2017 in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) has pushed wrestling to new heights thanks to three brilliant wrestlers hitting their peak together. Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, and Kenny Omega have been remarkable this year, each putting forward an incredibly strong case for being named Wrestler of the Year, but also for being the new benchmark for in-ring performance, character work, and drawing power.
This article, clearly, will center around why it is Okada that should be taking home the silverware this year.
The argument from kayfabe
Throughout 2017 Kazuchika Okada has held the IWGP heavyweight championship. His reign stands, at the time of writing, at a ridiculously long 525 days. And yet, it doesn’t feel overly lengthy. He has defended the title just eight times and each one has been spectacular.
His Wrestle Kingdom XI match with Kenny Omega grabbed the heads of wrestling fans around the world and forced them to pay attention to New Japan. He followed that up with two brutally physical matches with Minoru Suzuki and Katsuyori Shibata that were breathtaking and made Okada look like an invincible god of wrestling.
He came together again with Kenny Omega at Dominion for the most anticipated rematch in wrestling history. They fought to a time-limit draw in a match that defied all logic and sense. After that Okada put in great performances in the G1, making the likes of Evil look like killers.
Okada’s performance in the ring with every one of his competitors has been sensational. He is like a blank canvas in that he allows his opponents to wrestle their style of match and it always looks good. Want to exchange strikes and holds? No problem. Want to speed it up and hit the ropes? Ok. Time to do big spots and kickouts? Okada’s got you.
His presence and his ability to work with everyone makes every single match of his a must-see. While some can find his personality somewhat lacking, Okada gets his confident hero persona over very clearly simply with his actions between the bells.
For me Okada’s best match of the year was not any of his Omega ones, but was his bout with Shibata. For many it is tough to watch due to the consequences for Shibata. However, it is a piece of violent artistry in 38 minutes that really pushed Okada’s physicality to the edge.
With a reputation for submission holds, hard striking, and a legitimate MMA background, Shibata at his best is a no-selling monster that makes a mess of his opponent’s joints and soft tissue.
Okada was able to go toe-to-toe with him and survive. I say survive, because he didn’t leave looking like a winner. That is one of Okada’s best assets. He takes a beating, he keeps on ticking, but the scars of battle always show. Some think he is just New Japan’s John Cena and therefore he has a “super-Cena” factor, but Okada is more like Ric Flair in that he is always willing to make his opponent look like they came within a hair of beating him and they really left their mark on him.
This match is my favorite of 2017 for its unbridled viciousness.
Why he might not win it
There is a western bias against Okada, but it isn’t really anyone’s fault. For fans of New Japan that don’t speak Japanese it can be very difficult to get behind Okada. He doesn’t ooze character and charisma like Naito and Omega. He isn’t a cocky heel and there has been little development in his persona as he came into 2017 as the finished article. No one likes to route for the champ either, he has been booked like Superman in 2017 making him very much an untrendy pick for Wrestler of the Year.
Does he get the nod?
For me, this has been Okada’s year. His trilogy of bouts with Kenny Omega make it difficult to separate the two, and Naito’s swelling popularity give him a huge claim, but it takes something truly special to take an 18-month title reign and have the fans wanting more. Even CM Punk had to turn heel to keep his long title run fresh, but not Okada. That, in the end, is why 2017 was his year and his alone.
Do you think Okada deserves to be Wrestler of the Year? Let us know in the comments below!