2018 is coming to an end, and as for New Japan Pro Wrestling, the promotion once again delivered in a very good way. While this year may not have been as great as some of the years prior according to different minds, it was still filled with a good amount of good to great stuff, whether it was, of course, in the quality of matches, to the storyline and characters developing throughout the year.
This week, I want to look back at the year of someone who is arguably the best wrestler in the world today, the Rainmaker, Kazuchika Okada. It’s time to make it rain.
Let’s start off by giving out another opinion I have : Kazuchika Okada is the wrestler of the year. Obviously there are other guys with legitimate claims to be nominated as such, but this article will serve the purpose of stating Okada’s case, as I feel the need to bring up why, since his name doesn’t seem to be brought up as much as I think it should be, in that conversation.
Now that this has been said, we can start by going back right where Okada’s year started, on January 4th, at Wrestle Kingdom 12. The Rainmaker, who at the time held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship since June 19th 2016, went to his fourth Wrestle Kingdom main event in a row, the second as champion. The man he would face ? Tetsuya Naito, the winner of the G1 Climax and the man Okada defeated to launch his fourth reign. This match would be Okada’s 9th straight title defenses as Heavyweight champion, meaning that he surpassed his own personal record of 8th defenses, as well as tying Shinya Hashimoto in that same category. Speaking of defenses, as you all know, Okada wouldn’t stop there since he would reach the number of 11 defenses, overcoming not only SANADA, but also the winner of the New Japan Cup and latest addition to Suzuki-Gun, Zack Sabre Jr. The British submission master definitely was one of the most challenging opponents Okada had to face, yet, once again, the Rainmaker would prevail. As he tied Hiroshi Tanahashi with the most consecutive title defenses in one reign, only one man would be fitting to challenge the mighty champion : The Ace himself, looking to keep his record intact and go back to the top of New Japan. The two rivals would face each other, in a battle to determine if Okada can become the man with the most defenses in one championship reign. For even more inside, this match would also be reminiscent of Tanahashi’s record of defenses because it was Okada who ended that streak at eleven. Yet again, while the crowd was on the Ace of the universe’s side, nothing would stop the champion from keeping on breaking records, as Okada manages to beat Tanahashi once more and become the IWGP Heavyweight champion with the most consecutive defenses, sitting at 12. An history making, possibly even an era defining moment happened on that day, in Fukuoka.
That history making victory, which is one of the main reasons why I made my claim at the beginning of this article, leads us to the next chapter of Okada’s year, which stars literally right after Okada defeated his greatest rival. The champion would take the ultimate risk, choosing to defend his championship against the only man who managed to draw with him, Kenny Omega. The two men, who built their own rivalry since Omega won the G1 Climax 26 and challenged Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11 for the first time, would face each other one more time, in the same building they went to a 60 minutes draw. This time ? No time limit, two out of three falls. After a nearly 65 minutes classic, which is considered by many to be the match of the year, the mighty Rainmaker would fall to the Best Bout Machine, ending Okada’s reign at 720 days, being the longest reign ever, in possibly the best and most dramatic way one could have ever imagined.
From that moment on, absolutely everything would change for Okada. He is not the champion, he is not the mighty Rainmaker anymore. This is where the second argument supporting my earlier claim comes in. We got to witness a very different Okada, who, during his first appearance since Dominion, would not do his signature pose in the corner during his entrance. As time passed between Dominion and the beginning of the G1 Climax 28, Okada would drastically change his look, as well as his character approach. The symbols of the Rainmaker would disappear, the robe, the necklace, the entrance theme, to leave out a nearly 30 years old man dying his hair red and carrying balloons to the ring. Even Gedo doesn’t accompany Okada to the ring anymore. During the G1, Okada and Gedo would confirm that they would not continue on together as the now famous pairing that they were for six years. They’d both remain in CHAOS, but the fans wouldn’t get to see Gedo alongside Okada again, managing him (We all know what happened further down the line). This drastic change of appearance, the more relaxed Okada we got to see over the latter part of this year is the biggest character shift he ever had to go through since 2012. Obviously, Okada went from a cocky heel persona to a more approachable character for fans as time went on, as CHAOS itself evolved, just like its leader, but in the end, it was still the same Okada being way less heelish over time. With his recent change of character, Okada now looks like the weight of the world is finally off his shoulders and he can simply be himself, not the man who has to carry the company on his back. You see Okada bringing balloons with him, taking time to receive the fans’ appreciation during his entrance, becoming a funnier persona, you see him evolving into a new and improved version of the Rainmaker, that I would dare call “Tanahashi-esque”. He’s obviously not exactly like Tanahashi, but if there was anything that Okada always lacked compared to his rival, it was the connection with the fans. While Okada managed to gain the audience’s respect and appreciation over the years, growing into a fan favourite, he still lacked that vibe which really makes fans relate to one’s character. Okada had to lose everything that made him so great in order to achieve just that. Losing the championship which defined him, his long-time manager and friend, and even parts of his character. Okada now starts to become a better and more relatable character than he ever was, and this is the second reason why 2018 was, once again, a year that Kazuchika Okada owned. Just in a different way than usual.
See, to me, and probably to others as well, being wrestler of the year doesn’t only mean putting on great matches day in and day out, which Okada has done. It is also being able to progress character wise, evolve, gain something new to who you are as a wrestler as you’re being involved in different kinds of stories. Kazuchika Okada accomplished all of that this year, there is no doubt about it in my mind.
To fulfill his own destiny as Ace, Okada had to evolve as a character to reach new heights, to reach the heart of the New Japan fans. The road to become the true Ace of this new era will be long and hard, but at the end of it, the Kazuchika Okada character, the Rainmaker, will be complete. Now tell me, what did you think of Okada’s evolution throughout 2018 ?