Why New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Kazuchika Okada has surpassed Ric Flair to become the best wrestler ever
By Michael Melchor, Executive Editor
There’s an important statement that needs to be made before this piece gets underway: I love Ric Flair. It was Flair – along with the Four Horsemen, Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Koloff, Barry Windham and a host of others wrestling under the National Wrestling Alliance banner – that solidified my love of professional wrestling. These guys were what defined the sport. Larger than life tough guys who could fight all day and into the night.
Flair – with his suits, girls, stamina and big gold belt – was at the top of the heap. Flair was the 60-minute man who could wrestle, cajole and maneuver his to victory and remain the Champ every time. His feuds were legendary and his matches for the NWA World Championship were the gold standard.
The reason I had to make that initial statement is the same reason I say that Flair’s matches were the gold standard. Roughly 30 years later and half a planet away, that distinction has been usurped.
Yesterday at Dominion, another critically acclaimed defense of a different World Championship – the International Wrestling Grand Prix World Title – was yet another stellar portfolio piece for the man who I believe now lays claim to the moniker of greatest wrestler of all time. With a body of work that has shined like no other throughout history, Kazuchika Okada now stands, in my opinion, as the greatest performer ever.
Others may make a claim for past champions like Shawn Michaels or Lou Thesz as the best. In my mind, though, Flair is the most obvious comparison for two reasons. The first is that Flair is widely regarded in the minds of many – especially among fans in my age bracket – as being the greatest. The second is that, as stated above, I grew up watching Flair out-wrestle the biggest stars and best performers wrestling had to offer.
As I’ve watched Okada progress over the last several years and settle into his role as the “Ace” of New Japan Pro Wrestling, I’m forced to come to the conclusion that he has surpassed Ric Flair as the best I’ve ever seen in the ring.
What really brought this to light for me was last year’s G1 Climax tournament. I’d known going into the tournament that Okada was already beyond gifted when it came to telling a story in the ring. His mannerisms, facials and body language whether he’s on offense or defense is unparalleled. Okada can make fans believe he’s hurt bad and is prone to a loss at any given moment only to make an amazing comeback. In and of itself, that is a trait hundreds of wrestlers in the sport would kill for.
Flair was also a master at making fans believe he was vulnerable, but his main focus was always his back. The back that fans knew was legitimately injured in an airplane crash in 1975. As many times as Flair cried in anguish, most times he was clutching his back doing so.
Many of Flair’s matches featured the overconfident champion underestimating his opponent and having to rally back (often with chicanery) to regain control and retain the title. Many have spoke of the “formula” Flair had for his matches. Whether that’s true or not, Flair’s bouts for the NWA title were captivating and always had fans believing that maybe this time, Flair would finally lose his coveted championship.
Okada has that same ability – to have spectators buy into a possible IWGP World Title change. However, Okada’s selling and storytelling are on a different level. Okada typically sells his neck, but had also had fans buying that his arm may be useless or that his leg was no longer strong enough to stand on. Okada is a master of selling and that mastery applies across the board. On offense, Okada is as technically proficient as Flair was in his prime when it comes to being on the attack as well.
But it’s Okada’s overall storytelling that sets him apart – which brings me back to last year’s G1 tournament. As of late, Okada’s main narrative in the ring is that he knows he’s the best and has to prove it each time he completes. As good as Okada can tell that and other stories in the ring, at last year’s G1 he told that story over the course of the entire tournament.
With each match during the tournament, Okada would set out to “out-do” his opponent at their own game every time. The hubris of the champion caught up to him by the end as the physical toll that arrogance took on his body over the course of over a month was to much for even Okada to bear. After going to a draw with Minoru Suzuki – a man Okada dispatched before – Okada finally lost to his greatest rival, Kenny Omega, in the final bout of the block.
The art of storytelling taken to that level – a longform novel told over the course of a tournament – convinced me that I was not only watching a master of his craft, but the greatest to ever lace up the boots.
“To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.” We will never see that happen as Ric Flair is retired and we can only speculate what could have been. But in terms of overall quality of performances in the ring, Okada already has.
He did it again yesterday against his rival – his Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, if you will – Kenny Omega. Okada put on one hell of a show even as it drew a close to his record-setting reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Even in defeat, Okada turned in a work of art at the main event of New Japan’s second biggest show of the year.
Okada’s proficiency in the ring – his crisp offense, impressive athleticism, brilliant timing, convincing a crowd he’s in agony on defense and his overall ability to tall a great story from bell to bell – is unmatched by anyone else wrestling today. His ability to combine all of those attributes listed above is uncanny. His consistency in being the best performer night in and night out have catapulted him into a category all his own. Okada, for these reasons, is in my opinion the greatest professional wrestler of all time.
Who knows? Years, maybe decades from now, we may not be discussing how Kazuchika Okada was the Japanese version of Ric Flair, but rather that Ric Flair was the American prototype for Kazuchika Okada.