And we’re at it again! After a fantastic title defense against Zack Sabre Jr. in the main event of Sakura Genesis it was finally the ace himself, Hiroshi Tanahashi, who challenged Kazuchika Okada to a IWGP Heavyweight Title Match. Now let’s get one thing straight: I like Okada, but I LOVE Tanahashi. And while many think it is a foregone conclusion that Okada will win to get V12 (12th title defense, what would break Tanahashi’s all-time record of 11), this could very well be the most dramatic thus far.
Their last singles match was their dramatic Block match in the G1 26 in August 2016, what ended in a time limit draw. Now almost two years later, arguably the two New Japan MVPs of the last decade clash once again at Wrestling Dontaku on May 4th. It was just enough time that the fans are actually extremely eager to see this match and it is probably one of biggest marquee matches Fukuoka has seen in a long time.
And obviously people can make the point, that the Omega title defense encounters were the better matches, but in this match I’m as emotionally invested as I have ever been. But why is that? Well, I think there are story-telling reasons for my investment just as much as personal, emotional reasons.
First let’s get to the storyline: After Wrestle Kingdom 10 and the ‘passing of the torch’ to Kazuchika Okada, Tanahashi vanished from the IWGP Heavyweight Title scene and was mostly involved in the IWGP Intercontinantel Title picture. And with Okada’s legendary reign it was Tanahashi who had to miss some time because of injury and appears to work hurt forever now. This pushed the narrative that the Ace of the Universe is not what he was used to be and is basically completely breaking down by carrying NJPW for the last couple of years. All the while Kazuchika Okada has a title reign for the ages, including fantastic matches with the likes of Kenny Omega, Minoru Suzuki and a win in the WK 12 main event against Tetsuya Naito.
The ‘Broken-down’-narrative achieved that Tanahashi was once again embraced by pretty much the whole fanbase and that he even got cheered by usually hostile crowds in Osaka. This narrative is very much reminiscent of what happened to John Cena in WWE where he is universally more embraced after Roman Reigns got the ‘ace’ spot in WWE.
This narrative, plus now a hurting Tanahashi trying to defend his legacy, really gives that match some oomph, even if it is highly unlikely that Tana will win, it is going to be one hell of a match!
Now secondly, my personal, sentimental reasons: the very first NJPW I ever visited was Wrestle Kingdom 9 in 2015 after a semester abroad in South Korea. The main event was Kazuchika Okada against Hiroshi Tanahashi that year in one of the last chapters in their story, because it was the last time Tanahashi was able to win a WK main event and once again remaining on top of the NJPW mountain.
The extremely emotional affair even brought out tears from myself (definitely a first for me!). Now living in Fukuoka, I will be able to watch that main event once again live and you can be sure that somewhere in the Fukuoka Kokusai Center there will be a tall, blonde guy, firing on all cylinders and cheering on the Ace once again…