Wrestle Review Wednesday: Okada-Omega

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Sports fans and commentators have a tendency to become prisoners to the moment. We process events through our own perspectives, and thus those we experienced in real-time resonate more profoundly. To wit, basketball fans whose formative years fell in the 2000s are more likely to cite LeBron James as their Greatest Ever. Those from the ’90s remember Michael Jordan’s greatness and have a stronger bond with his excellence.

With that in mind, I am prepared to definitively declare Okada-Omega IV from this past weekend’s Dominion show the greatest professional wrestling match of all-time. What’s more, the 2-out-of-3 Falls IWGP Heavyweight Championship bout solidifies this chapter of Okada-Omega as the greatest series in wrestling, in terms of match quality and significance to wrestling’s landscape.

Rewind to January 2017. Kenny Omega — a mid-card comedy act in American independent promotions the decade prior — entered New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest event of each calendar year, Wrestle Kingdom, on the strength of his 2016 G1 Climax win. I knew Omega had evolved into much more than the silly, albeit athletic middle-of-the-card performer he had been for Ring of Honor circa 2009.

I wasn’t a New Japan novice at the time, having followed the promotion through the unreliable means available back in the mid-to-late-2000s once initially drawn in by Hiroshi Tanahashi’s appearances for TNA. However, in 2016, I followed primarily through the AXS weekly program.

I’d seen Omega’s rise as The Cleaner and outstanding junior heavyweight feud with KUSHIDA, as well as his G1 Climax bouts against Tetsuya Naito and Hirooki Goto, but I wasn’t fully prepared to invest in NJPW World. I was also uncertain that Omega was ready to take the main-event mantle that had been vacated by the previous year’s exodus.

WWE lured away both A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura in 2016, debuting the former at the 2016 Royal Rumble and the latter at the same year’s Wrestlemania weekend. As two pillars of NJPW — in Nakamura’s case, sharing the main-event spotlight with Tanahashi for a full decade — this coup was roughly equivalent to if Vince had signed away Sting with Ric Flair in 1991.

But upon reading in the days immediately following Wrestle Kingdom 11 that Okada-Omega delivered maybe the greatest match in wrestling history, I wasn’t content waiting on the AXS airing in a month. I joined several thousand new subscribers to NJPW World to watch Kenny Omega challenge Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in what was certainly an outstanding match. However, the tendency for us to become Prisoner of the Moment seemed evident to me.

Okada-Omega I was outstanding, though I wouldn’t deem it better than Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa from March ’03, the match that first got me into Japanese wrestling. Ditto the previous year’s Wrestle Kingdom main event between Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, which had the added backstory of a Rock vs. Austin Wrestlemania X-Seven-esque need for the challenger to dethrone his rival.

Wrestle Kingdom 11 left me with something else beyond just one celebrated match, though. The top-to-bottom strength of the card made me an instant hardcore fan of New Japan. I was determined to score tickets to the announced G1 Special, and scoured NJPW World for classic matches. I was hooked into storylines beyond Okada and Omega — to the point that when the budding rivals went to a 60-minute time-limit draw at last June’s Dominion, or a sprint at August’s G1 Climax — I wasn’t prepared to deem it the best series in NJPW for just 2017, let alone all-time.

See, last year was the greatest 365 days of in-ring wrestling action ever. That’s not prisoner-of-the-moment hyperbole; the sheer volume of outstanding wrestling readily available renders it fact. It also bares out in the prevalence of excellent rivalries that played out over the year’s course.

Running in the semi-main event of both Wrestle Kingdom 11 and Dominion, as well as the A-Block G1 Climax final one night before the Okada-Omega B-Block finale, Tetsuya Naito and Hiroshi Tanahashi clashed in three unforgettable matches for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. The story arc that fueled their rivalry — the energetic babyface Tanahashi aiming to reclaim the belt an apathetic “heel” Naito consistently trashed — added a dramatic element.

Kenny Omega himself filled cards between his bouts with Kazuchika Okada in stellar performances against Tomohiro Ishii. As incredible as was each Okada-Omega, the trifecta of Omega-Ishii showdowns — culminating in the IWGP United States Championship match at G1 Special — offered just as much sheer in-ring action.

And that’s only referring to the other standout series within NJPW. Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate gave the newly formed WWE United Kingdom Championship instant credible with a barnburner to cap the title’s tournament; the WWE Match of the Year at NXT Takeover Chicago; and a 5-star finale just before Christmas on an edition of the weekly NXT program.

All four of those series excelled in their own, unique ways. One of the four can be defended as the best of 2017 and stand on strong merits.

And, once again, this only takes into account series from 2017. When it comes to declaring an all-time greatest series, the 1989 matches between Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair earned every ounce of praised lobbed in their direction.

Other rivalries may be more ballyhooed, but there’s a distinction between a series and a rivalry. Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock provide the most famous example for the latter, with a string of iconic matches spanning from December 1997 to March 2003. NJPW’s best example today is Okada and Tanahashi, who put on what would be the Match of the Year in most other trips around the sun at last month’s Wrestling Dontaku.

The five-star classic that gave Okada the IWGP title-defense record marked another chapter in a rivalry that began in early 2012.

Likewise, Okada-Omega will almost assuredly begin a new chapter at some point in the future. That next chapter will be hard-pressed to match the just-completed entry, which can now be definitively called the greatest series in wrestling history — better, even, than Steamboat-Flair.

Steamboat-Flair held the crown for nearly three decades because it delivered three bouts of indisputable 5-star quality, each with distinct characters. And, in actuality, Steamboat-Flair can retroactively stake claim to being a quadrilogy of 5-star matches, thanks to the release of an excellent house show match on fan-cam.

Coincidentally, the strength of their house-show matches factors into my putting Okada-Omega ahead.

In a must-read oral history on WWE.com (you know it’s must-read, because I’m typically tepid on oral histories as a storytelling device), Steamboat says of the WrestleWar ’89 finale: “That’s last on my list out of the three. It was still a great match, but Flair and I had worked with each other so many times in the Carolinas that there were matches on just regular shows that would have blown that one away.”

Steamboat adds he believed a fourth and final match was on the docket. In Okada-Omega parlance, WrestleWar ’89 is the G1 Climax bout of the Steamboat-Flair series. Had the transcendent NJPW rivalry concluded with that match last August, it would have felt somewhat unsatisfying.

Dominion 6.9 wrote the unfinished script Steamboat-Flair was denied.

The series ended with a flourish, saving the absolute best for a crescendo in what can be called the greatest match ever. Each of the preceding three showdowns play a part in shaping Dominion’s Best 2-of-3 Falls encounter: a furious sprint favoring Omega vs. the methodical approach of Okada; Okada’s gorgeous dropkick as the unsolvable momentum-killer vexing Omega; The Best Bout Machine’s inability to hit the One-Winged Angel in position to pin.

Meanwhile, other storylines tied in — like Omega’s reluctant distraction of partner Kota Ibushi costing the Golden Star the championship three years earlier against A.J. Styles.

A marvel of both athletic achievement and meticulous storytelling, Okada-Omega IV perfected everything I love about professional wrestling.