Superstar Spotlight: 'Rainmaker' Kazuchika Okada
For this entry of Superstar Spotlight, we’re going to look at one of the greatest wrestlers active today. This is a guy that went from being one of New Japan’s blandest and least interesting stars to a glorified comedy partner in TNA, to one of only four men in history to be in a match rated 6-Stars by the Wrestling Observer.
Today, we look at ‘the Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW)’s current IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
Okada made his wrestling debut in 2004 at 16 years of age, and was trained by NJPW mainstay Yuji Nagata and the legendary Ultimo Dragon. Okada spent those formative years wrestling in Mexico, primarily in Ultimo’s Toryumon promotion. Like most Japanese wrestlers, he spent his early years wrestling a junior heavyweight style and didn’t ‘graduate’ to the heavyweight division until years later.
Unfortunately, Okada’s early years weren’t very good. Upon his arrival to NJPW, he was given the ‘rookie’ treatment: he wore nondescript black trunks and boots and had virtually no gimmick or personality to speak of. This was all part of New Japan’s booking process: a rookie without a look of their own must convince the audience they’re worth the audience’s time with their wrestling skills only.
This was challenging for Okada. His early matches were average, at best, and few fans were interested in him. To remedy this problem, NJPW sent Okada on a foreign excursion to improve on his charisma and ring presence. He ended up in TNA, and it was even more downhill from there.
In a perfect example of poor booking, Kazuchika Okada was relegated to TNA’s secondary show Xplosion from the beginning, and most of his matches ended in losses. Throughout the 2010 calendar year, Okada lost way more matches than he won, and didn’t get any major opportunities to improve his character or promo abilities.
2011 wasn’t that much better. He was paired with Samoa Joe in the Samoan’s feud with D’Angelo Dinero, and was repackaged as ‘Okato’, which was a gimmick similar to the ‘Kato’ character from the Green Hornet series. Thus, Okada was presented on Impact television as a comedic sidekick. NJPW was so disappointed with how TNA handled Okada that it was alleged that this mistreatment was one of the major reasons why they ended their working relationship with the American promotion.
Rise to Superstardom
Okada’s time in TNA wasn’t completely useless; he learned from working in TNA that a character was needed, especially as wrestling in Japan continued to evolve. So, when he returned to NJPW, he underwent a massive transformation. After winning a short match at Wrestle Kingdom VI, Okada announced that he was joining the heel stable CHAOS. It was at this press conference that he officially debuted his new persona, the Rainmaker.
The Rainmaker is, essentially, an overconfident rich kid who didn’t say anything and always stoic because he knows how much better he is than everyone else. This was proven in an interview after he won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. When the commentator asked him how it felt to have won that prestigious belt at such a young age, Okada’s response was, “I feel… normal.”
It was that victory that set the stage for Okada’s main event ascent. At The New Beginning 2012, Okada defeated his future archrival Hiroshi Tanahashi in what was considered one of the biggest shocks in NJPW history. Think of the reaction when Brock Lesnar ended The Undertaker’s WrestleMania Streak; that’s how the NJPW fans reacted to Okada pinning Tanahashi. That victory was treated as a fluke, a one-off, a stroke of luck.
But it was more than just dumb luck. After winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Okada started having one outstanding match after another in the main-event position. It was as if the old Okada was dead and buried forever, and had been replaced by a doppelganger that happened to be a masterful wrestler.
The New Ace of New Japan
With this new persona and ability to put on phenomenal matches, Okada’s major push continued. He won the 2012 G1 Climax tournament, becoming the new youngest person to ever do so. By the end of the 2012 calendar year, Okada was named the ‘MVP of all puroresu’ by Tokyo Sports, which was an incredible honour to be bestowed on him (he also won this award two more times, making him the only wrestler to ever win it three times).
Between 2012 and 2016, Okada was one-half of the biggest and most bitter rivalry in Japan. During that four-year period, Okada was involved in a bitter feud with Hiroshi Tanahashi over the top spot in NJPW. Tanahashi had established himself as NJPW’s ace, much like how John Cena did in WWE. Meanwhile, Okada had proven himself capable of main-eventing and being a big draw, but the title of ‘ace’ still eluded him.
This led to several truly outstanding matches over the years. From January 2012 onwards, Okada had one excellent match after another against a wide variety of opponents. Ever since he reached the main-event scene, Okada has had great matches with the likes of Minoru Suzuki, Karl Anderson, Prince Devitt (Finn Balor), Tetsuya Naito, Hirooki Goto, Kota Ibushi, A.J. Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, among others.
Okada has also had several 4.75 and 5-star matches against Tanahashi over a span of four years, which culminated at Wrestle Kingdom X. After years of setbacks and coming so close, Okada finally pinned Tanahashi in the main event of that show in a 5-star classic, cementing his place as the new ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Impact on the Wrestling business
Okada is quite possibly the best wrestler alive today. The sheer quality of his matches is outstanding; on profightdb.com, a database that ranks wrestlers’ entire careers, Okada is currently #7 of a list of 500 wrestlers, with an average match rating of 4.0 stars. This is simply astonishing for any wrestler, especially one that’s still under 30.
Okada’s rise to the top has been one of the biggest reasons NJPW has regained its status as the top wrestling promotion in Japan and #2 in the world. Furthermore, Okada has a gimmick and presentation that transcends language barriers. English-speaking fans can enjoy Okada’s matches and rivalries because they’re straightforward and easy to understand.
Furthermore, Okada has also managed to take one of the simplest wrestling moves ever in the lariat and turned it into something special. The Rainmaker is such an awesome and impressive finisher due to how it has been booked. For a very long time, whenever Okada hit the Rainmaker, it led to an instant victory.
His opponents knew they couldn’t survive the move, so they had to learn to avoid it instead of taking it. This, of course, led to many matches where Okada and his opponents engaged in crazy finisher reversals, all of which made Okada’s matches that much better.
WWE has apparently realised that Okada’s onto something, and so Seth Rollins now uses a knee lift version of the Rainmaker that he emulates from Kenny Omega, who debuted the move in a tribute of sorts to Okada.
What Does His Future Hold?
Okada’s reputation has made him into a major international star; so much so that it was rumoured that WWE were interested in signing him to a deal. However, Okada has publicly stated that he ‘would never go to WWE’.
This makes complete sense because; a) Okada is NJPW’s undeniable ace and is likely to be booked that way for years to come, thus making tons of money as their top draw; b) Okada still recalls how poorly he was treated in TNA, and as a result, is hesitant to believe that he’d be booked properly anywhere outside of New Japan.
At 29 years of age, Okada is likely to become the top star in Japan going forward. With NJPW increasing its own international reach to counter WWE’s, I for one wouldn’t be surprised if Okada became a household name among wrestling fans within the next few years.
Career Highlights (thus far)
-IWGP Heavyweight Champion (4 times)
-G1 Climax Winner (2012, 2014)
-New Japan Cup Winner (2013)
-Tokyo Sports’ MVP Award (2012, 2013, 2015)
-Tokyo Sports Best Bout Award (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016)
-Wrestling Observer Newsletter Match of the Year (2013, 2016)
-five 5-Star matches since 2013