Kenny Omega Beat Kazuchika Okada in One of the Best Wrestling Matches Ever
The fourth installment of this rivalry was legendary, with Omega becoming New Japan Pro Wrestling's IWGP World Heavyweight Champion.
Screen capture via New Japan Pro Wrestling/Twitter
For 719 days, Kazuchika Okada was untouchable. On the 720th, Kenny Omega found the answer, becoming the new IWGP World Heavyweight Champion in a terrific match to close out an epic quadrilogy. To dethrone maybe the greatest champion in history, it would take one of the greatest performances of all time.
Okada, the best wrestler in the world, had made it a personal mission to tear-down the New Japan Pro Wrestling record book and re-write it in his own image. For nearly two years, Okada carried with him the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, setting new records for the length of his title reign, the number of times he defended it, and time spent with the title in a career. He was not entirely invincible, but with his title on the line, he was, posting an 11-0-1 record since winning it back at Dominion in June 2016.
This was the impossible task laid before Omega on Saturday at the 2018 edition of Dominion, one of New Japan’s marquee annual events. Omega was the one draw in Okada's otherwise spotless record as champion, and while Okada had defeated him cleanly in a title defense, too, Omega also owned a non-title victory over Okada from last summer's G1 Climax tournament. Now at the point of calling the shots, Okada chose Omega as his challenger once again, looking to expunge the only mark on his historic reign. The 1-1-1 series would be decided in a best two-of-three falls match without a time limit, a fourth installment that promised to threaten for best-of-all-time status.
Before Omega could attempt to push the boulder up the hill one more time, though, he slipped and it nearly crushed him.
The match began as most between storied rivals do, with a feeling out process and a clear signal that the fighters know each other incredibly well. Early counters, chain wrestling, and trades of stiff forearms soon turned more contentious—the action spilled to the floor, Okada drove Omega into the ringside barricade but then ate a V-trigger knee while attempting a running cross-body, and things picked up quickly. It almost immediately felt like the slower, physical, late stages of a classic rather than the opening moments, almost working as a seamless continuation of the 137 minutes they'd turned in over three previous encounters.
Omega eventually took control, and it looked as if the game plan he and partner Kota Ibushi laid out—leverage his quickness advantage early, get the first fall, and trust his conditioning advantage to split the final two falls—was working. Okada took advantage of a small window, as he so often does, dropkicking Omega ribs-first onto the ringside railing, resulting in an injury that would plague Omega all match. Omega recovered for a near-fall, then got shocked with a surprise pinning counter from Okada. No Rainmaker, no Tombstone Piledriver, just a simple rana pin.
Just under half an hour into the match, Omega was down 0-1. The impossible task of beating Okada twice in three tries had become even more dire—Okada had not lost consecutive matches since the August 2016 G1 Climax tournament, and he hadn't lost consecutive title matches since early 2015 when he was still chasing his third of four championships. This felt like the Raptors running into LeBron James again, or James running into the Golden State Warriors. Yes, Omega was at his best ever, but of course Okada was going to win. It's Kazu-freaking-chida Okada.
Doubt crept onto Omega's face and concern on that of Ibushi, who was cornering his best friend here. Okada looked primed to end the second fall quickly—it would have been the height of Okada's encroaching arrogance during this lengthy reign to have a goal of beating Omega twice within the 47 minutes it took him to beat Omega the first time—and it was only when Omega shifted strategy and ratcheted up the aggression that the tides shifted.
Omega ripped into Okada with vicious, echoing chops that sent sweat spraying off Okada's chest, which slowly began to resemble hamburger meat as the match wore on. When Okada would not relent, Omega delivered a series of violent palm thrusts to the neck and upper back, the neck being a consistent focus of Omega's offensive game plan. He used the ring apron as a weapon, then secured a table, laying it over Okada and delivering a Coup de Grace double foot-stomp from the ring apron, a nod to a former Bullet Club leader Finn Balor nee-Prince Devitt.
When Okada became too focused on Chekhov's Table—one had been set up outside the ring as a major plot device of the second fall, only to never come back into play for a pay-off—a sequence of reversals led to an incredible reverse hurricanrana from Omega on the floor that nearly led to a count-out fall. When Okada beat the 20-count, the tempo picked back up again with a series of athletic dropkicks, suplexes, and reversals. Okada nearly got Omega with the same surprise rana pin, but another quick exchange ultimately led to Omega hitting his One Winged Angel finisher. It has never been kicked out of, even by Okada, and it evened the match at 1-1 and their overall series at 2-2-1.
The third fall made for some of the most dramatic moments in recent wrestling memory. The outcome now definitively back in question, Okada growing weary and frustrated, and Ibushi remaining extremely concerned from the outside, every false finish was out-of-your-seat levels of 2.9-counts. Omega went back to another former Bullet Club leader, hitting A.J. Styles' Styles Clash for a two-count. He tried for another One Winged Angel but buckled under exhaustion. Okada did the same in attempting a Rainmaker, a call-back to last year's Dominion match where it was Omega collapsing to avoid the move.
When Omega missed a Phoenix Splash—Ibushi's finisher and a stark call back to the most dramatic turn in their storied history together, with their roles reversed on the apron and atop the turnbuckle—it looked like Omega's long history of keeping Ibushi in mind through everything he's done had maybe cost him. But he—they—have come so far.
"I'm much stronger as a person, as a human being, with him by my side," Omega had said in a pre-match video package. That proved prescient.
Eventually, Okada took control back, hitting a pair of Rainmaker lariats, only for Omega to reverse a third into a German suplex. Omega kept the waist locked for a second, only for Okada to reverse a third into one of his own. Okada, too, kept the waist locked and attempted a Rainmaker, and Omega fired right back with a snap German and then another brutal reverse hurricanrana. Okada came back and attempted another Rainmaker, and Omega pulled off a One Winged Angel out of nowhere. Normally a methodically deployed move, this was uncharacteristic, and while the move is unsullied, he landed it too close to the ropes for a cover.
And so Omega delivered a V-trigger knee strike to a prone Okada, lifted him to his feet, and hit the One Winged Angel once more, dead in the center of the ring to become the new IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
It came some 70 minutes into the match, a match that immediately enters the discussion among the best of all time. Exactly as expected, unfair though that bar was. There's little question that the series of matches belong in the pantheon, and while it's difficult to rank the latest battle among their other three—all of which are among the five highest-rated matches of all-time by unofficial arbiter of such things, Dave Meltzer—this felt special. Some prefer their first encounter, others their 60-minute broadway, others the urgency of Omega's desperate 30-minute time-limit victory. There are no wrong answers, and this match, when primacy effect subsides, will still belong right there with the others.
From a story perspective, there is no touching Saturday's match. It is the culmination of so many interwoven stories, and it was executed almost flawlessly. There is the strictly competitive story, where Omega's two-year chase of Okada finally resulted in him winning a championship he's been chasing his entire professional life, underscored by the fact that Omega's stipulation—two-of-three falls, in response to Okada's hubris in suggesting no time limit—proved his saving grace. There is the end of Okada's legendary title reign and the questions of what comes next, with Okada so firmly established as an all-timer and so much still he can accomplish at just 30 years old.
Throughout Omega's arc, though, have been two other stories that find their resolution here. The easiest to address is Omega's relationship with The Young Bucks, his long-time friends and partners in The Elite. In recent months, that relationship had become strained by conflict within Bullet Club, and for the first time against Okada, the Bucks were not in Omega's corner.
The other is far more difficult to explain briefly, as it's a years-long story of love and friendship between Omega and Ibushi. After far too long apart, that same Bullet Club conflict helped Omega and Ibushi find their way back to each other, which helped Omega reach a peak he couldn't until that resolution took place. They set out to change the world together way back when, and in Omega becoming the first gaijin IWGP Heavyweight Champion since 2015 and the first Canadian to ever hold the title, they've done just that.
"My way is to make my own rules. My way is to live the life I want," an emotional Omega said in the ring. "And what I realized is with my friends—my best friends, my lovers—by my side, we can truly do anything."
It was Ibushi who strapped the title to Omega's waist, and the Bucks joined them to celebrate and embrace. At a post-match press conference, Omega would declare the foursome "Golden Elite," a mixture of Golden Lovers and The Elite that he promises is a new era for all of them. He was emotional, he was revelatory, and he seemed complete. Years of climbing his way from somewhat of a comedy act through the junior heavyweight division and to the top of Bullet Club, of losing himself and his partner and finding his way back, of losing sight of goals and friendships and correcting those mistakes, and of simply improving as a competitor and person all culminated in Omega's crowning achievement, one he got to soak in with the people who mean the most to him.
Whether that's enough to make it the best match of all time that some came in with the expectation of or whether it's just one of four in one of the greatest series of matches in wrestling history, it would be difficult to have scripted a better ending to this story or to have executed it any better. At this moment, I'd call it the best match I've ever seen.
Where They Go From Here
Taking the title off Okada opens up a world of possibilities for New Japan, ones that may not have been there had Okada retained and finished wiping out the bulk of the heavyweight division. It's not New Japan's style to hold an immediate, WWE-style rematch, and the two-of-three falls stipulation was intended to add at least a temporary sense of finality to the rivalry. Okada now becomes the favourite to win this summer's G1 Climax tournament and earn a title shot at Wrestle Kingdom in January, but that's not the only path New Japan can take.
The most obvious first challenger to Omega is Cody. The two have been feuding on and off since Cody joined Bullet Club and immediately engaged in subterfuge to create a power struggle. As Golden Elite celebrated to end the show, Cody briefly appeared on stage, approached the ring, and then thought better of it. The latest Being the Elite episode shows Cody struggling internally with doing the "right" thing and congratulating Omega to make peace, only to opt against it. He'll be Omega's first defense in what should be a great match at the July 7 show at Cow Palace. There are plenty of other fresh matchups that await, too.
Looking longer term, eyes will likely turn to how Ibushi performs in the G1. The way Saturday's events concluded, it seems unlikely NJPW would pull the trigger on an Omega-Ibushi battle, but at some point in the future, there is real money to be made in competition driving a wedge between them (or, alternatively, taking place with no wedge at all, showing their growth as a pair).
A Heavy Night of Change
Omega was not the only new champion crowned Saturday. He wasn't even the only new champion crowned from Winnipeg, as Chris Jericho, somewhat unexpectedly, defeated Naito for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship through nefarious means (viciously attacking Naito before the match and then hitting a low blow before the finish). That means he'll be sticking around New Japan a while longer.
Elsewhere, Hiromu Takahashi defeated Will Ospreay for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship in an excellent match that marks the culmination of a truly remarkable stretch of wrestling from Takahashi and a great competitive rivalry between the two. ... The Young Bucks defeated SANADA and EVIL in their first foray into the heavyweight tag division, winning the IWGP Tag Team Championship. ... Michael Elgin became yet another gaijin champion, winning a three-way match for the NEVER Openweight Championship. It was a match that happened. Four titles switching hands to non-Japanese competitors in one night may be random, but as New Japan continues its international expansion—including a US show in early July—it makes sense from a strategy perspective.
The only successful title defense came from El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru against Roppongi 3K for the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship. ... There was also three non-title tag matches that all provided some fun moments—or terrifying, in the case of the fledgling Tomohiro Ishii-Minoru Suzuki feud—and included Rey Mysterio's NJPW debut, a loss in six-man tag action to Bullet Club.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.