“It’s cool, but I’m more into the Japanese stuff”
It’s a very hipster thing to say in wrestling circles. The WWE represents corporate America. The Wal-Mart of professional wrestling (ahem, sorry, sports entertainment). It’s designed to appeal to everyone and not really ruffle any feathers. It’s a publicly traded company, after all. So die-hard wrestling fans that grew up during the Monday Night Wars era of competition started to look elsewhere for a more hard-hitting, realistic product.
Enter New Japan Pro Wrestling.
I guess saying “enter” is a little disingenuous, as NJPW has been around since the early 1970’s. However in the last few years, touting matches from the Japanese company has become a trendy pastime for hardcore wrestling fans. It’s as if you’re not a real fan if you haven’t weighed in on names like Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega, and Hiroshi Tanahashi. The WWE has even joined in on the action poaching some of the company’s standouts like Finn Balor (formerly Prince Devitt), Shinsuke Nakamura, and A.J. Styles, while contracting the services of other stars such as Kota Ibushi and Zach Sabre, Jr. for their Cruiserweight tournament last summer. I’ve been intrigued, but I’ve never taken the plunge. Until now (How’s that for suspense? No? Ok, fine. Moving on.).
Every summer, NJPW hosts its G-1 Climax tournament, featuring two blocks of 10 wrestlers in a round robin battle lasting 19 days. It’s a break neck pace and a master class in pro wrestling story telling (I always cringe with this term is thrown around, but damn if it’s not apropos here). The tournament does everything from creating new stars to celebrating legends to building new feuds that can take the company through the rest of the year. It’s quite impressive, just in the math of it all.
Almost every card featured “one of the best matches I’ve ever seen”. It’s pretty unbelievable. In addition, Japanese wrestling crowds are just the greatest. They’re part of the show, but not in a “let’s try to be cool so viewers at home think we’re cool and funny and smart” type way (looking at you WWE live audiences). Fans are mostly silent outside of polite applause for big spots, before coming unglued for the final minutes of each match. The G-1 crowds remind you just how much great fan interaction can add to a wrestling experience.
I wanted to hit on a few of the highlights from this year’s tournament, but mostly I wanted to say: I’m hooked. I guess I’ve gone full-blown wrestling hipster. Sorry.
Stealing a page from my SNL columns, I wanted to quickly hit some of the best things I watched in the G-1.
G-1 Final: Kenny Omega vs. TetsuyaNaito
There were five or six matches before the finals that could have easily been Match of the Year candidates, but this match between Omega and Naito might be the best encapsulation of what makes New Japan so special. It’s been said before, but the magic of wrestling has always come down to the thought: ok, I know it’s not real, but that right there was real. I had so much anxiety watching this match. There were a handful of spots where I was absolutely sure someone had just been knocked out or someone had just broken their neck. For that 30ish minutes, I was watching with clenched teeth through covered eyes. I completely suspended my disbelief.
I don’t want to get into spoiling anything, because the Japanese schedule makes for lots of different American viewing patterns. This one was an amazing, back-and-forth, breath-taking affair, and it was alone worth the price of the monthly subscription.
No worsts for me here. It’s supposed to be fun after all.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi – A Block, Night 11
Tomohiro Ishii vs. Yuji Nagata – A Block, Night 11
Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega – B Block, Night 18
Kazuchika Okada is the IWGP Heavyweight champion. He’s also the best professional wrestler in the world. I’m not sure there’s a case for 1(b). Every match he was involved in was a master class in drama and showmanship. Okada is the man and he proved it with showstopping matches against the likes of Michael Elgin, Minoru Suzuki, EVIL, Sanada, and Kenny Omega. Great stuff.
Honorable Mention: Yuji Nagata
Nagata is a 49-year-old former champion, and this was his final G-1 competition. He only won one match in the entire tournament, but his matches were some of the most emotionally charged and engaging bouts of the month. The way he held the crowd in the palm of his hand simply by rolling his eyes to the back of his head during armbars… *chef’s kiss*.
Song I Can’t Get Out of My Head
Tama Tonga’s Bullet Club entrance theme is cool, but I can’t stop humming Minoru Suzuki’s “Kaze Ni Nare”. His BAMF walk to the ring with a slow-ish theme complete with crowd participation is just top-notch.