MR. TITO: Where Should New Japan’s Kazuchika Okada Join as a Free Agent? AEW? WWE? TNA?

Yesterday, it was announced that New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) star Kazuchika Okada was becoming a FREE AGENT after his NJPW contract expires on 1/31/2024. For those who were NJPW diehards, this set their world on fire as to where he may go.

If you don’t know who Kazuchika Okada and why he matters, welcome to the “Majority of Wrestling Fans” party. Unless you’re reading the pages of the Wrestling Observer and/or got caught up in the Wrestle Kingdom hype, as he legitimately had great matches there, then you don’t know him unless you remembered his brief TNA stint during the early 2010s in which the goofy Creative Team at the time probably mangled his career as they did many other wrestlers at the time.

Okada is a 36 years, over 6 feet tall (billed at 6’3″ at times), and weighs at a billed 230 pounds or so. The guy is a legitimate workhorse and could work for hours at a time, if asked. When it comes to in-ring stuff, the guy’s motor and pure skill are incredible. I cannot deny that and his matches with Kenny Omega, in particular, are tremendous. I know that we mock Dave’s star ranking system, but I’d give 4 or even 5-stars to several of his matches especially if you like non-stop action. Within an Okada match, you’ll see plenty of moves that should be finishers result in regular 2 counts. My only nitpick is the lack of psychology and selling, though that could be overcome with Okada’s impressive ability to have no fatigue in him at all when wrestling.

The obvious answer for Okada is to join AEW. After all, two of his favorite opponents are full-time performers there with Kenny Omega and Will Ospreay. AEW has ties to New Japan Pro Wrestling through talent sharing, many wrestlers with past NJPW experience, and the annual “Forbidden Door” event that mixes AEW and NJPW talent. Seems pretty obvious that he’d join AEW, right?

Well, truth is that if Okada wanted to have his AEW cake and eat it too, he could have remained in NJPW and appeared for AEW when he wanted throughout the year. He appeared at AEW/NJPW Forbidden Door events for 2022 and 2023, while wrestling on an episode of Dynamite last year as well (they made him tag up with Orange Cassidy).

Okada used to wrestle for TNA back when it was originally called TNA, but it just didn’t work out. Most everyone from 2011 is gone, management included. Anthem owns the company now and they have operated a little differently since Okada’s tenure. Furthermore with TNA, they’ve declined since Okada last was there. Newly renamed TNA (formerly Impact Wrestling) struggles to acquire good television contracts and remain relevant. Sure, their last Pay Per View obtained some news with Top Dollar, Dolph Ziggler, and Dana Brooke (all with different names) appearing there, but before that, TNA just has their cult following while consistently drawing less than 150,000 viewers on AXS (available to 50 million households).

One would think that since Dolph Ziggler (Nic Nemeth) appeared in New Japan, maybe that’s the link that would take Okada from New Japan to join TNA. But again, Okada could arrange a deal to work for BOTH New Japan and TNA as Nemeth just arranged. But he didn’t… Okada is LEAVING New Japan effective 1/31/2024.

Folks, if you want to be GREAT in the wrestling industry, you need to make is successfully in the WWE.

Let’s go back to late 2013… Loyal AJ Styles stayed with TNA wrestling as long as he could, but then he suddenly bolted. After that, AJ Styles returned to Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling for the next 2 years are really made a name for himself internationally by having high profile matches with different types of stars. This gave AJ confidence and helped refine his ability to make his value increase as a performer, insomuch that WWE signed him and debuted him at Royal Rumble 2016. Since 2016, does anybody want to dispute how much bigger AJ Styles became as a wrestling star by being successful in the WWE and having many high profile matches that you can name easily? Good God, John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, and even Shane McMahon can each list their match with AJ Styles to be among their BEST in their careers.

Shinsuke Nakamura was pulled from New Japan and debuted at NXT’s Takeover event in Dallas where he blew the doors off the arena with his match with Sami Zayn. This match won many publication’s “Match of the Year” for 2016 and Nakamura would go on to become NXT Champion and have a successful reign. In WWE, he was instantly pushed upon arrival and freakin’ won the 2018 Royal Rumble match to earn a title shot at Wrestlemania. Now, granted, he hasn’t been pushed THAT hard since, but he’s been relevant. I’d argue for an older Japanese wrestler with lots of mileage on that body, he’s been relevant and Triple H keeps him busy with various storylines and angles. I’d strongly argue that his career has been a success in the WWE.

Rob Van Dam was an ECW legend but when he joined the WWE roster during 2001, he got instantly over. For 5 years, he received opportunity after opportunity and then became WWE Champion through 2006. Well, then he and Sabu got busted on the side of the road for possession following an Ohio event… THAT SAID, even with that controversy, Rob Van Dam went on to still find WWE work and TNA and AEW have employed him too.

Do I need to keep listing other workers? Undertaker, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Triple H, and Chris Jericho were all former WCW talents and when the arrived in the WWE, KABOOM, their careers exploded in further growth once they got their characters ready for prime time. I’d argue that Foley, Undertaker, and Jericho were instant stars when they arrived and only grew stronger from there whereas Austin and HHH had to figure out their characters. Hell, I could go on to add wrestlers from the Territories who became bigger once they joined Vince McMahon Jr.’s revamped WWE product. Hogan was over in AEW, but he became a worldwide star with WWE’s marketing. Roddy Piper, Macho Man Randy Savage, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Ultimate Warrior, etc. Rocket ships to the moon, in terms of stardom, once they wrestled on WWE’s bigger stage and had their marketing behind them.

The WWE stage is exceptional and remains the biggest spotlight in the wrestling business. Facts that still remain true and aren’t going away anytime soon:

(1) Best Television Contracts in the Business
(2) Most Viewership on all platforms
(3) Most Attendance for Live Shows
(4) Most Merchandise sold
(5) WWE Network to deliver content easily to fans

Even if you’d argue “oh, they’ll place Okada in NXT”, NXT is currently on USA Networks (available in 70 million homes) but later this year, they’ll debut on the CW Network. Yes, the CW Network, which is ranked 5th behind NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX among broadcast networks. With it being a broadcast channel and obtained FREE via digital antenna in most markets, you have a chance to reach up to 100 million households. If marketed right and with the right tone of pushing younger or different wrestlers, obviously catering towards a younger audience, NXT on the CW Network could be a highly successful show.

And again, the biggest difference in WWE today (2022-2024) versus the WWE before 2022 is the relinquishing of Creative control from Vince McMahon. Especially with TKO pushing a separation of duties and disallowing Vince to micro-manage day-to-day duties, Triple H and his staff have much more creative freedom to push and nurture ALL wrestlers to become better. The results of Triple H being in charge are tremendous, as everybody is getting over and WWE has been ballooning in success since.

Many will point out “look at how WWE treated Japanese wrestlers in the past”. Like who? Tajiri? Yeah, he was William Regal’s assistant, but that’s how WWE introduced him. Once it helped Tajiri make a name and get over, then WWE let Tajiri be Tajiri and he was success in WWE. Asuka has been a major success in the WWE. Sure, it’s all because Triple H has her back, but that’s my point… Despite Vince’s shadow lurking, you always have Triple H backing his acquisitions. Even guys who weren’t over, such as Anderson & Gallows, the WWE and Triple H tried to push him hard.

But now, everyone is complaining about Akira Tozawa with the Alpha Academy and doing mostly comedy with them. However, I’ll make this challenge to all of the haters… How many United States and Canada wrestling fans have ever heard of Dragon Gate? I guarantee that if you hooked up 95% of US/Canada wrestling fans and asked them “have you heard of Dragon Gate”, they’d all say “no”. To the 5% who said “yes”, I guarantee that only 1%, if that, has even seen a match from that promotion. Just facts, folks…

And with Akira Tozawa, he’s 38 years old with mileage on the body and is only billed at 5’7″. Even for Triple H has had some struggles getting over smaller wrestlers, was his 205 Live struggled to matter and Cruiserweight wrestling has been so-so in NXT. Since 2016, WWE has tried a variety of things for Tozawa… He just hasn’t caught on.

Thus, if you’re going to attack and criticize the WWE for Tozawa’s current use, then you better criticize Tozawa’s previous efforts with the WWE that didn’t get him over and then appreciate the WWE giving him another chance. And oddly enough, he’s kind of getting over in this comedy role and is embracing the “fish out of water” role with the group. He’s a square peg trying to fit into the round hole, but it’s clicking and he’s getting noticed. Trust me, if the marks are bashing the WWE for how a wrestler is being creatively used, it’s getting some attention… But in my opinion, he has helped give the Alpha Academy some much needed variety, as it was just LAME with everything being always focused on Otis.

Getting back to Kazuchika Okada, what exactly could he accomplish by joining the AEW roster? Yeah, a match with Samoa Joe could be fun, but what else is there to do? Okada has already performed against Will Ospreay and Kenny Omega multiple times. I’m sure that is fun to him to work against those guys, but wouldn’t trying something brand new be more appealing? And again, AEW’s roster has been depleted with injuries, talent losses, and has a ton of backstage drama. It will give you more freedom and Tony will likely overpay you, but how much fun is it to wrestle in front of less than 4,000 fans? How much fun would it be to have a great match, but the preceding and following matches were of much less quality?

Or how much fun would it be to join the WWE and take on Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton, Seth Rollins, Cody Rhodes (which has happened in the past), LA Knight, either Mysterio, Solo Sikoa, either Uso, and the many up & coming talents within the NXT roster? And to appear on Wrestlemania? What if Okada signs with the WWE in a few weeks and scores a match on Wrestlemania? He’ll be on one of the biggest shows of all time that could be headlined by Rock vs. Roman Reigns.

If you get placed on NXT, so what? They are going to be on a bigger network soon with CW Network. And again, let’s stop knocking NXT… Guys from New Japan Pro Wrestling, such as Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura, have made major names for themselves on that brand and both guys still occupy a WWE roster spot to this day.

Right now, there are news stories that Okada felt that he was “underpaid” in New Japan Pro Wrestling… Maybe that is the tipping point, as Tony reportedly overpaid Will Ospreay and could likely do that with Okada. But if Okada took the money from the WWE, which isn’t chump change, and made himself into a success WWE star, he could rake in the money based on that achievement alone. New Japan would beg for him to return after a successful WWE career and Okada could leverage that into other Japanese promoters bidding for his services. That, or he could keep growing into a Hall of Fame performer for the WWE.

Or, Okada could just wait for his late 40s and early 50s for AEW to sign him. Edge and Christian are just swimming in those AEW dollars while in their early 50s. Sting made a ton of AEW money in his early 60s. Chris Jericho has a 10 year deal that ends with him in his early 60s.

What’s the rush to join AEW? You’ll just be another New Japan wrestler who has worked there.

But if you join WWE and make there successfully, that legendary status will grow in to many more opportunities.

What’s it going to be, Okada? Get overpaid in AEW and work against a depleted roster, some of which would hurt you inside the ring? Or take a splash in the WWE and become a worldwide phenom that will open many other opportunities to get paid.

Choice is easy, join WWE. Try something new, as you can always revert back to those desperate for talent later if needed.

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