One was good, the other not.
It is always a fascinating exercise to see how two different wrestlers utilize time. So rarely do we get as direct a comparison as with Yuji Okabayashi’s two 30-minute time limit draws in the block stages of the DDT D-oh Grand Prix 2021 II. He bookended his tournament with these matches, the first against Konosuke Takeshita and the second against HARASHIMA.
With two different matches given the same amount of time, with a common opponent involved, we’re able to get an insight into how two wrestlers try to make the best of the booking they’ve been given. Needless to say, one did it much better than the other.
Let’s start with Konosuke Takeshita.
The match between Takeshita and Okabayashi main evented the first night of the D-oh Grand Prix. This in itself presented certain obstacles that the match needed to overcome. The match has the lofty task of following two excellent matches in the HARASHIMA vs. Kazusada Higuchi tournament opener and the compact Jun Akiyama vs. Yuki Ueno struggle.
The first few minutes of this are wrestled with all the vim and vigor of a desk worker watching the clock crawl towards 5 PM. There’s some of the uninteresting mat work that permeates the worst of main event Japanese wrestling. Of course, none of it plays into the later stages of the match in any significant way. That wouldn’t be such a problem if the mat work was compelling on its own, but it’s clearly not.
It’s even more damning when Takeshita starts throwing elbows at Okabayashi early on. I actually think Takeshita’s capable of throwing a pretty heavy elbow when he wants to. He’s held his own in strike offs before but it’s not great here. These are some of his most whisper quiet elbow strikes and a man of Yuji Okabayashi’s reputation having to sell for them only makes things feel even more disingenuous and tedious.
I think a big part of the problem with the first match is how much of it is dedicated to trying to present these two as equals. That’s why they waste time sitting in submissions down on the mat or why they spend so much on the tests of strength. The match is so dedicated to these two as equals that can hardly get an advantage over the other that it forgets that the key to pacing a good match is dips and valleys, dynamics and change. Hell, even the dynamic of two hardheaded monsters crashing into each other over and over can be fun if they just stay committed to the idea but unfortunately this match has far too much time to fill for them to give that concept any justice.
By the time these two are no selling German Suplexes and trying to figure out who will drop first, it just feels like unearned bombast. Just too little, too late to salvage a match that had already dug itself quite a deep hole.
Not the most auspicious start for Yuji Okabayashi’s D-oh run.
Redemption comes in the form of his final block match against HARASHIMA. Before the bell even rings, this match has the edge in booking. One source of tension comes from these two being very recent tag team partners. Earlier in the year, they had a fun run as the KO-D Tag Team Champions and this is their first singles encounter against each other.
On top of that, there’s the disparity in the results of their respective D-oh runs. Okabayashi comes into this match at the top of the leaderboard having suffered no losses in the entire block stage. HARASHIMA, on the other hand, has lost all of his block matches to this point. The undefeated Okabayashi stands in HARASHIMA’s way of scraping by to get on the leaderboard.
That’s a lot of meaty, meaningful booking to end both men’s tournaments.
What follows is nothing short of masterful.
HARASHIMA’s far more equipped for this kind of match because he’s not burdened with the pressure of having to look like the coolest, strongest person in the world. As such, organically approaching this match with more breathing room to tell a naturally flowing narrative, he ironically comes out looking so much better than Takeshita did.
A big advantage for HARASHIMA is that he’s a much better wrestler on the mat than Takeshita. When he picks an ankle to drop Okabayashi to the canvas, it doesn’t feel like its killing time for the sake of it. It feels like a much more natural progression of two veterans feeling each other out before the oncoming brutality.
The substance of the match comes when HARASHIMA escalates the action with a chop block to Okabayashi’s knee. A few well-placed kicks start off HARASHIMA’s attack on the leg, and already we have a much clearer and compelling narrative device than anything Okabayashi and Takeshita accomplished in their entire match. Okabayashi, for his part, does a great job selling the leg. He’s hobbled almost instantly and it makes the bulkier man believably vulnerable to HARASHIMA’s careful and precise attack.
Of course, Okabayashi still has his power to bail him out of trouble. Bum wheel and all, he’s still strong enough to nail a powerbomb to cut off HARASHIMA’s momentum and even takes HARASHIMA for a ride on his shoulders with an Argentine backbreaker all the way around the ring. Even in his comeback though, Okabayashi makes a constant show of the damage to his leg.
From there all the pieces are in place for the rest of the match to play out: Okabayashi with a bad leg, HARASHIMA with a damaged back. With both men hurting, there’s a natural urgency to start busting out the big offense to try to put the other way. It’s such a simple way to lead into the spectacular fireworks we want from both men. HARASHIMA’s thunderous kicks, Okabayashi’s vicious chops, it’s so much easier to indulge when these two laid so much thoughtful groundwork beforehand.
I would, of course, be remiss to not mention the eye blood. Okabayashi comes into the match with a busted up eye, likely from his hard-hitting bout against Kazusada Higuchi a few nights prior. In the midst of trading headbutts, Okabayashi’s left eye gets opened up, making him bleed all over himself in the final moments of the match. It’s a fantastic visual, one that could easily elevate any match. It does wonders here as a sign of the brutality both men are resorting to, as well as adding another chink in the armor of the undefeated Okabayashi that HARASHIMA can attack. Few things in wrestling this year are as aesthetically pleasing as Yuji Okabayashi, bloody eye and all, holding HARASHIMA up in an Argentine backbreaker.
Time will be much kinder to Okabayashi’s bout with HARASHIMA. Takeshita’s attempt with Okabayashi is a bloated, half-hearted affair, whereas HARASHIMA takes the exact same amount of time and makes every moment sing. DDT has already recognized the greatness in the match, putting it up for free on its YouTube channel just days after it aired live on Wrestle Universe. So there’s really no excuse, give it a watch as soon as is convenient. It’s one of the best matches anywhere in the world all year, an absolute tour de force of escalation and pacing. It is a breezy half hour of wrestling, something that gets rarer with each passing day.
Editor’s Note: Sections of this piece were edited to accurately reflect the result of a D-oh match between Jun Akiyama and Tetsuya Endo.