After a series of stadium shows and a revamp of activity in America, it’s tournament season for New Japan Pro Wrestling. The G1 Climax 31 starts this weekend, kicking off on September 18 in Osaka and ending on October 21 at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan. Between those dates, twenty wrestlers will compete over nineteen shows in a series of 91 matches that will determine who gets the most prestigious shot at NJPW’s top prize. In this preview article, we’ll go over how the G1 works, who’s in it this year, and who might have the storyline edge at winning the tournament.
What is the G1 Climax and how does it work?
The G1 Climax as we know it has been going on since 1991. It’s a round-robin style tournament, with competitors divided into two blocks (ten wrestlers per block in recent years.) Every wrestler fights all the other competitors in his block, earning two points for each win, zero for each loss, and one for each draw. The top-scoring wrestlers of A and B Block advance to the final to wrestle each other. The winner of the G1 final gets a big flag,a trophy, a lot of prestige, and historically a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, now at the new IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
Since 2012, the G1 winner has received not just a world title shot, but a title shot in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW’s biggest show(s) of the year. But in this era, it’s not one hundred percent certain that the G1 winner will get this title shot at all. Between the G1 and Wrestle Kingdom, people who beat the G1 winner during the G1 can challenge him for the rights to that Tokyo Dome main event title match. For the first eight years this rule was in place, the winner’s contract didn’t change hands, but in 2020, Jay White beat tournament winner Kota Ibushi at Power Struggle, legally snatching away his WK title match rights.
However, Ibushi still ended up main-eventing both nights of Wrestle Kingdom 15 because double champ Tetsuya Naito called him out for a title match on January 4, Ibushi won that match, and then went on to defend his championship against White on the 5th. The double championship has since been retired, but the upcoming three-day Wrestle Kingdom still presents the opportunity for more booking shenanigans. The most likely source of these shenanigans is that former IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay is running around in the U.S. and UK with a replica of the belt he had to vacate earlier this year due to injury, and current champ Shingo Takagi has already declared he’s down to fight him about this.
So, while explaining how the G1 worked used to be a lot less convoluted, now it’s more like running down the Royal Rumble: the match is for a title shot in “the main event of WrestleMania” in theory, but maybe the match won’t really be in the main event and also maybe some other person could get in on that match, and so on. But whatever happens with the Wrestle Kingdom title picture, the G1 Climax itself is still an exciting destination for lots of quality singles wrestling and tournament drama, though how exciting depends on the wrestlers involved.
The lead-up to this year’s G1 was a little weird, but what wasn’t
This year’s G1 has a few unusual elements, aside from that it’s setting up for the first three-day Wrestle Kingdom. One of these elements is that before NJPW revealed who was going to perform in the tournament, fans learned who wasn’t going to be in it. At Resurgence last month, NJPW’s first U.S. event with fans since winter 2020, Ospreay declared that he wouldn’t be part of this year’s G1, a notable and weird announcement for a recent world champion to make. Then when New Japan released the cards for the September 25-26 NJPW Strong tapings, it showed that other big-name G1 alumni wouldn’t compete this year: NEVER Openweight Champion Jay White, Juice Robinson, and Minoru Suzuki (whose U.S. tour might actually end up being the coolest NJPW-related thing to happen during the 2021 G1 season.)
The lineup and promotional posters for the Strong tapings also confirmed the absence of several wrestlers who fans might have hoped to see debut in this year’s tournament, like Tom Lawlor, David Finlay, Karl Fredericks, Clark Connors, Hikuleo, Fred Rosser, Brody King, and Chris Dickinson. AEW signing Satoshi Kojima vs. Jon Moxley for All Out on September 5 also basically confirmed that neither of them would take part in the G1, since Japan requires people traveling from abroad to quarantine for two weeks after entering the country. Aaron Henare, who has been absent for NJPW programming for a few months, also explained why he’ll be out of action for a while longer, revealing in an interview that he suffered a neck injury. All these absences left NJPW’s heavyweight roster looking pretty thin ahead of the G1 block announcements.
Which wrestlers are in G1 Climax 31?
On September 5, the second night of Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome, NJPW announced the G1 Climax 31 blocks, to a much quieter reception than usual because of the continued COVID-related ban on cheering. This year’s A Block will consist of Kota Ibushi, Shingo Takagi, Tetsuya Naito, Kenta, Zack Sabre Jr., Tomohiro Ishii, Great-O-Khan, Toru Yano, Tanga Loa, and Yujiro Takahashi, while B Block has Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Sanada, Evil, Jeff Cobb, Taichi, Hirooki Goto, Yoshi-Hashi, Tama Tonga, and Chase Owens.
Analyzing the A Block
I don’t think it’s an unpopular opinion to say that this year’s A Block looks like the stronger one, with a more interesting group of competitors, some first or second-time matchups, and some tried-and-true pairings that NJPW has run against each other a few more times. There are plenty of good wrestlers in this block, but its most kayfabe-powerful trifecta is its three guys born in 1982: Kota Ibushi, Shingo Takagi, and Tetsuya Naito.
Kota Ibushi‘s biggest weakness going into this year’s G1 is that his G1 resume is too good. The Golden Star has made the final three years in a row and has won the past two tournaments, a series of accomplishments that make him one of the most accomplished G1 competitors of all time. While he’s sure to get back in the world title picture at some point, a G1 three-peat for Ibushi would be a bold choice, especially considering his last G1 win led to the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships getting controversially retired.
That being said, it’ll be very surprising if Ibushi isn’t a major player again this tournament. He enters the G1 after taking time off this summer to recover from pneumonia, a period of illness that caused him to bow out of an World Heavyweight Championship match, then losing his return match for the U.S. Championship against Tanahashi. Though he’s far from an underdog, Ibushi goes into the G1 with a need to fight back to his previous god-tier (or god-like tier, since he’s not calling himself a diety anymore.) Even if he doesn’t get as far in the tournament this year, it’s easy to see Ibushi beating Takagi and earning back that title shot he had to give up this summer.
As IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, Shingo Takagi is at the top of NJPW going into his third G1—which means he’s unlikely to win the tournament or make the final. Maybe next year! But Takagi will probably be one of his block’s most consistent performers and rack up more points than he has in previous years.
Tetsuya Naito, meanwhile, is one of A Block’s strongest contenders, and the one Takagi has said he hopes to face at Wrestle Kingdom. Naito won the G1 Climax in 2013 (controversially) and 2017 (as the fan favorite), both important events in his long journey to the top that culminated in the double championship victory at WK 14. Earlier this year, after getting revenge on Great-O-Khan for eliminating him in the first round of the New Japan Cup, Naito promised that he was on the path back to the Tokyo Dome main event. He then took a summer detour to the tag division, winning the titles with Sanada and feuding with Dangerous Tekkers, but this is still a more G1-related storyline than anyone else has gotten before the beginning of the tournament. Don’t count out the possibility of Naito getting his third G1 W this year.
A Block also includes several other strong returning competitors. Kenta‘s biggest storyline this year has been a romance with Yoshi-Hashi’s bo staff, but he’s still a high-level singles guy, and he went pretty far in the most recent New Japan Cup. His personality also makes him one of the best guys to spoil somebody’s chance at the final—and he’s wrestling Ibushi on the last night of block competition, a very eyes emoji booking move.
Zack Sabre Jr., Tomohiro Ishii, and Toru Yano are also more likely spoilers than tournament finalists this year. Fans know what they’re getting from these three: noodle man submission wrestling from ZSJ, human minifridge strong style from Ishii, and slapstick shenanigans from Yano. Yano goes into this G1 with a bit of mystery around him, though, because he might show up as his usual self or as his more seriously threatening Great Bash Heel persona that he recently brought back for Wrestle Grand Slam. All these wrestlers usually deliver consistently in tournaments for viewers who enjoy their styles, but probably aren’t world title challengers this year.
ZSJ’s biggest enemy in this block could end up being one of this year’s G1 debuts, Tanga Loa. Sabre struggled to beat Loa one-on-one during the Dangerous Tekkers vs. G.O.D. feud earlier this year, and did G.O.D. quarantine for two weeks after traveling just to lose a bunch in the G1, or did they quarantine to lose a bunch in the G1 and earn a tag title shot at Power Struggle in November? Something to consider!
While Tanga Loa could end up having some unexpected bangers, A Block’s other G1 newcomer, Great-O-Khan, is the one to watch. Some viewers have been put off by this guy’s unusual gimmick and wrestling style, but O-Khan is a consistently good singles and tag wrestler, and I think he’s likely to win over some hearts with the series of higher-profile under-30-minute bouts that is the G1. He also recently debuted a new move he adopted from a VTuber, so, you know, get on board with the Dominator while there’s still room on the bandwagon.
Rounding out A Block is Tokyo’s own Pimp, Yujiro Takahashi. Yujiro is back after getting two points last year, so throw in your bets about whether he’ll get exactly one W again this year or if NJPW will allow a non-trainee to go totally winless.
Breaking down the B Block
While good matches are sure to come out of B Block, it feels like the less dynamic of the G1 groups. There are fewer fresh matchups and while there are multiple credible finalists, it’s hard to imagine almost any of them headlining Wrestle Kingdom 16, in context of how NJPW’s 2021 has played out so far.
Kazuchika Okada might be A Block’s best bet. He won the G1 in 2012 and 2014, has been reigning world champion during other tournaments, has headlined the Tokyo Dome several times, and is one of the most decorated IWGP Heavyweight Champions ever. If you’re reading this article, you probably already know never to count out Okada and are wondering why I’m even explaining him this much!
But though Okada achieved legend status by his early thirties, he has yet to make his mark on the new IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. He lost the match for the vacant title against Takagi in June, and that result seemed like it might have knocked him out of that championship scene for a while. Will NJPW elevate Okada back to world champ status by January, especially if it would mean the Tokyo Dome main event is a rematch with Shingo? Whatever your take on that, it’s a realistic possibility that Okada could at least be a G1 finalist this year.
Sanada and Evil are probably, along with Okada, the most likely B Block finalists. This is partly because they’re wrestling each other on the last night of block competition—something they also did last year, with Sanada’s win earning him a spot in the final. These former tag partners went on to battle at Wrestle Kingdom, but that was Sanada’s last big achievement as a singles wrestler. Instead, he went back to winning gold in the tag title scene, briefly holding the titles with Naito this summer. Meanwhile, Evil feuded with Yano over KOPW, then challenged Shingo for the world title and created a new Bullet Club sub-faction, House of Torture.
It’s hard to imagine Evil or Sanada main-eventing the Tokyo Dome with their current standings as singles guys, but Evil’s a former double champion and Sanada a former G1 finalist, so either of them could credibly beat anyone in their block and make the final this year. It seems like NJPW viewers know what to expect from Sanada this tournament, but for Evil, there’s a conundrum: will he just have Dick Togo helping him or all the H.OT. guys And how much interference are these people going to be doing, and how annoying is it going to be?
Back on the side of the angels, Hiroshi Tanahashi is B Block’s most experienced and decorated competitor. The Ace of the Universe won the G1 in 2007, 2015, and 2018, is one of the most iconic IWGP Heavyweight Champions, et cetera. We love him. But even if Tana’s 2018 Complete Comeback storyline wasn’t truly his last return to world champion status, the fact that the Ace is currently IWGP U.S. Champion and seems to have a match with Jon Moxley in the works means he’s unlikely to win the G1 or his block. However, this tournament could easily see him pick up another rivalry for before or after his promised return to the U.S.
Out of the rest of the block, Jeff Cobb might be the biggest threat. The former Olympian hasn’t racked up many kayfabe achievements since he joined the United Empire last fall, but he’s coming into his third G1 off of a win over Okada. Cobb is another wrestler who could believably beat anyone in B Block, and his biggest role in the G1 will probably be carrying that credible threat energy into his rematch with the Rainmaker, the rubber match of their feud, on the last night of A Block competition.
B Block’s Taichi and Hirooki Goto are two wrestlers you can rely on to deliver some bangers, but it would be very surprising to see them make the final. They’re more occupied with tag wrestling these days anyway, Taichi as half of the heavyweight tag champion team and Goto as part of the longest-reigning 6-man championship team. I’d expect Taichi to promote the idea of a Dangerous Tekkers final for at least two-thirds of the tournament, though.
Further down the totem pole, we have Yoshi-Hashi, Tama Tonga, and Chase Owens. Perpetual underdog Yoshi-Hashi has had a more uplifting character arc than usual over the past year, finally winning a championship as part of that 6-man team with Goto and Ishii and retaining it since then. This might make him a more confident singles wrestler this G1, but that probably won’t translate to a lot more winning. He did beat Evil last year though, and he could easily get a similar surprise win again.
Like his brother in A Block, Tama Tonga’s most important G1 match will realistically be the one against the tag champion. But he’s still a bit of a wild card in his block. His wrestling could be as full of shenanigans as in past G1s, or it could be cleaner, like more recently on NJPW Strong.
In other Bullet Club news, the biggest criticism of B Block is that everyone’s newest matchup is against Chase Owens, the one G1 debut of the group. Owens was, unofficially, the first competitor announced for this year’s tournament, with his involvement reported by the Wrestling Observer in a scoop that doubled as a sort of anti-promotion. Owens enters the G1 after Speaking Out allegations last year and a deeply terrible KOPW feud last month, making him B Block’s most skippable wrestler for a wide range of reasons.
Is the G1 worth watching this year, and where can I watch it?
It’s not unusual these days for international fans to say they’re less interested in NJPW now than they were in the past, and this year’s G1 Climax is no different. There are popular wrestlers working overseas rather than wrestling in the tournament, each block contains three Bullet Club members, and the short history of the world title everyone’s fighting for has been very cursed so far and might continue to be in the future. But while this isn’t an ideal year to be a G1 completionist, the tournament is sure to deliver plenty of matches worth watching if you like NJPW at all.
You can watch every G1 Climax show with a subscription to NJPW World, both live streaming and available on demand. Like the past couple of years, all the events will have the option for English or Japanese commentary. The tournament’s full schedule can be seen on NJPW’s website here. Also, the whole G1 Climax 31 is getting reviewed here on Fanfyte, with breakdowns of all the matches and storylines, plus recommendations of the parts of the tournament most worth checking out.