NJPW: “For The Love of Puro” – One Mans G1 Climax Journey

I first came across Fraser on The Super J Podcast, a fantastic Podcast for New Japan Pro Wrestling fans where they sum up that weeks shows in NJPW and offer their opinion on them, as well as chat about who is a “hunky boy” and British Music. I was intrigued by his story, what would possess someone to embark on the whole tour? Why the G1? And what got him into professional wrestling. Fraser was also gracious enough to answer questions on his meetings with Harold Meij and his nights out with wrestlers:

Images courtesy of njpw1972.com

First question please could you give our readers some background on yourself and where your love of New Japan Pro Wrestling comes from?

I am originally from New Zealand and like a lot of western wrestling fans I grew up watching WWE. Initially that was the Hogan / Macho Man / Warrior era and then after a lapse got back into it during the attitude era with Rock / Mankind / Austin / HHH etc… At that time, the UK Magazine “Power Slam” was available in New Zealand and I used to subscribe, and started reading about the Japanese Wrestling Scene which sounded pretty cool.

I work in banking and over time have moved to many different countries with my career, and in 20.10 I moved from London to Singapore. I had a regional role so I needed to travel to Japan quite often and would try to see some NJPW shows when I was there. On one visit I met my wife in Tokyo who is Japanese, and after she moved to Singapore with me for a couple of years, I changed roles with my company and we then moved together to Tokyo 3 years ago. The first really big show I went to was Wrestle Kingdom 10, and the strong style worked by Ishii and Shibata in their match had me hooked. It was something completely different to anything I had seen before. After that I have been going to as many NJPW live shows as I can. 

When did you first get the idea to do all the G1 Tournament and how hard was it to plan both personally and logistically?

In 2016 I went to all the G1 shows in Tokyo and nearby. That was probably about 7 or 8 in total. In 2017, I also travelled to other cities in Japan on the weekends and went to 13 shows, so I only missed 6 of them that year. So it kind of felt like a natural progression this year to go to all of them. A lot of my Japanese friends were encouraging me to do it, and it seemed like a cool idea, plus it didn’t seem so obvious who would be winning this year so I figured the tournament would be an exciting one. So I pretty much made my mind up just before the tickets were being balloted.

A major concern I had was my work leave balance, because I knew I had to take 2 weeks off to cover the “road trip” period from Nagaoka through to Osaka (8 shows in 7 cities in 11 days). That left me with almost no remaining leave for the rest of the year, so the conversation with the wife was a delicate one and involved some negotiations and a “financial settlement” of sorts (not a divorce thankfully).

The First challenge was ensuring I could get my hands on tickets for every show. I am a Fan Club member, but even so, the ballot process is much more competitive than it was 3 years ago when I arrived (NJPW’s domestic popularity has massively increased in that time with a lot of new fans). Fortunately, a member of my team at work is also a Fan Club Member, and between us we successfully secured tickets to all the shows.

Once that was sorted, I had to organise the road trip. That was quite involved – 7 cities / hotels, a total of 18 hours on the bullet train (I think I had 19 train tickets in all) plus I tried to book some good restaurants along the way to try all of the different regional cuisines. Separate from that, there was also a show in Hokkaido (Northern Japan) at the beginning of the tournament which also required me to fly because it’s so far from Tokyo. Thankfully my PA was able to help me out, we got it all sorted and everything went smoothly (aside from a couple of typhoons that one cannot plan for!).

The final thing to mention re: logistics is the heat. Late July / early August in Japan is brutal – it’s so hot and humid – really unpleasant. It makes the travelling that much harder – I really don’t know how the wrestlers themselves manage to survive.

Images courtesy of njpw1972.com

What was it about the G1 in particular that made you want to do that tournament over say, Best of the Super Juniors or New Japan Cup?

G1 is by far and away NJPW’s biggest, longest and most prestigious tournament, especially in the eyes of the Japanese fans. I love the round-robin format and the booking, and how the story unfolds over the course of the month. While the Juniors are also popular, the Heavyweights are the undisputed top stars of the promotion.

Throughout your travels you were posting pictures of Cosplaying fans at the events, did you have any favourites?

Three in particular stand out (you can check out my twitter thread @fraserjapan to see the pics):

· Day 3 in Sapporo, Hokkaido – The cute little girl, who must have only been about 5 years-old cosplaying as Okada. She could bust out a fantastic rainmaker pose whenever prompted by her parents who were cosplaying as Roppongi 3K;

· Day 18 at Budokan, Tokyo – Cosplay Nagata in his blue spandex and nothing else – Pretty sure he was already pretty tanked on beers before the show and hastily applied a Fujiwara Armbar on me. When I asked him who was going to win this year’s G1 he said “Nagata” even though he wasn’t competing!

· Day 19 at Budokan, Tokyo – Cosplay Red Shoes – Thought it was cool he came up with the idea of cosplaying a ref rather than a wrestler. He had a great sense of humour and was really fun to chat with.

All of the Japanese Cosplay fans are great, they have so much passion, energy and enthusiasm. It’s obvious how much time and money they must have spent to come up with their amazing outfits. They are always really nice and obliging – happy to chat and take photos that can be posted on twitter, and were always really impressed when as a gaijin (foreigner) I mentioned I was “zenbu” this year (going to all the shows).

Images courtesy of njpw1972.com

OK on to the tournament itself, what was the overall vibe of the tournament? Did anyone stand out as a clear fan favourite everywhere you went? And were there any venues that you particularly enjoyed?

The vibe was very positive, I think in general Japanese fans were very pleased with the quality of the in-ring, plus compared to last year it was less obvious who was going to win the “yusho” (tournament), so there was more fun to be had speculating on what might happen.

Having attended all of the shows, I think the 2 clear fan favourites in terms of consistency and intensity of crowd reactions were your finalists (Tanahashi and Ibushi). In that context, one of the most interesting things for me about the final at Budokan was to see which of them got more crowd support (Tanahashi for sure).

Best venues – Osaka (Edion Arena) is always the hottest crowd for NJPW shows, Nagoya (Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium) also had a great atmosphere with tiered seating and a low ceiling for acoustics, and Kagoshima Arena is beautifully designed like some sort of Roman Dome. However, the most exciting experience for Japanese Fans was the return to the Budokan given NJPW hadn’t run a show there since 2003.

What were some of your highlights of the tournament in terms of in ring action and were there any wrestlers you felt went above and beyond where you previously saw them?

For me, Ishii was the standout. I don’t recall him having any bad matches throughout the tournament. His matches with Ibushi in Nagoya and then Omega in Osaka were so intense, and I loved how against him those two worked a much stronger style than what most would associate them with. A wrestler like him is so valuable to G1 tournaments – it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever be booked as a block winner, but against any wrestler he can put on a fantastic match and the result will always be in doubt.

Ibushi was also great, and in addition to the great matches he had on the last 2 nights at Budokan against Omega and Tanahashi, I thought his main event match against SANADA in Nagaoka was tremendous.

I thought a very fit and lean Elgin had the most consistent match quality in the A Block. For me he was often in the best match of those nights. His hard hitting style, coupled with his agility for a guy of that size, is very well respected by Japanese fans.

Images courtesy of njpw1972.com

A lot of wrestling media have said of this G1 that A Block was where most of the stories were and B Block was the wrestlers who can go were is this a statement you agree with?

From a live perspective, you could definitely feel the difference in crowd energy / expectation levels between A Block shows and B Block shows (B Block shows much hotter). This was especially evident when NJPW ran two consecutive shows in the same location (e.g. Osaka), and was more noticeable as the tournament progressed.

While I would fully agree with the assessment that B Block had a much more stacked group of wrestlers, I also think that B Block had just as many stories (Tama Tonga’s antics, Kenny and Ibushi, Naito vs. SANADA tension, Yano’s “fairplay gimmick”…).

In retrospect I felt the talent imbalance had a detrimental impact on the A Block shows.

A lot has been made of the antics of the Firing Squad and also “Switchblade” Jay White (one of my personal favourites) what are your views on their work during the G1 and how did the crowds react to them?

For me, matches involving either Fale or Tama Tonga from the Firing Squad were too predictable from a booking perspective. I’m not fundamentally opposed to cheating / shenanigans in wrestling, but when every single match appears to be headed toward a DQ finish, it does take the edge off and makes it hard for the crowd to get too invested in the action prior to that seemingly inevitable point. That said, some of Tama Tonga’s antics were pretty edgy (I sat just chairs away from the fan he choked in Osaka!) which got Japanese fans talking after the shows. I was also slightly disappointed with Fale’s in-ring showing. He had cut a lot of weight prior to the G1, but that didn’t really come across to me in his performances.

With Jay White, I think his heel persona antics were far more subtle and consequently a lot better received by live audiences. In particular his manipulative interplay with the “naïve and innocent” Yoh throughout the undercards was fantastic and very cleverly done by both of them. In his singles matches much of his cheating (especially at the beginning of the tournament) had the audience wondering whether it was intentional. That said as the tournament progressed, I think he too suffered from an absence of clean victories, which made it hard to believe that he would win A Block and appear in the final (despite the fact he had a lot of points), when he would be reliant on cheating to prevail.

When the tournament was underway there was an unofficial C Block battle going on between Henare and Finlay, was this something the crowd were aware of?

To be honest I don’t really think so. While that fun angle got a bit of airtime on gaijin twitter, I don’t think too many Japanese fans were aware of “C Block” (and they didn’t appear to know that a Henare vs. Finlay singles match was originally scheduled for Budokan at the end of the tournament). I must admit I didn’t even notice myself when Finlay held up the “trophy” the night he pinned Henare in that tag match at Budokan.

Images courtesy of njpw1972.com

During the tournament you met with the new NJPW President Harold Meij? How was that and did you get a chance to talk about his vision of the future?

Yes I have chatted with Meij-san a few times at NJPW shows. He is very friendly and makes a conscious effort to be available and approachable for Japanese and Foreign fans by standing in the lobby areas prior to shows (he travelled to many of the G1 shows across Japan). The primary reason for his recruitment is to facilitate the initial public offering (public listing) of the NJPW company on the Japanese Stock Exchange. The target within 2 years is to be firstly listed on the “MOTHERS” Exchange (a smaller Japanese exchange for high growth / emerging companies) and 2 years after that move the listing across to the Tokyo Stock Exchange (Japan’s main exchange).

While the prospect of listing will assist the financing of the company in the future, a few Japanese fans are nervous that the “product” might be compromised by the constraints / expectations that might come with NJPW becoming a publicly listed company and being accountable to a much wider group of stakeholders. Time will tell, but I think the environment here in Japan is a lot more accommodating so I wouldn’t expect NJPW to become “corporate” the same way WWE has in the US.

When I met with Meij-san we swapped business cards and I told him I was going to all the G1 shows this year. A week later to my surprise, he had arranged for the NJPW Office to send through the post a thank you letter and some company merchandise in appreciation of my support of this year’s G1! I thought a small gesture like that was really cool, and that’s the kind of personal touch you get to feel as a fan of this promotion.

I also remember hearing about you going on nights out and being joined by Sanada and Henare how were they? And did any other members of the roster join you?

I’ve taken Henare out for dinner a couple of times in Tokyo. As a fellow New Zealander, I am so keen to see him do well over here, and I was fascinated to hear about his experiences coming through the NJPW dojo system, and being trained by the “Sempai” (Senior) Japanese wrestlers. Henare is a really humble, nice guy and a true pro wrestling fan who loves the product and NJPW so it’s great to spend some time listening to his stories and takes.

I’ve met SANADA a few times via one of my Japanese wrestling fan friends who has been a personal sponsor of him since his AJPW days. He is super polite, very relaxed and a funny guy. Like everyone else on the roster he strikes me as having a lot of ambition. Given he spent time in TNA over in the U.S., his English is pretty good although he claims its not!

KES joined once on a Friday night before this year’s Sakura Genesis on the Sunday. During that show, Lance Archer came out to brawl with another wrestler in the crowd. He was randomly headed straight toward me and when he recognised me, he shoved me out of my box seat at sumo hall! I was hoping it was captured on NJPW World but sadly it was a 6-man tag and the cameras were following Naito and Suzuki at the time.

Images courtesy of njpw1972.com

How was the atmosphere on the final 3 nights especially with the return to Nippon Budokan and Tanahashi winning (with Shibata in his corner)?

Super hot sell-out crowds for the last 2 nights (B Block Finals and Tournament Final). You generally get the most fervent NJPW fans coming from all over Japan (plus a lot of hardcore gaijin flying in) for those last 3 shows, so it’s always a great buzz inside the venue. The Budokan’s upper tiers are very steep, so the crowd are very close – almost as if they are right above the ring. There was huge anticipation for Omega vs. Ibushi match on the Saturday and the crowd loved that frenetic match. I thought adding Omega and Shibata to the respective corners for the final was a great touch – almost a “New Generation DDT” vs. “Old School NJPW Legends” layer to the storyline. Shibata is hugely revered by NJPW fans and when he came up on the big screen he got a huge pop. Many Japanese fans still hold hope he will make an in-ring return. I like the Tanahashi vs. Ibushi final – a much different style to the night before with less risk taking and more psychology that had the crowd just as invested.

The only disappointment was that the first of the 3 shows on the Friday night wasn’t well attended – maybe only about 65% full. I was quite surprised by that, especially given that was the very first opportunity for fans to watch a show back at the Budokan and you had Okada vs. Tanahashi headlining the show.

Looking back on the G1 where would you rank it against past tournaments?

As far as in-ring goes, the high-end matches (of which there were many) were on average on another level from the previous 2 years. Story-line wise it also topped ‘16 and ‘17 as there were a lot of interesting narratives unfolding throughout the tournament (Okada’s decline, Bullet Club in-Fighting, Jay White’s agitation against chaos from within etc…), many of which got a lot of attention on the undercard tags which made these more interesting for me to sit through as a live fan. Suspense-wise, it was more open tournament than 2017, but perhaps 2016 with Omega besting Goto was ultimately more unpredictable at the time. 2016 also had the Noah “Imports” (Marufuji and Nakajima) which gave that tournament another dimension. So all in all, considering the level of match interference this year, and the imbalance in the blocks, I’d probably suggest that 2016 and 2018 are about on par, both ahead of 2017.

Fraser was extremely generous with his time and was extremely accommodating in setting this interview up, I hope you enjoyed this interview and go and check out Fraser’s pictures from the tournament over on his Twitter page @FraserJapan.