The Rainmaker has grand plans for wrestling’s return and recovery.
The events may be cancelled, but the top stars of NJPW are working just as hard as ever. Kazuchika Okada is no exception, as he talks to njpw1972.com about what’s to come.
Just standing in the Dojo ring it hits you that this is home.
–So obviously, we’re speaking while events are cancelled as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Okada: Yeah. Obviously, I miss it. I just want to wrestle! I don’t go down to the Dojo all that much, but I went the other day. It was weird getting in the ring there.
Okada: It’s hard to explain. We’re not entirely off, right? We don’t have matches- I’m not sure whether the right word is cancellation or postponement- but it’s not a case of ‘right, time to go on holiday!’. I have to stay in top shape, but it’s hard to exactly put my finger on what it is I should be doing. At any rate, just standing in that Dojo ring, it hits you: this is home.
Okada: I really strongly felt that. Maybe it’s a bit melodramatic to say ‘I can’t go on without this’ but it’s that kind of feeling.
–That’s what gives you your base. Usually in any off period between tours, you’re focusing on getting ready for your next match, but that isn’t set in stone yet, it’s a fluid situation.
Okada: Yeah, right.
–So you’re not quite sure what to do?
Okada: Yeah. It’s not just us, of course. It’s baseball, it’s soccer, it’s concerts. In the situation we’re in, we have to cancel or postpone anything that has people gathering in large numbers, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We can’t just keep going because people seem healthy enough, because we could end up spreading this without knowing it. If one of our wrestlers gets it, they could carry it with them without even knowing. We kind of have to accept this for what it is, but we have to be ready for when we come back, to really show the power that professional wrestling has again.
Pro-wrestling suffers the most from empty arenas.
–There were a few cancellations in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011, and the Kumamoto earthquake in 2016, but you’ve never experienced schedules changing on this scale.
Okada: Right. All we can do is what we can to make sure this gets sorted out as quickly as possible. Washing hands, gargling, making sure that we stay healthy so we don’t become a burden on anyone else. While all this entertainment is cancelled though, the internet is still here, and even though we might not be having matches, we can still communicate and do what we can in other ways. That’s what I’m really keen on doing.
–What do you think about companies running empty arena events?
Okada: Hmm. It’s not that we can’t do it…
–It’s not impossible.
Okada: But wrestling involves a lot of punishment. A lot of bumps, a lot of moves you have to take from opponents. To not have that encouragement of a live crowd, I’m not sure how I’d deal with that.
–The crowd is very important.
Okada: If someone takes a hell of a chop, say. You feel and hear that contact but there’s no reaction, no encouragement. I’m not sure in an empty environment that a wrestler can give all they have, and give any audience something they’d be happy with. I know the audience reaction is incredibly important to me. It’s a reaction from a live crowd that makes me know whether I’m having a good match.
–The crowd really amplifies the action that happens in the ring.
Okada: Right. I’ve won a lot of match of the year awards. But if you were to put any of those matches in front of empty arenas, would they be anywhere near as good? Honestly I don’t think they would be. For me, of any sport, any entertainment, pro-wrestling is least suited to empty arenas.
–It doesn’t suit itself to a no fans environment.
Okada: Baseball in empty stadiums has something to it. You can hear things on the broadcast that you wouldn’t normally hear with a crowd there. I don’t think you get that so much with wrestling, because we take you in the ring normally anyway. You hear those impacts, you hear the guys struggling, breathing hard, trash talking. That’s always part of the presentation, so there’s no addition by the subtraction of the fans. A key thing as well is that you’re not going to make new fans that way. Someone watching wrestling for the first time normally will always be drawn in, and the atmosphere is part of that. Without crowds, I don’t think they’d come back.
Not just the fans, but wrestlers as well. We all have pent up tension to release.
–Have you ever wrestled an empty arena match?
Okada: I’ve wrestled in a ‘good as empty’ arena match (laughs). In Mexico, yeah, a few matches with hardly any people there.
–Just the front row?
Okada: Not even. Like the wrestlers’ families and that was about it.
–Some of the local Mexican shows are like that.
Okada: Yeah. I’ve had that experience, at least, but for sure, it makes any pain you feel in the match easily double.
–The adrenaline helps you through in front of a big crowd?
Okada: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. Okada in front of no people might be much easier to beat.
–It might take people aback.
Okada: ‘He isn’t getting anywhere’. (laughs) In the end though, that’s how important a crowd is to all of us. Can you imagine Toru Yano going to the ropes and yelling for a break with nobody there reacting to him? Nobody wants to see that.
–It would be rough, indeed. Is there anything in particular you want to say to the fans?
Okada: Just to save all that emotion up. It’s not like we’re going away forever. Not just the fans, but the wrestlers, the staff, all of us have a lot of pent up tension, and when the time’s right I want us all to release that, all at once. I think in a way, we can make 2020 a banner year for pro-wrestling, still.
–We can all turn this into a huge boom when we get started again.
Okada: So I just say we all do what we can do, and then let all that emotion out when we can.
The Dome put me onto the next challenge.
–Let’s reflect a bit on 2020 so far.
–Starting with Wrestle Kingdom. We had over 40,000 people in the Tokyo Dome on January 4, but even though we sold all the initial tickets, it wasn’t quite the completely jam packed Dome you wanted.
Okada: Right. The number I had in my head was 43,000. Everybody was saying it’s amazing we did over 40,000, but I wanted everythign full, including the hold seats.
Okada: But it put me onto the next challenge, gave me the next thing to work on.
–Onto the next task. But it was nevertheless a major achievement to have over 70,000 people in a two day span.
Okada: Right. The exact numbers might not have been quite what I wanted, but we definitely showed the world how big wrestling has become.
–You definitely put the work into promotion.
Okada: Well, everyone did, but I thought it was my big mouth that put us in this situation, so I definitely had to take responsibility.
–How was it, being in two consecutive main events?
Okada: Hm. Well, I think putting the IWGP up two nights running wasn’t the right thing in the end…
–It wasn’t the right thing to do?
Okada: Well, maybe the fans liked it, and the company will say ‘hey, we did it’, but in actual practical fact, it was too much.
–Too much punishment?
Okada: Too much physical punishment, a lot of mental strain as well. I don’t want anyone thinking that it was an easy undertaking at all.
–Coming from you, with all the main event experience in the Dome that you’ve had… You’re definitely speaking from a position of authority.
Okada: Right. Doing one of those matches in itself is one thing, but to get back after the fourth, and then have to think ‘oh man, I have to go again tomorrow’. I’m not going to make excuses for why I lost here, but two big singles matches, and not just that, two Tokyo Dome main event level matches back to back is not something I’d be in favour of again.
–Is that a principle thing, or the strain it puts…
Okada: …On the wrestlers, yeah. I think if Ibushi had won the first night as well, he wouldn’t have been able to keep it together on the fifth.
–Not even the other people in that Double Gold Dash went through the tough experience that you did.
Okada: Right. And again, I’m not saying that it was because of this situation that I lost on night two. But, and I haven’t said this to anyone in the company before, even, but when I got to the back, it just hit me like a wall, mentally.
–It was an awful lot to go through. I’m sure that you had anticipated being in the main event two nights running, but actually being in that position…
Okada: It was more than I had imagined. I mean, it’s not entirely different on paper than the G1. There you have the B Block final, and then the final the next night. But two IWGP Championship matches on back to back nights is something completely different in practice. It’s more like two outright G1 finals back to back, something that nobody would ask of anyone. I mean even in terms of ring time alone.
–You wrestled for 74 minutes and 53 seconds over the two days. That’s the reputation that you’ve gotten, that you can be in that spot. Even so, it was too much strain.
Okada: Well, I mean, nobody had done it before. It was new territory. I didn’t know. I’d given it thought, for sure, but this was a different level, so to speak. the closest thing was the three falls match with Kenny Omega in 2018. I thought after that match ‘Ah, I shouldn’t do that again’, and I really felt it after the Dome.
–There’s nothing quite like a Tokyo Dome main event. One in itself is no small undertaking.
Okada: You’re talking about having the two biggest matches of the year back to back. That’s more than anyone can imagine.
–It’s fair to say that was the toughest moment of your career?
Okada: Oh, absolutely.
The Ibushi match was awesome. Really great.
–We actually spoke with Kota Ibushi the other day, and he said that even though he lost, he holds the January 4 main event with you as one of his favourite matches.
Okada: I thought it was awesome. Really great. I’d definitely felt going in that the night one match was the more important one. IWGP Champion versus G1 Climax winner, and I’d lost to him in the G1 as well. to get that win in front of 40,000 people; the reaction that got… To be honest I’d have liked to have sampled that a bit longer, but I had to deal with Naito the next night!
Okada talks about his January 5 main event with Naito, and his ambitious plans for the rest of the year in part two!