Roger Marris’ 61. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. Rocky Marciano’s 49-0.
These are just some of sports history’s most notorious numbers. Hitting 61 home runs in a single season meant that Roger Marris became the first man to out-slug Babe Ruth, and achieving it brought out the best in Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle. No modern basketball player has approached Wilt’s 100 points in a game, and at the time of this writing, no heavyweight boxing champion has eclipsed Marciano’s 49-0 undefeated record.
I’d like to add the number 700 to this list, for the amount of days Kazuchika Okada has held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Even as I do, I can hear the bellows of non-pro wrestling fans. But as aghast as they might be over this because it is not a ‘real’ sports record, take heart that I am not a ‘real’ sports historian, and also that there is a point to be made. That is: to hold a title for this long, while keeping said title interesting and prestigious in the modern era of pro wrestling, is unheard of.
— Jeff Lee (@jeff_w_LEE) May 20, 2018
Many pro wrestling titles (like the Raw Women’s Championship when Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair were presiding) get traded back and forth with little fanfare or meaning. If you look at the Hardcore Championship of WWE’s Attitude Era, it was a joke of a title that could change hands several times per night. Even ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair is celebrated for the sheer amount of his 16 world championships, and not the quality of those reigns. Yet, if we are to learn anything from Okada’s run, which feels so historic, it’s that the fewer title changes there are, then the more significant the title.
As you can read about here, Okada made history for breaking another IWGP Championship record at this month’s Wrestling Dontaku, when he defended his title for the twelfth straight time, against Hiroshi Tanahashi. Before that, he broke Shinya Hashimoto’s IWGP record for the longest sustained title run, and if he is to prevail against challenger Kenny Omega and make it until June 19, Okada will have been champion for two full years.
And you know what? I care. People care. When Katsuyori Shibata faced him in the finals of last year’s New Japan Cup, people wanted that belt to change hands. When Tetsuya Naito met him at Wrestle Kingdom 12, people expected the belt to change hands. It is a magical thing when spectators want to see a title change because they care about the story of the championship. If it had been WWE or Impact, Okada’s title would have already made the rounds over the past two years, and we would have no records or, at least, none that meant much to anybody.
Let’s put it this way. Okada’s reign may not be as long as Bruno Sammartino’s, but for the modern era, it feels just as epic. Looking at wrestling’s other major championship, we find Brock Lesnar’s 400+ day reign as Universal Champion. It should not come as a shock that fans want the belt off of Lesnar now because they are growing bored with his reign. He seems more and more like a part-timer, and less like a legit pro wrestler who respects the business. Okada is quite the opposite, and whether it’s his matches or his record-breaking numbers, everything he does exudes drama.
I can say with certainty that if Brock’s reign were to exceed 700 days, it would not feel nearly as special as Okada’s. That’s because Okada’s championship reign feels like sports history, while Lesnar’s feels like sports entertainment. The latter is the title reign you have my permission to bellow at.