Most people hate heel vs. heel matches. The fans don’t really have anyone to cheer for because both sides are people that are meant to be booed. That’s why they’re so rare; you can’t really cheer for a villain over another villain when both are people you are meant to despise.
But there are exceptions. Some villains are utterly vile and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Others are villains not because they’re evil to the core; but because they flaunt authority, act like mavericks and generally do what they want. These latter villains are the cool villains, the ones you’re supposed to hate but love them at the same time,
This match pits two of the latter types of villains against each other. But by the time the match is over, neither one of them is really a villain. That’s because their match is so good by the end that the audience cheers both of them as if they were conquering heroes.
Today we revisit a classic match from the 2016 G1 Climax Tournament: the first-ever singles match between Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito.
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 is the semi-final match for the B-Block of the 2016 G1 Climax tournament. Both Omega and Naito are ‘heels’ going into this match. And each one of them had an interesting journey that brought them here.
Prior to this match, Omega was catapulted to the top of the villainous Bullet Club stable. Eight months prior, Omega ousted AJ Styles to become the Bullet Club’s new leader. At the time, he was still considered a junior heavyweight, having lost the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship to KUSHIDA at Wrestle Kingdom 10. But the G1 was a heavyweight tournament, and Omega needed to prove to everyone that he was capable of wrestling with the top heavyweight performers in New Japan.
Meanwhile, Naito had returned from a foreign excursion in 2015 with a new look and personality. He was no longer a white meat babyface as he had been before. He grew out his beard and hair and became tranquilo, acting all cold and cocky whenever possible. He spat on NJPW traditions (sometimes literally) and carried himself like he didn’t really care about anything.
And yet, that new attitude, coupled with his new stable Los Ignobernables de Japón, brought Naito immense success. Four months prior to this match-up, Naito defeated Kazuchika Okada to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. But that reign was short-lived as Okada reclaimed it 70 days later at NJPW’s annual June Dominion show.
But there was another, deeper purpose for Naito here, aside from wanting his title back. Two-and-a-half years earlier, a pure babyface Naito challenge then-IWGP Heavyweight Champion Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 8, having won the prior year’s G1 Climax. Traditionally, the heavyweight title match was the main event, the show-closing match. Yet NJPW’s fans didn’t want Naito vs. Okada in that spot. They didn’t like the persona Naito portrayed and preferred other wrestlers instead.
Thus, NJPW officials held a fan vote to determine the main-event of WK8: either the Okada/Naito match or a match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. And it was the latter match that won, leaving Naito feeling robbed of the main event he felt he deserved. That decision was the impetus that made Naito become a villain.
So for Naito, this match was extra important. Assuming Okada remained champion until Wrestle Kingdom, if Naito won here and won in the finals, he would be able to face Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11. In doing so, he’d prove to the world how good he was and how the fans were wrong to vote him out of the main event he had worked so hard for in the past.
This match originally took place on August 13th, 2016. It was rated five stars in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter by Dave Meltzer.
The bell rings and the crowd’s mostly behind Naito. Omega goes for a lockup but Naito walks away twice in a row. He blindsides Naito and smacks Naito’s head mockingly. Naito counters a whip into the corner and charges but Omega flips over him. Omega goes to hit back but Naito flips into ~TRANQUILO ~.
Omega mocks the crowd as they chant Naito’s name and then spits on Naito. A now angry Naito spits back and then walks into another gob of spit from Omega. After some more spitting they crisscross and Naito dropkicks Omega’s knee. Naito targets the knee as Omega screams loudly in pain. He follows that with two bug knee crushers as Omega’s powerless to fight back. Naito grabs the leg but Omega escapes with a thumb to the eye. Naito gets tossed out of the ring and Omega goes for a dive but Naito just walks away coolly. Omega lands hard, hurting an already-weakened knee.
Naito goes to whip Omega into the steel barricade at the five-minute mark, but Omega just hobbles over and can’t even get that far. Naito prepares some big move but Omega counters by pushing him back-first into the same barricade. He smashes Naito into the barricade again then scoop slams him into the edge of the apron. Oh damn that’s gotta hurt.
Back in the ring, Omega lands his fisherman knee neckbreaker but uses the bad knee to do so and falls backwards in pain. Naito writhes in pain as Omega gets the first two-count of the match. Omega follows with a chinlock, putting more pressure on Naito’s neck. There’s some great psychology displayed there. Omega follows with Danielson-style elbows to the collar for another two-count. Naito tries to fire back but can’t because of his hurt neck/collarbone.
Omega chokes Naito in the corner with his foot and lands a Rick Rude-style neckbreaker for another two-count. The fans chant Naito’s name as he tries to mount a one-armed comeback. Omega follows with two MASSIVE chops. Damn, those sounded like thunder claps. After another two-count, Omega goes for the ‘you can’t escape’/Moonsault combo but struggles to follow through due to the knee. He hesitates for a moment but goes for the Moonsault, but Naito takes advantage with a sudden dropkick to Omega’s knee. Fantastic move.
Naito gets a sudden second wind and lands a back elbow. Dropkick and swinging neckbreaker all in quick succession. But he still can’t capitalize right away due to the neck issues. He trips Omega up in the corner and lands a gorgeous slingshot dropkick Jeff Hardy wishes he could do. Omega kicks out at two, and tries for is own comeback, but Naito shuts him down with a Manhattan drop and another dropkick to the knee. Figure-4 leglock by Naito. Omega writhes in pain and even tries pulling Naito’s leg off to break the hold but Naito keeps it applied. Naito eventually releases the hold and tries to charge at Omega in the corner. But Omega counters with boots and a Kotaro Crusher. Omega does a running/limping charge and kicks Naito off the apron sending him onto the barricade. That’s just what Naito needs: more damage to his back.
But Omega isn’t done. He teases powerbombing Naito into the apron again, then changes his mind and powerbombs him through the announce table instead. Damn, and that’s a non-gimmicked table as well. Talk about a brutal landing. But Omega’s still not done. Springboard topé con hilo. Omega flies over the barricade onto Naito. Both men go down hard.
Omega gets back in the ring at the count of twelve and breaks the ref’s count as Naito reaches the apron. Then he goes full savage. Apron dragon suplex on Naito! Good God what a vicious move. But he’s STILL not done. Bridging dragon suplex in the ring. One, two, NO, Naito kicks out. How? His neck must be mush by now.
Still in control, Omega deadlifts Naito for the gutwrench powerbomb but Naito tries to counter. Wait, no, Omega counters the counter, only for Naito to counter into a DDT. Both men start brawling sluggishly and Naito kicks Omega’s knee again. He charges…but walks right into a V-Trigger from Omega. Great counter. Omega limps over to the ropes to hold himself up. He can barely stand given that he’s used his injured knee as a weapon.
Omega swings at Naito but Naito ducks and counters into a gorgeous tornado DDT. More chants for Naito now. He places Omega on the corner, hits the knee some more and lands a super frankensteiner. But wait, Omega reverses the pin on Naito. One, two, no, Naito kicks out at 208. Another dropkick to Omega’s knee, followed by an abisengiri. Naito lands Gloria (modified Emerald Flowsion). Omega kicks out.
Each time Omega tries to strike back, Omega kicks at the knee. Omega manages to reverse a whip somehow, ducks a forearm, and goes for a German suplex. But Naito counters into his own Germ—no, Omega hands on his feet, but hurts the knee again. Naito was a wicked smile on his face and charges, but walks into a big lariat. V-Trigger with the good knee. One-Winged Ang—no, Naito counters into a leglock. Spectacular counter. Omega crawls desperately to the ropes. He’s almost there. But Naito wrenches the hold. He writhes about like an animal caught in a bear trap. He’s going to tap! He’s going to give up. NO, with all his might Omega reaches the ropes. What an amazingly close call.
Naito’s still in control as he lands a knee breaker. He goes for a second but Omega counters with a knee to the face using the good knee. Great counter. Omega ducks an enzuigiri and lands a German suplex. Naito gets up, and walks into a gutwtench powerbomb for another close two-count. Omega signals the end. V-Trigger. One-Winged-Angel—No, Naito counters into Destino! Destino! Both men go down. Holy Shit, this is awesome.
There are five minutes left in the match. Naito places Omega on the top turnbuckle, and just KILLS him. Avalanche poisoned frankensteiner. Omega got dropped on his neck. Good God! He pins. Omega kicks out again. Destino—no, Omega counters into a cradle Tombstone. Naito kicks out. Omega goes for the OWA, but can’t lift Naito up. Too much damage has been done to his entire body, from his neck to his knee.
Three minutes left.
Omega tries for OWA again but Naito bitchslaps him. Omega slaps back and Naito is smiling. He enzuigiris Omega and Irish whips him. Omega counters into a V-Trigger. Another attempt at OWA. Naito tries to counter, but Omega counters him into Croyt’s Wrath. One, two, thr—no, Naito kicks out. Another V-Trigger. And another kickout.
Two minutes left.
With nothing else to do, Omega channels all his strength. And he hoists Naito up. ONE. WINGED. ANGEL!! CONNECTS!! One, two…THREE! That’s it! Omega has done it. Omega has won!
Winner after 28:12: Kenny Omega
I went into this match not believing in Kenny Omega. I was convinced that he was too goofy, overly-animated and unrealistic to be a top draw. But my opinion of the man changed because HOLY SHIT DID HE EVER PUT ON A GREAT MATCH HERE!
Point blank, this was one of the best pro wrestling matches I have ever seen. It was off-the-charts-good. Everything came together so perfectly and the wrestlers clicked so well together. They managed to create that perfect blend of storytelling, psychology (yes, wrestling psychology in a Kenny Omega match, who would’ve thought?), athleticism, explosiveness and unpredictability.
For all the crap Omega gets for being unrealistic and not selling properly, he demonstrated the opposite here. After Naito attacked Omega’s knee the first time, Omega infused it into pretty much everything he did. He hobbled around when trying to get closer to Naito. After landing a big move he’d stagger over to the ropes because he couldn’t keep himself up. He kept smacking his own leg to try and fight through the pain, creating both a sense of urgency in the match and a greater display of toughness in himself. These actions of his made his pain look real and made his comeback feel more desperate and exciting as he struggled to maintain control of the match.
But Omega wasn’t alone in creating this awesome match. Naito was on fire here. He showed smart wrestling by attacking Omega’s knee which became the crux of his offensive strategy throughout the match. It also turned into one of the greatest counter sequences I’ve ever seen with Naito countering a OWA into a leglock. It was completely unexpected given that the match had reached the typical ‘finisher spam sprint’, but it made perfect sense. Naito brutalized that leg so much that Omega was almost completely incapable of landing any offense of his own without risking even further damage. But Naito also had to fight from underneath as his back and neck were damaged just as badly as Omega’s knee.
With those strategies in place and maintained throughout the match, this evolved from a great match into an amazing one. The finishing stretch with one big explosive move after another was incredibly tense. Both men had done such a great job of weakening the other that any one of those big moves was credible enough to end the match. The counters and reversals that came in the last six minutes were amazing. My favorite parts were each time Omega went for the OWA and something different would happen each time. In one case, Naito countered it into one of the greatest Destinos ever, and in other Omega couldn’t even lift Naito up. Both sequences made perfect sense in the context of the match and led to a more satisfying finish.
Final Rating: *****
This is definitely one of the best matches of Omega’s career, which is saying a lot. Although both wrestlers performed admirably, it was Omega’s performance here that really changed perceptions of him, mine included. He sold like a boss for Naito and kept coming back to an injury that had been established so early in the match. That consistency is the mark of a truly phenomenal wrestler, especially since lots of early stuff like that tends to get lost in big wrestling epics in favor of dazzling the audience with something more daredevil.
I understand that both Omega and Naito have some doubters, especially given how they’ve evolved in the last four years. But by God, both men were at their absolute PEAK here. Yes, both men would go on to wrestle in longer, wilder and more brutal matches. But this match had a charming straightforwardness that’s harder to find in both men’s match histories. There’s a clean, logical flow to the match with a clear inner story. Yes, both men trade bombs here quite a bit at the end, but it never goes into overkill territory, nor does it really come at the expense of sacrificing psychology and realism.
All in all, there’s a lot to love here, so seek it out when you get the chance.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.