For the past two weeks, the internet has been ablaze with talk of Kenny Omega’s battle with Kazuchika Okada at the Tokyo Dome. Bestowed with a rare six-star review by Dave Meltzer, and heralded throughout the world of wrestling, the match is rightfully being heaped with praise.
But Wrestle Kingdom 11 was far from a one-match card.
Moments before the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was defended, we saw another engrossing contest unfold. Tetsuya Naito faced Hiroshi Tanahashi with his IWGP Intercontinental Championship on the line.
If you watched Omega-Okada and enjoyed it, you owe it to yourself to tune in to tonight’s episode of New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS. The main event of the evening was a spectacle, but the co-main was just as compelling — and perhaps even more telling about what we can expect from the promotion as we venture deeper into 2017.
Anyone unfamiliar with the current landscape of the promotion will soon be clued into what’s going on by the commentary team of Jim Ross and Josh Barnett. Tanahashi is the former face of the company who’s recently been usurped by Okada, and is trying to demonstrate that he’s not past his peak. Meanwhile, Naito is the young up-and-comer who saw his initial push to the top of the card die on the vine, and is now repeating his ascension on his own terms, without an ounce of respect for the fans, his opponents, or the belt in his possession.
Tanahashi-Naito tells a more complex story than the well-worn tale of an invading foreign heel spun by Omega-Okada. It builds upon the contrasting status of both competitors as we enter 2017, as well as the paths they’ve both trod in the years prior. It’s a testament to the long-term storytelling of New Japan Pro Wrestling that so much backstory can feed into one high-profile match — and it’s a testament to the commentary team of Ross and Barnett that the bout is digestible even to a recent convert.
This is no slight on Steve Corino and Kevin Kelly, who did a great job calling the match on the live broadcast. However, their commentary seems calibrated for New Japan devotees who tune into every major event. Conversely, the AXS broadcast serves as a great gateway for someone less familiar with the promotion’s major players and its ongoing storylines, so its commentary serves to give viewers everything they need to know in order to enjoy the match to its fullest, without any prerequisites.
Ross is often praised for his ability to imbue memorable moments with his fiery passion. However, this isn’t the only reason why he and Barnett are a boon to New Japan’s ongoing expansion into the United States.
Throughout tonight’s title fight, Ross supplies information that puts the action into a wider context. We understand the stakes for both men, and how a win or a loss will impact their fortunes going forward. However, there’s no sense of information overload. We’re given just enough context to flesh out what’s going on between the ropes, without distracting from the action itself.
Furthermore, both Ross and Barnett are very capable of diving into the specifics of strategy. The stiff style employed in New Japan lends itself to this kind of commentary, and both Ross’ experience calling boxing and Barnett’s deep knowledge of shoot fighting serve to raise the stakes of the bout’s biggest moments.
Naito and Tanahashi find themselves at two very different stages of their careers upon meeting at the Tokyo Dome in 2017. The contrast between the two men is underscored by the structure of the match, which sees them both adopt a similar strategy, targeting their opponent’s knee. Ross and Barnett ensure that viewers realize the relevance of every single strike, submission hold, and slam that inflict damage on this particular body part.
If you really want to analyze this, you could argue that the match serves to represent the cyclical nature of being the ‘top guy’ in any given pro wrestling outfit. On paper, the distinguished Tanahashi and the disrespectful Naito are two polar opposites. However, they’re united by a need to be the ace, despite the fact that clinging onto that role after years on top and claiming it as an upstart require very different approaches.
Plenty of matches use a particular body part to build toward a finish. However, both Tanahashi and Naito targeting their opponent’s knee isn’t just about laying the foundation for a satisfying conclusion to the bout. It’s also about forcing a comparison between these two men, and forcing fans to consider the similarities and differences between two of the company’s top main event performers.
Omega-Okada will undoubtedly be in contention when we’re discussing which bouts were the best of 2017 in 11 months time. However, Tanahashi-Naito is a masterclass of in-ring storytelling. It’s two elite wrestlers going to war in a match that draws upon years of history, and hints at where we might be heading in the future.
If you’ve been exposed to New Japan thanks to the buzz around Omega-Okada, be sure to check out Tanahashi-Naito. While the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11 may have been New Japan at its most spectacular, the event’s co-main demonstrates the strengths that keep fans invested the whole year round.
Tanahashi-Naito airs tonight as part of New Japan Wrestling on AXS at 8pm.