For the first time in the 27-year history of the “PWI 500,” the top position goes to a wrestler who is not based in a major American promotion. “The Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada has been selected as the best wrestler of the past 12 months and earns the number-one spot.
There were several factors that went into the selection of Okada as number one. For one thing, Okada has held the IWGP championship throughout the entire evaluation period. He is unquestionably the top dog in the second-largest wrestling promotion in the word and has faced elite level competition all year. And his Wrestle Kingdom title defense against Kenny Omega (and the subsequent rematch at Dominion) have been lauded as not only potential Match of the Year candidates, but arguably two of the greatest matches of all-time.
No one in WWE—or anywhere else, for that matter—had anywhere near as impressive 12 months as Okada, and that made “The Rainmaker” an easy selection for the PWI editorial team.
We contacted Okada through an interpreter and asked how he felt being the first Japanese wrestler to earn the top spot in the “PWI 500” and what it means for wrestling in Japan in general.
“Well, I think I did what those other guys (Keiji Muto, Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Hiroshi Tanahashi) did not. What this award signifies is that wrestling fans and media worldwide are thinking about what promotion and what wrestler deserves their attention, and the answer is Okada. It’s an indication that finally the world at large is realizing just how great Japanese wrestlers and Japanese wrestling is, and that’s special.”
In addition to his successful title defenses against Omega, Okada retained the IWGP title in matches against Katsuyori Shibata, Minoru Suzuki, and Naomichi Marufuji. (His defense against Cody Rhodes in Long Beach, California, came a day after the evaluation period of July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017.) He made cross-promotional appearances, wrestling in Pro Wrestling NOAH and in Ring of Honor. He was an international ambassador both for New Japan Pro Wrestling and for puroresu itself.
Okada acknowledged that New Japan is gaining popularity, but he still thinks there is more work to be done.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Okada said. “This (the Long Beach shows) was our first time in the U.S., and in a 3,000-seat building. I want to target bigger venues and make the world aware of New Japan, and of how awesome Kazuchika Okada is.”
When asked if he was considering following in the footsteps of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, leaving New Japan for WWE in the future, the four-time IWGP heavyweight champion didn’t mince words.
“It’s not something I think about,” Okada said. “New Japan is far superior to WWE when it comes to the quality of the roster and the quality of the matches. One thing I will say is that I do pay attention to what Finn Balor, AJ, and Nakamura are doing, and they look like they’re having fun. I might want to wrestle them again someday, but I might want to do that in New Japan. Hell, I might want to be like some other people and become a movie star or join the UFC. You never know.”
On the topic of wrestlers Okada may want to face again, we asked about Kenny Omega and whether Okada felt a special chemistry with the Canadian as an opponent.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something special there,” he said. “Our matches have resounded all over the world, and when we’re opposite each other, the world takes notices. But my matches with Tanahashi and Tetsuya Naito are just as special. All my matches are.”
Okada may seem brash and confident, but it’s hard to argue his point. “The Rainmaker” has put together a string of five-star matches since winning his first IWGP title in 2012. He has been one of the most consistent performers of this decade to date. And at only 29 years old, he may not even have hit his prime yet.
“In addition to continuing to defend the IWGP title, we asked Okada if he had any additional short-term goals or objectives.
“New Japan World (the company’s streaming subscription service) has allowed fans from all over the glove to access New Japan. I want to continue spreading the NJPW name worldwide and to make Wrestle Kingdom (New Japan’s annual supershow) a global phenomenon.”