NJPW G1 Climax 26: The Roundup

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This is 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.

The whole shebang: PrimerDay 1Day 2Days 3 & 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Day 8Day 9Day 10Day 11Day 12Day 13Day 14Day 15Day 16Day 17Day 18, Finals.

The Matches

By my reckoning, there were twenty eight matches at four-stars or higher over the course of the tournament. An exceptional standard, up on last year by 40%, and that’s ignoring the dozens more that just fell short of what is, let’s be honest, a wholly subjective threshold of quality. Here, in chronological order, are my Top 10 matches of the tournament:

Honourable mentions:

  • Tanahashi vs. SANADA (Day 1)
  • Ishii vs. Marufuji (Day 7)
  • Tanahashi vs. Marufuji (Day 13)
  • YOSHI-HASHI vs. Naito (Day 16)
  • Elgin vs. Nakaijma (Day 18)

Okada vs. Marufuji (Day 1)

The main event of the opening show demonstrated that we could expect the unexpected this year. It was not so much that Marufuji won, but the manner in which he dominated the IWGP Champion. A good story, well executed.

Elgin vs. Naito (Day 4)

I feel like I’ve undersold Elgin’s contribution to the tournament in my reviews, because according to me he’s had six four-star (or higher) matches – the same number as Ishii. That run started with this Korakuen Hall main event against that trickster Naito. Just a whole lot of fun.

Omega vs. Elgin (Day 8)

The final chapter of a three match feud, this was a balls-out North American affair with all the sides. The wrestling equivalent of a greasy burger to end a night on the town. Tasty.

Naito vs. Shibata (Day 8)

A fine match with a doozy of an ending. Shibata, having nailed the Penalty Kick, grabbed the Rear Naked Choke rather than go for the pin and forced the referee to call the match. A display of almost animalistic aggression from Shibata and I suspect that moment will be revisited in the not too distant future.

Ishii vs. Tanahashi (Day 11)

As I said in my review, there are few better at delivering a big match feel than these two. As an added bonus we got Ishii doing a bit of limb work and Tanahashi busting out the strikes, but above all else this was two brilliant wrestlers having a brilliant match.

Okada vs. Ishii (Day 13)

I should probably mention the moment that it became clear this wasn’t just a great match but a memorably great one; the part where Okada did his Rainmaker pose and Ishii chopped him in the goddamned throat. It even feels good to type that. The pace and intensity remained high throughout and the match peaked at just the right time. A stunner.

SANADA vs. Ishii (Day 15)

This one makes the list because Ishii did such a fantastic job of elevating Sanada. The Los Ingobernables recruit had already settled in nicely after joining the company earlier in the year, and had even claimed a huge win over Tanahashi on the opening night, but by this point had eased into the tournament and was aided by Ishii’s magical star-making powers.

Okada vs. Tanahashi (Day 17)

I don’t know how these two do it, but the final ten minutes of this might be the best thing they’ve ever done. The heat was off the charts, the drama was epic and the timing was perfect. Truly incredible chemistry.

Omega vs. Naito (Day 18)

I don’t know quite what I was expecting going in, two heels working against each other and all, but I do know what we ended up with, and that is a classic. Almost certainly the best match I’ve seen from either man and my favourite match of the tournament.

Goto vs. Omega (Finals)

Before this match Goto hadn’t delivered a single four-star match all tournament and Omega was coming off a 27-minute five-star epic from the night previous. And yet, what we got was another very special match with one of the best endings I can remember. A definitive and symbolic win for Omega, and Goto was good too.

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Photo by thecobra2 via the Wrestling Observer forums

The Wrestlers

In my G1 Primer I mentioned that after a strong start to 2016, Kenny Omega had been overshadowed in recent months by Naito & Co. and suggested he might look to the Los Ingobernables leader as an example of using the G1 to reassert one’s place in the company (as Naito did last year). I expected a good showing, and in the main that’s what we got, good but not great. And then came the last two nights of the tournament, in which Omega produced a classic against the very man who’d taken his spotlight and a defining victory in the final against Hirooki Goto. Who’d have thought? Not me. But I am incredibly pleased that Omega has become the first debut winner since Okada and the first foreign winner since… ever!

I doubt anyone had Hirooki Goto down to make the final, and yet he had just enough believability (as a former G1 winner) and motivation (a potential redemption story with Okada) to mean he could’ve won. Damn you Gedo for playing with my emotions like that. Goto’s time has gone, and yes I said that before the tournament too, but the defeat to Omega confirmed it. I guess someone has to be the Nearly Man. The man he might have faced, Tetsuya Naito, played B Block’s leading man to perfection. Every single night he had the crowd eating from palm of his hand and backed it up in the ring with many stellar matches, including the amazing block decider with Omega. Whatever happens between now and January, Naito deserves to be in a huge match at Wrestle Kingdom.

Kazuchika Okada once again looked the favourite to be the first man since 2000 to win the G1 while holding the IWGP title, but it was not to be. Okada/Naito would’ve been safe final, but with that show sold out long in advance, why settle for safe? Okada didn’t have a consistently brilliant tournament and yet he featured three of the top ten matches, which goes to show that on his day he’s as good as anyone in the world. The standard-bearer in that regard is Hiroshi Tanahashi, but there were serious questions about’s readiness, given he’d just returned from a serious shoulder/bicep injury, and I was actually hoping he’d alter his style to compensate. But he didn’t and nor did it look like he needed to. The continued high level of his work is joy to witness, but still, someone should tell him it’s okay to slow down now.

The men from NOAH, Naomichi Marufuji and Katsuhiko Nakajima, acquitted themselves very well throughout. Their presence made for some intriguing match-ups, and you felt like they were earning the audience’s appreciation each time out. Nakajima has a deliberate style that I find appealing and at only 28, the best is yet to come. Marufuji reminded us that he can still be world class and has earned an IWGP title on the back of his tremendous victory over Okada on the first night. Both return the their home promotion with new fans.

Michael Elgin had an excellent second G1 and looked like he was fighting for his supper every match, which is really all you can ask of a wrestler. The current Intercontinental Champion has, I feel, found his level in the company. Katsuyori Shibata had, dare I say it, a slightly underwhelming tournament. Don’t get me wrong, there were bright spots – notably against Naito – and I always get a kick out of watching the surly bastard elbowing fools, but it didn’t feel like he was operating at 100%. Not that he’d let on. Tomohiro Ishii did what he does, which is have great matches. He gave nearly everyone in his block their best match and the bout against Okada will live long in the memory. Yuji Nagata continued to belie his age with another consistent run of performances. Nothing spectacular, admittedly, but the 48-year old can keep up with anybody, which suggests he’s actually gotten quicker as the years have gone by.

SANADA and YOSHI-HASHI were the breakout stars of their respective blocks. Both debutants became regular highlights of the cards and earned some big wins along the way. Yoshi-Hashi demonstrated a fire that many don’t have and that is hard to fake, while Sanada displayed supreme poise and carries himself like a star. I imagine they’ll be returning to tags for the most part, at least for the next few months, but they’ve shown themselves to be more than capable of performing at a very high level in singles competition. This won’t be either’s last G1. Tama Tonga, another debutant, got steadily better and claimed a huge victory in upsetting Tanahashi. He’s getting there, but progress is slow, another year of tags won’t help. Some much needed legitimacy was added at least. EVIL looked comfortable throughout and ended the G1 on a high with a fine win against Shibata in his best performance since returning to New Japan. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve got a soft spot for the stoic brawler of LIJ and feel he’ll be a good fit for the NEVER title division going forward.

Toru Yano did his usual thing. For some the schtick has gotten old, but I still get a kick out of it and his role in this tournament is a useful one. The match against Kenny Omega was the best comedy bout I’ve seen in ages. Tomoaki Honma also did his thing, but in this instance I feel the act has gotten old. Usurped by Yoshi-Hashi at the underdog babyface, Honma’s act badly needs freshening up. Still, he always delivered when required. His tag partner Togi Makabe is someone else whose act offers little, although I understand that he’s still a recognisable face for the company. He led A Block for a while, though his matches against all but Okada and Ishii were uninspired fare. Bad Luck Fale did his monster thing. Like Yano he’s a useful figure for the G1; he can still believably beat anyone and a win over him is a decent scalp. He’s earned himself a shot against Okada, so he’ll be happy.

The last word goes to Hiroyoshi Tenzan, who wrestled his final G1 tournament. His run (or lack of one) was the one notable misfire in the booking, because the crowds wanted him to succeed and he worked incredibly hard despite his obvious physical shortcomings. Couldn’t he have swapped points with Makabe? Ah well, what’s done is done. The standing ovation he received in Sumo Hall after his last ever G1 match was lovely. I hope he gets to ride off into the sunset at Wrestle Kingdom.

Final thoughts: A long tournament for sure, but I felt ready for it this time after the baptism of fire in 2015. The coverage on New Japan World was faultless and I appreciated the extra effort in making every show multi-camera.

NJPW president, Takaaki Kidani, has already stated that next year’s tournament will be “different… unique and interesting” and you have to admire the commitment to moving forward and avoiding complacency. In my round up of last year’s tournament I said Wrestle Kingdom 10 and its aftermath would prove make-or-break for the long-term success of the company and that is was time to position the next group of main-eventers. Departures forced their hand, but nevertheless they pulled that trigger and so far it’s paid off. Attendance was up on last year and the focus on new faces further up the card and less predictable (though no less logical) booking means New Japan has become an ever better watch. Here’s to the real New Era.

Thanks for reading these, I’ve appreciate the feedback and comments and hope you enjoyed the tournament as much as I did. No rest for the wicked, however, and I’m back next weekend to review the Super J-Cup (and then I can finally have a break). See you then.