It’s hard to put into words how significant this match is. I was a Tanahashi-Okada denier for a very long time. Through most of the mid-2010s when the rivalry was its peak, I just didn’t care for anything I saw and even when I went through all their matches a few years ago, I still remained a little more critical of what I saw than most. But even then, being lukewarm on their ring work, I understood the magnitude of what this match represents.
Beyond what happens from bell to bell, this match is the turning point for New Japan Pro Wrestling in a big way. Behind the scenes, New Japan has just undergone a major paradigm shift the effects of which we still feel today. Bushiroad had bought out the company and instituted Gedo as the main creative force behind it. This match represents New Japan first major risk in the Bushiroad-Gedo era, and arguably their most successful by far: the crowning of Kazuchika Okada.
It’s almost impossible in 2020 to imagine a time that Kazuchika Okada wasn’t the God King Ace of New Japan. But here in February 2012, he was a puffy faced up-and-comer fresh from a tepid return match at the Tokyo Dome. How dare he skip in line? How dare he have the audacity to confront the Once in a Century Talent after a successful Tokyo Dome title defense? Surely Tanahashi would put this youngling back in his place in the midcard.
On my first viewing, I recall reading Okada as an uncharismatic blob in this match–unready for the projection expected of a top level draw. And sure, he doesn’t have the major superstar aura he has today but how could he? No one really knows this kid. Why should he bother for this audience? But Okada’s not as much of a blank slate as I’d initially assumed in this match. There’s an easy cockiness to him, an almost subtle smugness that comes through in the ring. This is a man who knows he’s about to get rocketed to the top of the mountain and he can’t wait to prove everyone wrong.
Tanahashi controls much of the early segments, building the opening around a headlock. Okada breaks up Tanahashi’s momentum with a dropkick–in one move establishing a key part of what would become The Okada Formula. But this is not yet Okada’s time. Tanahashi is still firmly in charge and he spends the second act utilizing a classic trope of his: working over Okada’s leg. Okada does a decent job selling it and the injury bothers him into the third act as well.
But then Tanahashi takes a bad bump, missing Okada on a somersault senton to the floor and splatting onto the concrete. This gives Okada the chance to Tombstone Tanahashi onto the floor and everything changes.
The crowd doesn’t know it at the time but all the pieces of the Okada puzzle are being laid out before them and they will spend the next few years putting it together. Okada follows up the Tombstone with more offense towards Tanahashi’s neck: his Deep in Debt submission, his reverse neckbreaker, the Heavy Rain. All in service of setting up his killing blow. The layout does a lot to build the credibility of Okada’s offense as these signature moves are reserved for the finishing stretch after Tanahashi’s hurt his neck on the Tombstone. Now, every new move from Okada on the neck has an element of danger to it.
But surely Tanahashi still wins out in the end, yes?
The Ace tries, nailing a High Fly Flow to the back of Okada’s legs. He tries again to hit it flush but Okada gets his knees up, sacrificing his limb for some more time into the fight. Tanahashi tries to get a Sling Blade to cut off Okada’s momentum but Okada retains wrist control and pulls Tanahashi into the Rainmaker. Three seconds later and history is made. The Rainmaker Shock as it’s known today.
The only person not shocked? Okada. He doesn’t pump his fist or jump to his feet as if he’s climbed a mountain. He just smiles. He knew this would be the end and everyone else is just catching up to him. There’s no respect for his fallen opponent, Okada steps on Tanahashi’s chest as he poses triumphantly. He’s not a blank slate in this match. He’s just too far ahead of us.
This match ages extremely well given the impact it had on the company and the foundation it lays for the rivalry to come. Tanahashi and Okada structure a match designed to bring Okada to the Ace’s level and for the most part, it succeeds. It’s not a perfect match by any stretch. The crowd doesn’t yet buy into Okada’s offense. His submission attempts struggle to gain heat–a problem he still faces today. But by the time the final bell rings, both men have done a lot already to correct these problems.
So much could have gone wrong in this moment. The fact that it doesn’t and what comes next is a major testament to both men and the company for laying this path out for them. It might be the most successful gamble in modern wrestling history.