But he isn’t the Ace, is he? The fans love him and are willing to play along, suspend their disbelief. But the 41-year-old man strutting to the ring and high-fiving the fans, despite what his entrance music might tell you, is not the Ace. Every single one of the 6,000 fans in the Fukuoka Convention Center knows that he isn’t the Ace, as much as they may still wish that he were, as much as it’s plastered all over his merchandise. It seems that the only person who still thinks Hiroshi Tanahashi is the Ace of New Japan is Hiroshi Tanahashi.

His opponent tonight, IWGP Heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada, is the real Ace. He’s 30 years old, has held the title for nearly two years, and is half an hour or so away from breaking the record for the most successful title defences in a single reign. A record set seven years ago, of course, by Tanahashi himself. Naturally, it was Okada who came along and defeated him for the championship at NJPW’s The New Beginning 2012. Their rivalry over the next few years are the stuff of legend, but in the end, time defeats us all.

Let’s be clear—this is not going to be the titanic struggle of yesteryear. Most believe that an Okada victory is a mere formality. Tanahashi’s 2018 tells the story of an aging star struggling to stay afloat in the shark-infested waters of New Japan. A narrow IWGP Intercontinental title defence against Jay White; a grim and systematic crippling at the hands of Minoru Suzuki; an encouraging New Japan Cup run that saw him score wins over former Junior heavyweight Taichi, Bad Luck Fale and relative rookie Juice Robinson before being picked apart by the younger, fitter, hungrier Zack Sabre Jr.

Okada, for his part, has comprehensive wins over Tetsuya Naito, SANADA and Will Ospreay. Okada comfortably beat the man who beat Tanahashi in the cup final, ZSJ. Okada is unmatched; peerless. By the end of Sakura Genesis, fans are wondering who is left to challenge the all-conquering Rainmaker. Tanahashi has no real claim to a championship opportunity, but he’s desperate. He can see Okada on the verge of smashing his old record and officially resigning Tanahashi to the history books. Okada accepts the challenge. He doesn’t think that Tanahashi is a worthy challenger, but he likes the idea of breaking the record against the man who set it, so he throws the old dog a bone.

So here they stand.

As the match is about to begin, Tanahashi faces the crowd and coquettishly disrobes, milking the crowd for a few drops of adulation, anything to prove that he’s still got it. The bell rings and he’s playing to the crowd again, basking in their chants. Do you hear that? I’m still the Ace! They don’t love you like they love me, his actions seem to suggest. Okada looks bored, disinterested. He couldn’t care less whom the fans are chanting for, as long as he goes home with that golden belt.

After the initial lock-up, Okada gets the best of Tanahashi but goes for the clean break. I’m in control here, old man. Tanahashi spends several minutes holding Okada in a headlock. Does he actually think he’s going to win this way, or is he just soaking up the cheers and thinking that he’s the Ace again? Several minutes of grappling later, and Tanahashi gets out the air guitar. It’s a half-hearted attempt and he can’t bring himself to look Okada in the eye; perhaps he’s starting to realise the futility of his empty showboating against an opponent of this calibre.

Tanahashi begins to work over the left knee of Okada, as if trying to remember how he beat him in the past. Okada dropkicks Tanahashi off the apron, but Tanahashi skins the cat. He dangles there for longer than he should, trying to prove to the crowd that his biceps are still supple and strong. Okada rudely interrupts this by dragging Tanahashi into a Hangman DDT.

Not for the first time tonight, Tanahashi is punished for his arrogance. He eats another DDT on the floor and is left wondering whether he’s bitten off more than he can chew.

Okada poses, with one foot on his ailing foe. Is this your hero? Tanahashi, fighting for his pride, fires back with forearms to the face but they only serve to annoy the champ. Tanahashi realises that he’s outmatched. Okada grinds down his old rival, stopping only when he hears the anguished cries of the fans of the former Ace. He pauses, grinning with incredulity. Really? This is your guy?

The camera cuts to a worried-looking Tanahashi fan on the verge of tears, hiding her face behind an ACE towel, fearful of the destruction of her hero taking place before her. Tanahashi goes back to his old playbook, attacking the knee of Okada again. But yet again, he’s caught out gesturing to the crowd and is flattened by an elbow before he can even begin to capitalise. A smarter, savvier wrestler might have been able to press home his advantages, but Tanahashi simply can’t help himself. He still thinks he’s the Ace.

Okada hits a third DDT, his lackadaisical pin attempt serving merely to wear down a faltering Tanahashi. He plays to the crowd himself, one of the luxuries of being the fitter, stronger, decade-younger dominant champion. Barely 15 minutes into the match and Okada pulls out the Rainmaker gesture, showing his clear disdain for the challenger. He thinks this is nearly over. The overconfidence of the champion is there to be leveraged, if Tanahashi can set aside his own ego.

Tanahashi floors Okada with a High Fly Flow to the outside. The crowd explodes. Young Tomoyuki Oka cheers on his hero at ringside.

Tanahashi can feel the love of the crowd, feeds off of it. He fires up the crowd. He takes too long. He runs straight into the arms of Okada, straight back to February 2012, straight into one of the first tricks Okada had up his sleeve: a brutal Tombstone piledriver to the floor. The Rainmaker has been threatening to do this for weeks, and Tanahashi literally walked right into it.

The fans are worried for Tanahashi. It’s written on their faces, they know that this is last-chance saloon. But the very thing Tanahashi lives for, the love of the crowd, is the very thing that’s threatening to cost him the match. The old Ace is so desperate for their validation that he’s taking his eyes off of the prize.

Tanahashi rallies, firing shots to the face of Okada, dropping him to the mat. He stomps on his downed opponent in a show of disrespect, letting his emotions get the better of him. This guy’s no Ace! He eventually lands a Slingblade. Okada kicks out at two. It’s going to take a lot more than that to put down the champ. With a rush of blood to the head and the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears, Tanahashi goes to the top turnbuckle. He pauses, soaking up the atmosphere. He finally launches himself, attempting a High Fly Flow, but those extra seconds make all the difference to Okada, who rolls out of harm’s way as Tanahashi painfully crash-lands on the mat.

A Rainmaker is countered into another Slingblade. The crowd are on their feet, in hope more than expectation. Okada retaliates with a shotgun dropkick, as the high-pitched wails of concern from the audience increase in pitch and volume. Another shit-eating grin spreads across the face of Okada. He’s going to enjoy every second of this, exacting his revenge on the man who humiliated him at Wrestle Kingdom 9. Tanahashi digs deep and attempts a Tombstone piledriver, struggling to muster every last ounce of energy to lift up his opponent, almost collapsing under the weight.

He succeeds, planting Okada on his head. He knows what he has to do. Top turnbuckle. High Fly Flow. Okada is down, and possibly out.

When you get Okada down, you need to finish him. But history is playing on the mind of Tanahashi. At Wrestle Kingdom 9, it took two consecutive High Fly Flows to keep Okada down. At G1 Climax 26, Tanahashi landed a High Fly Flow just before the 30-minute time limit expired. Back then, in 2016, Okada was able to kick out.

And tonight, the clock ticks towards the half hour mark. Okada is prone, lying vulnerable on the mat. Tanahashi rolls Okada onto his back. A pin might have done it, but we’ll never know, because Tanahashi changes his mind. He doesn’t even attempt the cover. The crowd cry out in despair, sensing his mistake before it’s even happened. And with a tragic inevitability, the High Fly Flow connects with the unforgiving knees of Okada. The 30-minute call echoes across the arena, but it’s not like it was in 2016. Okada’s much stronger than he was then.

Rainmakers and Slingblades are dodged and countered. A German suplex is kicked out at one and answered by a Dragon suplex. A dropkick is retorted with a Slingblade. The fan support for Tanahashi reaches a fever pitch, and the man himself becomes drunk on their cheers.

When they were feuding over the Intercontinental title last year, Hiroshi Tanahashi thought he had nothing in common with Tetsuya Naito. Yet in an ironic twist, Tanahashi makes the exact same mistake that the Stardust Genius made at Wrestle Kingdom 12. He goes to the top rope for yet another High Fly Flow, but it’s a Hail Mary and he knows it. Okada is already back on his feet. This is the third time Tanahashi has attempted a decisive High Fly Flow without setting it up properly. Okada rolled out of the way of the first, and got his knees up for the second. This time, Tanahashi’s recklessness is punished by a dropkick that catches him in mid-air.

The crowd sense that we’re approaching the finale of this beautiful, violent dance. These partners know each other so well. They’ve danced to this tune many times before. They know every step, and every beat. Okada goes for a Rainmaker. Tanahashi counters with one of his own. Okada kicks out at one. It seems destined to go on until the end of time.

Now it’s time to find out who the real Ace is. Tanahashi repeatedly slaps Okada in the face. I’m the Ace, each slap seems to call out. All those months out of the IWGP title scene since Wrestle Kingdom 10 come bubbling up within Tanahashi, all that resentment and rage. This arrogant young pup who stole my spot. The feud is tied at four wins for Tanahashi, four wins for Okada, and two draws. Tanahashi always believed he was the better man. I’m still the Ace, and I always have been!

It all came down to Wrestle Kingdom 10. Since he lost that match, everyone said that Okada won the feud, that he was the new Ace, that Tanahashi’s time had come and gone. Tanahashi never believed that for a second. That damn wrist control. The iconic climax, the enduring image of the feud, with Okada gripping Tanahashi’s wrist and refusing to let go, in spite of the vicious slaps to his cheek that would’ve broken any other man. In January 2016, Okada didn’t let go, and Okada won.

Kazuchika Okada clasps his fingers tightly around the wrist of Hiroshi Tanahashi one last time. Wrist control again. Not this time, thinks Tanahashi. With everything he has left, he lashes out at the face of his enemy, once, twice. The slaps echo out, and are heard across the world. Unlike those at Wrestle Kingdom 10, these slaps have over two years’ worth of anger and bitterness behind them. And unlike at Wrestle Kingdom 10, Okada lets go.

The champion slumps to his knees. Tanahashi’s wrist is free. I’ve won, he thinks. I’ve broken you, Okada. I’ve proven all the doubters wrong. I’M STILL THE ACE. He pauses one last time, in a final, ruinous moment of hubris. Because Okada hasn’t let go. Tanahashi, savouring his impending victory, hasn’t even noticed that the champion has him by the tights. And in that moment, he has already lost.

Tanahashi runs for the ropes, but defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory as he is cruelly yanked back into a devastating Rainmaker clothesline. 2016 Tanahashi might’ve kicked out of this, but 2018 Tanahashi does not.

Kazuchika Okada pins Hiroshi Tanahashi to retain the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, breaking Tanahashi’s record, and possibly, his spirit. Okada is officially the better man. But who beat Tanahashi tonight? Was it Okada, was it Tanahashi’s own pride, or was it simply Father Time? Perhaps it was all three.

Backstage, Tanahashi is on his knees, almost sobbing. “Once again, I lost the big one. But I still haven’t given up, yet. I will get stronger. I will build myself up, again.” Maybe he believes that. Maybe he still thinks he’s the Ace of New Japan. But maybe, just maybe, he knows it’s time to move on.