The closest I’ve come to the best basketball player of his generation is a couple hundred feet away, in the cheap seats. While attending a sporting event is usually enjoyable —because it’s rarely unenjoyable to get drunk and scream in public — from that distance the basketball itself is almost unrecognizable; you’re basically watching ants move along a piece of wood. You are this close to greatness, but not close enough to understand the specificity of the greatness. Up close, I might have seen the way LeBron James’s head subtly swiveled to anticipate a teammate on the fast break, or how he barked out his opponents’ play upon recognizing the pieces moving into place. From afar, all I could really tell was he was the fastest, strongest blob on the court.
Thankfully, I can now say that I have stood 20 feet away from Kazuchika Okada, the best professional wrestler of his generation. That means far less to people than the LeBron thing, inasmuch as basketball is a global phenomenon and wrestling in 2019 maxes out as a cult entertainment, but it mattered to me, and to most of the 16,000 fans at Madison Square Garden last Saturday night, when Okada defeated nemesis Jay White to begin his fifth reign as the International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP) heavyweight champion, the most prestigious title belt of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the company for which he works. Okada’s match was part of the G1 Supercard, a co-branded show with the American company Ring of Honor. A couple things to note about the show: When tickets went on sale last August, they sold out in 19 minutes. It was the first wrestling show at Madison Square Garden not presented by a member of the McMahon family, who owns the WWE (and its wrestling company predecessors), since 1960. It was quite possibly the high point of the most active wrestling weekend of the year, which was technically headlined by WWE’s WrestleMania on Sunday at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium.
Explaining pro-wrestling storylines to non-wrestling fans is about as interesting explaining your dreams, so for now I’ll spare you the intricacies of what made Okada’s win over White so gratifying (although real heads know). Instead, I’ll try to explain a little bit about what justified the extra money — a little under $200, with a StubHub processing fee — it cost to sit up close.
Often the first thought non-wrestling fans have when people talk about wrestling — apart from “did I time-travel to 1999” or “this is a thing we’re doing now?” — is: “Isn’t it fake?” Well, yes. The contests are predetermined, and function as physical climax to a storyline established in the weeks before (which is often just as simple as “we don’t like each other, and now we’re fighting”). But we think of something as fake, it’s because the real thing is difficult to obtain, if not impossible. Professional wrestling, meanwhile, was founded because the “real thing” — a legitimate competition between two wrestlers attempting to authentically pin the other for three seconds — did exist, at the beginning of the 20th century. It was just interminably boring. Because matches would sometimes take hours to complete, an executive decision was made by the sport’s illuminati to determine the endings ahead of time, so that a more compelling entertainment could be structured, which in turn would make everybody a lot more money.
I think of wrestling more as an action sequence being choreographed in real-time with no stoppage or reshoots. While the “winning and losing” is the point of most other athletic competitions, with the entertainment a pointedly secondary factor, wrestling inverts the formula: the point is to have fun, so that you’re more likely to spend money to see it again. And because watching the same entertainment over and over again doesn’t remain fun for very long, wrestling has undergone a thorough stylistic evolution in the decades since it became predetermined. Fifty years ago, wrestlers might have spent large chunks of their match exchanging basic punches and kicks or sitting in long rest holds. Today, doing something as seemingly ridiculous as jumping off a 20-foot ladder through a table is fairly standard.
But the best wrestlers don’t just perform the biggest stunts, or else every daredevil idiot with a backyard would be a millionaire. And there are also multiple styles of wrestling, meant for multiple kinds of audiences, from lucha libre (colorful, high-flying, everyone in masks) to hardcore (blood, household items someone’s probably getting hit with) to catch-as-catch-can (realistic, rooted in amateur wrestling technique) to comedy (giant panda!) and beyond. What Okada’s New Japan offers is strong style, in which the typical wrestling choreography is performed with just a touch more oomph. Instead of pulling their punches and elbows, the wrestlers hit each other, although not very hard, because then they’d always be in the hospital, but it looks and sounds harder than the obviously phony “stomping the ground to make a sound” punches you’ll see on American television. Strong style is still subject to the logical concessions that make pro wrestling work — for example, wrestlers never just move out of the way when someone is about to jump onto them — but it’s just a little realer, minimizing the opportunities for your brain go “that’s obviously fake” when something happens.
So when you’re standing 20 feet away from Kazuchika Okada, who sports a dirty-blonde ducktail and wrestles in tight multi-colored trunks that accentuate tree-thick thighs, as I did on Saturday night, you can better appreciate the great, meaty thwack produced by his forearm snapping against the side of Jay White’s head. You can better read the sweaty agony on his face, as he sells the impact of a forearm snapping into his face, and register the insane verticality he achieves when rising up for a dropkick. Though Okada himself is reportedly a quirky, laid-back personality, in the ring he portrays an alter ego known as “the Rainmaker,” due to his ability to draw money and perform with the most glamour. When he walks to the ring, he wears a shiny, golden robe adorned with purple tassels. Early on in the match, he recognized the 16,000 people cheering for him by subtly turning his head to the crowd, pointing his finger at his ear, and looking at Jay White in such a way that communicated “they’re here for me, not you” without saying a word. The feeling, somehow, was that when he looked in your direction he was actually looking at you, and that you would sacrifice a small animal in his honor if he demanded it. And there’s the attendant sensory ambience — the enveloping sound of those 16,000 chanting “O-ka-da” in unison, which I assume is the loudest Madison Square Garden has gotten since Jeremy Lin was on the Knicks. Standing eye-level with the ring, with the panoramic crowd streaked with purple and pink lighting and soft lit by the fog wafting from the ceiling, filled me with deep regret that human technology has not yet invented a camera capable of reproducing everything the eye takes in.
WrestleMania is often called the Super Bowl of professional wrestling; out of all of the sport’s events it presents the biggest spectacle, attracts the largest crowds, and often wraps up several ongoing storylines that the WWE has featured on its weekly television programming, serving as a sort of season finale. Because it has grown so popular, inducing fans from all over the world to fly to the host city, in recent years smaller wrestling companies have started running shows in the area in the days leading up to WrestleMania, enticing fans looking for satellite entertainment before the big show. They come to New York City to watch the WWE’s wrestlers, who are the most popular in the world, but spend several days beforehand with wrestlers from North America, Mexico, Japan, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, in much more offbeat locales like a nightclub or even a bar. (Perhaps you’d think they’d want to do something else in New York City, but you don’t know wrestling fans.)
Ring of Honor, New Japan’s partner on the night, launched in 2002 and has existed since then as the number two or three United States company; though its talent pool is comparatively thin in 2019 (most of its best performers go on to work for WWE, which pays more and offers more conventional fame) it still employs some of the best wrestlers in the world. New Japan, however, employs the best wrestlers in the world, even beyond Okada. Because the company is based primarily in Japan, American fans rarely have the opportunity to see them perform live. Until 2017, New Japan had never independently produced a show in the United States. Moreover, when New Japan wrestlers have performed in the U.S., it’s usually as more of a special attraction instead of the authentic, physically strenuous performances with narrative consequence that Japanese fans are allowed to take for granted. That was the organizing ethos that made Madison Square Garden feel like such a communal moment — the understanding that everyone here was pointed in the same direction to venerate a singular, unparalleled wrestling experience in a week promising plenty of them.
It’s here I’ll have to break a promise, and explain why Okada’s win caused 16,000 people to start speaking in tongues. Okada is 31 years old, and has worked with New Japan for his entire adult life. Since debuting with the company in 2007, he’s been positioned as its LeBron: a cocky, transcendent talent capable of consistently competing in the main event; at one point, he held the IWGP held for a record 720 days, a sign of faith in his ability to draw paying crowds. But upon losing the title last year, he entered a depressive period where he dyed his hair red, and began behaving bizarrely in the ring. Meanwhile, the New Zealand-born Jay White portrays a moody, Hot Topic-clad villain (or “heel”) whose purpose since joining New Japan has been to usurp Okada’s position as the top star. (He’s also managed by Okada’s former mentor, who deviously “turned heel” on his protege.) In Japanese wrestling terms, he functions as the villainous gaijin — a foreign star whose goal is to subvert and undermine the hometown star. In the past year, he’d beaten Okada twice, both while fighting unfairly. The opportunity for the Rainmaker to seek revenge, after finally recapturing his mojo (notably, re-dyeing his hair blonde) during the company’s most significant-ever American show evoked a collective burning to see it happen.
In a 2013 New York Times profile, the pro-wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer offered a seemingly tepid endorsement of the art form he has dedicated his professional life to covering. “I enjoy it for what it is,” he said. “It’s entertainment, storytelling. I know what it’s like to get good at it, and I enjoy people who are good at what they do.” The apparent weariness in his tone is shared by fans worldwide, who have witnessed plenty of bad wrestling and poor storytelling decisions, and who are conditioned to identify it immediately with the knowing cynicism that colors plenty of fandoms devoted to nerd shit. They always want to be entertained; they are aware of the limitations of looking for it.
On the contrary, because they know what it takes to get good at it, and what being “good at wrestling” entails, their devotion, once earned, remains permanent. At Madison Square Garden, the fans were desperate to cheer Okada from the moment his music hit. But they continued cheering him, organically so, because of an ever-refreshing realization during the match that he was really here, and he was really as good as he’d seemed through a screen halfway around the world. As it went on, I texted with some friends who were also in the building, and our perennial surprise was that we just could not believe it was happening in front of us. The LeBron of his industry, performing in the most famous arena in the world, for the price of a few nights of drinking. It still doesn’t seem real, when I think about it.
Being the best in the world at this particular thing has a natural ceiling. Okada is somewhat of a celebrity in Japan, though he isn’t a household name; in America, he’s unrecognizable. He’s well paid, reportedly bringing in a few million dollars per year, though he’ll likely suffer long-term health problems due to the damage caused by repeatedly landing on his neck and back during any of the high-risk maneuvers executed frequently during a wrestling match. (You can pull your punches, but you can’t fake gravity.) Pro wrestling used to be more popular than it is, though the truth is that Japanese stars have rarely been popular in America; maybe the most popular is Antonio Inoki, who competed against Muhammad Ali in 1976.
Still, that anonymity affords a kind of freedom. Last week, the Japanese wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura posted to Instagram a photograph of himself and Okada sitting in the uncrowded, dark corner of what appeared to be a New York City bar. For years, the two had worked together in New Japan, before Nakamura left to work for WWE in 2016. Nakamura is based in the U.S., while Okada is back in Japan, which means they rarely have the chance to meet up. It was a happy reunion, but I thought about how he and Nakamura had sat uninterrupted instead of causing an international incident, as would’ve happened if the best basketball or football player in the world just happened to be chilling with a beer. The bartenders might have served him, and had literally no idea they were talking to someone who happens to have mastered his craft better than anyone else in the world, a kind of encounter most people will never, ever have. But at Madison Square Garden, they knew.