The Rainmaker’s first long form interview since winning G1 Climax 31
Earned after a Kota Ibushi injury in the Nippon Budokan final, Kazuchika Okada might not have secured his third career G1 trophy the way he had envisioned, but the victory was no less important to the Rainmaker, as he asserted himself right at the top flight of NJPW after seven years between wins in the tournament of tournaments and almost two years away from the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
In the days since, he was further reunited with IWGP legacy, bringing the famous fourth generation IWGP belt with him to rings on the Road to Power Struggle, as a break from the tradition of the G1 winner’s briefcase that he himself had birthed after his first win in 2012. With much to talk about, we sat down with Okada after his post G1 press conference.
The G1 is an entirely different championship to the IWGP
–So first things first, congratulations on your first G1 win in seven years!
Okada: Thanks very much. Seven years, huh…
–When you actually say it out loud, it’s definitely a long gap. How did it feel to win that trophy after so long away from it?
Okada: It’s definitely been a long time, but it wasn’t like I was completely away from the championship scene for seven years; after all, I held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for a lot, maybe most of that time. But yeah, the one thing that I’m reminded of is that the G1 is a completely different championship to the IWGP.
–When you won your first G1 in 2012, you were the youngest ever winner at 24 years and nine months. Then in 2014, you were 26; do you feel any differently winning in your 30s?
Okada: Not really… I think maybe those first two were on will, determination, passion alone, whereas this time I have the benefit of more technique backing all of that up. Now that I’m an old vet, heheh.
–You’re still young in the grand scheme, but it’s a different Kazuchika Okada to the hot head of seven years ago. Looking back through your comments heading into the early stages of the G1, it seemed you had a different level of commitment, and you were in great shape as well. Was there something especially motivating you this year?
Okada: Well, I wouldn’t say it was the G1 in particular per se, but I do think there’s been less of a rush with COVID. If anything there’s been too much time on my hands rather than too little. It meant that last year I was able to go through a lot of trial and error, train in different ways and eat in different ways, and see what kind of effects that would have on my body.
Okada: There wasn’t time for any of that experimentation when I was champion. I had my hands so full with that champion’s schedule, the next defence and everything else, that I couldn’t work on my body, my conditioning and everything. With the pandemic I was able to take the time to find the right balance for me, and to find out how best to improve my longevity, career wise. I was able to take this huge negative of COVID and make it a positive, and in the end, daily damage and punishment aside, I got through the whole G1 without any injury.
Tanahashi was the best possible first opponent
–It was a poetic start to your G1 in that your first group match was against Hiroshi Tanahashi in the EDION Arena, right where the Rainmaker Shock occurred in 2012.
Okada: I didn’t put all that much thought into it, but the last time I was wrestling Tanahashi, in Osaka, and walking out first would have been that night when I first won the IWGP title. We had rematches since in that building but I was champion and he was challenging.
Okada: It was deja vu in a way. This time we had a restricted crowd with COVID and everything, but that was the case in the first match; we weren’t selling out buildings then. It all really hit me, especially when Tanahashi was walking out. I knew then that I really had to make a mark.
–It was yet another motivator.
Okada: Right. Tanahashi was definitely the best possible opponent for my first match.
–When you made that comment about the ‘Rainmaker return’ in your post match promo, that really hit home with the fans that have followed you over the last decade or so.
Okada: It was in Osaka, Tanahashi was the opponent, I was out first, and not just using the Money Clip like last year. It was a perfect storm.
–That was the start fo a hot run obviously, but I want to jump ahead to September 29 in Korakuen. A lot of people might have expected the sentimental side of Okada to come out after you wrestled YOSHI-HASHI, but you just said that you were ‘already looking ahead’.
Okada: I think that again was me being in that Rainmaker mode. I was moving like the Rainmaker, thinking like the Rainmaker, and talking like the Rainmaker to boot. It’s weird, but…
–It was a side of you you hadn’t shown for a long time.
Okada: At the end of the day, I’m not in this business for NJPW to grow and do well. I wrestle for me, and I wrestle for the people that support me. That it happens to benefit NJPW and the entire business, well that’s a happy coincidence. I think getting back to that mindset was what was most important.
–Another part of becoming the Rainmaker. You wrestled SANADA on October 4 in Korakuen, on the same day that Fumio Kishida became the new Japanese Prime Minister. You said that you would be the next leader of New Japan on the mic.
Okada: Ah, yeah, that I did.
–Topical commentary aside, there was that determination again.
Okada: Well, obviously it was a big headline that day. I wasn’t making a political comment or anything, but that the people could see by the way I was wrestling that I was at the top and that I belonged there.
–Toward the end of the campaign, you and Jeff Cobb were heading for a dead heat in that perfect run, and then you were beaten by Tama Tonga in Yamagata. You had said that you had an ominous feeling about the night.
Okada: Tama had all his energy focused on that match, and he was the best prepared for it, for sure. I don’t think anyone could have seen that Tombstone/Gunstun counter coming.
–That was wild.
Okada: But you know, it might not have been a perfect campaign, but crashing down on my jaw off that Gunstun only made me look even more handsome, and I have no problem with handing out receipts. That’s exactly what I’ll do in Osaka.
–It all came down to you and Jeff Cobb in the final in the end. Did you envisage him having that incredible 8-0 run?
Okada: Well, in the end, it was probably me that created that monster in Jeff Cobb, heheh. But you know, since he joined in with Ospreay and Great-O-Khan in the United Empire, he seems to have really found himself. And us keeping pace with one another through the league, knowing that match was at the end, it was kind of psychological warfare all the way through the G1.
–Neither of you wanted to relinquish that advantage.
Okada: Before the G1, we were one and one from Tokyo Dome and MetLife Dome, so it was nice to win that rubber match. But a guy like that, I’m sure we’ll be wrestling each other again before too long.
We’ll look at it in a different light 20, 30 years from now
–Obviously, the final with Kota Ibushi ended with a referee stoppage and Ibushi’s dislocated shoulder. What went through your mind when it happened?
Okada: I’d rolled to the corner, and was thinking about what I was going to do next in the match when I heard him call out in pain. I heard the referee ask him if he could go, and then the match got stopped. Honestly, I can’t say I was happy about it.
–We could all see the surprise in your face.
Okada: I mean, I was just like everyone else, not really understanding what had happened. In the end though, obviously wrestling is a dangerous sport, and perhaps we just got very lucky over the last 30 years. It just so happened that this time an injury like that happened right in the middle of the final.
Okada: But looking back on it, it was certainly another thing to add to things I’ve experienced in my career. The highs of winning obviously, but then the empty arena matches last year, the Katsuyori Shibata situation, they’ve all been experiences that have helped me grow in this business and as a person. It isn’t like I’ll never get to wrestle Ibushi again, and I think it’s really important to keep a positive face on something like this. Ibushi won’t want me saying this, but it is something that we’ll look at it in a different light 20 or 30 years from now and have a laugh, like ‘oh yeah, that G1 final’. Other sports have that. It was the last missed penalty kick in a World Cup, or a balk-off win to end the World Series. It’s a moment in time.
–You then had to address the crowd after that, a very difficult position to cut a promo.
Okada: Well, ending the way it did is one thing, but we still came off a whole month, in A Block and B Block, to be proud of and I obviously wanted to express that. A champion’s address was pretty important. I’ve been away from the IWGP for a while, but based on everything that happened this month, and winning at the end of it all, it was something I wanted to say. ‘Leave it to me, I’ll be right at the top again’.
I’m not the IWGP Champion. But I aim to be more important than the IWGP World Champion
–Of course, you requested the version 4 IWGP Heavyweight Championship belt after your win.
Okada: That belt has always been important to me, and that there is my connection to Ibushi while I wait for him to come back. He retired that belt, and it isn’t being used right now, so why not? In the past, G1 winners have had a briefcase, I’ll have a belt. I’m not calling myself the IWGP Champion, but I’ll have that belt until Ibushi comes back.
–But you also have the right to wrestle the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. So, if you were to beat, let’s say it’s Shingo Takagi, would you then hold both belts?
Okada: No, I’m not going to go for any convoluted stuff. All this is right now, is I want to protect this belt like it was my contract briefcase, and after that we’ll cross the bridge when we come to it. I mean, at the end of the day, briefcases, for a G1 champion? Pretty old hat wouldn’t you say? A briefcase really wouldn’t match my ring gear right now either.
–The belt is certainly stylish.
Okada: I think that it’s easier for casual fans to understand that winning the G1 makes you important, makes you a leader and gives you the responsibility to fire things up. Even though I’m not an IWGP Champion, I aim to be more important than the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. On another level, you might say.
People have taken that G1=IWGP challenge thing for granted
–The IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Shingo Takagi took exception to your comments on Twitter. Do you have anything to say to him?
Okada: Do your job as champion? Fire things up in your own way? Look, in 2012, I was the first one to have a contract for Wrestle Kingdom made after I won the G1. Since then, the winner got a shot. But now, winning my first G1 in seven years, I felt like, no, being the G1 winner is being a champion in its own right.
Okada: Look, this thing of G1 = IWGP Championship challenge has been something people have taken for granted for the last few years now. But winning the G1, being the G1 winner, that’s being a champion in and of itself.
–Certainly, that’s been the way things have operated since 2012. The winner challenges the champion in the Tokyo Dome.
Okada: With the belt on the line. But here’s the thing. ‘OK, we have a challenger. Now that challenger has to defend his right to challenge’. That doesn’t really seem right to me. I am the G1 Champion. There isn’t much time left in the year, and I plan to spend it representing as the G1 Champion. Back in the day there was that vote over whether the IWGP Heavyweight or Intercontinental should headline in the Dome, right?
–Right, in 2014.
Okada: So there are those political lines there. And that’s when the words struck me, of whether you’re in the ‘IWGP Party’ or the ‘G1 Party’.
–So to make things clear, you want it to be less of a case of the G1 winner being a challenger, and more that the G1 winner is the G1 Champion, and that Wrestle Kingdom is a Champion versus Champion match.
Okada: Takagi should believe in himself more. Fight like a champion, have the fans believe that he and the World title really is the be all and end all. It’s weird that he seems scared by it all.
–Walk on his own path like you are doing?
Okada: Look, I lost to the IWGP Intercontinental Championship back in the day. That’s why I want to really carry myself as the G1 Champion, not the world heavyweight challenger. I don’t think that I will lose out to the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. I don’t think that the G1 is as important as the world title, I think it’s more important than the world title. After all, the world champion was in that tournament, but he didn’t win, I did. That’s why I said backstage that he should be challenging me, not the other way round.
–A lot of people were taken aback by the comments, but it does make sense laid out like that.
Okada: At the end of the day, I want to dispel that idea that winning the G1 makes you a challenger. After all, the G1 only comes once a year. I might have said all sorts of things when I was IWGP Heavyweight Champion, but that was then and this is now. I plan to be doing my job as champion, and if the IWGP World heavyweight Champion does the same, well that can only be a good thing.