When discussions of the greatest periods of wrestling in Japan occur, three eras are brought up more than any other: Pillars Era All Japan, Mid-00s NOAH, and the New Japan boom period of the 2010s. Not only was it an aesthetic marvel, with matches and wrestlers who stack up favorably against the very greatest of all time, but it coincided with a period of sustained business growth that not only firmly cemented New Japan as the top promotion in the country but set many business records for the now over 50-year-old company. It was created by a perfect confluence of factors: two all-time talents emerging in Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito, peaking veterans putting everything together somewhat late in their careers than is normal and being selfless in using that star power to put over the next generation, the right foreign talent becoming available at the right times, ambitious new ownership taking over the company, technology reaching a level where worldwide real-time access to the promotion was available like never before… Everything had to come together to create the magic period that we got, and we should feel grateful it did.
The period came to a close with Tetsuya Naito defeating Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 14, briefly before the world of wrestling was drastically upended by a worldwide pandemic. Its start date is a little more up for debate; depending on who you ask it could be Wrestle Kingdom V, where Hiroshi Tanahashi firmly placed himself ahead of the previous generation kicking off a historic title reign, Wrestle Kingdom VI where Okada returned from excursion, or the month later at the New Beginning Rainmaker shock. What is not up for debate is the period’s importance.
The style, beats, factions and after-tremors of this era of New Japan can be seen everywhere you look in the world of wrestling today, and near certainly long into the future. – Robin Reid
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada
New Japan Invasion Attack
Of the many great feuds of the modern New Japan era, if you ask fans who experienced it all in real-time what they felt was the principal feud the most common answer would be Hiroshi Tanahashi versus Kazuchika Okada—the illustrious established Ace of the Universe against the cocksure prodigy Rainmaker. From Okada’s return at Wrestle Kingdom VI and post-main event title challenge in early 2012, to Okada’s victory on New Japan’s biggest stage in 2016, the feud between the two greats was the definitive thread that ran through all of New Japan.
When Okada confronted Tanahashi for the first time, it was coming off of bombing in his return match. He was an incredibly highly regarded young lion, but to say their was doubt in him coming into their first match was an understatement. When the core of the feud finished four years later, Okada was firmly and undisputedly established as one of the premier stars in the world of wrestling, and the top guy in the sphere of New Japan. It’s almost impossible for a feud to be more successful than this one, it’s clear intent was to create a megastar in Okada and it delivered in spades, with little things like business growth and highly acclaimed matches brought along on the side.
To pull the curtain back a tad, it was a tricky feud to pick which of their many matches to be highlighted in the project. Moreso than the base for most feuds, the Tanahashi-Okada feud is one best experienced in its entirety. So to cheat slightly, I’ll start by saying you probably should just watch them all if you have time, at least the 2012-2016 editions. There were arguments the infamous Rainmaker Shock at New Beginning 2012. Their Wrestle Kingdom match that produced the iconic crying Okada picture had its case. The aforementioned culmination in 2016 had its claim. In the end, though, for a series defined by how highly regarded the quality of its in-ring was though, we elected to select the match that most fans with a connoisseur’s eye believe to be their best. Invasion Attack 2013, sometimes referred to as ‘the arm match’ conversationally; a match that stands out amid greatness.
At Invasion Attack, Okada was coming in off a winning streak that led him to victory in the New Japan Cup. These victories were achieved off of the back of the Rainmaker Lariat, Okada’s signature move that had never once been kicked out of. That was the same move that achieved his sole victory to that point over his Ace rival just over a year prior. Two consecutive victories for Tanahashi in their last two encounters might have had the confidence of Okada shaken, but he came in with the belief that if he could hit his move then victory would follow as it always had.
Tanahashi was out to change that. From the opening bell, he targeted his offense to Okada’s Rainmaking arm. Ripping, twisting, slamming, striking: Tanahashi’s clear goal was to remove the Rainmaker lariat from Okada’s offensive arsenal. It created a unique dynamic to this specific encounter amidst their myriad, leading to the most distinct and memorable match of their series.
- Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada – The Rainmaker shock, and the first of this legendary series.
- Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada – The match that produced the iconic image of crying Okada.
- Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada – The culmination of the feud.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi
New Japan Wrestle Kingdom 9
January 4 is a special day for pro wrestling fans.
Since 1992, New Japan has held its premier event on that date in front of tens of thousands of people in Tokyo Dome. It’s had many monikers—Super Warriors in Tokyo Dome, Fantastic Story in Tokyo Dome, Battle 7, Wrestling World—but Wrestle Kingdom I in 2007 started the naming tradition that remains to this day.
Referring to the giant baseball stadium as Japanese pro wrestling’s biggest stage is true on a literal level, but also on a symbolic one. This is where some of the greatest matches of all time take place, matches that can turn wrestlers into megastars in one night. With New Japan’s growing popularity and increased level of accessibility in the West in the 2010s, the mythos of Wrestle Kingdom as this wrestling holy day has only gotten stronger with time. If you want to watch the best of the best in professional wrestling, you watch Wrestle Kingdom on January 4.
2015’s Wrestle Kingdom 9 was a landmark event for the promotion in more ways than one. Not only was this the first January 4 show to be broadcasted live on New Japan and TV Asahi’s brand new streaming service New Japan World, it would also be available on PPV in the United States and Canada with English commentary from Jim Ross and Matt Striker, all thanks to a partnership with Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling.
The show itself was a critical and commercial success. In front of a reported 36,000 fans in attendance, the main event saw another chapter in the epic rivalry between IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada. The younger Okada, fresh off his second G1 Climax win, was cocksure that he would beat Tanahashi on January 4, reclaim his title, and cement his position as company ace. The aftermath of the defeated Okada walking away in tears as Tanahashi taunted him from the ring became one of the defining images of this era. But it was the match that took place right before the main event that captured just as much, if not more attention that evening.
IWGP Intercontinental Champion Shinsuke Nakamura was in the middle of his fourth reign. As one of the New Three Musketeers alongside Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata, Nakamura spent years finding his way before striking gold with the “King of Strong Style” gimmick. Armed with a seemingly bottomless well of charisma, Nakamura’s popularity skyrocketed. The Intercontinental Title he so often held was elevated into a 1B title, able to headline shows on its own without the need for a heavyweight title match. The fact that Nakamura had not held the IWGP Heavyweight Title since 2009 did not matter; the IC Title was Nakamura’s kingdom and he used his starpower to make that throne feel just as important.
Nakamura’s challenger was another dynamo of sorts. “Golden Star” Kota Ibushi, originally from DDT Pro-Wrestling, spent several years as part of New Japan’s junior division before making the jump to heavyweight in 2014. Ibushi’s devil-may-care wrestling style (for both himself and his opponents) made him a dazzling favorite among wrestling fans. Wielding a dual contract with DDT and New Japan, Ibushi was about to wrestle the biggest match of his life against Nakamura in the semi-main event of Wrestle Kingdom. He and Nakamura had clashed once before during the 2013 G1 Climax with Ibushi on the losing end. For the rematch, the setting and the stakes were considerably higher.
A duet of pageantry and brutality is how I would best describe what we see between Nakamura and Ibushi.
The entrances provide the former. Ibushi doesn’t walk onto your screen, he jumps onto it through a hole in the stage like Rey Mysterio, a bustling ball of energy that quickly walks to the ring, ready to fight. Then there’s Nakamura. He also doesn’t just walk out. Instead, he slowly rises up onto the stage on a platform, decked out in a massive spiked crown and blood red cape. Flames shoot off as the crowd rapturously cheer him. Nakamura strolls down the ramp like a beloved king amongst his subjects, adding little theatrical movements here and there until WHOOSH he takes off his cape and goes full Nakamura, wildly gesticulating, gyrating, twirling, sneering, smiling, playing to the crowd. If Ibushi is a ball of energy, Nakamura is a boulder of charisma, ready to crush his opponent like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
As for the brutality, that comes about 15 minutes into the match itself. The story so far is quite simple: Ibushi trying to prove that he can out strong style the “King of Strong Style.” That is not to say that Ibushi abandons the techniques that made him famous. His speed, agility, and aerial acuity are still on display throughout the match, such as his trademark Golden Triangle Moonsault to the outside or a springboard hurricanarana off the top rope. But Ibushi is a heavyweight now and he wants to prove himself as a heavyweight. He wants to out-strike Nakamura, he wants to out-grapple Nakamura. He wants to beat him at his own game, and that becomes quite literal at times when he steals some of Nakamura’s trademark moves and taunts for his own. Nakamura, at first toying around with Ibushi, starts to realize that his opponent is much more dangerous than he thought.
But it’s at that 15-minute mark, when Ibushi misses a Phoenix Splash and Nakamura hits a Bome Ye to the back of his opponent’s head, that a switch is flipped inside both men. Eschewing any semblance of showmanship, Nakamura starts viciously stomping and kicking Ibushi’s head. Ibushi, who had returned from a concussion just a few months prior, rises up like the Terminator and starts hitting Nakamura right back. Nak shoves the referee out of the way, then punches Ibushi right in the head. Ibushi strikes back with a Bome Ye of his own, but a defiant Nakamura kicks out at 1.
The final minutes of the match are a fight for survival. The pageantry is out the window. Hard strikes. Hard kicks. Hard stomps. Neither man giving in. At one point Ibushi stands on the top rope and pulls Nakamura from the apron back into the ring with a massive German suplex. And while all of this is going on, the crowd is losing their minds. It’s the kind of atmosphere and match that elicit what I can only call the “Wrestle Kingdom feeling,” when you’re wide awake in the early hours of January 4 with tons of adrenaline, excitement, and emotion pumping through your veins. How can you sleep when you’re watching something this special?
A top rope Boma Ye from Nakamura sees Ibushi rising like the T-800 once again, a sadistic smile on his face, but a Landslide and another Boma Ye finally put the young challenger away. The king will stay on his throne for a little while longer.
Eight and a half years later, this match still produces that Wrestle Kingdom feeling. It’s earned countless praise as one of the greatest matches in not just New Japan history, but of all time. Wrestling Observer Newsletter readers named it the 2015 Match of the Year, while the 2015 Voices of Wrestling Match of the Year poll ranked it #1. More importantly for Kota Ibushi, it was a major stepping stone in establishing him as one of the next top stars in New Japan. He may have lost the match, he may have now been 0-2 against Nakamura, but he was now on the path to superstardom.
Sadly, we never got the third match in the Nakamura-Ibushi series. Ibushi re-injured himself late in 2015, and then a few months later Nakamura announced his departure from the company after Wrestle Kingdom 10. You can never say never in pro wrestling, but if that book truly is closed for good, then the match Nakamura and Ibushi had on 1/4/15 was one hell of a closing chapter.
- Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi – The first match between them headlines a highly acclaimed night of G1 Climax action.
- Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles – Nakamura’s final Wrestle Kingdom match is another thrilling Intercontinental Championship defense against a world class wrestler.
- Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn – Sometimes a match works so well that you use its formula as a launching point for when you show up at a new place.
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii
New Japan G1 Climax 23
Sometimes the best story in wrestling is the simplest. Two men think they are the best and fight until one can no longer stand. There doesn’t need to be an elaborate backstory or long feud. Just two competitors in the ring leaving every ounce of will and sweat they have.
Tomohiro Ishii and Katsuyori Shibata did exactly that on the fourth night of the 2013 G1. The G1 is a grueling yearly tournament held in the dead heat of summer. The winner overcomes a brutal schedule against the best in the company. By the end, bodies are banged up, and not every man reaches their last match. With a 30-minute time limit, each match is intense and furious.
When people talk about a G1 sprint or a G1 style of match, this is the match in their head. Both men had similar fast-paced and hard-hitting styles. They had never faced each other before. As soon as the bell rang, each sprinted at the other with reckless abandon. Both started throwing forearms at the other’s jawline. Shibata gained the upper hand first, throwing Ishii into the corner and landing a massive kick. But Ishii retaliated immediately, following up with his own forearm into the corner. And so the match went. Whenever one man had the edge, the other came back. They would invite the other to strike unblocked, hoping that they would be the one standing last. Shibata would get down on one knee and pleaded with Ishii to chop his chest. Ishii took a similar knee and begged Shibata to kick his. This was about survival. There wasn’t any thinking about follow up matches in the tournament. They knew that they just had to get through this one.
The blows were vicious. Shibata landed a flush dropkick to the face of a dazed Ishii lying in the corner. Each kick delivered reverberated like a shotgun through the building. Ishii, an all-time seller, scratched and clawed to his feet. As the match progressed, you could visibly see the health meter’s of both decline at a rapid pace. Eventually, both were blinking red. But still, neither would surrender. Both staggered, throwing any blow they could. Ishii kicked out at one. Shibata kicked out at one. Neither was willing to give up.
Eventually, headbutts were thrown by both. After Shibata’s landed, each collapsed on the other immediately, draped over the lifeless body of their opponent before either hit the ground. Shibata got up first and choked the life out of Ishii. Foam poured from his mouth. But he was able to reach the ropes. Ishii gained one last burst of energy, hit two lariats and his patented brainbuster and finished off his opponent.
The match only lasted 12:17. It was a special 12:17. The thrills, the agonies, the desperation, the nearfalls, the story were all laid perfectly in those 12 minutes. Two men went to war against each other. Neither returned home the same.
- Tomohiro Ishii vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – Possibly the best match of Ishii’s career, against the Ace of the company in a rocking Korakuen Hall
- Katsuyori Shibata vs. Jun Akiyama – A young Shibata at his most violent against a legend
- Hirooki Goto vs. Tomohiro Ishii – You like G1 Spirit Style bangers? We got ’em.
Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay
New Japan Best of Super Junior XXIII
There’s a lot to be said about the current state of media literacy and the lack of it in today’s world. More and more subtext is ignored and text is only consumed on a surface level. It’s the case for all storytelling mediums, professional wrestling is no different. We hear so often how matches are made in a certain Elite promotion that are written off as cool matches for the sake of cool matches with no story. This utterly reductive take ignores that the wrestling match itself can tell a story rather than just being a chapter in a larger story. The fans of another company may argue that the “cinematic” in-match dialog is how a story is told in the ring, but as I said earlier, this is only a surface reading. There’s a larger point to be made about the storytelling of those companies, but that’s not why I’m here today. They’re just a preamble for this discussion of a modern New Japan classic.
On May 27th, 2016, Ricochet and Will Ospreay met in Korakuen Hall during the Best of the Super Juniors and had a match that would absolutely dominate the discussions of the wrestling world for weeks. The match is an incredible athletic display, that much can’t be debated. Whether you enjoy it or not depends on your taste in wrestling. Personally, I found this match to be amazing, and I clearly wasn’t the only one because word of this match spread like wildfire, but most importantly, it wasn’t just the word that spread: it was GIFs.
Ospreay vs. Ricochet hit at the absolute perfect time for the match to be chopped up into little bits and shot out onto social media for the world to see. The reach this match had was insane. It felt like any wrestling fan that was online had seen a clip of this match because it was everywhere and everyone had an opinion on it. Some people saw all the flips and the flops those kids were doing and started carving out the tombstone for the wrestling industry. Pro wrestling had been killed by these two goobers in Japan.
This brings me back to my earlier point about media literacy. A wide majority of people commenting negatively about the match had zero context for what they were seeing. Broad proclamations were being made about how these kids didn’t know how to work a hold or tell a story. In the context of the match and the wider careers of both wrestlers, the story of this match is abundantly clear. In 2016, nobody was better than Ricochet at high flying. He was the undisputed king of this style (the back of his tights will tell you so). On the other side of the ring was Will Ospreay, a wrestling prodigy (a term I find to be overused when describing young talent, but it’s undeniable that it fits here) that was rising through the ranks and wanted to usurp the throne. What followed was a match where these men flew and flipped all over the ring, constantly trying to top one another. The entire match was an exercise in showing off. You do a flip, I will too. You hit me hard, I’ll hit you harder. You counter me, I’ll counter you. The story was there, it was clear, and if you followed the promotion or the wrestlers at all, you knew that.
This is why media literacy is important. You should be able to recognize that something is going on in the ring outside of the feats of athleticism. I’m not damning people that don’t care for this style of wrestling, but I am calling out those that make hyperbolic statements with zero context for what they were watching. Ospreay and Ricochet brought thousands of new eyes to New Japan’s product with that match. While it may have seemed to just be an eye-grabber of a match, those that really appreciated it are the ones that saw Ricochet’s growth from his awkward Chikara days to him really putting it all together in Dragon Gate. This was for the fans that watched Will Ospreay enter the scene and grow tenfold as a wrestler across his matches with Matt Sydal. This was a match for people taking time out of there day to read a column about this match seven years later. Most importantly, this was a match for the people in Korakuen. They lived and died for everything those two did. The crowd is on fire from bell to bell and rightfully so. When it first happened, I gave the match a full five-star rating and going back to it today I can’t really disagree with that.
In those seven years that followed, Ricochet and Ospreay went their separate ways and became massive stars. In the immediate aftermath, the two men engaged in a Twitter feud with Vader, which eventually led to a match between Vader and Ospreay (Vader was one of those “the match has no story” guys, but at least he got a match out of it). Ospreay went on to win that year’s Best of the Super Juniors. Ricochet followed his dreams to the WWE. Will Ospreay remained in New Japan and rose to the top of the company. The wrestling industry didn’t shrivel up and die because of a single match in Korakuen Hall. This match is still a classic. The old men still yell at their clouds.
- Will Ospreay vs. Bandido – A spiritual successor back in a hot Korakuen hall
- PAC vs. Prince Devitt – A gaijin versus gaijin match from a few years prior that got the attention of some of wrestling’s power players.
- Ricochet & Naruki Doi vs. Akira Tozawa & BxB Hulk – High paced high flying action with Ricochet? Would me remiss to not point towards some Dragon Gate.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega
New Japan Wrestle Kingdom 11
True greatness is hard to explain and difficult to appreciate.
When I first watched Kazuchika Okada defend the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11, I thought it was the best match I’d ever seen.
I hesitated to call it the greatest match of all time because, frankly, my wrestling knowledge didn’t feel deep enough to make that decision. Really, I needed a series like the Wrestling 101 then to flesh out that education.
Having rewatched the match for this project and seen a lot more in the six years since my initial viewing, I feel comfortable saying that, in my view, this is the greatest match of all time.
In many ways, it’s the perfect encapsulation of what made modern New Japan so popular and made their main events feel so special. The long-term booking was exceptional, the participants were made to feel like special attractions and the matches were dramatic, intense, storytelling masterpieces. The promotion always managed to cultivate a sense of occasion and big fight feel that got you shuffling up right to the edge of your seat by the time the opening bell rang and often had you standing and pacing by the time you saw Red Shoes’ hand slap the mat for the third time.
Having recreated the trailer for The Terminator in his entrance video and marched to the ring shotgun in hand, Omega delivered a machine-like performance in this match. Perfect in every aspect of professional wrestling, Omega’s showing featured no wasted motion and is a demonstration of what being at the pinnacle of your field looks like. Okada, to his credit, was fantastic too, leading the dance in one of the most exquisitely dramatic and dynamic closing stretches you’ll ever see. No one knows how to finish matches like Okada.
What makes this match truly special, for me, is the storytelling. For all those goobers that say that ‘just having good matches’ isn’t a good story, you couldn’t be more wrong. Here, Okada and Omega weave a fascinating, complex picture. Omega presents himself as the future in juxtaposition to Okada’s present and in order for the latter to merely avoid a changing of the guard, he has to absolutely empty the tank, surviving Omega’s biggest weapons for 47 minutes and landing his own fastball four times just to get over the line.
Omega, meanwhile, never hits his instant kill, the One-Winged Angel, despite approaching it in several different ways and getting Okada in place multiple times. As you watch, the move carries this urgency, intrigue and drama that can only be afforded by the best booking. What would have happened if he’d hit it? Would Okada have been the first to kick out or would the champion have succumbed just like everyone else? You as a fan just didn’t know and that burning question left the door open for those two to have one of the greatest series of matches ever seen.
This match is special and just watching it again has invigorated me as a fan and critic. This match is what true greatness in wrestling looks like.
- Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada – The final match between the two.
- Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito – A few months before Omega faced Okada at Wrestle Kingdom, this match launched Omega into super stardom
- Kenny Omega vs. Kota Ibushi – Omega and Ibushi pack Budokan Hall years before either main evented in New Japan.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
- Multi-Man Magic: Matches #7-11
- What Could Have Been?: Matches #12-16
- Clashes of the 80s: Matches #17-21
- Paving the Road of Kings: Matches #22-26
- The Giant Legacies of Junior Heavyweights: Matches #27-31
- Immortal Matches of WrestleMania: Matches #32-36
- Iconic Moments: Matches #37-41
- Steel & Blood: Matches #42-46
- The New Boom Period: Matches #47-51
- Aaron Taube’s Tremendous 101 Companion Piece
The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.