Kazuchika Okada has been champion since June 19th 2016 and when Wrestle Kingdom 12 takes place in January he will have amassed over 550 days as champion. He has easily surpassed Shinya Hashimoto’s record of 489 days and is now the longest reigning IWGP champion is history, winning some of the finest matches the sport has ever seen en route. All of this has seen him become a recognised name across the wrestling world and he has played a huge role in helping New Japan achieve its second most successful financial year ever.
Longevity is one aspect to having a memorable and legendary reign; but that quantity must contain quality if fans are to hold it in the highest esteem. After all, who wants to watch an incredibly long title run full of poor stories and dull matches? Getting that balance just right is very difficult, but Okada has done it.
Okada has obliterated the expectations which fans usually have, producing a stream of wondrous matches that may never be equalled. Here’s a rundown of all the best bits, and why you should tune into Wrestle Kingdom 12 on January 4th when his record run may finally expire at the hands of Tetsuya Naito.
The Kenny Omega trilogy
Wrestling is very subjective, but so many fans would agree, the Okada versus Omega storyline produced three of the best matches you will ever see. It all started at the Tokyo Dome earlier this year when they broke the wrestling world and glued eyes to the Japanese product. Dave Meltzer added to the fanfare by awarding the bout six stars, putting it on a new level which was unlikely to ever be topped.
The 46 minute colossus produced some insane moments of suspense and danger. Kenny setting up a table before taking a hellacious back drop through it, the perilous dragon suplex from the top rope which saw Okada crunch straight onto his skull, and of course all of the finisher teases.
To many a viewers’ surprise, Okada won the emotional rollercoaster contest – topping off a perfect Wrestle Kingdom event and kicking off 2017 in style. Instantly it became my favourite match of all time and I still haven’t found a hangover cure like it; naturally people were sharing their elation and talk quickly shifted towards a rematch, after all, Omega never landed the One-Winged Angel…
Kenny took a break from NJPW before returning for the New Japan Cup. He was the favourite going into the tournament but crashed out in round one at the hands of Tomohiro Ishii whilst Okada was busy defending his belt against new challengers, leaving us wondering, would we get the rematch we desired?
Well what seemed a lifetime away was actually right around the corner. After the main event of Wrestling Dontaku, where the CHAOS leader defeated Bad Luck Fale, Okada took to the microphone and hand-picked Omega as his next contender. Okada knew fans wanted to see it, and so at New Japan’s Summerslam equivalent, Dominion, the main event was set. Okada versus Omega II.
How could they possibly live up to the bar set by the first contest? Especially so soon after the fact. Well, by having New Japan’s first hour time limit draw in 12 years, that’s how.
Once again the pair turned the ring into a ballroom, filling the mat with sumptuous wrestling. We saw a whole host of Rainmakers, V-triggers and Cody Rhodes coming down to tease throwing in the towel to salvage Omega’s career. My spot of the year also occurred, as Kenny, exhausted from the war, collapsed to his knees underneath Okada’s Rainmaker attempt, it was a simply beautiful moment to behold.
In a hark back to the Tokyo Dome match, Kenny actually hit his finisher and looked certain to become the IWGP champion, but savvy Okada got to the ropes, saving his skin and his belt. The match concluded with Omega’s Bullet Club colleagues stunned on the outside whilst Okada hit a final Rainmaker but couldn’t reach for the cover before the bell sounded.
I loved this match just as much as the first. It had fewer insane spots but the tension and drama was dancing through the air as they concluded another sensational New Japan PPV – but we weren’t done here, we needed a conclusion, and the trilogy would be finalised at the G1 Climax.
Okay, so this one wasn’t for the title, but it is still an important part of Okada’s lengthy grasp on the strap. After a stonking G1 the final day pitted Kenny versus Kazuchika one again; the prize for the victor, a spot in the prestigious G1 Climax final versus Tetsuya Naito.
Kenny Omega won. A super quick paced and thoroughly entertaining battle ensued. Each flew out of the blocks and launched warheads at one another, bringing all of their biggest and most brutal moves out of their arsenal. Omega nailed his One-Winged Angel in the middle of the ring, finally overcoming Okada and heading into the final with an extremely important win over his impossible rival under his belt.
After this, the two went their separate ways again, but were sure to see more in the future. These matches were the biggest of Okada’s title run, but the champion did way more than battle Kenny Omega over his 500 days, and put all other challengers away too…
Every good champion, needs a equally enthralling challenger. In Shibata, Okada had exactly that. Their story stretches way back to when Shibata confronted Okada after the champion defeated Hirooki Goto at New Beginning in 2014 – Okada told The Wrestler that he had to win the New Japan Cup if he wanted a shot at the belt, and three years later, Shibata did just that.
So it was Gedo’s golden boy versus the man who left New Japan in the darkness. It would be Shibata’s first shot at the IWGP Heavyweight title since his return in 2012, and as a result of Okada’s bulletproof nature and Shibata’s self-destructive offence, it would seemingly be his last…
The match was a violent dance of destruction, as Shibata left literally everything in the ring. After surviving a tirade of vicious kicks, strikes and a disgusting headbutt though, Okada was able to pin his challenger with a rainmaker and continue his stranglehold on the belt.
Okada concluded a lengthy dramatic story with an equally tense match. The champion proved his point from three years prior, that Shibata was a great fighter, but couldn’t be the IWGP title holder. However, the real talking point following the match was that, whilst Okada would march on strongly, Shibata would collapse backstage, becoming paralysed on the right hand side and requiring emergency surgery.
Shibata bowed out in exactly the way he would want to – violently throwing everything he had into the match to try and win the title. After all, if he didn’t give everything he had, he wouldn’t be true to himself. All of this simply added fuel to the fire of Okada’s amazing reign; showing that not only is he the top performer in New Japan, but he’s also the best wrestler.
The best of the rest
As well as the two defences against Omega and the stonker against Shibata, Kazuchika Okada has also successfully put, Marufuji, Suzuki, Fale, Cody and EVIL to the sword as part of his record-breaking tenure. All of these matches delivered in some way or another, but a few in particular stand out as the ripest of the bunch…
After getting systematically schooled by Marufuji in 2016 G1 Climax, Okada simply had to avenge his loss and get his victory back against one of NOAH’s top stars, with the IWGP Heavyweight title on the line.
Just like at the G1, Okada has his back firmly pressed against the wall after Marufuji dominated New Japan’s new ace with the most accurate and destructive kicks imaginable. Marufuji’s assault may have been powerful but again the champion wouldn’t be topped and battled back with his own impressive strikes, signature drop kicks, tombstone and a rainmaker. The Marufuji-shaped bump in the road had been overcome, but the journey was only starting to accelerate at this point.
Following the longest match in Wrestle Kingdom history on January 4th, Okada ran into a brand new roadblock a day later, at New Japan’s New Year Dash event. Returning from NOAH came Suzuki-Gun, and maniacal leader, Minoru Suzuki. He battered Okada and left the champion sprawled in the ring with serious damage to his knee, which he would continue to attack on the road to the next PPV.
Suzuki would get his title opportunity at New Beginning and the entirety of the match would revolve around his previous game plan – an all out assault on Okada’s knees and legs. Heel hooks, knee bars an figure fours were constantly applied to prevent any sort of momentum being built up – how Okada survived the 30-minute plus onslaught I do not know, but he overcame the adversity and remained the champion.
The match wasn’t to everyone taste, with some (like me) loving it. It was all on the mat and showed that Suzuki would still be a major player in New Japan, keeping Okada down for the most part, but falling just short. It also proved Okada could do it all, no matter how dirty you play. He is simply the best.
It would be fair to say that some people were disappointed when they saw that Okada would be defending his strap against Cody Rhodes at New Japan’s G1 Special in Long Beach, California. In reality though, the main event of the first night was a great success, and had a wonderful dramatic feel to it. Everyone hated Cody, and everyone loved the man himself, Kazuchika Okada.
Cody really took the fight to the champion and the story of the match was incredibly well played out. Omega came down to the ring and teased throwing in the towel, much like Cody had done to Kenny at Dominion. He pulled out some tasty tricks but would ultimately fall short at the finale of Cody’s best match post-WWE, sending the fans home very happy after a splendid first night in America for NJPW.
Where do we go from here?
With Wrestle Kingdom 12 right around the corner and the interstellar rise of Tetsuya Naito being seemingly unstoppable, it appears that it is almost closing time on Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight title stranglehold. The main event is sure to be a storming send-off for the record title reign and it’ll be a crazy ending to the show no matter what. I’ll be incredibly happy to see Naito get a run with the belt that he deserves but a part of me will be sorry to see the end of what was, in my mind, the undisputed greatest title reign of all time.
Okada and the IWGP Heavyweight belt are like bread and butter, salt and pepper, fish and chips – they’re harmonious and it’ll be so odd to see one without the other. But all good things must come to the end, so be sure to remember it all fondly.
Not only did Okada help New Japan rise to incredible new heights, he reliably put on the best match on the card, no matter his opponent, validating the title each and every night. Furthermore, he’s the ultimate babyface; he plays by the rules, always gives everything for the fans and epitomises everything that makes pro-wrestling such a joy. So all that is left to say is, thank you for the title memories, Kazuchika.