It’s The New Beginning in Osaka, and a talented young wrestler has just shocked the world by winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from the highly-fancied, dominant champion. Nobody gave the challenger a hope, with many saying he didn’t even deserve the title shot in the first place. This was supposed to be a placeholder match, a tune-up fight for the champ against a middling member of an opposing faction. But the challenger upset the odds, took the biggest prize in the company, and leapfrogged the leader of his stable.
But this isn’t a prediction; it’s 2012. Kazuchika Okada beat Hiroshi Tanahashi, and the rest is history.
But history has a habit of repeating itself, a fact that SANADA is well aware of.
Early in 2017, many people spoke of SANADA as the next potential breakout star in New Japan Pro Wrestling. By the end of the year, he found his achievements eclipsed by those of his Los Ingobernables de Japon stablemates: Tetsuya Naito with his IWGP Intercontinental title run and G1 Climax victory; EVIL and his victory over Okada and subsequent IWGP title challenge; Hiromu Takahashi and his IWGP Jr. Heavyweight title run.
SANADA hasn’t been devoid of success, having recently won the World Tag League and the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship from Killer Elite Squad at Wrestle Kingdom 12, but SANADA didn’t even break into a smile. He usually looks like he can’t be bothered.
Therein lies the fuel for the doubters of SANADA’s upcoming challenge. Despite everyone saying he’s a future star, he simply hasn’t lived up to the hype. More to the point, he looks like he doesn’t care. Most say that he cruises along at a fraction of his full ability, and has no chance of beating Okada.
LIJ leader Naito failed in his own challenge of Okada’s title at Wrestle Kingdom 12. The next day, with a battered and vulnerable Okada at his mercy after a CHAOS vs. LIJ tag match, Naito casually hands the champion over to SANADA, almost as an afterthought, as a man might give his dog some scraps from the table. Naito certainly doesn’t think SANADA can do what he couldn’t and successfully topple Okada. LIJ’s number one failed to get the job done, and so did LIJ’s number two, Evil, after an unsuccessful challenge at King of Pro Wrestling 2017. Following Wrestle Kingdom 12, Okada himself was talking about filling every seat at the Tokyo Dome, as if the next 11 months of matches were a foregone conclusion to him.
The challenge came out of the blue. Nobody was talking about SANADA. And SANADA wasn’t talking, either.
“My next opponent in the complete opposite of my last,” said Okada after accepting SANADA’s challenge. “He doesn’t even speak.”
SANADA avoids the cameras, while Naito plays up to them. Naito loves to talk, whilst SANADA rejects the microphone. Naito tried his best to provoke Okada into a reaction throughout their feud, but in a surprising twist, Okada is the one desperate to rouse SANADA by stuffing Okada dollars into his mouth last week.
This behaviour shocked everybody. Why is Okada behaving this way? Is he overconfident? Is he trying to get the best out of SANADA? Does he have genuine disdain for someone he feels is an unworthy challenger? Is he drunk with power, a mad king, losing his mind because nothing can inspire him? Or could it be that the all-powerful champion sees something that we don’t? Whisper it—is Okada scared of SANADA?
It’s not often that Okada tastes defeat, least of all in IWGP title matches. The last time that happened was almost two years ago, on April 10, 2016, at Invasion Attack. Back then, it was Naito who beat Okada and took the title away from him, the last man to do so. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because it was the interference of another who truly cost Okada the match. That man was, of course, SANADA.
Making his surprise return from excursion, SANADA saved Naito when he was on the brink of defeat, hitting Okada with a TKO and a Moonsault that ended up losing him the match, and the title.
So, while some people might mistake Okada’s behaviour as overconfidence, it isn’t. Everyone is predicting Okada to break the single reign defence record of 11 (Okada needs three more) and looking past SANADA, but the champion isn’t. Despite having a 3-0 record against SANADA, Okada is nervous, and has good reason to be.
Go back to G1 Climax 27 Day 6 on 25th July 2017, SANADA vs. Okada in B Block. SANADA doesn’t even bother to take his vest off, a symbol of his indifference and unreached potential. SANADA fakes an injury to his right knee until Okada’s back is turned, when he attacks and takes control of the match. Pointing to his head, the message is clear: He’s outsmarted the champion. Now the vest comes off, and SANADA is ready to fight. The vest is used to choke Okada, and the symbolism is clear: a motivated SANADA spells trouble for Okada.
Every time Okada turns his back on SANADA, he is punished, but SANADA lacks the experience to capitalise on his advantage. Okada seems to have an answer for everything SANADA throws at him. SANADA’s springboard dropkick attempt is countered into a reverse neckbreaker. An early lesson. SANADA picks his spot more carefully next time, and successfully lands the dropkick.
Three times SANADA attempts to put Okada in the Paradise Lock, which he used to beat Toru Yano. Did this sting Okada’s pride?
Later in the match, SANADA locks in a Skull End dragon sleeper on the turnbuckle, but Okada grabs a fistful of SANADA’s trademark long mohawk and drags him into a Tombstone Piledriver. SANADA later reverses a Rainmaker clothesline into his own Tombstone Piledriver. Yet again, SANADA shows that he can learn from his mistakes, and learn quickly.
He locks in the Skull End, but Okada eventually reaches the ropes. SANADA hits a Moonsault, and goes for another Skull End, but errs when he spends too long trying to get Okada into the middle of the ring to avoid the rope break, allowing Okada enough time to recover and hit two Rainmakers. Okada, knowing how dangerous his opponent is, even goes for a third. SANADA dodges, and in the ensuing scramble, makes two mistakes. He tries to copy Okada and attempts a Rainmaker, which he misses. He tries to copy Naito and attempts a Destino, but it’s reversed, and SANADA eats a third Rainmaker and loses the match. He might well have been kicking himself backstage, cursing the mistakes that cost him victory.
Later in the same tournament, watching his stablemate EVIL get the shocking pin over Okada, SANADA is thinking one thing: that should’ve been me.
Now, Okada’s neck has been weakened from the beatings accumulated from the likes of Minoru Suzuki, Kenny Omega, EVIL and Naito. It just so happens that SANADA’s finishing move, the Cold Skull dragon sleeper, focuses on the neck. SANADA is the one of the few wrestlers who handily defeated Toru Yano in last year’s G1, unfazed by Yano’s shenanigans, and beat him in less than half the time it took Okada and Omega. They have something else in common: SANADA knows what it’s like to be lost in TNA, but even he managed to get an X-Division championship win under his belt, while Okada became a comedy sidekick to Samoa Joe. Okada also remembers his own experience being the brash young challenger who jumped the queue in 2012, and how that ended.
That’s not all—SANADA has figured out and negated Okada’s biggest strength.
Okada is a superb wrestler, possibly the best we’ve ever seen. But what gives him the edge over his rivals, the Omegas, Naitos and Tanahashis of the world who are able to match him, move for move?
Okada’s secret to success that he is able to psyche out his opponents. He learns all about them: their strengths; their weaknesses; what makes them tick; what frightens them. He appealed to Omega’s sense of grandeur and taste for the spectacular, and used it to his advantage. He pushed Tiger Mask W’s buttons until he lost his composure. He teased out Shibata’s machismo and hubris, costing Shibata not only the match but his career. He let Naito take control just enough to make him believe he was going to win, and Naito lost himself in the moment. But what does he know about SANADA?
That’s why Okada is scared, because he’s worried that SANADA is better than him, and is now desperately trying to get the edge with mind games that are usually beneath him. Despite what Naito might say, SANADA is the truly tranquilo member of his faction. He doesn’t talk, smile, laugh, scowl, or taunt. He is the epitome of the poker face, giving away nothing to his opponents. Okada needs something to understand SANADA, to get into his head, to guarantee victory against an opponent who may be his athletic superior. And so, Okada takes the microphone following Chaos’s win over LIJ in a six-man tag match at night one of The New Beginning in Sapporo:
“SANADA. I don’t care why you came to New Japan. I don’t care why you joined Los Ingos. What I do know is that you’re after this [IWGP title]. Please, tell us what you’re really thinking.”
SANADA has never spoken before. He enters the ring, and picks up the microphone. Just when Okada thinks SANADA is about to let his guard down and give Okada the sliver of psychological insight that he needs to ensure his win next week, SANADA tosses the microphone to the floor, and leaves.
Okada is angry, and Okada is scared.
“So that’s how it’s going to be, bastard.”
And so, the usually cool and calm champion goes into an enraged frenzy. For SANADA, talk is cheap; silence is golden. Okada responds in kind, attacking SANADA and stuffing his mouth with Okada dollars in his frustration. Maybe there’s some symbolism in there, or maybe it’s just the desperation and fury of a man who can see that the end is near. Okada speaks:
“You never say anything.”
It’s an admission of defeat as much as a statement of fact. In his post-match press conference, Okada says:
“As I said in the ring, I don’t give a shit why you chose to come to New Japan or why you joined LIJ. What I do want to know is what you’re really thinking. Now you want this belt? No problem. As long as you put yours on the line too. But it’s not that I really want yours too, punk. And the arena is already sold out, so what? I told you that I’ll make it rain, everywhere. I know that you’re strong. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to talk. We can do all of our talking in the ring. That’s okay with me. But ultimately, you’re not the one I’m interested in. Find someone different, New Japan. This doesn’t get me excited for Osaka. Think about this carefully, New Japan.”
Methinks the champion doth protest too much. Make no mistake, Okada is more than interested in SANADA. He’s become obsessed with him, in spite of what he says.
The next day, SANADA decides to respond, his first time speaking in New Japan:
“You want to hear my voice so badly, huh? I’ll end you, in Osaka.”
It’s short and sweet, but there is nothing for Okada to work with here. No insight into the man behind the mask, no chinks in the armour. Is it even a threat, or simply a promise? Okada loses it. He has to be restrained by the Young Lions, he’s so angry. SANADA is the one opponent whom Okada hasn’t been able to psyche out. Now SANADA is in Okada’s head, simply by doing…nothing.
Backstage, Okada responds:
“Finally, you spoke up, bastard. You said you’ll finish me? Everyone says that, but no-one ever does it. Are you trying to end me, or just trying to claw your way to the top? But now that you spoke up, things are more interesting. I hope you have much, much, much, much more to say. End me? That’s not enough. First, try to get it done in Osaka.”
He’s desperate for more words from SANADA. He wants it, needs it. But SANADA’s backstage comments are idiosyncratically terse.
“In the ring…that’s all I wanted to say.”
The talking is over. All that’s left is the match.
Usually, SANADA doesn’t care about his matches because he thinks he’s better than everybody. If SANADA is to win this one, he’ll have to be laser-focused. Unmotivated SANADA is an average wrestler, who’ll lose just as often as he wins. Is the emotionless face a mask, like Naito, to cover up for his weaknesses? Or is he genuinely capable of greatness, but has yet to be inspired? SANADA says he’s been everywhere, and Okada’s belt is the brightest. That’s why he wants it. If this doesn’t get SANADA fired up to unleash his potential, nothing will. It’s make or break.
“I’ll end you, in Osaka.”
Believe him. February 10th marks the end of Okada, and SANADA’s New Beginning.