Greatest Matches of All Time Series - Okada/Omega 1
This review is written by Ryan Dilbert of Voices of Wrestling and Wrestle Inn.
Damn was Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11 marvellous.
Whenever your love for the art of pro wrestling wanes thanks to head-scratching booking decisions or the deluge of controversy that regularly hits the industry, return to this match. Return to a backdrop out of the ring and through a table waiting below. Return to a gorgeous dropkick from the heavens to the back of Okada’s head. Return to two master craftsmen giving the audience in Tokyo a show for the ages.
The IWGP Heavyweight Championship bout that headlined NJPW’s premier event in 2017 is the first of four classics between Omega and Okada. It’s the bout that famously inspired Dave Meltzer to hand out a six-star rating (h/t Internet Wrestling Database) when previous classics almost always capped out at five. It’s a bout that immediately shoved its way into the greatest-ever conversation.
Why is this match so deliciously good, though? What about it had pundits and fans willing to call it better than Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker or Kenta Kobashi vs. Samoa Joe? What makes one masterwork stand out among other masterworks? What did Okada and Omega do to create such moving theater in Tokyo?
Those questions swam around in my head for the longest time.
As a remedy, I rewatched Okada vs. Omega. I studied it like I was preparing to face The Rainmaker myself. And I dug through the stats for the match Craig Leask compiled here, looking for a numerical element to the answers I sought.
The first part of the masterpiece formula is simple—put two of the absolute best wrestlers on a huge stage with a prestigious heavyweight title at stake.
Omega is an innovator bursting with energy, an artist intent on pushing the boundaries of the art form. Okada, the cornerstone of New Japan, is the best big-match performer walking the Earth today. Of course these two were going to light it up come main event time.
But how did they not only do that but also exceed any reasonable expectation we had for that night?
Let’s start with each wrestler’s ability to make even ordinary moves feel important. There’s a moment early in the match where Omega clamps on a side headlock and gloats with a grin that he has the champ trapped. Okada tries to yank his head out to no avail. He rolls around trying to escape, but The Cleaner holds on, dragging his foe to the mat and grinding his arm ever harder across Okada’s temple.
Here’s a move and exchange that is often taken for granted by the fans. The headlock is usually the chips and salsa at the table before the real meal arrives. Not here. The wrestlers managed to create real drama with what could have been a throwaway moment.
There’s an expert-level combination of precision and emotion all over this match.
Okada slings Omega to the mat with arm drags that would make Ricky Steamboat proud. Everything from knees to the gut to dropkicks to the chest are done exquisitely, as if we’re watching two wrestling professors teach a class in offensive artistry.
There’s an urgency and desperation to so much of each man’s attack, as well. Okada and Omega know they have to nail their opponent with their best shot to win. They throw an extra oomph onto everything, unsure what it will finally take to claim victory.
This manages to fill the action with gripping emotion.
The layout of the match is key, too. It played up just how even these two rivals were. This was Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. This was the company’s current against his potential future ace. The action needed to reflect the evenness of this title tilt. And it did.
Omega’s speed gave him the advantage for moments. Okada’s crisp and expert offense helped him take back control. Omega avoids the Rainmaker; Okada slips out of several One-Winged Angel attempts. The combatants reversed the other man’s attacks over and over again. 98 total times to be exact.
The back-and-forth nature of the action is played out in the numbers. Both Okada and Omega clamped on five submissions. They both executed 14 grapples on their opponent. Omega scored 55 percent of the offense to Okada’s 45. It’s hard to get more balanced than that without pre-taping the match and re-doing spots.
The IWGP title clash also draws power from anticipation.
In a surprising move, Okada reaches under the ring to nab a table. He sets it up at ringside with bad intentions, something that is more in line with how Omega operates. There is no crash on that table in that moment, though. Champion and challenger fight on for several minutes in the ring before that table comes into play again.
It’s a long while before Okada eventually sends Omega flying over the top rope with a mighty backdrop. The delay amplifies the moment. The audience is waiting for that table to be a factor and the drama builds as a result, the spoils of Chekov’s Gun’s principle at work.
Omega vs. Okada benefits too from avoiding the trend of spamming finishing moves. In fact, Omega never once nailed the champion with the One-Winged Angel.
It was as if he was the power hitter who could never quite get his bat squarely on the ace pitcher’s fastballs. We kept expecting the move to come, to see if Okada could get up from it, but it never did. Instead, we get treated to the drama created by his multiple misses.
The final act builds on an already quality match, cementing its status as an all-timer. Here, both men hit a whirlwind pace. Okada and Omega straight up empty their tanks, cranking up the intensity of their strikes, dashing faster at each other. It’s an electric stretch that absolutely sings.
The flow of offense/tide changes chart is all over the place for much of the match, but from minute 40 to minute 45, it’s dead even. No peaks and valleys. It’s a visual representation of no one being able to take over. The bout is suddenly a swordfight where every swing of the blade lands.
A final Rainmaker that bends Omega’s body like a discarded accordion caps off this 45-minute epic as the champion manages to hold tight to his prized possession.
Anyone who saw that all unfold knew right away they had watched something special. Wrestling fans watch thousands of matches, but only a few ever truly move you like Okada vs. Omega did.
You can explain some of the greatness of this match with logic. The balance of the bout, the pacing, the technical skill on display. Those things certainly played their part. But there’s something less tangible that made it all work so beautifully that night.
Sometimes two greats just click in a special way. Sometimes there’s a hard-to-define magic in the air, like what was crackling inside the Tokyo Dome during Wrestle Kingdom 11’s marquee match.
Ryan Dilbert is a pro wrestling columnist and fiction writer. He is the author of Mat Burns, a chapbook of wrestling-centered flash fiction. He writes for Voices of Wrestling and Wrestle Inn.