I’ve said it before. This isn’t a video games blog. It seems like that sometimes, because that’s what I usually talk about. But it’s not. It’s an Aether blog. And that means sometimes we have different subjects than the usual around here. Today’s going to be one of those days. Because today I want to talk about wrestling.
New Japan Pro Wrestling, specifically. Been something of a passion of mine for over a year now. And it’s a good time to be into it. A really good time. The company has been spending the past couple years putting out what many consider to be the best matches in the history of wrestling. They’ve been gathering some of the best talents in the industry, and the results have showing. Perhaps most tellingly, the Wrestling Observer Newsletters rating scale, which many fans look to as the gold standard of wrestling match reviewing, has only awarded more than five stars eight times in its long history. Seven of those times have been matches with New Japan Pro Wrestling within the past year and a half. Hell, they’ve become enough of a powerful presence in the pro wrestling world that even the WWE, who as a rule never acknowledge other wrestling companies, have made some pretty huge references to NJPW over the past several years.
Calling New Japan the best wrestling has ever been is going to draw some controversy, but it’s got a solid claim to that right now. What’s much less disputable is that NJPW is in the midst of a golden age of the form, delivering a level of quality that people are still going to be talking about for years. They are giving us some of the best wrestling you can see. And with them expanding their efforts to connect with worldwide audiences, a new president who has set a priority of delivering more English content, and with NJPW being on the eve of this year’s G1 Climax, probably their highest profile event of the year, I’ll repeat that. It’s a really good time to be into NJPW.
And you know, I’m a giving person. I like making the world a better place. So for those who were interested in getting into this year’s G1 Climax, I thought to put together a little primer. Just something to make jumping in a bit easier.
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Even if you aren’t a wrestling fan, you know wrestling. It’s been around a long, long time, and has taken up enough of a place in our culture that, yeah, you know what you’re in for. So let’s talk a little bit about what’s different about New Japan Pro Wrestling from what you might generally see.
One thing that’s been with NJPW since the start is their value on what they call Strong Style. Yes, WWE selling Shinsuke Nakamura as the King of Strong Style is a direct export from here. The company was founded by Antonio Inoki, a wrestler/martial artist who had a stupid fight with Muhammed Ali once that ended up serving as the dumbest possible origin to Mixed Martial Arts. But Inoki was never-the-less inspired by that, and worked that into the company he made, delivering a take on pro-wrestling very much inspired by MMA, boxing, and other combat sports. The company used to go too far with it, demanding their wrestlers also take part in legit MMA competition and seeing plenty of wrestlers make a habit of hitting each other too hard to get more impact out of their supposedly fake moves. They’ve walked back on it since, but it’s still a part of their DNA, and you’ll see a lot of their wrestlers with legit records in MMA, amateur wrestling, kickboxing, etc. behind them. They do strongly value a mix of styles, both drawing inspiration from outside sources and seeing variety in the types of wrestling styles on display.
One of the best parts of wrestling is the drama. It’s more than just a competition, because a competition that’s not really a competition is kind of lame. Wrestling is at it’s best when you’re feeling for the characters in the ring and getting invested in the momentum between them. In typical wrestling, this often takes the place of a sort of soap opera with muscles that will always sound dumb when you try to explain it to someone else but it can actually be pretty awesome to watch. NJPW is way, way more subtle with that. You don’t usually get people standing in the middle of the ring talking about how they’re going to fistinate everyone else. There’s no ladder matches for custody of people’s children, nobody getting into each other’s heads by having sex with manikins, no fake buyouts of the company by future presidents. For 95 percent of the show, it’s all matches. Most of the story happens in the ring, by the behavior of the people involved in their matches. The announcers will deliver some, some of the special content post match interviews will deliver some for those who choose to go with that too, but most of it just comes from watching and gaining insight into how they interact with each other. Some wrestlers are better at it than others, which leads to some differing quality on how this goes. The story also typically goes over a lot longer term, too. Some people, you’ll see rivalries playing out over years, only coming up a bit at a time when they have the odd match with each other. It’s pretty regular to see them set up a moment at one point that’s not going to have the emotional payoff you’d expect for months. When it works well, it works very well. Again, it does lead to some missteps along the way, but what booking doesn’t have its stupid missteps?
They also take a really different approach to match structure. NJPW values the health and longevity of their wrestlers, so the primary style of wrestling match is some variety of tag match. By my understanding, wrestlers are more driven to push the limits and go for those risky awesome moments in one-on-one matches, which leads to more injuries, so they try to save those singles matches for select times. Typically, you only get singles matches when somebody’s challenging for a title, when they’re going through one of NJPW’s tournaments, or in the odd grudge match. The top talent in the company often end up only having about 20 or so singles matches a year, a record way less than most anywhere else. You still see them in tag matches all the time, so you still get a chance to enjoy them for what they’ve got, but you don’t see them completely unleashed but for a few select times.
And frankly, that booking approach comes to define a lot of how things work in NJPW. Titles gain a lot of weight behind them, because the champion becomes the person you’re going to be seeing in singles matches for the next while. Perhaps because of this, the titles are more volatile than in many other promotions. Most champions are only able to hold onto them for a couple of defenses before someone else takes over. Factions are a lot more important to the company’s structure, as well. Most of the talent is divided into one of four different factions. Those factions give the individual wrestlers some identity, serve as a vehicle for both collaboration and conflicts with other groups, and provide the stable of member with whom you’ll see them team with in that multitude of tag matches they use so often.
The G1 Climax
When I say the G1 Climax is perhaps the highest profile event of NJPW’s year, that might lead you to expect things that don’t quite apply here. The G1 Climax is not NJPW’s equivalent of WrestleMania, the year-turning show in which they pull out all the stops and capitalize on all the momentum they’ve built up. No, that would be Wrestle Kingdom, which is almost always a great experience in it’s own right. Still, not the G1 Climax. In fact, no titles will be on the line during the G1 Climax, no grudges settled, nothing finished.
Rather, the G1 Climax is a tournament. 20 wrestlers separated into two blocks, going against each other in singles matches over the course of a month. There’s no eliminations from this tournament, it’s all point based; two points for a win, one for a draw, nothing for a loss. At the end the two wrestlers with the most points from each block face each other. The winner of that scores a contract that, assuming they can defend it until then, has them challenging for the top title of NJPW, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, in the main event of next year’s Wrestle Kingdom.
So what’s the big deal about the G1 Climax? Well, aside from the fact that it’s twenty shows over the course of a month of great wrestling, remember that NJPW is protective of their talent, only having them in singles matches on select occasions. And this is probably the biggest select occasion. This is actually where most of the wrestlers involved will be seeing the majority of the year’s singles competition, more matches in one month than they’ll have in the rest of the year combined. This isn’t the only singles tournament NJPW has, but this is the one that gathers the biggest quantity of their top talent, and as a result, has a really great quantity of high quality matches, all in a single place.
Moreover, this is one where they pack a lot of surprises, as well. You’ll see normally invincible champions falter. You’ll see wrestlers pick up surprise victories over people who would normally be way above them in the power rankings. You’ll see matches go in bizarre directions they wouldn’t try anywhere else in the year. Generally, whenever someone beats a reigning champion, they end up with a title shot against them later on, so you’ll see this open up a lot of doors to surprising future matches as well.
So yeah. It’s not just one great show. It’s a lot of great shows, many that bring things you won’t get the chance to see any other time this year. It’s an excellent jumping on point, or an exciting annual event if you’re already in there. There’s a lot to look forward to here.