I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling since I was 3 years-old and stayed up late Saturday nights with my father to watch Hulk Hogan reign over the mid-1980’s WWF. I was there when the Hulk conquered Andre and when the Mega Powers exploded; I was there when a dead man rose to walk the earth, when a warrior ran wild, and when a sneering snake terrified me with his command to trust him (and only now am I realizing how weirdly Biblical that all sounds).
I was there when the modern day world’s most recognizable movie star was merely a hated “blue-chipper” and a beer-swilling Texas redneck let me channel all the angst and anger for which my teenage self had no explanation. And lest you think my fandom is an artificial creation of Stamford, CT, know I was born and raised in the South where Saturday night 6:05 p.m. will forever be known as “The Power Hour”; and the first time I ever heard the term ‘sky-walker’ it had nothing to do with fantastical adventures in space and everything to do with the Road Warriors tossing the Midnight Express off a 20-foot high scaffold.
But outside of a trilogy of shows WCW co-promoted with New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in the early 90s, my interest in wrestling has largely remained a domestic pursuit. That’s all about to change though because for the next four weeks I will be covering NJPW’S 26th G-1 Climax tournament as the debut item of my “Noob Japan” feature here at We Write Wrestling. This will be my first ever G-1 so if you’re a dyed in the wool puroresu fan this will all be run-of-the-mill stuff for you. But if, like me, you’re relatively new—or even better, entirely new—to NJPW I invite you to join me here each week as I recap the action from professional wrestling’s premiere heavyweight tournament.
Now that we’ve got that bit of business out of the way let’s get into what the tournament actually is. The G-1 Climax, which begins July 18th and runs through August 14th , is an annual round-robin tournament held by NJPW wherein the winner receives a match for the IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix) Heavyweight Championship, one of the oldest, most revered and prestigious titles in the history of professional wrestling. To be given a run with the IWGP title means you are considered among professional wrestling’s most elite talents as past champions include historic names such as Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, The Great Muta, Riki Choshu, and Big Van Vader as well as modern wrestling luminaries as Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles, and Shinsuke Nakamura.
Because it is a round-robin tournament and not single elimination, the G-1 is uniquely positioned to display the skills of all of its entrants. The competitors are divided into an A and B block and wrestle against other entrants with their block. Two points are awarded for a victory, one point to each wrestler for a time-limit draw, and zero points are awarded for a loss. After four weeks the winners of each block face one another to determine the tournament victor. Said victor then goes on to challenge for the IWGP heavyweight title at NJPW’s biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom, the eleventh incarnation of which will January 4th, 2017.
Now that you know what the G-1 Climax Tournament is, why it’s important, and when it’s happening, here’s a quick run-down of the competitors along with some brief background information.
At times referred to as “The Unchained Gorilla” the former two-time IWGP Tag Team Champion and two-time NEVER (New Blood, Evolution, Valiantly, Eternal and Radical) Open-Weight Champion, and one-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion is as tough and relentless as anyone in professional wrestling today; perhaps even more so. He is a spiritual disciple of Bruiser Brody, employing the legend’s brutal and bloody style including his steel chain-assisted lariat and using an independently recorded version of Brody’s “Immigrant Song” theme. Makabe’s mostly been occupied with tag-team wrestling this year and while he is perhaps not a favorite in this year’s tournament he will certainly make his opponents pay a high cost of pain in their pursuit of victory.
2016 will mark the 21st and likely last, appearance for the former four-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion and record 11-time IWGP Heavyweight Tag-Team Champion. Tenzan missed 2013’s tournament with a rib injury and had been desperately seeking a way into this year’s tournament but found him excluded as officials felt he could not handle to rigorous demands of the four week event. Luckily for Tenzan and his fans, his longtime friend and tag partner Satoshi Kojima gave up his tournament spot and gifted it to Tenzan. Look for him to be the sentimental fan favorite as this year’s tournament serves in part as a send-off for Tenzan as he looks to finish his active roster career in the next few years.
The Stone Pit Bull. He is tougher than tough, meaner than mean and exists for nothing more than to hurt the man standing across from him. This three-time NEVER Open Weight champion and one-time Ring of Honor Television Champion has seen his star rise rapidly in the last few years due to his personification of the “strong style” ethos of Japanese wrestling including brutal, hard-hitting, and critically lauded matches while in defense of his NEVER championship. Don’t let his small stature fool you, Ishii will knock you out and make you thank him for the pleasure.
Goto is as decorated a wrestler as you will find in NJPW. He is a two-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion, one-time IWGP Tag Team Champion, one-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and three-time winner of the New Japan Cup, a yearly single-elimination tournament held every spring by NJPW. The one title that has eluded Goto however is the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Bad Luck Fale
Known as “The Underboss” and enforcer of the global pro-wrestling clique, The Bullet Club, Fale is an intimidating powerhouse of a man. He is a former one-time NEVER Open Weight Six Man Tag Team Champion and former one-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion. He has an upset victory over NJPW fan-favorite Hiroshi Tanahashi in the first round of the 2016 New Japan Cup.
Marufuji is a journeyman professional wrestler who has wrestled for NJPW, ROH, AJPW, and is currently signed to the Japanese promotion NOAH. He is the only man to win Junior Heavyweight championships in all three major Japanese promotions.
The 33-year old son of pro-wrestling legend Haku, has been primarily occupied in New Japan’s tag division this year alongside his brother Tanga Roa and their team, Guerillas of Destiny. Tonga is a former one-time NEVER Open Weight Six Man Tag Team Champion and one-time former IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion. With an upset win over Makabe in this year’s New Japan Cup Tonga is a prime spot to have a breakout singles performance in this year’s G-1 Climax.
SANADA is a well-traveled performer known for his time in AJPW where he was a Television Champion, along with time spent in Japan’s Wrestle-1, and American promotion TNA, where he is a former one-time X-Division. He is currently signed to NJPW to where he made a shocking return at the company’s April PPV, Invasion Attack, by helping Tetsuyo Naito to victory over IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and forming the heel stable of Los Ingobernables de Japon.
“The Rainmaker” is the current reigning and defending IWGP Heavyweight Champion and is in his fourth reign as such. In the past, his nemesis was NJPW fan-favorite and hero, Hiroshi Tanahashi who Okada finally overcame in his IWGP Heavyweight title defense at 2016’s Wrestle Kingdom 10 then ascended to his current place as New Japan’s top star. It seemed as if Okada was primed for a long-term run with the top championship as the new face of New Japan but his reign was rudely and violently interrupted and cut short by heel upstart Tetsuya Naito and his Ingobernables stable who have been a thorn in Okada’s side all this year. Should the champion manage to overcome the odds and find victory in the G-1 however, he will win the right to name his opponent should he retain the title all the way to Wrestle Kingdom or the right to again challenge for the top title.
Tanahashi is a seven-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion—the most title reigns of anyone in the company’s history—a one-time former IWGP Intercontinental Champion, a former two-time IWGP Tag Team Champion, and former one-time NEVER Open Weight Six Man Tag Team Champion. To the fans of New Japan, Tanahashi has served as the spearhead of the promotion’s resurrection over the past decade. He is their John Cena and Hulk Hogan rolled into one with a stylish Instagram account and perfectly coiffed hair. He is a favorite to win whatever tournament or event in which he is booked though he has suffered a few notable losses this year against Okada at Wrestle Kingdom, Kenny Omega at Invasion Attack, and Bad Luck Fale in the first round of the New Japan Cup. He has also endured a rash of injuries in recent years, most notably a recent shoulder injury that saw his tag partner Michael Elgin replace him in a IWGP Intercontinental title match against Omega. Tanahashi will likely be ending his career in the next three to five years and it will be telling as to how the company views his career’s twilight based on how he is booked during this year’s G-1 Climax.
Shibata is an eleven-year combat sports veteran and was once believed to be a part of New Japan’s future alongside Okada, Tanahashi, and Nakamura. However, Shibata was unhappy with the company in 2005 and left to pursue an MMA career with middling results. He returned in 2012 and since then has staked his place as one of the hardest-strikers in all of professional wrestling. He is currently in his second reign as NEVER Open Weight Champion and all past resentments between him and New Japan seem to have dissipated. While he likely will not be booked to win the tournament this year I expect him to perform and be presented in a manner that continues to elevate his profile.
At age 48, Yuji Nagata is a living legend whose career has spanned two continents and multiple promotions. He is a two-time IWGP Heavyweight Championship with that title’s fourth-longest reign of 392 days. Additionally, he is the only wrestler to win all three of Japan’s top promotions’ premiere singles tournaments.
Historically, Honma’s place in New Japan has been that of the “lovable loser”. Cheered and admired for his toughness, resilience, and adherence to Japanese wrestling’s vaunted “fighting spirit” Honma has made a career of coming oh-so close and yet falling oh-so short. Things have begun to take a turn over the past year however, as he won the first title of his nine-year career in New Japan when he and Togi Makabe captured the IWGP Tag Team Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 10 back in January of this year. That said though, it’s just as likely for Honma to lose every match in the tournament as it is for him to make it to the finals.
The Toronto-born Elgin was previously best known for his stint in Ring of Honor where he held that company’s World Championship one time, as well as his tag team championship reign with Lucha Underground’s Brian Cage in Pro-Wrestling Guerilla. Elgin signed with New Japan in 2016 and has quickly become a fan-favorite aligned with Hiroshi Tanahashi and other New Japan faces (a rarity for a foreigner) in their fight against The Bullet Club. He is a former NEVER Open Weight Six Man Tag Team Champion and the current IWGP Intercontinental Champion.
A former two-time IWGP Tag Team Champion and two-time NEVER Open Weight Six Man Tag Champion, Yano is often portrayed as being below the top tier of New Japan’s premiere talent and seen as a comedic wrestler. That said, he does play spoiler from time to time and could likely find a clever way to do just that in this year’s tournament.
This eight-year New Japan veteran has most often found himself in a supporting role to his more popular friends and stable mates from the New Japan group CHAOS. Recently, this has given YOSHI-HASHI chance to assist Kazuchika Okada in his battles against Naito’s Los Ingobernables.
If you are a fan of WWE act, The New Day, then you may have heard the name Kenny Omega and thought, “Oh that’s the guy who plays video games with Xavier Woods.” I envy your naiveté’. Omega is the premiere (some might say elite) villain in professional wrestling today and as the leader of The Elite, an extension of The Bullet Club he created with The Young Bucks, he has been one the most high profile and dominate wrestlers in New Japan over the past year. He is a self-styled 80s action-movie super bad guy and self-proclaimed god. His promo and characterization ability is surpassed only by his ability in the ring. He is a former one-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion, two-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, one-time Junior Heavyweight Tag Champion, two-time NEVER Open Weight Six Man Tag Champion, one-time PWG World Champion, and 2009 Battle of Los Angeles winner. Personally, Omega is my pick to win the tournament this year and go on to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
While The Bullet Club is the number one heel group in New Japan, Naito’s Los Ingobernables de Japon has certainly made a name for itself this year. An extension of a stable from Mexican promotion CMLL, of which Naito was made a member during his 2015 tour throughout North America, Los Ingobernables de Japon has propelled Naito to his most successful period in New Japan over this past year by winning the New Japan Cup and capturing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Okada at Invasion Attack. Next to Omega and Elgin, Naito is the most likely winner to emerge from BLOCK B.
Formerly known as Takaaki Watanabe, this 29 year-old wrestler was rechristened as EVIL when he joined Naito’s Los Ingobernables de Japon stable earlier in the year. He also wrestles for Ring of Honor.
At 28, one could hardly be considered a veteran until you consider that Nakajima started wrestling at 14 putting his years of ring experience at just under a decade and a half. He is signed to the NOAH promotion where he is known by the nickname of Supernova and for having notable performances against legends such as Tatsumi Fujinami, Jushin Thunder Liger, and Kenta Kobashi.
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