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As Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada made the walk down the aisle of Osaka-Jo Hall, the task in front of them seemed insurmountable. The two men had put on what many fans called the greatest wrestling match in history in January and were now charged with putting on a second match that at the very least had to be nearly as good; and considering there have been only about a dozen or so matches in history that have been nearly as good as their match in January, it was an impossible task. Yey, Omega and Okada combined to have an epic, 60-minute draw that was dubbed as being even better than the first one. I wouldn't go that far; I thought this was one of the best matches of the year while the January match was one of the two or three best matches I've ever seen, but the fact is Omega and Okada delivered a worthy successor to one of the greatest matches of all time, something that was believed nearly impossible.
The match highlighted what I think are the major differences in quality between a promotion like WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Anyone that reads these columns understands that I have a great affinity for NJPW, while I am often more critical of WWE's product. While both companies have their strengths and their faults, I think the main difference is that NJPW has grasped what the modern wrestling fan of 2017 desires from their wrestling better than WWE.
You don't actually even need to watch the match to understand the difference, all you need to do is watch the promo from Omega that was released before Dominion on New Japan World. For 20 minutes, Omega talked into the camera about among other things, his goals for professional wrestling and his hatred of Okada. It was the perfect representation of a wrestler in 2017; Omega wasn't a babyface, but he wasn't really a heel either. He wasn't in kayfabe, but he wasn't completely shooting from the hip either. Omega was working the audience, but he also wasn't insulting anyone's intelligence. As a viewer, you felt that you were hearing Omega speak from the heart, but also hearing the Kenny Omega character speak as well.
The promo was utterly fascinating, because it was unlike anything else you would see in wrestling. WWE would never give someone 20-minutes to give a promo, essentially by themselves, and allow them to cross as many boundaries into reality that Omega did. It actually reminded me a lot of the CM Punk pipebomb-promo in its audacity; and Omega attacks Okada in much the same way that Punk attacked John Cena in his promo. Not surprisingly, Punk's Pipebomb promo is the most memorable promo WWE has featured in at least the last 15 years.
The promo is representative of NJPW's entire approach to pro-wrestling in the modern age, the age where the fans are all well aware of the inside story and love to cheer the heels. In NJPW, there really are no heels or babyfaces. They have wrestlers that play the classic heel role of personifying arrogance and cheating in their matches, but those wrestlers; whether it be Omega, Tetsuya Naito or Minoru Suzuki, are some of the most popular wrestlers in the company and NJPW embraces that dynamic. Despite their heel tactics, nobody is really booed in NJPW or openly detested by the fanbase. WWE has moved more towards that direction in recent years, but they still lag behind NJPW in that aspect. Roman Reigns is the obvious example; NJPW would never push someone to the moon like WWE does with Reigns if the fans were so openly vocal about their hatred.
At the end of the day, it comes down to freedom. WWE, whether it is Vince McMahon, Triple H, Kevin Dunn or other officials, like to be in control and have a history of micro-managing everything. Omega has the creative freedom to cut a 20-minute promo that comes across like half-work-half-shoot, and Omega and Okada have the freedom to have a crazy match that goes super long and involves a bunch of different moves and elements. WWE is much more strict and they have a lot more rules as to what talent can say and what they can do in the ring, and that limits the ceiling on a lot of the success you can have. Ask any star from the Attitude Era they will tell you that during that period they had a lot more individual influence over their character, and that was why they were successful getting over. I don't know if that is still the case; whenever I hear Seth Rollins, or Kevin Owens or Roman Reigns speak, I never feel like it was truly authentic the way Omega comes across. I don't even know if Omega is truly more talented than Rollins or Owens or Reigns; but the fact is he is allowed to maximize his talent through his own personality and the WWE guys are not.
A friend asked me the other day why it seemed like American fans seemed to like Japanese wrestling more than American wrestling (and by that we are really talking about the two biggest companies, NJPW and WWE). I replied that the freedom in NJPW is greater than in WWE and allows the individual artists, and the truly great wrestlers are artists, to fully express themselves. To draw an example, imagine two world class chefs of equal skill is preparing the best meal possible. One chef is allowed to use whatever ingredients they want and are told to prepare the meal any way they would like. The other chef is told exactly what ingredients to use, how to cook the meal, what time to bake it till and how to eat the meal. Which one do you think is going to have the better, more unique and interesting meal? WWE talent is always going to be limited in what they can say and what they can do in the ring, and that limits the amount of fresh, exciting content they are going to produce.
I think WWE lags behind NJPW in a lot of ways, but if they start allowing for more creative freedom and outside-the-box ideas on how to present certain talent, it would go a long way. Of course, some people will never admit that WWE cannot be the best wrestling product in the world, and that I and anyone else only like NJPW to be different and cool; not because it's actually better. It's funny because people who I hear criticize NJPW (and there are some very legitimate criticisms) generally don't watch the product and get very defensive when someone mentions that they like it.
Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega: *****
A lot of the time I watch NJPW matches on a delay because I can't be bothered to stay up all night. However, I did myself a favor and did wake up at 6 a.m. specifically to watch this match and it was well worth it. Folks who watch the match after the fact and already know that the match went to a 60-minute draw are probably going to watch the match and think it was overrated. Of course, when you know a match is headed for a draw all of the near-falls mean nothing because you know the end result. This was a match that could really only be fully appreciated live and with no knowledge of the result.
The 60-minute draw is a lost art in wrestling and really for good reason, the pace of modern wrestling is too fast and the attention spans fans have for individual matches is too short for fans to really appreciate such a lengthy contest. To do it well, you need to have a matchup that fans are craving to see and you need to have two talents that are creative and athletic enough to have such a long match that doesn't bore the fans. In this scenario, NJPW had both of those things and the result was a really special match that a lot of fans believe was the best match of 2017. The enduring image, of a gassed Okada reaching out to cover Omega as time expired will be the lasting memory fans will have of the match; and it masterfully set up what will sure to be another classic when Okada and Omega meet again.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Tetsuya Naito: ****¼
This match was much better than it should have been, particularly because of Tanahashi competing in the match with a partially torn bicep muscle. In the rush to crown Okada as one of the all-time great performers, Tanahashi has kind of flown under the radar, but even injured and with a lot of miles on his odometer he still can always be counted on for a great match if the bright lights are on. Naito has been one of the best wrestlers in the world and his cult of personality as the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon has turned him into NJPW's biggest merchandise seller. Was the time right to take the Intercontinental Championship off of him? I wouldn't say it was; however the finish of the match, with Tanahashi getting a very quiet submission from Naito, was done with enough subtlety that Naito didn't lose much despite dropping the title.
Hiromu Takahashi vs KUSHIDA: ****½
Takahashi, since returning to NJPW in November, has been nothing short of sensational. From a dominance perspective he was cleaning out the Junior Heavyweight division after beating KUSHIDA for the title at Wrestle Kingdom in January. From a wrestling perspective he has had sensational matches with all of his challengers, including Dragon Lee, Ricochet and Will Ospreay. From a character perspective he has been every bit as good, oozing charisma in the ring and wearing his trademark jacket. Takahashi's jacket really needs to be seen to be believed, it is not only the best article of clothing in wrestling, it is the best article of clothing in human history.
The match against KUSHIDA was great, with the arrogant Takahashi pushing the straightlaced KUSHIDA near the edge and almost pushing him over, but KUSHIDA was able to control his temper and eventually picked up the win and regained the Junior Heavyweight Championship. KUSHIDA might still be the face of the division, but it is hard to think that anybody but Takahashi is the real star of the junior heavyweights.
Hirooki Goto vs Minoru Suzuki: ***¾
A good, but not great match that is kind of lost in the shuffle when compared to the other singles title matches. Suzuki is a lot like The Undertaker in the sense that he has his character and no matter what he is doing or who he is working with, the character is never compromised. As a lumberjack match, the two other guys who were involved heavily were YOSHI-HASHI, who cleaned out the Suzuki-gun guys on the outside pretty much by himself and will be the next challenger for Suzuki. However, real surprise was Suzuki taking a swipe at Jushin Thunder Liger on commentary as Suzuki is wont to do and Liger throwing a chair at Suzuki, which could set up a very interesting matchup for later.
War Machine vs The Guerillas of Destiny: ***¼
A pretty good match for the IWGP World Tag Team Championships that saw The Guerillas of Destiny regain the titles from War Machine. War Machine is the typical rugged team that finds a lot of success in Japan and both guys are agile enough to work with a lot of different opponents without compromising their style. Tanga Roa, who was Camacho in WWE, has improved a lot from when he first came to NJPW; I'm not sure if that is because NJPW is a better style for him or he just worked harder and got better, but he's much sharper in the the ring than he was last year.
The Young Bucks vs Roppongi Vice: ***½
This was a very different match than The Young Bucks traditionally due, and in a lot of ways it was a welcome change. Even though the average Young Bucks match is very good, it is always nice to see wrestlers change it up every now and then. This was a classic-style match with The Young Bucks taking out Rocky Romero early and then isolating Trent, eventually leading to the hot tag and then the finish, which saw The Young Bucks win with the Sharpshooter after consistently trying to get it applied earlier. It was a very nice match; and The Young Bucks celebrating their sixth IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships as if they were Michael Jordan winning his sixth NBA Championship was golden.
Michael Elgin vs Cody: **¾
I didn't think this match was that great, although it was technically fine. Elgin is so consistent with his singles matches and he is over with the audience and he can do all the strongman spots that stand-out more in Japan than they do in the US, I think he could really do more for the company than right now. Cody winning and then challenging Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in Long Beach, CA is interesting because it could lead to a storyline where Cody wins the world title before his stablemate Omega does. I don't really think that is going to happen, NJPW is too protective of Okada and they won't shuffle the title off him unless they have a ton of confidence in the guy they are giving it too and I don't think that is Cody.
Gauntlet Match: **¼
This was the Gauntlet match for the NEVER Openweight 6 Man Tag Team Championships. The wrestling was all fine in the match, but it did feel like they just had this match to try and get everyone on the card. Zack Sabre Jr. continues to see a good push as he comes across as sort of a ringer for the Suzuki-gun undercard guys as everyone else is pretty much comedy at this point.
Tiger Mask, Tiger Mask W, Togi Makabe and Yuji Nagata vs TenKoji, Jushin Thunder Liger and Manabu Nakanishi: **½
My biggest complaint with NJPW right now is that they have one of, if the very best, wrestlers in the world under contract in Kota Ibushi and instead of utilizing him for important things, they put him under the mask and have him work as Tiger Mask W. The fact that he is Tiger Mask W doesn't bother me as much as the fact that he isn't really put in any meaningful matches. The word is that they want to get the new Tiger Mask W anime over so they wanted a spectacular worker to be Tiger Mask W. That is fine, but why not have him do actual spectacular things, like wrestle Takahashi for the Junior Heavyweight Championship or Suzuki for the NEVER Openweight Championship. I don't understand why they are wasting such a talent by putting him in nothing matches like this one.
David Finlay, Shota Umino and Tomoyuki Oka vs Hirai Kawato, Katsuya Kitamura and Tetsuhiro Yagi: **½
This was the typical Young Boys match that doesn't really mean anything, but I am fascinated by the current crop of Young Boys NJPW has. David Finlay is really too good to be a Young Boy and isn't really one, so he doesn't really count although he is great. Umino and Kawato are already pretty sharp wrestlers and will only continue to improve over time; it will be interesting to see how their bodies fill out and if they end up in the heavyweight division. Oka was a good amatuer wrestler and has good size and has been impressive since his pro debut a few months ago. Kitamura is going to be a big star; he is the Japanese version of Brock Lesnar. Not only does he have the best physique I have ever seen on a Japanese wrestler, he was also a three-time national wrestling champion when he was in college and was given the nickname "Wrestling Monster". The crowd buys into him already; and they were making a lot of noise for when he and Oka were trading shoulder tackles.