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The Psychology and Artistry of Kazuchika Okada

Although he plays an arrogant, richer-than-thou villain, Kazuchika Okada is, quite literally, a babyface. At 27, he's young for wrestling, especially by the standards of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the promotion where he's been a superstar for the past few years and where he's the current IWGP heavyweight champion. Time has not yet worn into Okada's visage. He rarely bleeds. His face is smooth and unlined. He has tremendously cool hair. He looks more like a pop idol (which he admittedly sort of is) than one of the greatest wrestlers in the world.

New Japan's developmental program, where young wrestlers learn the ropes and get the business beaten into them, is notoriously grueling. The wrestlers who make it to the top of NJPW often have years of real-life Mixed Martial Arts experience. Okada has little of that. He started as a teenager wrestling in small-time promotions in Japan and North America. His moveset, at least at first, was basic wrestling school stuff: lots of chain wrestling, armdrags and reversals, judo throws and suplexes, nothing terribly flashy or unique.

In 2010, New Japan sent him to America to work with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. Wrestling promotions routinely farm their young talent out to promotions that don't directly compete with them, the general idea being that overseas, in a new promotion, a younger wrestler can practice new moves, develop new characters, and experiment. (By and large, these developmental trips are considered non-canon.) But this was TNA, one of the worst-run wrestling promotions of all time; their big idea for Okada was to stick him in a black mask, rename him "Okato" a la "The Green Hornet," and turn him into Samoa Joe's sidekick. When he was given matches to wrestle at all, barely anybody noticed. This was not exactly the career reboot New Japan had in mind.

It's hard to see a great wrestler get stuck with a stupid gimmick. All the signifiers of wrestling's problem with otherness are there in his ...