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    Friday, December 1, 2017

    31 Days of Wrestling (12/1/17): The Okada/Omega Trilogy

    Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. Once again, we're at that point where we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match a day for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling 2017 produced for us.

    Today, we aren't just focusing on the best match of 2017. We'll be looking at a series of matches that summed up where pro wrestling is at this point, this year.

    You cannot talk about professional wrestling in 2017 without even talking about the rivalry that very much rocked not just New Japan Pro Wrestling and Japanese puroresu, but professional wrestling as a whole: the three-series encounter between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega.

    As 2016 ended, everyone knew that Okada was the Ace of New Japan moving forward, while Omega was seen as the relative unknown competing in pro wrestling's biggest show of the year outside the United States, the first time he's been put in a big-time position like this since his days in DDT Pro Wrestling. After all, 2016 was the year that the longtime junior heavyweight in Omega finally moved into the heavyweight position after the departures of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.

    To Omega's credit, he has excelled in the role given to him as a Heavyweight, winning the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and the year's G1 Climax in the process. As a matter of fact, he's the first Westerner to have ever won the G1, a sign of New Japan's faith in the star. Little did anyone know, however, that 2017 would set up the definitive rivalry that would change the trajectory of Omega's career forever while further solidifying Okada's position as a top name in the industry.

    The storied rivalry of Okada and Omega began at Wrestle Kingdom 11 at Tokyo Dome, with Omega cashing in his G1 Climax victory for a championship match in the main event. And as everyone knows by this time, this is the coveted match that got awarded a rare six out of five stars by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the first time in many years that this rating got awarded, and for very good reason: Omega stepped up big time and flourished in this position, introducing junior heavyweight elements at a Wrestle Kingdom main event while upping his aggression and intensity.

    Not surprisingly, The Rainmaker matched The Cleaner's offense and kept his main event pace in a match that lasted for more than 30 minutes, with the entire crowd in constant suspense hoping that Omega can finally win the big one. In the end, Okada maintained his soon-to-be-historic championship reign by nailing the final Rainmaker in the coffin, marking Okada's second-only ever successful title defense at a Wrestle Kingdom.

    Kazuchika Okada may have won the bout, but in the grander scheme of things, Kenny Omega came out of the match a bigger star than anyone would have expected, with fans all over the world raving for the Canadian. Omega would not celebrate his one-year anniversary of becoming a Heavyweight with the top championship, but his stock went up within the company and officially supplanted himself in the new Top 4 of New Japan, alongside Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Tetsuya Naito.

    It would only be a matter of time before Omega would get another opportunity at the title, but true enough, Okada nominated Omega as the challenger for his championship at New Japan's second biggest show of the year, Dominion at Osaka-Jo Hall. It may have seemed impossible for a match hailed as a six-star match to be topped by a sequel, but both competitors made what worked in the first match and made the encounter even better.

    Not only did we see the two stars keep up a main event-level match for an entire hour, but given that fans just saw fantastic matches in Hiromu/KUSHIDA and Tanahashi/Naito, they were able to maintain interest for that said hour, which would have been quite a mountain to climb for any two wrestlers.

    Thankfully, these two wrestlers are anything but ordinary; they made this encounter extraordinary to the point that the with drama between Omega and Cody during the match made it more interesting. The icing on the cake? Omega almost had that match won had it not been for the obligatory 60-minute time limit. And having a big title match end in a draw is another rare unicorn that one never really sees on an everyday basis. It was a great way to protect Okada and Omega's momentum, and true to form in the style of Gedo's booking techniques, there was a bigger purpose to this match finish.

    While Omega did not win the title, he did net the honor of becoming the first IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion in history, winning the tournament finals against Tomohiro Ishii at Long Beach, California. By that point, his stock was raised significantly, as well as the Bullet Club brand, to the point that Hot Topic in the US is now carrying Bullet Club and Young Bucks merchandise. And when you have a strong brand to supplement the popularity of the promotion, you know you're already a big name that has made it outside the confines of WWE.

    This would lead us to the most unexpected time to set up Okada vs. Omega III: as the last B-Block match of the 2017 G1 Climax tournament, the very same tournament where Omega made history the previous year. And while the championship was not on the line (since they are vying for points), there was something of equal importance on the line: the B-Block victory and the right to move on to the G1 Climax finals.

    In an amazing respect to continuity, this was the worst case scenario for Kenny Omega. You see, for Okada to win the block, he may opt to win via pinfall, submission, or disqualification. On the other hand, he may also win via letting the 30-minute time limit expire since he has the lead on points. This means for Kenny Omega, he has no choice but to do the one thing he was unable to do by that point: emphatically defeat Kazuchika Okada within the time limit. And if he was not able to pull off the win last time in a 60-minute time limit match, what more with 30 minutes?

    From the get-go, Okada/Omega III had the sense of urgency that felt uniquely different from their past two matches, with Omega becoming more aggressive than ever in securing the win within the time limit. He had to learn from his previous mistakes against Okada, pushing him out of his comfort zone in order to gain the advantage. And true enough, third time's the charm as Omega finally nailed the One-Winged Angel to finally win against Okada fair and square. As Omega would put it in his post-match interview afterwards, this was the hardest thing he ever had to do in his career. Of course, Omega would fail in his attempt to become a two-time G1 Climax winner against eventual winner Tetsuya Naito, but that's another story for another day.

    There is really a lot to take from the 2017 Okada/Omega Trilogy, when you think about it:

    1. The entire trilogy emphasized on continuity, storytelling, and nods to the past. Sometimes, the little things are overlooked, but when you look back and connect the dots, you can really appreciate the story they are telling by the bits and pieces. Sometimes, you just need to let the wrestlers and the promotion tell the story they want to tell; who knows, we might end up appreciating the lengths they would go to respect our intelligence. And while we'll have to wait longer for Okada/Omega IV, it is a good thing that they are committed to their long-standing philosophy of long term storytelling.

    2. These two men have done so well to tell a connecting story in three matches, further validating New Japan's faith on both men. Don't be surprised if they remain positioned to be the leaders of New Japan's global expansion.

    3. Omega has done well to take advantage of the spot given to him after the 2016 exodus. Ever since graduating to heavyweight, he represented Bullet Club well. Personally, I'm still surprised to see a lot of people wear Bullet Club shirts, whether they are familiar with professional wrestling or not. Still, the fact that Bullet Club remains a constant presence everywhere in the world is a sign that Omega is doing something right.

    4. Kazuchika Okada may very well end his career with an argument that he is the greatest professional wrestler in history, and he's not even in his 30s. To that, he may not even be in his prime yet. Can you imagine if he actually reaches his prime? Scary thought.

    5. You got to give it to New Japan for their efforts to expand their brand worldwide. With the wrestling world becoming more accessible than ever, we are actually blessed to be able to witness this trilogy when all eyes are on the worldwide wrestling scene. Their rivalry is proof that there is something for everyone besides WWE, and there is a means for us to support their endeavors through New Japan World subscriptions and accessible merchandise purposes.

    Anything can happen in 2018, sure, but for these two men, the sky is certainly the limit.
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    Item Reviewed: 31 Days of Wrestling (12/1/17): The Okada/Omega Trilogy Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Lance Tan Ong
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