If you’ve visited the Reddit wrestling page or frequent other wrestling message boards, you may have noticed an opinion that New Japan’s booking had become predictable in recent years. Prior to the departure of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, NJPW critics would point to the repeated headline appearances of those two former greats—along with remaining mainstays Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi—to say that head booker Gedo had grown stagnant with his main event choices. The ascendance of former milquetoast baby-face Tetsuya Naito, as an evil villain, and his IWGP Heavyweight Championship victory over Okada earlier this year showed NJPW was not going to waste time pining for any former glory or stars.
Despite Naito’s victory and the popularity of his Los Ingobernables de Japon stable, he quickly dropped the title back to Okada within a few months signaling that perhaps NJPW wasn’t ready to put all its chips forward with a new main event star just yet. However, if the first night of G1 is any indication then all options are back on the table for NJPW going forward as viewers witnessed not one but two shocking upsets back to back. We’ll start with the less shocking of the two.
Ever since Okada’s first IWGP Heavyweight Championship, the NJPW company line has been that he is the heir to NJPW; its face and future. This year’s Wrestle Kingdom was supposed to have served as a coronation for Okada. Although he was pursuing his at-the-time third IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Okada had never defeated the vaunted Hiroshi Tanahashi at a Wrestle Kingdom prior to this year. The reign of NJPW’s supposed future was short-lived though as Okada soon suffered the aforementioned upset to Naito. In fact, it was Okada who even had to lay down in 2014 for incoming foreigner AJ Styles when the Phenomenal One made his NJPW debut and defeated Okada then in his second IWGP Heavyweight reign. The strangest part about this booking is that the guy calling the shots, the guy who regularly makes Okada lay down for up-and-comers, older guys, and even foreigners, is his best friend and ringside manager, Gedo.
Conventional wisdom held that this G1 would likely provide Okada with the definitive platform to establish his prominence as current IWGP Heavyweight Champion and top star status in NJPW. Instead Okada was made to lie down yet again and this time, it’s not even for a member of his own promotion. Pro-Wrestling NOAH (Japan’s number two promotion) wrestler Naomichi Marufuji has made his name outside of NJPW although he has appeared for short stints before. While he does have one reign as NJPW Junior Heavyweight Champion and a notable victory over then IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tanahashi at G1 22, Maraufuji was usually involved in tag team matches during his time in NJPW. This time, Marufuji was featured in the billed main event and for the most part dominated Okada throughout. The early parts of the match saw Marufuji focus his attacks on Okada’s arm and wrist; bending, stretching and beating it against the ring post and outer security railing. Okada mounted several attacks but all were thwarted by Marufuji’s blistering strikes and superior grappling attack.
If you have no reference for NJPW and have only watched WWE, think about it like this: WWE held a King of the Ring tournament featuring champion Randy Orton during his prime and invited TNA’s Jeff Hardy to have a match with him and booked Hardy to win in a dominating fashion. I still can’t believe it but not as much as I can’t believe the night’s other upset.
If Okada is Orton then Tanahashi is John Cena and like Cena the primary character trait of Tanahashi is his undying fighting spirit; his unconquerable will. I don’t profess to be a NJPW expert by any measure and will readily admit I’ve only been watching since Wrestle Kingdom 9. But since then I have done my best to educate and bring myself up to speed. But in Tanahashi’s current incarnation—as one of if not the top star of NJPW; as The High Flying Ace—I don’t think he has ever tapped out. Maybe in a non-televised match or perhaps earlier in his career but I still don’t think it happened even then. The fact that he not only lost but gave up to Los Ingobernables member 28-year-old SANADA is a possibly momentous shift in the story of Tanahashi.
I applaud Gedo and NJPW for having the courage to tell that story. Tanahashi just came back from a serious shoulder injury and SANADA is a vicious and capable performer with a brutal submission finisher (Dragon Sleeper with added Body Scissors he calls Skull End). When a younger, hungry, violent man traps an older, injured, weakened man in a submission move then that older man should submit. It’s natural and realistic to expect such a thing. SANADA was able to trap Tanahashi in the Skull End on two occasions and while the great NJPW hero had enough temerity to withstand and escape the first attempt he succumbed to the second.
A decision like this shows New Japan’s respect for the intelligence of its audience. In wrestling, heroes aren’t gods or indestructible super-humans. They are men and women of great bravery and skill but they are flesh and bone all the same. If life is a two out of three falls match then time always wins the third fall. While one loss on the opening night isn’t the end of Tanahashi’s career by any stretch it is an invaluable addition to his character. For the first time really, Tanahashi has been shown to be vulnerable and that will only make him more beloved and supported going forward.
As for the other three matches, Tenzan started his sympathetic march to the end of the tournament with a victory over Tomohiro Ishii in a style of match best described by comedian Tom Sibley as a “Beef Slam”. What is a “Beef Slam”? It’s when two bad ass dudes who don’t give a damn about anything, in particular, beat the hell out of each other for 15 minutes or so. That’s what happened with Ishii and Tenzan met in the center of the ring and the crowd was very pleased with the Tenzan win. Hiroki Goto defeated Bad Luck Fale in a typical contest of skill and speed versus size and strength wherein Goto out maneuvered Fale en route to a victory. Finally, Togi Makabe was dominant in his win over Tama Tonga who looked mostly bored and disinterested throughout the match except for occasional incidents of mindless yelling and twitching that I think was supposed to have been dancing.
Be sure to check back here on Friday, July 22nd at We Write Wrestling when I’ll have my post for Night Two of the G1 Climax26.
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