So I’m gonna go ahead and get this out of the way…I didn’t love Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito like a lot of people did.
Naito’s journey to the title didn’t grab me. There are a few possible reasons for this. Was it my disenchantment with his story? Is Naito’s actual wrestling not appealing to me? Or was it the booking that led us to this point with the two Dome shows allowing for a less satisfying culmination to Naito’s story than we could have seen two years ago?
Regardless of the reason or if it was potentially a combination of all those things, it just didn’t reach me to that level at all. I had gone into Wrestle Kingdom weekend feeling numb to Naito potentially having his crowning moment of achievement. But having been witness to the entire journey to that match and especially the journey of Naito super fans I had a perspective of my own that may be familiar to some.
I have a long history of watching wrestling from the 90s, but also still constantly watch classic wrestling to this day. Watching both the best and worst that wrestling from the 1990s has to offer on a consistent basis, it has shown me one thing that has proven to be true: I feel it is significantly better in so many ways from an in-ring perspective.
However…it also has caused me to undergo a bit of reflection about some things these past two weeks. After watching the match again and seeing the roller coaster of emotions from people have made me reflect on some things. For me, I remember watching the Four Pillars in AJPW, peak Zenjo and peak Pro Wrestling NOAH with the result of my mind being blown away at this amazing wrestling. Even today, it’s all still so great and fantastic and had tons of amazing matches and moments in and of itself. It has, though, affected my understanding, or more specifically my feelings when I watch pro wrestling today.
Allow me to take you back to when I originally viewed those great matches I spoke about.
While it’s true they were a marvel in an athletic and sport-like sense, it was all behind me historically. I wasn’t living it in Japan following along every day. Toshiaki Kawada finally beating Mitsuharu Misawa for the Triple Crown for the first time is a story very similar to that of Naito. It also just so happened to take place in the Tokyo Dome. AJPW’s first-ever Dome show, in fact, on their 25th Anniversary Show (May 1, 1998).
By the time I had watched the match it was May…2010, I was gearing up for NOAH’s first-ever Global League featuring Kawada himself as a participant. I was many years removed from the actual context of the match and even if I had been watching at the time, it would have been nearly impossible to fully FEEL that journey.
When I first watched Kawada finally get that win, it didn’t “mean” anything to me but regardless, I loved it. Some would argue that this triumphant match was the third the best match of their series but this one held a special place. Regardless of any storytelling or context we lacked, anyone could see when Kawada’s arms finally went up after seeing the ref’s hand hit three, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
If we jump back to January 5, 2020, and look at Naito finally defeating Okada and winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship we see a similar rush of emotions but not necessarily from Naito. Rather, it was the reaction of his rabid fan base, both live in the Tokyo Dome and online. This wasn’t Tetsuya Naito’s moment as much as it was the fan base who supported him throughout a years-long journey. The fans who bought LIJ merchandise, who combed through every promo and interview, made gifs, interacted with their fellow fans, and discussed all things Tetsuya Naito on a nonstop loop on a literally daily basis…the match itself, the match quality, and even Naito the character was all secondary.
One could argue forever about which version of wrestling fandom is more “pure”, if I am wrong for not rating Naito/Okada ***** or if 90s AJPW is better than 2020 NJPW, but I know this much: in 10 years those Naito fans won’t be telling people and reminiscing to new fans about the night Naito and Okada had a five-star match. No, they will be saying that January 5, 2020, was the night Tetsuya Naito won both of the top titles in New Japan and finally beat Okada at the Dome.
Pro wrestling is my life and my love. My love is still as real and as strong as it ever has been and that won’t ever change because of all the things it has meant to me and my near 28-year life.
When that referee’s hand hit three and I heard the roar of the Tokyo Dome, it was an instantaneous reaction. I went online and I saw everything from the zillions of screenshots and GIFs of Okada raising a fist in the air to their hero. In respect to the excitement and passion that nothing else in life could give me through the tears of joy and triumph being shared by his following that live and die with this one man. This one pro wrestler…
I loved Tetsuya Naito.
I loved his fans.
And I loved pro wrestling.