NJPW G1 Climax 31 Nights 3-4 Review: Wrestling Brains

NJPW G1 Climax 31 Nights 3-4 Review: Wrestling Brains

Previously on NJPW‘s G1 Climax 31: The tournament started strong! Its first two shows were very entertaining overall, with some standout matches and surprise results. Unfortunately, this was followed by the bad kind of surprise: Naito getting injured for real and forfeiting the rest of his matches.

Nights 3-4 of the G1 aren’t as hot as Nights 1-2, but they’re a good pair of shows, featuring the first Shingo-ZSJ match in twelve years, a surprisingly emotional Bullet Club match, and more of Okada doing classic Okada things.

Night 3 – 9/23/21 – A Block – Ota City General Gymnasium, Tokyo

Tanga Loa def. Yuji Nagata

Night 3 of G1 31 starts with the first Naito Replacement Match, Tanga Loa vs. Yuji Nagata, and it is not great. It’s watchable, especially in the warm-up position, but it’s hurt by how much Nagata shows his age. You get the sense that his younger, stronger opponent is letting Nagata get his offense in here, making the match feel fake. There are wrestlers out there who can have a hard-hitting match in their 50s (see: Mochizuki and Sugiura over in NOAH’s N-1 right now), but Nagata doesn’t look like one of them.

NJPW

Great-O-Khan def. Toru Yano

The night’s first A Block match is an insane story of revenge, and the midpoint in what has now been revealed to be at least a six-month-long, on-off rivalry. Great-O-Khan vs. Toru Yano is based around how Yano cut off the end of O-Khan’s braid in the New Japan Cup this spring. This drives O-Khan to use the old, severed piece of hair as a taunt and sometimes a weapon throughout their G1 match, as one does.

Backstage afterward this match, Yano basically says O-Khan is crazier than him, and that’s a big part of this match’s entertainment value. It’s classic Yano shenanigans up against a guy who has never committed less than three hundred percent to a weirder and much more aggressive bit. I can get why people might not like this match because of all the yelling and borderline-gross hair stuff, but I have to respect it for being so wild in a way that’s legitimately kind of surprising in present-day wrestling.

O-Khan’s mix of modern nerd sensibilities and old-timey monster gimmick keeps producing unique results. If he follows through on what he said in his promo afterward this match, maybe it’ll also help produce the first good KOPW feud soon.

Kenta def. Yujiro Takahashi

Kenta vs. Yujiro is this G1’s first of six Bullet Club vs. Bullet Club matches, and it’s about as far from what you’d expect from an intra-BC matchup as Yujiro beating Ibushi was from what you’d expect from Yujiro vs. Ibushi. Rather than even hint at the usual BC tournament bit of one faction member pretending to lay down for the other and then not going through with it, Yujiro, fueled by confidence from that Ibushi win, tries to fight Kenta head on from the beginning. The match shifts from Yujiro getting overconfident of his chances against Kenta to Kenta dominating Yujiro, who shows a surprising amount of fighting spirit.

What makes this match really compelling is how clean it is, considering the characters involved. It’s two of NJPW’s least reverent characters showing respect to each other, with Kenta’s behavior the opposite of how any other BC member has treated Yujiro when they’ve fought him in a tournament. When everyone was going “They had Yujiro beat Ibushi??”, Kenta went backstage and said, “Yeah, I always knew he had it in him.” It’s completely fair to dislike Yujiro’s gimmick and his usual matches, but the dynamic between him and Kenta here, the uncertainty surrounding how a Yujiro match can play out after that Ibushi win, and the strong in-ring work that both wrestlers put in still make this a match you can’t look away from.

The finish works really well too, with Yujiro’s downfall coming from his most blatant heel work of the match. Like that part of the BC Civil War when G.O.D. kept bullying him, Yujiro vs. Kenta posits that maybe Yujiro wouldn’t be such a bad guy if he kept getting pushed in a babyface direction (despite his back-to-back heel faction betrayals back in the day.) However this Better Yujiro storyline plays out, Yujiro vs. Kenta works perfectly as a match about friendship and about how every jobber, no matter how sleazy, is just a mini-arc away from becoming an underdog hero, if only for a day.

NJPW

Kota Ibushi def. Tomohiro Ishii

Ibushi vs. Ishii has been a banger in G1s past, but this year it’s only a semi-banger. It starts out exactly how you want an Ibushi-Ishii match to go, with Ishii quickly bringing the violent alien version of Ibushi to the surface. By the time they’re gearing up for the slap fight (or “open palm strike exchange,” I guess), there’s the overwhelming sense that neither of these men is normal and that they are going to beat the crap out of each other. The match weirdly shifts down a gear and gets normal for a while after that, but it stays entertaining and we eventually shift back to the level of the slap fight. Ibushi setting up for a Kamigoye only for Ishii to jump up like a breaching dophin and headbutt him is a mental gif that I will keep forever.

But despite a lot of cool stuff leading up to it, this match’s finish is oddly weak. Ishii’s last Kamigoye counters feel much lower intensity than many moments earlier in the match, and the match-winning Kamigoye looks slower and softer than usual for some reason, not like a match-winning move. This ending soured the match for me enough that when I thought back on it to write this part of the article, I was surprised to recall how much of it was actually good.

The important plot thing about this match is that it gets Ibushi on the board after his return from illness, loss to Tanahashi, and loss to Yujiro. Neither wrestler cut a promo after this match, but in the past, they’ve talked about Ishii unlocking another level of Ibushi as a wrestler, and I think that’s the significance of Ishii being Ibushi’s first G1 win this year. I doubt that Ibushi’s making the final even though Naito’s gone just because four years in a row would a lot, but he’s still probably going to end up having a strong tournament and finishing towards the top of his block.

I only took unflattering screencaps of this match, I’m sorry. (NJPW)

Zack Sabre Jr. def. Shingo Takagi

The September 23 main event of Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Shingo Takagi is the first match between these men since 2009 and the first in the three year’s they’ve both been in NJPW, and it was worth the wait. Sabre and Takagi display a special chemistry that comes from being great wrestlers in a similar way: they’re both guys with very good Wrestling Brains, aka senses of in-ring and kayfabe psychology. Neither of them has a very realistic wrestling style, but they both have exceptional understandings of how to make their style work and how to lay out a wrestling match in an exciting way.

Here, they use a version of a match format that works really well with ZSJ. Like he said he was going to do after his Night 1 victory, Shingo makes the classic, egotistical mistake of trying to hang with Sabre on the mat. He can do this to a certain extent and doesn’t get himself in too much trouble early on, but he really messes up when he gets determined to submit Zack later. Shingo doesn’t even have a regular submission finisher! The gorilla grip that the prospect of submitting Zack Sabre Jr. has on high-level wrestlers is truly devastating.

But this match is not just Shingo getting sucked into ZSJ’s world, a story that wouldn’t really fit a world champion-tier wrestler anyway. It’s also a clash of styles, with the contrast between these men providing many of the match’s most exciting moments. Takagi just slams Sabre out of offense attempts multiple times; Sabre breaks out the type of torturous offense that made him look like such an unstoppable (tentacle) monster in New Japan a few years ago. The moment when ZSJ jumps into Shingo’s arms to latch on a front facelock with body scissors and Shingo turns it into a suplex encapsulates how impressive these guys are and how fun it is to watch them work together.

Overall, this match is dramatic, technically impressive, and exciting to watch from bell to bell, and it impacts both wrestler’s G1 trajectories in potentially important ways. ZSJ is now on a winning streak and at the top of his block, after beating the champ, it’s much more credible that he could make the G1 final. He’s also, if he picks up the title shot he has coming to him, back in the world title picture.

Meanwhile, Takagi has taken his first loss, but like a true self-protecting professional, he gives himself a good kayfabe excuse. He made a mistake trying to win for revenge on Naito, and he needs to refocus on winning the G1 for himself. Nice guys finish last, Shingo learned the one match he was a nice guy.  The arm damage from ZSJ – sold well throughout the bout, and especially in the brutal finish – also gives Takagi a weakness for others to exploit and an excuse for any other tournament losses he may pick up. In sum, on every level, ZSJ vs. Takagi is extremely well done.

Night 4 – 9/24/21 – B Block – Ota City General Gymnasium, Tokyo

NJPW

Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Hirooki Goto

NJPW’s September 24 G1 show is no filler, all B Block action, starting with Tanahashi vs. Goto in an opening match that makes you go, “Really? This is the opener ?” (and then look at the rest of the card and realize it makes the most sense as the opener.)

It’s a competitive bout between two jacked, middle-aged wrestling veterans who can still go, featuring Goto trying to fight around Tanahashi’s go-to knee-targeting strategy. Both guys look pretty good, but Tana’s the one who gets on the board after winning with a nice roll-up counter of the GTR. If NJPW programming worked like American TV wrestling, Goto vs. Tana would count as a “good TV match” – not too long, and good, but not the type of guy these guys would bring to a main event or semi-main (see: their G1 match last year) or a title match.

Tama Tonga def. Chase Owens

Tama Tonga and Chase Owens both started their G1s with matches that said, “Hello, this month I’m going to tone down the cheating a lot and show you guys that I can really wrestle.” Rather than bring back the usual BC vs. BC match type here, Chase and Tama keep their G1 resolutions going and wrestle a pretty clean, good match. Bullet Club may still have internal fissures, but after eight years, they’ve finally woken up to the whole “brotherly competition” thing the other factions do. I don’t expect anyone not to skip this match and I’m not really recommending it, but this is what happened!

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Jeff Cobb def. Yoshi-Hashi

Jeff Cobb vs. Yoshi-Hashi has a straightforward premise that they execute very well. Cobb is a powerhouse and an athletic marvel; Yoshi-Hashi is a perpetual underdog. They make that dynamic clear early by Cobb throwing Yoshi-Hashi out of not one, but two lockups. From there, it’s Cobb looking awesome and Yoshi-Hashi fighting to stay in the game, sometimes making an impressive amount of progress. Cobb ultimately gets the win, becoming the first guy in B Block to go 2-0, but like in Yoshi-Hashi vs. Evil, Yoshi-Hashi still comes out looking good.

These men are on very different but promising G1 trajectories, with Cobb in full monster mode on a collision course with Rainmaker Okada, and Yoshi-Hashi bringing a combination of stronger in-ring work and increased confidence that’s entertaining and encouraging to see after following his long journey to get here.

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Taichi def. Sanada

Taichi and Sanada have one of NJPW’s most unusual rivalries and kayfabe relationships. Most of their interactions for a while were via Taichi playing as Sanada in a video game he was streaming (the origin of Sana-yan), plus other jokey things on social media. This year, they added more depth to their bond, revealing that Sanada is the half of Naito-and-Sanada that Dangerous Tekkers actually likes (in a “How could I say no to that face?” way) and talking in interviews about their brotherly relationship from the All Japan dojo (the origin of Taichi ani-yan.) Also, they did a lot of pec popping this summer. Very competitive pec popping.

Despite having more lore than some pairings who have wrestled many more times, Taichi and Sanada have only had three singles matches – one in last year’s New Japan Cup, one as part of the recent tag title feud, and this G1 match. Their matches have all been pretty good, but have stopped short of being great.

Their September 24 bout starts out fun with the return of the pec popping followed by a Taichi control portion and a Sanada comeback. They escalate to some cool moments, like Taichi’s counter-elbow to Sanada’s attempted rolling elbow, and a sick Axe Bomber. However, I think this match runs out of steam around the time they go back and forth with the O’Connor Bridge and the Gedo Clutch. Most of the rest of the match feels like they intentionally drove past their best freeway exit and are taking a needlessly longer alternate route.

The finish is still really cool though! Taichi using the sumo forearm as a setup for the Black Mephisto again looks great, especially when you’re able to see the whole setup for the forearm, something NJPW cameras have missed a few times, and when it doubles as a dodge of a moonsault.

NJPW

Kazuchika Okada def. Evil

Speaking of strong wins, Okada goes into his match with Evil off the back of one of his strongest in recent memory. After that bout with Tanahashi, the question for Okada is whether the true Rainmaker version of himself will keep showing up – not just in terms of match results, but in terms of whether he’ll keep wrestling like he got introduced to Rey Mysterio’s stem cell guy.

Okada vs. Evil isn’t on the level of Okada vs. Tanahashi – it would be shocking if it was – but it is mostly good, and a lot of that is because Okada keeps his hot streak from that Tana match going. Every dropkick looks like a classic, especially that shotgun one to Dick Togo. The ending – hitting the Rainmaker after hitting Evil with his own finisher – makes Okada look even cooler. Evil and Okada are both former world champions at this point, but the ending of the match is a reminder that there are world champions, and then there’s Okada.

But as great as the finish is, this match’s biggest weakness is the Togo interference shortly before it. If this was the last night of the block or something this stuff probably would have increased the tension, but in this context, it’s just the mandatory annoying part of every Evil match. It doesn’t add drama or heat or anything.

NJPW

After four nights into the G1, we have two clear frontrunners, both of whom are hard at work reviving the 2018 versions of themselves. Taichi, Cobb, and Okada are all undefeated in B Block, but Okada stands out the most with two main event wins and the Rainmaker revival.

Over in A Block, Great-O-Khan is at the top with six points, but he’s there artificially because everyone in that group had two points from Naito added to their score when he forfeited the tournament. As the only A Block person who got to fight Naito, ZSJ is now two points behind and will have had the most difficult G1 in the group. But with his two wins over Naito and Shingo and the performances he gave to get them, Sabre is the true top guy of his group. It’s way too early to really see who’s winning each block, but this is the picture NJPW has painted so far, and it’s one that makes the viewer want to keep looking.

Anyway, here’s everybody’s G1 points after these shows:
A Block:

  • 6 points – 3-0 – Great-O-Khan
  • 4 points – 2-0 – Zack Sabre Jr.
  • 4 points – 2-1 – Kenta, Kota Ibushi, Shingo Takagi, Toru Yano, Yujiro Takahashi
  • 2 points – 1-2 – Tomohiro Ishii
  • 2 points – 1-1 – Tanga Loa
  • 0 points – 0-1 – Tetsuya Naito

B Block:

    • 4 points – 2-0 – Jeff Cobb, Kazuchika Okada, Taichi
    • 2 points – 1-1 – Evil, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Sanada, Tama Tonga
    • 0 points – 0-2 – Chase Owens, Hirooki Goto, Yoshi-Hashi

Along with gaining points, a few people have now beaten champions in this year’s G1, earning title shots they could cash in on in the future. Aside the many who have already beaten the NEVER Openweight 6-man champions, those people are:

    • Zack Sabre Jr. for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship
    • Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP U.S. Championship
    • Great-O-Khan for KOPW 2021

Match recommendations:
Like Nights 1-2, Nights 3-4 of the G1 have a lot of entertaining matches. However, Shingo Takagi vs. Zack Sabre Jr. on September 23 stands head and shoulders above the rest. I can’t think of anything must-watch from September 24, but it was an overall good show.