Views From The Turnbuckle: Does NJPW Have An Okada Problem?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff

At the end of New Japan Pro Wrestling's Wrestle Kingdom 12, Kazuchika Okada stood in the ring after yet another successful IWGP World Heavyweight Championship defense in the main event of a major show. Before Okada spoke, his manager (and NJPW head booker) Gedo stood in the ring and effectively said that Okada was going to continue his reign of dominance, and become a bigger star than other top names from NJPW's past. Gedo said that Okada was going to go further than he has already gone, and he would become a legend that will go down as the greatest professional wrestler in history.

Meanwhile, making his way to the back of the Tokyo Dome was Tetsuya Naito, the man Okada had defeated in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. Naito had just finished off an incredible 2017 where he had established himself as the most popular wrestler in NJPW, and was looking to follow-up with the biggest win of his career, by dethroning Okada for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and winning the world title. Anyone questioning Naito's popularity just needed to listen to the crowd's reaction when Naito walked to the ring 40 minutes earlier. Naito, whose character is like a Japanese Steve Austin, the perfect anti-hero, got the loudest reaction out of anyone on the show, including Okada. From a merchandise standpoint, Naito's Los Ingobernables de Japon group far outsell any other form of merchandise in Japan. Although Okada has been positioned as the kingpin of NJPW, Naito has actually been the company's biggest star.

For most fans, Naito winning the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom would be the most logical outcome. A lot of people felt that it was Naito's "time" and that Okada, while brilliant, had run out of credible challengers for the title and a period where he wasn't the world champion would refresh both the world title picture, and himself. Instead, Okada did what he has already done for the last 572 (and counting) days; defeat his challenger clean and in the middle of the ring. Granted, the match was phenomenal and since Naito winning the title was a very real possibility, it had a back-and-forth dynamic that few major matches could match. However, Okada retaining was a disappointing outcome for a lot of fans. Not only had Naito emerged as the most popular wrestler in the company, but Okada's reign, which dates back to June 2016, had exhausted many opponents and that he lacked future challengers, unless they were rematches. Okada had gone through, Kenny Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Minoru Suzuki, Cody Rhodes, EVIL and now Naito. With Naito in his rear view mirror, Okada's next challenger is SANADA, a talented mid-card wrestler who nobody seriously thinks is going to take the world title off of Okada. If Naito had won the title, all of those top stars would once again become viable world-title contenders. In addition, without the confines of holding the world title, Okada could also work with new opponents and actually lose to them in major matches, without dropping a title.

Although Naito winning the title would make a lot of sense, the case for Okada retaining the title at Wrestle Kingdom is convincing. NJPW is coming off of a banner year, both domestic and abroad, where they saw big increases in revenue and profit. Okada was the world champion for that entire period, and also had some of the best matches anyone had ever seen. His feud with Kenny Omega was one of the best feuds in wrestling history and helped launch NJPW into the consciousness of Western fans who had never considered watching NJPW before. Okada could not have imagined a better 2017 for himself. Maybe Naito gets a bigger pop and sells a little more merchandise, but it is hard to argue that Okada being the champion was extremely successful for NJPW, so it makes sense for the company to stay the course.

Taking the title off of Okada at Wrestle Kingdom does not mean that Okada can't still be a big star in the company. In fact, an argument can be made that giving him some time away from the title and then regaining it would actually make him a bigger star. Naito getting a championship victory over Okada would also give Okada a real rival, to pair with Omega and to replace a fading Tanahashi. Okada dropping the title at Wrestle Kingdom wouldn't really hurt Okada in any way.

Going back to what Gedo said in his post-match promo, he mentioned that Okada would be the biggest star the company has ever seen. In Japan, there are three indisputable faces on the Mount Rushmore of wrestling: Rikidozan, Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. Whoever the fourth face is is a debate between numerous other stars; Tatsumi Fujinami, Keiji Mutoh, Mitsuharu Misawa, Riki Choshu, and others; but the top three stand head and shoulders above the rest. Could Gedo be pushing Okada to be the indisputable fourth face? The thing that separated Rikidozan, Baba and Inoki is that they were pushed as singular forces within their promotion. They didn't have equals, not in the sense that Mutoh had Hashimoto and Chono, or Misawa had Kobashi and Kawada. They were more like Hulk Hogan in the 1980s; no other star was allowed to look like a potential equal because that would detract from the colossal babyface that ruled the company. The idea that Naito beating Okada and thus becoming a true equal to Okada would fly in the face of that methodology.

Granted I'm not sure that Okada could ever really become as big of a star as the previous three; they belong to a bygone era and have been immortalized by generations. It would be like expecting a baseball player to be like Babe Ruth, or a rock band to be like The Beatles; as talented as they may be, it is impossible for them to usurp the ideal visage of a bygone era. In addition, the business in Japan has changed so much that it is hard to imagine Okada reaching that level. In the golden age, wrestling was on prime time on network television--today NJPW has a highlight show on after midnight local time. While NJPW is having a great year, pro wrestling in general just mainstream entertainment the way it was from the mid-1950s to the late-80s. The one advantage Okada could have over all of those guys though, is international expansion. If Okada could become the top star of NJPW as they expanded far beyond Japan and become a major star internationally, he could do something that other stars haven't done. Baba, Inoki and Rikidozan all spent time in America, and they did have some success (Baba wrestled Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden) but to have sustained success as the top star of a Japanese company expanding internationally, that is new territory.

At the end of the day, Gedo is the top decision maker in New Japan, and what he decides will be the future of the the company. Gedo has had a remarkable run as booker of NJPW, taking the company from all-time lows to hosting more than 40,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome. What is interesting is to examine how closely Gedo's success as booker is related to Okada's success as the top babyface in the company. Gedo (and his partner Jado) became the booker of NJPW earlier this decade mainly because nobody else in the company seemed to want to do it. One of his first moves was to bring back Okada from his excursion in the US, and he returned to Japan, defeating YOSHI-HASHI at Wrestle Kingdom in 2012. The next month, Gedo made Okada his champion, having him defeat company ace Tanahashi in February 2012. His decision was viewed as a major risk, as Okada was not an established name and was being rapidly pushed into a role he never really earned. Six years later, obviously it was the right move and Gedo looks like a visionary. The Okada/Gedo relationship is something that has helped reinvigorate NJPW, it is only logical to assume that Gedo may have a difficult time putting a star over Okada consistently.

I don't think that Gedo doesn't want to put anyone over Okada because that is his guy and they are best friends; I think he is too smart to fall into that kind of booking trap. However, Wrestle Kingdom 12 was the first time I can remember fans having a wide-spread dislike of Okada winning a match. Could Okada fatigue settle in? Over the rest of the year, if Okada keeps winning I could see fans starting to get sick of his reign and pining for someone, anyone else to dethrone him. Personally, I don't think pushing Okada as this supreme superstar in NJPW above every else in hopes of turning him into an icon is a good idea; it loses sight of what is actually best of business. I think Okada is the best wrestler in the world and should always be a major figure in NJPW; but business is better when fans believe that more than one person can be the champion (that was why Naito vs Okada was so good, because both people could realistically win the match). NJPW doesn't have an Okada problem right now, but they might this time next year if Okada is still the champion.


Back To Top