariat. One, two, three! There’s the match. Okada retains his title and breaks Tanahashi’s record with twelve successful defenses!
Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 34:36: Kazuchika Okada
Post-match, Okada celebrates his historic victory as he has now surpassed Tanahashi’s record of most title defenses in a single reign. As he celebrates, he calls out the one guy with whom he has unfinished business: Kenny Omega. They have a conversation in Japanese and Omega proposes one final match for the title, which will be a no-time limit two-out-of-three falls match at Dominion. Okada accepts and his championship celebration continues.
What a disappointing match. There is no way in hell that match was the best of the Tanahashi-Okada series thus far. In fact, I think it’s actually one of their worse encounters. And while the storyline behind it was excellent and interesting, the match failed to deliver given the build-up behind it.
The story was centered on whether Tanahashi could dethrone Okada to stop him from breaking his record for most title defenses during a single reign. That story gave this match some importance, but sadly Tanahashi didn’t really go the extra mile to get one over Okada. I never got the feeling that Tanahashi understood the seriousness of the situation or that he was fighting extra hard. Instead, Tanahashi came across as less enthusiastic and uncommitted. He didn’t even try to break Okada’s legs like he did in virtually every one of their earlier matches. Instead, he just tried to brawl with Okada, which came across as a wasted effort.
There just wasn’t much of anything new to the story. Most of it was slow and uneventful. They barely went in any new direction here. The opening segment was slow and largely uneventful. The middle was meandering with the typical big move exchanges and Tanahashi doing the same moves on Okada he had done in each of their matches to date. And the closing segment was perhaps the most disappointing. I’ve seen all of their big matches to date and I understand where most fans focus their praise for these two. Their closing segments are usually among the most exciting, tense, unpredictable, and well-executed in all of pro-wrestling. Yet here they under-delivered. They didn’t do anything special or exciting. Hell, they didn’t even copy what they had done in previous matches. Earlier matches had more raw tension and unpredictability about them. Here, they didn’t even go as far with their counters and kickouts. It was as if they wanted to lower their own standard in the hopes of telling the same story.
While it was pretty obvious that Tanahashi and Okada were just repeating their established winning formula, that approach was a tad problematic. It was blatantly obvious that they were following the same formulaic direction without much deviation. If we were to compare this rivalry to others that are as equally-hyped up – like Misawa vs. Kawada, Misawa vs. Kobashi, Flair vs. Steamboat, etc. – this series seems far more mechanical and repetitive. If you had a checklist for all the stuff that Tanahashi and Okada tended to do in these big matches, you’d have that list complete long before the match was even done.
But the closing third wasn’t the only time thing went sour. During the forearm exchange, it didn’t make any sense for Okada to sell so much for Tanahashi at that point. He had been in control for most of the match and had taken much less damage relatively speaking. He should’ve been mauling Tanahashi without any trouble. And yet, he was selling as if he was as weakened and hurt as Tanahashi which wasn’t the case. That was also a tad ironic as it seemed like Okada was over-selling, and normally he has a problem in these matches because he tends to under-sell Tanahashi’s offense, especially regarding the leg (which he still managed to do here as well).
The only part that really stood out was the ‘toughness’ moments when Tanahashi and Okada dared each other to hit them. That had happened sparingly in their earlier matches but here it was a more prominent part of the match. Okada did that to show cockiness and arrogance while Tanahashi used it to show toughness and defiance. It told a solid story of both men’s motivations and mindsets as they fought, but beyond that, it didn’t play a major role in the match.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Compared to their other matches, this one is around the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality. Even with all the great action, tension and excitement, there’s not much new here. If you’ve seen other Okada matches, you can skip this one completely. Although it’s impressive that, even at this point in their careers, these two can put on such a strong match with so much athleticism, it would be insulting to say that this match is on the same level as most of their previous encounters.
I really wanted to get into this match and understand why Meltzer praised it so much. After looking at it, I believe he got caught up in the story behind the match and over-rated this match because of what the result meant in the grand scheme of things. And while the match was solid and had the same great athleticism that’s expected of modern New Japan, it was also bland for those same reasons. There was little to nothing here that was new or refreshing in terms of actual wrestling. And in wrestling, a good rivalry is only as good as the matches it produces.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.