There's this story that floats around sometimes about a booker somewhere during the territory days who is down of his luck. The territory is on it's ass, his competition is destroying him, and all he has is one lone guy who still draws who is about 40 and is stale as can be. One day, a new talent comes in and he gets the people interested. He makes it all the way to the main event level, and everyone knows that he should be the new champion, but the promoter won't put him over the aging star. Eventually even the star realizes that this is ridiculous he goes to the promoter and says, “Hey, why won't you put this guy over?” and the promoter simply says, “He might not draw.”
You see the irony? Even with everything falling to pieces around him, he was still so overcome with the fear of running with something unknown that he let his company sink into oblivion rather than take a chance. The reason this is an enduring story is because this is the mindset held by almost every promoter who has ever run a wrestling promotion. Go with the sure thing, run with it as far and as long as you possibly can, long past when any reasonable person could see that it's time for a chance, because it's safe and being trapped without anyone who can actually draw can spell doom for a small company, or a long stretch of miserable business for a big one. This mentality is why WCW sank under the weight of following the NWO, it's why WWE has yet to find a successor to John Cena in their decade of trying, and it is the reason why New Japan was in the condition that it was in, in the year 2000.
Here the Stocks Represent NJPW's Various Sources of Income, and the Pensive Japanese Man Represents a Pensive Japanese Man.
Now I've written before about Inokism, and the doom it wrought upon the Japanese wrestling world, so I won't detail that all out here. The important thing to know is that New Japan SUUUUUUUUCKED in the the early to mid 00s. The talent level dried up, the fans started shying away, and New Japan started desperately throwing every promising new talent into the main event, whether they were ready or not. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura were the two that they eventually settled on, though they quite clearly favored Nakamura, but it took years and years of pushing and pushing and pushing them before fans took them seriously, and even then, something just wasn't clicking.
Enter the two cowboys.
As Seen Here, On The Greatest Shirt Ever Made.
Jado and Gedo had a plan. At the time, had they verbalized it, they would have been laughed out of any booking meeting in the country of Japan for being treasonous idiots. Jado and Gedo wanted to bring Sports Entertainment to Japan. After a generation of building up the sports-first mentality that had dominated the very concept of puroresu, and especially New Japan's Antonio Inoki Strong Style roots, Jado and Gedo wanted to go the other way. They wanted to incorporate more American influence, to use what they had learned in traveling the world to bring a boatload of fresh ideas to the people that they hadn't seen before. They wanted luchadors and high flyers, they wanted real heels and babyfaces. They wanted to change what Japanese wrestling WAS. And their secret weapon was Hiroshi Tanahashi.
It Took Me 5 Minutes To Notice There Was A Bird In This Picture.
Tanahashi, an absurdly beautiful man with a style that many Japanese wrestling fans had dismissed for years as too showy, was booked to beat Keiji Mutoh at Wrestle Kingdom 3. As a passing of the torch moment, it's as big as it gets in the history of this company, and it solidified Tanahashi as THE guy going forward. It also put an absurd amount of pressure on both Tanahashi and the new booking team. They responded to that pressure by rattling off what is probably the best 4 year run of a top guy of any wrestler in any era ever. Tanahashi was genuinely magical as champion, creating new contenders and making them credible out of thin air, and during this period, many of the major stars New Japan enjoys to this day were brought out of total oblivion and transformed into crowd favorites, from Togi Makabe, to Toru Yano, to Shinsuke Nakamura, who had been mishandled to an unbelievable extent despite his incredible talents.
But none of this held a candle to Tanahashi's greatest accomplishment. One of the greatest series of title defenses in wrestling history. We have written at length on this site about what we believe to be the greatest title reign in wrestling history, Kenta Kobashi run with the GHC Heavyweight title, but for my money this tops it. For over a year, Hiroshi Tanahashi defended the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, defending it in America, defending it against invaders from other promotions, defending it in dream matches and against upstarts from the midcard. And it was during this run that people who had given up on New Japan altogether first really started to take notice again. Tanahashi was a true ace, a name that meant guaranteed excellence at the top of the card, and a proven draw. Jado and Gedo had found their Ace.
And for most promotions, that's where it would have ended. They would have ridden Tanahashi until his body gave out, and tried desperately to find a replacement too late. Business would have fallen, and they would have been right back to square one. But what makes this story, the story of Kazuchika Okada, special, is that for once, for ONCE, this isn't what happened. For once, someone took a chance.
Kazuchika Okada was trained in Ultimo Dragon's Toryumon X Academy and debuted in 2004. Being part of Toyumon is meaningful, because it means that you not only got some damn good training, but it also means that your style would inevitably be influenced by lucha libre far more than other schools in Japan would teach you. On his training excursion to the United States, Okada mostly wrestled for UWA, though he hilariously had a match in Chikara against Osiris in there too. When he was done, he came back to Japan and joined New Japan Pro Wrestling, the only member of his training class to get called up to the big leagues. He did a few more years of training, debuted to big fanfare and acclaim, and he suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked.
Okada, After Watching One Of His Own Matches.
Maybe the best comparison I can draw here is to someone like John Cena, who debuted in a big way, had some good matches, but was instantly so stale that everyone could see that there was plainly something missing. Actually, plain is the perfect word because Okada was PLAIN. There was nothing interesting or dynamic about him, and some grumbling quickly grew as he got high profile matches against top guys despite not really getting reactions that merited it. After losing to Tanahashi in January of 2011, he was sent on ANOTHER learning excursion, this time to TNA, in the hopes that he would find a new edge for himself, and also to further push their new partnership with TNA. He was the highest profile Japanese wrestler to be sent on an excursion to America since Masahiro Chono in the early 90s. They had sky high hopes that when he came back, his time in America would have made him ready to be a star.
Let's take a look at his TNA match history.
In his year long run in TNA, Okada won one match, and that one by DQ. He was almost never put on Impact, or allowed to wrestle anyone that he could actually learn from. And did you notice how it starts referring to him as Okato at one point? That's not a typo. As a tie in for Seth Rogen's Green Hornet movie, they turned Kazuchika Okada into a rip off of Kato, the mask wearing Japanese butler of the Green Hornet, and had him be Samoa Joe's butler for a bit.
Thanks, Vince Russo!
One of the definitive wrestlers of this generation spent a year of his career jobbing on Xplosion. This is during a period of time where TNA also had, and buried, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tetsuya Naito. All 3 are now bigger stars than anyone TNA could ever get in their wildest dreams. New Japan was LIVID over how this was handled, and after another episode where TNA decided to book New Japan titles to change hands on their show without the company's actual permission, they severed ties with TNA for good.
This could have buried Okada. He was half a laughing stock when he hopped on a plane back to Japan. But while the man who boarded the plane in America may have been a beaten down, discouraged jobber, the man who stepped off the plane in Tokyo was the Rainmaker.
Following weeks of hype, Okada redebuted in a match against YOSHI-HASHI at Wrestle Kingdom 6. And if you watch the video, you can see all the elements had started to take shape. His look had transformed from plain and boring, to gaudy and preposterous, his moveset completely transformed to better suit his insane athleticism, and you can see him experimenting with the Rainmaker lariat, which will go down as the most stolen finisher of the 21st century. And even with all of those elements in place, the match still suuuuuuuuuucked. Everything from his look, to the Rainmaker were roundly mocked by fans, and when he was immediately set up with the heel stable Chaos and given one of the bookers as his mouthpiece, he was mocked even more for being protected. It would have been extremely easy to write him off for good at this point, as this was now the second time they had tried to megapush him without success, but there was something at the heart of all of this. Something worth pursuing, that seemingly only Jado and Gedo saw.
This character of the Rainmaker, which mimicked entitled superstar athletes and included elements of lucha libre, puroresu and sports entertainment, was something genuinely unique. It was a character that expanded on Tanahashi's introduction of sports entertainment into New Japan and could possibly be classified as the first time a Japanese wrestler truly embraced being an American style heel and managed to embody it this successfully. He was a disrespectful son of a bitch, who got away with it by being much, much better than everyone he got in the ring with. He was faster, he was stronger, and he was more charismatic, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a fantastic character, but he didn't quite have a handle on it yet.
So when his first move after his redebut was to come right at Hiroshi Tanahashi to avenge the loss that sent him into exile, we all had a good chuckle. It's gonna take make than a new haircut to put you on Tanahashi's level kid. You have no chance.
Aww, That's Cute.
But he fucking won.
This is the most shocked I had been at a match result since I was 10 years old. Despite the super push, Okada was still a brand new redebut, while Tanahashi had been ascending to unheard of levels of greatness with his title reign. Tanahashi didn't take Okada seriously enough coming in, and for 30 minutes, Okada shocked Tanahashi with his athleticism. One Rainmaker was all it took.
While it would be easy to classify this moment as the one where Okada truly became a star, that's only half true. Tanahashi did a sell job for Okada that numbers among the greatest i've ever seen, but to truly cement him as something special, we had to wait until he stood across the ring from the man he will meet in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom this year, Tetsuya Naito. Naito was also fresh off an excursion to America and TNA, was fresh off the breakup of his tag team with Yujiro Takahashi, and was white hot. Most everyone saw him as the true successor to Hiroshi Tanahashi, as they embodied a similar style, and the match between Naito and Okada was thought by many as a way to get Naito the belt without him having to face Tanahashi yet. Okada was half an afterthought. Then the bell rang.
In front of a red-hot, molten Korakuen Hall, Okada and Naito had the first great singles match in either of their careers. And in that moment, when the bell rang and Okada stood tall in the middle of the ring, having proven finally that he could deliver at a main event level, was when everything clicked for Okada. The arrogance, the mannerisms, the athleticism finally meeting clean execution of moves. You could almost see Okada evolving in the match from 'rough idea' to 'complete image'. The match was so well-received, so well-thought of that both Eastern and Western audiences seemingly changed their opinion of Okada overnight; they were now receptive to at least seeing where this would go. A title reign that many though wouldn't last two months instead went on half a year. And what was waiting at the end of that half a year?
The War of the Aces.
The story of the feud between Tanahashi and Okada is one for another time. Today's article is meant to focus on this one 2 month period of time. New Japan already had an ace. Someone who was bringing in business, drawing consistently, who was everything you could want a top star to be. But when the moment came to put over Okada, to create a second Ace in one fell swoop, or to potentially diminish the star that Tanahashi had been creating, Jado and Gedo went for it. They were rewarded with the greatest feud in wrestling history, and a level of success that no Japanese promotion had ever experienced, becoming a truly global promotion along the way with Okada leading the way.
And Looking Dapper As Hell While He Does It.
He had been a luchador. He had been a boring sack of suck. He had been a butler and a jobber. But because of taking this chance, one that almost no promoter would have had the stones to take at that point, he became one of the biggest names in wrestling history.
Make it rain, baby.