So this week’s column will be a bit of a departure for the nerd farm. But we are dorks about a great many things around here, and this is where I work those dorky thoughts out of my head. So I hope our regular readers will indulge me, and we’ll get back to the funnybooks next time…
New Japan Pro Wrestling: G1 Climax 28
I’ve been a pro wrestling fan, off and on, for most of my life. I know it’s dumb, but what can I say? I don’t enjoy most real sports, but add some straightforward good vs evil storytelling to your athletics, and I’m sold. Besides, you can’t do deep readings of Alan Moore comics all the time, right?
Now, before I get to New Japan, and the shows that prompted me to write this, I suppose I should fill you in on a little personal history, just so you understand where I’m coming from. I grew up on Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling in the 1970s and 80s.
This was the era of territory wrestling, when the country was divided up between maybe fifteen or so different local wrestling promotions, with shows on local TV, filmed at a variety of local television studios. Styles varied across the country, but wrestling in those days was mostly about big beefy men competing in relatively realistic competitive matches. The personalities were larger-than-life, and every territory had its fair share of flamboyant talkers and crazy wild men, but for the most part it was big dumb fun that took itself just seriously enough that people (kids, especially) could, sorta kinda, believe in it. Or at least pretend to, while they were watching it.
In the 80s, though, Vince McMahon Jr bought the World Wrestling Federation from his father, and started taking it nation-wide. Along with it, he brought a broader, more cartoonish approach that had even more kid appeal, but a lot less for fans who’d grown up on the more serious wrestling storytelling of the territories. As the WWF’s popularity and influence increased, my enjoyment decreased, until I finally stopped watching wrestling completely. I came back in the 90s, when a new emphasis on in-ring action and some daring storylines that flirted with the fine line between wrestling fact and wrestling fiction caught my attention. Even WWF programming became watchable to me, for the first time ever.
Then, slowly, McMahon and the WWF choked the life out of the competition again. And without competition, they reverted to type. The matches got increasingly dull, the stories got increasingly silly, and I just stopped watching. There were (and are) small promotions out there putting on shows I’d have liked better, but those shows required more effort (and money) to watch than I really cared to put into it. And anything better that got big enough for me to see just by turning on my TV… inevitably wound up turning into WWF-Lite. And, as you may have gathered, I’m not a fan.
But at some point early this year, my local cable company added the AXS channel to our line-up. And at some point after that, I noticed that they were running a New Japan Pro Wrestling show on Friday nights. Now, NJPW, while it’s certainly felt some impact from the McMahon style, has retained a flavor of its own that, in the small doses of it I’d gotten over the years, had always appealed to me. So I tuned in, just to see what it was all about. And I was greeted with something amazing: a wrestling show that I actually enjoyed, top to bottom, beginning to end, with no reservations.
New Japan presents wrestling as sport. There’s an occasional bit of comedy, but it’s presented as a sideline. Something to break the flow and add a bit of variety to the proceedings. For the most part, it’s fake fighting presented just realistically enough that you can believe in it. Sorta kinda. Or at least pretend to. While you’re watching it.
This was brought home to me early in my New Japan fandom, when I watched a match between Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and “The Meanest Man in the World,” Minoru Suzuki.
As his appellation may tell you, Suzuki was the bad guy in this match, and he is the consummate wrestling heel: bullying, sadistic, and willing to do anything to win. As I watched him beat, slap, and humiliate Okada throughout the match, grinning as he locked on painful submission holds that threatened to break the champ’s fingers, and cheating whenever it would give him an advantage, my blood boiled. I hated that son of a bitch, and had I been at the match live, with a roaring crowd around me, I might very well have howled for his blood. Then the match was over. Okada overcame tremendous punishment to make a dramatic comeback, and won the match clean in the center of the ring. Huzzah.
Then my head cleared, and I realized what had happened: Minoru Suzuki got me. I bought into his heel routine lock, stock, and barrel. I hated a wrestling bad guy for being a wrestling bad guy. Purely and without thought, for the space of an hour, I BELIEVED in a wrestling match. I didn’t think that was possible anymore. But there it was. I felt like a kid watching territory wrestling again. And that was pretty cool.
Now, of course, Minoru Suzuki is my favorite wrestler. I don’t cheer for him, exactly (unless he’s fighting someone I hate even more), but I love watching him work. Because, in addition to being a great heel, he’s also a great wrestler. His style is made up of stiff strikes and painful submissions, but he’s fast enough to keep up with the younger guys who flip around the ring like a bunch of coked-up monkeys. The best moment in any Suzuki match for me is when he trades elbows with his opponent, the shots coming faster and harder as they go, and he… starts laughing. He glories in the violence and the pain, even (maybe especially) his own. He’s got what the Japanese (or at least, the New Japan announcers) call “fighting spirit,” and that makes his heelish antics… Not okay, exactly, but… More acceptable?
That I’m even talking about a wrestling show in these terms is mind-boggling to me. But one thing New Japan has taught me is how much I hate the standard wrestling heel crap. Distracting or knocking out the referee (aka the “Ref Bump”) so that the heel can cheat to win has become my least favorite thing. If I’m supposed to hate somebody, let me hate him because he’s an asshole, not because of some obviously-scripted moment of fakery that I’ve seen a million times before. I don’t like being taken out of the match, in other words. I don’t like being reminded that what I’m watching is fake. Because of COURSE it’s fake. I KNOW it’s fake. But it’s more fun to pretend for a while.
It’s SO much fun, in fact, that I decided the weekly hour on AXS wasn’t enough. So I sprung for New Japan’s streaming video service (njpwworld.com), which offers the vast majority of their events live, with English commentary. It’s about ten bucks a month, and I’ve been getting my money’s worth out of it so far. It’s been an especially good value over the last four weeks, because it’s tournament time.
Which brings us, at long last, to the G1 Climax.
This is New Japan’s annual summer tournament, a month-long round-robin event comprised (this year) of 19 individual three-hour shows. If that sounds like a lot of wrestling to watch… It is. Almost too much. If I weren’t still in the glow of discovery with New Japan, I don’t think I could have made it through.
But I need to explain how the G1 works. It is, as I said, a round-robin tournament. The competitors are split into two blocks…
…and everyone wrestles everyone else in their block, in matches with a 30-minute time limit. Each win gains them two points, and whoever has the most points at the end wins their block. Then the block winners advance to the finals, where they face off to determine the G1 Champion.
The individual events are divided up between the blocks, with A Block matches one night, B Block matches the next, and days off in-between as they move around from venue to venue. Each night also has preliminary bouts, with everyone from the off-night block performing in tag team matches against their next tournament opponent. Their tag partners (who usually aren’t in the tournament) carry the bulk of the action in those matches, but each one does give you a short preview of the next evening’s bouts. It’s exhausting just to watch, and I can’t imagine how tired the guys actually working the matches must get. But in terms of booking a series of live shows designed to keep people buying tickets… It’s kind of brilliant.
Of course, if you’re watching the whole thing on-line like I did, the bulk of the tag matches are skippable. Except… They use the tag matches for storyline advancement and special events. Alliances are formed and broken, young wrestlers get a chance to shine against more established opponents, beloved veterans make rare in-ring appearances, and personal issues are set up for both the upcoming tournament matches, and for storylines that will advance after the G1 is over. I still skipped most of the tag action, unless it involved performers I particularly like, but I made sure to watch the beginning and end of each match, just in case something cool happened. And sometimes it did.
Which is another thing I like a lot about New Japan: the storylines are interesting, and the pay-offs satisfy. Not that there’s a lot of backstage segments and interviews. They tell their stories in the ring, and they tell them without a need for excessive talking (which is good, considering the language barrier). They really take advantage of the marathon of matches you get with the G1, too. There’s tournament drama, on-going issues for individual workers, and feuds that develop and continue. This year, for instance, here are some of the stories they were telling:
The former champion suffering a crisis of faith after losing his title, and coming out the other side with a new attitude and ring style.
The young punk determined to replace the former champ as leader of their faction, but who instead turns into a vicious chickenshit heel (and in the end a friendless outcast) as a result.
The bitter heel group that disrupts the tournament with beat-downs and run-ins, even when it costs them matches, because they just want to watch the world burn.
The power struggle between the foreign wrestlers (or “gaijin”) and the Japanese wrestlers for the soul of the company.
The aging tough guy who turns in the best matches of the month, in the process scoring victories over every champion in the company, but still doesn’t win the tournament.
The two members of a misfit brotherhood who play mind games with each other in preparation for their tournament match, posing the question of which is more important: glory or loyalty?
The comedic heel who tries to embrace “fair play,” and fails miserably… except when he beats the world champion, and changes the G1’s outcome.
It’s fun stuff, with the stories weaving in and out of each other and colliding in unexpected ways. And the matches themselves… Holy crap. Not every one was a classic, but there weren’t many duds, and every night offered up at least one contest that kept me riveted. There was a match between bruisers Tomohiro Ishii and Hirooki Goto, for instance, that ranks as one of the most brutal I’ve ever seen. And not because they spilled out of the ring or took crazy risks or used any kind of weapon. They just beat the hell out of each other until both of them were staggering wrecks. Ishii even busted out a staggering Enzuigiri kick at one point!
All this is in “kayfabe” terms, of course – rasslin slang for “fake.” As stiff as those elbows they were throwing looked, as devastating as that kick seemed, there’s no way they could have absorbed that much punishment in a real fight. They were still connecting, though, as the black eyes they were sporting the next night attest. And the open-hand slaps and chops were blistering. Those aren’t exactly faked, and (from what I’m told) they sting like a bastard. And they do raise welts. I’ve even seen them draw blood after a particularly heated exchange. That’s right; sometimes, they literally slap off a layer of skin!
But that’s the traditional New Japan style, in general. They call it “Strong Style,” and it can be rather painful. This has lead some to call Strong Style barbaric, and it is more violent than what you’d see in a WWF ring in some ways. But it’s mostly martial arts style violence. There’s very little “hardcore” wrestling involved, very few matches where wrestlers seek out weapons to use against their opponents. And it seems to cause less long-term damage to the body, ultimately, because guys who work Strong Style often work well into their 40s and beyond. Minoru Suzuki just turned 50, in fact, and still seems to be going strong.
The more dangerous side of New Japan is in the Junior Heavyweight division, where the performers are smaller and leap around the ring doing high-risk maneuvers. There was, for instance, a well-publicized injury to Hiromu Takahashi last month: he suffered a broken neck after a series of moves that dropped him continually on the back of his head. The match was spectacular, but it wasn’t worth that. And English wrestler Will Ospreay pushes his performances so far, some people are concerned that he’s going to cripple himself one day. So maybe there’s a problem developing there. Acrobatics are always risky, of course, but some of these guys may be taking things too far.
There’s not much of that in the G1, though. It’s a heavyweight tournament, so you’ll see plenty of drop kicks and a few dives, but most of those guys avoid the really extreme risks in favor of stiff strikes, fast moves, and technical grappling. Western styles are having some impact on the company these days, too. Former champ Kazuchika Okada has sort of an American style. And their current champ is Kenny Omega, an immensely talented Canadian wrestler who works a sort of hybrid East/West style. He delivers some of the stiffest knee lifts I’ve ever seen, but his finishing move is an over-complicated version of a body slam that smacks of the more theatrical side of modern American wrestling.
(An Aside: Many call Omega the best in the world, and they may very well be right. But he had kind of a lackluster G1, so I’m not talking about him much here.)
Of course, now that I’ve said that the G1 doesn’t have much high-risk offense, I also have to point out that this year’s championship match (SPOILER!) was between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi, two guys known primarily for jumping off stuff.
Ibushi has a karate background, so he does have some great super-fast martial arts strikes in his repertoire. But I also watched him jump off a freaking balcony onto his opponent last week, so… Yeah. “High risk” is what he does. Tanahashi is a bit more reserved, but that may only be because he’s older. He’s got some decent kicks, and the fastest, most painful-looking Dragonscrew Leg Whip I’ve ever seen. He’s even starting to work some grappling into his matches recently, as time and injury slow him down. But he still finishes with a top-rope splash he calls the High Fly Flow, and doesn’t skimp on the aerial maneuvers, even now.
Tanahashi’s pretty great, by the way.
He’s New Japan’s Ace: their most popular wrestler, the ultimate good guy, and the face of the company for most of the last decade. He’s got serious rock star charisma and a large female fan following. But everybody loves the guy. Men, women, little kids, teenagers… People weep openly when he loses matches. They hold out special towels for him to wipe his sweat on as he leaves the ring. They give him home-made gifts that he seems genuinely touched to receive. I even saw one couple hold out their baby for him to kiss! They leaned out so far that they nearly dropped the kid. He had to catch her and hand her back to them! It’s insane how over the guy is.
That said, I really thought Ibushi was going to win their championship match. He has some of Tanahashi’s star quality, so I thought they might do a passing of the torch here. And it was a great match, well-fought and dramatic, with Ibushi really putting a hurting on the Ace. But (as he’s done so many times before) Tanahashi pulled it out in the end, scoring a decisive victory in the middle of the ring, and leaving Ibushi to wallow in his own anguish.
SO dramatic. There was a weird moment right after this, though. New Japan really plays to the pain and exhaustion of their performers post-match, with both men often lying prone for a minute or more, as ring boys rush in with water bottles for their aching necks. Slowly, they roll the loser out of the ring and help him to the back while the winner stands up and soaks in the adoration of the crowd. And they did that here, but Ibushi was taking a really long time to go. He was selling the hell out of how badly he’d been beaten, but Tanahashi grew visibly impatient, and I kind of got the sense that he wasn’t acting. He tried to pull him out of the ring at one point, and right after that picture up above, he walked over to Ibushi, clearly furious, fists clenched at his sides, and stared him down. Ibushi got to his feet, held up his hands as if to say “I don’t wanna fight,” and finally left the ring, hiding his face as if in shame.
Now, I’ve seen a ton of wrestling storytelling, and that might have just been the set-up for a rematch. Or it might be some cultural thing that I don’t understand, but that makes perfect sense to the Japanese audience. But the whole thing felt uncomfortable and a little too real. The English broadcast team didn’t quite seem to know what to make of it, and neither did I. Did Ibushi commit a faux pas by lingering too long post-match? Was Tanahashi legitimately angry because he thought Ibushi was trying to steal some of the spotlight away from him? Or was he over-reacting, too eager to bask in the glory of his win?
Probably, it was just storytelling. But there’s something about the way New Japan presents itself that makes me wonder. I could believe. Just for a little while. And that’s all I really want.