Throughout the week leading into December 31st, we are taking you back to some of Dave Meltzer's top-rated matches of the past year, starting with the five star matches and ending up with this seven star classic.
15 matches got the five star treatment while six matches garnered ratings above that level.
What follows is an edited version of Dave's writeup from the match from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, available in full for subscribers. Also, we want to give a big shoutout to Cagematch.net who makes research for this list ridiculously easy.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega
IWGP Championship | 2-out-of-3 falls
NJPW Dominion | June 9, 2018
"So I’ve been watching pro wrestling for 48 years consistently. I’m trying to figure out what the odds are that the two greatest individual performances I’ve ever seen would be in the same match.
On January 4, 2017, Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega had a match that I thought was one of the three best matches I had ever seen, perhaps the best ever. Some people thought it was the best match they had ever seen. But when it was over, I did think that someday I would see another match that good. The top guys in the industry today keep progressing the drama, art form and athleticism. Don’t get me wrong, anything that is great in its actual place and time is great. But what is great today learns from not only what is great in the past, but what is great all over the world in its present. It’s a situation that until the last few decades, that really couldn’t happen, but it’s easier now than ever before because you just push a few buttons and you can learn far more things that can work and apply them. Okada won what was up to that time the longest New Japan match ever held at the Tokyo Dome.
On June 11, 2017, they met again and went to a 60 minute draw, the first in a New Japan ring in 14 years. The match, in my mind, slightly better, enough so that I could say, with no reservations, it was the best match I had ever. Many other people thought the same. Others had it just as one of the best. Some didn’t see it that way. Some didn’t get it. Some, for whatever reason, refused to get it for their own political reasons. Almost all awards and voting of international scope had one of these two matches as the best match of the best year ever for great matches. More had the first match, perhaps because it was the first, perhaps because it had a clear winner and loser, or perhaps, just because the Tokyo Dome, like WrestleMania, magnifies both what is good and what is bad on that night.
Still, to me, it was the best match. But it wasn’t that much better than a dozen other matches I’d seen. Some day, I figured I would see a better match.
On August 12, 2017, the same two wrestlers met again, this time they had to do a finish, and it had to be done in less than 30 minutes. It was a completely different match. It was a classic to be sure. One of the best ever. Omega finally beat Okada, but the IWGP title wasn’t at stake. It was big enough that it more than made up for Omega losing the G-1 tournament finals and the Tokyo Dome main event spot to Tetsuya Naito.
Some day, I figured we would see a better match. In the opinion of the majority, some day was about 20 or so hours later. The Naito match pulled out more stops, was the finals of the tournament, which makes it bigger, and was more overall outstanding. But it was also more dangerous.
Most figured on January 4, 2018, that Naito was beating Okada for the title. I was kind of tipped off that the story of 2018 was going to be Okada setting the all-time record for not just the longest IWGP title reign in history, but longest combination time as champion in history, as well as most consecutive title defenses. The idea was to make him the greatest pro wrestling champion of the current era.
But a booker can only do so much. You can book a guy to win, and in time, even in a contrived world, those numbers in hindsight look impressive. Long crappy title reigns sometimes are remembered as legendary. But usually they aren’t.
People can cry and moan until the cows come home about the subjective method of rating pro wrestling matches. To some, the statistic that Okada’s title defenses averaged 4.86 stars going into this past week just gets people mad, and makes them dig deep and try and argue that he’s really overrated. To some, it means, since nobody has ever come close to that, it must be something special. To some, the numbers don’t mean that much, but it’s pretty clear the guy is something special. Even in a subjective world, there are also objective numbers, a great business rise during that period, and more international exposure, fame and respect that any Japanese wrestler based in Japan has ever had on an international basis. Okada is a lock to go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The only question left is whether he will break the all-time record set by Kenta Kobashi in 2002 of getting 98 percent of the vote when he goes in.
Yes, this was a legendary title reign and one of the best of all-time. As far as big matches go, it was the best of all-time. Ric Flair did it far more often, carried some mediocre and even terrible guys to good outings and one can argue him as the greatest all-around performer the industry has ever seen. But as far as top tier matches, I’ve seen them in small gyms, big arenas and national shows with Ricky Steamboat and Barry Windham on down. They were great. It was a different era. Shawn Michaels was immensely talented. Kenta Kobashi could drive emotion like no other. This guy combined what they all had. He was the most creative of them all. He was as good an athlete as any. And, partially because of the time, put more thought and on his big shows, had generally better opponents. Nobody could match his consistent match quality when the title was at stake.
We knew it as it was going on. In Japan, they did as well. A poll was done recently among the general public as to the greatest wrestler to ever perform in the country of Japan. It has been nearly 55 years since Rikidozan passed away. People know of him, know the legend, but few people in the public, and really none under the age of 60 or 65, actually saw him and have the emotional connection to him. Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba were the top two, who had decades of prime time national television, beating every big star that was in pro wrestling. Satoru Sayama was a short-term cultural phenomenon, who came when television ratings were high, and was like no star previously, and he completely changed the game.
No. 4 was Okada, at the time he was 29 years old, and while he had the advantage of being today’s top star, wrestling is so much less popular mainstream that his finish stunned most long-time fans. Not that he wasn’t that good, but that he didn’t get the exposure the others did to the general public. If it was a poll of hardcore wrestling fans, the result would be less surprising. Equally surprising was that the No. 2 foreign star, behind Stan Hansen, was Okada’s new rival, ahead of Lou Thesz, The Destroyer, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Bruiser Brody, The Funk Brothers, Mil Mascaras and all the stars when they were on the front page of the daily sports newspapers and magazines on the newsstands and on network prime time television.
When Omega won the second longest championship match ever held in Japan, the initial reaction was that a two-year-long storyline had played out perfectly. Suddenly, in that moment, it was clear that the decision not to put the title on Naito was no longer even arguable. Even those of us who believed Naito winning to be the right move, but accepted the big picture that this was the run to create a legend, and breaking records were part of it, and that there was a very good reason Naito didn’t win, well, at that moment it was clear we were wrong. Naito wins, the key records aren’t broken. The Tanahashi match never happens. This match never happens. At least not in this way.
This match, held before an advanced sellout crowd of 11,832 paid at Osaka Jo Hall, was at a different level far more than for what took place over 69 minutes and 49 seconds, which just happened to be, in the opinion of an awful lot of people, the greatest pro wrestling match they had ever seen. Whether it was or it wasn’t that, as far as storytelling, emotion and drama in a match, it is inconceivable to me that there has been another match close to this level in modern times.
There was a two-year-chase, from Omega’s win and interview after beating Hirooki Goto to win the 2016 G-1 tournament, through his Tokyo Dome loss, his Tokyo Dome draw, his G-1 win and subsequent loss the next day.
There was an emotion that he could bring out of a match with Okada that Naito couldn’t. Tanahashi could get that emotion, and there was a great story there, but it wasn’t the best story.
This was something that rarely happens at this level in wrestling. Mitsuharu Misawa did it without a long chase in 1990 against Jumbo Tsuruta, which turned into an amazing business run. Kerry Von Erich did it for the moment with Ric Flair in 1984 at Texas Stadium, but three weeks later it was meaningless. Dusty Rhodes did it the first time in Tampa with Harley Race, but five days later it was over and meaningless. Jack Brisco could have done it in Tampa or Miami Beach with Dory Funk Jr., in 1973, but in fact, that never happened. Ric Flair could have done that anytime after 1979 or 1980 in Greensboro or Charlotte, but that also never happened. Jerry Lawler could have done it in Memphis, and sort of did with Curt Hennig, but it was too late when it happened. It’s a dream scenario that takes patience, but it also doesn’t always work, as Vince McMahon has shown for the past four plus years trying to build this exact same emotion of Roman Reigns finally beating Brock Lesnar.
The next emotion, as expressed by Omega in the backstage interview, was that the Okada reign was over. How could it have ended any better, the culmination of a chase by his now greatest rival, in what many would call the greatest match ever held. The records were set, and he went down on the night of what was easily his greatest performance. The goal for the last half-dozen years was to create a true legend in Okada, and he could not have lost the title in any greater manner.
After Omega’s interview, the show was over, and fans had gone home, and in one of the great shots of all-time, there was a close-up of a single $1 Okada bill alone on the ground of an empty building that a half hour earlier was packed and as full of life as could be.
We received the second most number of responses of any show in our history for Dominion, only behind this year’s Wrestle Kingdom. Considering the response to New Japan shows in recent months hasn’t been anything special at all, people were expecting something.
I didn’t keep a tally, but I read every response. The vast majority were the same. Well, almost the same. “I’ve been watching wrestling (insert the number, most numbers were more than 20, one was 62) years and this was the best match I’ve ever seen.” Over and over. Probably two-thirds of the responses said that. Many called it, and more because of the main event, although the entire show was great, particularly the second half, the greatest wrestling show they had ever seen. I’ve seen deeper shows from start-to-finish, but this was certainly close. As far as the last three hours of a show, because of the main event, as well as the tag team title, jr. title and IC title, and with the time of the main event, it makes that hard to argue.
When it had ended, my thought was that this was the greatest match I’ve ever seen. Not arguably, and not by a little big either. It was at a level far beyond when it came to emotion, storytelling, and attention to detail. It was almost astonishing watching it. Will Ospreay may be the best wrestler, night-after-night, in the game today, and he had an incredible opponent and they vowed that when the show was over, while Omega, Okada, Chris Jericho and Naito were the guys who brought people to the arena and to watch it, that they were going to be the people everyone talked about when it was over. Instead, they had maybe the greatest match ever to be so overwhelmed by another match to become an afterthought. The Young Bucks had the single greatest storytelling match they ever had in Japan, and won the heavyweight tag team titles. When their match was over, I thought it probably would get a ton of votes for match of the night. It got one out of 993.
But the biggest difference was I thought I would never see another match this good again. This was not some five-star match or six-star match. You can call it whatever you want. I’ve had people arguing 16 or 17 stars, with the idea that the first fall, which went 29 minutes was an easy six stars, and the third fall, at 17 minutes, was also an easy six star, and the middle fall couldn’t be less than 4 and probably closer to 5. Surprisingly, in responses, the consensus was far more clear than I would have expected at 7. There were a lot of 8s, 10s, even a 12, and the ones who argued it as three different matches, which it wasn’t, to get some crazy number, a few 5s, and 6.5s, a 4 3/4 here and there.
In the match build, Omega told the story that he finally had to admit to himself that Okada was a better wrestler than he was. His storyline was that he is still better all-around as a performer, and still more valuable in taking the New Japan brand worldwide. They did a storyline contrast as Omega said he was training with Kota Ibushi at a level he had never trained before, and showed up in incredible shape. Okada was said to be getting his head peaceful, doing things like fishing. Omega said the two of three falls and no time limit gives him the advantage because he was going to show up in better condition.
Omega becomes the first Canadian to win the IWGP champion, only the third former junior heavyweight champion in New Japan history (after Tatsumi Fujinami and Nobuhiko Takada) to win the IWGP heavyweight belt, and breaks a streak that dates back to January 4, 2011, when Tanahashi beat Satoshi Kojima to win the title, that the title was in the hands of someone other than Okada, Tanahashi, Naito or A.J. Styles."