Get Ready for Another All-Time Classic from Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada
We should expect nothing but the best from the New Japan Pro Wrestling superstars when they meet for the fourth time with the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship on the line.
Screen capture via Rassslin' Rantin'/YouTube
Once the words were out of his mouth, it immediately felt like it should have been obvious all along. With no No. 1 contender lined up for his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, of course Kazuchika Okada would want to square off with Kenny Omega one more time at Dominion, one of New Japan Pro Wrestling's showcase events. After all, Okada is now defined by his dominance, and Omega is the one competitor left who has any claim to assail Okada's unimpeachable status.
His challenge to Omega was coming on the heels of a victory over Hiroshi Tanahashi, a victory that helped Okada break Tanahashi's own record for most successful defenses of the title in a single reign. It was the latest notch in Okada's assault on the NJPW record books; he is also the longest-tenured IWGP Heavyweight Champion of all-time (1,511 days and counting over four reigns), with his current reign of 715-plus days standing as the new benchmark in New Japan, and among the longest reigns anywhere in modern wrestling history.
Okada has defeated nearly every legitimate contender as he's truck-sticked through the division since winning the title back from Tetsuya Naito at Dominion in 2016. He beat Naito again this year at Wrestle Kingdom, with Naito completing a years-long redemption arc to get back to the main event only to come up short. He's defeated Naomichi Marufuji, Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr., and Katsuyori Shibata, dispatched Bad Luck Fale and Cody of Bullet Club, and cleaned out Los Ingobernables de Japon with wins over EVIL and SANADA.
And yes, he's beaten Omega, doing so in an incredible 47-minute match at Wrestle Kingdom 11. On Saturday, Omega will become the first person to challenge Okada for the title for a third time during this reign. So what's the rub? It's a mixture of competitive fire, history, showmanship, and perhaps a dash of arrogance.
"As he made those defenses, one after another after another, it came to a point where no one could just walk through the curtain and say 'I'm gonna be the next challenger,'" Omega said in a recent interview with New Japan World. "He has done so much and beaten everyone so many times, he calls the shots. He makes the challenges. He makes the rules."
Omega and Okada have actually met twice since that successful title defense, and Omega first wrestled him to a 60-minute time-limit draw with the title on the line, then managed to beat him in last summer's G1 Climax tournament. The record between them, then, stands at 1-1-1, and with Okada having wiped out the rest of the heavyweight division, he can't let a blemish like that stand without securing a decisive victory. This alone would be enough of a story. A rubber-match between two evenly matched competitors is an easy sell in any sport.
In the time since the challenge was made and accepted, the two competitors have taken dramatically different approaches that underline their careers to date.
For Okada, this is all business as usual. There's a real element of respect there, but he challenged Omega because Omega is the one spec on an historic record, and because he's supremely confident he can expunge it. And he should be—Okada is New Japan's ace, a wrestler so supremely and naturally talented that only butting up consistently against the power of apathy or complacency has threatened his status. There is Okada, and there is everyone else, and even if Okada underestimates an opponent, a rebalancing of the scales is only a Rainmaker away. Over the course of his reign, Okada's encroaching arrogance has become a greater part of his story, and while it at one point looked like it could prove his downfall, his work is so seamless and his record so pristine that it almost feels like the world is begging for such a red herring.
Omega knows all of this, and it has been his driving force the last few weeks. At every turn, Omega has conceded that he is not as good as Okada, while standing defiant that it doesn't matter, because Okada is not the performer or worker that Omega is. There is a bit of Rocky-Creed here, both in Omega's work ethic against a more casual opponent and in the desperation Omega is conveying—he's acutely aware that this is his last shot at dethroning Okada, becoming the first gaijin champion since A.J. Styles in 2014, and making himself the face of New Japan he's long claimed he'd be.
"Okada, it pains me to say this, but even I have to admit it: You're a better wrestler than me," Omega said on the May 29 episode of Being the Elite. "The thing is, Okada, you're not a better performer than I am, and you're not a better athlete than I am, and trust me, I know for a fact, that you aren't working harder than I am. Things come easy to you, they come naturally to you… I'm working harder than I ever have, and this time, unlike all the others, I've come to terms with not being on your level. And so I'm bringing myself there."
He's taken his training seriously enough that his role on Being the Elite has largely been downplayed, too, which highlights two subplots to the story here. For one, Omega has long been cornered by The Young Bucks, but an incredible, winding story that's weaved a breakdown of Bullet Club—Bullet Club is fine, though—with Omega's reconciliation with Golden Lovers partner Kota Ibushi likely leaves Omega without them by his side here. (Omega opening a package from the Bucks at the end of the last episode of BTE leaves this hanging in the air some; it still stands to reason that Omega will be cornered by Ibushi.) The other is that, should Omega come up short, his partner Ibushi would be on the shortlist of potential challengers to Okada and, fantasy booking ahead to this summer's G1 and Wrestle Kingdom 13 after that, there are a lot of ways conflict in the renewed Omega-Ibushi relationship could be introduced around Omega failing and Ibushi succeeding in his place.
The stakes, then, are enormous. For Okada, it is an opportunity to make sure nobody in New Japan can claim to be on his level. Sure, there's the matter of him eventually defending his title against some stablemates in CHAOS (we see your plot, Knife Pervert), but beating Omega removes any shred of doubt about a record-setting title defense streak. For Omega, this is everything he's worked his whole career for, why he chose to go to Japan and remain there all this time, why he needed to lose to find that extra gear of desperation, why he needed to find his way back to Ibushi to become the best version of himself. If all of that is not enough, if Okada is still simply too good in the face of another historic effort, then there is a lot of introspection to come.
There's another layer here, too, one that would usually exist outside of kayfabe were it not for Omega making his standing as the "Best Bout Machine" a part of his character—the three matches between Okada and Omega to date have been some of the best of all time. Literally. Like with any sport, it's difficult to compare match quality across eras as access to tapes and training, and a general increase in athleticism, has shifted the bar. We almost need a Match Stars + stat in line with baseball's WAR or OPS+. Through the eyes of Dave Meltzer, the unofficial arbiter of match quality for decades now, Okada and Omega have exceeded nearly everything before them—their three meetings received star ratings of 6, 6.25, and 6, respectively, ranking as three of only four matches Meltzer has ever given six or more stars to. Their second meeting is the highest grade he's ever given a match.
Personally, I thought their third and final meeting was better than their second, and that their first encounter was the best of the three. There was a certain urgency on the third meeting—G1 matches are fought under a 30-minute time limit and Omega was in a must-win situation—played up more for me than the layered call-backs and visceral storytelling in the second. In any case, all three are among the best matches in memory, and the series of bouts between Okada and Omega belong right alongside Flair-Steamboat and wrestling's other greatest trilogies.
The fourth promises to, unfathomably, be even better. When Okada laid down the challenge, Omega responded with a condition: Unlike in his second attempt, there would be no saving by the bell. There would also be no question left as to who is better. The match is being fought without a time limit, and in a best two-out-of-three falls format.
"To me, that's an insult," Omega said of adding the two-of-three stipulation on top of the no time limit wrinkle. "Okada's come to the point where hey, I can beat everyone, so I'm gonna give myself a handicap. He's challenging me to a match with no time limit when he knows I have more stamina than him? That's why I wanted to make it fair."
Given what these two managed to do with 137 minutes over their first three meetings, what they may be able to do without restraint and with the benefit of a rich history together to draw upon is incredibly exciting. It seems completely unreasonable to go in expecting a 6-star match on a 5-star scale, and yet that's absolutely where my expectations lie.
The Rest of the Card
Chris Jericho vs. Tetsuya Naito (Intercontinental Championship) – Jericho may be having too much fun at this point. After his Wrestle Kingdom feud with Omega culminated in a terrific match, Jericho turned his attention to Naito, who has brushed off Jericho's consistent attacks and profanity-filled tirades with an infuriating lack of concern. This is two of the best characters in wrestling going toe-to-toe in a feud built almost entirely on Jericho using the F-word and bringing "fuck face" back into the lexicon as an insult. This won't be technical, but it'll be a ton of fun.
Will Ospreay vs. Hiromu Takahashi (Junior Heavyweight Championship) – Takahashi earned this title shot by winning the recent Best of Super Juniors tournament, culminating with him beating "Bone Soldier" Taiji Ishimori in an instant classic and then accidentally breaking the trophy. But Ospreay has beaten him one-on-one twice and again in a Wrestle Kingdom four-way. This is a big one for Takahashi, who has become one of New Japan's most popular acts for his general weirdness, incredible acting, and consistent performances. He's awesome, and this match could threaten to steal the show. Meow.
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Jushin Thunder Liger, and Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Bullet Club (Cody, Hangman Page, Marty Scurll) – Mysterio's NJPW debut comes not in a featured singles match but as part of a sort-of legends team to take on three baddies from Bullet Club. Pairing Mysterio with Liger and Ace should be a lot of fun, and the Bullet Club are always good foil for a situation like this. There are layers here, too, with what seems to be a budding Scurll-Tanahashi feud and a continuation of a long-time Cody-Mysterio story.
Los Ingobernables de Japon (SANADA and EVIL) vs. The Young Bucks (Tag Team Championship) – After years working as the feature act of the junior tag division, a very jacked looking Matt and Nick Jackson have crossed the 205-pound barrier and are making their way to the heavyweight tag division. This is a pretty big deal and a much-needed boost to a division that's been light on new teams for some time.
Other matches – Hirooki Goto defends his NEVER Openweight Championship against Taichi and Michael Elgin…Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano take on Minoru Suzuki and Zack Sabre Jr. in a battle of two of the more fun occasional duos out there…Juice Robinson and Jay White are opposite each other in a tag match ahead of what will likely be an eventual US title shot for Juice, the purest of pure babyfaces…Roppongi 3K, fresh off strong individual performances in BOSJ (SHO is going to be a star in the division) defend their Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship against El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru in a card-opener that should pair well with coffee as the show kicks off at 3 AM ET early Saturday.