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31 Days of Wrestling (12/3/16): Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Wrestle Kingdom 10

Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. It's that time of year again when we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match a day for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling this calendar year produced for us.


Today, we look at the end at, in many ways, the end of an era in New Japan.

There is no greater rivalry in modern day pro wrestling today than between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, a rivalry that improved with every match and helped introduced new fans to the current NJPW product. Since 2012, these two have traded wins back and forth for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, practically dominating the scene and earning critical acclaim in the process. However, like all good rivalries, there is always a definitive end these things. Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock ended their iconic feud at WrestleMania XIX. Trish Stratus and Lita closed their legendary rivalry at Unforgiven 2006. And for the top stars of NJPW, theirs very well ended at the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10.


A rematch from the previous year’s bout, it was now Okada coming in as champion while Tanahashi won the right to be the challenger by winning the 2015 G1 Climax Tournament. And lest we forget, it was Okada who lost the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 9 and ended up crying as he left the Tokyo Dome, so while he came in as champion this time around, it felt like he was the challenger that had something to prove, that being he should be the next top ace of New Japan.


And as expected by fans who watched these two tear it up for 4 years, they pulled out all the stops to deliver one of the finest main event bouts in company history, casting Okada as the pseudo-underdog against the establishment that is Tanahashi, hailed as the top face of the company and multi-time Wrestler of the Year by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. These two told a compelling story of how Tanahashi wanted to remain as the top guy of the company while Okada wanted to finally cement his place as the new franchise New Japan should build around.

After what felt like forever, noting that the two have found ways to counter each other’s moves over the years (and respecting continuity), Okada pulled off a monumental victory after some Rainmakers found their way to Tanahashi, effectively ending the feud and cementing himself as the official successor to Hiroshi Tanahashi as the top ace of NJPW and the prime face of wrestling in Japan.

The storytelling of this match is out of this world, with these two putting out a masterclass for the lucky Tokyo Dome attendees and reminding everyone that professional wrestling is alive, well, and thriving at the start of 2016. A highlight that deserves mention to give you an idea of how well they told a story is how hard Okada gripped his hand on Tanahashi’s at the final moments, as if he felt that he cannot afford to let his chance to become the new face of Japanese wrestling slip by. It took four years to tell a tale of a young star, having gone through the hell that was TNA (before it became somewhat good again) trying to succeed as the man, and took on the establishment in a bid to reach the top of the business.

In the process, as mentioned earlier, this rivalry also attracted many new fans to the product, giving them an alternative besides the usual suspects like WWE and other US promotions. And here we are, the payoff to a long and winding tale with a nee generation stepping up to the plate. And isn’t that a good thing to have a tale that has a beginning, middle, and end that makes so much sense? It’s all we ask for as wrestling fans, after all: great, long term booking that rewards the loyalty of the fans in a big way.


This match is significant in the sense that Okada would officially be the new top player in the company, with the support of management behind him. And given the mini-exodus within NJPW that would change pro wrestling this year, the annointing of Okada could not come at a better time. Tanahashi would continue to be the Ace of the Universe, but would play in a relatively lower role than he is used to. He managed to help elevate guys like Kenny Omega, Michael Elgin, and Juice Robinson in recent times, but when called upon to play the main event role (beaten up body notwithstanding), he’ll jump right to it. For all Tana has done to help keep NJPW afloat during its dark ages, he deserves to be put in any hall of fame. And as for Okada? It seems like his story as top ace is just getting started.






For how crazy 2016 is, it is good to know that there is one constant: Okada and Tanahashi are the pillars of today’s New Japan, and they deserve all the success in the world.

*****

31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2016.

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