The last one, I promise. For those of you who’ve been wary about dipping your toe in the wrestling ocean that is the G1 Climax tournament, here’s the edited highlights version.
I rated twenty seven matches at four-stars or higher over the course of the tournament, and that’s ignoring the dozens more that fell just short of what is, let’s be honest, a wholly subjective threshold of quality. Here, in chronological order, are my Top 10 favourite matches of the tournament:
- Okada vs. Elgin (Day 4 – July 22nd)
- Ishii vs. Ibushi (Day 5 – July 23rd)
- Omega vs. Elgin (Day 8 – July 27th)
- Okada vs. Suzuki (Day 16 – August 8th)
- Sabre Jr. vs Ishii (Day 17 – August 11th)
Naito vs. Ibushi (Day 1 – July 17th)
Talk about setting a tone. I was practically watching the closing stretch from behind the sofa, such was the risk of some spots, but it can’t be denied it was an incredible match. An opening salvo that reminded us just how good Ibushi is and confirmed Naito’s status as tournament favourite.
Ibushi vs. Sabre Jr. (Day 3 – July 21st)
They never left the ring and only once did Ibushi leave his feet. Proof, as if it were needed, that Ibushi is capable of far more than spectacle and that Sabre Jr.’s box of tricks can keep even the highest of flyers grounded. Just brilliantly done.
Tanahashi vs. Nagata (Day 5 – July 23rd)
This one went up sharply in my estimation upon rewatch and has stuck with me since. Nagata gave one last determined effort against the Ace of the Century but came up short, while Tanahashi really played up to a crowd that was ready and willing to boo him. A simple and beautifully told story.
Okada vs. Kojima (Day 8 – July 27th)
So much fun. Okada in ultra punk mode was a blast, clapping along with the “Ko-ji-ma!” chants and being a dick to Tenzan, while Kojima denied him the opportunity to establish a rhythm and tried desperately to overcome the champ’s arrogance. A single Rainmaker was good for the win in what was a refreshingly concise main event.
Ishii vs. Nagata (Day 11 – August 1st)
They cranked through the gears in this one. I kept thinking Ishii would cut off Nagata any moment and put him away, but Nagata just kept fighting. One of those matches that it seems I enjoyed more than anyone else, but that’s fine by me.
Tanahashi vs. Ibushi (Day 11 – August 1st)
Such an important result that it led to Ibushi christening the arm-trapped knee strike that defeated his opponent the Kamigoye – “to overcome God”. Tanahashi once again played up the arrogance and the knee strike was an appropriately brutal way to shut him up and end what had been a spectacular match.
Okada vs. EVIL (Day 14 – August 5th)
Only when Juice pinned Omega in the match prior to this one did I consider that the upset was possible, and even with that thought in my head it was a huge surprise. Evil got the clean, no excuses win over an opponent who hadn’t been pinned in a singles match for 364 days. We’ll gloss over Evil’s use of chairs, naturally, but with this victory alone the King of Darkness was significantly elevated.
Ishii vs. Tanahashi (Day 15 – August 6th)
Another great match between these two, and any match where Tomohiro Ishii busts out a sharpshooter is likely something I’ll enjoy. This one favoured flow over high-risk moves and maintained a compelling pace and intensity throughout, with a focus on duelling limbwork at its core. Quality pro wrestling from two of the best around.
Naito vs. Tanahashi (Day 17 – August 11th)
An epic drama between two of the most charismatic wrestlers on the planet plus crazy crowd heat. What’s not to love? I keep coming back to the Texas Cloverleaf. Having been re-established as a match-ender at Dominion, it was perfectly utilised here and quite honestly one of the best submission sequences I’ve ever seen.
Okada vs. Omega (Day 18 – August 12th)
Stunning. Not a sprint – well, maybe one more akin to the 400m than 100m – but so thrilling and intense there was barely a moment to catch your breath. We, and Omega, now know that the One-Winged Angel is good for beating Okada, but can it do so when the champ is 100% and the title’s on the line? Feel free to argue amongst yourselves which of their three matches to date is the best.
Naito vs. Omega (Final – August 13th)
I don’t think I’ve been as emotionally invested in a wrestling match for years. Last year’s block decider between the two was as good a heel vs. heel match as I’ve seen. Here, though, Naito was in full babyface mode (one spitwad aside) and survived some brutal assaults before overcoming Omega in desperate fashion, as has been the case throughout the tournament. Omega was excellent too, consistent in his selling and deliberate in his offence, not to mention the nasty bumps he took. Most great matches I appreciate, but it’s rare these days to feel like I’m experiencing one. This was one of those matches.
Tetsuya Naito, tournament winner for a second time, wisely kept his head down after the insanity of the opening night, escaping with wins rather than dominating and even looking a little out of sorts. But this is a man for the big occasions, and once the bright lights of Sumo Hall were on him he demonstrated exactly why he’s considered one of the most charismatic wrestlers in the world. His act may suggest aloofness and nonchalance, but let’s not pretend that score-settling wins over Tanahashi and Omega weren’t an important factor in motivating Naito on that final weekend. He was the favourite going in and that tag was justified. It was destino, after all.
Kenny Omega, last year’s winner, could not repeat that feat, going down to the man he defeated to reach the 2016 final. But on his way to the final he secured a psychologically crucial victory over Okada and perhaps an even greater prize will be gained thanks to that. He had decent run in the main body of the tournament, but my goodness, just like last year, he turned it on in a big way for the final two nights and will likely be fighting it out with himself on many people’s Match of the Year ballots. Kazuchika Okada delivered again and again in a tournament of extraordinary consistency and quality. He may have ended his run with a loss, a draw and a loss, but he never looked anything less than one of finest wrestlers in the world. He made his opponents look like stars no matter the result and carried his side of the tournament like a true champion.
Hiroshi Tanahashi continues to work harder than seems sensible. Last year, he returned from a serious injury and opted not to alter his style whereas this year he went into the tournament carrying an injury and utilised it to demonstrate his selling, giving each match a focus and a story. Odd to think his performances have almost gone under the radar, because he delivered huge in several matches with made his opponents look like stars. A selfless tournament from the great man. Bad Luck Fale was very good this year. He was clearly motivated and delivered an interesting variety of matches, the pick of bunch being a four-star effort with Kota Ibushi. The big man remains an underrated worker.
EVIL was the breakout star of the tournament, certainly in booking terms, and delivered big in several key matches. As a brawler he offers something different to his colleagues at the higher end of the card and that may well benefit him as he moves up – which certainly seems to be his direction right now. Minoru Suzuki didn’t have the most interesting of tournaments. Backed by his goons, his matches this year fulfilled a booking requirement, but mostly topped-out at “fine”, and this is coming from a fan of his who’s not entirely sick of the Suzuki-gun interference. His match with Okada, however, which was almost entirely one-on-one inside the ring, was great and demonstrated that when the occasion demands it he can still offer something unique and brilliant.
Hirooki Goto somehow picked up five wins in a forgettable set of matches. His best were against Ishii (unsurprisingly) and the ultra-motivated Nagata, but even a main event with Tanahashi fell flat. I suppose as a finalist last year, he couldn’t slip too far down the table, but it’s just so hard to care about anything he does these days. Kota Ibushi, by contrast, demonstrated time and again what a special talent he is. While he never looked like winning the block – a highly unlikely scenario – he was a boon to the tournament and adds a spark to any match he’s involved in. Fingers crossed he’ll stick around a while longer. Zack Sabre Jr. made Tanahashi submit in the opening show, got Makabe to tap out to a secondary submission move, tied Ishii up so comprehensively that the referee was forced to call for the bell, then made Tanahashi submit again in yesterday’s tag match. I’d say that a successful first appearance in the G1, wouldn’t you?
Michael Elgin’s third tournament was a strange one. He brought A-game against the bigger names but consistently slipped up against those he should’ve beaten. The loss to Yano that eliminated him from the running was frustrating, and overall – despite two very, very good main events – this seemed a step down from his previous two appearances. A NEVER title shot against Suzuki beckons, however. Juice Robinson grabbed that brass ring by the balls, if such a thing is possible. In-ring improvement is one thing, but gaining the fans’ investment is another, and that’s what he’s been able to do over the past month. The surprise win over Omega was one of my overall highlights, but beyond that he was one of the most reliably compelling performers throughout. SANADA, if I’m honest, had a slightly underwhelming tournament. He was solid, don’t me wrong, and still carries himself and looks like a star (big fan of the new entrance mask and gear), but he’s a few steps away from everything clicking. In part that’s down to the results, which can’t be helped, but a little more of the fire he displayed against Suzuki on a more regular basis and New Japan would surely have a star on their hands.
Tomohiro Ishii did what he does, which is have great matches. He quietly went about his business, working a wider variety of match-types than he is often given credit for. How I wish he was considered of greater value to the company than Goto. Fingers crossed for a rubber match with Sabre Jr. down the line. Togi Makabe was also in this tournament. Okay, that’s a bit snarky, because despite his propensity to sleepwalk through his signature spots, he actually had a few good matches, particularly those with Ishii and Naito. He looked fresher this year, and that translated to his performances. YOSHI-HASHI was someone who I described as having a breakout tournament last year and as being a regular highlight. Well, that guy wasn’t anywhere to be seen this year. There was nothing offensively bad about him, in fact he had several decent matches, but the fire that defined his underdog act in 2016 is down to the embers.
Tama Tonga was okay, I guess, but the progress he’s made in Guerrillas of Destiny hasn’t translated to singles matches. The ultra-serious, scary act doesn’t do anything for me, but he delivered some really funny off-the-cuff lines here and there and further mining that side of his personality would do him wonders, I think. His match with Juice pointed the way forward. Toru Yano did his thing. I still get a kick out of it and his role in this tournament is a useful one. The match against Kenny Omega was properly funny, SANADA no-selling his schtick was enjoyable, and sneaking another win over Suzuki was great. Satoshi Kojima had a damn good run. Not results-wise, sadly, but he showed up many of the younger guys with intensity alone. He peaked with an excellent performance against Okada (and had me thinking that maybe, possibly at title shot was viable in the near-future), but his pride and determination were undimmed and there was never a hint that he was taking a night off.
The last word goes to Yuji Nagata, who wrestled his final G1 tournament. Not only did he over-deliver on my expectations, he had a legitimately excellent run – probably one of my favourite ever. Every match was compelling and heated, and the 49-year old regularly outworked colleagues in the prime of their careers. Of course, this being New Japan, there was no room for sentiment, and he ended up with only one win to his name. Nevertheless, that final G1 match at Sumo Hall last Friday, and the bow of respect from Fale, was a genuinely touching moment. I salute you, Mr Nagata!
Final thoughts: I don’t know if it was because of more variety or better spacing of shows or what, but I thought this was the best of the three tournaments I’ve reviewed in their entirety. The coverage on New Japan World was faultless and there was yet another step-up in production value this year as every show had commentary to go along with the multi-camera footage. As we got closer the final I was hopeful but unsure that this roster could match the extraordinary quality of recent years, but boy did they ever. And those final three main events – my word – back-to-back-to-back classics.
If you have been, thanks for reading these, I’ve appreciate the feedback and comments and hope you enjoyed the tournament as much as I did. Thankfully, there are now a few weeks off, but I’ll be back for the three Destruction shows in September. See you then.