Over the past few years, wrestling in the United States has truly gone international. Lucha Underground and Chikara have helped raise interest in Mexican lucha libre, WWE talents like Neville, Finn Bálor, Paige and Becky Lynch have drawn eyes to Ireland and the U.K. and companies like Germany’s Westside Xtreme and New Zealand’s Impact Pro have entered into partnerships with Stateside promotions. But nothing has exploded quite like New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
For decades, NJPW had brought in gaijin like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Vader to work matches and tournaments. However, as the impact of seeing foreign stars compete began to lessen, New Japan started to lose its luster. It wasn’t until the late-2000s – when it underwent a change in philosophy and focused on Japanese stars – that the promotion began to grow again.
Obviously, the Internet has helped; as knowledge of wrestling increased, and shows became easier to acquire online, it was only natural that truly passionate fans gravitated toward the best product on the planet. But thrilling events like the G1 Climax tournament – which recently wrapped up with Hiroshi Tanahashi taking the crown – and inventive factions like the Bullet Club have held the attention of American audiences. What’s more, many wrestlers who made their names in America are now finding their way to New Japan thanks to a partnership with Ring of Honor, and the promotion has created a stable of stars from within, including wrestlers like Shinsuke Nakamura and KUSHIDA. But no one has seized the spotlight quite like current IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada.
Okada is just 27 years old, but he’s been a mainstay in New Japan for eight years now. After a quick ascent within the promotion, he was loaned to TNA as part of a talent exchange – though he was sparsely used, and the partnership between New Japan and TNA quickly ended. When he returned home, he became bigger than ever, thanks to his heelish “Rainmaker” makeover and battles with Nakamura, Tanahashi and A.J. Styles. He recently defeated Styles to claim the IWGP Heavyweight title for the third time, and will face Japanese legend Genichiro Tenryu in Tenryu’s retirement match on November 15.
Recently, Rolling Stone spoke with Okada about his rise to the top of New Japan, the prospects of putting a puro icon out to pasture and those constant rumors that he’s considering a move to WWE.
You beat A.J. Styles a few months ago to win back the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – how did it feel to win it again?
It felt the same as any other day. I am always the champion no matter what, so winning the championship back was not special.
A month ago, at the end of the G1 Climax tournament, it was announced that you would face Tenryu in his retirement match. What does it mean to you to face him?
Tenryu is a legend in Japan. However, it will be just another match. I don’t know him well, so he’s just another wrestler to me.
Speaking of the G1 Climax tournament, obviously it’s huge in Japan, but it seems more and more people are paying attention to it in America, too. Why do you think that is?
It’s the biggest tournament in the world. Nobody else runs a tournament like it. Nobody has 20 of the best wrestlers competing in so many different matches. There is nothing like it in the world. My dream is to bring a G1 tournament to the United States. I want to do a G1 in front of American crowds.
Your longtime rival, Tanahashi, ended up winning the G1, which potentially sets up another match between you two at Wrestle Kingdom 10. Are you excited about the possibility of facing him again?
I have never beaten him at Wrestle Kingdom at the Tokyo Dome. I’ve lost both times to him [at Wrestle Kingdom 7 and 9]. I want a big moment at the Tokyo Dome. I want a happy moment.
While you have worked these joint shows with Ring of Honor, this isn’t the first time you partnered with an American company. What makes working with Ring of Honor better than your time in TNA?
I didn’t get to wrestle at all in TNA. I wanted to wrestle, and they wouldn’t let me. Here, I can wrestle against great wrestlers.
How do the wrestlers in ROH compare to the wrestlers in New Japan?
They’re at the same level. I wanted to wrestle against new people, but it’s very similar to wrestling in Japan. I really appreciate ROH for letting me wrestle in the United States. American fans get to see me and get to see New Japan. Ring of Honor lets us do that. I love working in front of American crowds. When I do the pose [throws his arms wide], the crowd does it with me. I love that. The crowds don’t do that in Japan. They respond a lot more in America.
Since you like working in front of American crowds, could you see yourself leaving Japan and working in America, whether it’s for ROH, WWE, or someone else?
I like doing the shows with Ring of Honor, but I don’t want to leave Japan. I’m not interested in WWE at all. Many people ask me about WWE, and if I’d go to WWE in the future. They ask me if I’m going now. I will not go. I want to make New Japan Pro-Wrestling bigger. That’s my future.
New Japan is getting more popular in the United States. Could you ever seeing it having a live weekly show here, like Raw?
Yes, that’s why I’m in New Japan. I’m the one that can bring that.