2020 in Wrestling: NJPW’s Okada vs. Naito Is Match of the Year

*Do It For Them meme with pictures of all the kids Naito has fist-bumped*

On January 5, 2020, the second night of New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s Wrestle Kingdom 14, Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito had the best match of the year. A winner-take-all battle between IWGP Heavyweight Champion Okada and IWGP Intercontinental Champion Naito to become the first man to hold both belts simultaneously, it was everything the ideal big match could be, delivering exciting in-ring action, engaging spectacle, and drama that had the Tokyo Dome crowd cheering its heart out. It was an example of wrestling at its best in a year that would go on to provide many more of wrestling at its worst.

When looking back on wrestling matches in 2020, Naito vs. Okada has a huge, coincidental advantage over most of them because it happened in the small portion of the year before it became defined by COVID-19. It ended up being one of 2020’s very few big matches that took place in front of a large crowd with no social distancing measures in place, and no restrictions on cheering or obvious enhancements to the crowd noise. Rewatching Naito vs. Okada after months of pandemic wrestling, that enthusiastic Tokyo Dome crowd noise is even more exciting than it was the first time (now with the emotional gut-punch of it being a reminder of Normal Life.) However, Naito vs. Okada isn’t MOTY based on timing and production alone, and in a more typical year, I think it still would have been at least a contender.

Before the in-ring action begins, this match has just about every non-wrestling aspect of wrestling going for it. Along with the prime atmosphere of an amped-up Tokyo Dome crowd, it benefits from the full weight of NJPW big match production, both performers entering in white statement coats after a dramatic video package. Behind the spectacle is a kind of gravitas reserved for the climaxes of wrestling’s tippy-top tier angles. Naito vs. Okada is, in a way, the final fight scene of the season finale of not just NJPW’s 2019 and its Double Gold Dash angle, but of a story over six years in the making.

The story so far

Part of what makes not just the main event of Night 2 of Wrestle Kingdom 15 but the whole Naito-Okada rivalry so compelling is that it wasn’t supposed to go this way. The first time they were supposed to main event a Wrestle Kingdom, a pure babyface Stardust Genius Naito challenging the rich young master of a more heel-ish Chaos for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in January 2014, a fan poll kicked them out of the card’s top spot in favor of Nakamura vs. Tanahashi for the IC belt.

It was clear from the direction of fans’ unwanted boos around that time that Naito’s post-No Limit singles run was the cause of the demotion. In desperate need of persona and career rehab, Naito took a break from NJPW’s regular touring schedule to travel overseas. He joined CMLL’s Los Ingobernables, then brought the stable affiliation and heel orientation back to Japan, with a new attitude of apathy towards the fans. As Los Ingobernables de Japon grew, they caught fire with NJPW crowds, and Naito completed the transition from rejected babyface to hated heel to adored antihero.

By the time Naito won the 2017 G1 Climax and earned the right to again challenge Okada for the IWGP title in the main event at the Tokyo Dome, the matchup in this position was anything but rejected. It felt like Naito had finally, laboriously earned his day in the sun. Then, at Wrestle Kingdom 12, he lost. He remained immensely popular, but in 2018, he fell short of another G1 win, and his main angle was a feud with Chris Jericho for the IC title that involved a lot of video promos. But after a full year in which the IWGP title was never within his reach, in 2019 it started to look again like Naito might be able to read the end of his road to redemption.

Ahead of the New Japan Cup, when he held the Intercontinental Championship, Naito reframed his ultimate goal from just winning the Heavyweight Championship to becoming the first man to hold the IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight titles at the same time. As the year continued, Naito’s path to this goal was anything but straightforward – he lost the IC title and gained it back, he fell short of the G1 final, and then, once it was clear someone would exit the Tokyo Dome as double champion, he lost the IC title again and with it, his ticket to the Dome and his destiny. He ended up getting into the to Wrestle Kingdom double title angle (along with Okada, Kota Ibushi, and Jay White) at the last possible moment by winning a de-facto number one contender’s match to Taichi. By this point, after so many instances of two steps forward and three steps back, any other outcome but Naito Two Belts seemed like borderline cruelty – but also like a real possibility.

NJPW

Though both Okada and Naito entered the January 5 main event as NJPW top guys and the aforementioned complimentary white statement coats, the differences between the two men had never been more palpable. Okada had just defeated Ibushi, the G1 winner, the night before and was in the type of form that reminded you of his IWGP Heavyweight title longevity records and his years of near-invincibility in singles matches that mattered. Naito, in contrast, was a guy whose career had been defined by failure. He was constantly nearing rock bottom while Okada, though not without his share of failures, had once seemed impossible to knock off his pedestal. Naito’s pre-WK video packages had pointed out that he was now once again on the verge of total oblivion; using the imagery of extra innings.

Okada wasn’t without fan support on January 5 at the Tokyo Dome, but the underdog was the clear favorite, and his support had a special, almost spiritual flavor. Everyone in the Dome over the age of, let’s say, eight, knew very well that wrestling wasn’t “real,” but the combination of the planned and unplanned aspects of Tetsuya Naito’s career trajectory created a sense that maybe all this destiny talk was a little bit real, or at least easy to get very invested in. There was a sense that he had to win, that this was IT for him, and if he wasn’t going to make it to the top now, he never would. The closest thing that pro-Naito-Two-Belts viewers, whether at home or in the Tokyo Dome, could do to try and bring about their desired result was to play their role in the proceedings to the best of their ability, supporting their hero with a fervency almost like prayer.

Extra innings

About four hours into Wrestle Kingdom Night 2, the Tokyo Dome crowd was red hot as Naito entered to face the gatekeeper of his destiny and remained extremely invested throughout the match’s thirty-five minutes. The house style for New Japan singles main events is Long Epic, which can have diminishing returns. Naito vs. Okada, however, is an example of how the format can still deliver. With every non-wrestling aspect of wrestling on their side, all that was left when the bell rang was for two of the best wrestlers in the world to deliver in the ring, and that’s what they did.

They start the match with a lockup and some more basic wrestling, every move amplified by the crowd’s hyper-invested reactions. Okada plays everything with his signature cool focus while Naito reminds everyone that he’s not a straightforward, honorable competitor even if everyone likes him now (he spits twice in this match, one of the few things that can still usually get him booed) (here, it doesn’t get him booed.)

The match gets tenser and more dramatic when Okada gets a longer stretch of control and starts targeting one of Naito’s perpetually-damaged knees, slamming it into the mat, then through the timekeeper’s table. Things escalate further once they’re both back in the ring – Naito barely beating a countout only to roll right into another of Okada’s attacks. Okada kicks out of the match’s first Destino and things speed up with more competitive wrestling and finisher teases, but the match’s most dramatic and memorable moments are still to come.

The final stretch of the match is one of payoffs. If anything in wrestling could be sincerely described as “epic,” it’s the sequence of Okada and Naito on their knees throwing elbows at each other while the Tokyo Dome echoes with the crowd’s shouts of “Oi!” for every strike. After Naito cuts off the exchange with a slap to the face, Okada shifts into his scariest gear. He hits a Rainmaker, Naito achieves one of the rare kickouts of the move, and Okada re-focuses on the knee, now with his more vicious attitude recognizable from previously amping up the drama in so many Okada-Tanahashi matches.

Naito saves himself with a Destino, but Destino is well established as a two-in-quick-succession finisher and that other Destino was too long ago for this to be the end. The crowd roars as Naito moves Okada nearer to the corner because they know what he’s going to do; he’s going to go for the Stardust Press, his old finisher, the one that trying and missing sealed his doom at WK 12. This time, he hits it and it’s as emotional and meaningful as a cool flip can possibly be. Okada kicks out, but maybe hitting it— at the Dome, in the main event— was more of a point of pride than anything else. It takes a Destino— first blocked, then set up with Valencia, then finally hit to end a series of stressful seconds— for Naito to achieve his destiny.

Destiny at last

Right lights flash and Tetsuya Naito is the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and not only that, but also the first-ever IWPG Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Champion. Crowd shots show lots of happy faces and people on their feet; fan videos from the audience show people hugging. Of course, most of the audience knows that this is the result of NJPW finally writing Naito to win the big one, but after the years of waiting and after such a suspenseful match that the crowd poured their energy into, it feels like a victory fueled by the fans, the crowning of a true People’s Champion. Naito’s success feels like the viewer’s success.

Naito vs. Okada isn’t only of the few examples of wrestling being great in 2020 without being overshadowed by the world and/or the industry being terrible, but an example of wrestling’s potential for greatness, full stop. It’s an extremely well-executed match and the conclusion to a great story that had a large crowd of people of different ages and genders on the edge of their seats. In a year when wrestling has often made the case against its own existence, the echoes after those elbows and the sight of that little kid leaning over the railing and yelling in support as his hero stumbles out of the arena are reminders of how wonderful, how cathartic, and how transcendental pro wrestling can be.

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Emily Pratt

Emily Pratt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She used to study, write about, and make theater. Now she writes a lot about pro wrestling. Pratt is a regular contributor for Fanbyte, with other bylines at Uproxx, Deadlock, Mind Games, Orange Crush, and FanSided WWE.

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