Dave Meltzer's top-rated matches of 2018: Tanahashi vs. Okada

Image: Voices of Wrestling

Throughout the week leading into December 31st, we are taking you back to some of Dave Meltzer’s top-rated matches of the past year, starting with the five star matches and ending up with a seven star classic.

15 matches got the five star treatment while six matches garnered ratings above that level. You can check them out under Columns & Opinions on the front page.

What follows is an edited version of Dave’s writeup from the match from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, available in full for subscribers. Also, we want to give a big shoutout to Cagematch.net who makes research for this list ridiculously easy. 

IWGP Champion Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
NJPW Wrestling Dontaku Day 2 | May 4, 2018

“Kazuchika Okada broke the all-time record for consecutive IWGP title defenses, beating Hiroshi Tanahashi, who he was tied with, in one of the best storytelling and psychological matches you’ll ever see to headline the second Wrestling Dontaku show on 5/4 in Fukuoka.

Okada had tied Tanahashi’s record set in 2011 and 2012, which ended at 11 when Okada beat him on February 12, 2012, in Osaka. All of the booking of the title, notably the question regarding Okada not losing to Tetsuya Naito at the Tokyo Dome, were done to set up this storyline. The negative was it was in Fukuoka, which is traditionally the company’s most difficult major city when it comes to crowd reaction. And the first night of Dontaku didn’t give a positive indication that this was the place for an epic match, because the crowd was very tough. For whatever reason, on the second night, they were hot, and they were on fire for the match.

The match was less reliant on big moves than any of their previous matches, but it was all about the story of Tanahashi trying to win back the title, his selling his injuries, and was really a classic in pacing and making every move mean something. The only match I could compare it was with one of the Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada matches (I think it 1997 and not the 1994 match that a lot of modern fans feel was the greatest match of all-time) when it was slow, deliberate, and every single movement built to the story. 

The crowd was super hot for the start and were behind Tanahashi ending the streak. They used their normal spots and did creative counters. For example, Okada always does the dropkick while his foe is sitting on the top rope. Tanahashi, instead of taking a bump to the floor, held on and was in the skin the cat position. Tanahashi tried to flip him over the top from there, but Okada blocked and instead used a draping DDT. He did another draping DDT on the floor. Okada hit another DDT and a neckbreaker over the knee. He hit the Randy Savage elbow, and went for the Rainmaker, but Tanahashi got in his face, and then ducked for a dragon screw. This was slow and deliberate with perfect pacing. They weren’t rushing, and made sure everything meant something. This was really almost a clinic of doing a long world title match that was both off the charts and safe, based on selling. Tanahashi did the high fly flow to the floor, which was probably the most dangerous thing in the match.

You have to also give the announcers a ton of credit as they didn’t miss any key things and Don Callis, who is usually a heel, was leading the audience into being into Tanahashi’s quest and made that aspect feel even more real and significant. They basically made you feel you were watching one of the most important matches in history between two of the best ever. Obviously, it was not the former even if it was the latter. Tanahashi ran at him but Okada caught him with a tombstone piledriver on the floor, and then collapsed. Okada barely beat the 20 count and Tanahashi dove in at 19 ½.

They traded elbows, and Tanahashi dropped Okada three times in the exchange. Okada missed a dropkick. Tanahashi blocked a flapjack and turned it into a twist and shout and a sling blade. He went for the high fly flow, but Okada moved. Okada then hit a dropkick to the back and another dropkick to the front. Okada tried the rainmaker, but Tanahashi hit the sling blade. Tanahashi did a high fly flow to the back, and went for his winning high fly flow, but Okada got his knees up. Okada hit a German suplex and Tanahashi kicked out at one. Tanahashi ducked a rainmaker and hit a dragon suplex. Okada hit the dropkick and Tanahashi hit the sling blade. Tanahashi went to the top for another high fly flow, but this time Okada dropkicked him as he flew off. Okada went for the rainmaker, but Tanahashi ducked and hit the rainmaker on Okada, who kicked out at one.

Tanahashi was slapping him around and started slapping him hard. Okada’s left cheekbone area was swollen. Okada kept going for the Rainmaker and Tanahashi ducked and slapped him, and when you were sure he wasn’t hitting it, he did, and got the pin at 34:36 of a match that felt much shorter because of how well it was paced.

Unlike most classics, this wasn’t about kicking out of finishers. It was the story that got over and not the spectacular spots. It was a safe match by modern big bout standards. Tanahashi three times went for the winning regular high fly flow. The first time, he missed. The second time Okada got his knees up. The third time, Okada got to his feet and hit a dropkick as he came off.

Another notable point is that even though the Fukuoka International Center Arena was sold out with 6,307 paid, and I believe set the company’s gate record in the building they’ve been running forever, to see Okada go for the record, probably 90 percent of the audience was behind Tanahashi with the story of wanting to instead see Tanahashi preserve his record. Okada played the role perfectly with subtle heel facials to make the story all about Tanahashi’s quest rather than his own quest.

It was really something to see because it was the example of protecting a championship (only the elite get to hold the title under Gedo’s booking) and building of wins, losses and records. There have been some ups and downs in recent weeks with New Japan, but this was a Gedo booking plan that turned out to perfection.

This put the 11 match series between Tanahashi and Okada in Okada’s favor with five career wins to four for Tanahashi and two draws.”