Every summer, the best wrestling on the planet happens half a world away from the sterile confines of WWE. Starting on Saturday, New Japan Pro Wrestling puts on its mammoth undertaking of a tournament, the G1 Climax. (Yes, Climax is part of the name, let’s all just try to be adults about this.) Over the course of a month, twenty wrestlers will face-off in a two-group spectacle, with each “block” pitting ten competitors against each other in a soccer-style round robin. Two points are awarded for a win; one point is awarded to each wrestler if the match goes to a 30-minute draw. At the end of the grueling marathon, the winners of each block face off in the G1 Climax Final, with the winner guaranteed a shot at NJPW’s top title at the promotion’s version of WrestleMania, the Wrestle Kingdom show that takes place every year on January 4.
Having so many matches—a whopping 91 total matches, across 19 shows—in such a short period of time virtually guarantees a handful of great bouts. It helps the odds significantly that NJPW is renowned for having the best wrestlers and the best matches in the sport year-round. G1 both condenses and supercharges all that, and the result is a brutal and physically demanding tournament that’s over-the-top by design. Not only are most of the 20 wrestlers each year trying to put on classic bouts, but even the less renowned ones who are in the tournament just to “occupy a slot” end up facing the best of the best at their most keyed-up. And the best of the best wrestlers in NJPW are some of the best ever to do it.
Legends are well represented in this year’s edition, the 29th in the promotion’s history. The field includes Hiroshi Tanahashi, arguably the most important Japanese wrestler of the millennium and a sort of John Cena figure in terms of popularity, only if John Cena was also a lithe wrestling mastermind; Kazuchika Okada, a performer hailed by many as the greatest wrestler of all time even though he’s still only 31 years old and the author more classic matches in the last five years than some companies have in their history; Kota Ibushi, a veritable madman who seemingly has no interest in his own wellbeing but possessing a preternatural understanding of match execution; and Tetsuya Naito, a wrestler who combines a no-fucks-given attitude towards Japanese tradition with a brutal style in the ring. Any of these wrestlers can put over a match on their own, but when they face each other strange and terrifying things happen. Naito and Ibushi recently had a match so realistically violent that it actually turned off some wrestling fans, who felt that it was just too real.
And that’s just the upper echelon. Will Ospreay and Zack Sabre Jr. are two of the best British wrestlers in the world, both capable of matches you won’t see anywhere else—Ospreay wrestles in a methamphetamized high-flier style, ZSJ is a master of joint manipulation and uncomfortable looking submission holds. Tomohiro Ishii is NJPW’s workhorse, a stocky bowling ball of a man with an unfortunate penchant for headbutts. There are rising stars in here, too: Shingo Tagaki has seen his profile explode in Japan over the last six months, culminating in a batshit Best Of The Super Juniors final against Ospreay; Taichi is one of the more wonderfully weird chickenshit heels wrestling has seen in years.
There are two recent WWE converts in the field, as well. KENTA, who starred in NXT and on the cruiserweight show 205 Live under the name Hideo Itami, jumped back to Japan earlier this year, shocking fans by joining New Japan instead of his previous home of NOAH. His hard-kicking style never got over with American audiences as well as it should have, but he should fare better back where he started.
And then there’s Jon Moxley, formerly known as Dean Ambrose and currently known as the hottest performer in all of professional wrestling. Since being liberated from a dead-end role in WWE, Mox has been dropping jaws all over the independent wrestling universe. He showed up in a memorable cameo at All Elite Wrestling’s Double Or Nothing pay-per-view in May, then crossed the Pacific to win NJPW’s United States title in his first match for the promotion. He’s one of four Americans in the field, and WWE fans who remember Ambrose’s faintly dull style in that promotion should prepare to be startled at seeing him compete in the faster-paced, harder-hitting Japanese style against the best wrestlers on earth. (Moxley won that NJPW title over another American in the field, Juice Robinson, who was formerly NXT’s C.J. Parker. Robinson was a jobber to the stars in WWE’s developmental, but his bright outfits, vulgar trash talk, and underdog credentials have made him a solid mid-carder in Japan; he’ll be a fun presence in the G1 this year, too.)
That’s a lot—a lot of wrestlers, a lot of wrestling, and a lot of bouts to keep straight. It’s easy to get lost during the G1, particularly as every show but the first will happen either in the middle of the night or the early morning here in the United States; all those shows can be streamed on New Japan World, the promotion’s answer to the WWE Network. While diehards will stay awake—or incorporate a rigorous napping schedule, as I tried and badly failed to do one year—it’s more likely that those with a passing curiosity will cherry-pick some matches to catch up on the following day. Again, there are 91 matches across the G1 month, which makes it tough to pick which ones are worth your time. Moxley-Ishii should rule, and almost all Okada and Tanahashi matches are worth your time, but in the interest of narrowing this feast down to a digestible selection, I’ve picked eight matches that I think should be both entertaining on their own and a good way to familiarize yourself with the different styles that the G1 offers.
All times are EST.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (July 6, 6 p.m.)
The first show of the G1 is in Dallas, as part of the company’s push to get more of a foothold in the United States, and the first main event of the tournament may well be the biggest match in this year’s tournament. The history between Tanahashi and Okada is New Japan, at least over the last decade or so; their first bout was back in 2010, when Okada was not the world beater he is now, but that soon changed with a pair of highly-regarded Wrestle Kingdom main events in 2015 and 2016; the latter saw Okada beat Tanahashi for the first time, at the biggest show of the year, in a successful defense of his IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Entering the 2019 G1, the roles are somewhat reversed. Tanahashi main evented (and won) this year’s Wrestle Kingdom, but he’s clearly on the down slope of his career; two decades at the top of such a physically taxing promotion has done a number on his body, and he’s currently nursing an elbow injury, among a litany of other lingering ails. Okada, who went on to have the supposed Best Matches Ever with Kenny Omega in 2017 and 2018 (they really are very good), is entering the G1 as the champion; it’s a quirk of the promotion that the champion can win the G1 and then hand-pick their Wrestle Kingdom opponent. This one might not reach the heights of their previous classics, but both Okada and Tanahashi are able to step up when needed, and having this as their first match means Tanahashi’s body will be in the best shape possible, which can’t be said of his engagements over the latter parts of the G1.
Tomohiro Ishii vs. Jeff Cobb (July 13, 5:30 a.m.)
What’s better than a hoss fight between two dudes hellbent on beating the crap out of each other? A hoss fight featuring two cinder-block-shaped dudes almost as horizontal as they are vertical. Ishii is the Stone Pitbull, second in command of the CHAOS faction and so beloved by purist wrestling fans that he can’t really be called underrated anymore. Ishii is capable of adapting his style to his opponent better than anyone in the field below the supposed Elite Tier. He’s happy to serve as a base for high-flyers to ping off or, as he will here, just wailing away with some other big dudes until one collapses.
In Cobb, Ishii will have the perfect opponent for a different kind of hoss fight, too. Cobb has been an indie darling for years now, including his brief stint as the masked Monster Matanza Cueto in the wacko telenovela Lucha Underground, and he mixes a bodybuilder’s squat physique with the agility of a man 50 pounds lighter. I hope they don’t lean into that last bit too much, personally; there are plenty of dudes in the G1 who can bounce around and flip all day, but Cobb and Ishii are wrecking balls, and should battle each other for wrecking ball supremacy. At the very least, I hope they have a lengthy strike exchange; there’s nothing better in wrestling than two heavyweights throwing haymakers until one falls over.
Kazuchika Okada vs. KENTA (July 27, 5 a.m.)
Partly because of injuries and partly due to WWE’s indie acquisition binge, it feels like Hideo Itami never got a real fair shake in the United States. He’s one of the most important Japanese wrestlers of his era, and yet WWE could not figure out how to fully use him to his potential. Back in Japan, and back under his KENTA name, he now looks ready to kick some dudes very, very hard. The concern is not whether he’ll be up to the task of delivering good matches; he was on a good streak of those towards the end of his WWE/NXT career, and he’s had classics, including a personal favorite against Bryan Danielson, the future Daniel Bryan, in 2006. The concern is that there are better dudes in New Japan who might drown him out.
Okada, the company’s ace, best wrestler, best everything, is one such dude. The Rainmaker will be KENTA’s first real must-see match back in Japan, and their styles should mesh well; Okada is excellent at directing match pace and knowing exactly when to kick shit up a notch, while KENTA will be well-served as the undersized underdog. I see him winning this match, too; one of the glorious things about the G1 is that New Japan allows its biggest stars to lose. They do this to build some easy drama and develop feuds for later shows, but also because it builds wrestlers up who need building up, by giving them wins over the big guns. Okada will surely finish with more points at the end of the tournament, but this is going to be a chance for audiences to remember just what made KENTA so damn good in the first place.
Tetsuya Naito vs. Jon Moxley (July 28, 3 a.m.)
After three high-profile matches on the independent circuit, we have some idea of who and what Jon Moxley will be now that he’s away from WWE. He’s going to wrestle a similar style, but turned up to 11; he’s also going to look like a million bucks and be the biggest star in the ring. This is the one match of the G1 where Moxley will be at a disadvantage on the last two points. After Tanahashi and Okada, there is no one bigger or better in Japan than Tetsuya Naito, the leader of the villainous (and villainously cool) faction Ingobernables de Japon. Naito was a boring white-meat babyface until he went off to Mexico, adopted the mannerisms of La Sombra (now in WWE as Andrade), and brought that unflappable swag to his home country.
Naito is also just a phenomenal wrestler, which helps. He mixes fast-paced strikes with an incredible sense of timing, and all of his matches simultaneously feel like big bouts and chaotic brawls in which someone might die at any time. The aforementioned match with Ibushi is a recent highlight, though I preferred his G1 final in 2017 against Kenny Omega. This will be the first real challenge for Moxley in terms of pure wrestling ability; if you’ve always felt like he was a better wrestler than he’s shown for the last decade, this match will either confirm your well-placed faith or your over-hyped optimism. It’s also likely to be Mox’s best shot at a five-star match in the tournament, which is a badge of honor for independent wrestlers, particularly foreigners in the G1. I think it will deliver, but even if it doesn’t, it should be riveting to see Moxley go up against wrestling’s God Of Indifference.
Will Ospreay vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (July 30, 6 a.m.)
The best British wrestling match of the year is going to happen in Japan. Both Ospreay and Sabre Jr. are at the peak of their respective games right now, and both are among the most polarizing wrestlers in the world. Ospreay, the star of this year’s Best Of The Super Juniors tournament (essentially a G1 for smaller dudes), is as good at controlling his body as he is being a dipshit on Twitter. It’s not for everyone, but his style of ping-ponging around the ring like a whirlwind is highly entertaining...
...and should create a fun clash of styles against ZSJ, who dominates by slowing every match down into a human pretzel highlight reel. The Technical Wizard doesn’t do dives, doesn’t do flips, and doesn’t do anything considered high-risk, high-reward. Instead, he grinds down opponents’ bodies in increasingly uncomfortable ways; fingers get bent one way, wrists the other, legs get turned into gelatin. It doesn’t work for everyone, and might not work for those popping in to see some of the fast-paced, hard-hitting New Japan style. But when it works, Sabre does some of the most unique and fascinating wrestling on the planet. As a bonus for this match, this will be the first singles match between Ospreay and ZSJ in almost two years; they’ve staged some bangers back in England, but this will be their first meeting under the Japanese lights.
Toru Yano vs. Jon Moxley (August 1, 5:30 a.m.)
There are plenty of wrestlers who can wrestle a spot-fest, or a submission showdown, or a brutal deathmatch. Those sorts of spectacles are exceedingly difficult to pull off, but easy to plot out. Toru Yano is the best wrestler in the world at a specific and challenging style of wrestling: comedy. The 41-year-old goofball uses a variety of cheating and distraction techniques to score huge wins over much more highly regarded wrestlers, and people go apeshit for it. One of his signature moves is to try to hawk his DVDs during matches—aside from being a NJPW star, Yano “produces” a bunch of skit and prank comedy videos; the guy just rules. He’ll also hit low blows and other classically underhanded maneuvers en route to a shocking amount of G1 points every year. This Colt Cabana match from Ring Of Honor is a decent primer to Yano’s comedic style:
You may remember that Moxley was pigeonholed as a comedy wrestler for plenty of his time in WWE, often with poor results. I want to blame WWE’s style of comedy booking for this; Moxley, then called Ambrose, was treated as the “lunatic fringe,” which should have meant dangerous but most times just meant dim-witted. Now that he’s free to pursue whatever pops into his head, it should be exciting to see him face off against a comedic genius like Yano. The G1 is long and super-serious, but New Japan is smart enough to have some reprieves here and there. In what will be Moxley’s sixth match of the tournament, he’ll get a break and we’ll get to see the hottest thing in pro wrestling have some dang fun.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Kota Ibushi (August 10, 5 a.m.)
Want a contender for the best match of the tournament? Well, here you go. I found it very difficult not to put every Okada match on this list, but Ibushi is the one opponent I am dying to see him face. The two have not faced off as these characters since 2014—they did have an excellent match in 2017, though Ibushi was in his Tiger Mask W alter ego gimmick—and to say this is the most-anticipated match of the G1 is somehow underselling it. Ever since Ibushi decided to stop being a freelancing weirdo and actually sign for New Japan earlier this year, this match has been right there for the taking, and Gedo (New Japan’s head booker) wisely chose it as the A Block final.
Okada’s credentials have been described enough by this point, but Ibushi is a marvel in his own right. He’s a high-flyer, if you want to limit him to one descriptor, but mostly Ibushi is a maximalist who does everything at full blast; whether that’s having an upper echelon New Japan match or...whatever this is:
In Okada, he’ll find an opponent who is not just his equal in many ways, but his superior in star power and big-match gravitas. But Ibushi is wilder and more fun, and he will likely wrestle Okada in something like the way Omega did in the beloved set of matches the two have staged over the last few years. That is, Ibushi will hope to blow Okada up with energy and big moves, while avoiding his Rainmaker clothesline. It should be a stunning display, and the 30-minute time limit will almost certainly come to play. Every other match preceding it on this list has the potential to be at least a bit of a letdown, but I’m pretty confident that Okada-Ibushi will be a classic.
A Block Winner vs. B Block Winner (August 12, 2 a.m.)
This is almost cheating, I know, but if you’re going to get invested in the G1 this month, the final will be your reward. After all those matches, all those late nights (or early mornings), and what’s usually some frantic last-day finagling for points and block positioning, two of New Japan’s top stars will face off in one last match, with Wrestle Kingdom hanging in the balance. Just for reference, the last five G1 finals have featured: Shinsuke Nakamura (twice), Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi (twice), Hirooki Goto, Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito, and Kota Ibushi. If you had to boil down the last half-decade in New Japan, you could do no better than those six wrestlers (and also Goto, who is an elite mid-carder that does very little for me, personally).
This year’s tournament is one of the harder to call ahead of time due to the sheer level of talent in each block. I would give Zack Sabre Jr. a shot at coming out of A Block if he didn’t have three of New Japan’s four best guys ahead of him. The wrestling observer in me would love to see Moxley challenge for the B Block crown, although it would be nuts to have him actually win the thing; Naito is a more likely choice to represent that block in the final, with New Zealand’s Jay White a dark horse. Regardless of who comes out of the A Block bloodbath—let’s say Ibushi, for posterity’s sake—the final will certainly be a balls-to-the-wall spectacle; the last five finals have all received scores of 4.75 stars or higher from wrestling arbiter Dave Meltzer. Even if you don’t end up watching most of the G1, plan for a late night on August 12. You might just see one of the best wrestling matches of all time, after a tournament full of some of the other best wrestling matches of all time.