Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada (c) – IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match – NJPW Wrestlekingdom 11, January 4th, 2017
There is no doubt in my mind what the top match of the year was, and it took place 4 days into 2017.
The year itself was a big one in the wrestling business, especially for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Formerly, the promotion was known to few outside of the country, and even those who knew it would have to do a little bit of digging to find the promotion online or through bootleg video trade. By 2017, word had spread, both through AXStv’s compilation show and the international availability of streaming service NJPWWorld, and awareness of the promotion began to reach mainstream media. This was not only the set up for the match in reality, but in the storyline as well. Omega, brash leader of the mostly foreign Bullet Club, presented himself as the logical champion for the new era. The Bullet Club is incredibly popular in the west now and has certainly been a driving force in interest in the promotion. Fluent in both Japanese and English, Omega was portrayed as the future in a country often fixated on tradition. Prior to Omega’s rise, Okada had firmly established himself as the bar in Japan, beating the biggest names in the now dominant promotion and extending the legacy of his mentor, current WWE Superstar Shinsuke Nakamura. If you are unfamiliar with the promotion, Okada is the current leader of CHAOS, a faction founded by Nakamura and still utilizing much of his glam-rock aesthetic. These factions are incredibly important in the Japanese style of booking, and helped add even more gravity to the conflict. With a truly global stage set, the match could finally take place.
Lasting nearly fifty minutes, Omega vs. Okada I is, in my opinion, as close to wrestling perfection can be achieved. I’m not going to bore you with a play by play here, it’s not the type of attention this match deserves. What I will say is that near immediately this match finds itself alongside Steamboat/Savage and Flair/Sting. That said, don’t expect to be blown away in the first two minutes here, the story is built on the growing intensity and determination of the two wrestlers. Both competitors also take advantage of the expert skills of their stable mates. Omega enters with The Young Bucks, the arrogant mouth pieces of the Bullet Club, who have come to represent the faction in the West. Okada has his “Raintaker” and promoter Gedo, a veteran influence on the top guy and, from what I understand, a hell of a promo. This presence injects factions into the match itself, though their actions never intrude on the sanctity of the title. Either man can win at any moment, and it is made quite clear. Outside of a couple of slips, this match is also executed perfectly. NJPW allows their performers to take some, uh, “physical liberties” that the WWE cannot for many reasons, and as the match progresses, it seems to grow more violent. This is a trend that would continue into the rematch, but didn’t hold the same gravity for me. The second is certainly more brutal and certainly was the match it needed to be, but without this match, the story would not have unfolded as so. The first is intellectually superior. The expert pace also highlights the simple brutality of Okada’s short-arm clothesline finish, The Rainmaker. A simple move garners a massive reaction; It’s just good storytelling. By match’s end, the audience is emotionally exhausted. Fans can be seen weeping openly and the typically reserved Japanese crowd has been whipped into a fervor rarely seen anywhere in the world of wrestling. A journey has been completed and the crowd knows how good what they have just seen was. Oh, and the best part of it is that this is wrestling.
And that means its not over yet.
This match is available through NJPWWorld.com, and it’s worth the 999 Yen a month alone.
Happy New Year!