Previously on NJPW‘s G1 Climax 31: there was so much of the G1 Climax 31. There were 70 matches of the G1 Climax 31!
After nearly a month of competition, the 2021 tournament comes to a close this week with its final three shows: the A Block final, B Block final, and G1 final. While we already know B Block will come down to a battle between one undefeated and one almost-undefeated monster, four wrestlers – Kota Ibushi, Kenta, Zack Sabre Jr., and Shingo Takagi – were still alive at the beginning of A Block’s last night. NJPW’s October 18 event was more about seeing who would come out on top than it was about delivering a card full of bangers, but it did deliver some good matches on the way there.
Road to the final four
Even with Naito absent for most of the tournament, A Block was clearly delivered the A-shows this year. The top four guys all had really good runs, especially ZSJ, who returned to his 2018-9 monster glory and was arguably the tournament MVP. If wrestling wasn’t predetermined and fans couldn’t make educated guesses based on past booking, it would have felt like Sabre, Kenta, Ibushi, or Takagi could make the final based on tournament performance alone.
Outside of the block’s top tier, Ishii was consistently strong as usual and delivered a tournament highlight with the classic Ishii way he put an end to Sabre’s winning streak. Yano had some fun matches, Great-O-Khan had opportunities to show much more of his range as a performer (enough to be the subject of an upcoming Fanfyte article), Tanga Loa showed that he can be a singles performer to look forward to, and Yujiro had some good matches in there too. Plus, as a bonus, Naito’s absence led to Hiromu Takahashi showing up as a special guest and having bangers with Kenta and Ishii that were as good or better than most matches in the tournament.
However things were originally supposed to play out with this group, you wouldn’t guess anything had to be rewritten going into the last night. Ibushi, Kenta, Sabre, and Takagi start the final A Block show in a classic G1 gridlock. They all partially control their own fates, but also depend on the results of other matches in order to get a shot at the trophy. Shingo needs to beat Yujiro, then needs Tanga Loa to beat Sabre and Kenta to beat Ibushi. Sabre needs to beat Tanga Loa, then for Ibushi to beat Kenta. Kenta needs Shingo to lose to Yujiro before he beats Ibushi, and Ibushi needs ZSJ to lose to Tanga Loa before he beats Kenta.
Shingo and Zack’s “surprise” losses were visible a mile off to anyone familiar with how NJPW tends to do things, but even so, there was enough of a “but what if…” factor about ZSJ, at least, to add more tension to this show, and Kenta vs. Ibushi, with the fate of the final on the line, was a compelling last matchup for A Block no matter how the other matches played out.
Overall, this group delivered consistently good matches and shows and some drama that was easy to go along with throughout the tournament, and though it ended on an odd note and possibly not as originally planned, A Block still succeeded at most of what people want from the G1.
Great-O-Khan def. Satoshi Kojima
The show opens with the final Naito Replacement Match, Kojima vs. Great-O-Khan, and the match is a fun start to a night of wrestling. Both wrestlers bring plenty of energy as they play out the story of a charismatic veteran babyface taking on a younger villain. After showing more of his skills in several matches throughout the tournament Great-O-Khan does a pretty basic version of his act here, working mostly as an obstacle for Kojima to make crowd-pleasing comebacks against before his inevitable defeat.
Toru Yano def. Tomohiro Ishii
Like Kojima vs. O-Khan, Yano vs. Ishii is inconsequential in the grand scheme of the G1, and it brings the right energy for that. Seeing this odd couple tag team clash is always fun, and the main appeal of this match is what they bring out of each other. Ishii drives Yano to show more of his straightforward wrestling skill while also using some of Yano’s own tricks against him. It isn’t a super memorable match, but it’s entertaining and works well in its spot on the card.
Yujiro Takahashi vs. Shingo Takagi ends in a double count-out
Shingo not beating Yujiro is the night’s least surprising “surprise” match result, but they still manage to make it happen in an unexpected way. The combination of Yujiro beating Ibushi on the first night of the G1 with the new move BIG JUICE and Shingo questioning why Yujiro was even in the tournament ahead of their final match clearly set Takagi up for disaster. But rather than give Yujiro a win over the World Heavyweight Champion, they go in a kind of dumber but kind of safer direction.
Most of the match is based around Shingo being overconfident about how quickly he can win, while also looking like he’s eventually going to win. The unexpected fighting outside towards the end is an engaging twist because it’s not the kind of thing that normally happens in New Japan matches, but the ultimate twist, the double count-out ending, feels almost too dumb. Would a world champion-tier wrestler really get so caught up in a moment of minor revenge that he missed a twenty-count? It’s not totally unbelievable or out of character, but it’s close enough to make you think about it! Takagi sells this as best he can though, with his fairly realistic “oh my god, I’m an idiot” walk to the back, and I think this and his other acting choices are the key to pulling this off as much as it could be pulled off.
Tanga Loa def. Zack Sabre Jr.
This spring, Tanga Loa and ZSJ had a feud within the bigger Dangerous Tekkers vs. G.o.D. feud based on the idea that Sabre was kind of allergic to Tanga Loa. At the time, it was difficult to get into for a combination of reasons, including that Zack has been such a higher-level singles wrestler historically that it was kind of hard to believe he’d struggle so much with Tanga Loa. Zack is even more elevated as a singles guy after this tournament, but their G1 matchup is still pulled off much better.
Tanga Loa has shown his strengths multiple times on this tour, especially in his matches with Ibushi and Ishii, and he brings that A-game again on the last night of A Block. They achieve the perfect match dynamic by combining the power vs. technique styles clash with playing it like Tanga Loa really studied for this match ahead of time. He has the answers for ZSJ’s offense in such a way that you can imagine him and Jado studying tape beforehand, maybe busting out some play sheets. This creates a match that both makes sense and looks cool, with Tanga Loa able to catch and throw around Sabre very impressively and ultimately beat him in a way that’s surprising and satisfying to watch.
Kota Ibushi def. Kenta to win A Block and go to his fourth consecutive G1 final
Ibushi vs. Kenta plays less like the typical G1 match and more like a non-tournament NJPW main event constrained by a thirty-minute time limit. Putting the match result and its meaning aside, I think Ibushi and Kenta pull off what they’re trying to do here, and breaking the format a little is part of that.
Ibushi vs. Kenta ended up with the most build of any G1 31 match aside from Cobb vs. Okada because Kenta calling Ibushi a nut in a promo turned into a days-long Twitter battle that evolved into Kenta roleplaying as Ibushi’s mom. They don’t bring this exact energy to their block final (which would be very hard to do without going full DDT), but they do work with the same basic story: Kenta takes Ibushi seriously as a powerful crazy person, while Ibushi is a powerful crazy person.
Kenta’s work to beat down Ibushi is some of his most convincing offense this year, not quite on the level of his G1 match with ZSJ but definitely up there. He keeps the parts of the match he controls engaging not just with in-ring techniques, but by delivering something we haven’t seen for NJPW’s entire pandemic era – people fighting all the way to the back of a venue. Ibushi takes a similar route, looking explosive during his comebacks against Kenta and switching things up by introducing a table for the first time this G1. The table spot they try to do definitely doesn’t go as planned, but the last-minute improvisation gives the spot some extra intensity. All in all, these guys go the extra mile to keep the audience hooked with a match that’s not unique for New Japan but is unique for this year’s tournament.
Of course, the result of this match is the furthest thing from unique, unless you’re calling it uniquely repetitive. Ibushi makes the G1 final for the fourth year in a row, a choice that brings diminishing returns to all but the sub-section of hardcore Ibushi fans who think he needs to win everything all the time.
It’s not hard to guess what the reasoning might be behind this decision. Ibushi is a great wrestler who can deliver in a G1 final, and he may not have been the originally planned A Block finalist. It could have been Naito, or Naito’s absence could have changed how the G1 played out in some other way. If Okada wins B Block, the final result could feel too obvious if he faced Sabre or Kenta in the final, while an Ibushi three-peat seems more credible even if it’s not in the cards.
I’m not going to react to an Ibushi G1 three-peat before/unless it actually happens, but I think this being raised as a possibility is an opportunity to look at where Ibushi is at in NJPW right now. Again, he’s still obviously a great wrestler. I always look forward to Ibushi’s matches as matches. He’s also a great and unique personality, see: his recent beef with Kenta and a million other examples. But while Ibushi’s still a fan-favorite, his journey with the IWGP (World) Heavyweight Championship over the past two years, especially from late 2020 through spring 2021, has included some of NJPW’s most annoying creative choices in recent times. Though Ibushi can put on top-tier matches in the Tokyo Dome, it still feels like the fallout of Ibushi getting into a Wrestle Kingdom main event storyline isn’t worth the emotional investment.
Ultimately, the solution to all this might be something like giving Ibushi a world title run that starts at a Dominion or Sakura Genesis, etc., and just allows this guy to do his thing without getting too convoluted about it – something NJPW didn’t have a problem with in the recent past! For now, putting Ibushi in the G1 final makes it a staler and less exciting one, at least before the bell rings.