Featured image by @high_kkk
Did you know there was an Okada vs. Naito match today?
I sure didn’t. One of the most high profile and well-protected match ups in New Japan’s modern history, and there’s just no buzz for the thing whatsoever. No excitement on the timeline, no videos detailing the long and storied history between these two. It’s just another main event match from a company people used to like.
It’s not bad.
It’s pretty good for the most part, even. That shouldn’t really be much of a shock, these two have a strong track record together. The last time they wrestled one-on-one, it was one of the best matches of the decade, one so grand that it felt like the end of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s run as the best promotion in the world. That’s something that has been mostly proven true through the pandemic.
Still, there’s just enough here that’s enjoyable. The opening stretches aren’t quite as lethargic as they might have been if Okada had been stuck in there with someone lesser. The strikes are more hit than miss today from both men, and they still look incredibly comfortable working together throughout the runtime.
Still, there’s a lot working against these two. The notorious pandemic clap crowd robs this of the magnetic tension that always ran through the matches these two had together. So too does the booking behind this match. As Okada’s first defense in a brand new reign, there’s really just no hope for Naito here.
At the same time, these two aren’t moving at the wicked pace of their 40th Anniversary encounter in 2012, and they lack the high dramatic tension of their last Tokyo Dome main event. Beyond even that, a little too much of the match rests on tropes I don’t quite enjoy. Naito hints at doing some leg work in the opening segments, a callback not only to the 40th Anniversary match but also revenge for Okada doing the same to him in the Dome, but never commits to the work for it to ever develop into anything meaningful.
The peak of this is the finishing stretch which sees Naito go for his Stardust Press, and still not being able to lock down the victory. There’s an audible pop from the crowd, gasping in spite of the no-cheering policies New Japan has in place at the moment. For a second, that old magic cuts through all the bullshit, and it’s a genuinely compelling thing. In fact, most of that finishing stretch lands really well even when they don’t quite hit all of their bombs as neatly as they might like.
It’s a pretty good match. A lot of that thanks to all the heavy lifting they’d done in years past, finding their chemistry and laying the foundation of a meaningful history together. At the same time, that acts against their interests here too. I can’t stop thinking of how much better this used to be. Not just these two, but this company. It still has mostly all of the same key players, the main event scene hasn’t shifted all that much.
And yet, nothing is the same.
Trying to recapture that wonder only leaves one yearning for when it worked best. Watching these two wrestle again in 2022 feels like watching divorcees try to rekindle a romance. Things might have been great and beautiful at one point, and they might just be able to recapture a fraction of that by trying again, but too much has happened and changed at this point to ever go back. All that’s really left are what if’s and nostalgia.