New Japan delivers a match to remember at Dominion

I didn’t wake up at 4 am to watch the Royal Wedding in May. But I did wake up at 4 am on Saturday, June 9 to watch Dominion, the second biggest night in the New Japan Pro Wrestling calendar. You’d be hard pressed to find anything in this world I would feel comfortable sacrificing sleep for, especially as I lurch toward my mid-thirties and my body doesn’t respond to being deprived the way it used to. And yet here I was, waking up at ten after 4 and turning on my computer to stream a live event taking place halfway across the world.

There were plenty of great matches to look forward to at Dominion, but only one made it worth taking some NyQuil and waking up well before the sun.

Kazuchika Okada.

Kenny Omega.

No time limit.

Two out of three falls.

This match has been building for 18 months, since Omega shocked the world by winning the 26th G1 Climax (the first gaijin to do so) and challenged Okada on the biggest stage in New Japan at the center of the legendary Tokyo Dome. It was a war that lasted 47 minutes, the sort of war you’d only hear about in stories. Okada was the better man that day, as he had been so often in his career since becoming The Rainmaker and wresting the title of Ace of New Japan from Hiroshi Tanahashi over a back and forth feud of epic proportions. The battle between Okada and Omega wrecked the curve for Match of the Year on only the fourth day of 2017. That wouldn’t be the end of the story, though, as Omega challenged Okada again at Dominion 2017, and this time there would be no winner, as Okada ran out of time crawling over to pin Omega after a decisive Rainmaker lariat when the bell rang to signal a 60 minute time limit draw. Omega had drawn closer to Okada, though he was not the one dragging himself to make the pin when the time expired.

The plot thickened come G1 time in July and August, as Omega and Okada were placed in the same block and destined for a third clash in eight months on the final night of block action. Omega had lost twice in the tournament (to Michael Elgin and Juice Robinson), while Okada’s only blemishes came from a loss to EVIL and a draw with Minoru Suzuki. So we came into the third Okada/Omega match with a berth in the G1 finals on the line. If Okada wins or there’s a draw, he goes through. If Omega wins, he continues on to the final. But how could Omega win in a match with a 30 minute time limit when he couldn’t manage to beat Okada in 47 or 60? The answer was an all-out assault with blazing speed, a 24 minute match that felt like a windsprint ending with a decisive One Winged Angel and the pin that Omega had failed to find in two attempts.

From there, the two titans of the New Japan ring seemed to go their separate ways. Okada spent the fall avenging his defeat at the hands of EVIL and preparing for his Wrestle Kingdom main event against the man who defeated Omega in the G1 finals, Tetsuya Naito. Omega, on the other hand, was confronted with the implosion of the Bullet Club, the challenge of his leadership coming from the likes of Cody and Tama Tonga and the surprise arrival of Chris Jericho (of all people) to challenge his spot as the top gaijin in the company at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Okada fought off Naito and Omega fought off Jericho, but their paths continued to diverge, as Cody pushed Omega to the brink that involved losing his IWGP US Heavyweight Championship and his best friends The Young Bucks but regaining the companionship of his former partner and Golden Lover Kota Ibushi. Okada continued his reign of terror, defeating SANADA, New Japan Cup winner Zack Sabre Jr. and his old nemesis Hiroshi Tanahashi to break the record of most successful defenses in a single reign.

Okada was as unbeatable as ever, but one thing still gnawed at him. The one time he defended his belt and didn’t come out the decisive winner. The draw with Omega at Dominion. So, after dispatching Tanahashi at Wrestling Dontaku and waiting for a challenger who never came to give him his next opponent, he ran down his successes, ruminating on the draw with Omega. Dominion would be coming up soon, the one year anniversary of the single blemish on his record. No one had pinned Okada in the nine months since Omega defeated him at the G1 in August. They were 1-1-1 and it couldn’t possibly end that way. There had to be a winner in one final match, and he couldn’t have something silly like a time limit get in the way, especially considering he was likely to win if the last Dominion match had continued. He called out Omega and laid down his terms. One more match, no time limits. Put this thing to bed. Omega accepted, adding the wrinkle of 2 out of 3 falls, an old school NWA stip that isn’t seen in Japan too often. A clash of cultures, if you will.

And on the day, some time around 7 am Eastern time as I watched through the slightly blurred vision of self-inflicted sleep deprivation, the two men went to war. It was just as intense as their previous bouts, a chess match of moves and counter moves and counters to those counter moves. Omega had the advantage over the long haul as one of the best conditioned pro wrestlers in the world. But Okada struck first with a flash pin counter to a sunset flip a little under 30 minutes into the match. The champion had the ultimate advantage, up a fall having avoided being pinned for more than half a year. Omega now had to pin the champ twice to finally get his win. All the odds were against him, as is the tradition in all great underdog stories. And like a true underdog, Omega fought with his all from below, pinning Okada and tying things up with a One Winged Angel at 48 minutes. No one in New Japan has ever kicked out of the One Winged Angel; it was Omega’s great equalizer and the only way he could pin the Ace.

They fought on into the night, passing the 60 minute mark that prematurely ended their last Dominion bout. Omega desperately looked for victory, rocking Okada’s skull with V-Trigger knees, but every time victory seemed within his grasp, Kazu would fire back with a dropkick or a Tombstone piledriver, setting up one final Rainmaker lariat. But when the time came to throw that Rainmaker, Okada collapsed, unable to put the necessary muscle behind it to end his rival. This was the opening that Omega needed, and not too long after, a thunderous V-Trigger and one more One Winged Angel was all he needed. Omega had done the impossible.

It took nearly 70 minutes for the historic reign of Kazuchika Okada as the top heavyweight in New Japan Pro Wrestling to come to an end. After 720 days (a record) and 12 successful defenses (also a record), Okada finally succumbed to Omega, the man who proved more than anyone else that he would be equal to the challenge by taking the champion to the limit in a 60 minute time limit draw one year ago at the 2017 iteration of Dominion and handed him his last pinfall loss in the middle of August that year on the last night of block competition in the G1 Climax. Omega may have lost to Okada the first time they met for the belt at Wrestle Kingdom 12, but the next two times they stood in the ring, Okada couldn’t get the job done.

And on June 9, he couldn’t get the job done again, but he didn’t have a time limit to save him.

Omega’s win capped off a night that felt like a statement from New Japan, the first major event to take place under the wing of new president Harold Meij. Meij, a Dutchman, is the first non-Japanese president in the 46 year history of the company. By the time the sold out crowd left Osaka-Jo Hall, every single heavyweight level title was held by gaijin talent. In addition to Omega, fellow Canadians Chris Jericho and Michael Elgin added gold to their waists (the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and NEVER Openweight Championship respectively), and perennial California-based tag team specialists The Young Bucks completed their shift to the heavyweight division by capturing the IWGP heavyweight tag straps from EVIL and SANADA. They join IWGP United States Champion Jay White (New Zealand) and fellow NEVER Openweight Six-Man Tag Champion Marty Scurll (a Briton who holds the six-man straps with the Bucks). Only the Juniors, with newly minted champion Hirumu Takahashi (who himself beat a gaijin champion, Will Ospreay) and retaining tag champs Yoshinobu Kanemaru and El Desperado hail from the land of the rising sun.

This is significant, as in a little under a month, New Japan heads back to California for their third excursion to the States as they run the Cow Palace in San Francisco (well, Daly City). They have been routinely expanding the size of their venues each time out, always selling out in a flash, but things have been a bit different with the Cow Palace show, selling at a considerably slower pace than its predecessors. The show sold 3,000 or so tickets upon its initial release, and it has a long way to go to sell out the 10,000 plus seats. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Westerners will be strolling in with gold as far as the eye can see. With Omega, easily the single most popular non-WWE wrestler in the states, leading the line as the newly minted IWGP Heavyweight Champion (with his first defense against bitter enemy Cody, who made a point of appearing during the victory celebration but turning back to the locker room before reaching the ring, perhaps?), it seems quite a bit more likely that New Japan will get the sell out they so desire after all.

It remains to be seen what the future holds for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Meij has said he has his sights on WWE, a company without anything even remotely resembling a legitimate competitor (and once their new TV deal kicks in, the sort of solvency any company would dream of). And big time talent like Omega and The Young Bucks always seem like they could decide to jump ship and join the Evil Empire. Perhaps Omega’s win signals he’s in for the long haul. The formation of The Golden Elite, the official name of the foursome of Omega, the Bucks and Omega’s best friend and Golden Lovers tag team partner Kota Ibushi, is not only the partial culmination of a series of long-form stories that stretch back to when Omega first came to Japan in 2009, but a sign that there’s a lot more that needs to happen before their time with New Japan reaches its conclusion. That’s probably wishful thinking, but Omega’s being positioned as the top star of the second biggest company in the world, a crossover ambassador who can speak English and Japanese fluently perfectly poised to lead the company into a new era.

And what an exciting era it will be.