Written by: Drones
2017 has been a year of upheaval for New Japan Pro Wrestling, starting with Wrestle Kingdom 11 capturing the eye of the greater wrestling world and on the business side, their overall ticket sales increasing over previous years and with most cards selling faster despite overall increased prices. It’s only appropriate then, that this year’s G1 Climax tournament somehow delivered and then some on extremely lofty expectations. Perhaps more than ever, large numbers of Western fans of NJPW deprived themselves of sleep to watch the G1 Climax live from across entire oceans. The past month has delivered us some of the best wrestling matches we’ve seen in years night after night, with different stars shining at different times but with each night providing elite professional wrestling and at times, moments of moving emotion.
One of the hallmarks of G1 season is upsets and the coronation of new stars, and this year was no exception. Juice Robinson and EVIL scored big wins over Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada respectively, likely earning Juice a title shot for Kenny’s US championship and EVIL a title shot at Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight title sometime between now and Wrestle Kingdom. Juice’s underdog fire is something to behold – he is a natural babyface and is easy to root for, all the way down to his origin in New Japan. In 2015, Juice took a huge risk and went to New Japan’s dojo as a Young Lion effectively hitting the reset button on his career. Fast forward two years later and Juice has a pinfall win over perhaps the most popular non-WWE wrestler in the world. Not bad for a former NXT enhancement talent who was spinning his wheels in Orlando. EVIL and Juice shined brightly this tournament, but the young up-and-comers weren’t the only ones to do so.
After eighteen entries and one tournament win in 2001, the 27th G1 Climax was Yuji Nagata’s final entry. At age 49, Nagata still managed to put on an excellent performance throughout the tourney, turning out stellar matches with current names such as Kota Ibushi, Tomohiro Ishii, and Tetsuya Naito. The crowds throughout Japan were firmly behind Nagata, giving him a hero’s welcome in each of his nine singles matches. One of the most emotional moments of the tournament came in Yuji’s final G1 match on August 11th in historic Ryogoku Sumo Hall, where Yuji Nagata faced his protege Bad Luck Fale. Fale pinned Nagata after the Bad Luck Fall, and in a rare character-breaking moment, saluted his mentor and bowed respectfully before leaving the ring. Afterwards Nagata tried his best to remain stoic, but the ten-thousand fans in attendance screaming his name and holding signs with his name on them brought him to weep softly as he said his final goodbye to the most prestigious professional wrestling tournament around.
To the surprise of no one who’s been following his 2017 all-time great run of IWGP Heavyweight Championship defenses, Kazuchika Okada predictably had one of the strongest tournament showings of anyone. Except maybe for his match with Toru Yano (which was still better than almost any B Block participant’s Yano match) Okada was consistently able to put out the best or second best match on each night that he had a singles competition. With what is perhaps fatigue setting in among fans given his dominant run, Okada was soundly booed numerous nights throughout the tourney by fans rooting for an upset. Some nights, particularly versus Satoshi Kojima and Michael Elgin, Okada responded by playing up his arrogant Heel antics in a bit of a throwback to his 2012 and 2013 debut on New Japan’s main roster. If nothing else, Okada taunting and belittling his opponents in response to being booed is a testament to his versatility as a performer.
Okada’s first title defense where he was outright booed was in April at Sakura Genesis, where he faced Katsuyori Shibata. Shibata and Okada put on a Match of the Year candidate that ended in tragedy after Shibata suffered a subdural hematoma (doctor-speak for bleeding on your brain) that took him out of action for the foreseeable future. Said to be unlikely to lead a healthy life much less wrestle again, perhaps the most emotional moment of the tournament was Shibata’s surprise return during Intermission of the G1 Climax Final when the signature arpeggios of his music unexpectedly hit. There was hardly a dry eye in the house as many of the women and men in attendance and even Liger got misty-eyed as Shibata walked to the ring. Even the normally poker-faced Shibata smiled and was holding back tears as he said ‘I’m alive! That is all!’ In this writer’s humble opinion, moments of intense emotion like this one are sorely missing from western wrestling right now.
As if the Shibata return hadn’t brought the crowd up to enough of an emotional high, the main event of the Gi Climax 27 Final was positively electric. The sold-out crowd of over 10,000 people packed into the Ryogoku Sumo Hall started the match out as loud as can be, packed to the brim with Los Ingobernables de Japon and Bullet Club gear. For thirty-six minutes, Naito and Kenny Omega went to war with each other with spot after dangerous spot including a piledriver from off the announcer’s table onto the floor. For the first time in years, Naito attempted his former finisher the Stardust Press as a callback to his last G1 Climax win in 2013 when he pinned Tanahashi with the move. Kenny never hit his devastating One-Winged Angel, and his dreams of being the back to back G1 Climax winner were dashed as Naito pinned him with a Destino. As he was presented with the trophy, Naito fist bumped
The 27th G1 Climax is easily one of the best professional wrestling tournaments we’ve ever witnessed, and it couldn’t have come at a better time given New Japan’s attempt at expanding their international reach. Somewhere, the pro-wrestling stars of tomorrow are watching these matches online and will be able to say that they were influenced by watching these matches as they happened.