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Kazuchika Okada’s Big Decision

At the end of January, Okada will become the biggest free agent in the modern pro wrestling era. This is how he got to that moment, and what’s next for the Rainmaker.

Harrison Freeman

During Major League Baseball’s free agency period, the news cycle is dominated by contract negotiations between teams and marquee free agents, this year including the two biggest signees, Japanese superstars Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The pro wrestling world is currently immersed in its own hot stove season, as big stars Mercedes Moné and Giulia are entertaining offers from throughout the industry. However, pro wrestling’s free agency wars kicked into high gear last week when 36-year-old Kazuchika Okada, the top star in New Japan Pro-Wrestling for the past decade, announced that he would not re-sign with NJPW after his contract expires at the end of January. The move clearly surprised his home promotion, which had to rebook the shows that Okada had been scheduled to be a part of.

Okada is arguably the most decorated wrestler of the last 15 years. He is a five-time Tokyo Sports MVP Award winner, and has wrestled in nine matches that received its Best Bout Award. (The daily sports magazine has been awarding the best in Japanese pro wrestling since 1974, and has gained recognition from all three major pro wrestling promotions in Japan.) He was named Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Decade (2010s) by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and was part of the bouts named WON’s Pro Wrestling Match of the Year in 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2022. (Okada and Bryan Danielson’s match at Wrestle Kingdom 18 in the Tokyo Dome on January 4 is an early front-runner to win the award for 2024.)

Okada was a middle and high school track star in Japan before he began his pro wrestling training with Último Dragón in Toryumon, Mexico, at 15. He made his pro wrestling debut in Mexico City in August 2004 against the legendary lucha maestro Negro Navarro when he was just 16 years old, and spent his teenage years primarily wrestling in smaller promotions in Mexico and making stops in Canada and the U.S. for the Philadelphia-based Chikara promotion.

In 2007, Okada joined the NJPW Dojo, spending the first couple of years in that promotion showing promise but losing nearly all of his matches. NJPW traditionally sends its trainees on excursions overseas before bringing them back to re-debut them in a significant role. Okada spent an uneventful year in TNA, mostly losing on its syndicated B-show Xplosion and spending a short time as Samoa Joe’s Kato-inspired valet Okato. Okada’s experience with TNA eventually led to the end of the relationship between that promotion and NJPW. However, Okada would credit TNA with showing him the importance of developing a memorable character.

When Okada returned to NJPW, it wasn’t with the black trunks and tights he left with; instead, he became the Rainmaker, making his full-time re-debut in January 2012. Okada had dyed blond hair, an elaborate entrance, and longtime NJPW booker Gedo as his manager. The Rainmaker gimmick is a blue-chip, A-list, max-salary athlete. He has currency drop from the ceiling during his entrance, and his heel work is more entitled arrogance than dastardly evil; it made complete sense when Okada joined the Chaos heel group, which Shinsuke Nakamura led at that time.

Okada immediately challenged IWGP Heavyweight champion Hiroshi Tanahashi for the title. He captured the belt on his first try in February of that year, igniting a generational feud between the two that would define Japanese wrestling in the 2010s. Tanahashi would win the title in June; Okada would win the G1 Climax (his first of four such wins) that summer, making him the youngest G1 champion in history at 24 years old. That victory also made Okada the no. 1 contender for the IWGP title, leading to another showdown against then-champion Tanahashi in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 7. While Okada failed to secure the title in his inaugural Tokyo Dome main event, he regained the championship in April 2013. Okada would hold the title for 13 months, including defeating Tanahashi in a rematch, solidifying him as the “Ace” of NJPW. Okada would eventually lose the belt to AJ Styles as part of the feud between Chaos and Styles’s Bullet Club, leading NJPW to greater prominence outside Japan.

After beating Tetsuya Naito to win the title again in June 2016, Okada would have the longest IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign in history, holding the belt for 720 days. This reign would contain his most acclaimed series of matches: his battles with Kenny Omega. Those included a 45-minute scorcher at the Tokyo Dome in 2017 (at that time, the longest match in Tokyo Dome history), a 60-minute draw in June 2017, and finally, a two-out-of-three-falls war in June 2018 that Omega won, ending Okada’s title run.

These matches—full of violent bumps, huge highspots, and complicated near-fall finishes—set the bar, creating the template for how professional wrestling works in the 21st century. Okada served as the foil for Omega’s explosive offense, inserting the timing and drama that sewed the monumental moments together, giving them structure. The pace of these long matches was also physically impressive; they did a great job of building intensity in their matches without sacrificing quality. After Omega left NJPW for All Elite Wrestling, Okada had another similarly acclaimed series of matches against Will Ospreay, which includes the 2022 WON Match of the Year and one of the final NJPW matches for both men in San Jose, California, earlier this month.

Okada also led several successful tours of the U.S., highlighted by the G1 Supercard show at Madison Square Garden that NJPW produced in conjunction with Ring of Honor. That show drew more than 16,000 people to see Okada win the IWGP Heavyweight title for a fifth time from Jay White (with Okada’s former manager Gedo in his corner) in the main event.

Despite the six-star reputation of Okada’s top matches, he isn’t your typical moves-based workrate wrestler. While he has had his most acclaimed matches against wrestlers like Omega and Ospreay, Okada is primarily a foil for those wrestlers. His best U.S. comparison is probably Randy Orton: tall and handsome, with a beautiful dropkick and a good sense of timing. His Rainmaker clothesline (a ripcord lariat) has been used in Japan similarly to Orton’s RKO as a quick-strike, match-ending maneuver with various setups. Those qualities are why many see Okada as a more natural stylistic fit for WWE than it might first appear.

While Okada began his proper NJPW run as a heel, over the last decade he has transformed into the standard-bearer for Japanese wrestling. The Ace not only represents NJPW as a promotion but, in many ways, represents puroresu, or Japanese wrestling, as a whole. While his feud with Tanahashi was the battle that put him on the map, his most acclaimed moments have been defending the honor of Japan against a series of foreign interlopers. Feuds of that nature date back to the beginning of Japanese wrestling, when Rikidozan would pack arenas and break ratings records in the 1950s and ’60s battling foes like “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “The Destroyer” Dick Beyer, Lou Thesz, and the Sharpe Brothers. Similarly, some of Okada’s greatest moments have been against foreign stars—not only his feuds with Styles, Omega, White, and Ospreay, but also big matches against Cody Rhodes, Chris Jericho, and his current feud with Bryan Danielson, which climaxed when Okada pinned Danielson at Wrestle Kingdom 18 earlier this month. That is one of the things that makes the current free agent situation so intriguing.

Okada is by far the most prominent Japanese star to make the jump to the United States. His absence leaves NJPW with a giant hole in the main event. The current champion, Naito, is 41 years old—a peer of Okada’s rather than a replacement. While Naito finally beat Okada in 2020, he has always been positioned a step below Okada. A trio of young wrestlers dubbed the Reiwa Three Musketeers (Shota Umino, Ren Narita, and Yota Tsuji) is positioned as the future of the promotion, but the three will have to accelerate their progress before competing at a main-event level. Okada’s departure also comes as Ospreay—the top foreign wrestler in NJPW—heads to AEW, hot on the heels of Jay White’s deal with AEW last year.

Although Okada mended fences with TNA—wrestling in a six-man tag match on a recent taping—there are only two plausible landing spots for a star as big as him: AEW and WWE. He has already wrestled multiple times for AEW, appearing on Dynamite in October and on both Forbidden Door shows. The AEW audience is primed to treat Okada as a big star, and that promotion is the home of some of his most legendary rivals. AEW rematches with White and Ospreay would be easy to set up, and when Omega can return to the ring after dealing with his diverticulitis, there will be an audience hungry to see their first singles match in almost six years. New matches against wrestlers like MJF, Eddie Kingston, and Samoa Joe would also be intriguing. And because AEW typically gives its talent more opportunity to freelance, it would also be easier for Okada to return to NJPW for big shows, so he wouldn’t need to cut the cord entirely from the promotion that has been his home for a decade and a half.

Tony Khan has expressed his admiration for Okada in the past and would be thrilled to get a chance to add him to his roster. It has also been rumored that Okada would be allowed to live in Japan and commute to AEW shows. If he signed with WWE, he would almost certainly have to relocate to the States.

AEW makes the most sense and seems the safest. Outside of injury, there isn’t any risk of Okada failing in AEW. Were Okada to show up in WWE, newly flush with Netflix cash, it’d be a bigger gamble but possibly a greater upside. There is an incentive for the WWE brain trust to treat Okada like a big star, demonstrating to other foreign free agents that WWE is an accommodating place to land. As successful as AEW has been, it is still a clear no. 2 promotion, and as a legacy play, doing the Rainmaker entrance with dollar bills floating down at a WrestleMania would put Okada’s jersey up in the rafters of Japanese wrestling legends with stars like Rikidozan, Giant Baba, and Antonio Inoki. There has never been a Japanese wrestler who has crossed over to top star status in the U.S., which Okada can do only in WWE.

However, WWE has a mixed history of importing big stars from foreign promotions. Místico was as big a star in Mexico as Okada is in Japan, and his WWE run was an infamous flameout. While both Asuka and Nakamura have certainly had more success, WWE has had only one playbook for Japanese stars, and giving Okada poison mist and a kendo stick would be a pretty dire misunderstanding of what he does well. Similarly, taking one of the most acclaimed wrestlers of the 21st century and putting him in the NXT training center doing squat drills with fitness models and Division II middle linebackers would be a massive (and comical) waste of his potential.

This kind of transactional debate is one of the things that makes sports so much fun to talk and argue about. The presence of two major, deep-pocketed American wrestling promotions allows fans to debate, speculate, and scorekeep in a way that hasn’t been possible since the 1990s. The unique nature of Okada’s free-agency decision will likely have repercussions, and it will be fascinating to see where he ends up and how that decision will affect future bidding wars.

Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.