This week, much has been made of the main event of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual Dominion event, which took place on Sunday. IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada and challenger Kenny Omega went to a 60-minute time-limit draw, the hallmark of classic title matches for decades. It came five months after their first bout, a 47-minute Tokyo Dome main event, made waves as a potential match of the year candidate and heavily boosted Omega’s profile. Between Okada’s flair for the dramatic and Omega’s athleticism, the matches have been nothing if not memorable. And any further assessment is, of course, a matter of opinion.
If you were to listen to the Westerners who made the trip to Tokyo for the dome show, Wrestle Kingdom 11, they, more passionately than those who watched online, were raving about the match as the greatest they had ever seen, live or otherwise. If you hadn’t stayed up late to watch the match, the hype was building to the point that you knew you had to see it, and maybe even watch it before the rest of the show that preceded it. That hype got even louder a few days later, when the new issue of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter was released to his website’s subscribers.
Meltzer’s match ratings—he uses a five-star scale with quarter-star deviations—have taken on a mythical, canonical status over the course of the three and a half decades that he’s been doing the Observer. He is, after all, the longest tenured pro-wrestling journalist and critic (especially if you include his efforts as a kid writing California Wrestling Report), so his ratings have taken on a level of significance that no one else’s come close to. Wrestling result and statistic database websites, like Cage Match and Wrestling Data, track Meltzer’s ratings, and lists of matches he’d rated highly used to be commonly circulated as beginner’s guides to which Japanese matches to watch.
So when the Wrestle Kingdom 11 issue of the Observer came out, it caused quite a stir when the Okada-Omega match was rated six stars on the five-star scale, along with a claim that “Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada may have put on the greatest match in pro wrestling history.” The reaction was mixed. Some felt it was warranted, and some didn’t, while others felt that it was a conceptually goofy thing to do, independent of the quality of the match. After all, it’s a five-star scale … right? Is there now a six- or seven-star scale? If so, was the match really four deviations better than any other match that Meltzer had ever seen? That he largely wasn’t acknowledging questions about the rating scale for a while on social media didn’t help.
This week, we did and didn’t get some additional answers, because Meltzer gave the rematch six and a quarter stars.
So, what exactly is going on here? Is Meltzer sincere? Is it a gimmick to build brand awareness about the Observer? Is he trolling everyone?
The answer to the sincerity question is a resounding yes. Okada vs. Omega plays to Meltzer’s stylistic preferences, even if there is a vocal group of fans who feel that the matches have been heavy on filler and, at times, light on more traditional pro-wrestling storytelling..There’s no doubt that Dave genuinely believes that they put on the two greatest pro wrestling matches he has ever seen in 45 years of watching the genre. It’s the other questions where the whole thing seems a little cloudier, at least from the outside looking in.
“With this last one, no matter what I did, it was going to be fucked, but I don’t care,” he told Deadspin through laughter. “Almost everyone was giving it seven stars before I watched it. I didn’t watch it live, I didn’t look at anything, and the rule was, with all my buddies here, was that nobody can look at their phone, nobody can look at their computers, we cannot hear from the outside world until we watch the show, and then, we’ll look. And everybody had already given their opinion by then.”
To understand the big picture here, you have to understand Meltzer. The historical reason that his star ratings are put on a pedestal is that, for a very long time, he was one of a small handful of fans who watched just about everything in pro wrestling that was available on videotape. The Observer did not actually start as a journalistic enterprise: Meltzer, then a prolific wrestling videotape trader, was tired of writing effectively the same letter about the most recent stuff he saw over and over again when corresponding with other traders. So he started a newsletter to save time, using ratings as a shorthand summary of what was worth going out of your way to see. Because effectively nobody else was watching all of the weekly television from Japan and most of the the territorial promotions in the United States and Canada, Dave’s ratings were effectively the canonical ones. And even if you disagreed with him, you still had an idea of where everything stood based on your knowledge of his tastes.
Meanwhile, the 2017 version of Dave Meltzer is a prolific Twitter user, albeit one who takes a tack that doesn’t always resemble what Observer readers are used to. He had initially been reluctant to join the social-media platform, but eventually signed up in conjunction with MMAFighting hiring him as a contributor. Eventually, he developed a persona far snarkier and much more dismissive than he is in his writing or one on one. He gave an interesting answer when asked why that is.
“It’s a marketing tool,” he wrote on the Observer’s message board for subscribers last year. “Unfortunately, it works. Many things I hate about marketing, but when they work, you’ve got to continue. All forms of business increase when you do that stuff on Twitter. I was taught that and didn’t want to believe it.” When I asked him, Meltzer wouldn’t say who suggested the Twitter persona, other than that they worked in marketing, not journalism or wrestling.
“I don’t even like how I handle Twitter!” he said. “They said it’ll get you a bunch of followers, and it did, but I’m still don’t know that it’s … correct.”
As a result of the polarizing social-media persona, Meltzer has become a much more divisive figure among wrestling fans than he used to be. It also means that more and more fans have become more acutely aware of him. Even though the vast majority of fans who get wrestling news online are always reading about stories that he broke, that majority is usually hearing about them elsewhere, from sites that aggregate his reporting. If they don’t pay attention to the attribution, a lot of fans end up with weird misconceptions about Meltzer’s work, the most popular being that his entire job is passing off speculation as news. The same fans will refer to various backstage stories as if they were true even if he broke them, anyway. Throw in the Twitter drama, and you get someone who is much, much more divisive than he should be, and one whose star ratings are obsessed over in ways they never were before.
“There was a match, I think it was Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn, but I didn’t give it five stars,” he said, pointing to it as the impetus for the current brand of star rating fixation. “All of a sudden it became a thing where it was so important, that it was weird. Unfortunately, I’d seen Nakamura and A.J. Styles, which I didn’t give five stars to, either. When you go to shows, and see a lot of stuff, and my buddies from PWG shows were going, ‘You know, if was here, we’re not going over four and a quarter for this.’ I said, ‘Well, I thought it was four and a half.’ It’s a quarter-star off, who the hell cares?”
In particular, he gets the most vitriol from WWE die-hards who don’t watch other wrestling and accuse him of having a bias towards NJPW. Even if that were the case, these people are usually kvetching that he gave a match (like the recent Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne classic from NXT TakeOver: Chicago) four and three quarter stars instead of five. “Unfortunately, when you see the guys at PWG and you see the guys in New Japan, it changes the standard in a lot of ways; but WWE has their own standard,” he said. “But it’s all subjective. To me, anything past four, if you’re arguing it’s not five, you’re being ridiculous.”
One thing that Meltzer wanted to make perfectly clear, though, was that the first Okada-Omega match was not the first he had ever gone past five stars for, citing a non-televised Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat match from Landover, Md. in particular. He had, in all fairness, given plenty of matches “five stars plus” or some variation thereof throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and says that those ratings should be taken literally, not as him simply being hyperbolic.
That solves the riddle at the center of this. If you’re not just confused by the scale, then all you’re doing is disagreeing about how much you enjoyed the match. In which case, like Dave said: Who the hell cares?
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.