Say you’re one of these people. You run with the popular crowd. The shiny crowd. But you’ve never felt like you quite fit in there. As you walk to yet another lounge or patio that you don’t really want to go to, filled with people you can easily come to revile, you stop in front of some dive bar or small live venue, and you linger for just a second, maybe wondering what it would be like to just pop in. Would you feel more at home? Are they playing the music that you listen to that your “friends” mock you for? But can you just enter that world? Is it just a little too intimidating to start?
Maybe the competition between WWE and AEW has piqued your interest in wrestling. Maybe just the buzz about everything AEW is doing that WWE isn’t. Maybe you’ve got to see why Bryan Danielson jumped ship. But that could feel like just the surface for you. You hear terms like “Forbidden Door,” or see a guy like Minoru Suzuki show up, but you don’t really understand why that’s a big deal. Everyone around you seems to be losing their shit, and you want in, but where do you start?
Well I’m here to tell you the starting point starts Friday, and that’s New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Climax.
What is the G1 Climax? It’s a month-long tournament featuring the best 20 wrestlers NJPW has, and the winner earns a title shot at NJPW’s biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom, on January 4h and 5th at Tokyo Dome (it’s actually adding a third night next year, but let’s leave that for now). The 20 wrestlers are divided into two “blocks” of 10, and they do a round-robin style tournament in both blocks over four weeks, with each wrestler going through nine matches. The winners of each block then face off in the final, which takes place at Budokan, which will mean something to all you Cheap Trick fans out there.
Now that might sound a little simple, and that’s kind of what makes it special. Four or five times a week for the next month, fans are treated to cards with three or four prime matches between some of the biggest stars in the world. Simple is what makes, or at least made, NJPW a go-to for wrestling fans. The stories are clean, easy to understand, and yet enveloping.
And they’re all on display during the G1. Sometimes it’s former tag team partners facing each other in the round robin. Sometimes it’s current tag team partners facing each other. Sometimes it’s long-standing rivalries renewed, like Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahshi — whose matches boosted the profile of NJPW — and who will headline the B Block kickoff this time around on Sunday (Saturday night here). Sometimes the G1 spawns new rivalries and stories that will run for months and years. Everything that’s been going on in NJPW for the previous year comes to a head in the G1, thus the “climax.”
And it’s a great introduction to all the performers that you didn’t know before. By the time you’ve watched them all over seven, eight, nine matches, you’ll know everything about their characters and what makes them special in the ring. You’ll understand how the entire company is divided into factions, and how the schisms between them drive their storylines. Sometimes G1 matches involve two members of the same faction, and you can see how that interplays with the dynamics and sometimes struggles within those factions.
But mostly what you get is a month of great matches. Much like AEW, NJPW contains a wide variety of styles, and watching those styles change from match to match is where the majority of the fun lies. For instance, aging vet Tomohiro Ishii is built like and perhaps of the same consistency as a fire hydrant. He will start the tournament against heavyweight champion Shingo Takagi, and the two of them will absolutely beat the piss out of each other with many exchanged strikes and brutal slams and suplexes. But later in the tournament, Ishii has to face Kota Ibushi, perhaps the most acrobatic performer in the world today. And then, at another point, he will have a straight comedy match with Toru Yano, the industry’s biggest goofball. Whomever you decide to follow, you will watch them run the gamut of every variety the art has to offer.
What are some names to know? That list probably starts with the aforementioned Okada and Tanahashi. Okada is widely considered the best in Japan, maybe in the world, and he’s the one who, with Kenny Omega, authored two matches that are considered by many to be the best to ever take place. Tanahashi is the beloved, older veteran.Think John Cena, if John Cena never went to Hollywood and also lost on occasion. And if John Cena loved Motorhead and was doing his best to be an actual Ziggy Stardust.
Shingo Takagi has spent the past two years putting on some of the best matches in the company, which earned him the top title. He can have a great match with anyone of any size and any style, and this tournament last year was something of his coming-out party. He’s the definition of “built like a brick shithouse” but has no problem going with high-fliers. Or maybe you’ll be drawn to Tetsuya Naito, the coolest looking dude in the world who doesn’t really fit into the heel/face dynamic but everyone loves him anyway. Or Zack Sabre Jr., whose matches are just a series of submissions and holds that only he can do and which don’t look like any other wrestling match you’ve ever seen. Or maybe Kota Ibushi, who is what Norrin Radd would look like if Norrin Radd were real.
Is this the best time to catch the G1? Well, no. Japan is still heavily halted by COVID, so these shows have reduced crowds who are only allowed to “scream inside their heart,’’ which ruins the atmosphere a bit. But there are some matches that bring the audience beyond protocol, which is always a blast to witness (it’s usually Ishii). Also thanks to COVID, the tournament will be absent the special guests from outside the company it usually features, such as Jon Moxley in the past or Bryan Danielson this year if it were possible.
Secondly, the pandemic has caused some of NJPW’s booking to be really weird and inconsistent. But we can leave that aside for now, because the G1 always resets everything and the tourney itself can’t be totally ruined. There’s just too much good stuff.
So, how? Well, you download the NJPW World app, and there’s always an English-language version of every show which will help explain everything that’s going on. Don’t try and stay up for it, otherwise you’ll go cross-eyed within a week. Don’t even try and take all 19 shows in, or feel like you have to. Fit it into your day, as the important parts are only about an hour or so each time. And within a month, you’ll be completely caught up on everything. And you’ll be one of us, in the dark corners and smoky sections that you feel like you’ve always belonged in, but were afraid to approach.