Ah, the height of summer! The kids and young adults are out of school, finding clothing in dark colors is nearly impossible, and spontaneous human combustion becomes a legitimate concern for many of us. For wrestling fans worldwide, the heat outside is matched by the heat of enthusiasm for the ultimate in pro wrestling tournaments, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Climax.
For our new-to-NJPW friends, who are still recovering from the Best of the Super Juniors tournament and the Dominion show, brace yourselves. It’s going to be a long ride, but you can do this. We believe in you! The G1 is just over four weeks of the most grueling, exhausting, amazing wrestling that one could hope to see. It’s the same concept as Best of the Super Juniors, but for the heavyweights. Junior heavyweights are not allowed to compete in the G1. I know, I know. I’d love to see El Desperado slap the stretch muffler on Bad Luck Fale too. However, this year’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament put the G1 on notice in a major way, and it’s up to the heavyweights now to step up and not be completely outclassed by what the junior heavyweights delivered. That will not be easy.
Established under the current name and format in 1991, the G1 Climax tournament consists of two blocks (A and B), and a round-robin format. Just like in BOSJ, each wrestler fights every other wrestler in his block, with the two block winners meeting in the finals. Each victory earns the wrestler two points, a draw earns one point, and a loss earns no points. Ties are broken based on who won the match(es) between the wrestlers in question. The winner earns a briefcase with a contract for an IWGP Heavyweight title match, which has taken place specifically at January 4th’s Wrestle Kingdom show since 2012. Unlike WWE’s Money in the Bank briefcase, the G1 briefcase has never changed hands between the end of G1 and Wrestle Kingdom, despite the holder having to defend it during that period. Should the current champion win the G1, he chooses his own opponent. Wins and losses matter here more than almost anywhere else, as a victory over any champion during the tournament results in a title challenge for the victor. G1 is often the place where rising stars defeat established talent, and progress in their careers, so upset victories are more common than at other shows. That part is fairly straightforward. Don’t fear the numerous and varied spreadsheets and other documents that will soon start appearing everywhere, incorporating graduate-level statistics analysis in order to predict the winner. It’s ok, you don’t have to do that unless you want to.
Now, where were we? Ok.
The most prominent name associated with the G1 is Masahiro Chono, who has won an unbelievable FIVE G1 tournaments (1991, 1992, 1994, 2002, 2005). That’s a record that nobody’s breaking (sorry-not-sorry, Okada). Hiroyoshi Tenzan has won three (2003, 2004, 2006), and Kazuchika Okada (2012, 2014), Hiroshi Tanahashi (2007, 2015), and Tetsuya Naito (2013, 2017) have each won two. This will matter later in the article. Chono and Tenzan have each won back-to-back G1 tournaments, in 1991-92 and 2003-4, respectively. Nobody in the current era has been able to accomplish that. Yet.
Now that we’re all clear on the past, let’s look to the present. Participants and blocks for the G1 28 tournament were recently announced, so it’s time to take a brief look at each competitor and consider his chances of winning. As with all opinion-based articles, your mileage may vary.
The Ace (he will always be the Ace, don’t @ me) has participated in more G1 tournaments than anyone else in this year’s field, with G1 28 making it a whopping SEVENTEEN tournaments under his stylish belt. The last few years have seen him slide down the card from the top spot, and while the main event days of Tanahashi may be over, he’s not going to relinquish the glory easily. Expectations are not high, given injuries, age, and general breakdown over time, but he may surprise us. Hopefully the pattern of “lose the first three matches and make a comeback” will break this year, and he’ll actually start off strong. Look for one or two unexpected losses to up-and-comers of note, possibly to Jay White, EVIL, or Hangman Page. Don’t expect him to make the finals, let alone win the tournament, but there should be a few main events that end with some air guitar.
Nobody believes that Makabe is winning this year’s tournament, but it will be his fifteenth G1, and he’s definitely in place to act as a spoiler for the others. The Unchained Gorilla has his moments, but the idea that he has earned a spot over Taichi, David Finlay, and Yujiro Takahashi after some of the matches that the latter have had this year is questionable. Makabe is a fun brawler, and will probably have a few watchable to enjoyable matches, but don’t expect your wrestling friend to message you and say, “OMG, you have got to see this Makabe match!!!” If that happens, then you need better friends.
Big Mike has been off of the NJPW radar for much of this year, with some fans wondering what exactly he’s done to be admitted into his fourth (yes, fourth, one more than Omega) G1 tournament. It’s certainly a fair question, given that his recent victory in the NEVER Openweight championship three-way match is his only accomplishment of note this year. The now-former champ (that was fast) pinned Taichi to win that match, and not previous-and-new champion Hirooki Goto, which may explain why the newly-heavyweight Taichi was left out of this year’s G1, much to the chagrin of his throngs of adoring fans (that is not sarcasm, people love heavyweight Taichi). In any case, look for Big Mike to score some notable victories, and play spoiler for some people, but nobody believes for a second that he’s winning this thing.
For the first time in two years, Okada is not entering the G1 as World Heavyweight champion. That this feels odd to anyone is evidence that it was a necessary change. For a significant number of fans, Okada’s time out of the spotlight is thought to be limited. He’ll win the G1, his seventh tournament, and face Omega in the main event at Wrestle Kingdom. Frankly, that’s one of the worst possible outcomes. At this point, Okada’s failures are much more intriguing than his successes. As if we really need reminding, he’s only thirty years old. He’s in much better physical condition in terms of injury than most of his peers. He has plenty of time to be out of the main event scene, and struggle with who and what he is without the title. Yes, we’ve seen him in this situation before, when he lost the title to AJ Styles in May of 2014, won the 2014 G1 Climax, and lost to then-champ Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom. We saw him break, and we saw him win the title back six months after that. The situation is completely different now, and Okada is a very different person. It’s not in his best interest to win this year’s G1, not in the context of the bigger picture. What happens with CHAOS as a stable, for example, when their only real purpose in existing is as underlings to the champ, and he no longer is? How will the other members respond to him now that he’s not the top guy? How does he handle fan reactions, when he has never been as beloved as Tanahashi or as popular as Naito, and was cheered by some fans purely because he was the World Heavyweight champion? Let him fall further, and have to climb higher to return to what he views as his rightful place. Winning next year’s G1 would probably be good for Okada. This year’s G1 should be for someone else.
“Switchblade” Jay White
Oh, this is interesting! G1 debuts are usually fun, and “Switchblade” Jay White’s will be no exception. Most people debuting in the G1 aren’t carrying a title belt at the time. Everyone isn’t sold on him, but the pieces of his persona have gradually fallen into place, and he’s really starting to click as he has grown more comfortable. His character work is fantastic, and his ring work isn’t exactly terrible. These things take time, people! Keep in mind that White defeated the current IWGP Heavyweight champion to win the US title that White currently holds, so simply knowing that he has already beaten Omega and taken his title once before will prove a major motivation. Why couldn’t he do it again? It may be too soon to consider Jay White as a G1 winner, but don’t be shocked if he makes it to the semi-finals. The schismatic criminal mastermind has plans, and his G1 matches will be steps down that road. Think back to his initial joining of CHAOS, and his immediate questioning of why stablemates didn’t challenge each other for titles, or fight each other. Okada blew it off, commenting that they do that in the G1, and he just beats everyone anyway. “Switchblade” is getting his wish, with not one, but TWO stablemates in his block. Jay White beating both YOSHI-HASHI and a lost, title-less, forlorn Okada would be fantastic, if only for the potential repercussions for CHAOS.
The YOSHI-HASHI defense brigade is out in full force on social media, and while one can’t knock the Headhunter for trying, he has not had an impressive year. The view that he hasn’t earned his spot in this year’s G1 (his third) stems largely from the fact that NJPW’s talent pool is deep, and with limited spots in the tournament, he shouldn’t have one just because he tries his best, or has one singles match that isn’t awful every three months. While not a literal assessment of YOSHI-HASHI, the point is valid. The idea that he scored a number of victories in tag team matches during the BOSJ tour (he is not a junior, FYI) in order to justify his inclusion in the G1 did not sit well with some fans, as it seemed last-minute and haphazard. Did he really have a better year than some of the guys who didn’t make the cut, or some of the surprise non-NJPW entrants that could have been chosen? The point is debatable. Back in his first G1, the fan sentiment of “YOSHI-HASHI is people!” was powerful, and people WANTED to see him win. He did beat Kenny Omega cleanly, but even the biggest YOSHI-HASHI fan can’t claim satisfaction with how the whole story of his evolution into more than a CHAOS team mascot just faded into nothing. Whether you personally like it or not, he’s in the tournament, and he has to make it count. He can’t just be a guy who shows up. Whether it’s a new look or persona, new moves, or simply more effective application of the moves that he already has, YOSHI-HASHI needs a change desperately, and he must step up his game. No one ever mentions him in finals contention (he’s not winning), but he pretty much has to justify his inclusion at all this year, and have the best tournament of his career. Charity cases don’t belong in the G1.
“Bad Luck” Fale
NJPW’s favorite big man will return to action in the G1 a little less big. Fale has dropped some weight, and a leaner, meaner Fale is bad news for everyone else. Fale’s fifth G1 Climax could potentially be his best. We haven’t seen him in a while, and action is a-brewing in Bullet Club. Interesting to note that the Tongan faction of Bullet Club has two members participating in the G1, and Cody’s side has one. Fale also has Cody’s right-hand man, Hangman Page, in his block, so we’ll see a Bullet Club OG versus Bullet Club Team Cody match, which could prove significant over the next several months. Neither of the Golden Lovers count in this Bullet Club equation, by the way. Fale has always been a tournament guy, the monster who shows up to remind everyone that he can beat anyone at any time, in both the New Japan Cup and the G1. He usually defeats some of the big names, and earns title shots along the way, and that will probably happen again. “Daryl Murderer” Fale has every chance of making the semi-finals, and while the finals seem a bit of a stretch for him this year, it wouldn’t totally shock if he made it that far before losing. More interesting than the matches themselves is the Tongan crew’s role in the faction warfare. They’ve been unusually quiet for a while now.
The other G1 debutante this year, Hangman Page has always had his fans, but as Cody’s right-hand man, Page has made it very clear that he isn’t just the latest blonde guy in Bullet Club. His US title match against “Switchblade” Jay White was particularly good, and he’s not at all out of contention as a future champ, should he choose to pursue that route. Page isn’t winning the tournament, but in his official NJPW coming-out party, he’s in a great position to steal some unexpected wins. Most competitors lack his high-flying skills, so he’ll prove a challenge to his opponents in a variety of ways. The Hangman has opened a lot of eyes, and he’s a sleeper this year for some of the top matches of the tournament. His match against Fale pits him against his Bullet Club OG counterpart, as Page is sort of Cody’s “Underboss,” and a rematch against “Switchblade” Jay White will probably be very good. Page versus EVIL and Page versus Suzuki are also quite intriguing. Welcome to the party, Hangman Page!
EVIL’s previous G1 was his break-out time. He had several outstanding matches, and people talked about him as a new force to be reckoned with. This year marks his third G1, and while he seems to be targeting Chris Jericho to avenge his stablemate’s loss, he can certainly wreak havoc throughout the tournament. EVIL is more consistent in his match quality than his tag team partner SANADA, if less spectacular, and has evolved into a great brawler/enforcer type. He has taken a laughably awkward character concept and settled into it comfortably, never hesitating to chew the proverbial scenery and wash it down with a glass of fine wine. EVIL could easily make the semi-finals, or even the finals. He’s not winning this year, though one gets the sense that his time is not far off. He’s had good brawls with Suzuki before, he’s beaten Okada before, and his match against “Switchblade” Jay White is interesting based on character reasons alone. This is a good block for the King of Darkness.
Young Lions beware! Everybody’s favorite Murder Grandpa just turned fifty, and he’s not about to slow down now. This G1 tournament will be his eighth, and Suzuki is one of those oddly fortunate wrestlers who can lose matches, win and lose titles, and pretty much do whatever he wants, and still have fans believe that he could beat anyone at any time. He’ll probably be hit or miss throughout the tournament, with matches at the very good and very bad ends of the spectrum, and little middle ground. If Suzuki limits his outside the ring nonsense, he’s really fun to watch. Minoru Suzuki limiting anything is, however, an uncertainty. He could possibly reach the semi-finals, but anything past that is highly unlikely. Suzuki against meat shields Elgin and Fale will be the sort of hoss fest that some people love, he and EVIL usually do well together, and Suzuki versus “Switchblade” is just weird enough to be compelling.
Few wrestlers have improved over the past year as much as Juice Robinson, and many people said that exact thing about him last year at this time. The Flamboyant One has had impressive matches this year, most recently hitting US champion “Switchblade” Jay White with the Pulp Friction, and pinning him in a tag team match. That victory earned him a title match at the G1 special in San Francisco, and the possibility that Juice could be a champion when the G1 starts is real. Juice is seriously beloved, and his popularity could lead to his finishing fairly high up in this year’s G1 rankings. No, he’s not winning. Not yet. The coming year will see Juice Robinson as some form of singles champion, though. He’ll have some good to very good matches, and pick up some important, possibly unexpected, wins. The third time’s the charm for the NEVER title, perhaps? Juice is in a block with Goto, so why not? He’ll have good matches with most of the block, for different reasons. Juice versus Tama Tonga promises to be a profanity-laden, sexual innuendo-filled good time, and his match against Yano could be funnier than what most people have with the Sublime Master Thief.
This year marks Hirooki Goto’s eleventh G1 Climax tournament, and we’ve all read this script before. As is frequently said about Goto, he’s so frustrating because he’s a very good wrestler, with an absolutely brutal offense and a very bad (if somewhat harsh) reputation as a big match choker. This is mentioned every year because it is still true every year, although how strong that feeling is in Japan as opposed to the United States is worth exploring. Yes, Goto technically made the finals against Kenny Omega two years ago, but few consider that status earned because of how it played out. For those not watching NJPW then, Tanahashi versus Okada went to a 30-minute draw, and Goto won the block because of math, meeting Omega in the finals. Almost no one thought that Goto would defeat Omega and go on to headline Wrestle Kingdom, and that’s the biggest problem. Belief. Goto has actually won a G1 tournament, back in 2008. His current run as the NEVER Openweight champion may not have set the world on fire, but he’s hardly been a failure. In any case, against the right opponent, Goto can have very good matches. Otherwise, they aren’t so much bad as they are missing something. Don’t expect to see him make it past the semi-finals this year, but if he hangs on to the NEVER title, he’ll definitely pick up some challengers through the course of this tournament.
In his sixth G1 Climax, Ishii will likely do what he usually does. He will have very good to excellent matches, get fans talking about how underrated he is and how wrong it is that he hasn’t won a G1 or had a World Heavyweight title reign, and then fail to make the finals. Lather, rinse, repeat. That’s not a slap against Ishii. Nobody should slap Ishii. It’s very bad for you. It’s an acknowledgement that Ishii’s highest achievements seem to happen in other promotions, like ROH and Rev Pro. Ishii is a workhorse, and he shines in the killer environment of the G1. While his year outside of NJPW has been impressive, within the company, he’s had a fairly quiet time. Beating the daylights out of Henare has occupied much of his time, and he now seems heading toward a feud with Minoru Suzuki. Ishii facing his regular tag team partner Yano in this block is more interesting than it really should be. Ishii versus Goto will be brutal, and as hardcore as it gets. Ishii versus Ibushi…we’re just going to have to see that one. Ishii may make the semi-finals, but nothing beyond that. He’ll keep on keeping on, and earn a title match here or there, and life will continue.
Yano’s thirteenth G1 will be the same as his previous twelve. Yano has Yano matches, sneaks wins over your favorites with ball shots and shenanigans, and infuriates some while amusing others. We all know his role, and we all know how this works. Move along, nothing to see here.
The current IWGP Heavyweight champion is in the odd position of both being a favorite to win the G1 tournament and choose his own opponent for Wrestle Kingdom, and of not being believed to do so. Early social media chatter centers around Okada and Ibushi as top candidates to win G1 and face Omega, but Ibushi is in Omega’s block, and would have to win the block for that to happen. We’re getting Omega versus Ibushi in the block anyway, so the idea that they would meet for the first time since reuniting at Wrestle Kingdom is dead. Omega is the only wrestler who doesn’t have to concern himself with actually winning the G1, and that’s why he probably won’t. Making the semi-finals of his third G1 tournament is certainly likely, and even the finals are a strong possibility, but no further. He’ll have some of the best matches of the tournament, but in the end, he’ll have a few new title contenders to tide him over for the next six months before facing the tournament winner at Wrestle Kingdom.
The big questions coming out of Kota Ibushi participating in his fourth G1 Climax tournament were “Hey! Ibushi has to win the G1 and face Omega at Wrestle Kingdom, but the final shows are at the Budokan, and isn’t he still banned for life from there for moonsaulting off of things? Even if he says that he won’t, can anyone really stop him from doing it again? How will that even work?” While fair questions, Ibushi winning the G1 and facing Omega at Wrestle Kingdom would be a mistake this year. The Golden Lovers reunion was huge, and the fan reaction to it was proportional. An Omega versus Ibushi title match feels like the end of that story, for several reasons, and just doesn’t feel like it should be happening yet. Ibushi isn’t exactly a prime candidate for IWGP World Heavyweight champion, as he’s always going to do his own thing, and march to the beat of his own accordion. So many stories take four and five years to play out in NJPW that something as important as the Golden Lovers reunion and eventual break-up has to be worth at least another year to develop. Ibushi will certainly have some outstanding tournament matches, and he could make the finals easily. His winning the tournament this year just feels rushed, and doesn’t seem as likely as popular opinion would dictate.
Tama Tonga has been a hit-or-miss guy, both in the ring and on the mic. Guerillas of Destiny were viewed as groaningly bad for quite a while, and then they suddenly became ok for a while. Tama has had surprisingly good G1 matches, and some that made you wonder who he threatened in order to get in the tournament that year. His stealth recruitment of Taiji Ishimori as Bullet Club’s new Bone Soldier has been his most important contribution as of late, and if you didn’t laugh when he shouted in frustration at Will Ospreay, “Turn around, you hoe-ass monkey,” then you simply have no soul. That was the promo of the year, right there. His quasi-pornographic introduction of Ishimori has to be in the running, though, as one of those “so cringe that it’s great” moments. Meanwhile, back in Story A, Tama’s third G1 tournament is much like Fale’s in that he’s been gone for a while, and we need to see why we might have missed him. The super cool, smooth, and reckless Tama Tonga would be a great thing to have. The sloppy, boring Tama Tonga, less so. Popular opinion has Tama becoming the new leader of OG Bullet Club after ousting Cody’s faction and breaking them up, so if there has ever been a time to demonstrate that leadership potential, it’s now. Oh, he’s not winning the tournament, and he probably won’t make the semi-finals. He does, however, have every reason to score some unexpected victories and remind people of how much of a threat he can be.
Last year’s G1 Climax winner, Tetsuya Naito, has not had the 2018 that he and his fans wanted. In the mad rush to proclaim Okada and Ibushi as the only possible tournament winners this year, Naito has so far been completely overlooked. Having lost the Intercontinental title to Chris Jericho at Dominion, Naito’s ninth G1 isn’t looking any more promising. Or is it? Think back to the first part of this article, where the history and big names of the tournament were mentioned. The part that said “This will matter later in the article.” Later is now. Last year, when Naito won the G1, Masahiro “Mr. G1” Chono entered the ring and did the LIJ fist bump with him. This was viewed by some (of considerable wrestling knowledge) as a “passing of the torch” moment, an acknowledgement that Naito was the Chono of his generation. Given that, if Naito wins this year’s G1, he will hold the record among the current generation of wrestlers for G1 victories (3), and achieve back-to-back tournament wins, which neither Okada nor Tanahashi could do. That could be the one record that Okada can’t break, and he has to watch those around him, whom he considered inferior, succeed as he continues to fail. In addition, Naito and Omega each hold a win over the other in G1 competition. Omega beat Naito to win their block in 2016, and Naito beat Omega in the tournament finals of 2017. Their block match this year will be the rubber match, and as we saw with Okada versus Omega IV, a series of matches doesn’t always stop at three. Naito could still win the block with a loss to Omega. A Wrestle Kingdom match between them, in the main event of the biggest show, for the most important title, particularly in light of the recent war of words concerning Japanese versus Western wrestlers, could be THE story of the year. Add to that the recent hints of Kota Ibushi being ungovernable, and you have four compelling stories, all tied together. Hey, it’s a thought.
Like EVIL, SANADA will participate in his third G1 this year. Unlike EVIL, SANADA has yet to have his break-out performance that wows everybody and lives up to the potential that we all know that he possesses. The guy has “future Ace” written all over him, from his look (sorry, sweetie, that blonde Abraham Lincoln beard has GOT to go) to his ridiculous athleticism to his smoothness in the ring. He has all of the pieces, but they haven’t quite come together. His highs may be higher than EVIL’s, but his lows are also lower. He has a New Japan Cup loss to Zack Sabre Jr. to avenge, and a match against his faction leader in Naito. We saw EVIL versus Naito in a previous G1, and now, it’s SANADA’s turn. SANADA versus Omega could be a thing of beauty, as could SANADA versus Ibushi. If Cold Skull can finally put together the tournament of his career, and make everything click, then he could also make the semi-finals at least, and possibly the finals. He could be a dark horse to win the whole thing. If he doesn’t get it together, and has the same G1 as he’s had for the past two years, then none of that will be true, and he’ll continue to wallow in what might have been.
Zack Sabre Jr.
He could do it. Though it’s highly unlikely, Zack Sabre Jr. could really do it, and win the G1. After his outstanding performance in the New Japan Cup, winning in a clean sweep by tapping out such luminaries (and “hunks,” as he himself says) as Naito, Ibushi, SANADA, and Tanahashi, ZSJ absolutely brought it to Okada, and could have believably beaten him. This will be his second G1, and even though he lacks the element of surprise that he had in his first tournament, his style is such that preparing for him is a Herculean effort. He could absolutely win, and his making the finals would not at all be surprising. He probably won’t win the whole tournament, though, based purely on the fact that, if Omega retains his title until Wrestle Kingdom (and one assumes that he will), it would be too much of a risk to have two gaijin in the main event World Heavyweight title match at the Tokyo Dome. That’s just not happening. Three of the four opponents who lost to him earlier this year in the New Japan Cup (Naito, SANADA, Ibushi) will look to avenge those losses, and some may succeed. He’ll have some very impressive matches, and will defeat some big names, but this is not going to be his year to win.
There you have it. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below. Keep it civil, we’re all friends here.
Come back and visit us right here for more G1 coverage, match recommendations, and discussions of fantasy booking over the course of the tournament. Pick up some snacks and drinks, too. You’re going to need them.