Overview of the Tournament Thus Far:
In the first half, the tournament has really been highlighted by the A Block. When the tournament began, people had speculated that the A-Block was going to be the weaker of the two. Given that three of my favorites, Shibata, Styles, and Ibushi were in A, and I tend to be lower on some of the B Block guys than some, I was less convinced, but even I couldn't have expected this kind of dominance from the A Block in the early going. What really made the A-Block special is in addition to those three being amongst the best in the world right now, Naito's new gimmick has instantly made him one of the most compelling performers in wrestling and Tanahashi has been absolutely working his behind off in this tournament. People expected given his long feud with Yano that it was possible that WK9 was his last high point, due to his bad back and advancing age, but he has put those doubters to rest here. The big five of A-Block (Shibata, Naito, Styles, Ibushi, and Tanahashi) are on a completely different level right now, and have brought it in virtually every match, especially the ones against one another, but even when carrying the weak links in the block (such as day 9, where each of the five members faced a member of the bottom half of the block, and not one match did I have lower than 3 stars). In terms of B-Block, Elgin has probably been the most impressive thus far, as has Tomoaki Honma. But in Tomoaki's case, the ‘Honma never wins' gimmick is really becoming unsustainable. It makes his matches so much harder to care about because you know in the end, he's just going to lose anyway. He really needs at least a win, and ideally a run in this tournament during the back half for the heat of his matches to not run out.
Top Matches (Four Stars or Better):
Honorable Mention: AJ Styles v. Tetsuya Naito (Night 7)
This one as a match was a little disappointing given the participants, especially with the crowd not really knowing how to react since both are clear heels, but AJ's running commentary on Naito taking his mask and suit off was, well, phenomenal:
"I'm not wrestling him with a mask on for Pete's sake. He looks like an idiot anyways." "Oh God, that's even worse. Put the mask back on." "Oh this is... he's taking forever... he has to take his clothes off now so he can wrestle. I did that in the back. I got ready a long time ago. Really? Really, Cody (Hall, fellow Bullet Club member)? What is he, a stripper now? Is he a stripper on the side? I don't see a pole. He wouldn't be good at it anyway, he's slow. He's taking it off way too slow. Gotta be real sexy when you take off clothes like that." "Yay! He got ‘em off! *claps* Alright! Now we can wrestle. For God's sakes..."
9. Tomoaki Honma v. Hirooki Goto (Night 6):
This was my favorite Goto match in quite a while because he and Honma seem like a very natural pairing. Typically, Goto has been working underneath against the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura lately, but here, he was able to work the match more on top against the underdog Honma, which is a much better place for him as he's more interesting when controlling the match. Honma was fantastic here as always, continuing to manage to work his underdog charm to build heat for nearfalls that we all know in our heart of hearts are not going to actually get the win as the result at the end of the match is becoming increasingly inevitable every time.
8. Hiroshi Tanahashi v. Kota Ibushi (Night 1):
This is one that I was seemingly substantially down from the consensus on, including Dave Meltzer, who gave it an extremely high 4.75. The problem I had with the match was that it felt like most of the first 12 or so minutes of the 20 were just totally wasted. Tanahashi consistently went after Ibushi's legs with a veritable bucketload of dragon screws and other leg attacks, but the second it was time for Ibushi's comeback he totally forgot it happened and just did all his normal stuff in the normal way. I literally started laughing to myself at one point, because Ibushi's seeming imperviousness to limb damage has become such a predictable running joke, and he was in rare form here. He kicked with the bad leg, quickly did his running jumping turnbuckle moonsault sequence at full speed, nothing changed about his approach after the attack. We never got a sense that what Tanahashi had done mattered. I don't ask for much, you don't need to sell like your arm is totally immobile (like Reigns against Harper on Raw recently) in every match, but for me to want to rate a match highly, you need to show that it matters if you're going to focus on it for that long. Change your offensive approach, execute moves in a different way to show the damage, substantially slow down the speed of your execution in a key moment, something. Or else selling loses its purpose, and then we might as well just have every match to see who can throw the most impressive moves at the quickest pace and no-sell the most damage.
And it's a shame too, because the rest of this match was exactly as great as that rating from Meltzer suggests, Tanahashi's effort here was fantastic, and the stretch run was just outstanding which is why it still makes the list, even if it's not top 5 like some might have it.
7. AJ Styles v. Katsuyori Shibata (Night 1):
This was the match I most anticipated coming into the tournament, as Shibata has been one of my favorites for a while, and really seemed to kick into gear with his match against Kazushi Sakuraba at Dominion early last month, and AJ Styles might be the best wrestler going today, and while it didn't quite live up to those expectations, it was still a very good match. This one felt like it was paced for a longer match than the sprint format that produces the true classic 11-13 minute G1 ‘sprint' style matches (such as Shibata's own 12 minute five star affair with Tomohiro Ishii in the 2013 G1). This felt structured more for a match that got 18 minutes or so, and so when the finish happened, it felt like it ended right as it was really kicking into gear.
That being said, what we did get is thirteen minutes of two of the best in the business going at it. Shibata took control early, but Styles went after Shibata's leg to weaken his kicks after Shibata went for a high kick and instead kicked the ringpost. During a big strike exchange, AJ fired the first salvo in what would become his hall of fame tier banter this tournament by shouting at Shibata "You're crazy, man!" in the midst of a typical fiery Shibata strike exchange where he fought through AJ's blows and continued to get in his face after each heavy shot from AJ. The highpoint of the match came when Shibata's arm injury that some thought might put his G1 status at risk was exploited by AJ when he had a sleeper hold locked in, which caused Shibata to bite his own hand to maintain the pressure on the sleeper since he couldn't use his arm. Unfortunately it was all for naught as AJ managed to fight out of it, hit the Pele Kick into Bloody Sunday into the Styles Clash for the victory.
I'd really love to see these two get a full length singles match down the line because we really saw hints of greatness here.
6. Michael Elgin v. Tomoaki Honma (Night 8):
By day 8, when it had become clear that Japanese Michael Elgin was a very different animal than the incredibly frustrating American Indies "Get My Shit In" Elgin, this became an incredibly exciting matchup pitting two of the G1's most impressive pound for pound strongmen against each other and it absolutely lived up to the hype. Honma worked his usual incredibly endearing underdog style and Elgin used his power extremely well to come across a true monster, building great heat on Honma for his comeback. Elgin scooping Honma and slamming him repeatedly into the corners before finally just tossing him off the scoop slam was an incredibly impressive show of strength and also brutality. Each guy used their vertical suplex variation to great effect whether it was Elgin holding his long delayed vertical suplex or Honma's deadlift vertical suplex. And in the most incredible display of strength, Elgin utilized his own spin on Cesaro's deadlift superplex with a deadlift Super Falcon Arrow.
Not a deep story to this one, but an incredibly fun strongman battle, with a fantastic finishing stretch seeing Honma pop out of the Buckle Bomb with a Kokeshi and then delivering another one to Elgin's back before missing the top rope Kokeshi (as always) and then a fantastic strike and lariat exchange, culminating with Elgin getting the better of it, catching Honma in mid air going for another Kokeshi into a German Suplex and hitting the Buckle Bomb/Elgin Bomb combo to end it. Really excellent stuff from both guys. This is how you make a ten minute match feel substantial.
5. Toru Yano v. AJ Styles (Night 3):
This right here is one of the biggest surprises of the entire tournament. I tend to enjoy Yano's schtick more than most, but this is a great match no matter what your feelings on Yano are. For me, this is the best match of Toru Yano's career and I don't know if it's even a close call. What made this match special is that typically when you battle Yano, you often get sucked into his shenanigans and come across looking like a geek (often in a good, intentional way, such as in the Tanahashi feud that occupied the first half of the year).
What happened here instead was kind of the opposite, where AJ made Yano a credible threat and all his shenanigans were taken with the utmost seriousness, and that really made this into a legitimately great match. Yano often uses his red steel chair to hit his opponents, but here he viciously launched it at AJ in mid air as he was diving off the guardrail for his Springboard Forearm strike. Another great moment in this vein saw Yano go for his Y-T-R taunt (appropriated from his battle with RVD years back) with his back turned and used his ‘Yano Sense' to recognize AJ was coming and ducked out of the way, sending AJ over the top rope. AJ caught himself, and as Yano turned around to do the taunt again, AJ nailed him hard in the back of the head with a nasty Springboard Forearm strike. All you need to know to know how serious this one was is that it took Yano nearly 8 minutes to remove the turnbuckle pad. And on that note, in the fun intersection between wrestlers' movesets, AJ hit his signature vertical suplex into the turnbuckle in the corner with the removed pad. And lastly, Yano attempted to whip AJ into Red Shoes and then went for the low blow as AJ had his hands up to stop the momentum from crashing him into Red Shoes, but AJ managed to see it coming and caught and blocked Yano's low blow attempt!
Near the end, the match really heated up with multiple beautifully timed close nearfalls that the crowd popped huge for, and finally, at the finish, Yano went to the well one to many times on his inside cradle attempts and AJ managed to spin it into the Calf-Slicer earning the tap out victory. Really excellent match.
And as a bonus to all this, AJ's feud with referee Red Shoes continued apace here, further adding to the comedic, but serious tone of the match. First, AJ tried to use Yano's chair but was caught by Red Shoes and replied with "He hit me! Come on!" And continuing the earlier comment about AJ's hall of fame banter, as Red Shoes told him he would not count AJ's cocky flexing pin (even though he counts all of Nakamura's cocky pins) he replied "I'm flexin' here! There's pictures being taken for God's sakes!" Top work, AJ.
4. Katsuyori Shibata v. Tetsuya Naito (Night 3):
This one was another of my favorites of the tournament thus far, a very strong G1 sprint style match, cramming a lot of great ringwork and especially sensational characterization into a relatively quick match. This match other than maybe the Tanahashi match might have been the strongest showcase of just how great a character Los Ingobernables Naito is. The interaction between the utterly no-nonsense Shibata with the annoyed indifference of Naito really made this match sing. They set the stage immediately as Naito while still in his metal mask turns around to slowly start taking off his gear but Shibata has no time for this and kicks him in the back, snapmares him over with the mask still on to set up for the Penalty Kick once Naito takes off the mask. Naito manages to duck the attempt and then rolls out of the ring to the apron, starts to slowly remove his jacket, and Shibata once again is not interested in waiting around and kicks him off the ring apron into the guardrail. Shibata continues the attack as Naito is still clad in his dress shirt and slacks.
As they get back in the ring Naito comes off the ropes with a low angle dropkick to Shibata's knee getting huge heat from the crowd. He's quickly become the most over heel in New Japan since adopting this gimmick. After this, he tosses Shibata from the ring and we see a really strong sequence in the heat segment for Naito which involves him trapping Shibata's leg in the guardrail, hitting Shibata's already injured arm to leave him vulnerable and then dropkicking Shibata's knee against the guardrail. With Shibata immobilized, Naito decides now is a good time to slowly get undressed into his ring gear amidst loud boos from the crowd as Red Shoes begins to count Shibata out. Naito then locks the figure four on and lays down to nap. A great moment as Shibata takes the offensive after countering one of Naito's signatures sees him use his patented running low corner dropkick, but does it only with his right leg, selling the damage from Naito's attack.
Naito's offensive attack on the leg wasn't consistent enough such that he really needed to sell immobility, merely weakened effect, and he did that very well, especially here, but also with smaller things such as being a step or two delayed on some of his offensive maneuvers to sell that his left knee was less than 100 percent. Once again, Shibata emerged victorious with the Sleeper/Penalty Kick combo, but ya know, whatever, Naito was probably ready to take a nap anyway.
3. AJ Styles v. Kota Ibushi (Night 5):
This right here is really the kind of match that the G1 Climax is all about. I found this one to be superior to their Invasion Attack match because while that one felt bloated with legwork that didn't go anywhere that Ibushi didn't sell, this one cut that and just focused on all the stuff that worked about their prior encounter. Really well paced and well-structured where the pace stayed crisp and engaging without being too fast or feeling rushed, and built throughout the match such that you really got a feeling of escalation before the well-earned finishing sequence featuring some absolutely insane athletic feats that you could expect from a matchup pitting the two best athletes in NJPW's heavyweight division against one another.
The bout climaxed with AJ attempting to hit a Styles Clash from the top rope, which Ibushi reversed into a Frankensteiner in mid-air, leading into the finishing run. This is the kind of match these two guys absolutely should have with one another as the athleticism they have is what sets them apart from the rest of the top of the card heavyweights. One of the matches from the G1 thus far that you absolutely need to see.
2. Katsuyori Shibata v. Kota Ibushi (Night 7):
Another one of the absolute finest matches in the G1 thus far. This one was fourteen minutes of absolute fire between two of the guys in New Japan with the most fighting spirit. Shibata is too angry at the world to show pain, while Ibushi is too cocky, and this featured both guys trying their best to never give their opponent an inch by showing the slightest bit of weakness.
One thing I really loved about this one is that it continued the macro story from Wrestle Kingdom 9 of Kota Ibushi bumping his head against the ceiling of the top heavyweights of New Japan because he continues to try to not only beat them, but beat them at their own game. Rather than wrestling his match, he got sucked into Shibata's match. Rather than focus on his speed and athleticism, he joined Shibata in a stiff, punishing strike based offensive match and trying to match strikes with Katsuyori Shibata is just not going to end well very often for anyone. If Kota Ibushi truly seeks to ascend to the top, he's going to need instead to utilize his advantages over these guys rather than play into their hands by wrestling on their terms. But with that being said, Ibushi, like at Wrestle Kingdom, still managed to come close, even with his cocky and inevitably flawed strategy.
This one was just both guys absolutely hammering each other with vicious blows. Some of the myriad highlights of the match included: Ibushi stealing Shibata's running low corner dropkick and Shibata getting up immediately after and getting in Ibushi's face to challenge his insolence for stealing his move. Or Shibata attempting to elbow, uppercut and kick Ibushi in position for his own corner dropkick and Ibushi simply refusing to stay down until Shibata finally let loose with repeated stomps to the head and a running boot from the corner. Another saw Ibushi continually kicking Shibata in the chest, and Shibata merely shaking his head to say no, signaling that he's just not kicking hard enough and slowly beginning to let signs of pain show through as he kept trying to keep that pain buried while Ibushi just kept kicking him in the chest. And finally, Shibata catching the Pele Kick into an STF (I assume we'll see that one attempted by Cena against Balor someday) that nearly got the victory.
There is one fighting spirit sequence of the match which has been pretty divisive, which saw both guys continue to get up from vicious German Suplexes and kick out at one from brutal lariats and kicks. For me, I thought it was a bit overkill, but didn't think it was an abomination of Davey Richards proportions. This kind of no-selling tends to bother me less than forgetting more long term damage, as I discussed in the Tanahashi/Ibushi match, because in this case it had less of a sweeping effect on the long term story of the match on the whole and the moves still mattered in that after the burst of adrenaline they managed to throw a couple more moves and then they were down for nearly a full 10 count whereas the pace had been lightning quick previously because both guys had refused to let their opponent get the satisfaction of seeing them in pain for long, whereas this legitimately kept them down. Whereas in Tanahashi/Ibushi, the entire time spent on working the leg just didn't mean anything. It just happened, and had no impact on the match so it was literally just passing the time. Here we saw a burst of adrenaline (that I do think went on too long, which is why I didn't love it) that culminated in both guys being at death's door. That's really where I tend to fall on selling. Show me it matters, especially if it's a long term story of the match. In Ibushi/Tanahashi, it didn't, at all. Here, the moves had an impact, even if it wasn't immediate and they were able to fight through the pain on adrenaline and sheer force of will briefly.
In the end, once again Ibushi was unable to beat a heavyweight at their own game and succumbed to a vicious strike to the face into the sleeper and Penalty Kick combo that has been truly devastating in the G1 thus far, producing four wins for Shibata. If the fighting spirit segment was a little less over the top and there was a stronger finishing sequence, I could easily see this match having pulled five. As it is, it's still my second favorite of the tournament thus far.
1. Hiroshi Tanahashi v. Tetsuya Naito (Night 5):
This right here is actually my favorite match of the tournament thus far. Tanahashi's performance throughout the G1 has been nothing short of sensational, and Naito once again delivered huge in this one. He just understands this character on such a deep level, which is so impressive to do so so quickly. What made this match really stand out to me was the storytelling and the way it drew on so much past history between Tanahashi and Naito.
In many ways, Tanahashi was the root cause of Naito's disillusionment and turn toward the ways of Los Ingobernables. During the 2013 G1, Naito defeated Tanahashi in the finals to win the tournament, a major push toward the top of the card for Naito to go over on the Ace of the Century and win the G1, which promised him an opportunity to fight for the IWGP championship in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom... or so he thought. The problem was that the fans reacted very poorly to Naito's massive G1 push, which led New Japan to take the bold step of electing to have a fan vote to determine what the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8 was going to be. Given that the Intercontinental Championship bout was the incredibly popular champion Shinsuke Nakamura facing off against the incredibly popular challenger Hiroshi Tanahashi, the vote obviously came down in favor of the Intercontinental Championship match, as they wanted. So even though Naito defeated Tanahashi in the finals of the G1 right in the middle of the ring, it was still Hiroshi who got to main event Wrestle Kingdom over him. That was at the forefront of this match. Basically, Naito hates this idea that Tanahashi's the best. Because he's not, Naito is the best. He's the best in the wor- err...wrong guy, back to the match at hand.
Naito really conveyed a viciousness and anger to his irritated indifference in this one, putting a new shade on his persona. And while Naito was pissed, he was also arrogant, taking Tanahashi lightly because he'd already beaten him before in a bigger spot than this. In many ways this was kind of a perfect opponent for the Los Ingobernables gimmick given that he was both angry at Tanahashi for stealing his moment, but also his typical lazy and indifferent self because he knew he'd already beaten him and didn't need to take him seriously. Tanahashi on the other hand struggled with seeing a familiar tag team partner of his turned to the ways of Los Ingobernables and grew more and more frustrated throughout the match at Naito's dickish behavior, including him quite literally spitting in the face of Tanahashi or laying around the ring wanting to take a nap. There was also an intensity to Tanahashi's performance here that was welcome with him going after Naito's surgically repaired knee, both because he knew he needed to take any edge he can get and because he was trying to match the viciousness of Naito. But in the end, Naito proved that he may really have Tanahashi's number after defeating him with his new finisher, Destino. This is definitely a match I'd love to see one more time in the Tokyo Dome in January to culminate this story.
Katsuyori Shibata: Katsuyori Shibata's July might be the best month a wrestler has had in a long time. The match with Sakuraba at Dominion, Styles on Night 1, Naito on Night 3, and Ibushi on Night 7 is one hell of a slate of matches for a single month, with 3 of them being 4.5+ star affairs, not to mention his stellar carry job with Togi Makabe on night 5 producing Makabe's best match in a long time. He currently leads the G1 tournament with 8 points, but I anticipate that he'll suffer a crushing choke job in the back half, because it seems that Gedo is just never going to forgive him for leaving NJPW when it was down to fight MMA and coming back after its resurgence.
Tetsuya Naito: My God, what a difference a gimmick can make. For years, I'd been no fan of Tetsuya Naito, but the Los Ingobernables gimmick he's picked up since returning from his brief tour with CMLL in Mexico has been nothing short of fantastic. At this moment, he's the best heel in professional wrestling. Not only is it an entertaining character, but it's totally shifted the way he works in an incredibly positive manner and he's really delivered in every bout in the G1 thus far. His character just oozes into every element of his ringwork and seeing the other performers react to him has been a real highlight of the G1, from Shibata's frustration to Makabe's confusion to Tanahashi's disappointment to AJ's disgust.
Kota Ibushi, AJ Styles & Hiroshi Tanahashi: The other three of the A-Block big five have also really brought it throughout the tournament with a lot of very good performances and a couple great ones.
Michael Elgin: Talk about a change of scenery. Since coming to Japan, Michael Elgin has been a changed man. He's really acquitted himself very well in the tournament, slowing his pace down a bit, not needing to "Get his shit in" in every match and generally wrestling so much smarter than he does on the American indy scene. Additionally, his feats of strength have been truly impressive, even beyond the norm and really endeared him to the Japanese crowd who's been reacting very well for his matches.
All in all, the early A-Block shows have for the most part felt worth waking up at ungodly hours for, but B-Block has been quite a letdown. Hopefully in the back half the B Block picks up, because a lot of the best matchups from the A-Block have already taken place, and thus the B-Block is going to need a strong second half showing to make this a successful tournament. One weakness of this year's G1 is the addition of throwaway tag team matches (some of which have been quite good, to be fair, and would be better at a time other than 5 AM EST or so) separating each block to different days. The tournament feels like a much bigger deal with 10 tournament matches on the same day. Additionally, next year is really going to need some changes in the way of participants.
Michael Elgin turned out to be a great addition and has really bailed out B Block from being a total disaster, which was really lucky for them (especially since few saw this coming after he had a really bad run during the May ROH/NJPW shows, while Roderick Strong absolutely killed it), but they really don't even need to turn to outsiders. One immediate change that would do wonders would be to remove Yujiro Takahashi, probably the worst performer in the tournament, in favor of fellow Bullet Club member Tama Tonga. Another change would be to take YOSHI-HASHI and his goofy parachute pants and replace Hiroyoshi Tenzan who just looks completely done at this point. Tanahashi and Ibushi both tried desperately to get a great match out of him and it just couldn't be done. The return of Minoru Suzuki from NOAH would be another great re-addition to the field. One more outsider from ROH like a Strong or Cole would obviously also help greatly. As would someone from CMLL. But whatever they do, they need to reinvigorate the field a bit next year to recapture the greatness of 2014.