the first dance
The date is 4th of January 2017. It is Wrestle Kingdom 11 and the match between IWGP Heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada and challenger Kenny Omega is the main event of the night. The bout they have is widely praised by wrestling fans, industry veterans & wrestling journalists alike. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, who normally rates matches on a scale of zero to five stars, broke his own scale and gave the main event a six-star rating, stating that Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada may have put on the greatest match in pro wrestling history and that the match transformed the two from “two of the best wrestlers in the industry to bonafide big card draws”. Tokyo Sports, Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and Pro Wrestling Illustrated named it the 2017 Match of the Year. In the year 2020, it was voted the best Wrestle Kingdom match of all time by fans.
Kazuchika Okada is the ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling and the IWGP Heavyweight champion. His challenger is the G1 Climax 26 tournament winner Kenny Omega. Omega is the leader of the heel faction Bullet Club, a stable known for its disregard of Japanese people, culture & traditions. It’s the first time they’re wrestling a singles match. It’s the first time Omega’s challenging for the IWGP Heavyweight title, the first time he’s main eventing Wrestle Kingdom. “The guy entrusted with wrestling’s future vs the guy who will change wrestling’s future” was one of the taglines.
The match was about control, not just over each other but also the company. Here begins what many consider the best rivalry in modern pro wrestling, and one of the greatest stories in wrestling ever. A story that is about two men, one title and its relation with the two of them.
There’s Kazuchika Okada, who had never held or cared for any title but the IWGP Heavyweight one (and now IWGP World Heavyweight, something that carries it’s legacy). It was the only gold that mattered to him, something that kind of became synonymous with his name. Kenny Omega on the other hand, had won other titles in the company but had never won or even challenged for this particular one prior to this match. Even as of now, the only times he has challenged for it was when it was adorning Okada’s waist. Exclusivity like that is very rare. Something so incredibly intimate about that.
It’s the beginning of what’s ultimately a story about change. Change they bring about in themselves, in each other and the entire wrestling world. The ways they break and then remake each other, helping each other grow in the process. For me, the matches themselves are something that forced pro wrestling to evolve.
It is a rivalry that has been talked about so much, there barely remains anything to be said about it but it is a favourite of mine and something very dear to my heart so I shall attempt to do so still.
The first time Kenny comes face to face with Okada after winning the G1 climax 16 is immediately after Okada’s first IWGP Heavyweight title defence, where he beats Naomichi Marufuji. Omega is rude, mean, cocky, & disrespectful. He says that despite having been a good champion, Okada had been handed everything on a silver platter. He makes proclamations about taking away everything Okada treasures, that is his title. He says he’s going to make Okada “his little bitch”. Okada in response lists the names he’s already beaten, telling Kenny what his future is going to be. That’s all Omega is to him, just another guy attempting to take something he cherishes, his title; just another guy he is going to beat. Why should Okada pay any mind to anyone anyway? He is the champion after all. That changes. He changes, as does Kenny. Physically, mentally and emotionally. They peel layers off each other and grow through it all. Changing each other in ways no one, including themselves, anticipated.
The night of the match, Omega comes out first. He is clad in black tights and a terminator-like face mask. His Bullet Club stablemates and close friends Young Bucks are in his corner ringside. Okada, in contrast, comes out in regal robes full of glitter and gold. He has his manager Gedo in his corner, someone who is in CHAOS faction with him.
The match starts slow, with them feeling each other out. They’re both cocky and confident in their own way. Omega a sadistic heel. Okada, the indomitable king. The guy with the top title in the biggest promotion in Japan. Okada is confident he will win, underestimating his opponent. He looks calm, collected and is soon in control of the match but there’s also an underlying fury to him. After Kenny gets his head spiked on the ground outside, Okada reaches under the ring and takes out a table. Taking out tables and driving people through them isn’t something Okada-like. Omega had driven him through one the last time they shared a ring, even though Okada’s team had already lost to Kenny’s. Kenny pushes him in ways no one else does, taking him places unknown. But Okada is still in control of this match and very confident about his victory. Instead of involving the table just yet, Okada throws Omega through the guardrail and does a running crossbody on him. The Kenny he brings back to the ring isn’t the same smirking, cocky one we saw at the very beginning. Okada has begun peeling off Kenny’s facade.
Omega soon starts fighting back and that layer is yanked back up. He’s back to his smirking and sadistic ways and he starts methodically dismantling Okada. He simultaneously attacks the back of Okada’s neck, trying to soften him up for his finisher – One Winged Angel – while also attempting to penetrate Okada’s impenetrable core. Okada is thrown outside where Kenny hits his terminator dive.
He’s dragged back in the ring where Kenny does a missile dropkick off the top rope. Okada escapes a pinfall via rope break, then kicks out of a second one. He manages to get some offense. When he does a kip-up, he immediately clutches his abdomen in pain. Okada’s overconfidence has led him here. He tries gaining back control of the match by taking the opportunity to drop Kenny on his back, succeeding for a brief moment.
It doesn’t last. Omega soon gets back control by putting his knees up just as Okada is about to do an elbow drop on him. He goes back to attacking Okada again, focusing on his core. He does a springboard moonsault past the guardrail (something that’s a distinct homage to his Golden☆Lover and former tag partner Kota Ibushi). Okada barely manages to get past the guardrail when Kenny covers him with a table and does a particularly vicious stomp on top of it, chipping away at that core even further. Okada feebly kicks out of two powerbombs, then soon another kip-up while a hand clutches his abdomen. Young Bucks set the table outside for Kenny to drive him through it again. It doesn’t go that way.
Omega is sent outside with a dropkick by Okada that has him on the floor. Just as he returns to the ring, Omega is dropped over the top rope onto the table, absolutely shattering the table and him with it. Half an hour has already gone by at this point. Okada gets outside to get him back in the ring – he doesn’t want to take a countout victory. Kenny is rocked even further with a couple of dropkicks, his eyes have started to get a glassy look. Gone is the confident cocky heel mercilessly attempting to dismantle Okada, that has been peeled off of his person. The Omega we see is a vulnerable underdog who is throwing everything he can think of to achieve that one coveted final prize. Something the indomitable young princeling he’s fighting effortlessly took when he was only 25 years of age.
Omega clutches the ropes to avoid Okada’s rainmakers. Out of utter desperation he does a nasty dragon suplex off of the top rope. He slowly crawls on top of Okada to make a pin, only for him to still kick out of it. Both of Kenny’s elbow pads are gone in an oddly symbolic manner at this point. While he has been successful in softening Okada’s neck, Kazuchika still manages to evade every single attempt Kenny makes to hit a One Winged Angel on him.
Okada effortlessly picks Omega up for a tombstone which is soon followed by a rainmaker. When Kenny barely manages to kick out of it, Okada is visibly shocked. Omega is completely glassy eyed. Okada asks the referee to check on him whether he’s still able to continue the match as Kenny tries reaching for him. He hits Okada with some strikes that barely have any effect, rakes his eyes in sheer desperation & soon eats a dropkick for his trouble. He hits Okada with a bastard driver (a move his former partner Kota Ibushi debuted against and beat Tetsuya Naito with). If his own moves didn’t work, maybe something of Ibushi might?
There’s a brief moment where Kenny all but sobs while they’re exchanging strikes. Perhaps the realization has set in that he can’t beat Okada. He can’t defeat his final boss, he can’t slay his dragon, not today at least. It soon devolves into a slugfest even though they’ve been having a gruelling war for more than 40 minutes at this point. Okada once again gets out of every single attempt of Omega’s to hit a One Winged Angel, hits Kenny with a rainmaker in return. He still manages to keep holding Kenny’s wrist despite eating multiple strikes from him & replies with another rainmaker. As one last act of a desperate man, Kenny starts hitting Okada with his own moves. If nothing else worked, perhaps that might? He hits Okada with a dropkick after a failed attempt at rainmaker by Kenny, does a rain-trigger before attempting One Winged Angel for one final time. Okada still gets out of it, hits him with a jumping tombstone & one last rainmaker. Kenny finally stays down.
Additional reading – first of all, if you’ve managed to read this far, thank you for your time. Secondly, for anyone interested in knowing more about Kenny, here are some of my favorite articles on his story with his partner Kota Ibushi that are absolutely worth your time: