Previously on NJPW: Zack Sabre Jr. miraculously retained his title and G1 spot against Yoshi-Hashi and everyone retained their G1 spots against the threats of Minoru Suzuki. Also, Robbie Eagles left Bullet Club and joined Chaos on a house show in Australia, but that probably won’t affect anything for over a month!
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And now, the best and worst of the opening night of G1 Climax 29, which took place on July 6, 2019, at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, in the good old U.S. of A. for the first time ever.
Best: Big In America
The first night of the G1 opened and closed with very different but smart match choices. First, Roppongi 3K vs. the Guerrillas of Destiny efficiently warms up the crowd with two popular teams (G.O.D. especially in the U.S.) who we know well, with a clear dynamic of lovable babyfaces vs. bully heels. It wasn’t a match-up you’d expect on the average New Japan show since the teams are in different weight classes, but it was one that told the audience they were at a New Japan show.
Judging from Sho’s post-match promo, it also kicked off what’s going to become an actual rivalry later this year. Sho vows revenge on G.O.D. and said that after they win Super Junior Tag League again, they’ll move on to World Tag League, which could mean he and Yoh are going heavyweight and/or the The State Of The Junior Heavyweight Division is even less clear than the last time I wrote about it.
Nothing’s probably going to happen in the junior division until mid-August, but before we totally leave it behind for a month, let’s just lay out where we’re at:
- There are essentially two junior heavyweight singles titles in the mix in NJPW now, the RevPro Cruiserweight Championship and the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
- Both BOSJ finalists are in the G1. One of them is more jacked than both of the Young Bucks combined when they went heavyweight and has expressed that he doesn’t want to be restricted by weight class. The other is the Junior Heavyweight Champion and has already been the NEVER Openweight Champion and seemed like he might go heavyweight for a while
- The Super J-Cup is back after three years but it’s a U.S. tour. We don’t know how or if it will be broadcast, so it might be a U.S. house show tour
- Jushin Thunder Liger is retiring in January
- Hiromu Takahashi has now been out injured for over one year and his injury was the thing that threw the division into chaos in the first place. Remember how they gave the juniors a Montage Of Champions video during his reign and they haven’t used that since?
- There’s also the soap opera drama between Will Ospreay, Robbie Eagles, and El Phantasmo with ties to all three under-200kg titles
Some of this seems to point to more exposure in the form of storylines and significant match opportunities for the junior heavyweight division, as well as possible changes in how weight classes interact in New Japan. But it’s also hard to say the division is going in a certain direction because there have been so many new elements introduced recently, and it doesn’t help that it felt the division’s top champion was on his way to heavyweight before winning BOSJ and becoming gung-ho about the junior division again. Since it’s G1 season, I don’t expect any of this to be cleared up for at least a month, but I hope once junior division action is back on we get a better sense of what’s supposed to be important here.
To get back to the most recent show and the things we know are important right now, the main event of Okada vs. Tanahashi felt like exactly what it needed to be. Now that they’re a sometimes tag team and the Ace is clearly a post-Ace, there may not be anywhere else to go with this rivalry. If there is, they didn’t go there with the Dallas match, and they didn’t need to. It was a “greatest hits” match and the crowd ate it up. This was not just an authentic New Japan match, but the authentic New Japan match of this era of the promotion, the type of thing many American fans have been hoping to see in person since this U.S. expansion began. It sent the crowd home happy in real life and in kayfabe, it established that Okada is definitely stronger than Tanahashi going into this G1.
Speaking of the crowd, in case you didn’t notice from the With Spandex social media accounts and this article, I was in it, sort of! If you’ve read my reviews of other NJPW events at which I’ve done press, you’ve basically read this before, but I saw some matches live in their entirety and missed some matches and parts of matches while getting backstage comments from wrestlers and watched those back later. So this isn’t a review of the full live experience, which I heard was really positive overall from everyone I talked to who was in attendance, but it’s a review of a partial live experience.
Worst: Rogue Won
On paper, Evil vs. Bad Luck Fale looked like it would be the worst match of the night. Then it did end up being the worst match of the night, but at least Evil came out of it looking amazing. The King of Darkness put everything into his offense and all of his considerable charisma into pumping up the crowd. But while he looked hungry and convincingly aggressive, his opponent did not. Fale still has the occasional solid match in 2019, but here he kicked off the G1 looking like the weak link of the tournament.
Best: Skull Bend
The next match, Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Sanada, benefited from the presence of two young, hungry performers. These two took a similar approach to their G1 Climax 29 match as they did their G1 Climax 28 match last year, though without the faux rounds and with more comedy included. Sabre and Sanada showcased their complimentary mat wrestling skills and strong character work to a very receptive crowd. ZSJ just retained his title against Sanada on a RevPro show, but here Sanada one-upped the evil technical genius for an entertaining, sudden win.
Both of these guys kept the positive momentum from their good match going with strong backstage promos. Sanada was more talkative and confident, maintaining the impression that he’s breaking out as his own man. It’s an odd thing point out after he just beat a guy the exact same way he beat him in the G1 last year, but it’s true. Sanada has his flaws, but he’s a 31-year-old who was just voted fourth most popular wrestler in Japan and has enough upsides that people should get why New Japan has started pushing him more as an individual. They gave him a new entrance video about how he’s a sexy fashion pirate now! I don’t think anyone should have to walk a plank that’s also a catwalk if they’re a Sanada hater, but they should at least batten down the hatches and accept that New Japan’s going to see how far they can take this guy.
Sabre delivered a very good and peak ZSJ promo – British sitcom quotes, references to socialism, bonus extremely British insulting of Americans that we as a nation tend to enjoy a lot some reason – that effectively promoted his upcoming match with Okada and reminded us that even more than winning the G1, he wants to tap out the champ and use his title shot at Royal Quest.
The first night of the G1 allowed Sabre and Sanada to play to their in-ring strengths and clearly establish their character motivations. We’ll see if they can keep this up for the rest of the tournament, and it seems like there’s a good chance they can.
Best: Next Time On G1 Climax 29
In addition to Sabre’s promo on Okada, the under-card tag matches gave us previews of matches coming up even sooner on the first night of B Block. For the most part, they did this very well, starting with Jeff Cobb and Tomohiro Ishii just going at each other instantly in their tag match and brawling after it ended. Cobb got to show off his strength and look like a guy who didn’t just lose to Matt Taven in like ten minutes and Ishii was on his A-game. These two could steal the show on the 13th.
However, after a later tag match, it looked like Juice Robinson and Shingo Takagi might be even more likely to steal that show. It turns out these two are great together! The counters! The punches! The similar passion and very different heights! I am delighted by this pairing and delighted by the prospect of a G1 where Juice doesn’t have an injury angle and delighted by Shingo still selling his jaw as he left the ring and during a very strong promo backstage that ended with probably unintentional innuendo.
You know B Block is good when Naito vs. Yano looks like the weakest link of its first night of singles matches, especially when it includes a Hirooki Goto vs. Jay White rematch that they’ve gotten people to care about. In Dallas, Goto was the most over he’s ever been in America, in visibly great shape, and convincingly badass enough for it to work well when Jay jumped about a mile after Goto stepped to him at one point. White seems like a likely B Block winner and the fact that it looks like he should and will probably lose his first tournament match makes that a little more interesting.
Best: Hometown Road
To get back to A Block, though, expectations for its opening match varied based on what other NJPW matches members of the audience had seen this year. Lance Archer and Will Ospreay’s New Japan Cup match this spring surpassed expectations, but I talked to someone after the show who hadn’t seen it and was pleasantly shocked by how good Ospreay vs. Archer II was and I doubt he was the only one. Archer as a singles match competitor hasn’t been on people’s radars for basically years and though Ospreay’s matches against larger, less flippy wrestlers are usually his most compelling, they don’t tend to be his most hyped.
Unlike many of his matches with larger wrestlers, here Ospreay got to do flippy ish right out of the gate, starting the match with a Spanish Fly and a nearfall after a 450. But he gloriously ate it very soon afterward when Local Man Lance Archer put him through a table. From here, the Archer control portions tended to build up to Ospreay comeback portions very well, with help from the hotness of the crowd, who give Archer the best reception of possibly his whole career. Ospreay has been super-mega-pushed for the better part of a year now, especially since Kenny started gearing up to leave and Ospreay began to be presented as Definitely The New Kenny, but in this match in Dallas, Archer was channeling the power of the entire history of Texas wrestling into one hand.
Overall, the takeaway from Archer vs. Ospreay was similar to that of Sabre vs. Sanada, though they were stylistically very different and the creative success of Archer as a singles villain was less predictable than that of his Suzukigun brother. Both matches featured some of New Japan’s highest potential, most heavily pushed in 2019 young babyfaces and stood out from other matches on the card. While Okada and Ibushi are still the most obvious picks to go very far in A Block, it seems like all four men in these matches could easily play important spoiler roles and/or get title or briefcase shots this fall.
Don’t Call It A Comeback
While Sanada vs. Sabre and Ospreay vs. Archer highlighted wrestlers’ strengths and hid their weaknesses, Kenta’s first post-WWE match put both on display.
It’s not fair to expect 38-year-old post-injury Kenta to wrestle like he did in his prime and I personally didn’t expect him to suddenly be way better than he was on 205 Live, but that’s how New Japan Kenta was advertised. Shibata said he hoped the old Kenta would be back and Kenta himself promised to finally be himself. “I want to show the world who I am,” he said at the G1 press conference. “I am f*cking Kenta.” This was a badass who had been unfairly shackled by WWE, and the shackles were off.
At least, that’s the story it seemed like Kenta’s match with Kota Ibushi was trying to tell. At certain points, it was believable. Those famous Kenta kicks sounded brutal, for example, and in general, he seemed cockier and more ruthless than he has for years. However, while this match was about this unchained dominant killer coming back to reestablish the dominance he never really lost, it felt like watching a performer work to get back what he kind of had lost and never fully getting it back.
Kenta was up against one of NJPW’s most brutal killers – when the right buttons get pushed- in Ibushi, but he never seemed as much like a murderer as Ibushi has in several matches this year, and yet he was able to totally destroy him. In kayfabe, Kenta’s first G1 match could hardly have gone better, but in real life, it definitely could have. Even for the very receptive live audience, there was lack of magic in this bout. There were isolated heckles and smarky comments throughout the show, but this match was the one time there were enough of those to result in a crowd response that didn’t fit the story – a chant for Red Shoes when he was barely doing anything.
It’s very possible that Kenta, who is clearly still a very good wrestler, will get the magic back as this tournament goes on, maybe when he’s against slower wrestlers than Ibushi. But though that’s what I’m sure most people would like to see happen, it doesn’t feel like there’s any guarantee it will after that first match.
Going into the first night of B Block, here’s how the A Block boys stand, with no title shots earned yet:
2 points – 1-0 – Bad Luck Fale, Kenta, Kazuchika Okada, Lance Archer, Sanada
0 points – 0-1 – Evil, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre Jr.
I’ll see you back here soon to talk about how the G1 continues back in Japan.