The rivalry between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada has spanned fourteen singles matches over almost a full decade. For many years, their matches together were heralded as the peak of modern professional wrestling. Some observers have since gone on to hail other New Japan matches as being far better than those in the fabled Tanahashi-Okada series. I disagree. There’s something about this match that not only makes it the best match in modern NJPW history, but the best match NJPW has ever produced.
And now, nine years later, we revisit this absolute classic.
Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada IV
The story was simple but relatable. Tanahashi was the champion and unquestioned company ace. Okada tried to dethrone him but failed. A year earlier at The New Beginning 2012, Okada pulled off the upset of the decade when he pinned Tanahashi clean. People were genuinely stunned. Okada wrestled well enough, but how could this obnoxious Ted Dibiase/Randy Orton ripoff pin a once-in-a-century wrestler like Tanahashi?
Many people saw it as a fluke, and Tanahashi proved this to be true six months later when he beat Okada to regain his title. But Okada was improving by leaps and bounds with each passing big match. Then Okada won the 2012 G1 Climax tournament and earned another shot at the world title. Four months after that, Tanahashi beat Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom VII. Undeterred, Okada entered and won the single-elimination New Japan Cup tournament to earn another shot. Which brings us to their fourth-ever singles match together.
The war begins
Things were tense from the very beginning. Both wrestlers struggled to gain the slightest advantage, going so far as to jockey for control to see who gets the first break off a lock-up. At first, Tanahashi tried his usual strategy of out-grappling Okada. But Okada had learned from their previous matches together. He knew how Tanahashi thought and wrestled so he got under Tanahashi’s skin just like before.
And this time, Okada’s strategy was more successful than before. Okada got Tanahashi to more or less ‘break character’. As in, the upright and upstanding Hiroshi Tanahashi started being more aggressive than normal. He hit uncharacteristic slaps and began matching Okada’s mockery with his own. But that was only a temporary measure. Because then Tanahashi switched to his main strategy: taking out Okada’s arm.
A battle of strategies
Tanahashi was forced out of his regular match pattern and devoted an extended period to attacking Okada’s right arm. He did this with a wide variety of moves: arm slams, submission holds, arm wringers, strikes to the elbow, and the list goes on. And each time Okada tried using that same arm for anything, he either struggled or had to stop and sell.
He started behaving as if his arm were cut off. it was as if he was literally a one-armed man in an ass-kicking contest. Even the simplest of forearm shots or lifting moves requiring both arms came across as a titanic struggle.
It’s no wonder that Tanahashi spent most of the match healthier and in control. While Okada did have some brief flashes of dominance, they were several short moments instead of fewer longer ones. Each time Okada hit one or a handful of big moves, his momentum was stopped either by an ingenious Tanahashi counter or by his own pain.
But Okada would not be deterred. For he had his own strategy that he stuck to without faltering. He attacked Tanahashi’s neck with a combination of clever submission golds and high-impact power moves like neckbreakers, DDTs, and Tombstones. It was like one of those old wrestling video games with the color-coded body part health meters. More damage to a certain limb caused that limb to change color from blue (meaning healthy), to yellow, then to orange, and finally to red. Okada did this while Tanahashi tried to slow him down and do the same to his arm.
An insane final sprint
Once Okada did his Rainmaker pose (but with only one arm this time), that signaled the beginning of what made these two wrestlers famous: the finishing sprint. So began the counters and reversals. Everytime they locked up or came close, it was impossible to predict what would happen. Would a move be blocked? Countered? Absorbed and ignored? There was no way of knowing.
But as they fought through both each other and the pain in their own bodies, one critical thing happened: Tanahashi survived a Rainmaker. He became the first wrestler to do so. It made perfect sense given Tanahashi’s strategy, but it was still a monumental achievement. The Rainmaker had been treated like an ultimate weapon, and Tanahashi survived it.
But Okada wasn’t upset; instead, he smiled. He smiled because he had something else in store for this exact scenario: his new Red Ink submission hold. And sure enough, while he couldn’t lock it in earlier when his arm was functioning at 20%, if that, he had recovered enough at this point in the match to apply it.
Plus, Tanahashi’s neck was all but turned into hamburger meat from all of Okada’s neck-targeting moves, including the aforementioned Rainmaker lariat. it seemed like a submission victory for Okada was all but guaranteed. Which would’ve been even an even bigger deal because those were always rarer and therefore carried more weight.
And so, Okada stretched and contorted Tanahashi’s neck with all his might. He pulled as hard as he could to try and break the ace. But if there was one thing Tanahashi was/is famous for, it’s heart. It’s his never-say-die attitude and bottomless well of determination. That allowed him to pull himself to the ropes and get a ropebreak. From there, he blocked one critical Okada attack and began what started to look like a believable comeback. for one brief moment, it looked like Tanahashi would retain his title.
Tanahashi’s One Fatal Flaw
But there was one fatal flaw in Tanahashi’s approach. His over-arching strategy in this match was purely defensive and not offensive. His smartest actions were centered on weakening Okada’s offensive arsenal instead of softening Okada up in the same way that Okada had done to Tanahashi. So even though Tanahashi landed a few High Fly Flows and a dragon suplex, Okada still had a simple trick up his sleeve.
Okada did to Tanahashi what Tanahashi had done to him: use his overreliance on one move against him. And since Tanahashi knew one HFF wouldn’t put Okada down, he went back to the top rope right away instead of pinning. And Okada knew this, which is why he got his knees up as soon as Tanahashi was airborne.
From there, all hope for Tanahashi was gone. All he could do was try and delay the inevitable. A blocked Tombstone here, a sad attempt at an arm wringer there. But none of it would work, Okada’s strategy overcame Tanahashi’s. and with a second Rainmaker lariat, Okada struck Tanahashi down and kept him down long enough for the three-count.
And so began Okada’s second reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. He was no longer a fluke, no longer a flavor-of-the-month. He proved he was as good as people were saying and then some.
Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada IV
Why it’s the best
Wrestling matches, like everything in life, require the right balance of different things to be truly perfect. A wrestling match needs the ideal mix of story, action, drama, tension, believability, logic, and unpredictability. This match had that ideal balance. It didn’t go too far in one direction or another. Tanahashi and Okada wrestled, fought, told a story, taunted each other, countered each other’s big move, and survived tons of high-impact moves, all while keeping fans on the edge of their seats.
There were multiple overlapping stories that were told here. There was Okada being cocky while also showing just how much he had improved as a wrestler in the past year. It was Tanahashi trying and failing to maintain his usual heroic good guy composure and wrestling ‘dirty’ to try and beat Okada.
There was Okada attacking Tanahashi’s neck nonstop to setup his (at the time) never-before-kicked-out-of Rainmaker lariat while Tanahashi attacked the arm to weaken that same move. These stories overlapped so incredibly well in this match. They were told both subtly and deeply. Sometimes it was something small like Okada only raising one arm for his regular Rainmaker pose. Other times it was Tanahashi switching from a dragon screw leg whip to a dragon screw arm whip.
And the best part was that these strategies were followed until the very end. It’s often the case that wrestlers will do some extensive ‘psychology work’ at the beginning or in the middle of a match, only for it to be forgotten soon after or for it to play no part in the finish. Hell, Okada himself is especially notorious for this.
Many of his opponents would devote lengthy parts of their matches with him to dismantling his legs, only for him to sprint around and spam dropkicks moments later as if said legwork had never happened. Not so here. Tanahashi’s armwork was a regular part of the story, as was Okada’s constant targeting of Tanahashi’s neck. When wrestlers do things that are both physically impressive and logical, their matches benefit greatly.
The Importance of Adaptation
Another great thing here was the importance of adaptation. Tanahashi excelled at this a bit more than Okada by avoiding Okada’s big moves when he repeated them later on in the match. Tanahashi ate one standing dropkick from Okada early on. But when Okada went for a second one, Tanahashi held onto the ropes and avoided the move completely. Small subtleties like that show that wrestlers are aware of what’s happening in the moment and aren’t necessarily working a match as if it’s a checkmark of sequenced spots.
Furthermore, this match did is that it taught aspiring wrestlers a lesson: don’t be a one-trick pony. Okada relied on his Rainmaker so much that once his arm was out of commission he had to go to hell for leather. Tanahashi’s strategy was simple yet ingenious. He attacked Okada’s lariat arm so hard and often that by the time Okada landed his finisher, he couldn’t pin Tanahashi right away.
And yet, Okada anticipated this and thus built up a back-up solution: the Red Ink submission hold. Once Okada locked that move in, Tanahashi looked like he would give up at any moment. Think of this as a superior version of the match in which John Cena debuted the STF. He was put in a position where his FU/AA was no longer useful to end a match.
As a result, he needed a back-up weapon and found one in an alternate move that he could use reliably if his ‘main’ finisher couldn’t get the job done. And while Okada’s strategy here wasn’t 100% successful, Okada did manage to weaken Tanahashi significantly and created a truly tense moment in the match that didn’t require the Rainmaker. No longer was that lariat the crutch he needed to move forward; now he had (at least) two tools that he could use to win a match.
Tanahashi and Okada – The Pro of the Matches Pacing
Lastly, this match benefits from great pacing. Anyone who has watched Okada’s big matches since January 2017 may have noticed a pattern: his matches have become more about conditioning and ‘spots’ instead of story, logic, and grappling. And while that might be all well and good to some fans, it has a price. Okada’s more recent big matches have suffered from a clear case of copy-and-paste syndrome.
There is very little differentiation between so many of Okada’s more modern so-called classics, regardless of his opponent. Especially since so many of them feature Okada moving at the same blistering pace in order for him to get all his moves in without saving anything for the future.
This match with Tanahashi was less ‘spotty’ and more grounded in logic and traditional wrestling psychology. It wasn’t excessive by any means. Okada’s Rainmaker was still protected here, so when he hit it and Tanahashi kicked out, it was a huge deal. Even with all of Tanahashi’s focused and brutal armwork, Okada’s Rainmaker lariat was still treated as a devastating weapon that someone somehow survived.
Fans watching lost their minds. That was because Okada managed to land a Rainmaker despite being in excruciating pain and because Tanahashi survived it.
There was no need for another twenty minutes of insane sprinting or crazy dives (at least from Okada). Instead, it was all about Tanahashi creating yet another dizzying finishing sequence that led to counter after counter after counter. And while that has become almost expected from both Tanahashi and Okada (but more so Okada), here it was refreshing without being repetitive.
They didn’t go overboard yet they didn’t underperform, either. They landed the right balance of crazy back-and-forth counters and believable near-falls without veering off the rails and making people think ‘okay, guys, this is a bit much’.
Balance is everything, and both Tanahashi and Okada got everything right here. That’s why this is the best match in New Japan history. And you can watch this match exclusively on New Japan World.