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On today's installment of New Japan Can't Catch a Break, we'll be talking about the just-completed G1 Climax 31. Join us, won't you?
Fuckin' hell, what is going on with NJPW? Let's recap the year they've had. Hiromu Takahashi vacates the Jr. Heavyweight Title due to injury. Then Will Ospreay vacates the World Title due to injury. Then Kota Ibushi misses the Wrestle Grand Slam main event to crown a new World Champion due to illness. Then Tetsuya Naito misses all but one night of the G1 due to injury. Then, in perhaps the cruelest moment of all, Kota Ibushi, in his fourth consecutive G1 Final, missed a Phoenix Splash and came down hard on his right arm, dislocating his shoulder and forcing a ref stoppage. Kazuchika Okada unceremoniously won his first G1 trophy in seven years, in a match that was on its way to being a legit MOTY contender, before this tragic, unplanned finish. So that's five instances of major stars having to miss time in a single calendar year, one of them twice. What vengeful bastard deity did Gedo piss off? Maybe God was really a fan of the old IWGP Heavyweight belt? Or the Intercontinental one? On a more hopeful note though, Okada in his post-match promo did say he wanted the Heavyweight Title back. So maybe this World Title experiment can come to an end after WrestleKingdom? I'm not a superstitious man, but I can't help but notice the timing of all these injuries.....
Anyway, as for the G1 itself, it was a pretty good tournament. Nowhere near the quality of 2015 through 2019 - how could it be given all the missing talent - but there were plenty of good-to-great wrestling matches and a few unexpected participants made their mark. Okada looked like his old dominant Rainmaker self in this tournament, leaner than perhaps we've ever seen him. Tanahashi at age 44 has been wrestling like a man in his mid-30s this year. Ibushi up until the injury was on fire through most of this tour. Zack Sabre Jr. went on a submission tear, tapping out a slew of opponents in a row, including Ibushi and the champion Shingo. Shingo of course looked great. Ishii was once again a force of nature. And Jeff Cobb punched his ticket as the most dominant NJPW heel in a long time, winning eight consecutive matches before losing to Okada in the B block finals. But the two biggest surprises in this tournament were the coming of age of The Great O-Khan, who put up several strong showings and actually stole the show twice (against ZSJ and Ishii), and the performances of Tama Tonga, who looked like a bona fide singles star against no less than the likes of Tanahashi and Okada (whom he handed his lone defeat). This is the best I've ever seen Tama look in action, and I hope he gets a good singles run out of this. Maybe a NEVER Openweight Title reign?
Another big news item to come out of the final was the in-ring return, albeit in an exhibition match, of Katuyori Shibata, who after wrestling Zack Sabre to a five-minute draw, announced that he'll be back in an actual match. This is fantastic news, as Shibata's absence over the last four years has left a sizable hole in the roster. I'm cautiously optimistic that he'll get at least somewhat back to form; I'm hoping he adjusts his style and for the love of God never does another unprotected headbutt. Maybe a more grappling-heavy moveset a la Zack's. ZSJ vs. Shibata at the Dome would be a very welcome addition to the card.
So Okada obviously gets a World Title match at WrestleKingdom, but I'm guessing he'll insist on giving Kota Ibushi a crack at the briefcase first. That should be the Night 1 main event, and we'll get the epic match we should've gotten here. Then Okada wins properly and faces Shingo on Night 2. So at least the Ibushi injury can lead to a thread in the overall story.
I mentioned that the tournament quality wasn't anywhere near the best G1s in history, but let's take a look at the ten best matches of the tourney...
1. Tetsuya Naito vs. Zack Sabre Jr. - Night 1
Naito's lone contribution to this tournament was a great one, as he and Zack went 27 minutes, Naito's high-impact offense meshing wonderfully with Zack's grounded submission game. Zack eventually tied Naito up in knots to get his first submission win. ****1/2
2. Shingo Takagi vs. Tomohiro Ishii - Night 1
This match was exactly what you'd want from these two - rugged, stiff, brawny action between two of the toughest in the business. For 28 minutes they pounded the snot out of each other, until Shingo finished the job with Last of the Dragon. ****3/4
3. Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - Night 2
Another chapter in one of the greatest rivalries in wrestling history. Not among their best outings, but since Okada and Tanahashi are incapable of having anything less than a great match, that's not saying all that much. These guys went almost to the 30-minute time limit, leading to a Rainmaker to put away the Ace. ****1/2
4. Shingo Takagi vs. Zack Sabre Jr. - Night 3
Zack's second submission win came at the expense of the Champion, likely leading to a Power Struggle main event. Another 27-minute war ending with Zack countering a powerbomb into another submission hold I don't know the name of. ****1/4
5. Kota Ibushi vs. Zack Sabre Jr. - Night 5
A lean 20-minute match full of action, this pitted Ibushi's striking ability vs. Zack's grappling. In the end the latter prevailed, as Zack countered a Kamigoye into another weirdo submission for his third consecutive tapout victory. ****1/4
6. Shingo Takagi vs. Kota Ibushi - Night 9
This was my pick for match of the tournament. Shingo's power vs. Ibushi's athleticism and striking. This went a perfectly-paced 24 minutes and ended with a pair of Kamigoyes, one from the back and one, unsheathed, from the front. Ibushi pinned the Champion to earn a title shot at some point, regardless of the G1 outcome. Fucking awesome match. *****
7. Kazuchika Okada vs. Sanada - Night 10
These two are always good for a strong main event, particularly in the G1. This was another chapter in the story of two guys who came up through the dojo around the same time but one achieved much greater success than the other. Sanada hoped to repeat his nick-of-time 2019 win but came up short here, falling to a Tombstone-Rainmaker combo. ****
8. Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Kenta - Night 13
Zack's first loss in the tournament came in this 22-minute striking vs. grappling war. Zack's story in this tournament was his seeming invulnerability until an opponent pummeled him with strikes. Kenta was the first to crack the armor, escaping Zacks' numerous submissions and putting him away with GTS. ****1/2
9. Kazuchika Okada vs. Jeff Cobb - Night 18
The B block final pitted the undefeated Cobb vs. the one-loss Okada. Regardless of the outcome, Cobb had already turned in an historic performance, mauling eight opponents in a row. These two have had a fantastic series, each winning one match, and this served as a rubber match for now. The story here was that Okada had never put Cobb down with the Rainmaker, having won their first encounter with the Mysterio cradle. But after 23+ minutes of action Okada hit the Landslide followed by the Rainmaker to get his first decisive win over the Hawaiian brute. ****1/2
10. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kota Ibushi - Final
And lastly the aforementioned final, which as I said was heading into the conversation for MOTY but for an untimely injury. These guys paced themselves to easily go 35 minutes, with some crisp grappling, building to some big moves on the outside, including a DDT on the floor that nearly got Ibushi counted out. They traded big moves and counters, with Ibushi coming out on top after a lariat before attempting that fateful Phoenix Splash. A dislocated shoulder later, Okada was declared the winner. Goddammit. Up until that point though, this was a 25-minute match that felt like 15. I could watch these two fight for an hour. We need a Tokyo Dome rematch, pronto. ****1/4
So overall a pretty good four weeks of wrestling. Not great, and sadly we didn't get the climactic final we needed, but we got plenty of excellent in-ring action and the return of the Okada we all know and love. I predict the Rainmaker will leave Tokyo in January as the IWGP Champion, hopefully sporting the title belt he helped make the most prestigious in wrestling.