NJPW G1 Climax Primer

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New Japan’s famous annual tournament begins on Monday July 18th and provides an excellent jumping on point for those of you who’ve thought about checking out Japan’s biggest wrestling promotion. This is an overview of the Whats, Whos and Hows ahead of the 26th edition of the G1 Climax.

The Tournament

New Japan has held annual tournaments under various guises since 1974, but following a year off, it was rechristened the G1 (Grade One) Climax in 1991 and has remained that way for the past 26 years. The night of the finals is second only to the company’s January 4th Tokyo Dome show in terms of prestige and this year’s final, taking place on August 14th, is already sold out.

The current format (since 2012) is a round-robin tournament split into two blocks of ten wrestlers. The winners of these blocks will face each other in the final and the winner of that match, assuming they are not already the IWGP champion, gets a title shot at Wrestle Kingdom in January. Every match has a 30-minute time limit with two points for a victory, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss.

As with last year, the tournament is taking place over 19 shows, running A Block one night, B Block the next. There are five G1 contests per card, with the participants from the other block – plus the rest of the roster – wrestling in undercard tag matches (note: for most shows I’ll only be reviewing the G1 matches). The benefit of this layout is that it ensures everyone has a decent number of days off from wrestling hard-fought singles matches and it’s easier to keep track of standings.

The Wrestlers

A Block

Hiroshi Tanahashi (15th year)

Tana 2

The Ace of the Century has been showing his age of late, with a shoulder injury keeping him out of action for the last few months. A definitive loss to Okada at Wrestle Kingdom has meant a small slide down the card to Intercontinental title level where he’s been feuding with Kenny Omega, but there is no doubt he is still the draw of the company – New Japan delayed his comeback to ensure he could take part over the next month. His star power is undeniable, he’ll top many of the A Block shows and is likely one of the favourites.

Togi Makabe (13th year)

Makabe

Makabe hasn’t been seen since losing a tag title rematch in May. He’s reliable enough; a brawler with a Bruiser Brody-influenced gimmick and one of the most well-recognised faces of the company. The one-time IWGP champion won’t be expected to do well, but his reputation means he could believably claim a win against anyone in the block.

Hiroyoshi Tenzan (21st year)

Tenzan

Tenzan was initially left out of this year’s tournament only to be given a slot by his long-time tag partner Satoshi Kojima. He’s competed in all but one G1 Climax since 1995, winning it three times, most recently in 2006. Tenzan is broken down at this point, but can deliver a decent performance given the right opponent. This will surely be his final appearance in the tournament, so it’s possible he could cause a few upsets along the way.

Kazuchika Okada (5th year)

Okada

The reigning IWGP champion, leader of the CHAOS stable, and New Japan’s Golden Boy. Okada’s stoicism can be a barrier for some, but his defeat of Naito in June, without the presence of Gedo at ringside, seems to have shifted his persona into new territory. The last reigning champion to win the G1 was Yuji Nagata in 2007, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Okada managed that feat this year.

Tomohiro Ishii (4th year)

Ishii

Although he challenged for the IWGP title against Tetsuya Naito earlier this year, Ishii’s flirtation with the upper reaches of the card appears to be over. However, he always delivers in the G1 and was arguably the MVP of last year’s excellent tournament, so even if he hasn’t got a shot of winning the thing be sure to keep an eye on his matches.

Hirooki Goto (9th year)

Goto

Goto’s loss to Okada in a title match earlier this year put a final nail in his upper midcarder coffin. In a rare kayfabe instance of a wrestler altering their gimmick to no effect whatsoever, Goto all but admitted he had underachieved in his career and was content to play second fiddle to Okada by joining CHAOS. I like Goto more than many, and feel he delivers consistently good matches, but his time has passed and it’s hard to see him doing well this year.

Bad Luck Fale (3rd year)

Fale

Since the Bullet Club lost Styles, Anderson and Gallows earlier this year, Fale has seemed like a relic, relegated to teaming with Yujiro Takahashi and generally seeming disinterested. He remains a believable monster when given the opportunity, however, and can be dragged to good matches with the right opponents (usually Tanahashi). The bar is low, but he should clear it at least a couple of times and will be expected to get a few wins.

Tama Tonga (Debut)

Tonga

The Bullet Club departures should’ve been the opportunity Tonga was looking for to step up in singles competition, but a couple of New Japan Cup matches were the sum total of that notion. Since March, he and his real-life brother, Tanga Loa, have teamed together as the Guerrillas of Destiny, winning and losing the IWGP tag titles in recent months. The potential has always been there, but progress has been disappointingly slow, and it’s hard to see him getting a win here.

SANADA (Debut)

SANADA

Los Ingobernables de Japón’s representative in the A Block, Sanada’s work since debuting at Invasion Attack has been crisp and dynamic – I feel they might have a star on their hands. He announced himself by unmasking to help Naito win the IWGP title and hasn’t put a foot wrong since. Admittedly he’s not been in many singles matches, and his only “feud” has been with Yoshi-Hashi as part of the ongoing CHAOS/LIJ war, but the future is bright.

Naomichi Marufuji (2nd year)

Marufuji

The NJPW/NOAH relationship meant it was always likely we’d see talent come over for the G1. The company’s current GHC Champion and immediate predecessor, Go Shiozaki and Takashi Sugiura, were an unlikely proposition given the tournament’s length, but the inclusion of Marufuji and B Block’s Katsuhiko Nakajima is the best one could have reasonably hoped for. Marufuji is one half of the current GHC tag champs and was the GHC Heavyweight Champion as recently as January this year. Having bulked up from Junior – and suffered several injuries over his career – Marufuji has lost several steps, relying heavily on strikes and a much slower style, but he’s a more than capable wrestler and I can see him bettering the 4-3 record of his previous G1 Climax in 2012.

B Block

Katsuyori Shibata (6th year)

Shibata

The reigning NEVER Openweight champion recently overcame the “third generation” of New Japan (Nagata, Tenzan, Kojima), learning some humility along the way. The fact that his nickname is unironically The Wrestler tells you everything you need to know about Shibata; he is a no-nonsense grappler who kicks hard and doesn’t take any shit. He has earned the company’s trust, the fans like him, and he’s steadily rising to the top of the card. One of the favourites.

Yuji Nagata (18th year)

Nagata

The veteran who never seems to age recently held the NEVER title, and deservedly so. Whereas his contemporaries have slowed and broken down, Nagata can always be counted on to lift his level to that of his opponent, and when facing the likes of Okada (last year) and Shibata (last month) that means he can still deliver a hell of a match.

Tomoaki Honma (3rd year)

Honma

Last year, Honma finally broke his G1 duck by beating Tomohiro Ishii, although that was his only win of the tournament. Since then, he’s had a relatively successful year, teaming with Togi Makabe to claim the IWGP tag titles at Wrestle Kingdom having earned the shot by winning the World Tag League in December. Since losing the belts to Guerrillas of Destiny, Honma’s been absent from New Japan, only returning in the last month to face Shibata in a losing effort for the NEVER title. Two wins this time?

Michael Elgin (2nd year)

Elgin

Elgin debuted for New Japan at last year’s G1 and quickly became a crowd favourite thanks to his feats of strength. He worked his way to a contract and last month won his first singles title, replacing an injured Tanahashi and defeating Kenny Omega for the Intercontinental title in the company’s first-ever ladder match. The Canadian will look to improve on last year’s standing of 6th place, but I don’t consider him to be among the favourites for the block.

Toru Yano (11th year)

Yano

The Sublime Master Thief makes his return to New Japan having spent the last several months in NOAH where he and Naomichi Marufuji have proven an unexpectedly successful tag team. Having won the company’s Global Tag League in May, the pair defeated Davey Boy Smith Jr. and Lance Archer to become GHC Tag Team Champions, and recently defended the belts against Minoru Suzuki and Tazashi Iizuka. For those of you who haven’t encountered Yano before now, he’s a spoiler, takes pride in cheating to win matches, and his finishing move’s a low blow. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

YOSHI-HASHI (Debut)

YOSHI-HASHI

The ongoing CHAOS/LIJ programme has been of real benefit to Yoshi-Hashi, and he recently scored the biggest win of his career by submitting SANADA in a tag team match at Dominion. For a long time he’s been a hanger-on in CHAOS, not so much underdog as underachiever, but in the last year he’s found his fire and the crowds have begun to respond in a big way. A solitary win in this block would be an achievement, but he’ll have the support of the masses throughout.

Kenny Omega (Debut)

Omega

2016 looked to be Kenny Omega’s year. He ousted AJ Styles to become leader of the Bullet Club and soon after beat Tanahashi for the vacant Intercontinental title. Since then, however, the rise of Naito & Co. (and their feud with CHAOS) has meant that poor Kenny’s Bullet Club Mk.III have looked a forlorn and distant third when it comes to stables. The side project – aka The Elite – with the Young Bucks has had arguably more impact on the web than between the ropes, and although I enjoy the team it does have a whiff of the indie about it. Still, the G1 last year marked the rebirth of Tetsuya Naito, and Omega is nowhere near the damaged goods Naito was, so a good showing over the next month could see his stock rise once more.

Tetsuya Naito (7th year)

Naito

Speak of the devil. In my opinion, there is no more over act in wrestling than Tetsuya Naito – leader of Los Ingobernables de Japón. A year on from his re-debut, Naito’s cocky, aloof trickster has been honed to the point where he has the crowd eagerly anticipating every transgressive act of insolence. In April, he defeated Okada to win the IWGP title, and his recently-ended run with the belt confirmed his status as a main-eventer for the next several years. The odds-on favourite for the block if not the tournament.

EVIL (Debut)

EVIL

He comes to the ring dressed as the grim reaper and fires lasers from his fingers and yet is part of the hottest stable in wrestling, Los Ingobernables de Japón. I’m not sure how it works, but somehow it does. In the ring, the former Takaaki Watanabe has a pleasingly straight-ahead brawling style and there are a number of opponents in this block with whom he could have breakout performances. He looks a natural fit for the NEVER belt’s classic strong style, so I’m expecting good things in the matches against Shibata, Nagata and Honma in particular.

Katsuhiko Nakajima (Debut)

Nakajima

A long-time freelancer, Nakajima finally settled down and signed a contract with NOAH last December. Earlier this year he scored the biggest win of his heavyweight career by beating Minoru Suzuki at Korakuen Hall, but came up short in a title match against Sugiura a month later. It’s worth remembering that the thirteen-year pro is only 28 years old, and given his obvious charisma and relative youth, it is surely only a matter of time before he ascends to the top of his promotion. This year’s G1 Climax may be a little early for that rise though, and a near-even win/loss record seems most likely.

How To Watch

If you sign up to NJPW World after tomorrow (i.e. from the 15th onwards) you’ll see all 19 shows for under $10, which is incredible value for money. There is an English-language sign-up page here, but I’d also recommend using this guide to work out some of the finer details . If viewed on a computer, I would recommend using Google Chrome since it automatically translates the Japanese website, making it much easier to navigate. The Android app works smoothly too.

So there we go, you’re ready to enjoy a month-long feast of great wrestling. See you on Saturday for the opening night.