As pure celebrations of pro wrestling go, you can’t do much better than New Japan’s annual G1 Climax. It’s a month long round-robin tournament, with the winner getting a chance at the IWGP Heavywight title at Wrestle Kingdom. It lasts a month, from mid-July to Mid-August, and the schedule is grueling: matches nearly every day, and not a one can be a more relaxed, house show style match.
The finals were held over the weekend, between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi. They had a thrilling match which capped a nearly perfect month of pro wrestling, maintaining NJPW’s near stranglehold on its “best promotion in the world” reputation. Tanahashi won, setting him up for a collision with Kenny Omega in January, though there are a few possibilities for a shakeup between now and then.
It is a bit curious that they went with Tanahashi. By now, he is clearly the greatest Japanese wrestler of his generation, several leagues ahead of Shinsuke Nakamura, with the closest competition in his kinda-sorta age bracket (he’s not quite 42), like Masahiro Chono, being just a little too much older to be considered the same cohort. For all that Tanahashi clearly has more gas in the tank, he’s been slowly de-emphasized over the past two years in favor of younger talent.
Tanahashi’s win thrusts him back into the main event, and it’s kind of nice after the lull. The crowd seemed to think so, too, as they were rapturously behind him throughout the back half of the tournament. This included the final, where the cliched and overstated politeness of the Japanese wrestling fans melted away into chants and cheers for the veteran star.
The level of enthusiasm in the final was no small thing. Ibushi is really popular, and very, very good at what he does. He’s a pro wrestling daredevil involved in one of the best extended storylines in the world, the tale of the Golden Lovers tag team with Omega. He’s charismatic, good looking, and has a delightful ability to not take himself too seriously. And in a tournament of consistently great matches, he and Tanahashi had one of the best.
But Ibushi was never going to win, not for any in-ring reason, but because he’s not really a New Japan star. He’s some weird freelancer, not tied down to any single promotion via contract, only by reputation and story investment. He seems to prefer it this way; he’s toured the world, even appearing in a WWE tournament, and gets to do his weird DDT stuff on the side, as near as I can tell anytime he wants.
That’s a lot of fun, but at some point it needs to be asked whether Ibushi is ever going to get the titles to go with his talent because of this. It’s simultaneously admirable and incredibly frustrating, and for the final it was just a touch predictable. Not in the moment, in the throes of the full suspension of disbelief, but he just wasn’t going to win. Still, there are lots of places to go (a break up of the Golden Lovers seems very possible over the next year and a half), but it’s not clear any of them are as interesting as Ibushi in the title mix for real.
The future is murky for one other star coming out of the G1, as well. Tetsuya Naito, one of NJPW’s top stars, seems cast adrift. There was a strong case at the start of the tournament for him to win it. At the last Wrestle Kingdom, he lost to Kazuchika Okada. The crowd were hotly behind Naito, and seemed somewhat bereft when he lost.
It’s a strange thing to say that NJPW did the wrong thing in that match when everything since January has been so perfect, but there’s a “what if” there which won’t go away. Naito’s story since has been to win the Intercontinental title, incorporate the fact that he didn’t really care about it, lost it in a little over a month to Chris Jericho, and just have some good matches. Which is fine, but it’s a far cry from nine months ago. Maybe he gets revenge against Jericho for the savage beatdown he got in their title match, but he needs something really juicy to keep Wrestle Kingdom 12 from looking like his best chance at an extended heavyweight title run.
Tanahashi is defending his contract in the next few months, probably against Okada and Jay White. The odds are that it will still be Tanahashi with the contract; nobody’s ever lost the G1 contract in defending it, plus Okada is involved in a personal storyline of existential crisis in the wake of losing the title to Omega and White isn’t ready yet.
Odds are heavy that it’s Tanahashi vs. Omega at Wrestle Kingdom, a match which has happened only once before. It feels safe, even as it paradoxically feels a little surprising, and it has a no-lose situation no matter the winner: either Tanahashi further cements himself as one of the greatest wrestlers in history or Omega gets raised another notch by beating him at one of the biggest wrestling events in the world.
Putting itself into no-lose situations like that is what NJPW does and it’s what they’ve done for a few years now. It’s remarkable all the stuff that won’t fit into an article, what feels almost like an afterthought, but would be seismic in any other context: Rey Mysterio showing up and talking about wrestling Okada, Cody Rhodes challenging for the US title, Okada splitting from his manager of six years, Gedo.
Which is why you can feel comfortable trusting where this is going. Every article on NJPW closes the same way, that it beggars belief that they just keep being so good and it’s always true. Keep watching, because it shows no signs of slowing.