Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (NJPW – 01/04/16)

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada
New Japan Pro Wrestling
January 4, 2016
Tokyo Dome
**** ½

Wrestling promoters and bookers are notoriously short-sighted. There is a tendency to latch onto a concept that works and to run with it, while giving far less consideration to potential negative impacts current decisions might have on future business.

New Japan clearly felt they hit on something in 2012 when Kazuchika Okada won the IWGP Heavyweight championship from – and immediately lost the title back to – Hiroshi Tanahashi. After running that match up twice in 2012, the promotion went back to it for the 2013 Tokyo Dome main event and three more times after that the same year. New Japan has become so reliant on the Okada/Tanahashi match up that even though they have back off of it on other shows recently, it has been the Dome main event for two years running.

Staying away from any broader business and booking impacts that (over)reliance on the match might have caused, it is undeniable that the sheer volume of Okada/Tanahashi matches make it extraordinary difficult for Okada and Tanahashi to come up with something new. That is not an excuse for any failings these matches might have and they definitely do not get a “free pass” because of it. It is just that the reality of the situation is a difficult one.

To thoroughly complicate the matter, Okada and Tanahashi went in the 2016 Tokyo Dome main event needing to please a core audience that perceives a handful or so of their previous matches as veritable classics. Like a band that releases a commercially successful album with a distinct sound, the challenge for the follow up(s) is to balance moving forward creatively with not totally losing sight of the formula that garnered the initial commercial success. For Okada and Tanahashi, the challenge in wrestling their eighth major singles match in a little under four-years was to maintain the important elements that made their prior matches critically acclaimed while not simply rehashing their previous work. It was of particular interest to me what – if anything – Okada and Tanahashi would do to differentiate their 2016 Dome match from their 2015 Dome match, given that both matches fall roughly on the same part of their feud’s arc.

While both the 2015 and 2016 Dome matches started with a deliberate pace, the 2016 opening served more of a clear in-match purpose. The slow starts in both years served the same general purpose – to ensure that the action could be continually ratcheted up over a 30+ minute period. While the 2015 opening minutes came across as standard slow opening fare to set up a long match, this year’s struck me as a bit more interesting in the way they demonstrated that both champion and challenger were on equal footing.

I enjoyed the way Okada ducked and dodged Tanahashi in the opening minutes. For the most part, they avoided being blunt or lazy in demonstrating parity. It would have been easy to do a couple of contentious breaks and a couple of standoffs and call it a day for the opening. While some of that stuff was present, it was weaved in with Okada’s evasion, some simple counter stuff on the mat, and a general seesaw rhythm throughout. That last element was the part that stuck with me the most. How often in modern New Japan – or anywhere else for that matter – do wrestlers start with a parity segment only to settle into standard control portions after the opening minutes? Okada and Tanahashi revisited that idea of familiarity repeatedly throughout the match. My personal favorite spot along those lines was when Okada dodged a drop kick from Tanahashi and smiled broadly as Tanahashi crashed to the canvas, only to follow up with a senton splash that Tanahashi rolled out of harm’s way of. By incorporating spots like that throughout the match, the opening parity segments held greater importance to the match as a whole.

What also helped in filling the 36 minutes was the placement of the high spots along the way. Throughout the body – although particularly in the earlier going – they rolled out some high spots that were effective in bringing the crowd up momentarily while still leaving plenty of room for upward mobility. The Shannon More inspired flip bump to the floor that Tanahashi took as well as Okada’s cross body block into the crowd where great early match high spots in that they were engaging spots but spots that did not threaten to lessen the impact of the action later in the match.  Contrast the way Tanahashi and Okada laid out early match high spots while still leaving themselves room to maneuver later on with the way Ishii and Shibata almost haphazardly placed major high spots and bombs throughout their match with little rhyme or reason.

When not peppering in high spots, Tanahashi spent most of the body portion of the match attacking Okada’s legs. This was the same strategy he used last year at the Dome. Going strictly off of memory, my recollection is that the leg work a year ago was a little less focused and a tad sloppier. Tanahashi’s dragon screw leg whips – especially when he gets cute with them – can sometimes be rather ugly and I remember that being somewhat of a factor last year. I generally liked the execution of Tanahashi’s leg-targeted offense in this year’s match. The leg whips looked surprisingly impactful and there was enough variation to his leg attack to keep things interesting.

The aspect of the leg work that some people have taken umbrage with is that while it ate up a lot of Tanahashi’s time on offense, Okada never really sold the leg like a major deal. He limped and grabbed at the leg at times, but there was never a prolonged period where he could not put weight on it nor did it factor into the later stages of the match.

Selling as a criticism can be a bit of a crutch in match evaluations – the nature and extent to which selling matters (even by individual standards) tends to bounce around depending on the circumstances. I know I am guilty of that. Those that think the selling was an issue will argue that that the lack of leg selling rendered the leg work pointless. On the other side of the fence are those who will argue that either leg work does not need to be sold in a particular manner in order to be meaningful and/or that Okada overcoming the leg attack (when he succumbed to it last year) was the story to be told rather than a debilitating leg injury.

The way the leg stuff ultimately played out did not bother me much at all. I find the idea that limb work of a certain degree needs to be sold a certain way in order to add meaning or value to a match to be both false and unnecessarily restrictive. Offense focused on a body part and the selling of that offense both can be individual means to an end. Sometimes the selling of body part work is treated like the end itself – a wrestler focuses on a body part on offense so that his opponent can sell it a certain way. Sometimes a wrestler targets a body part so that his opponent has something tangible to fight through. Sometimes it is done so the face can frustrate the heel by fighting off the attack. Sometimes the endgame of body part work is to create an injury that is sold like a match-altering injury throughout the remainder of the match. Body part work and the selling of the body part work can be different from match to match because it can serve a different – and equally “correct” – purpose from match to match.

The differentiating factor for me is the consistency of the selling within the confines of an individual match. If Okada sold for a significant period as if he could not walk only to magically recover seconds later when it was his time to go on offense, there would have been a selling issue regardless of the story they were going for.  Likewise, if Okada did not sell the leg for much of the match only for it to cost him at the end, that would probably have been an issue for me.  That was not the case. Okada sold pain in his leg(s) at time but never even close to the point of being incapacitated by the injury.

Okada sold his leg in a consistent manner and in a manner which suggested that the idea was for Tanahashi to apply last year’s strategy, have it be marginally effective, but ultimately for Okada to fight through and around the pain/attack in order to succeed. It does not seem like a made up excuse to suggest that is what they were going for given that everything they did in the match around the leg – Tanahashi’s offensive attack and Okada’s sell of it – suggests that is precisely what they aimed for. There have been times in the recent past where in-match selling of a body part in a New Japan ring has been either inconsistent or unclear as to how it fits the end game. I would argue that was not the case with Okada’s leg(s).

The match did stumble in a couple of areas in my eyes, each of which has been cited as a tripping point in previous Okada/Tanahashi matches. The first is the generally weak nature of the offense on both sides. I thought they worked a tad tighter than normal but the match was far from void of weak or sloppy offense. The second tripping point was the derivative finishing segment. The finisher stealing/near fall heavy stretch run played out in a rather predictable manner. Major New Japan main events have followed that Attitude era inspired pattern for some time now. It was not so much that the final minutes were bad, just paint-by-the-numbers type stuff. It also did not help that Okada and Tanahashi had to tightrope walk through some of the more complicated reversal sequences that they attempted.

Of the two problem areas, the finish was my bigger gripe. I tend to weight openings and match bodies more heavily than finishing runs, in part because strong ending stretches seem to be more common than strong beginnings or middle sections. The finish of this match, however, failed to live up to the strong build in my eyes since it was so derivative. Okada and Tanahashi did get the crowd going wild for the near falls at the end, but it took some time. The first Rainmaker kick out did not get the sort of reaction I would have expected it to get. It was not until afterwards – when I think the crowd sensed the match could now potentially end – that they started getting quality reactions for attempted false finishes. By that time, they were already several minutes into the finale.

Minor gripes aside, I clearly thought highly of this match on first watch and it was an easy match of the night for me beating out Styles/Nakamura. Some major matches are just too big to fail – many WrestleMania matches would fall into that group – and simply muscle their way to something memorable. I think last year’s Tanahashi/Okada Dome main event fell into that pool as well probably. This year’s match formed an indelible impression not just because of how it was positioned, but also because of the careful lay out and better-than-anticipated execution detailed above. I would urge even those who have been less impressed with prior Tanahashi/Okada matches to at least give this one a fair shot.

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