New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s 31st annual G1 Climax tournament is officially underway, and it got off to a strong start. The first nights of A and B Block competition both delivered some really good matches and a few surprises. Sho’s evil gamer ways have evolved, Yujiro is now fueled by the power of Big Juice, and the true Rainmaker-level Okada is back, or at least capable of coming back sometimes. The tournament still hasn’t delivered its theme song’s promise of “fighting with a real sword,” but there has been plenty of “real muscle live.”
In this article, we’ll get into all of the real muscle live matches of Nights 1-2 of the 2021 G1 Climax, but first, let’s take a step back and look at the trajectory of hype around the G1 and NJPW in the days surrounding these shows, before and after Naito’s unfortunate injury.
This promotion is basically fighting its own luck with a real sword right now (NJPW)
The epic highs and lows of following NJPW from September 18-21, 2021
Generally speaking, there was less excitement about the G1 this year than in the past, at least among international fans, keeping up the trend of less excitement about NJPW as a whole. (For curious readers who don’t know why this is the case, I’ll sum up the reasons as creative issues combined with real-life bad circumstances, some self-inflicted and some out of NJPW’s control.) But for those who tuned in to the first G1 events, they really delivered. I don’t think these were beginning-to-end must-see shows, but the final two matches of each night were fantastic and most of the matches lower on the cards were entertaining too. These events showcased a lot of the best NJPW has to offer right now, and, with the Okada vs. Tanahashi match, unexpectedly revived some of the best of NJPW’s recent past. Even for viewers without interest or faith in NJPW’s current and future storylines, these shows promised that the G1 would be a source of plenty of really good wrestling over the next month.
The revelation that Tetsuya Naito suffered a knee injury on the first night of A Block serious enough for him to forfeit the rest of his tournament matches didn’t totally break that promise, but it really, really sucks. First, it obviously sucks for Naito personally, and hopefully he’s able to heal up soon. Second, it probably throws a wrench into the plans for the whole G1. If Naito wasn’t going to win, he could have easily been a finalist, and if he wasn’t going to be a finalist, he was definitely going to play an important role in setting up who the finalist from A Block was going to be. The whole creative focus of A Block was the three 1982-line guys, Naito, Ibushi, and Takagi. The absence of Naito also has an impact on a show-by-show scale, causing cards to be shuffled around and some main events to be changed, with a notable example the September 26 show that was supposed to be headlined by Shingo vs. Naito in Kobe, Shingo’s former home promotion Dragon Gate’s home town.
Also, booking plans aside, losing Naito means that A Block and NJPW as a whole loses one of its best wrestlers, and a guy who’s clearly one of its best “workers.” Naito could have great matches with the best wrestlers in his block and is a guy who can get better matches than usual out of the not-so-best wrestlers. I’m sure most of the remaining nineteen guys in the G1 are going to put in some really good work, but losing Naito hurts and makes the G1 less promising and less dramatically compelling. Getting Hiromu vs. Kenta and another Hiromu vs. Ishii match out of this is at least an upside though.
But before those things happen and while we wait for Naito to get back, let’s talk about the one G1 31 show he was on:
Night 1 – A Block – 9/18/21 – Edion Arena Osaka
Evil(‘s friend) Sho breaks in the new dojo boys
Similar to other pandemic-era NJPW tournaments, the 2021 G1 shows don’t start with the usual tag matches featuring the guys in the off-block. Instead, the first two nights begin with the new dojo boys trying and failing to beat the newly-heel Sho. Both Ryohei Oiwa and Kosei Fujita debuted so recently that their buzzcuts haven’t grown out yet, and the most I say about their performances in these matches is that it looks like they’re working hard. But while the new Young Lions are doing their best, there’s more to take away about their opponent.
The matches with Oiwa and Fujita show the pros and cons of Bullet Club Sho outside of the Roppongi 3K breakup feud. His presentation is still firmly in the pros column. The whole spooky evil retro gamer “Murder Machine” entrance and theme song remix and Evil’s little brother costume are amazing. And his short, bullying match against Oiwa that he wins with the Snake Bite choke feels like the right type of almost-squash match this character should be getting.
However, the following night’s match against Fujita exposes one of Sho’s most persistent weaknesses, acting, more than it showcases his strengths. I think he pulled off the dramatic aspects of the R3K breakup and the fallout match with Yoh, but here he goes so hard with the smirking and the weird faces for what seems like no reason other than to look like a bad guy. It feels like if someone pulled Sho aside and asked, “Why is your character making these faces right now?” he couldn’t justify it. As far as anything Sho can control, I think this could make or break his success as a heel. The part of him that isn’t a great actor just needs to get out of the way of the part of him that’s a really good wrestler.
Yujiro Takahashi def. Kota Ibushi in a huge upset in the first match of G1 competition
Kota Ibushi vs. Yujiro Takahashi as the first match of G1 block competition could have been an easy two points for the Golden Star, but instead, NJPW decided to do something very funny instead. It starts out as a typical Yujiro singles match, a low-level heel getting in some offense on a top star who’s sure to make a comeback later. Even when he stops a Golden Triangle moonsault, a surprisingly effective move for Yujiro, it feels like Ibushi’s definitely going to win, based on what we know about both men’s entire careers. When Takahashi gets the win with a new move that’s amazingly named “BIG JUICE,” it’s legitimately shocking—enough to draw some audible reactions from the clap-only crowd (the first of several over these two shows, but still pretty dramatic!)
This was not some big “wow, they should give Yujiro another singles run!” breakthrough match, but it was more entertaining than his whole feud with Okada last year, and its result adds a new wrinkle to A Block. Ibushi came into the G1 off of a loss to Tanahashi, and he’s clearly still not in top form. He could easily be on the road to one of those G1 storylines where a guy loses his first two matches, then has super high stakes for the rest of the tournament because a third loss would mean his elimination. More weirdly, this result also means that Yujiro could credibly spoil any top guy with his god-killing new move—and he’s facing Shingo on the last night of block competition. So while this match in itself was just okay, it adds not only a surprise result but new long-term narrative possibilities on the first night of A Block.
Great-O-Khan def. Tanga Loa
A Block’s two G1 debuts, Great-O-Khan and Tanga Loa, have the least standout match of the night, including the Young Lion one. In theory, this is a pairing of two heel power guys, but they don’t really embrace either of those elements. The wrestling action in itself isn’t very exciting and the whole match has a weird vibe because rather than lean into baddie vs. baddie, Great-O-Khan plays the babyface-by-default.
There’s a range of reasons why they could have chosen to do this (O-Khan is the more popular of the pair, O-Khan cheats in matches a lot less, and/or, in the worst option, O-Khan is the non-foreign competitor) but whatever the explanation, it saps a lot of the secondary James Bond villain weirdo characteristics from O-Khan that are a big part of what makes his act entertaining. It’s also just weird to see him in a sympathetic role when he’s only had this persona in NJPW for about a year, and he’s been a heel the whole time, as well as the mouthpiece of the company’s newest heel faction. I’m sure that both Great-O-Khan and Tanga Loa will have better matches as the tournament goes on, but this was an awkward position for them to be in on Night 1 and I don’t think they really pulled it off.
Toru Yano def. Kenta and his most powerful season of the year begins
After his match at Wrestle Grand Slam, I wondered if Toru Yano would keep his GBH-era gimmick alive a little longer and show up to the G1 with bleached hair and the urge to stab. He doesn’t, but Yano As Usual vs. Kenta is still a fun time and a promising start to the tournament for both wrestlers.
Kenta, returning to NJPW after a two-month absence, still delivers as a comedy guy, a skill that’s been one of his post-WWE career’s biggest strengths (aside from “being soulmates and then ex-soulmates with Shibata.”) And while Yano is doing his tried-and-true G1 chaotic spoiler clown act, I like how we see some of the amateur wrestling genius brain behind the operation when he reveals a new pinning technique (the Whole Roasted [Opponent’s Name]) designed specifically to be used when his hands are tied after he spent months regularly working with handcuffs. Make no mistake, Yano Season is here again.
Zack Sabre Jr. def. Tetsuya Naito
Did you know what Tetsuya Naito and Zack Sabre Jr. tend to work very well together? In case you missed that information, now you do! Naito vs. ZSJ in the 2021 G1 is very good in the way that most of their matches together have been very good. Their wrestling styles both complement and contrast each other; I like that Naito can hang on the mat with Zack to a certain extent but is still vulnerable to Sabre’s style of submission torture. This match also included some quality body-part work: they both start out targeting each other’s necks (a theme in their matches), but ZSJ transitions to focusing on Naito’s knee later, and it’s a submission that puts obvious pressure on Naito’s neck and knee that wins Zack the match. And also Naito’s shoulder and probably six other joints; you know how those ZSJ full-body deals work.
Before the news of Naito’s injury came out, I had written more stuff about what the selling of his knee after this match combined with this loss could mean for his tournament storyline, but then it turned that was real, so never mind all that and get well soon, Naito!
Shingo Takagi def. Tomohiro Ishii
In contrast to the other 1982 guys, IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Shingo Takagi finishes the first night of A Block strong. Like Naito vs. ZSJ, Takagi vs. Ishii is very good in the same way that previous Takagi vs. Ishii matches have been good-to-great. These are two of NJPW’s toughest guys and they are fully committed to beating the crap out of each other from minute one. This match also served as an effective reminder that the beginning of G1 season is not only the beginning of Yano season but also of Ishii season, using that familiar, fantastic Ishii match dynamic where he isn’t just tough, he’s a brick wall. There’s a great moment in this match (screencapped above) where Shingo’s lying on the mat staring at the ceiling like “holy shit, this guy is tough” that sums it up.
Shingo’s performance in this match is very strong too, no surprise. His best offensive moment is probably the Pumping Bomber that leads to a nearfall that the crowd actually buys into so much they audibly react to the kickout even though Shingo would never beat a guy of Ishii’s caliber with that move. (Of course, Pumping Bombers are at least half about the bump the other guy takes, and Ishii sold this like crazy, bumping straight on the top of his head.) But I’d say this match’s best and most memorable moment is the finish, with Takagi hitting Last of the Dragon right after both wrestlers headbutt each other – an ending that’s both gross and unexpected.
Overall, the three matches after intermission make up as good an hour-and-a-half or so of NJPW programming as we’ve seen in the pandemic era, and the show closes on an optimistic note. It’s not as special as the ending to Night 2, but Night 1 of the G1 31 is a really good, fun show that promises more of the same to come.
Night 2 – 9/19/21 – B Block – Edion Arena Osaka
Evil def. Yoshi-Hashi, but only in match result and not in spirit
The first night of B Block competition starts with the rematch of a surprise banger from last year’s G1, Evil vs. Yoshi-Hashi. Evil shows up to this bout with new, bigger pauldrons, and I have to imagine that’s because he’s overcompensating for his fear of Yoshi-Hashi after that loss last year. How else do you explain how Evil uses even less legit, no-shenanigans wrestling in this match than he did against Shingo at MetLife?
Even if you don’t buy into the Evil Fears Yoshi-Hashi reading of this match, though you should, Yoshi-Hashi’s offense in this match is still exciting to watch. This feels like the singles match payoff of the journey he’s been on since winning the NEVER Openweight 6-man titles last summer. There’s way more confidence behind his actions, and that armlock counter of Evil’s finisher late in the match might legitimately be the coolest in-ring thing Yoshi-Hashi has ever done.
The amount of interference from Dick Togo in this match would probably be annoying with another pairing, but the weirdness and specialness that is Evil vs. Yoshi-Hashi makes it a lot easier to sit through. Same with the typical Bullet Club Evil ending. And although Yoshi-Hashi lost, this felt like basically a win for him, and it made me look forward to the rest of his G1 matches much more than I was before. The match gave a much less promising outlook for Evil’s tournament, but maybe he’ll use Togo a bit less with different opponents with whom he has different histories.
Jeff Cobb def. Chase Owens
Like his partner in A Block, Jeff Cobb starts his G1 in a fairly sympathetic role against a Bullet Club guy. His match with Chase Owens is too long to be a squash, but Cobb looks very dominant throughout, and like a guy who can’t wait to have matches against other people. Though Owens does some begging off and powdering out in this match, it looks like he’s using this match to set the tone for his debut G1, making this a period where he shows wrestling skill after spending most of the year focused heavily on shenanigans.
I’m probably not going to spend much time talking about Owens in these G1 articles because of the real-life issues surrounding this guy—my advance review of all his matches is that I would be skipping them if I wasn’t doing these blogs—but he has done much better work in the past than the recent KOPW stuff, so I think he’ll probably win over some people during this tournament.
Sanada def. Tama Tonga
Sanada vs. Tama Tonga is fun in the same way their previous G1 matches were fun. These guys have good chemistry and put on a match that’s part sprint, part shenanigans, and part SmackDown. It’s a match that gives Sanada opportunities to look like a cool guy who can outmaneuver people (but also a guy who will get distracted by the opportunity to pec pop on the ropes) and it seems to tell everyone what to expect from Tonga’s G1.
The last time Tama was in the G1, in 2018, it was the beginning of the Elite vs. OG part of the Bullet Club Civil War, and he and Bad Luck Fale intentionally got disqualified from almost all of their matches. This made sense as part of that storyline, but it soon got annoying and difficult to watch because it happened on every single G1 Climax event. But this year, Tama Tonga shows up the first night of B Block with a new haircut and his old, pre-Civil War tournament G1 approach of basically being a midcard-level trickster. There are moments when it seems looks like he could win this match, but he’s always willing to completely eat shit by running right into the Skull End after a lot of mat-pounding Theatrics.
Overall, my big takeaway from this match is the profound statement that it was fun, and Sanada’s takeaway was to call Tama handsome multiple times backstage. So many significant matches of Sanada’s career have drawn a no comment from him, but he really had to let everyone know that Tama ikemen today, so in a way, this match was a win for both guys.
Taichi def. Hirooki Goto
Taichi and Goto have feuded on and off throughout the Holy Emperor’s heavyweight era in a rivalry that’s probably a little underrated by international NJPW fans because part of it took place while a lot of people still hated Taichi for being too fun and too good at singing or whatever. Anyway, their G1 31 match is well-done and entertaining both as a standalone match and an extension of their feuds. The way Goto glares at Taichi while he’s pec-popping sums up their whole dynamic, and Goto following that up with some rare, Taichi-style illegal choking (only for Taichi to choke him like 50 more times throughout the match) is quality character stuff. Like in Evil vs. Yoshi-Hashi and other matches on these first two G1 nights, there’s an impression that some old heat was never fully extinguished and has been simmering since the last time they fought.
But this match gets really good once it fully heats up, with the ending stretch of Taichi and Goto just clobbering each other with high-impact moves. Goto hits a sick Shouten Kai and Taichi hits not one, but two Taue chokeslams. Taichi’s finishing sequence of the Ore Ga Taue to the sumo forearm to the winning Black Mephisto both makes him look extremely strong and references both of his most recent bits – more sumo references than usual and calling out Taue and Kawada. It’s an ending that sums up so much of the best of heavyweight Taichi within seconds, and it’s followed up by a surprising sincere backstage promo about how Taichi likes fighting Goto, actually, and feels connected to the rest of the 1980 line – Goto, Taguchi, and Nakamura. NJPW is all about same-age-friend/rival feelings these days.
Kazuchika “The Rainmaker” Okada def. Hiroshi Tanahashi
The legacy of the Okada-Tanahashi feud is basically magical. After winding down their rivalry, teaming together many times, and last wrestling one-on-one in 2019, the atmosphere is highly charged when they’re in the ring together on the first night of B Block, more so than with anything else on these shows. It’s possible that it’s more charged than the atmosphere for anything in NJPW since Naito vs. Okada for the double championship. Even the beginning period of this match when they’re putting headlocks on each other feels special.
The match doesn’t stay headlocks forever, with a classic build-up from hold-to-hold to higher-impact moves. Like past Tana vs. Okada G1 block matches, it works like an abridged version of one of their clash-of-the-titans epics, and it works really well. The series of moves around the outside of the ring is super hot, but it’s not any sequences of moves, but Okada breaking out the Rainmaker pose takes things to another level. The return of that extremely missed zoom out feels like it immersed everyone and everything in NJPW’s recent past, and wow, does it feel good. The nearfalls after this point are much more heightened, and Okada’s win with the Rainmaker feels huge, feels classic, even though he’s been using the Rainmaker in big matches again for the better part of a year.
Okada’s post-match promo answers the question on everyone’s mind: this isn’t actually the Okada we’ve been seeing recently, but “the Rainmaker Okada Kazuchika is back!” After the show, it’s easy to talk yourself down from the hype NJPW is trying to build here. Sure Okada can still have the god-tier match occasionally, but is he really, suddenly not as banged up anymore and able to turn back the clock to his prime? In the moments of that match with Tanahashi and that Rainmaker pose and that show-closing promo, Okada makes the viewer feel like this is actually possible. Even if the true Rainmaker isn’t here to stay, that Okada resurrected him for this night is impressive, and a reminder that he is one of the greats and why.
I’ll see you back here after the next set of G1 shows to talk about whether Okada keeps this momentum going, how A Block fares without Naito, and more.
G1 Climax 31 points tracker:
2 points – 1-0 – Great-O-Khan, Shingo Takagi, Toru Yano, Yujiro Takahashi, Zack Sabre Jr.
0 points – 0-1 – Kenta, Kota Ibushi, Tanga Loa, Tetsuya Naito, Tomohiro Ishii
2 points – 1-0 – Evil, Jeff Cobb, Sanada, Taichi, Kazuchika Okada
0 points – 0-1 – Yoshi-Hashi, Chase Owens, Tama Tonga, Hirooki Goto, Hiroshi Tanahashi
Most matches from these shows are worth watching, but the main events from both September 18 and 19 (Ishii vs. Shingo and Okada vs. Tanahashi) are worth going out of your way to see, as is Naito vs. ZSJ, especially because it’ll be Naito’s only G1 match this year.