A 5-5 record will see one move ahead in Sapporo next month
The New Year’s Golden Series will culminate on February 20 in Sapporo’s Hokkai Kita-Yell, with the IWGP World heavyweight Championship on the line. Kazuchika Okada will defend his freshly Wrestle Kingdom won title against Tetsuya Naito in what will be the eleventh singles match between two stars that have defined a generation in New Japan Pro-Wrestling over the last decade. With the scoreline at five wins apiece, just how did we get to Sapporo this February, and what happens next?
Training in the famed Animal Hamaguchi Gym before being accepted into the Noge Dojo via a late 2005 public tryout, Tetsuya Naito debuted the next year, and was approaching his graduation by the summer of 2007. An experienced Dojo hand, Naito was the senior Young Lion above the likes of later comers like YOSHI-HASHI and Kazuchika Okada, though Okada was an exceptional case. After heading to Mexico and training in the Toryumon Gym out of middle school, Okada made his pro debut in 2004 before starting again in NJPW. The future Rainmaker would not make his official debut until 2008 opposite Taichi, but 2007’s Last of CTU event would see him battle with Naito in a special ‘pre-debut’ match. After Naito picked up the win with a Boston Crab, the still relatively governable Naito would prophetically state ‘I can see myself wrestling him for years to come; I’m looking forward to it’.
Naito: 1 Okada: 0
Okada and Naito’s paths would cross multiple times over the next two years, but never in a singles conflict. As Naito plied his trade in the junior heavyweight division, forming a popular tag team known as No Limit alongside Yujiro Takahashi, Okada would continue to develop, and eventually both would go on excursions; first Naito primarily to Mexico, and then Okada to the US.
Okada then was absent when Naito made his first waves in the singles heavyweight stakes, making a major mark with matches against Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura in 2010 and 2011. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship eluded the Stardust Genius during this time, and Naito was consumed with a burning desire to achieve his goal of IWGP gold before the age of 30.
That was a goal the returning Okada blew right past on February 12 2012. Not yet 25, Okada defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi in Osaka to end the Ace’s record V11 championship reign in the famed Rainmaker Shock. Though the newly minted champions sudden ascent to glory was a surprise to many, given their history and Naito’s own ambition, it wasn’t a shock that he would step up to challenge first.
The title match would happen on March 4 2012, at NJPW’s 40th Anniversary Event. Emanating from Korakuen Hall, the main event would be the last of its era in seeing the richest prize in professional wrestling emanating from the Hall. The Korakuen faithful, just two months removed from hurling derisory boos at Okada as he made an arrogant challenge to Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 6 were forced to give the Rainmaker his due; a phenomenal matchup proving that Okada was indeed the real deal, and victory sealed with the Rainmaker.
Naito: 1 Okada: 1
Naito and Okada did not have to wait another five years to get in the ring in singles action again. The next chance would come just five months after the last, as night two of G1 Climax 22 hit Korakuen Hall. There, a packed crowd cheered on both men as Naito persistently went for Okada’s base, chopping down the Rainmaker at the knees and locking in a punishing figure four before landing the Stardust press on his second attempt to secure the win.
Naito: 2 Okada: 1
With his only other blemishes being to CHAOS mate Shinsuke Nakamura and Hirooki Goto, who avenged his own title match defeat at Dontaku that year, Okada recovered to win the G1 on his very first try. In so doing, he instituted a tradition- that the winner of the G1 go on to main event Wrestle Kingdom for the IWGP title. A similar tradition was born when those that beat the G1 winner emerged to challenge the Rainmaker, as Goto would do at Power Struggle, but Naito would have no such opportunity. At King of Pro-Wrestling in October, Naito was engaged in a grudge match with his former No Limit partner Yujiro Takahashi. A violent pre-match assault led to a speedy referee stoppage, and Naito would go on the shelf with a significant knee injury.
Democracy at work
Tetsuya Naito returned to the NJPW fold by the time G1 Climax 23 rolled around, and was driven by redemption and the resumption of his quest to be ‘the lead role’ in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. After defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi in Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Naito lifted his first G1 Climax, and went on to win the NEVER Openweight Championship, created in his absence, by the end of the year. Yet with every insistence that he was the main star in the months and years to come, there was growing discontent with the public, and increasing hollowness to his words. The crowds began to turn on the Stardust Genius, all while he needed their support the most to face the dominant IWGP Champion, now in the midst of his sophomore reign.
Meanwhile as Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi seemed set to collide for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 8, fervor for a certified marquee match over a white and gold belt that had achieved almost level prestige of Okada’s black strap was at an all time high. NJPW management would put the question of just who would go on last at the Tokyo Dome to a fan vote; Nakamura vs Tanahashi would cement their rivalry as one of the very biggest in New Japan history, but was perhaps a vote of no confidence in the G1 Climax winner.
Having watched on as a fan from the third base line of the Tokyo Dome, Naito was finally competing for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship center ring, but the achievement rang hollow, and culminated in defeat at the hands of Okada.
Naito: 2 Okada: 2
Just as in 2012, a chance for vengeance for Naito at a title defeat would come during the G1 Climax. 2014 saw the biggest ever field in tournament history, with the fifth night of the campaign in a sold out Sendai Sun Plaza Hall. Both men headed into the night at 3-1, but still relatively early in the campaign, Tetsuya Naito was nonetheless hurting. Night three and a battle with Toru Yano would see the corner of a steel chair meet Naito’s skull, splitting the Stardust Genius open; a wound that would then be re-opened by AJ Styles the very next night. Bandaged, Naito was no doubt motivated by a rowdy Sendai crowd that was split right down the middle, and set to work.
With a much higher pace than their previous main event encounters, Naito brought fast fury to Okada, who responded with heavy hits of his own. After a signature dropkick on the button, Okada looked to deliver the Rainmaker, but a duck under and a high angle uranage suplex would leave the 2012 G1 winner on dream street. The Stardust Press followed; though Sendai started the match split, they ended the night chanting for Naito as he promised to make it back to back in the G1 Climax.
Naito: 3 Okada: 2
Sadly for Naito, his win over Okada would give way to a three match losing streak, and he would end his campaign on ten points, while Okada would reach the finals and emerge victorious over CHAOS stablemate Shinsuke Nakamura. Unlike in 2012 though, this time Naito would be able to cash in his earlier G1 victory, and challenge Okada for the Tokyo Dome main event rights holder status at King of Pro-Wrestling.
Naito would catch Okada with a nasty right palm strike early, and the Rainmaker was rattled as his opponent began to dictate with a slower pace than at Sendai. Despite Okada battling back with some hard hits and a guaradrail assisted DDT on the floor of Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Naito managed to find the uranage that led to victory in Sendai. Gloria followed, but this time the Stardust Press saw Naito eat the canvas, in what would be the turning point of the match. Naito would doggedly avoid the Tombstone Piledriver, but ultimately Okada’s persistence trumped his opponent’s, and with an elevated German Suplex and a Rainmaker, Okada earned cemented third straight Tokyo Dome IWGP title spot, as Naito began a period of soul searching.
Naito: 3 Okada: 3
The ungovernable rule
Wrestle Kingdom 9 and the events that followed would be critical for the careers of both Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito. Both were defeated that night; Okada felled by Tanahashi and leaving the ring in tears would start a drive for the Rainmaker to finally defeat the Ace in the Tokyo Dome, a mission that would also see him hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the lion’s share of three years straight. Meanwhile Naito would taste defeat at the hands of AJ Styles, and in the weeks and months that followed, would ultimately decide to regain his focus and a new edge in Mexico.
There, he would fall in with a group of outlaws in CMLL by the name of Los Ingobernables. Antiheroes who did as they pleased with no care for the thoughts of the fans or promoters, the group appealed to Naito with their free spirited, antiauthoritarian nature, and a message for the Stardust genius to take things at his own ‘tranquilo’ pace.
By the end of 2015, Los Ingobernables De Japon was a force in NJPW, and by the spring of 2016, LIJ fever had taken a firm hold. Naito swept to New Japan Cup success by defeating Hirooki Goto, and held nothing back in his criticisms of both CHAOS’ most recent recruit, and the man at the group’s helm. Scathing toward the Rainmaker’s ‘golden child’ status, Naito was blistering in his vitriol toward both Okada and NJPW management. It all added up to a Ryogoku crowd that was firmly in the corner of antihero Naito at King of Pro-Wrestling, with deafening ‘Naito’ chants erupting from the challenger’s entrance.
It was Destino that secured Naito’s first IWGP Heavyweight title, but a somewhat tainted destiny. LIJ gained a new member in the form of SANADA, and with a TKO assisting Naito to victory, Naito had to live with his biggest victory having somewhat of an asterisk. Still, Naito was not going to bow to criticism, nor to management, a statement that gained an emphatic exclamation point when he tossed the title he’d worked ten years to obtain high in the air on his exit from the ring.
Naito: 4 Okada: 3
Okada was not willing to take Naito’s tainted victory lying down. After Naito defended the title at Dontaku against Tomohiro Ishii, Okada would issue a challenge for a rematch at Dominion in Osaka Jo Hall, with no LIJ members allowed at ringside. As criticism mounted for Naito’s treatment of the IWGP title, Naito continued to drive his antiestablishment message, daring anyone who found fault with his treatment of the title to ‘go ahead and take it from me’. Baiting the Osaka fans, who booed him so vociferously when all he wanted was adoration, Naito would ask the Osaka Jo Hall crowd to ‘boo their hearts out’, making for a very different environment in Osaka than in his Ryogoku crowning glory. It wasn’t to the champion’s benefit. Okada would emerge on top, and vowed to ‘make it rain on the entire wrestling world’.
Naito: 4 Okada: 4
After reclaiming the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Dominion 2016, Okada would have a vice like grip on the gold, holding the title for a record 720 days and 12 defences. Wrestle Kingdom 12 on January 4 2018 would see defence number nine, against a familiar ungovernable foe.
Unbowed by his title defeat, Naito would wrestle in the IWGP Intercontinental Championship ranks, a belt he had ‘no use for’ but yet seemed drawn by fate toward El Ingobernable. Yet the biggest championship on the biggest stage was always in Naito’s sights. At Wrestle Kingdom 11, Naito would retain his title with a victory over another long standing rival in Hiroshi Tanahashi, and though he would lose the gold to the Ace at Dominion in summer of 2017, he would rally from his loss to a victory in the G1 Climax. Defeating 2016 winner Kenny Omega in the final, Naito would declare that unlike in 2013, this time, he would use the victory in the tournament of tournaments to ‘springboard to greatness’.
It seemed as if the stars had finally aligned for Naito. Now a firm favourite of the crowd and wholly secure in his own skin, Naito and Okada’s second Tokyo Dome meeting would be rightly last on the card- even in a double main event environment, the Rainmaker and El Ingobernable were ‘double main event II’ to Omega and Chris Jericho’s ‘double main I’ position. In ring, Naito wrestled with a confidence, skill and swagger of someone who was true to himself and deserving of attaining the most impossible of dreams.
Yet Naito wanted to win Naito’s way, and visions of a crowning Stardust Press would be his hubris. After utilising Destino to ultimate success ever since joining Los Ingobernables, Naito would raise an arm and go to the move that first made him famous, only to crash hard on empty canvas. The heart wrenching error would lead to the Rainmaker scoring, and the seemingly unbeaten Okada leaving the Tokyo Dome victorious. For all the fans and pundits that assumed this would be the night where Tetsuya Naito’s legacy would be cemented, it was Okada’s legendary reign that continued, and the Rainmaker finally moving ahead of Naito in the win:loss stakes for the first time. All Naito could do was show a wry smile, humbled for a moment, but not wholly defeated.
Naito: 5 Okada: 4
From nothing to everything
In the wake of Wrestle Kingdom 12 defeat, the seeds of a plan would be planted, and vocalised the next March. Now Naito was not simply driven to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for a second time, clean, in the main event of the Tokyo Dome. He wasn’t driven to make personal history, but to make wrestling history, to stand as the first ever double IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Champion.
Yet the events of 2019 did not seem willing to make that happen. Naito would be plagued by an eye injury that quietly threatened to end his career, and his key to what fans began to call the ‘double gold dash’ looming at Wrestle Kingdom 15 would be taken from him. Defeated by Switchblade Jay White, Naito lost the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Without a title, and without the G1 Climax victory that earned Kota Ibushi his way into the January 4 2020 main event, all seemed lost.
Yet Naito would be granted one last chance at Jay White on January 4, emerging victorious, and set to face the retaining IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada on January 5, at the culmination of the first ever two night Wrestle Kingdom. On a history making night, the stars at last aligned. As the match approached the 35 minute mark, Naito scored with Destino, and when Okada kicked out, Naito was reminded of the credo ‘all or nothing’ that had been emblazoned on his entrance gown. A slam, a point to the ceiling, and 30,000 plus had hearts in mouths, with memories of the 2018 heartbreak.
This time, Stardust Press connected. Okada kicked out, but his fate was sealed, and a second Destino would crown Naito indeed the first ever double IWGP Champion. Finally Naito had made history and claimed the biggest prize on the biggest stage.
Naito: 5 Okada: 5
In the years that followed Naito’s crowning achievement, El Ingobernable would often wryly state that it was ‘just like (him)’ for things not to go entirely to plan. No sooner had he won double IWGP gold than his victorious statement was interrupted by KENTA. Naito’s plan to defend both titles separately was scuppered, as both titles were on the line the next month against the BULLET CLUB member. Still, Naito emerged bloody but victorious, set to truly enjoy his reign at the top of the wrestling world, before a global pandemic shut the world down.
Back in business, it would be the defecting pareja EVIL that put paid to Naito picking up where he left off. Fighting to regain both IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles, as well as to put the King of Darkness in the rear view mirror would consume his 2020, but with mission accomplished, Naito demanded to main event both nights of Wrestle Kingdom 15 to kickstart his 2021.
Naito would be victim of hubris once again. Kota Ibushi would lift both titles on January 4, and after retaining the next night, announced plans to unify both titles. Opposing the idea, Naito would battle to wrest the Intercontinental gold from Ibushi at Castle Attack, but fell short, and the IWGP World heavyweight Championship was formed. His connection being to the classic IWGP Heavyweight title, Naito was not interested in the new championship, but was driven by his promise to main event the Tokyo Dome in 2022, and it was with that determination he headed into G1 Climax 31. Yet a knee injury at the hands of Zack Sabre Jr. would put paid to his G1, and his Tokyo Dome plans with it.
Kazuchika Okada didn’t have the easiest of times in the 24 months following his title defeat either. Planning to expand his horizons without the championship, Okada would test himself in the following months, giving rise to the KOPW Championship, and developing his Money Clip submission almost as a way to force himself to think outside of the Rainmaker box. As the calendar turned to 2021, Okada would be victorious over former ally Will Ospreay in the Tokyo Dome, but damage had piled up, and with back heavily taped, would crash out of the New Japan Cup in the first round.
The summer would see Okada taste defeat at the hands of Shingo Takagi for the IWGP World Heavyweight title that Ospreay had vacated, and then to Jeff Cobb in the MetLife Dome. Okada sought a personal resurgence, and found it in the G1. With a win over classic rival Hiroshi Tanahashi starting his campaign, Okada declared that the Rainmaker had returned, and went on to a historic tournament campaign, ending in his third G1 trophy.
Okada completed his journey to the forefront of NJPW with a win over Shingo Takagi on January 4 2022, embracing the IWGP WOrld Heavyweight Championship as he gave a final official farewell to the V4 belt he helped immortalize. The next night, a defence against Ospreay saw Okada end the night, but Naito waited in the wings. ‘I want to experience the best in the world, I want to beat the best in the world, and I want to main event in the Tokyo Dome on January 4 2023’, were the three reasons Naito made as he challenged the Rainmaker for February 20 2022. At New Year’s Golden Series, it will either be a challenger, determined to show himself at his best while he’s still able to reclaim his destiny, or a champion who ruled the last decade in the cerulean blue, and wants to bear the standard into the next 50 years ahead.