Major news made the rounds of the wrestling world a few weeks ago when it was announced that New Japan’s top star, Kazuchika Okada planned to leave the organization after his contract expires in a few weeks. New Japan said in the announcement that Okada would work the final few dates on his contract in this month before he would become a free agent.
Obviously, the rumor mill has been a buzz with what his next move will be, with most speculation leaning toward All Elite Wrestling based on the previous appearances he made for the company, but WWE is also considered in the running to land him to a deal, especially because of the success of Shinsuke Nakamura, who worked for New Japan prior to his arrival in NXT in 2016. This probably would’ve remained a topic of discussion until he made an appearence in either organization to indicate the decision of the next move of his career, but his New Japan departure became lost in the shuffle of the blockbuster Netflix deal that will bring Raw to the streaming service for a staggering $5 billion, as well as the shocking Vince McMahon lawsuit and the absolutely horrendous accusations that were made against him. It was only billion-dollar rights fees and the downfall of Vince McMahon that could take the spotlight away from one of the legitimately biggest free agents to hit the market in the past decade.
There are definitely layers to this story, but in the modern era when we’ve seen a lot of moves on the free agent market, Kazuchika Okada is one of the biggest assets to explore his options in the industry.
The 36-year-old superstar was originally trained by The legendary Ultimo Dragon, and has spent nearly two decades in the industry, despite his relatively young age. Make no mistake about it, regardless of the smaller platform of Japan, comparatively speaking to the global reach of WWE and the niche audience of American fans that follow the Japanese product, Okada is legitimately one of the greatest performers of all time. Keep in mind, he has at least a few more years of his prime to add to his accomplishments, but he already achieved legendary status. Quite simply, Okada is a natural of the squared circle and he can do it all in the ring. Everything he does is crisp and smooth. He could work a hard-hitting bout with Bryan Danielson the way he has for contests in both AEW and New Japan, and he could work a WWE main event style, he’s adaptable to that level, which is something that can be said for the previously mentioned Danielson.
Make no mistake about it, Kazuchika Okada can be a main event player anywhere he decides to work, but what’s his next move?
Understandably, some might assume that he would ink a contract with All Elite Wrestling, given not only the previous work that he did for the company with its working agreement with New Japan, but also because Tony Khan has made an effort to sign a few of the top-tier New Japan stars when their contracts expired, including Jay White and Will Ospreay. Granted, that might be more because Tony is a really big fan of New Japan than the notion that he has any idea how to promote or draw with the talented athletes, but the fact remains, Khan is willing to offer enough cash to get NJPW’s top stars to opt to exit the Japanese league to sign with AEW. That’s not a jab at anyone involved either, the entire point of the wrestling business is to make as much money as possible, and if an AEW deal gives Jay White financial security than him being underutilized in All Elite is almost moot. According to The Wrestling Observer’s Bryan Alvarez on Wrestling Observer Radio, Okada’s pay in New Japan would be considered “shockingly low.” If that’s the case then Okada’s decision might be as simple as taking the offer from the highest bidder, and we know that money is no object for Tony Khan.
That’s one of the perks that Tony has of running a vanity project where the goal is to indulge his fandom more than the ability to generate revenue and profit. He doesn’t have to take into account if Okada could theoretically draw enough money in All Elite for there to be a return on the investment of his contract. Don’t get me wrong, as I said, a wrestler should take the opportunity to get the most money possible, but of course, there’s a balance to that, which is why talent and promoters have debated payoffs as long as the wrestling business has existed. When revenue and profit are the main priorities for a company, the potential return on investment of a contract is one of the ways the number that will be offered is determined.
It goes without saying that WWE or AEW are the two options for Okada because that’s where he will be offered the most cash. If money wasn’t a factor then he could’ve stayed in New Japan for the rest of his career, and that’s not a criticism of him at all. The other side of the coin in all of this is that Okada worked a very physical style for the majority of his career, and at some point, a performer must put financial security ahead of the art form of the sport. Unfortunately, Kota Ibushi is a cautionary tale of how an injury can more or less completely derail a career. At one point, he was the IWGP heavyweight champion and looked to be at a point where he could become the top star of the organization, but a very serious shoulder injury put him on the shelf for nearly two years, and based on his AEW stint, he’s just not the same performer he was prior to the injury. In many way, the past several years of Okada’s New Japan run with incredible matches with Tanahashi, Naito, Omega, Ospready, and many others were the legacy work of his career. He accomplished the art and now has a chance to make a hefty amount of cash. Some of the same philosophy could be said about Shinsuke Nakamura’s decision to sign with WWE in 2016.
While it would be a more natural transition to AEW, both because of the style and the fan base that is already familiar with New Japan talent, I’m honestly not sure if that would be the best option for Okada’s career. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very possible that Tony Khan bids more money than WWE just for the ability to sign Okada to a contract, but nothing about the structure or lack thereof within the company suggests that he would be spotlighted properly to fully utilize his skills. How many times have we seen an anticipated free agent debut eventual fizzle out and then the competitor gets lost in the shuffle of Tony’s slapstick booking? Okada would continue to have great matches under the All Elite banner, but he would have great matches anywhere he works, he’s that talented, but I don’t think he would be the biggest star possible under the direction of Tony Khan. Sure, he could be typecast in a mid-card role in WWE just as easily if management fumbles the opportunity, but he also has the talent to be a WM main eventer at some point in his career. As much as WWE missed the boat on several talents under the direction of Vince McMahon in the modern era, I’d bet on Triple H presenting Okada as a WM level talent before I’d bank on Tony maximizing the Japanese’s star potential in AEW.
Obviously, if Tony offers considerably more money than what WWE would realistically offer then Okada inks an AEW and it was an easy decision. However, if he opts to sign a WWE contract, there are more layers to his potential success in WWE. Of course, the office would have to introduce him to the WWE audience, and given how talented he is, that wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish. The use of subtitles for Nakamura promos was well done and could be something that could work for Okada as well. I know this might be a mind-boggling concept in 2024, but the use of a manager to talk for Okada is still an option. A side note, I’m honestly still not sure why managers were almost eliminated for several years before Paul Heyman brought the concept back to the table by being arguably the best talker in the business. Sure, managers sell angles, not t-shirts and that’s why Vince McMahon more or less eliminated the role for several years, but if a manager gets a talent over then there’s money to be made when they are a star for the company.
Given the level of cash it will take to be comparative to what Tony will offer and to make it worthwhile for Okada to move to the United States, if he signs a WWE deal, management is going to spotlight him as a star because of the amount of money they would have invested in him. Tony’s first priority is his fandom, but in some respects, profit is the only priority for the publicly-traded corporate of the TKO banner. That’s where the bigger picture plays a role in all of this and might actually be a reason that WWE makes a very serious offer to sign him. The Netflix deal truly globalizes the WWE product since it gives the complete international rights of WWE programming to Netflix. If the WWE signs the biggest star in Japan, it definitely gives Japanese fans a reason to subscribe to Netflix to watch the next chapter of his career.
That’s why I think Okada would be better served to sign a WWE deal, he has the chance to be presented as a true global superstar and he has the talent to excel in the role. Nothing about how Tony Khan has handled or presented talent would be an indication that he could maximize the skills that Okada brings to the table. That being said, while I think WWE would be a better option, I’d still say its a tossup as to where he actual signs next since there are so many different aspects to consider for his career. Where this leaves New Japan is anyone’s guess, especially because the company had a surge in popularity for several years before the pandemic not only halted momentum, but impacted its revenue. This might be a situation where the natural peaks and valleys of the industry will put New Japan in a rebuilding phase for the next few years.
What do you think? Share your thoughts, opinions, feedback, and anything else that was raised on Twitter @PWMania and Facebook.com/PWMania.
Until next week
E mail email@example.com | You can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, & Threads @jimlamotta89