Kazuchika Okada successfully defended his IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Sanada at New Japan’s New Beginning event in Osaka. Sanada represented Los Ingobernables de Japon with pride and brought everything he had to the match, but it was not enough to defeat the champ.
Okada’s title reign has moved past the 600 day mark and he shows no signs of dropping the belt any time soon.
NJPW has indeed struck gold with Okada as champion and fans know that. The man that seemed to pale in comparison to Hiroshi Tanahashi continues to build his own legacy and has arguably surpassed The Ace of New Japan.
Okada is not only NJPW’s top guy; he’s also the best hand in the company.
Much like Ric Flair was to the NWA, so too is Okada to New Japan. Okada is the top talent in a company full of impressive workers yet no one out works him. He’s perhaps the most fundamentally sound talent that has ever stepped into a wrestling ring and he also has a confidence that puts him on a level all his own.
When Okada goes to work, his focus is razor sharp. He’s psychologically into the match to the point that it looks like a shoot and fans know he’s taking it seriously. New Japan is littered with punishing brutes that would rather brawl than wrestle, yet Okada’s own intensity separates him from the rest.
But along with intensity, comes ego.
While he has been a hugely popular star in NJPW, Okada has begun to show some heel tendencies. He booted Sanada in the back of the head at one point during their match, daring him to get up. The Osaka crowd actually booed that move yet Okada continued undeterred.
It’s not the first time he’s shown that side of himself and it’s perhaps come as a response to the pressure brought on by Los Ingobernables.
Tetsuya Naito’s faction is the most popular heel group in recent memory. LIDJ has swagger and is brimming with confidence. Win or lose, Naito and company always retain their rebellious attitude and it’s that attitude that keeps the fans coming back for more.
But this is not a good thing for NJPW in the traditional sense. Like The Shield and Degeneration X before them, LIDJ sells merchandise and has a massive following. But the group is supposed to be heel and that becomes something of a problem when it comes to working the company’s top babyfaces.
New Japan doesn’t present its heels and faces the way WWE does; there’s not a ton of promo work being done before or after the matches. The characters must tell their story in the ring and while that’s a good thing, it does perhaps put the company at a disadvantage in this instance.
Naito doesn’t have many opportunities to obnoxiously reject the crowd’s support and when he does, he typically does not turn them away. Instead he plays up to the fans and they respond extremely positively toward him. Kevin Kelly does a great job at ringside commentary putting over the fact that Naito’s recent loss to Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 12 may have been avoided had he been more focused.
In other words, Naito lost because he was too busy trying to pop the crowd.
Considering how popular Los Ingobernables is and just how iconic Naito has become, Okada’s life has become that much more difficult. He should automatically be over despite how much the crowd loves LIDJ but fans are now anticipating when Okada will eventually lose the championship. So rather than fight it, Okada instead gets heat by occasionally taking the low road during his matches.
Fans must see that Okada is still very much deserving of their support and they must continue getting behind him because he is NJPW’s top babyface. He’s obviously not trying to overtly win any popularity contests but it’s important that he keep his status until the time comes for him to turn, if that is indeed in the cards. But that does not mean he shouldn’t have an edge, which is exactly what he’s done.
New Japan fans know that Okada has a million dollar smile but they also know he’s all business. The crowd may have cheered Sanada during the match in Osaka, but Okada weathered the storm and received a great ovation at the end.
But when will the end come for his title run?
Okada is only 30 years old and is only just hitting his stride. He’s likely got another 10 years, perhaps more, at this elite level. But just as WWE had to build another top guy so John Cena could step aside, so too does NJPW have to look toward the future. Okada is in his prime right now and is really only just getting started so there’s plenty of time.
However for his character to remain compelling and not grow stale, he will obviously have to drop the IWGP championship eventually. Kenny Omega is out of the title picture right now and Cody Rhodes may or may not fully factor in. Naito is always around and could renew his rivalry with Okada at any moment. Or perhaps Jay White could be the next top guy in the making.
Whatever happens from this point, it’s obvious that Okada has never looked better. He’s taken on every challenger and proved why he’s on top every time he works. New Japan has its top star and the work done to create his legend has been truly impressive.
But it’s not over yet; The Rainmaker continues to reign.