SS: Reestablishing the Bar

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Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada are two names that fans who generally don’t follow wrestling outside WWE would be familiar with. These men appear to have done something in the first week of 2017 that few can do, and that is set the bar by which all matches are measured. When fans who normally don’t stray too far from what WWE produces watch this match, they will see just how special this match was. We are unlikely seeing many another one on one matches that run close to an hour in our lifetime, but a match like this isn’t just something fans should appreciate, it’s what they should come to expect.

Over the course of the past decade, fans of WWE have seen matches that will generally run anywhere from 15-20 minutes, including the most spectacular main events. When Okada and Omega fought for nearly an hour, not only did fans see a match of a length they don’t normally see, they also saw storytelling they wouldn’t normally see, a combination of sacrifice, will, and determination, in the pursuit of success. After a match like this, as many accolades are given to the loser as there are to the winner. Despite being unsuccessful at Wrestle Kingdom 11, Omega was just as praised for his performance as Okada.

Without trying to sound like an old curmudgeon, a well-told story says a lot about the commitment each performer contributes to a story. The newer guard of wrestling fandom tends to want to see a number of incredible spots during matches. In the past, matches featuring the likes of Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat were long, but were some of the finest in-ring stories we will ever find. Their conditioning was at a high level in order to prepare for what is aptly called ‘the hour broadway’, or no-decision. Seeing such conditioning and endurance demonstrated in a match is amazing. We are talking marathon athletes whose sole purpose is to fight injury, maintain the character and demonstrate a sense of will that is generally unheard of.

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The bar that has been set is a challenge for fans of WWE. In order to have a match like Okada and Omega’s, we would need two athletes that could not only go the distance but tell an equally compelling story. This is the case with the likes of Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles and Chris Jericho. These four have the cardiovascular conditioning to sustain being in a match that runs as long if not longer, than 45 minutes, and would be able to tell as compelling a story in the ring as we’ve ever seen.

When Rollins and Balor faced one another for the Universal Championship at SummerSlam 2016, it was clear that their match was special right from the outset. But as good as that match was, there was clear indication that it wouldn’t be given the time allotment prior equal to what the Omega/Okada battle from Wrestle Kingdom 11 ended up getting. For one, the number of matches on the card takes away from the time that could be allocated to this confrontation. Going 20-25 minutes is generally the norm, and having a match in the neighborhood of an hour isn’t common. We can presume that the attention span of the current fan base may simply impede them from appreciating a match of that length.

However, the counter to that argument is that fans are simply predisposed to seeing matches where there are different elements that aren’t necessarily tied to the competitors to the ring, and it is easy for them to be distracted and lose interest. This leads us to today, where the Okada/Omega battle will inevitably be measured against anything any promotion produces this year, whether it is in ROH, Impact Wrestling (TNA), Lucha Underground or WWE. The match has earned such acclaim that it not only set the bar. but essentially reinvented the bar for how wrestling can be viewed. Still, for all that their match provided, there were those that didn’t view it as on par with other matches in the annals of WWE history. When we are used to seeing one particular product, it is easy to gravitate towards the style and format it presents, because of familiarity, the manner in which storylines are booked, and the accessibility of that product. Some wrestling purists will look at the match and question the number of bumps taken in the match, and whether or not they were necessary. Did the risks warrant the reward? The answer may be yes, as a performers motivation is to be valued by the paying public, not unlike an actor or musician that wants to have their fans go home from a movie or a concert happy. The buzz that surrounded the match in the hours and days after it happened on social media alone has made a number of wrestling pundits sit up and take notice.

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Unlike the hour Broadway of the past, where spots were more spread out, and a great deal of emotion attached to each pinning attempt, the Omega/Okada match up was wire to wire action, with a number of nasty bumps that weren’t commonly taken years ago. But it could be said that the Okada/Omega match up was reflective of the modern style of wrestling, and also reflected where it took place. For years, fans that have often talked about Japanese wrestling and strong style, and have pointed out that the stiff nature of the kicks and punches only add to the realism of the story the performers are telling.

Still, it can also be said that these battles can take years off the life of an athlete. While injuries are part of wrestling, many will question if the injuries that could have been sustained from such a match not only impact those in the match, but the promoters, fellow competitors, and those in attendance. It affects promoters because the plans is to hold as many cards as possible with names such as Okada and Omega on them; it affects fellow competitors because it reduces the chances of a potential match against Okada and Omega down the road; and it affects the viewing audience because while they may enjoy what they saw, there is the risk that they won’t see these performers compete for months if an injury is sustained. The latter argument isn’t as prevalent, as those in attendance will enjoy the moment rather than think long term.

Earlier we mentioned Finn Balor facing Seth Rollins, and the potential of them putting on a lengthy match that could measure up to Okada/Omega. We should also consider that not only Balor but Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura have left Japan to compete in WWE. In joining WWE, they have needed to adapt to the promotion’s signature style. Still, stiff punches and kicks have been more common in WWE, and become part of fan expectations, showing how real the execution can be. Nakamura’s addition to WWE has also led to a number of possibilities, and we have to wonder if he will ever get the same type of notoriety he had overseas or will have time to execute something like the Okada/ Omega match up.

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After capturing and losing the NXT championship, the only logical move would be to move Nakamura to either Raw or Smackdown Live. It has been discussed on social media that having Nakamura join the Smackdown Live brand creates the possibility of a Nakamura/Styles confrontation. For those that are unaware, these two faced each other in New Japan Pro Wrestling in one of Styles’ final matches in NJPW. It was a hotly contested match that showed both men could execute stiff kicks, punches and push each other to the limit. They both have the stamina and endurance to create a story that is so compelling that fans would be hard pressed to turn away regardless of whether they were WWE fans or not. We ask why shouldn’t the promotion attempt to use a Balor and Rollins or a Styles and Nakamura feud, which could be everything for them that the Omega and Okada match was for NJPW. There has to be some in the company that is bothered, knowing that the match that set the bar wasn’t in WWE. While it may not be the be all and end all, it is significant that a different company was the focal point of attention and not WWE.

Here we are now, a couple of months removed from the match, and wondering if anything can be considered on par. We aren’t necessarily talking about another match this year, but even another match this decade, especially in a rival promotion. The biggest bone of contention is whether or not WWE would give enough time to a match, and whether or not talent such as AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Finn Balor and Seth Rollins will have the opportunity to use their skill set to tell the kind of story fans outside WWE have been privy too. While we are optimistic that we will see something that would be considered a five-star classic, a six-star classic, as Dave Meltzer has rated it, may indeed be hard to come by.

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