Previously on NJPW’s G1 Climax 31: 85 tournament matches happened and Ibushi won A Block to make his fourth G1 final in four years.
New Japan Pro Wrestling’s 2021 G1 Climax tournament came to a close earlier this week with a block-deciding Cobb vs. Okada rubber match, a quality tournament final derailed by disaster, and the setup of a weird storyline direction for Wrestle Kingdom 16.
The most exciting, emotional, and important-feeling moment of NJPW’s two nights at Nippon Budokan has nothing to do with the G1: it’s Katusyori Shibata’s return to the ring for his first actual match in over four years since injury drove him to retirement. Everything on these shows that isn’t Ibushi’s injury or Shibata’s return has already faded in comparison, but a bunch of it is important to New Japna’s future, so let’s dig into all of it, starting with the B Block final.
Night 18 – 10/20/21 – B Block final – Nippon Budokan
While A Block kept several balls in the air until its last night, B Block boiled down to Jeff Cobb vs. Kazuchika Okada before the October 20th show started.
They floated Evil as a threat to the final for a while, but he ended up being Cobb’s last stepping stone before facing Okada. They also tried to make it seem like Okada wasn’t definitely beating Cobb and definitely winning the whole G1 by ending the undefeated streak vs. undefeated streak angle on the second-to-last B Block show, having Okada take a surprise loss to Tama Tonga. That was an Actually Good match, but it did not make the answer to the question “Can Okada beat Cobb to make the final??” seem like anything other than “Yes, and then he’ll win the final.” NJPW fans, for the most part, know to never bet against Okada, especially now that he’s back in prime Rainmaker mode.
A consequence of all this is that on the last night of B Block, only the main event has any concrete stakes. This vibe had already crept into B Block earlier in the tournament, the consequence of the undefeated streak angles causing more people to be eliminated earlier than they would have in an environment like A Block. A lot of the later B Block matches are two guys working hard for a bout that wouldn’t even be included in a montage version of the G1, which gave these events a B-show feel.
Most matches overcome that feeling on the October 20 B Block final, though, by playing up personal stakes or taking things in an unusual direction. The first one I’m going to talk about doesn’t, but later ones do!
Yoshi Hashi def. Chase Owens
After Hiromu and Bushi beat up the trainees, the main card starts with Yoshi-Hashi vs. Chase Owens: battle of the jobbers! Or at least as close as NJPW gets to having jobbers. These two both got flattering G1 runs, taking lots of losses but always getting the opportunity to show their in-ring skills, plus getting some statement wins in there. Their last B Block match continues this trajectory for both wrestlers.
Hirooki Goto def. Tama Tonga
Hirooki Goto vs. Tama Tonga kicks off the night’s trend of matches with no meaningful G1 stakes being made more compelling with the addition of personal stakes. After Tama’s clean win over Okada and very strong performance in that match, you have to wonder what and how he’s going to do against Goto.
I think this match suffers from corniness at times and considering that Tama goes on to challenge for Okada’s Tokyo Dome match rights the following night, it’s odd that he loses here. Everyone knows he’s not beating Okada at Power Struggle, but New Japan could at least sell that he might a little harder!
Taichi def. Hiroshi Tanahashi
The October 20 show really picks up with Taichi vs. Tanahashi. The last time these two squared off, Taichi and Zack were torturing the Ace’s knee in a tag title feud. This time, Taichi starts their match in the more sympathetic position, coming off losses to Tama and Owens both caused by his opponents exploiting his rib injury. Tanahashi doesn’t go into his rare heel mode for this match, but as a smart competitor, he also attacks Taichi’s injury, which creates the unusual dynamic of Taichi valiantly fighting from underneath against a more level-headed Tana.
Taichi sells the pain and struggle around his injury so well that you can’t not be on his side here and it makes his win with the Taichi-style Gedo Clutch absolutely rule. This might be the actual only time that move hasn’t been used to win a match in an annoying way, and they pull it off. I didn’t expect that this match would be bad, but I think it was way better for taking this unexpected direction, and it made the show better.
Evil def. Sanada
When I saw this matchup on the last night of B Block way back when the schedules were released, I assumed it would have some kind of relevance to who won the block. Instead, Sanada went into it long-since eliminated, and Evil right after being clobbered by Cobb. The only stakes here are that Sanada and Evil used to be BFFs and now they’re EFFs (enemies fighting forever), and they have an entertaining, energetic grudge match about it.
Evil vs. Sanada is also part of the Sanada Is The Coolest Guy In The World subgenre of matches, which means it doubles as comeuppance for Evil’s tour-long shenanigans. Evil and Togo’s cheating was such a huge part of their matches this year that it usually overwhelmed everything else about them, something that got pretty boring. This makes watching Sanada have the answer for nearly all of their tricks more satisfying, especially with the grudge spice already seasoning this match. Evil having to break out more and more different shenanigans when most of them don’t work is also a way more interesting dynamic for him to play out than just extended beatdowns over and over.
Overall, this match is well put together and has a fun energy, and it would be great if somehow every Bullet Club (House of Torture) Evil match could have this vibe or something closer to it.
Kazuchika Okada def. Jeff Cobb to earn a spot in the final
The result of Okada vs. Cobb was obvious going into it, but the match is entertaining anyway. There are some oddly weak moments towards the beginning and these guys seem to run out of steam a bit by the end, but the good moments outweigh the meh ones.
Cobb shows some of his signature feats of strength that never get old, and he drives Okada to push himself further and do things like breaking out that cope con hilo he hasn’t used in a while. I thought the DDT counter to the avalanche Tour of the Islands that was a pivotal moment of the match looked more awkward than exciting, but the crowd is into it, and Cobb and Okada ultimately stick the landing with a Rainmaker win just out of nowhere enough to be a little surprising.
Cobb and Okada end their summer/fall rivalry at Okada 2 – Cobb 1, and though Cobb came out on the losing end, this angle, including his G1 undefeated streak, is probably the best thing he’s done in New Japan. He was booked really flatteringly for over a month and he killed every opportunity he got during that time. Hopefully this means good things are in store for his NJPW future.
G1 Climax 31 Final – 10/21/21 – Nippon Budokan
Various bad guys make various attacks
The 2021 G1 Final show is basically saved by Shibata’s return match, then doomed by Ibushi’s injury. Aside from those things, the card is a decent mix of tag matches that set up a mixed bag of storylines for this fall. Before we get to the big stuff and the Wrestle Kingdom fallout, let’s run down all this other stuff that happened!
First, the promos after the dark match (Fujita and Oiwa vs. Desperado and Kanemaru) and the L.I.J. vs. Hontai eight-man remind everyone that the junior division has things going on besides waiting for BOSJ. Did you remember that Desperado is challenging Robbie Eagles for the junior title, and Eagles and Tiger Mask are challenging Suzukigun for the tag titles? Personally, the 91 G1 Climax matches caused me to forget about all of this, so I’m grateful these guys brought it up.
The first match of the main card is Yuji Nagata and Toru Yano vs. Great-O-Khan and Jeff Cobb, and it’s a good mix of Yano and O-Khan weirdness with more straightforward wrestling from Nagata and Cobb. Both Cobb and O-Khan crushed it in the G1 and if there was a Destruction tour coming up or something like that, I bet this momentum would be used to give them bigger follow-up angles. But Cobb is heading back to America for a while, so his next thing will be World Tag League. Great-O-Khan alludes to KOPW backstage, a challenge that has low-key been in the works since this spring, and that could be good, depending on your tolerance for comedy yelling.
The six-man tag of Yoshi-Hashi, Ishii, and Goto vs. Evil, Yujiro, and Sho might as well have had a flashing neon sign over it reading “BC’s challenging for the NEVER titles!” but just because a challenge is obvious doesn’t mean it’s bad. Heel Sho is still in serious danger of getting too much in his own way with his acting choices, but his work with his former stablemates – especially Ishii and Goto – still works really well. The rest of this match is good too; a quality trios bout with lots of moving parts that fit perfectly together, motivated by convincing heel vs. face heat.
As long as there aren’t too many bells and whistles, I think the NEVER 6-man title match between these groups could be really good, and my fingers are crossed we get to see Sho go one-on-one with his Chaos elders, also without too many bells and whistles or inorganic facial expressions.
The last match before intermission – Kenta, G.O.D., and Owens vs. Tanahashi, Makabe, Honma, and Tiger Mask – is the weakest of the show, and it sets up the weakest angles. The bout is BC vs. mostly old guys, so I don’t think I need to get into why it wasn’t a banger. The storyline stuff afterward is not surprising in how uninspired it is either. Owens steps up to Tanahashi, angling for a U.S. title shot, but Kenta attacks Tana from behind and ends up first in line because Owens has to go back to America.
The most positive thing about this is that another Kenta vs. Tana match should be good, but it’s a little disappointing to see a feud start in such a lukewarm way when NJPW as a whole isn’t exactly on fire right now. The Owens challenge isn’t shocking after he beat Tana in the G1 (he earned his shot way more than Kenta did) but it continues to suck that nowhere he works will acknowledge the allegations made against him during Speaking Out, despite fans and media contacting NJPW about them many times. Now it looks like, with all this still swept aside, he’s getting a U.S. title match either in the Tokyo Dome or possibly on a show in America. I don’t know which is “funnier” without actually being funny. It sucks on a level that’s way worse than subpar midcard title booking, and it’s sucked to see so many versions of this situation play out around the wrestling world over the past year.
Special exhibition 5-minute-limit grappling rules match: Katsuyori Shibata and Zack Sabre Jr. wrestle to a time-limit draw
The G1 Final goes into intermission at a low and comes back with a surprising, emotional high. Watching Shibata return to the ring out of nowhere was one of those moments when wrestling makes you feel like nothing else can.
Katsuyori Shibata wrestles Zack Sabre Jr. in New Japan ring NOW!!
Check it out on New Japan World!
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) October 21, 2021
This part of the show is executed perfectly. Shibata walking out, walking far enough down the entrance ramp without anyone following him and making you realize he’s actually going to wrestle, and doing it all without acknowledging the crowd brings back so much of the old Shibata feeling. Then The Wrestler actually starts wrestling and it’s in the safest possible type of match but still, he looks amazing and not like he’s about to drop dead and it’s almost overwhelming.
He and ZSJ also make the five-minute match exciting beyond just the excitement of seeing Shibata do literally any wrestling again with that struggle leading up to Shibata locking on the Manji Gatame right at the time limit. At that moment, it’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened. By that point, nearly all of the old Shibata feeling is back.
There’ll be more to say about this comeback once Shibata has more matches, and from that bump he took on his way out, it looks like he’ll be having them outside of just grappling rules. For now, one last thing I appreciated about this comeback is that it was in the vein of most of his NJPW appearances since his injury. He’s been a part of nearly every G1 final since then, usually as a surprise, and there have been “in case of a feelings shortage, break case for Shibata” moments on other major shows too. It feels right for those kinds of Shibata appearances to (presumably) come to an end with him showing up unannounced to actually wrestle again.
G1 Climax 31 final match: Kazuchika Okada def. Kota Ibushi by referee stoppage
After Shibata’s return steals the show, L.I.J. and the home team keep the night’s energy up with a fast-paced and sometimes comedic eight-man tag, and then it’s finally time for the final. As well as the post-intermission part of the show has gone up to this point, it doesn’t change how much less intense the atmosphere around the final match is compared to G1s past. Okada’s win seems like a foregone conclusion, and while Ibushi vs. Okada is obviously a matchup of two top-tier wrestlers, Ibushi’s presence in the final for a fourth year in a row feels stale. There’s a lot of material between these two to mine in order to give a big match between them some gravitas, but while that was effective back at WK 14, we’re now about a year into Ibushi getting the weirdest booking in the company, and his world title stories are eyed with suspicion.
That being said about The State Of NJPW, Okada vs. Ibushi is still a matchup between two awesome wrestlers, and up until the unfortunate ending, they have an awesome match. It starts slow, but doesn’t stay slow for as long as you might expect for a G1 final, and Ibushi’s early offensive streak boosts the energy of the match. There’s a weirdly long Money Clip sequence- it makes sense as Okada trying to weaken Ibushi, but it’s still a long Money Clip sequence – but Okada kills it on offense too overall. We get some good stuff outside the ring, forearms sending Ibushi into maniac mode, and everything is going great until Ibushi goes for the Phoenix Splash, misses, lands wrong, and the match ends via referee stoppage. Per NJPW’s press conference the next day, Ibushi dislocated his right shoulder.
Some matches that contain real injuries are still watchable, but the ending and aftermath of Okada vs. Ibushi is so brutal that I think the only reason to watch the G1 31 final now is morbid curiosity. The upside of this situation is that at least it looks like NJPW dealt with it as quickly and professionally as they could.
Will the real IWGP (World) Heavyweight Champion please stand up?
Once Ibushi’s out of the ring, Okada has to deliver the show-closing promo and set up the Wrestle Kingdom main event angle with all the air sucked out of the venue. He pulls off sending the crowd home in a way that reminds you why he’s the face of the company, but the angle he sets up here and backstage still seems like convoluted 2021 NJPW junk.
The majority of Okada’s backstage promo is him saying that “I don’t intend to call myself the IWGP Heavyweight Champion or anything like that” after asking to hold the old belt, then contradicting himself by calling it “the belt I’ve always held,” saying Takagi is actually the one challenging him, literally saying “I’m the champion. He’s not” and so on. I rewatched this backstage stuff and the post-G1 press conference to see if that would clear up what Okada is saying here, but it doesn’t really. Even the press backstage at the G1 final sound confused about what he’s trying to do.
The next day, Okada says that he wants to hold the old belt instead of the usual contract and briefcase, which makes more sense than his original “waiting for Ibushi” thing. Then that gets summarized by the MC with “to clarify, you would like to forego the current system of holding a right-to-challenge contract, and instead, carry the fourth championship belt, assuming the same level of stakes and risks that the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion has.” Maybe it’s a translation issue, but this doesn’t really feel like a clarification!
The NJPW website’s Power Struggle preview sums up the angle with “Kazuchika Okada will argue that his prize and status as G1 Climax 31 winner is even greater than that which Shingo Takagi possesses. After his G1 final against Kota Ibushi was cut short due to a dislocated shoulder on the part of the Golden Star, Okada was quick to vow that the two would face off once again in the future. As a material symbol of that promise, Okada requested that he not be granted a briefcase with a contract for winning the G1, but instead the fourth generation IWGP Heavyweight Championship belt that Ibushi retired.” If this counts as canon, I guess that’s the best explanation of what Okada’s doing here – or at least what he says he’s doing. From watching Okada propose that NJPW give him back his old belt, it seems more like he’s is basically trying to present himself as a champion long before he wrestles Takagi for the championship.
If the landscape of NJPW was different right now, this would seem like it could be a good angle. Okada has either totally cracked, Balloon Okada style, or he’s politically scheming to bring back his old title when he retakes his old spot at the top of the company. It’s basically an extension of the angle he was doing before his match with Takagi for the vacant World Heavyweight Championship back in June, and even as far back as the Double Gold Dash. However, in the current NJPW landscape, things are more convoluted than that.
This post-G1 angle means that we now have Takagi as the real IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, Ospreay running around with a replica belt calling himself the Real IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, and now Okada wanting to carry around the old belt, saying he means for it to represent what the G1 briefcase usually would, but also kind of representing himself as the real, or at least worthier, IWGP Heavyweight Champion. A revival of the old title would be cool! But the moment it seems like NJPW is angling for – Takagi, Ospreay, and Okada standing in the ring on the last night of Road to the Tokyo Dome, each holding a belt (“Three belts! Three nights of Wrestle Kingdom! Who will emerge as NJPW’s real top champion???”) – is very much the opposite.
The part of Okada’s promo that encapsulates my concerns about this storyline is Okada’s line that “I’m not sure who the champion is. I’d like the fans to weigh in” with the comparison to politics, saying people could be in the Heavyweight party or the World Heavyweight party. This seems like the kind of question NJPW could have asked via fan poll before unifying the double championship last year, especially considering they did one about making the double championship in the first place. But bringing this up now with one fake champion already in the mix could undermine the principle that if a wrestler wins a match for a championship in NJPW, that makes them the champion. Maybe one person coming up on top at WK 16 will end all this title validity drama, but maybe not! The double title unification was supposed to do that, and then they added two invalid belts to the mix.
New Japan could easily do a much less convoluted angle to revive the IWGP Heavyweight Championship by having Okada say he’ll bring back the old title if he wins at Wrestle Kingdom, while Takagi defends the honor of the title he holds. They could also leave the party lines up to the applause-o-meter when Okada and Takagi are in the ring together and/or a fan vote after Okada proposes reinstating the old championship. That seems easier than bringing in belts that aren’t backed up by wins and validating people acting like Moose with the TNA title. I’m not trying to fantasy book too hard here; these are just examples to show that NJPW could have set up this same basic angle in a way the press backstage at the G1 final would have easily understood.
Ultimately, I hope I’m being overly skeptical about this angle and it turns out great and NJPW resets or fixes itself in January 2022. But the way things stand right now, it looks like New Japan is continuing its cursed trajectory, with a combination of real-life misfortune (two top guys injured) and dubious creative decisions. I’m sure Ibushi’s injury (and Naito’s) changed some plans, but that doesn’t change that they look like a mess right now.
However, the 2021 G1 showed that NJPW still has a great wrestling company inside itself. Even with a limited roster and one of its best wrestlers out after the first night, the tournament delivered so many fantastic matches, along with some good mini-arcs in the less convoluted G1 booking environment. G1 31, like all the 20-man G1s, felt absurdly long at times, but it also showed a lot of the best of what NJPW’s heavyweight division has to offer without even working with the full heavyweight division.
Anyway, however wonky the three-day Wrestle Kingdom might turn out, at least Shibata’s back.