The 31st annual G1 Climax begins this weekend and will run over the course of the next month culminating with two nights at Budokan Hall as New Japan attempts to salvage a trying year.
The pandemic has caused chaos for every promotion but NJPW has taken a dramatic hit from the loss of certain foreign talents for this year’s tournament, a battle for fan engagement with the rising tide of All Elite Wrestling, and a product that has missed the mark on several fronts with stories, angles, and pushed talent.
The company has forged through the pandemic while booking huge venues that have hurt its presentation from the cavernous environments and lack of fan engagement due to the COVID protocols instituted.
The combination of factors has put this year’s G1 to the test of whether the history and lineage of the tournament are enough to sustain a down period for the company. Online optimism of surprise entrants in the G1 or utilizing a junior heavyweight such as Hiromu Takahashi were not options New Japan opted to play, going with a pat hand in a year where Will Ospreay, Jay White, and Minoru Suzuki are among those not returning for the G1.
Since 1991, the G1 has established itself as the top tournament of the year that has grown into the epicenter of the best professional wrestling each calendar year. In 2013, it became more widely distributed when NJPW hooked up with third-party streaming entity Ustream where fans could drop a whopping $150 for every show ($110 for the “early birds”) and long-time followers of the product willingly did.
In the New Japan World era, it’s a much more economically friendly model with a little over $9 U.S. per month as the get-in price for the tournament.
For those new to the concept, 20 wrestlers will occupy two blocks over the next month with a round-robin style with each performer having nine matches. Wins are worth two points, a draw earns you one, and a loss is zero. In the event of a tiebreaker (it gets complicated) but it’s based on previous head-to-head matches that are often reminiscent of tour twelfth-grade calculus class with the end result, usually, is much more digestible.
The blocks will consist of the following
BLOCK A: Shingo Takagi (IWGP World Heavyweight Champion), Kota Ibushi, Tomohiro Ishii, Tetsuya Naito, Zack Sabre Jr., KENTA, Toru Yano, Tanga Loa, Yujiro & Great O-Khan
BLOCK B: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, SANADA, Jeff Cobb, Chase Owens, Tama Tonga, Taichi, Hirooki Goto, EVIL, and YOSHI-HASHI
We have assembled a media panel to discuss the upcoming G1 Climax and the overall state of NJPW going into their biggest season of the year and the different factors at play for the 2021 version.
What was your reaction to the block announcements and some of the match pairings that this year’s G1 will produce?
Rich Kraetsch: In a vacuum, this is a disappointing lineup but with the understanding that overseas talent and even some of their regular North American/Europe-based roster remembers are unable to compete. Ultimately, you have to judge NJPW in 2021 on the COVID-19 curve. I think given the situation they are currently in, the lineup is fine and there are several matches I am still very much looking forward to with Shingo Takagi vs. Tomohiro Ishii, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada, Kota Ibushi vs. Tomohiro Ishii, Shingo Takagi vs. Tetsuya Naito and Kazuchika Okada vs. Hirooki Goto probably topping that list.
Alan 4L: I was extremely disheartened when I saw the lineups for the G1 this year. I was willing to try to muster up some excitement for the tournament, despite the fact that I’ve not been into the NJPW product at all since the spring. However, I needed something, anything, from them to give me to latch on to. Whether it was a new format for the tournament, some outside names, or the inclusion of juniors – I needed something that provided a wrinkle to proceedings, and they gave me nothing. There are of course reasons that they would point to for why each of these things couldn’t happen but I believe those are excuses. If there’s a will, there’s a way, and NJPW routinely shows very little will to do anything outside of their tried and trusted methods unless they are absolutely forced to.
Benno: Bitter disappointment. Whilst the A-Block is a good summarisation of the state of current New Japan, with multiple genuinely great wrestlers in a block that suffers mainly from creative staleness and the repetitive nature of the available matches, nothing prepared me for the absolute state of that B Block. Short of a small number of combinations (mainly involving Tanahashi and Okada), there isn’t a day in that block that doesn’t have 3 to 4 skippable matches, with some days looking outright skippable as a whole. Nobody asked for Tama Tonga vs. Chase Owens, but we’re getting it. When Jeff Cobb – as solid as he’s been, is the third most interesting wrestler in a block, there’s a problem.
How would you assess your current interest in New Japan and the promotion’s overall state as it navigates the pandemic?
Kraetsch: It is without a doubt the lowest it’s been since I regularly began following and covering New Japan Pro Wrestling. It’s being reflected not only in my personal interest level but also in traffic and engagement with NJPW-related items on our website. This year we’ve also made the tough decision to forgo hosting a G1 Climax pick’em contest—something we’ve done for eight years—as well as our annual NJPW Yearbook—again a multi-year project—just because of the lack of overall interest and web traffic in addition to our own personal thoughts on the company.
Do I think NJPW has a chance to be REALLY good when the pandemic finally subsides…I do but right now I find their shows an absolute slog to get through and find myself skipping more matches and shows than ever before.
Alan 4L: My interest has never been this low with NJPW, and I first started following the product regularly in 2006. The pandemic has hit them hard no doubt, but other promotions have been able to navigate these tough times in a much more positive fashion. Look no further than their sister promotion Stardom who has grown their business tremendously well in the last year. Or as another example, Dragon Gate – a promotion in the same country, operating with the same restrictions who have managed to get a plethora of new young talent over in top spots on the card. New Japan has major problems creatively which I think have been magnified by the pandemic.
Benno: The lowest it’s been in modern history. There’s no way to dress it up. The days of New Japan being applauded, rightly, for their initial handling of the pandemic seem a long time ago now. Their creative slump outdates the pandemic, but the dead clap crowds and worse, excessive scheduling to make up for losses during the pandemic, have accelerated the decline. This is a stone-cold product, with a clearly exhausted creative regime being exposed further, with 40-minute main events becoming the norm and a cast of characters like EVIL and SANADA being asked to step into roles in the company they are not equipped to carry. It’s a perfect storm of all of the worst aspects of modern New Japan, with no end in sight.
Do you view the loss of certain foreigners as a major detriment to this year’s tournament, or is the current mix of talent and G1 branding enough to sustain popularity?
Kraetsch: Like pizza, even a mediocre G1 Climax is still a G1 Climax, so I’m not super worried. I think having your Jay Whites and Will Ospreays would of course help the tournament tremendously, but I think there’s enough meat with their domestic talent to make for some fun matches and moments throughout the tournament.
Alan 4L: Foreigners would have helped, but only if they were fresh faces. To me, the likes of Jay White (who I’m a big fan of), Juice Robinson, and David Finlay feel incredibly stale. Will Ospreay’s heel character is a massive turn-off and honestly, his presence would have only soured me on the G1 more. Now if they have Chris Dickinson, Tom Lawlor, and maybe some AEW talent – then yes, I’m sure that would have made a big difference in excitement levels.
Benno: Absolutely not. There are issues this year beyond the control of New Japan and the loss of foreign talent is one, but the lack of a plan B, and the obstinance that has led to running a G1 in this environment without working with other domestic companies and no use of Hiromu (Takahashi) or other Juniors to liven up the blocks, is unforgivable. Usage of the New Japan US dojo even would have been preferable, with a large contingent of wrestlers surely being available to provide some form of international B Block. That would have involved some form of out-of-box thinking though, and that seems a bridge too far for this company in 2021.
It is still the G1 Climax, so it does have the brand equity that means it will be unavoidable I will be watching some of the tournament for my podcasts and picking and choosing, but I certainly won’t be doing the comprehensive coverage I normally would.
With the G1 taking place in the fall for the second year in a row, do you have a preference for a summer or fall version of the tournament?
Kraetsch: While I initially thought I would enjoy the fall format of the G1 Climax, given that it takes place during a less busy time in my personal life, I have to admit: I do miss the summer format. There’s something about this mega tournament taking place in the sweltering heat that just works for me. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, maybe it’s just because that’s what I grew up on, but the fall format just doesn’t seem to get the juices flowing for me. I would like to see at least one more attempt at a fall G1 done with real non-clap crowds to officially make my assessment though.
Alan 4L: It’s hard to say because the fall G1’s have also been the COVID G1’s. They would have felt weird regardless. As a fan of history, I’m naturally inclined to prefer July/August as those are G1 months to me.
Benno: Summer would ordinarily have been my preference, but If this tournament took place in the Summer I’d have skipped the whole thing on principle.
Provide us your forecast of the two-block winners and who do you see winning the G1 Climax?
Kraetsch: This is as wide-open a G1 Climax as we’ve had in a long time. Without the pressure to sell tons of tickets plus the three-night format, it feels like a very wide-open field. With that said, there’s still a prestige to winning the G1 Climax so I can’t see them going totally off the handle and having, say, Tonga Loa win the damn thing. In the A Block, I see either Tetsuya Naito or Shingo Takagi emerging victorious, leaning more towards Naito as it does feel like we are far enough removed from him in big-time matches and moments. On the B Block side, I think it’s a mortal lock that Kazuchika Okada wins it setting us up with an Okada vs. Naito G1 Climax final. In the end, I think we end up with Kazuchika Okada as your G1 Climax champion heading to Wrestle Kingdom to redeem himself against Shingo Takagi and attempt to get back to the top of the company.
Alan 4L: I feel very unqualified to predict but I’ll say Shingo Takagi becomes the first IWGP champ to win his block since Yuji Nagata in 2007, and he loses to Kazuchika Okada in the final.
Benno: Shingo wins the A Block to give us false hope. EVIL wins the B Block and the whole thing because why have any hope at all?
Thanks to Rich Kraetsch, Alan Counihan, and Richard Benson for contributing to the POST Media Roundtable. You can follow all of their work at the links above.
POST Wrestling will have coverage of the G1 Climax with daily reports from Mark Buckeldee and Bruce Lord as well as coverage of all the shows for members of the POST Wrestling Café beginning this Saturday. You can join our G1 Climax Contest now.