wrestling / Columns

Looking at Okada, Goto & Other New Japan Stars

February 25, 2016 | Posted by J. Onwuka

Hello 411Maniacs (I assume that’s what you’re called)! A handful of you may remember me from a couple earlier stints writing as Obi Justice. Changing my pen name a bit to J Onwuka and it’s probably about time that I come to bother you all with more of my opinions. I’m gonna try and keep a somewhat looser format this time and hopefully that’ll keep me writing.

If you wanna see what I’m about you can search through the site for my columns The Grand Stage and Ring Architect, or you can check out some of the stuff I’ve been doing on Medium.com: Evolving EVOLVE Wrestling about my ideal promotion of shoot-style pro wrestling and Could Bull Dempsey Succeed In TNA?

So without further ado, let’s get started with a bit on a Japanese pro wrestling star…

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Where I’m from in the States, we know Japanese wrestling for one thing above all else: impossibly hard hits. They’re not just making contact, they’re knocking the hell out of each other. There’s no dispute about that. I’m sure that they don’t go all-out for killer hits but still, if you’re wrestling in Japan on average you’re gonna take a lot more actual damage in a match than if you’re in an American promotion. When I talk to people about New Japan or any other puroresu promotion one thing that they tend to be most jazzed about is how much impact there is. Right now on the roster of New Japan Pro Wrestling there is one man that brings all of that. He’s got your heavy elbows and decapitator lariats. He’s got your head-spikes and German suplexes. He’ll transform into a crazy anime character if that’s what it takes. He oughta be the most popular guy in the promotion and his name… is Hirooki Goto.

On paper Goto is the baddest man in New Japan. On paper he’s got the power, the wrestling skill, and the heavy attack to get the job done against just about any opponent and he’s proven this. In 2008 Goto topped his bracket with wins over Shinsuke Nakamura and Yuji Nagata, then toppled Togi Makabe to win the G1 Climax. He is a three-time winner of the New Japan Cup, the group’s second-rung tournament. He’s won decorations in tag tournaments and tag competition, and he’s reached the IWGP Intercontinental Championship twice. In all of that the buzz around Hirooki Goto is almost nonexistent. It’s very strange. I think he’s a strong competitor with a lot to offer any promotion. At the same time I feel there’s a flaw in Goto’s game that bears talking about because changing it could very well open up new horizons for him.

Hirooki Goto has one gear, one mode. When an announcer says it they generally mean the wrestler is intense, tenacious, determined to death, and Goto definitely is that. But I’m talking about performance-wise. All Goto can really do is hit people hard and throw them hard. He’s really good at it. I don’t think anybody could say he isn’t. The problem is that Goto matches are all very similar because of this. If there’s a flavor to get from a Goto match more often than not it’s going to come from his opponent. That’s why I feel like Goto’s success in New Japan has been very uneven, and when he’s held championships they’re usually truncated or lackluster reigns. He’s a fierce competitor who can give you an exciting match but he’s not the guy you want as your attraction every night. There’s a reason why it’s Shinsuke Nakamura and not Hirooki Goto who has defined that title.

So is it just charisma? It seems almost unfair to try and match anybody up against Nakamura on that scale. My feeling is that the issue is a bit different. Firstly, Goto has a good physical charisma in that when he gets in the ring you believe he’s putting it all on the line to win. Goto’s major issue is his actual ring style. There’s a certain lack of complexity or subtlety that means whatever mood he’s in, whatever he shows the audience or his opponent, he’s pretty much tackling every problem the same way. In New Japan especially one thing I believe is valued is being able to have different matches that tell different stories.

To bring this point out I went back and watched two New Japan re-debuts. The first one was Kazuchika Okada’s back in 2012; I caught his first against YOSHI-HASHI then I figured I’d better see a big match as well and I watched YOSHITATSU’s return from 2014. Each shows a lot about how someone’s style in the ring can help to define the kind of success someone will have, at least as far as becoming an engaging wrestler.

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I’ll say ahead of time that this may be a bit controversial because I’ll talk bad about a match in which someone more-than-likely got injured by the finish. If you wanna skip it go ahead. The short version: YOSHITATSU still isn’t very good.

In 2014 the big return was someone that New Japan can only have had the highest hopes for, a young lad that they trained and who was recruited into WWE, hopefully to gain a great deal of experience and become a star. After a lackluster few years milling about on the show’s undercard, however, there wasn’t much spark about this. Hope wasn’t all gone. Considering the big return from a few years back people were definitely aware (as ever) that the glitz-based promotions of the United States don’t always show off people’s potential. As soon as he got back he debuted a new ninja Spiderman get-up and declared himself four-square against the Bullet Club. Here he was coming from nowhere to take on the most dangerous faction in New Japan. And for his trouble he faced the man who would be named Wrestler of the Year by the Wrestling Observer in 2015, ‘The Phenomenal One’ AJ Styles.

The match was set up for Power Struggle 2014, held in Osaka. All eyes were on YOSHITATSU and he did… fine. It wasn’t a bad match. The thing is that it wasn’t a good match, either. Returning against a guy like AJ Styles what you really really want to do is have a good match. At least out of English-language commentators that is not what people felt. They felt he did, well, fine. If you’ve watched the match there is a lot about how he conducted himself in the ring that exposed a very weak core development during his WWE stay, despite performing all the moves and sequences well.

Let’s start with the gimmick. It might seem beside the point but a lot of times, the gimmick someone puts on and how they portray it has a lot of bearing on their style. For YOSHITATSU I think it was pretty emblematic of how generic he came across in the match. Yeah, he came back with a mask and he power walked down to the ring. Now he’s doing a kung fu stance. Great. I don’t think it’s necessary to be original really but you do have to put some oomph into it and that is not what YOSHITATSU had. If he was supposed to be a ninja he didn’t really act ninja-like under any description, either comically sneaky or poised and precise. He was just a guy who was now wearing a mask. Which is fine, again, you can put on whatever you like. But the guy wearing the mask wasn’t really that interesting either.

Style-wise, I’ll definitely say YOSHITATSU seemed to be on his feet a lot more than when he was stereotyped into a flying role in WWE, but it’d be a stretch to say he was bringing a different style to NJPW. What he showed in the ring against AJ was a perfectly adequate heavy-junior arsenal. He could keep pace with the submissions but he was never leading them. He could fly but he could not out-dazzle or out-impact Styles. There’s one moment when YOSHITATSU throws a few strikes at AJ and then AJ just drills him with the forearm, sends him straight down, and you can see it throughout the match: YOSHITATSU’s strikes are not crisp, his form has no intent, there’s really no drive. I never found myself interested in what YOSHITATSU might do, how he might handle a situation, because I felt that I could predict it. He seems to have consciously slotted himself right back into a standard New Japan style and that’s exactly how his match was received.

Yes, he did get injured in the match. But leaving that aside, where was he going next? A tag team with Hiroshi Tanahashi. This will sound dismissive especially since I like Michael Elgin and am jazzed to see him teaming with the ace, but putting someone in with Tanahashi is the ultimate ‘we want people to like this guy who you’re not totally behind yet’ move. It’s like having the Rock endorse someone or having John Cena say that he likes them. Granted, Tanahashi seems to be more genuinely over with his fanbase than either of those guys but the fact remains that YOSHI was not being skyrocketed for big things. To say that there’s not enough time to decide what he was gonna be able to do is not doing NJPW justice. No doubt he worked out for New Japan officials beforehand so they knew what he could do and they put him where they thought he would work. Especially considering the last big re-debut, coming back with a lackluster loss to AJ Styles and then slotting into their sleeper season World Tag League is not really a vote of confidence from the office.

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The reason that there was some hope of an electric return for YOSHITATSU was that two years earlier a guy came back from the States with an even darker pedigree than YOSHI himself. This was someone who’s claim to fame by 2012 wasn’t being a bubbly fan favorite on the biggest wrestling show in the world. Instead he was slumming it in a place with lots of broadcast range but not a lot of credibility, which meant that when he did get on a whole lot of people could see the corner he was stuck in. Down there wrestling for TNA he was stuck playing Okato, the half-mask wearing sidekick who was a parody of Kato, the sidekick from of the hero Green Hornet. The hero that Okato was seconding was none other than Samoa Joe. Joe did not have a Green Hornet-inspired gimmick. That was the level of care they had for him. News that he was headed back to New Japan didn’t really draw much interest from American fans at first.

Yet this man, Kazuchika Okada, underwent a radical transformation for his return. When he strode down to the ring for his first pay-per-view bout back at Wrestle Kingdom VI, he had already evolved. He didn’t simply dye his hair and put on a fancy robe. He bore an aura of confidence, of surety, not that he would win but that he absolutely belonged. On this occasion he was in a low-card match against YOSHI-HASHI, a pretty short affair that ended with an Okada victory. Just to let the fans see just the sort of wrestler that was coming back to them. I don’t want to look at this match because, level-wise, it’s not a fair comparison. Plus, story-wise, things had not been built up yet.

That happened shortly as Okada joined what was then the top pack of rulebreakers in the company, namely CHAOS, and put out the challenge to Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. At The New Beginning in 2012, also at Osaka, the stage was set for Tanahashi to square off with the upstart Okada, belt on the line and a mountain of pride at stake. I’m not sure there was a huge amount of hype behind this match but I can’t say that I remember clearly. What I do know is that The New Beginning is historically not the same caliber show as their January Dome Show and it’s possible that they wanted people to believe that this would simply be a second-tier challenge for Tanahashi as well. Someone that wanted a bit of shine before being put back in their place behind the other established contenders.

Again I’ll start with the gimmick. The Rainmaker persona is not new. That is to say it’s been done before. It’s your Buddy Rogers, Ric Flair, preening badass who knows he’s got the world in the palm of his hand. I can’t say I remember a main event player who presented it in Japan as starkly as Okada does but my point is that it’s not like he brought out this thing no one had ever seen before. What made it work was that he carried it totally. Yeah, it is basically the Nature Boy but it’s substituted Flair’s smooth-talking party atmosphere and Rogers’s gauche materialstic viciousness with this ominous Sephiroth-esque aura. Maybe it’s just that I don’t understand Japanese but that’s the vibe I get. Flair and Rogers made sure that you knew they were the best wrestler in the world. What Okada wants you to understand is that he’s the ultimate wrestler, both in terms of supreme and in terms of last. The final evolution.

Now Okada could have come back just wearing the threads and been QT Marshall or ‘Priceless’ Ted DiBiase Jr. He didn’t. From the moment he first stepped back against YOSHI-HASHI he had embodied this incredibly vibrant persona. That’s what made him stand out.

His ring style was, again, following the lines of his gimmick exactly. Okada is the first guy I’ve seen in Japan who consciously melded in an American kind of moveset. He’s really the only guy consistently throwing European uppercuts on New Japan cards. He’s the only guy that uses the dropkick as his go-to runner stopping move. That beautiful top rope elbow drop he does comes more from Randy Savage and Shawn Michaels than anyone I’ve seen in Japan. He didn’t come back wrestling the New Japan style, he came back with a different bag of tricks and that showed itself immediately. Again, like with his persona, it’s not that they’d never seen this stuff before, it’s that he was putting it together in a compelling package. In facing Tanahashi there was a sense of a clash of worlds which, ultimately, Tanahashi came up on the losing end of. I don’t really think of Okada as excelling in any one area as much as having perfected everything that he does in the ring. It’s not that Okada’s style is massively different than anyone else’s, it’s that he can put it together in a way that makes you feel like he’s thought about what he’s doing and who he’s trying to do it to.

Okada can push into different gears as the need arises. He’s not going to have the same match against Kota Ibushi that he would have against Bad Luck Fale. YOSHITATSU, even in his short period back, wasn’t able to show us that. I think we have to believe that their progressions would have looked more alike had YOSHI impressed on his way back.

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Personality-wise Goto is dry but tried and true. He’s just a fighter with a hell of a lot of heart and drive and the power to get things done. That’s fine. The problem with him being one dimensional in this regard is that he’s also exactly as one-dimensional in his fighting. Just attack as hard as you can, don’t really bother trying to break down defense or wear someone out, only boom boom boom. I think as far as a wrestling style it’s more exciting than what YOSHITATSU brought if for no other reason than that it doesn’t look like Goto has brought a foam finger to a shootout. Ultimately, though, what you never see in Goto is that subtlety, that sense that he’s working towards something, that he’s adapting to what he’s being given. He just absorbs what he can and dishes out what he’s able to. What Okada has and what Goto does not is the ability to tone down, pull back, shake it off, take a rest while in control, lie in wait until he sees an opening and then pounce. Goto doesn’t have this.

At its most basic level, in Goto’s last title shot he covered himself in paint and Japanese(?) characters. It wasn’t the most impressive display but it looked real, as if it had been done in some sort of ritual rather than painstakingly drawn on as a matter of show. What we should have got, looking at how Goto brought himself out there, was some sort of super-Goto. Unstoppable, nigh invulnerable, destroying all in his path.

What did we get?

Goto. Regular old Goto.

And that’s the issue. If you want to break out of the pack you have to bring more than the same old you to every match. I don’t care what anybody says about promos and storylines, people are gonna tune in to the pay-per-view to see a good match and that’s what is going to push you further than anything else. The style you bring to the ring is how people get latched onto you. I’m not interested in Goto’s style and I’m not latched on. From what I can tell, I’m not the only one.

Remember to follow me on Medium at medium.com/@jonwuka and twitter @_nearzone. Also check out my wrestling history series the World Champions Podcast (worldchampionspodcast.com), delivering the real history of pro wrestling through the years.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to look into or try to answer definitely leave a comment. I’m always up for writing on interesting problems or situations in pro wrestling.