Category: rants & nostalgia

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

  • Monday Night Raw 2019-2020 “Season Premiere” – Live Thoughts

    I will refresh this blog throughout the night.

    Full disclosure — I stopped watching Raw probably around the time of Blood Money II, so I couldn’t tell you if this intro was new or not. But the stage and set definitely look new, and I read enough clickbait news sites to know that the pyro is back!

    And those are completely new announcers (or in Lawler’s case, old)! I’m very much looking forward to an episode of Raw that doesn’t include Michael Cole or Corey Graves.

    I thought they said they were going to start with the Universal Title match, but Rey doesn’t look dressed to compete.

    I like that they’re promoting matches to come later tonight. It’s so basic, but they’ve done so little in recent years to acknowledge the power of treating matches like they matter.

    Poor Rey — they never e-e-e-ever let Rey Mysterio finish a promo without getting interrupted.

    Totally misread Lesnar’s t-shirt as saying “Supper City.” Mmmm.


    AEW All Out – live thoughts

    I’m catching this show a day late and have so far avoided almost all commentary of any kind and all substantive spoilers. Here’s a repeatedly updated post as I make my way through it.

    • The opening promo package was well-produced, but it’s discouraging to hear this screamy rage-rock soundtrack. It’s one of the elements that WWE seems to have permanently anchored to 1998, and an area where AEW could’ve immediately differentiated themselves.
    • First match is SCU vs Jurassic Express. I love Luchasaurus but I don’t like people (and promotions) having to pretend a guy is really a dinosaur. The camera shakes, SCU selling fright — that’s kind of lame. Why can’t he just be a real guy dressed as a dinosaur?
    • There’s something about the production of AEW’s hard camera that makes it look like there’s a light haze in the arena, which really reminds me of WCW.
    • I would go easy on the commentary saying SCU has a combined 64 years of experience. To me that falls on the wrong side of the “celebrating a career” vs “these guys are old” line.
    • Surprised they’re going to Omega-PAC so early in the show.
    • Another thing AEW needs to fix is the quality of their music going to the audio feed. It sounds like we’re just getting the audio from the arena sometimes, and not well-mic’ed at that. It makes the experience of watching on TV so much less immersive. WWE does a great job of mixing the entrance themes well so that you hear them in full quality.
    • Great match between PAC and Omega, even with some botched spots. They’re both big enough pros to cover for those mistakes. Kind of surprised by the finish; at some point they’re going to need to protect Omega, and hopefully that’s soon.
    • Darby Allin looks like he didn’t finish his makeup before the match.
    • This three-way garbage match is embarrassing. They’re spending all this time on this awful chair-tape-tacks scene and nothing is really going right. Allin and Janella both appear to have never used tape before. Havoc kept his thumbtack-filled mouth taped shut for like 10 minutes until he needed the opportunity to spit tacks.
    • Ok, so I wonder if maybe I’ve just never watched good garbage matches; I actually ended up finding myself enjoying that and getting into the finish. In spite of that, I would still rather never see another of these matches ever.
    • (more…)

    G1 Climax Block A: Kazuchika Okada vs. Zack Sabre Jr.

    Okada has grown on me over the past year or so, but I still can’t get over how the profile photo that NJPW uses in the match promotion cards make it look like he’s pushing out a fart.

    ZSJ has the most incredible heeling physical charisma. When Okada isn’t making his Rock impersonation faces, he has these fantastic expressions that so infectiously pull you in; but then shortly after he lets his guard down, he quickly pivots back into some contorted fart face with an awkward attempt at an eyebrow raise.

    The announcers set the stage by pointing out these two are 1-1 against each other.

    ZSJ quickly goes for submission attempts, which is such a great way to quickly establish him as a legitimate threat, given their physical differences. I know some people can’t get over ZSJ’s comparative scrawniness, so I think even though it’s unfortunate, it’s nice when the threat he presents can be established early.

    And do they ever do that — ZSJ almost catches Okada early with both submission holds and submission holds turned into pin attempts. Sabre just chips away at people; it’s amazing to watch. One of my favorite things he does when his opponent is down is to just toy with them, kicking them while they’re squirming around on the mat. It’s totally unnecessary and not even damaging, but such a punk thing to do that mostly just communicates what kind of guy you’re up against.

    Okada gains a little momentum and goes for a Blackjack, but Sabre reverses it into a Guillotine. Okada goes for the Rainmaker relatively early, with the announcers declaring he’s on his way to going 2-0. Then he lands the Tombstone, but Sabre reverses a Rainmaker attempt and turns it into an incredible Octopus.

    In college at parties I used to drunkenly convince other drunk people to let me apply Figure Four Leg-Locks and the Walls of Jericho. I hope that college kids these days are applying Zack Sabre Jr. holds at parties, but in fairness they might be too complicated to pull off after a few drinks. I’m only about 75% drunk now and I can’t figure out how he pulled off these contortions, and that’s just looking at the TV.

    Okada uses his power to regain the momentum again, but just as quickly Sabre uses his speed and squirminess to apply submissions converted to pinning positions out of nowhere. And Sabre turns another Rainmaker attempt into another Flying Octopus. This is nuts!

    But Okada hits two Rainmakers in a row, and that ends that. Okada is now at four points, and ZSJ has none. That was a fun match, but I felt like it actually could’ve gone quite a bit longer. The crispness and speed of ZSJ’s comebacks never quite diminished, so the finish felt a little premature. Still, absolutely worth watching.

    G1 Climax 29 Block A: Will Ospreay vs. Sanada

    This should be good. Ospreay is the best around, and even though Sanada isn’t really at that level, he should definitely be able to keep up well enough. I’m really hoping the NJPW / ROH partnership falls apart soon so that Ospreay could do some AEW events. This guy could be a major breakout star (for some company other than WWE). In WWE, they’d probably have him be like Downton Arby or Doctor How.

    Kelly brings up Ospreay’s Lucha training and parallels that with Sanada’s time wrestling in Mexico, and that aligns with the two wrestlers showing their balance in the ring with an evenly matched opening flurry that leads to a standoff that gets the crowd going.

    I love the light storytelling and crowd-nudging gestures they use in New Japan; the crowd seemed evenly split during that standoff, so Sanada comes out of the standoff by offering a handshake, which Ospreay gingerly accepts … only to be suckered by Sanada. Unlike the usual WWE suckerings of babyfaces, this was no pivotal moment leading to losing the advantage or even losing the match — it was just a quick exchange that dropped an important cue to the crowd.

    I guess it doesn’t really work; Sanada gets Ospreay trapped in the ropes with the Paradise Lock and plays to the crowd, and the crowd responds with cheers. Sanada keeps the pace slow in these early minutes, with a lot of submission holds and deliberate chipping away at Ospreay — but then Ospreay finds openings to spring out of nowhere with an amazing sequence. It’s a great example of how different styles can tell an interesting story through their contrast and the clarity of the momentum shifts.

    After some quick exchanges, the crowd is now chanting Ospreay’s name, but Sanada holds his own with Ospreay’s increased pace and answers accordingly. An awesome exchange of holds, finishing move attempts and reversals is even more impressive partially based on what appears to have not worked — in a few of the quick exchanges, it looked like maybe some aim was off or grasps were missed, but these two are so good that they immediately recovered and did so in a way that seemed totally natural, as opposed to “Oh oops I missed my spot, so let me very unnaturally get back into position.”

    These two put together an amazing sequence leading to an Ospreay powerbomb, but Sanada kicks out at two. Ospreay lands a shooting star press (that looked a little short, to be honest) and Sanada kicks out again. But Ospreay goes for a Stormbreaker that Sanada beautifully reverses into a Skull End. Ospreay lands the (not super impressive looking) Robinson Special into an Os Cutter and finally hits the Stormbreaker for the win.

    Fun match that earns Ospreay his first two points, and the announcers make a point of emphasizing the significance of Ospreay scoring for the first time in this heavyweight tournament. Sanada may not get any points out of this, but he still comes out of the match looking strong.

    G1 Climax 29 Block A: Lance Archer vs. Bad Luck Fale

    Man, Bad Luck Fale is lame. Fat, slow, boring and he sucks too. I wouldn’t be watching this match if not for a desire to watch all the tournament matches. Archer really impressed me in the opening night match against Ospreay, so maybe he’ll make this watchable.

    Not sure who is supposed to be the face in this match, though; both seem determined to be as unlikeable as possible. I realize over the course of the block there are going to be several heel vs. heel matchups, but I was curious if they’d try to subtly encourage fan preference.

    The announcers aren’t concerned about reaching the 30 minute time limit. “We’ll be lucky if we get to 10.”

    I realize screaming “EVERYBODY DIES!” is part of Archer’s gimmick but he really overdoes it. It doesn’t come off as scary or threatening but just like somebody pulled the Lance Archer doll’s string again so he’s saying “everybody dies” again.

    So far this match is just lazy, slow-motion brawling. I’m considering stopping it early. Considering I’m about a month behind on this tournament, this feels like maybe something I don’t need to watch. I appreciate the polite in-person crowd still gently applauding Archer’s slow climb to his feet.

    Following up on the earlier topic, Archer isn’t working face at all, but presumably due to Fale’s terribleness the crowd has started lightly supporting Archer. “What world am I living in,” Kevin Kelly asks. “People are actually starting to cheer Lance Archer?”

    Fale’s so bad that a standard superplex is exciting because he’s actually doing something other than just walking around slowly.

    Archer’s doing a good job of waking the crowd up. This guy seems like he could come out of this tournament a new main-event star in New Japan. That was an interesting finish — pinning Fale by squeezing Fale’s head and essentially having the shoulders down incidentally.

    Archer is now at 4 points, Fale holds at 2.

    G1 Climax 29: July 13 overall thoughts

    I had lower expectations for this show compared to the July 6 show, given the makeup of Block B, but the matches I most thought would be entertaining (Moxley, Naito) were kind of duds. I guess I should’ve expected as much considering the matchups, at least with Naito.

    Cobb vs. Ishii was great, but I think I might actually give White vs. Goto my match of the night. Ask me tomorrow and I might go with Cobb vs. Ishii.

    G1 CLIMAX 29: July 13
    Watch: White vs. Goto, Cobb vs. Ishii
    Consider: Robinson vs. Takagi
    Skip: Moxley vs. Taichi, Naito vs. Yano

    G1 Climax 29 Block B: Hirooki Goto vs. Jay White

    Man, Block B sure seems weaker when this is the main event, and the main event in the previous show was Tanahashi vs. Okada.

    I’m not a big fan of Jay White’s beard. He’s got that problem where the mustache and the beard don’t connect, and it just makes the overall beard thing less intimidating, like maybe he’s going for a 19th century Frenchman look. It also somehow makes him look younger, not in a good way. His heel charisma is still fantastic though.

    I realize it was mostly due to Kenny Omega’s departure and the decision to transfer his story to White, but I feel like White was maybe hurt a little by having such an inconsequential championship run so early in his rise. He’s so good, but rising and then falling so quickly makes him feel a bit like a fluky flash in the pan. And it makes the weasely heat he’s trying to generate against Goto feel a little midcardish.

    As soon as I type that, though, he turns on the credibility and the danger. This is the style I really like in White — he’s so menacing and almost surgical in the way he swiftly picks at opponents. I love when wrestlers can project their personalities through wrestling moves.

    (I am kind of getting tired and want to go to bed but I have a feeling they’re going to make the most of their time opportunity here.)

    Good stuff here as White just smacks the back of Goto’s head like a total jerk. Beautiful. I think White actually looks like he’s lost some muscle mass since his title run. He was looking a little oversized for a while though.

    Nice turn in the story as White is still outsmarting Goto, but Goto’s perseverance is breaking through the advantage. White’s still taking him apart, but Goto isn’t staying down.

    Bladebuster and a nonchalant cover lead to a two-count, but I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if they actually let that be the finish. I think we’re seeing a good story of White proving to be just as dangerous and menacing as ever, and a clean win — as unhappy as the crowd would be — would me a good statement and set the stage well for the threat of Jay White in this opening night for the B Block. Plus the crowd doesn’t seem as hot for Goto as they are opposed to White.

    White’s gloating leads to Goto’s revival, and at least now the crowd seems behind him. Good back and forth sequence with some really awfully executed near-falls from the always awfully-executing Red Shoes. The guy milks a 2.999 count so far past the point of believability. I realize that’s part of his charm but it can really disrupt an otherwise beautifully wrestled match.

    Another beautiful sequence of reversals, and two brutal moves from Goto but I missed the name of both of them. Totally didn’t think White should’ve been able to kick out of either. But Goto has the crowd super hot and times the GTR just right for the win and the 2 points. I was all for a White win earlier, but that was a pretty flawlessly executed finishing sequence.

    That wraps up the second night of the G1 Climax, first night of Block B.

    G1 Climax 29 Block B: Jeff Cobb vs. Tomohiro Ishii

    I didn’t really notice Jeff Cobb until the NJPW/ROH MSG show on Wrestlemania weekend when I thought “How have I missed this guy?” I also thought “How has Ring of Honor won the contract battle?” And Ishii is awesome. I’m really looking forward to how these two match up given their builds and styles.

    Cobb shows off his strength early, but Ishii balances with his ferocity. I like the story here though, where Cobb just throws so much power at Ishii, Ishii retaliates with tenacity, but Cobb just has too much.

    There’s a spot in this match where Cobb and Ishii just trade forearm after forearm for like a minute and it just keeps going. It wears me out watching it.

    Cobb’s really something special to watch — the way he pairs speed with his insane strength. Also I’ve never really understood how people with such big guts can be so fast or have such good cardio. Or do standing flips.

    The story of Ishii being unable to withstand the beating continues, with Cobb’s strength and speed compounding the damage. But that just builds up to a Hulk-up moment where Ishii begins leaning into Cobb’s bludgeoning and ends up building to a superplex. Cobb responds with a Hulk-up and superplex of his own though.

    I am really enjoying the build of Ishii from underneath here; Cobb still has the strength advantage, but whereas it seemed earlier like that was going to be too much, Ishii is wearing him out to where the strength advantage is getting slimmer and slimmer. And now the tenacious old man may have outplayed his stronger and faster opponent.

    Cobb blocks a lariat attempt, Ishii reverses that into a suplex, goes for a pin and has his cover attempt result in getting launched halfway across the ring — this sequence where either man could gain the upper hand is fantastic. More cover attempts, more near-falls and kick-outs, more counters and reversals — until Ishii lands the vertical brainbuster for the win.

    Fantastic match, and both men came out looking great — Cobb just came up short this time. It should be fun when both of them meet up with Moxley later.

    G1 Climax 29 Block B: Tetsuya Naito vs. Toru Yano

    Will they do two relative squashes in a row? I hope so!

    I much prefer Naito’s “too cool for school” demeanor over Okada’s; Okada’s is always just a little too much “Who farted?” for my tastes. I love Naito’s ridiculously cocky 70s attire here, and it’s a nice trick to let Yano fill the space with his clowning so Naito can slowly transition from glitter suit to wrestling clothes.

    30 minutes are on the clock. Let’s see if we can do this in one.

    Yano is lucking his way through survival with a few surprise survival spots and almost rolls up Naito for an unbelievable couple of near-falls.

    Holy cow. Toru Yano pinned Naito. I wanted a short match, but that’s not what I expected or really had any interest in seeing. His first G1 win since 2014 and it’s over Naito.

    (For what it’s worth, the announcers are doing a great job of selling the story that Naito looked past Yano and maybe now he’ll learn to take each opponent seriously. New Japan is so good at making everything count, even when it’s something stupid like Toru Yano pinning Naito.)