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Art is the creation of something from nothing that elicits a reaction. Pro wrestling embodies that definition. In wrestling, men and women step inside the squared circle and create with their actions, expressions, words, and bodies to garner a specific and distinct reaction from their audience. In turn, the audience responds to, engages with, and affects the work. No other art form in the world carries that uniqueness. In this column, we explore that art form inside real and relevant examples. Enjoy.
Well, they did it folks. After three historic matches together in 2017, Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada once again successfully raised the bar for match quality with their IWGP Heavyweight Championship match at Dominion on Saturday. On a show that was stacked from top to bottom, Omega and Okada took over at the three and a half hour mark and showcased what was still possible for a wrestling match in 2018. To stand out from their previous three battles, this match was contested under two out of three falls rules – a challenge that was not only met and exceeded, but used by both men to its utmost potential for storytelling purposes.
The match itself was incredibly stiff, hard-hitting, and infinitely creative from a spot generation standpoint. In addition, it was constructed with Omega and Okada’s history in mind with concepts and follow-up from their previous matches woven throughout this finale. Saturday’s match also featured an abundance of prominent psychology that drove the match and led to heavy emotional investment from a worldwide audience. Each of those pieces wound together yielded an artistic masterpiece that was above and beyond the expectations they set together in 2017. What were the best artistic moments in the match? Let’s dive in …
3. Okada not using the Rainmaker to secure the first fall victory
Sometimes small artistic choices in a match end up making a large impact. Okada and Omega’s use of the Rainmaker was their ace in the hole that they deployed perfectly. In the first fall, Okada and Omega went to war with Okada getting the victory via a quick and almost fluky roll-up pin. On the surface it’s a nothing move, but the moments and story after it were built on its foundation. By Okada not hitting the Rainmaker for that first win, the audience was left feeling a sense of inevitability and finality of Okada being victorious again. They then used that emotion and exploited it. In a two out of three falls match, common sense typically tells us that each competitor should win a fall via their finish, leading up to a cumulative third fall in which anything could happen. In this match, that formula was flipped on its head. Okada won the first fall without his finish and because of that, the match was littered with anticipation and an expectation for him to successfully use that move later in the bout. The call they made was that the audience would assume Omega would secure the second fall. At that point, the crowd would immediately flock to Omega’s side with sympathy during the third fall knowing that the Rainmaker was still out there for Omega to deal with and overcome. Holding off on the move the way they did was an important decision as it gave Omega an additional story to work off of in the match. Once the first fall happened, the story was heavily placed on the shoulders of Omega outlasting the most dominant champion in history. With the Rainmaker carrot dangling throughout the match and into the third fall, Omega and the audience together had to address that issue within their own psyche. Finally, having this move out there allowed for a build to Omega kicking out of it. Yes, he’s done it before, but kicking out of it in the confines of this match was extra significant because the move was more devastating later in the match due to the exhaustion of both men. Had the typical formula been used here and the move utilized early for an Okada win, a significant portion of the story would have been sacrificed.
2. Selling exhaustion
The selling by both Okada and Omega in this match was pristine in nature and a pillar of why the match connected so well with the audience. Throughout the entire thing, both men were able to zero in and focus on specific body parts when the timing was right. Omega sold the ribs after crashing into the ring guardrail and Okada worked similarly in selling his chest wounds after being pounded by Omega with chops throughout the match. Not only did they sell the moves they just took to increase the effect and the story, but they cumulatively sold moves as well and didn’t forget to sell any previous damage done to them. Omega regularly went back to the ribs to show his pain and Okada did the same with the chest. This allowed for consistency in the match, but it also allowed them to sell their main obstacle in epic fashion – exhaustion. First and foremost, both men sold their exhaustion like true artists via their facial expressions and actions. The look in their eyes throughout all three falls conveyed their battle well while also showing the world just how tired they were within it. They took this selling to a second level by actually having their exhaustion affect their moves and offense. Kenny Omega hitting the One Winged Angel without hooking one of Okada’s legs and Okada not getting his regular height on dropkicks were purposefully executed the way they were to highlight their exhaustion. On commentary, Don Callis and Kevin Kelly focused on this selling as well which helped to continue the story. Exhaustion was a key factor in the entire build and execution of this match – so much so that in promos, Omega regularly referenced his conditioning as being a main avenue to him winning the championship. Glossing over that and not using it as a pillar piece of psychology in the match would have been detrimental to their story. The selling of exhaustion was pivotal in capitalizing on that piece of psychology and both men generated genuine emotion in the audience because of it.
1. Okada collapsing while attempting the Rainmaker
What a moment. This spot was over a year in the making and was rooted in Okada vs. Omega 2 in which Omega collapsed in a heap to avoid a Rainmaker. On Saturday, the reverse happened and Okada collapsed as he attempted to crush Omega with the move. This spot was perfectly timed and acted as the climax for not just this match, but for the entire Okada vs. Omega feud. In that moment, Omega finally overcame Okada in the biggest way possible as he physically outlasted him in the match. It was the moment where the audience recognized that their hero just might actually be victorious. It’s a standard but an effective storytelling tool. Like the moment in Star Wars where Luke cuts the hand off of Darth Vader. To that point in the movie, the hero failed in overcoming his obstacles. When he cuts Vader’s hand off, Luke finally succeeds. Okada collapsing was Omega’s moment of success. The execution was flawless and needed to be in order to be as effective as possible. Okada cued up the move as he usually does and instead of strictly collapsing, he actually hit the move with no strength or power behind it. Then he fell to the mat. The decision to actually hit the move and have it essentially not work was an important one as it was more effective in conveying just how exhausted Okada was. It turn, it made Omega’s accomplishment in outlasting him even more important. On the flip side, Omega took the move perfectly. Upon seeing Okada collapse, he didn’t fire up out of nowhere, but he stumbled about to continue selling his exhaustion which allowed the audience to get behind him and cheer the pivotal moment. This was a pinnacle piece of storytelling and a microcosm of what Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada was. This spot was their story.
Artistic moments like these are why this series of matches between Omega and Okada are legendary and will inevitably have a place in history among the best matches of all time. They also highlight what’s still possible with wrestling in 2018. Storytelling is still king. Even with smart audiences and never before seen access to the product, great storytelling will always win out and be the most effective tool for connecting with an audience. Okada and Omega achieved that here. Pro wrestling world, you’re now on notice.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: ARTISTRY OF WRESTLING: Nia Jax as a confident champion has her defining “it” moment on Monday Night Raw