IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada is the face of New Japan. He is in the midst of a historic title run, setting the standard for champions this century with a 711-day (and counting) run as champion. By comparison, WWE has not had a championship reign last that long since Hulk Hogan dropped the belt in February of 1988 to Andre the Giant.
Okada’s next title defense takes place one week from today at the loaded Dominion show on June 9 in Osaka, Japan against the phenomenal Kenny Omega. This marks the fourth installment in the series between the two stars, with each competitor earning one victory in addition to a 60-minute draw that ended without a resolution.
The 30-year-old megastar, whose popularity is also surging in North America, spoke with SI.com through a translator and discussed his title run, the challenges presented by Omega, and what is in store for him next.
The match between Okada and Omega will be broadcast live on New Japan World. Leading up to the highly-anticipated affair with Omega, AXS TV is airing each of Okada’s 12 title defenses, continuing with his February 2017 battle against Minoru Suzuki this Monday at 5am ET.
Justin Barrasso: There have been many greats to wear the IWGP heavyweight championship, but your reign is in a class of its own. How do you assess your title run?
Kazuchika Okada: It’s been a hell of a run so far. I’ve had some incredibly tough matches, but I think it’s all meant I could show the level of competition there is for the IWGP title, and why it’s the pinnacle of wrestling.
JB: It is rare for Kazuchika Okada to have a blemish on his record, but Kenny Omega is even with you with a 1-1-1 record in your three matches. What makes Omega such a talented opponent?
KO: Kenny is tough, he’s strong, he’s awesome; I think all those things are pretty obvious. The thing with him is that with the power of NJPW World, he’s been able to get such a following worldwide. The whole world has their hopes pinned on him and that’s a definite X-factor.
JB: Who in wrestling did you admire as a child? What made those wrestlers resonate with you?
KO: I wouldn’t say I really admired anyone. When I was a kid there were definitely a lot of tough guys, but they weren’t really cool. If anything, that was an influence on me; to take that toughness and combine it with the cool style, the cool entrance, the cool gear—and driving to work in a Ferrari [laughs].
JB: When did you realize that you wanted to have a career in pro wrestling?
KO: I was 14. I had no aspirations beyond middle school except to wrestle, no reason to go into high school. This world is all I’ve known since 15 years of age.
JB: Excluding yourself, who are the top three wrestlers currently active in the business?
KO: Kenny, [Tetsuya] Naito, and [Will] Ospreay. Aside from myself, those three are what makes NJPW the best promotion in the world.
JB: You established Rainmaker Kikin, a foundation to battle children’s cancer after your nephew was diagnosed with cancer. This is obviously a very personal cause; what did you learn from the experience?
KO: We raised a lot of money, and I think as a pro athlete, it’s kind of a no-brainer to use that position in the best way and do this sort of thing.
JB: What are your future goals in wrestling?
KO: The ‘goal,’ so to speak, the finish line, is losing interest in wrestling. Until then, I’ll keep going like I have been.
JB: New Japan continues to extend its popularity further into the United States, and there is another live AXS TV show this July in San Francisco. What specifically have you enjoyed about traveling the world while carrying the banner of New Japan Pro Wrestling?
KO: I think it’s cool to be able to show people who don’t know anything about NJPW what we do. Then there are people who do know about us but have never seen New Japan live. I want to keep going to new audiences and showing people firsthand how great NJPW is.
JB: What can fans expect in your match at Dominion against Omega?
KO: They can expect the very essence of what makes wrestling great. One year ago, we couldn’t decide things between me and Kenny even after 60 minutes. So now, two out of three falls, no time limit. The whole world is going to see how amazing, how tough, how affecting pro wrestling can be. And you’re absolutely going to want to witness it live.