New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Okada has an intangible quality that recalls what made Ric Flair so good in his prime.
Photo by Flickr user faceturnphotography/CC BY-SA 2.0
Unlike most other sports, pro wrestling history is rarely noticed when it happens—every match is the biggest, every feud is the hottest—and only appreciated in retrospect. When the greatest wrestlers are finally recognized, their stories are tinged with sepia. Ric Flair was years ago; the footage was grainy, the hairstyles ridiculous, and the sound tinny. Steve Austin got away with more—can you believe he was drinking beer and swearing openly?—because the mores were strangely permissive in the 1990s. Even John Cena has the whiff of a ghost about him, the way he crept up on us and we didn't really notice what we'd witnessed until he was almost gone.
That tendency to see greatness as something always just in the past must stop for now, though, because New Japan Pro Wrestling's Kazuchika Okada is rapidly building a year and a career to rival the best in history. It's Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Steve Austin, The Rock, Hogan, and it's happening right now. And I'm hoping we appreciate it in real time.
The catalyst for this gushing is NJPW's Dominion show on June 11, where Okada wrestled in another (ho hum, yet another) candidate for best match in history with Kenny Omega. It was the main event of an absolutely stacked card, something that is quickly becoming NJPW's baseline—the best wrestling in the world and it's not even very close, even if you, like me, are a fan of WWE's current pay-per-views.
It's hard to even know where to start with Okada, because it seems like he skipped the line. After an initial run in NJPW, he went to TNA in 2010 as a wet-behind-the-ears 22-year-old. He did nothing there besides lose dark matches and get his ass kicked every now and then to get someone else over. Then, out of the blue, he went back to NJPW and rocketed up the ranks to IWGP Heavyweight Champion by 2011. He was a dude in a bad mask; now he walks to the ring with dinosaurs while money rains down from the sky. He hasn't looked back since.
There's something intangible about what makes Okada so good, something that reminds me of how Ric Flair in his prime was so difficult to describe. Flair never had flashy moves, was never a chiseled bodybuilder type, and mostly leaned on mat wrestling and basic suplexes. What Flair had was an uncanny sense of pacing, which, paired with his stamina, meant he could tease long matches out into classics. Sixty minutes of Flair almost never felt like a drag, and 60 minutes is a long time—go watch the once praised but now much more soberly assessed Iron Man match between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, two absolute masters of pro wrestling, and see how long 60 minutes is.
Watching Okada wrestle Kenny Omega for the second time on Sunday, to a 60-minute draw, recalled the best of Flair. Okada's moves are flashier and he's more athletic, but he paces every match perfectly, no matter the length. Looking at the past two years, which Okada has dominated both in terms of real-life athleticism and the quasi-real terms of pro-wrestling storytelling, it's just match after match of him wringing the best possible from his opponents. When in the ring with a lesser wrestler than Omega or his archrival Hiroshi Tanahashi, he never sinks to their level. It's just been an unending string of match-of-the-year candidates or stories you tell your grandchildren about.
For the longest time, maybe even for the bulk of this run, Okada has seemed strangely underrated—not the guy who's the best wrestler but the guy the best wrestlers take on, the dance partner who lets the other person lead. I fell in love the second I saw the reinvented Okada as The Rainmaker in 2012 or so. I liked the costume and style, and I loved the Rainmaker Clothesline. But even I underrated him. When I wrote about Okada and Omega's previous match at Wrestle Kingdom in January, I concentrated on Omega, the bafflingly athletic freak of nature who was experiencing his own rapid rise to possible "best in the world" status.
It would be a terrible mistake to take anything away from Omega. He's a latter-day Rob Van Dam with fewer botches and more snap to his moves, the sort of guy "holy shit" chants were designed for, and a remarkable in-ring storyteller in his own right. But Okada is there and, as it turns out, the obvious answer for why the matches he's in are so great has been right in front of us the whole time: Okada is in each and every one of them.
The English-speaking announcers at Dominion mentioned that Okada already has spent the third most number of days as champion in New Japan's history— and he's not even 30 years old. He is, by at least one metric, among the top three champions in the history of one of the world's great wrestling promotions, and he has at least ten years to go. Barring injury or catastrophe, Okada will be one of the best pro wrestlers to ever work, quite possibly the best, and it's not at all hyperbolic to suggest this.
My praise is effusive and unfashionably earnest. Even when pro wrestling is good, it's so lathered in cynicism and, in the U.S. at least, so oversaturated that it begs for at least a bit of reservation to keep you from stepping out over the ledge.
It's hard to hold back with Okada, maybe verging on impossible. Forcefully, once more: pro wrestling history is now and his name is Kazuchika Okada, the best pro wrestler in one of the best promotions during one of the best stretches ever. He's in Long Beach for the G1 Tournament next month and in Japan every month. He is the best in the world, and his legend is only going to grow. Watch him.