Saturday, March 28, 2020

Kazuchika Okada vs. Taichi 2/2/2020 - NJPW The New Beginning In Sapporo

So there's this guy in New Japan Pro Wrestling named Taichi. I hate him. He is probably my least favorite wrestler in the company (which is saying something because Jay White is also in New Japan). He's a heel, so it's quite possible that he's doing his job well and I'm being worked, but his character is one of those where you really can't tell if the heat he's generating is "go away, we legitimately don't want to see you ever and think you're bad at your job" X-Pac heat, or if he's working us all to think that he sucks (which, if we're being real, X-Pac sorta did too). Because here's the thing about Taichi: he's lazy as fuck. And not in a chill, nonplussed Orange Cassidy way; he's lazy and also carries himself like he deserves to be handed success on a silver platter, which is annoying as hell.

In a company that consistently produces dazzling displays of five-star athleticism, Taichi barely tries in his matches. He uses chairs and low blows, which is a greater crime in New Japan than in most American companies. He uses his valet, Miho Abe, as a human shield, because he's a coward. He puts more work into his gimmick and his Phantom of the Opera ripoff costume and entrance than he does his ring work, and even then, he can't be arsed to lip-sync his shitty entrance music while "pretending" to sing it. It is the most half-assed ring entrance ever and it is infuriating. In a company where the best in-ring workers get pushed to the moon, Taichi chooses to be a character instead and still mails it in. When Kevin Kelly puts him over on English commentary as a deceptively talented worker who just doesn't apply himself, it sounds like bullshit, because he's never shown me anything other than a disturbing affinity for removing his tear-away pants mid-match.

But Taichi wasn't always a fake opera singer - once upon a time he was Taichi Ishikari, a scrappy journeyman who began his career as a junior heavyweight in All-Japan Pro Wrestling before spending some time bouncing around New Japan on the occasional show, and on one fateful day in 2008, he met, and defeated, a debuting young lion by the name of Kazuchika Okada.

Okada today, of course, is the five-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the centerpiece of the promotion, having already, at age 32, held the top championship for more combined days than anyone in history. His matches with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kenny Omega are the stuff of legend. Heck, on his return in 2012 from a learning excursion in TNA (during which Taichi went on his own voyage to Mexico), the newly-minted Rainmaker immediately challenged, and defeated, Tanahashi to win the IWGP Title and leapfrog the entire NJPW roster - including a certain lip-sync sensation who defeated Okada four years prior.

In the run-up to this match on the 2020 New Beginning tour, the English commentary team played up
the fact that Taichi and Okada had not met one-on-one since that 2008 encounter, and speculated about how Taichi has to resent the fact that he's never gotten a match with the top man in New Japan ever since. Of course, the thing is, Taichi hasn't earned it -- one-on-one matches with the champ in New Japan are hard to come by outside of the G1 Climax (in which Taichi has only competed once, in 2019). So with Okada holding the Heavyweight title for most of the last half of the decade, he's been out of Taichi's reach. Has that eaten at him at all? Has it aggravated Taichi that a young lion that he took down in about ten minutes went on to lap him around the track and leave him in the dust? Does it piss him off that New Japan waited until Okada lost the championship to finally book them in a singles match? After a post-match beatdown on Okada after a Feb. 1 New Beginning tag team match, Tachi insisted that he had hurt Okada enough that the match should be postponed, which...certainly doesn't sound like someone eager to prove himself.

(Senpai in Japanese means an upperclassman who mentors a lowerclassman, which would have been Taichi Ishikari's position above young lion Okada in 2008).

Classic heel posturing, right? Taichi cheats, uses chairs and low blows, and runs from a fair fight. It's what he does. But it has to eat him up that in twelve years, no one's talked until now about how he's 1-0 against Okada in singles matches. Right? Taichi - the lazy-ass fake opera singer who "sings" his way to the ring but uses the microphone to hide the fact that his lips aren't moving - beat Kazuchika Okada. But can he do it again? The match was booked, perhaps as a favor to Okada to get his win back from so long ago? So now Taichi has to back up his big talk. 

But maybe somewhere in that bi-colored coif, Taichi thinks that he's always been the better man. And maybe the resentment from seeing a guy he beat become a five-time World Champion is what keeps him from applying himself. If the company sees himself as a mid-carder, why bother trying harder? On February 2, on the New Beginning tour, Taichi finally got the chance to prove that through all these years, he was actually the better man, and deserved the top spot...if he had the guts to rise to the occasion in Sapporo, on his home island of Hokkaido, in front of a home town crowd that, well, still is mostly going to cheer Okada instead of their native son...who the night before referred to them all as country bumpkins, of course.

He's not even trying to convince us that the mic is plugged in. Jesus Christ.

The minute that Okada reaches the ring for their match and turns his back to remove his sick black-light robe, Taichi strikes at the Rainmaker's taped neck, bandaged due to the attack Taichi and his Suzuki-Gun partner, Zack Sabre, Jr. (Wrestling's Greatest Human) perpetrated the night before. Right out of the gate, Tachi goes for the shortcut to gain advantage. If he can get the pin, it won't matter to Taichi how he did it -- he'll still have the bragging rights. He immediately dons the steel glove he inherited from the retired Takashi Iizuka, but Okada kicks it away. Sorry Taichi - you're on your own in this one. Your Suzuki-Gun friends aren't able to help you, and hey, don't you keep pointing out that you once beat Okada on your own?

When a young lion competes in the ring, they are limited in the number of moves they are allowed to perform. They are given a pre-set arsenal that they must adhere to; the only submission they are allowed is a Boston Crab. As soon as Okada kicks Taichi over the ringside railing and hits him with his trademark railing-clearing bodypress, the message is sent: Okada's young lion days are far behind him, and this is, of course, not going to be the same match that happened in 2008. But the move is still a costly one for the former champ, who writhes on the ground holding his neck after hitting the move.

During a brief back and forth back in the ring, Taichi absorbs a running elbow in the corner, and his facial expression is almost one of indignance: the nerve of Okada to strike him. Once again he knocks Okada to the outside and immediately chokes the Rainmaker with a microphone cord. Yet another shortcut, but with the advantage regained, Taichi tosses his opponent back into the ring and begins to actually wrestle, wrenching Okada's neck in an abdominal stretch and following it with kicking strikes between the shoulders. A taunting pin attempt lights a fire under Okada, though, and he eventually halts Taichi's momentum with a DDT.

The 2008 contest, again, was your standard young lion affair, a simple back-and-forth that ended in a pinfall after about nine minutes. But again, Okada isn't a young lion anymore, and his style has evolved. We're at the nine minute mark in this match and he's just getting warmed up. Okada's style as a dominant five-time champion is a slow, deliberate pace; his ideal match tends to exceed twenty-five minutes at the minimum. If Taichi is going to have a shot at beating the Rainmaker, he either needs to outlast Okada (a tall order even for those, like Kenny Omega, who have done it), or catch him early, like Jay White did when he conquered Okada in fifteen minutes as Wrestle Kingdom 13. Right now, he may be working over Kazuchika's neck, but Okada's nowhere near ready to surrender. So trying to outlast Okada it is -- it plays to his tendency to stall and hide, Zbyszko-style, and to his tendency to use Miho as a human shield. Oh, Miho.

The distraction enables Taichi to briefly gain the upper hand, but after an exchange out on the entrance ramp, Okada quickly regains control with a shotgun dropkick that sends Taichi rolling back down the ramp toward the ring. Okada tosses Taichi back in, goes upstairs to land a flying elbow drop, and then...Rainmaker pose.

There was no Rainmaker in 2008, and certainly no Rainmaker clothesline. But now it's 2020 and Okada, sensing blood in the water around the 14-minute mark of the match, is ready to take things home. Certainly 14 minutes is long enough to dispose of this 2020 slacker opera singer edition of Taichi, right?

...But no, Taichi senses Okada's grasp and swiftly backs him into a corner, eventually connecting with an enziguri that sends the Rainmaker crumbling to the mat. Sorry Okada -- we're not done yet. Taichi stands him up and connects with a solid kick to Okada's chest that levels him again just as the ring announcer makes the 15-minute call. However, a quick exchange off the ropes results in Okada flapjacking Tachi to the mat and both men lay prone, catching their breath as commentator Gino Gambino accurately observes that despite Taichi's offense, Okada has the gas tank to last the longer the match goes on. The object of the game remains the same: outlast the Rainmaker. Taichi may be 1-0 against Okada but he's never had to play this game before. And the question remains as to whether Taichi thinks he can play the long game as, reeling in a corner from a shotgun dropkick, Miho once again slips Taichi his iron glove, which he tries to use in full sight of referee Red Shoes. And of course, Taichi immediately pays the price for his attempted shortcut, as he's swiftly dropkicked out of the ring and onto the floor. However, when Okada attempts to hand the glove to Red Shoes to get it out of the ring, Taichi's stablemate, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, springs up from his spot at Japanese commentary to protest, distracting Red Shoes on the outside and enabling Taichi to sneak up behind Okada and take him out with a chair. The shortcut (albeit with an assist) pays off after all! Taichi hits his axe bomber clothesline and scores his closest two count of the match, with a dramatic kickout by Okada. The tear-away pants come off, and Taichi is on fire, locking in a stretch after a nasty buzzsaw kick.

It's in the next few minutes where Taichi starts to actually believe. Okada keeps fighting back - a back suplex here, a dropkick there, but slowly Taichi begins to string together more offense. Soon, he's connected on a number of throws that drop Okada on his head (because this is Japan, where people get repeatedly dropped on their heads), and before you know it he's even playing to his hometown crowd a little bit as Okada reels...and yet, even half conscious, Okada is still able to reverse an attempted superkick into a half-awake, desperation tombstone piledriver, one of Okada's signature late-match maneuvers. Both men lie on the mat, nearly spent.

We're at the twenty-five minute mark and Taichi has pulled even with Okada, and at this point, even the crowd is starting to believe a little bit, with some scattered cheers for their hometown representative. But more importantly, Taichi is believing too. Both men begin to trade kicks in that typical New Japan show of "hit me!" masculinity. After a few shots, Okada grabs Taichi's foot mid-kick, thinking he's suckered Taichi in, but Taichi spins and doubles Okada over with a swift kick to the gut that leaves Okada just as shocked as he is hurt. A hard right hand drops Okada as Taichi glares down at him. "How DARE you doubt that I could go this long with you, Okada. I beat you then and I can beat you now!" Okada runs the ropes in order to fight back and instead of felling Taichi with one of his gorgeous dropkicks, Taichi absolutely LEVELS him with one of his own. The crowd is fired up. No one expected a match like this out of the laziest man in NJPW, and yet here he is, with the upper hand 26 minutes in, giving his own defiant Rainmaker pose and a primal scream from his knees.

And yet. AND YET. Taichi sets Okada up for his Black Mephisto finisher, hoisting the Rainmaker upside-down on his back, and Okada still reverses it into a backslide that turns into a short Rainmaker clothesline. A second short Rainmaker and just like that, Taichi is reeling. Goddammit, Okada's still fighting back? What's it going to take? Okada pulls him up and prepares for the full windup, the ripcord arm whip that will send Taichi back into his clotheslining arm at full speed and finish him off. At the moment of his greatest desperation, Taichi experiences a glimmer of doubt...just enough that, flailing, he grabs Red Shoes in order to block the Rainmaker, and with Unoo's vision obscured, straight up kicks Okada in the junk and rolls him into a Gedo clutch pin attempt for one...two...NO! Okada kicks out at two and 7/8s!

Taichi doesn't know it consciously yet, but perhaps unconsciously he realizes...he's lost this match. This is the face of a man who has delivered his best shot and come up short. His failure to execute his finisher, and subsequent shortcut has proven that while he may truly be the wrestler Kevin Kelly believes he is--a phenomenal talent who simply never applies himself--it's that sense of entitlement and reliance on shortcuts that has inevitably kept him falling behind the Young Lion he once beat. Sure, he still rebounds with a pair of enziguris, an axe bomber, and hits a Last Ride powerbomb, but again, it only nets a close two count. Sorry, Taichi--it's not happening for you tonight. He psyches himself up for one last attempt at Black Mephisto, but once again, he fails to land it, and after one last back and forth, it's a tombstone piledriver that leads to Okada finally getting a full pass at his complete Rainmaker clothesline. He positions Taichi in front of him, pushes him outward, spins him around, and yanks him back to meet his doom. Taichi does a near-360 as he hits the mat. 1, 2, and finally, 3. Okada evens the series at 1-1...but everyone knows who rules New Japan. And it certainly isn't the fake opera singer who barely even mouths his lyrics.

"While Kazuchika Okada gets the win, for me, as someone who has been one of the most vocal
critics of Taichi, when I see another example like this--the effort, the skill, the toughness, the heart--everything he displayed in over thirty minutes of nearly beating the Rainmaker...for me, Taichi can no longer ask the question 'why not me?' Because he's every bit the equal to a Kazuchika Okada. While Okada got the victory, Taichi showed me and showed the world everything that he has--all the talent and all the ability that he always had." For all Kevin Kelly's talents, he excels at framing the character arcs of the matches he calls, to the point where he makes blogs like this pointless when it comes to watching a New Japan match. Just listen to Kelly tell the story. But from here, where does Taichi go? If he has truly proven to the viewer that he can hang with Okada, has he proven it to himself? Will this near miss convince the laziest, most entitled wrestler in New Japan that he does have what it takes to eventually topple the Rainmaker, and ascend to the upper echelon of the NJPW pecking order? Or will he rationalize away the loss, putting on a brave face while thinking he just needed to turn that last Rainmaker into one final low blow? Will he just become even more embittered?

The Rainmaker, for his part, doesn't let on whether he has any newfound faith in his vanquished opponent. Derisively chanting "Taichi, go home!" while some in the crowd defiantly return the chant with a "Let's go, Taichi," Okada mocks his former fellow Young Lion, before eventually conceding, "Taichi, tonight you were very strong."

As Okada soaks in the moment, a broken Taichi limps back to the locker room, with maybe a few more fans than he had before. After all, who hasn't felt a little bitter toward that co-worker who seems to have everything handed to them? Who maybe worked hard but also was rewarded for doing things differently? The "wrong" way? Who doesn't occasionally look at a super-achiever and think, "man, I hate that guy. I work hard! Why does he get all the glory? Why not me? What about me?"

Maybe that's really why Taichi annoys me. We hate in others the things we hate in ourselves, do we not?

As Okada soaks in the moment, a broken Taichi limps back to the locker room, the ever faithful Miho at his side, hoping her man will find his way.


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