Truly memorable rivalries are the structures in which some of the greatest stories are told.
Every great rivalry is the product of the characters involved; whether it Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed, Batman vs. The Joker or the New York Yankees vs. the Boston Red Sox, every heated and passionate conflict includes clashes between two opposing forces in which audiences have a vested interest.
Professional wrestling is no different when it comes to this dynamic. The ongoing storytelling told through wrestling’s characters don’t end with superb in-ring performances; they are also highlighted by larger-than-life characters with multiple psychological layers facing off outside of the ring through use of promos, gimmicks or other theatrical acts to validate their motivation for hatred of one another. When you have more than one of these incredible performers who is able to successfully portray their role in the narrative, the potential exists for a rivalry to equal or surpass any form of the story previously seen.
That is where this series comes in. With “Wrestling’s Greatest Rivalries,” WrestleTalk will examine some of the industry’s best wrestlers, characters, matches and stories ever told across the globe.
And it starts with one of the most prolific rivalries of modern wrestling history: Hiroshi Tanahashi versus Kazuchika Okada.
Before discussing the rivalry itself, it is important to understand the characters of Okada and Tanahashi prior to their initial clash. Tanahashi was the Ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the man that pulled the company away from near bankruptcy and the beloved top babyface of the promotion in the midst of the most dominant IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign of all time. Okada, on the other hand, was “The Rainmaker”. The man who returned from a failed attempt at success in TNA Wrestling; a cocky, arrogant, flamboyant young heel who wanted to prove himself on Japan’s grandest stage.
The rivalry between Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi dates back to January 4, 2012 at Wrestle Kingdom VI, NJPW’s biggest show of the year. While Tanahashi triumphantly retained the IWGP Heavyweight Championship over Minoru Suzuki in the main event to secure his record 11th consecutive championship defense, Okada put on a poor performance against YOSHI-HASHI early on in the card. His now infamous “Rainmaker” clothesline finisher looked weak and the match with YOSHI-HASHI was slow and not exciting.
This made it all the more cringeworthy when Okada challenged the ‘Ace’ for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship following the champion’s Wrestle Kingdom victory. Tanahashi had been around the promotion for over 13 years and had faced his fair share of hotshot contenders so he respected the gumption of this youngster trying to make a name for himself. Tanahashi assured Okada that the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was far from his grasp but humored the young upstart and accepted his challenge. In this segment, Okada came off as a total geek: he was missing his eyebrows, his hair was purple and his shirt was ridiculously oversized. Nothing about the presentation of Okada screamed superstar but that changed when the two did battle just a month later.
NJPW The New Beginning: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada I “The Shock”
The entrances alone set the tone for the match that many people did not see coming. Okada walked to the ring with a purpose. In just a month he no longer resembled the awkward wrestler that challenged Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom VI. Okada headed to the ring with minimal theatrics, as he was focused on his task of becoming the IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
Tanahashi was the opposite. Clearly still expecting to face the man who challenged him a month prior, Tanahashi paid Okada little attention as he appealed to the crowd with various poses and crowd interactions. He has beaten dozens of wrestlers who tried to dethrone him and he expected Okada to be no different. The tone is set and they begin.
Tanahashi’s early theatrics were a sign of his lack of preparation for this match. Tanahashi expected to face the man who challenged him a month prior and arrived ill-prepared for a match of this magnitude. Okada, on the other hand, was fully prepared for the biggest match of his career. The early portion of the match highlights Okada’s discipline and Tanahashi’s attitude as Okada continually took advantage of Tanahashi every time the ‘Ace’ attempted to play to the crowd.
Okada went into this match with a gameplan: viciously focus over Tanahashi’s neck. Every time Tanahashi attempted to mount a comeback, Okada was able to counter his moves and cut him off via attacks to the weakened bodypart. And while Tanahashi was able to muster some offense thanks to his wealth of experience, it was apparent that Okada’s preparation in this match outmatched the Ace’s raw ability.
Tanahashi’s hubris in this match continued to be his desire to play to the crowd. Tanahashi seemed to lack concentration throughout this match, being more focused on entertaining the crowd than wrestling a competitive match. This would be the flaw that would cost Tanahashi the match and his beloved IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
The finish was a microcosm of the match itself as Tanahashi went for his signature High Fly Flow but Okada was prepared enough to get his knees up to block the patented move. As Okada hit his Rainmaker finisher to get the pin, his preparation had finally outmatched Tanahashi’s skill.
The match was what every story has and that is a first chapter. The first of many matches between the two all-time great wrestlers, it told the story that was unique to a first encounter. There was no way to have more matches between the two men where one of them could lack preparation or catch the other off-guard. The two would learn more about the other as time went on, but the incredible story of an overconfident hero succumbing to the focused and devious young villain could only be told through the first match in their amazing series. While there would be many more stories to be told through their matches, this one is perhaps the most remembered for the shocking nature of the upset.
As fans looked on in stunned disbelief, Kazuchika Okada stood with his newly won championship in his hand and his boot on Tanahashi’s chest. An upset of this magnitude had not been seen in years in New Japan Pro Wrestling or anywhere else in wrestling for that matter. Kazuchika Okada, one month into his return to the promotion, had beaten the beloved Ace of New Japan soundly and easily.
The story of the match was of their attitudes. While Tanahashi failed to anticipate the challenge that Okada would show him, ‘The Rainmaker’ showed up prepared, composed, and focused with a strategy to beat his opponent. Okada showed a composure that he will come to lack in future encounters with his rival.
Tanahashi relied on his ability to carry him through the match similar to how a student thinks they will pass test without studying. Just as the student finds the test much more difficult than they expected, Tanahashi was completely unprepared for the skill of Okada. Whether intentional or not, Okada’s presentation at Wrestle Kingdom VI made himself appear like less of a threat than he ended up being. At Wrestle Kingdom VI, Okada appears awkward and boring. However here at The New Beginning, he is cool and confident, and his moves are powerful and exciting. He is a star and this was the ultimate star-making match.
In the first clash between the two men, Okada shocked the world and set the stage for matches for years to come.
In Part 2 of this series, WrestleTalk will take a look at the next chapter in the Okada/Tanahashi saga — Okada vs Tanahashi at Dominion 2012.
What are your thoughts on how the Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi rivalry began? Let us know in the comments below or via our official Twitter page.