Feburary 12, 2012
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada
Let's go back to Feb. 2012, a time when the promotion of New Japan Pro Wrestling was barely recognized outside of Japan. The company had only recently emerged from its darkest period in history, on the back of one charismatic star, Hiroshi Tanahashi, who almost single-handedly guided the company through the dark ages of the late 2000s.
Still, in 2012 the company was still in rough shape. Wrestle Kingdom on Jan. 4 only sold approximately half of the Tokyo Dome, and outside of Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, the promotion lacked young talent that could credibly main event shows. The company had recently promoted junior heavyweight tag team wrestlers Jado and Gedo to the head booking position, and while the duo had garnered some success early on, they still had a long way to go to turn things around.
That brings us to Kazuchika Okada, who ended up being Gedo's personal project. If things were really going to turn around for NJPW, the company needed stars and while Tanahashi was a great piece to start with, he would need rivals to challenge him, preferably younger wrestlers who could carry the company once Tanahashi got older. Gedo wanted to start from scratch, and he selected Okada, who at the time seemed like anything but the obvious choice.
Okada had originally been trained by Ultimo Dragon for his Toryumon promotion, which would later change its name to Dragon Gate. After a few years working mainly in Mexico, Okada found his way into the NJPW Dojo and gained momentum as a young boy thanks to his natural athleticism and above-average height and size. He showed enough promise to warrant an excursion, to TNA, who NJPW had a working relationship with at the time.
In an unsurprising development, TNA failed to capitalize on being gifted a generational talent, instead putting Okada into a stereotypical gimmick as a knock-off of the Kato character from the Green Hornet and rarely using him on television. Okada's time in TNA ended up being a failure and he returned to NJPW in late 2011.
Despite flopping in TNA, Gedo still valued Okada and gave him a push, with his new "Rainmaker" character for being a flamboyant, cash-spending playboy. In his first major match back, at Wrestle Kingdom in 2012, Okada defeated YOSHI-HASHI in a match that was not exactly a classic, and Okada's new character was criticized for feeling overpushed and inauthentic.
While there appeared to be some pushback to Okada, Gedo took the biggest gamble of his career the following month and had Okada, the young boy who had only two months earlier returned from a failed excursion, defeat Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This was a move that took complete faith and confidence because Okada was not a popular wrestler at the time and it was a huge risk to put him over someone as consistent and popular as Tanahashi. Immediately, Gedo and NJPW were met with critics who couldn't understand why Okada had been rushed to the top.
In hindsight, the move was nothing short of sheer brilliance. Okada's character began to get over and the quality of his matches were outstanding. Soon he would not just end up being a viable rival to Tanahashi, he would usurp Tanahashi and become the face of NJPW. The match from Feb. 2012 was not a passing of the torch to Okada, that match wouldn't take place until Wrestle Kingdom 10 in 2016, but it was the match that began a new era for NJPW. Tanahashi had guided the company out of the abyss, but Okada took the company to the top of the mountain.
Other factors were certainly in play over that time period, Nakamura and Tetsuya Naito would emerge as top stars and the formation of Bullet Club, the acquisition of AJ Styles and later Kenny Omega, would open new paths into forgien markets that NJPW had never traversed. Okada cannot be credited with all of NJPW's success this decade, but as the face of the company he deserves a lot of acclaim for how successful he has been.
When people discuss Okada, the first thing normally brought up is the high quality of his matches. While his match-quality is unassailable, Okada doesn't get enough credit for how big of a draw he has been for NJPW. Currently, Wrestle Kingdom in 2020 is on track to sell out two nights at the Tokyo Dome. Back in 2012, Wrestle Kingdom sold 20,000 tickets and now eight years into Okada's reign, Wrestle Kingdom is on the verge of selling 80,000 tickets over the two nights. Every year NJPW sets a new record for revenue generated and gate records for local buildings are broken. This is not just a guy having great matches, this a performer leading business to record heights.
Obviously, WWE stars have a wider platform than NJPW stars, and worldwide names like Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins have a far bigger presence than Okada. But as those stars were pushed in the 2010s, WWE's traditional business metrics such as viewership, live attendance and merchandise all declined year-over-year while NJPW's soared. Okada didn't draw the most money out of any wrestler in the decade, but is he the singular star that had the greatest positive impact for his company? Absolutely; and it all started with Gedo taking a gamble on him during this match in 2012.
This article is the second in a series of articles discussing the most significant moments in wrestling over the past ten years. Make sure to check back on Thursday for the next installment in the series
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