Under The Gray Sky

Credit: Mavs Gillis

I’m chasing a dream. Maybe the rain will fall, or maybe the wind will blow. Heck, we’re outside in the open air, we don’t know the weather.”

Minoru Suzuki, 10th May 2018

I was inspired to watch this match during WrestleMania 2021, when Night 1 was being delayed due to rain. By this point, the week had already been such a whirlwind of emotion for myself and my friends. With surprise appearances of our favorite wrestlers and new developments of our favorite stories, I felt that WrestleMania week had already given me all it had had to offer, such was my joy at the time. And then a thunderstorm blew into Tampa Florida and my Twitter timeline was flooded with pictures of Minoru Suzuki and Kazuchika Okada on July 23rd, 2018 at the Great Pirate Festival, the event put on to celebrate Suzuki’s 30th wrestling anniversary. There was something so captivating about those images, the raindrops suspended in midair as these two men stared each other down with so much intensity it seemed to radiate from my screen.

Credit: NJPW

Suzuki and Okada are particular favorites of mine, which is interesting if you know anything at all about how my tastes generally run. Kazuchika Okada is distant, regal, and flawless; God’s perfect image of a wrestling icon with shoulders broad enough to carry the mantle of an entire company. It’s an archetype that has never been particularly interesting to me – I prefer my heroes to be grounded and messily human – but Okada carries it with such overwhelming charisma that I can’t help but be compelled by him anyway, to say nothing of the sheer magnificence of his in-ring work. On the other side, MMA and other types of shoot fighting are an all too common cross pollination that I normally cannot stand a minute of, but in the case of Minoru Suzuki there is a particular aura of gleeful violence that really sells it for me. He’s monstrous, he’s chaotic, he’s nasty, but most importantly he’s having fun. He came out to attack people and honestly he’s having such a good time right now – his idea of a good time being twisting all of my favorite wrestlers into knots and tormenting them in front of an audience. Love that for me. But above all else, these are two men that are incredibly skilled at their craft, and I was eager to see the kind of magic they would make together, especially when they where thrown a curveball in the form of the day’s weather conditions.

Credit: Mavs Gillis

“This is what standing in the rain, in the middle of the Great Pirate Festival, for 5 hours, will do to a passport

I spoke with NJPW commentator Mavs Gillis, who was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the event. He described the Great Pirate Festival as “Suzuki’s Instagram page come to life,” with a whole variety of events well beyond wrestling, such as fishing, coffee, and local Yokohama attractions. With all that, even the weather wasn’t enough to dampen people’s spirits.

“There was thousands upon thousands around the ring when it was down pouring throughout the 30 minutes between Suzuki and Okada. Everyone was really into it. I think for me, being into the history of pro wrestling, I was thinking back to seeing newsreels of matches taking place in baseball fields where all you saw was fans as far the eyes could see, and to now experience that was really cool, to know what that would have been like.”

Pictured: a whole lot of people braving the weather for some excellent wrestling

Watching this match two years and thousands of miles removed was a fascinating experience. The excitement of the crowd Gillis described translates tangibly through the screen, the rain doing much more to enhance the match than to dampen it’s spirit. It really captured my imagination. Wrestling, of all storytelling mediums, has the most interesting and complicated relationship with reality. It’s bound more closely to the laws of physics than TV and Cinema, and people take for granted visual metaphor and approximate representation in theatre in a way that many will not allow in wrestling. No other medium is tied to time the way that wrestling is, none other is as buffeted by a constantly shifting landscape of contracts, injuries, and business practices, and none other can be so fundamentally changed by the element of luck. These elements are present in other mediums, for sure, but the separation between them and the vagaries of the nature of the universe is more robust. A novelist may have life experiences interrupting their craft, but they won’t necessarily change the essence of a particular work. A talented actor can elevate a text by bringing in their own personal flair, but there’s ultimately an army of people between them and the presentation of the final work of art. And even if a play was to be performed in an outdoor theatre, the weather would be unlikely to change the meaning of the story being told.

Wrestling’s roots are in the craft of simulating reality closely enough to fool the audience watching it, and even after the curtain of kayfabe was lifted the medium is still in dialogue with reality in a way that’s unique to itself. We see this in the wrestlers themselves, the way the characters they play and the real people they are can bleed into each other. It’s a rare interview with a wrestler which doesn’t include elements of shoot and work in varying degrees – good luck teasing apart which is which – and the less said about twitter the better. This close relationship with reality means that wrestling can be profoundly impacted by chance and happenstance, and July 23, 2018 dawning overcast and relentlessly rainy ended up having a profound impact on the atmosphere, presentation, and emotion on Minoru Suzuiki’s 30th anniversary bout with a 30 minute time limit against a 30 year old opponent.

Credit: NJPW

“Now you might notice that every match on my 30th anniversary card has a 30 minute time limit. There’s not meaning behind that, it just looks cool

“The vibes here are already off the charts here lads,” I, a cool person who says cool things, announced to my friends as we fired up a stream for this match and watched several lingering establishing shots of dark red brick over the pale gray backdrop of the cloudy sky, moisture already collecting on the cameras and adding a softening glow that gave the impression of a liminal space, where reality is in flux and magic seems to be right at the tips of one’s fingers. Ayumi Nakamura stepped into the downpour before a sea of umbrellas, raising her arms up as if to welcome the rain as the first bars of Kaze Ni Nare began to play. As she began to sing, the crowd’s voice began to swell up with hers.

There’s something special about this live performance that I don’t think would have been so impactful without the rain, the water droplets shining like pearls on the camera lens, panning slowly out to take in the beauty of the historic building behind her. You would think that the mood would have dampened the mood of the occasion, but it just made the excitement and dedication of the fans in attendance feel that much more impactful. All of these people had come to support Minoru Suzuki on his thirtieth anniversary of wrestling, and he was about to wrestle arguably the biggest star in the company. Even through the screen I could feel the anticipation. 

Credit: NJPW

Suzuki came out in all white, “a throwback to his UWF days”, according to the NJPW write up of the match, and reflective of his gear when he debuted for the company. But, for me, I can’t help but read a little into the symbolism of famous monster heel Minoru Suzuki, hair dyed blond with a new spiral design cut into it, walking to the ring as hometown hero and eschewing his normal black as excited children scream in welcome. In the interview in which the match was announced a month before, Suzuki had said of children attending;

“Lately more kids are coming to shows and yelling in the crowd, not all that different to when I was a kid. That atmosphere is starting to come back. I want that to happen! When I got the materials for this event, the Yokohama Board of Education really came on board too. Isn’t that great?”

“Little kids love monsters,” my friend noted as we watched tiny hands reach through the bars of the barricades as Suzuki hyped up the crowd, and I agreed. It’s something we have in common. 

While Okada didn’t get a special live performance heralding him to the ring, there’s something Pavlovian in the response to the sound of the coin drop at the start of his music. The gray, rainy day did nothing to dampen the gold of the rainmaker bills shot into the air, tumbling all around him as he stalked with his flawless poise towards the ring. Less than a month earlier Okada lost the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to Kenny Omega after making history as the longest reigning champion with the most successful title defenses in the title’s history. Still, the loss must have stung, though you wouldn’t know it from the way Okada holds himself, a pile of gold at his feet and even more soaring through the air in defiance of the rain. Or, perhaps, in harmony with it; Okada is The Rainmaker, after all. He was not ultimately able to defeat his greatest rival, so why should Suzuki’s vision of celebrating his 30th anniversary “under the blue Yokohama sky” get to come true?

The match itself starts slowly, the competitors feeling out each other and their environment. The ring canvas is slick and treacherous underfoot, and throughout the bout there’s the added tension of the wrestlers’ precarious footing. It’s an environment that definitely favors Suzuki, a submission wrestler first and foremost who is most comfortable on the mat and favors a more grounded striking style on his feet. Okada, on the other hand, draws strength from his speed and athleticism, two things which are much more risky with the poor footing. “He can’t even do his dropkick,” I noted to my friends as Okada carefully matches and counters hold for hold, moving almost gingerly when he tries to build up speed.

Put a pin in that.

Suzuki may be playing the white hat in his hometown but nothing of his behavior has changed. He gleefully begins to trade blow for blow with Okada and, when the longest-reigning IWGP champ ultimately gets the better of that exchange, he lures him to the outside of the ring and reverses his fortune with a vicious armbar on the apron that forces the ref to count out twice. From there, he shows his appreciation for the kids in attendance by brutally beating down New Japan’s biggest star right in front of them, throwing Okada against several different barricades, to include as many as possible, as a pair of harried attendants follow him around and attempt to wave the kids out of the line of fire.

Credit: NJPW

Pictured: a woman who is absolutely not paid enough for this.

The children are, by all appearances, delighted. Honestly, I would be too.

Once back in the ring, Suzuki takes advantage of the weakness he introduced by viciously working over Okada’s arm, setting Okada writhing on the canvas and sparing no thought to sportsmanship as he leverages the ropes to his advantage, ensnares the referee when he dares to initiate the count, and then stalks to the ringside tent to bully the announcer and appropriate his chair for Chair Crimes. A King.

Prelude to Chair Crimes

Okada was already grounded by the slick surface, and now he has an injured arm to contend with — an arm he needs in order to execute the Rainmaker –and Suzuki could not be more pleased with himself. His face is awash with glee as he continues to torment the former Heavyweight Champion and when captured by the rain-slicked camera, he seems to glow.

Every movement by both men has been so cautious, the very surface has become treacherous, and again this favors Suzuki as it necessarily slows the pace down to where he can rely on his force and countering ability. Okada can break through Suzuki’s offense with a burst of energy and a powerful move, but when he tries to build momentum his feet slide right out from under him and he falls right down onto the mat. Suzuki is on him in a second, capitalizing on the slip and it’s at this point that I start to think about how different this match would have been without this hazard, how much the dynamic must have been shifted by the presence of the rain. Far from spoiling the experience, the added element of chaos adds something exceptional and completely unreproducible to the performance. This match could only have happened at this moment under these circumstances between these two people. Change any one element and this becomes something else entirely, and that’s what I find so compelling about it.

Okada knows that he needs to do more in order to get the upper hand; he’s not going to get anywhere by meeting Minoru on the ground at his level, he needs to shift the flow of the fight to his advantage. He attempts to take to the air from the top rope, but that way is slick and treacherous and those few precious moments it takes to get his footing are enough for Suzuki to escape. Okada ends up doing little more than taking further damage to his injured arm, damage Suzuki does not hesitate to use to his advantage.

Credit: NJPW

There’s little Okada can do besides endure. Grounded and overwhelmed, Suzuki twists him like putty into a series of submission holds until the only thing he can do is tell the ref no. No, he will not give up, no he will not give in to the pain. Suzuki may be in his hometown, the crowd may be chanting his name, but Okada is one of the best wrestlers in the world and grounded or not, injured or not, he will not submit.

When this event was announced, a month before Okada lost his title, Suzuki was asked “Is it safe to say that from the outset you were set on facing the best in the world, and that had to be Okada?” to which he replied:

I started wrestling in 1987 and debuted in 1988. You look at active wrestlers born around that time and Okada is absolutely the best. If he was a little older or younger, it would become something different, but the point is that I have 30 years of history in this business, and that’s his entire life; it just clicked.

Later he clarified:

“It was always going to be Okada, title or not. We started planning this event last January or February, over a year ago, and his name came up from the very start. It’s ok. I’m chasing a dream.

It’s so clear, in these moments of struggle, why Suzuki was so adamant about facing Okada for this bout. The heart and the passion Okada brings to everything he does, the way he embodies every noble thing about wrestling even as he’s hobbled by the environment and his own pain. Suzuki is dismantling him piece by piece, the crowd is not on his side, but he keeps fighting. He will always keep fighting, and if there is one single thing I know about Minoru Suzuki it is that he adores a good fight.

Okada manages to escape from one of Suzuki’s savage holds by basically just collapsing against the ropes. He’s rocked, stumbling around the ring but never quite losing his feet, and the two of them meet once again in the middle of the ring to pummel the tar out of each other, daring each other to hit harder and better than before. More than twenty of the thirty minutes their bout is allotted has passed, they’re battered and impossibly exhausted, and the fight reaches a moment that I liken to a runner’s high. Okada, who has been in pain since nearly the beginning, starts to grin. He stares Suzuki down, daring him to give him his worst and that’s exactly what he gets, Suzuki cutting off his moment of rebellion and sending Okada reeling and stumbling to his knees. The cameras are so drenched at this point that all the details are fuzzy, dreamlike, and warped. It looks like how Okada must feel as he struggles to get his feet back under him, refusing for even a single second to give up the fight. His heart is undeniable, and for a brief moment the crowd chants Okada’s name instead as Suzuki drags him up by the hair, only to slam him right back down on the mat.

Okada is prone for the moment, but he’s not done. As Suzuki reaches for him again he goes on the attack, grabbing hold of Suzuki’s wrist and driving him to the mat with a ferocious closeline with his injured arm. They both end up flat on their backs, the brutality of the match taking its toll on both of them, but Okada maintains hold on Suzuki’s wrist. He drags them back up to their feet, a frenzied grimace twisting his face as he hits another agonizing closeline. For a moment Okada collapses, clutching his arm, but he pushes through and drags Suzuki up to his feet for the Rainmaker. For a moment it looks like that’s it, but Suzuki manages to shake off the cobwebs just in time to duck under the blow and counter into a submission, the way he’s been countering all of Okada’s moves the whole match because Okada can’t get his feet under him well enough to take advantage of his superior athleticism. But then – 

I gasped when I first saw this. It seemed so impossible and far too dangerous, Okada had attempted to take to the air a few times this match only for it to end incredibly poorly for him. Every surface was too slippery, too dangerous, and he was worked over for too much of this match, yet he found it within himself to leap from a standstill to dropkick Suzuki in the shoulders and send him face first into the mat. And then Okada dragged him right back up to his feet, whipped Suzuki into the ropes, and right into another beautiful dropkick, more perfect than the last. It was glorious.

But if he thought it was enough to put down Minoru Suzuki, he was mistaken. Suzuki would settle for nothing less than the best for his 30th anniversary bout, but he certainly had no intention to lose. Okada paid dearly for his last desperate burst of energy as Suzuki laid in an utterly savage beatdown. The last minutes of this match are a frenzy of exhaustion, each man vying for the upper hand and unable to maintain it for long. They are drenched, the video is blurry and soft, and the crowd is deafening. Suzuki twists himself around Okada in one last painful, minutes long submission, but while Okada refuses to surrender, it proves impossible for him to escape Suzuki’s clutches until finally, his body twisted into a shape that does not look possible for a human, the bell rings signaling the end of the thirty minutes. It’s a draw.

Pretty sure the human body is not meant to bend this way

When I think about this match, I can hardly imagine it without the rain. It’s woven into the fabric of the bout, bringing with it its own psychology and layers of tension seeded throughout the match. It’s something only true masters of their craft can do, taking what to others might be a limitation and using it to elevate their art into something far beyond what it might have been, or would have been in any other hands. It’s this element of chaos and happenstance and what people do with it that makes wrestling so unique and special as an art form.

The Great Pirate Festival was, in large part, designed to be outreach. Wrestling was far from the only thing to enjoy and it brought in a lot of people. For some of them this would have been their first match, and there hardly could have been a better one to bring the joy and beauty of wrestling to new eyes and established fans alike.

“I felt extremely lucky and fortunate to experience that, and seeing how much joy pro wrestling brought to over 50 thousand people drenched to the bone is a real testament to what Minoru Suzuki succeeded on doing that weekend.”

Mavs Gillis

Couldn’t have said it any better myself.