It’s no secret that for the past decade, Kazuchika Okada has been the biggest key to the success of New Japan Pro Wrestling, leading the promotion through what we refer to as it’s golden age of the 2010’s. Arriving in style after sending shockwaves throughout the wrestling world by defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi in the infamous Rainmaker shock, Okada basically speedrun his way to a now Hall of Fame career. It seemed as if he was invincible and with him, so was NJPW. However, the last two years have been a challenge. After working insanely hard in the epic main events for nearly a decade, injuries finally caught up with Okada and endless bad luck followed for NJPW.
As weird as it sounds, New Japan is as good as Okada is, which is why those injuries in 2020-21 really meant that the golden boy couldn’t steer them through the tough times of the pandemic. NJPW was struggling and they needed their ace to step up and provide some stability once again. Thankfully, that’s exactly what he did. After taking small breaks to heal up throughout the early part of 2021, be it due to the back injury or COVID, Okada finally began his journey back to the top, winning the G1 Climax 31. Now in 2022, Okada is running through the year with the IWGP World Heavyweight Title finally around his waist, continuing his quest to help New Japan regain momentum and thus far, things are looking good.
Getting into his reign from the beginning, Okada challenged Shingo Takagi, the 3rd IWGP World Heavyweight Champion who in fact defeated him to win the vacant title at Dominion last year. After an excellent back and forth match, Okada eventually landed the Rainmaker twice, pinning Shingo to win the title and in doing so, finishing his journey back to the top. In truth though, the challenge wasn’t over yet. He still had to meet Will Ospreay on the very next day, the 2nd holder of the title who due to a neck injury, had to vacate the belt last May.
After a spectacular match that has been widely hailed as a Match of the Year contender, Okada beat Ospreay and again stood atop the NJPW mountain as the undisputed champion. The real work began now though, as he was then challenged by one of his greatest rivals in Tetsuya Naito, very reminiscent of his first reign with the IWGP Heavyweight Title ten years ago, when Naito challenged him after the Rainmaker shock for a title match in Sapporo on 20th February. Okada beat Naito to retain the title in what’s turned out to be my personal Match of the Year so far, rich with the callbacks to their decade long history. Then came the New Japan Cup, where he went to the semi finals but was ultimately rolled up by Naito, who then lost in the finals to Zack Sabre Jr.
Zack would challenge Okada at the Ryogoku Sumo Hall on April 9th, but came up short in what turned out to be another strong title defense for Okada. After that though, Okada wanted Naito again for a rubber match between them. So far they are 1-1 in 2022 and 6-6 overall in their careers against each other.
The match is set for Sunday May 1st at Wrestling Dontaku in the Fukuoka PayPay Dome, a historic building that New Japan is running for the first time in 21 years, raising the stakes even higher. The ultimate rubber match between two absolute champions, men who defined the golden age of NJPW in the 2010’s. Will Okada still be the King of the King of Sports or will Naito finally overcome his career rival to win the IWGP World Heavyweight Title for the first time?