G1 Climax 31: Night 1 / A Block

It’s time for my almost-annual tradition of recapping the G1 Climax for one or two shows before losing interest and/or running out of time to keep up on New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual round-robin tournament. But I love watching what I can of this thing, and so I will once again attempt to document the ride through it. And as I document it, I will do my best to make specific match recommendations for you, dear reader, in case you don’t have time to watch like 27 three-hour wrestling shows over the next few weeks.

First off, before we even get to a single match, I cannot say enough great things about this theme song, which appears to be called “Max the Max” by JAM Project. The lyrics appear to be a combination of English and Japanese lines, switching back and forth throughout the song. Fortunately, all the lyrics — English and Japanese — are presented on the screen during the montage video.

The English lyrics are:
Top Rope
Flying attack
Battle Match
Real muscle live!
Full struggle
Danger zones
I know
Fighting with a real sword
I’ve got a Max the Max!
You’ve got a Max the Max!

I rewound the show so I could listen to it again.

Match 1: Yujiro Takahashi vs. Kota Ibushi
Kota Ibushi’s first match in G131 is teed up in the context of whether or not he can three-peat.

I haven’t been watching as much pandemic-era NJPW as I had been before COVID, so I always forget about the eerie silence of the Japanese crowds until I’m watching a show again. For those of you who don’t watch, in order to minimize the projection of the virus, crowds are 100% masked and react entirely through clapping. So positive reactions manifest via applause, but otherwise it’s completely silent.

Pieter’s referee distraction — so that Yujiro could choke Ibushi with his cane — was pretty lame already, but especially so with the complete absence of a reaction from the crowd. So much of Ibushi’s appeal is his connection with the crowd, so his presence suffers a bit from the muted participation. But it’s funny, as dastardly as Yujiro’s ring presence is, the crowd still politely applauds his successful offense.

Both men sold each other’s offense incredibly well, with Yujiro making Ibushi’s flashy style look great, and — as I was thinking at the time — Ibushi was making Yujiro look way too effective. So while I was thinking throughout the match “Yujiro is looking surprisingly good here,” I still did not expect to see Yujiro get the win over Ibushi. The G1 often has a few profound narrative arcs throughout the tournament, so I wonder if we’re going to get a story of repeat G1 winner Kota Ibushi losing a step.

Match 2: Tanga Loa vs. The Great-O-Khan
I get that Great-O-Khan is scary, but that question mark mask that hangs in his face just looks like a piece of copier paper to me.

This match starts out as a much more traditional wrestling match than the first A Block match tonight, which makes sense given Khan’s amateur background, but I liked how it smoothly segued from the amateur style to some tough-guy brawling. One thing I enjoy about the G1 is how the tournament benefits from the wrestlers leaning into what makes their styles unique.

So far into this year’s tournament, we’re 2-for-2 on the heels distracting the ref so that their accomplices outside the ring can assault their competitors. One thing that’s nice about the silent crowd is that you can hear Tanga Loa’s trash talking really well. He and his brother seem to be two of the best trash talkers in NJPW, but there’s just always been something about both of them that has come off sort of lame to me. Not as lame as a guy who wears a question mark stuck to his face, but lame enough to where I’m fine seeing Khan go over here.

Match 3: KENTA vs Toru Yano
I hope this is like a 10-second squash. Fun fact: five years ago today I got to see KENTA (then pretending to be someone called Hideo Itami) beat the crap out of Austin Aries at an NXT house show. I have developed an extreme distaste for goofy humor in pro wrestling in my old age, so it just pains me to see anyone have to waste time with Toru Yano in the G1. But for what it’s worth, they did attempt to make the most of Yano and KENTA’s pre-match squabble to really establish KENTA’s unlikeable heel persona.

That said, I can’t believe this match. Not only did it last way too long, it also had the stupidest finish. It’s bad enough that Yano is in the G1; beating KENTA is turn-it-off stupid. It’s not the worst thing that a nasty heel’s underhanded tactics backfire on him, but there is a point at which there’s enough of a gap between the two wrestlers that the heel doesn’t need to go there.

Match 4: Tetsuya Naito vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
Hopefully this match can turn things around. I like Naito’s suit; fingers crossed he’s going to wrestle in that. Fortunately ZSJ’s entrance is taking long enough for Naito to slowly remove each unnecessary layer of his outfit. I have a Los Ingobernables hoodie that I picked up at a Ring of Honor show a few years ago, but it’s the weirdest fit of any hoodie I’ve owned. The sleeves are super poofy and the torso part is really short. Good judgment should have told me “Don’t buy a wrestling hoodie,” but poor craftsmanship led me to the desired outcome of “Don’t wear a wrestling hoodie,” so it all worked out.

ZSJ is so delightfully douchey. My introduction to him was WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic back in 2016, before I’d been able to figure out how to translate NJPW’s website so I could subscribe to this stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about going back and re-watching that thing, with the hindsight of seeing where a lot of these guys went after that tournament. There were so many good names in there, even if it ended up going kind of a weird direction by the end.

This match gets off to a slow start, but it’s a totally narrative-appropriate feeling out of each other, with Sabre doing a ton of his twisty-turny grappling and Naito powering out and striking poses. It’s a delight to watch as it picks up, with good back-and-forth offense and reversals. Definitely the highlight of the night so far, as you’d expect considering what’s come before.

I love now Naito has this badass, fearless persona, yet he can also very effectively convey vulnerability and believable battle damage as the match rolls on in a way that doesn’t undermine that badassness at all. It’s a great balance that delivers so much emotional payoff. And then of course ZSJ comes off like more and more of a soulless, methodical killer as the match goes on as well. Their personalities complement each other so well throughout the story of the match.

I loved the finish, with Naito tapping. ZSJ is so good, and he makes his opponents look amazing. It can be so tempting to have him constantly put others over, because he’s so effective in defeat. I’m hopeful this could be the beginning of a higher singles push.

Match 5: Shingo Takagi vs. Tomohiro Ishii
If you would’ve told me two years ago that Shingo Takagi was going to be the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, I think I would’ve suspected that maybe WWE signed Naito, Okada, Tanahashi, Ospreay, KENTA, Ibushi and maybe like a dozen others. I also would’ve expected Ishii to devour him, because Ishii is awesome. I realize Takagi is one of the few wrestlers to break Meltzer’s 5-star scale, and he had a great run in Dragon Gate, but I have just never seen much in him. But here we are, Takagi the champ and Ishii his first-round opponent.

I will say that, even if I second-guess the positioning and his gut, Shingo Takagi carries himself with a champion’s presence. It’s a good counter to Ishii’s “I will spit out pieces of your skull” demeanor. This is a brutal fight, and Tagaki absolutely belonged. I clearly just haven’t paying enough attention to him these past couple years. These two managed to make this largely silent crowd get (relatively) noisy! I am curious to see if they’ll protect Takagi over the course of this tournament, or try to make him seem like a vulnerable champion. So far so good for Takagi.

Great match, even though it had among the worst of Red Shoes’ ridiculously broadcast “Don’t worry, I’m no actually going to count to three!” near-falls. Hopefully Ishii can deliver the Toru Yano match I was hoping for tonight.

Overall Match Ranking for G131 A-Block Night 1:

Great matches, definitely worth watching:

  • Naito vs. ZSJ
  • Shingo Takagi vs. Tomohiro Ishii
  • Decent; don’t go out of your way to watch if you’re just picking and choosing, but they’re definitely not offensive:

  • Yujiro Takahashi vs. Kota Ibushi
  • Tanga Loa vs. The Great-O-Khan
  • Skip, and if possible, delete from existence:

  • KENTA vs. Toru Yano