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Thread: Oliver's Twist: On Naito vs Okada.

  1. #1
    Senior Member Oliver's Avatar
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    Oliver's Twist: On Naito vs Okada.


    Greetings, Twisters! Itís been a couple of weeks since New Japan Pro Wrestling wowed us once again with Wrestle Kingdom, and in that time Iíve been digesting the main event itself. While Jericho and Omega took, and probably deserved, the plaudits from critics and fans alike, Iíve found myself hauled into the masterpiece that Okada and Naito put together in the main event, so itís that which I want to talk about today. The match, and the actual content within it, was simply flawless for me. It was a wonderfully layered character driven performance from both Okada and Naito, one in which the former played up his performances over the past year while the latter played on his from four years previous.

    To start with Okada, a man who has probably just come off the best year for a professional wrestler in recent memory. The last year has been about Okada developing a resilience to his arsenal that perhaps we didnít see him have in 2016, and him begin to show the signs of wear from being on the top of New Japan for the longest consecutive period of any one man. Just days before walking down the ramp at the Dome, Okada had surpassed the former Ace of NJPW, Hiroshi Tanahashi, as the man who has worn the IWGP Heavyweight Title around his waist for the most time combined. His current reign is nearly over a hundred days longer than his nearest competition. Plus, he wore pimped out trousers. The Rainmaker holds almost every record in the NJPW history books save for one Ė that of the most defences of the title in a single reign. Only one man stands in his way of achieving that, with the record held by that man, Tanahashi. So Okada has a train of thought going on here Ė heís hoovered up records and proven heís the New Ace, but one record remains to the Old Ace, and Okada would surely like him off the record books.

    But on top of that, as I said, and perhaps most importantly to the overall story of Okada, is that heís spent the last year or so steadily finding it harder and harder to defend the title. Omega took him to 46 minutes at the Dome last year and then he needed a time limit draw to keep the belt against him at Dominion. Shibata pushed him similarly at Sakura Genesis. EVIL and others have had him close to defeat at times over the last 12 months. This isnít a champion who is sweeping aside all comers with ease Ė this is a champion that is battling to prove he deserves to stay on top, and also that he deserves to be considered the New Ace. Okada has become, across this title reign, through his matches with Marafuji and others, a warrior. One who is up for the battle and will keep fight to hold on, even if it takes him three quarters of an hour to wear you down until he can beat you.

    Thatís the Kazzuchika Okada who enters the Tokyo Dome, one who is ready for whatever his opponent has to throw at him.

    Further interesting is the story of Tetsuya Naito coming in to Wrestle Kingdom. And to fully understand that we need to look back to his last challenge for the title at the Dome. As the Stardust Genius, Naito was something of a high flying face, one who New Japan had, it appeared, chosen to be their new Golden Boy, to square up to their New Ace and, if you like, to be the Randy Orton to Okadaís John Cena. The situation is a lot more nuanced than that, for sure, but the base of that comparison does not feel a way off to me. The manner of the push was always quite clear and Naitoís Dome main event always seemed a little forced at the time. Wrestle Kingdom 8 was a curious event, with the closing match chosen by fan poll and seeing the fans who Naito had hoped would love him reject him in favour of the established talent of Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura battling over the theoretically lesser title in the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

    Naito has, ever since, had a chip on his shoulder. His face character, who the fans should have loved, was roundly rejected. He went on excursion to Mexico and, while ruminating on his shunning at Wrestle Kingdom, turned against the fans. But more than anything he turned as well against New Japan, instead embracing CMLL while out there and working for them. Arguably it is here that we saw the Ingobernable Naito develop, as fans took to him and Naito began to find love again. His return to New Japan saw him establish his own group of similarly minded ungovernables and, in turn, use them to his advantage in order to become a bigger deal, whether it be through them wearing down his future opponents Ė as we saw with EVIL prior to the Dome Ė or as his pawns in multi-man matches, working to his bidding. Because why should Naito do the hard work when he can use others to do it for him?

    With the Intercontinental Championship around his waist, Naito began to show his disdain for both the fans and New Japan more visibly, destroying the belt, throwing it around Ė this disrespect stemmed from the way the public and the business had treated him during his previous run, but also his attempts to disparage the thing that headlined above him before. Itís not that the title didnít mean anything to Naito Ė Iím sure it did Ė but itís that his anger, and the chip on his shoulder, was far bigger than the way he felt about the title. Destroying it, therefore, became symbolic Ė yes, the title was something he wanted, but he wanted it to disparage and degrade it rather than to add to the glory it had built up after years of being around the waist of high profile performers.

    The thing is, the one thing Naito really cared about was headlining the Dome. More than anything, he wanted to prove that, firstly, the fans were wrong to have rejected him during his previous run at the Dome, and secondly, that New Japan were wrong to subsequently send him away and stop investing in him. That point is important, and weíll come back to it further on, but it nevertheless is important to consider when we dissect the match Ė Naito already has what he really wanted, and has already achieved what his real motivation was. Not capturing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but headlining the Dome and winning back the fans.

    You can see this take effect from the moment Naito enters the arena. The crowd go ballistic for him, chanting his name and cheering for him deafeningly. Naito returns this reaction through his face, almost smirking at the reaction he has received. In his mind, his mission is complete Ė the fans now love him. He has proven them wrong. Itís this that impacts Naito throughout the match, as he plays to the crowd throughout and we see less and less of the Ingobernable Naito that has reached this point. Indeed, repeatedly he goes throughout the match for his old finisher, the Stardust Press, as if to say to the fans Ďthis guy could have done it after allí, rather than focusing on finishing the match with the Destino that has brought him so much success over the past couple of years.

    If you watched this with the English commentary, youíll have heard Kevin Kelly and Don Callis play this up a bit, and it gives us the real hook of the match. To Okadaís credit, he plays his part as the resilient champion well but, I think in recognition of the grander story being told, he allows this to be a Naito-centric bout, allowing that to be the stories that breathes throughout. There are moments where Okadaís bigger story shines through, however, not least in him demonstrating his adaptability and wrestling mind when he locks in his new submission finisher, designed almost entirely to deal with the Destino. Much like the former Ace Tanahashi, who developed a cloverleaf in an attempt to provide him with a counter to the Rainmaker years previous, Okada is demonstrating that heís the Ace not simply because of his position in the company but because he can adapt to his opponent. Itís somewhat been the story of this title run that whoever Okada has come against he has tweaked his gameplan appropriately. For example, his use of a table against Omega was clearly designed to play against his opponent. Similarly he would play at, and beat, opponents like Shibata and Marafuji at their own game. He has become a performer so rounded and flexible that, arguably, nobody can really keep him down.

    Okadaís resilience comes into play as the match winds up towards itís finish, as he kicks out of a tornado poisoned hurricanrana and follows that up by kicking out of a Destino reversal to a Rainmaker. Such is the will to win of this guy that at half an hour through the match heís still getting the shoulder up even in the face of his opponentís biggest moves. In the hands of some performers, this act becomes egregious Ė indeed, there were times when an Undertaker kick out at WrestleMania felt almost obligatory. Okadaís have not yet reached that stage, and to date are kept in keeping with the storyline of him as a champion who has a resilience as, and a desperation to remain, champion.

    But these are realistically sub-plots to the overarching theme of Naitoís regression, if it can be called that, to the Stardust Genius character and his will to show the fans that they were wrong to reject him before. There are moments when he has Okada down and plays to the fans, points to the corner, and looks for the Stardust Press, but heís immediately cut off from going for it. This eventually plays into the match finish when, desperate to prove something to New Japan and the fans, Naito has Okada banged to rights with a Destino. Instead of going for the pin, he picks him up for a second Ė and then he points. My original feeling was that he had pointed to the fans at that time, but on rewatch it seems more that he is, once again, pointing to the corner, and then it becomes clear. Naito isnít planning to make the second Destino the finish. Naito is planning on using the second Destino to keep Okada down for long enough for him to hit the Stardust Press. The chip on his shoulder is simply too big for him to let it lie. And so it is that this costs him the opportunity at the title, as Okada turns the second Destino into a tombstone. As Naitoís legs desperately flail, Okada brings him crashing down on the top of his head, before hauling him up for a match ending Rainmaker.

    In many ways, this is an echo of Okadaís failure at Wrestle Kingdom 9, as he battled Tanahashi again at the Dome. Okada tried to do too much then to keep his opponent down and it cost him. It wasnít that he regressed to a different character, but that his desperation to prove he belonged overwhelmed his clarity of thought. Similarly, here, Naito is coming in with something to prove Ė his chip on his shoulder that much bigger with four years of festering on the fact he missed out on the Wrestle Kingdom 8 main event. Okada had that chip at Wrestle Kingdom 9, make no mistake, but the frustration over it hadnít built up over years of being denied the opportunity to return to the top of the mountain. They even spent the post-match with Okada taking the role of Tanahashi at WK9, making condescending remarks to Naito, asking him how his Tokyo Dome main event felt. And look at Naito during that comment Ė he smiles. Itís back to that point again Ė Naito was content just to have the opportunity to headline the Dome. Thatís what he wanted. Thatís validation itself for him. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship? Thatís not as important to him right now. Itís very much the opposite of Okada walking out of WK9 in tears, because Naito got what he wanted. He proved he belonged in the main event at the Dome Ė at least, in his mind.

    The kneejerk reaction to the result, from myself and many others, was that this was a missed opportunity. However, while I believe that only time will tell and weíll really know in six, or even twelve, months what the impact of this loss was for Naito, and even the impact of the win for Okada, in the immediate aftermath you have to consider both the story they were telling and the business the two have done. The Dome sold something in the region of 10,000 more tickets this year than it had previously during the Bushiroad era, plus drove a big increase in NJPW World streaming subscriptions, with a 35%, or 15,000, increase in subscriptions. Thatís pretty damned good. Now, if business is down this time next year Ė and significantly down Ė then maybe keeping Okada as champion and not putting the title on Naito when heís so hot was a mistake.

    But for now, listen to that crowd. The air doesnít go out of them when Okada wins Ė if anything, it stays pretty molten in terms of atmosphere through that finish and into Okadaís post-match routine. At New Yearís Dash, as well, there wasnít this sudden turn on Okada from the crowd but instead his reaction Ė and that of Naito Ė was maintained. So right now, itís not harmed either guy in terms of their reactions. The real business impact probably wonít be felt for a while, but immediate signs are that it looks like New Japan is going to maintain itís hot run.

    What I really want to see is where this leads Naito now. Okada took the loss at WK9 and turned it into a G1 Climax win, followed by him being determined to overcome the Ace on the biggest stage Ė and arguably the Aceís home Ė of the Dome. Does Naito follow suit? Does Naito use this feeling to go on a tear? The chip is now gone, the main event role has been his. At some point in time, he must want to get back to this point again, to challenge Okada again, and put him to bed once and for all. Naito remains motivated and desperate in defeat, but now heís motivated and desperate for something else Ė the IWGP Heavyweight Championship itself. He tasted the gold, was probably only a move away from claiming it, and that must rile the Ingobernable one.

    Okada, meanwhile, stays embroiled with Los Ingobernables de Japon, with his next challenge coming from Sanada in Osaka on February 10th. Iíd be lying if I said for one second I expected Sanada to deliver a victory that would be seen as an upset there, and would anticipate heís more likely to drop the title, if ever, at one of the bigger events in the first half of this year Ė Sakura Genesis, Wrestling Dontaku, or Dominion Ė where heíll likely have a higher profile challenger. With a New Japan Cup scheduled for March leading into Sakura Genesis, he should have an established name to rival him there. Outside of that, who knows what the rest of the year holds for the New Ace. Rematches with Naito and Omega hold some serious appeal, to see what the former brings to the table on a non-Dome show where he can be more focused on the prize, and to see whether the latter can defeat an Okada where the title is on the line. Realistically, those are the two names who are most likely to finally dethrone the new Ace Ė unless his former rival, the man he deposed at the top of the company, earns himself a shot at the gold. A Tanahashi match, their first in over two years for the title itself, could in itself be a new milestone for Okada and allow him to develop that story further.

    Wherever the two talents go from here, they showed us on January 4th that both continue to craft strong, characterful matches. They showed that they can have a crowd wrapped around their finger from the first bell to the last. And more than anything they showed that defeat isnít the end if it can be well explained.

    Naito will rise again. I feel sure.

    But what about you, Twisters? Did you love Okada vs Naito as much as me? Did you see this story throughout the match or an alternative thread? And more than anything, what did you think of Wrestle Kingdom as a whole? Drop us a comment below and let's chat! Until next time, stay safe when crossing the road and drink more hot chocolate! Ciao!

  2. #2
    The Brain
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    I think I need to start watching New Japan main events with YOU on commentary, Ollie, because as I mentioned to Sam I actually had to give up on Callis and Kelly long before getting to this point in the event, as I found them pretty damn near unlistenable early in the show. I did enjoy this match, but as with many New Japan main events these days I also had much frustrations, primarily the excessive length and the feeling that a lot of the action I was seeing didn't really matter. I remember at one point Okada had Naito in his half sleeper thing for what felt like more than 5 minutes straight. I hope I'm not being too cynical if I say nobody thinks that move is going to lead to a finish, and it doesn't even really have any impact in the match, except I guess allowing them to look more tired later on. I admit, my attention started to wander towards the end, to the point where I didn't pick up on some of the nuances you mentioned here. The thing is, I love the idea of this story as you've played it out here. But I think I may have reached the point where I don't have the patience to pick these small moments out of these ridiculously long matches. That could very well be a ME problem, but I do want to throw the talking point out there at least. Awesome column though Ollie, you nailed all the best aspects of this and even turned me on to some stuff that wasn't clicking on my first watch!

  3. #3
    Senior Junior SirSam's Avatar
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    Finally got around to reading and feeding this. Great piece Oli. I love the scope of the story telling in these matches and how the little mannerisms and quirks always matter. You did a great job pointing them out too. Such an interesting arc for Naito as well, he was regressing to his former self so we now need to ask how much of his new self was true change or just a wall put up to deal with the fan backlash he experienced. Can Naito be successful when he is divided between winning and pleasing the fans.

    I think I need to watch this again because I remember liking it on the night but I was probably a bit tired from watching the preceding ppv matches and especially the Jericho/Omega match which really had me invested. I caught some of the story but certainly not the more finer details you pointed out here.

    Thanks for writing this, real great read.

  4. #4
    Member 205 Clive's Avatar
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    This was a great read. I'll hold my hands up and say the main event from WK12 didn't grip me. Probably a knock on effect from the adrenaline rush of the previous match.

    However your story leading up to the match itself gave me, very much a NJPW "newbie", a great insight into what this match was all about.

    I especially enjoyed your take on Okada not exactly showing true dominance in his reign at the top, but praised his resilience and adaptability to the situation at hand.

    I think I'll have to rewatch this match after all, thanks to your good self!

  5. #5
    Senior Member Oliver's Avatar
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    Thanks for the feedback guys, and sorry I've been tardy replying. Sometimes real life just gets away from you, you know?

    mizfan - I'd LOVE to do an alternative commentary. It's been one of those things I've long thought I'd like to try, actually, almost as a podcast that just either does specific matches - I sure wouldn't want to sit down and do a 5 hour plus NJPW show on my own time - or one of the one hour programs like NXT or 205Live. Especially if it means I can ignore Percy Watson for a while!

    I think it's a good point you're making there, as well - sometimes these overly long matches harm the story overall more than they help it. It certainly took me two or three watches (after my initial kneejerk of absolutely loving the match itself) to pick it all apart and really focus in on the minutiae. At least doing that with something like this is like peeling back the onion a bit and revealing a few layers, rather than just like peeling a...I don't know, an apple, maybe? and finding that there's only one thing in there. Cheers dude!

    SirSam - Thanks man! Yeah, there's kind of a cool talking point with Naito now about whether or not he can actually use his tranquillo/LiJ character to finally win the big one. I imagine if there is a rematch then he'll lean more towards using that and will have learnt from this. Have to see how he goes against Jericho at whichever show they come face to face at before we know for sure - I'm assuming that's something for Sakura Genesis in April.

    Clive - Worth a rewarch for sure! I remember a similar feeling after the WK10 main event with Tana and Okada, it took a lot of unpicking and pulling apart to really make the story hit home. Glad that intro worked, as I was thinking about really reducing that down, and the idea is that these are accessible to guys like you coming to it fresh, especially giving how NJPW is growing now.

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