At only the half-way point, G1 Climax 31 has already offered up multiple enthralling Match of the Year contenders, from a Dragon battling a Pitbull on Night 1 to a Rainmaker facing a familiar foe the subsequent night. The tournament always delivers at least a sprinkling of must-see encounters between the stars of New Japan Pro Wrestling, and this year has seen little exception so far.
Zack Sabre Jr. and Shingo Takagi have been the real standouts of the tournament to date, with their matches protruding over their fellow competitors. Scanning the shows so far, I’ve pieced together a list of the 5 best matches from the tournament. They come from both blocks and from a smattering of different nights from the first-half of G1 Climax 31.
Make sure you leave your personal favourites down in the comments below.
1. Shingo Takagi vs Tomohiro Ishii – Night 1, September 18th
The opening night of the G1 Climax often has the same fireworks and bravado as a New Year’s celebration, and this year didn’t disappoint. Pride of place in the coveted main event slot, IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Shingo Takagi squared off against the defiant ‘Stone Pitbull’ of NJPW.
In a match that gave you exactly what it said on the tin; sheer physicality, brutality and ferocity were on display. It was a perfect example of beautiful wrestling violence. As expected, Shingo carried his MVP form into this tournament, carrying the block alongside the likes of Ishii and Zack Sabre Jr. (we’ll get to him in a bit).
Imagery never fails to disappoint when Shingo vs Ishii is the match being imagined, as these two are practically incapable of producing a bad match against one another. They truly always deliver.
This match was a fantastic way to entice fans into the G1 Climax, and a great advert for what top-level New Japan has the potential to be given the immense talent available.
2. Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – Night 2, September 19th
The opening night was hastily followed by a subsequent outing in the same Osaka venue with the headliner being another entry to my list.
Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi. ‘The Rainmaker’ vs ‘The Ace’. In a match-up which oozes class and prestige, the pair wrote yet another enthralling chapter in their historical rivalry. After I watched the show, I remarked that it was pro wrestling at its absolute best – and I think that just about sums up this match.
They produced a perfect wrestling match (and not for the first time). With expectations at the very least tempered heading into this year’s dismal looking tournament, the opening weekend managed to deliver quality.
If you had to bet your mortgage on two wrestlers having a good match together, I think the safest bet would be Okada vs Tanahashi, so it’s no surprise this match was as good as it was. Each second of the near time-limit encounter carried meaning, as it ensured your eyes remained glued to the screen.
3. Shingo Takagi vs Zack Sabre Jr. – Night 3, September 23rd
Now, with a match from each of the opening weekend’s shows, I switch focus back to the A Block with Night 3’s thrilling main event. I would be remiss if the ‘Submission Master’ Zack Sabre Jr. didn’t feature in this piece, as his G1 Climax campaign has been truly phenomenal so far.
With the submission machine of New Japan kicking off his journey with a spectacular victory over Tetsuya Naito, which only narrowly missed out on my list, he looks like the best option for A Block winner. Following Naito’s injury suspending him from the remainder of his tournament outings, ZSJ has gone on a monstrous run, submitting some of the very top talent in the promotion’s heavyweight division.
This match against Shingo Takagi shines for me as his best in the tournament, not only because of its engaging, logical, submission based style but also the meaning of the match. ZSJ handing Shingo a rare submission defeat has major implications for the champion, as now the Brit is in line for a title shot regardless of whether or not he’s the eventual winner of the tournament.
This match deserves entry for the fact alone that ZSJ was referring to Shingo as “dragon bollocks” throughout, but it was genuinely impressive as a stand-out bout between two of the most accomplished talents in world wrestling.
4. Kazuchika Okada vs YOSHI-HASHI – Night 6, September 29th
The next entry is the most emotive match on my list, as I opt to glorify YOSHI-HASHI’s valiant challenge to the throne of Kazuchika Okada. There was no better venue than Korakuen Hall for this one, as the crowd famously backs the underdog. It was no different here!
Fighting against the golden-goose of NJPW, YOSHI-HASHI produced one of the greatest performances of his career to date. The atmosphere which encased this match took it to that next level, with a Korkauen crowd unable to contain themselves within the stringent clap-only crowds of COVID era wrestling. The underdog was expectably cheered on by the fans which filled the seats with an energy which decidedly improved the match.
The long history between Okada and YOSHI-HASHI, dating back to their conjoined days as Young Lions and their infamous Wrestle Kingdom 6 post-excursion re-debut match, was played upon very cleverly at various points. Importantly, there was visible struggle between the two wrestlers, with a somewhat undefinable, intangible factor being the legitimate sense of importance in their intense face-off.
5. Kota Ibushi vs Shingo Takagi – Night 9, October 3rd
It has seemed that the effects of the diagnosis Kota Ibushi announced a couple months ago have lingered on into the gruelling G1, with him looking understandably exasperated. However, this seemed to subside when the ‘Dragon’ entered his fray.
The often unmatched mix of impressive speed and power that Shingo possesses was vital to the structure of this match. Kicks, forearms, knees, headbutts and an array of suplexes were all on the menu here, as the current and former IWGP World Heavyweight Champions duelled spectacularly in Night 9’s main attraction.
While Ibushi is a spellbinding athlete, the ‘Dragon’ is the indestructible, powerful force at the pinnacle of New Japan Pro Wrestling. This match offered some delightful exchanges in what quickly became one to remember for certain end of year creditations.
It’s no secret that these two have great in-ring chemistry, and it was proved beyond a doubt by the end of this match.
This year’s G1 Climax hasn’t been one for the history books, but it has certainly produced numerous great matches. There are still many shows to come, so more high-level matches will surely be on their way.
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