This years G1 Climax tournament has now wrapped up for New Japan Pro Wrestling (and I hope you’ve been reading the reviews! – deputy editor), and unfortunately, it left this viewer with more frustrated questions than satisfied answers.
Granted, the top matches on the final three days were superb – with Tanahashi versus Styles, Okada versus Nakamura, and Tanahashi versus Nakamura all adding to the list of 2015 Match of the Year candidates – but as sensational as the final was (and I was in absolute awe of the fire, selling and drama the two men put on display), there was only one word that left my mouth when Tanahashi scored with the High Fly Flow in the dying moments en route to victory.
That I’m as big a fan of Shinsuke Nakamura as almost anybody did, of course, play a part in my response. I’ve been convinced that Nakamura was winning the G1 for three straight years, only to be denied every time. Now, I’m not necessarily annoyed to see another Okada versus Tanahashi main event at the Tokyo Dome. I understand the business perspective to it, and the match will likely be sensational, probably with Okada finally getting his elusive Dome win over Tanahashi, a quest that brought him to tears when he failed to achieve it back at Wrestle Kingdom 9. But the outcome of the G1 Final is indicative of a bigger problem.
New Japan are beginning to hit the point of coasting too much. Shinsuke Nakamura has been red hot and ready to break back into the IWGP Heavyweight title mix for a long time, and after dropping “his” Intercontinental Title to Hirooki Goto, it seemed prime to happen. Now he really has nowhere to go, beyond a possible first time match with AJ Styles at Wrestle Kingdom 10 that would appear to be the likely direction. But it’s the same spot he’s been in for years.
In fact, almost everybody is in the exact same spot they’ve been for years. And therein lies the issue. Tomoaki Honma is over enough for a higher position, and has no business losing to Yujiro Takahashi on the final day of the G1. Tomohiro Ishii has been ready for top line matches for two years, and hasn’t even had a sniff of the Intercontinental Title. Katsuyori Shibata should be in the running for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – he’s been good enough and over enough for a long time but he, too, is part of the cycle.
New Japan has gone with three big new things in the last few years. One being the push of Tetsuya Naito, which fell short of the mark with Naito not have the presence to carry the position, despite his ability. This G1 was a real step forward for him, honing his new “I don’t give a shit” lackadaisical and disrespectful heel persona. But he’s back where he was, and you can’t do anything but chalk up this experiment in the LOSS column for now.
Another big angle has been going all-in on the Bullet Club. I know they seem to be the cool thing to fans who don’t regularly watch New Japan, who only get a tiny peek of a badass heel group, but as a regular watcher I’m convinced that the continued emphasis on this unit is a massive blight on the product. They’ve taken up so much focus in the booking that would be far more valuable if placed on the individuals mentioned above, and the fact that the numbers have started going downhill prior to G1 (when Styles was champion, the Bullet Club hogging both sets of tag belts, and the laborious Bad Luck Fale lingering around) justifies my opinion. The act is played out, the characters themselves are largely uninteresting (with the exception of Styles), they come off completely bush league with the crotch chops and nWo handsigns denying them any individual identity, and the company would be better off firing a few live rounds into this albatross. I dread another prolonged run of Bullet Club dominance after Wrestle Kingdom 10, and it would be enough to put my interest in the company in a coma.
The other big direction was the signing and push of Kota Ibushi, who has been by the far the most effective of the three. I wasn’t the biggest Ibushi fan when he first came on the scene – his lack of selling really stood out when he was mixed with top level guys like Tanahashi and Nakamura, who are brilliant at it – but over time he’s developed a great deal and has been great in his position directly under the top four stars. He, too, is ready for more.
But he’s facing the same problem. When Nakamura laid down for three seconds on August 16th, it wasn’t simply the frustration that arguably the best wrestler in the world was once again being denied a spot he’s custom made for, and very possibly is more suited for than the current IWGP Heavyweight champion. It was the knowledge of what the loss meant. This year’s tournament felt like a great time to move in a new direction, to put some people in interesting places and give us a fresh spin on the dynamic New Japan has been (for the most part) successful with for the last four years. But, from top to bottom, almost everybody was booked the same as the slots they had been in before. And while I have no problem with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada hovering around the IWGP Heavyweight title in terms of quality, the knock on effect is not a positive.
So many of the world’s best wrestlers are on this roster – Tanahashi, Okada, Nakamura, Ibushi, Styles, Ishii, Shibata, Honma, Naito – but we’re dangerously close to entering the WCW 1998 dilemma of the caste system, admittedly with much better wrestlers, and having seen history play out countless times when the lack of creating new top guys has done for promotions, the lesson is always to strike while the audience is there, not when they aren’t. And while New Japan is healthy and aren’t prone to a drastic decline, they best heed the warnings of history, else I fear those numbers will continue to fall more consistently in future…