Originally published at G1 CLIMAX 31 PREVIEW: Bruce Lord previews the B Block
By: Bruce Lord
Welcome to POST Wrestling’s preview of the B block of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Climax 31! Over the next five weeks, I’ll be providing written coverage of each match in the second of the tournament’s two blocks (Mark Buckeldee will have the A block beat covered), with this piece serving as something of a table-setter.
Between clap crowds, a schedule disrupted by both COVID and the Olympics, and a roster hampered by current difficulties with international travel, this year’s G1 is arriving with far less fanfare and anticipation than usually befits what is still the world’s most prestigious and well-regarded pro wrestling tournament. Without entering into speculation about NJPW’s finances, it’s safe to say that a lot is riding on the tournament insofar as broader engagement with the New Japan product is concerned, especially in non-Japanese markets. In addition to the above broader challenges, New Japan has weathered a poor reception to EVIL’s title reign, a mixed-at-best reaction to the retiring of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the sake of the new World Championship, and rapid cycling of that championship for both medical and storyline reasons. Add a recent white-hot run from AEW into the mix, and all of a sudden New Japan is not the immediate and unanimous go-to for die-hard wrestling fans disenchanted with WWE that it was a couple of years ago. In short, New Japan has a lot of work to do in terms of rebuilding excitement for its core Japanese product, but even with a slightly limited roster, a well-executed G1 Climax tournament could go a long way.
So, if you’re looking to get caught up with NJPW for the sake of the always enjoyable G1 matches themselves but don’t feel like making a slog through the interminable run of Korakuen Hall shows which made up the summer in order to do that, I have you covered (well, half covered). Below, I’m running through each of the B block competitors (listed in descending order of how likely I believe they are to win the block), discussing their recent fortunes and failings, and pointing towards match-ups and stories worth tracking as the tournament winds its way through September and October.
Don’t get it twisted: despite an incredibly turbulent couple of years which have seen seemingly everyone save Okada holding the IWGP Heavyweight and World Championships (while he frittered time away with Yujiro Takahashi of all people), NJPW is still The Rainmaker’s domain. While his 2021 has featured three high profile singles defeats (two to Shingo Takagi, and one just over two weeks ago to Jeff Cobb), Okada is still the standard-bearer for New Japan, with his record-setting title reigns and defenses protecting him from the diminishment of standing those losses would incur upon any other wrestler. There’s no question that the B block lacks some of the luster of its A block counterpart, and so New Japan is counting on the evergreen pairing of Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi to spark excitement for the B block on its first show, and for Okada to keep that interest aflame at the top of all but two of the following cards. Deeper into the tournament, watch for
Okada’s matches with Sanada and even Yoshi-Hashi, as he should be able to bring out the best in some of the block’s underachievers. The Rainmaker has to be viewed as the odds-on favorite to win the B block and likely the entire G1, setting up a Wrestle Kingdom scenario in which (setting the Will Ospreay question aside for the moment) Okada could either herald a return to the natural order of NJPW with a championship win or add further credibility to Shingo Takagi’s unlikely but hard-fought reign.
After a pair of G1 showings which fell a bit short of his tremendous talents, Cobb has had his working boots on and has churned out a fantastic body of work over the past year in New Japan. Highlighted by a show-stealing Wrestle Kingdom match with Shingo, the Gachimuchi grappler’s efforts have paid off in storyline, too, with Kevin Kelly regularly citing his win streaks on air, and Cobb effectively becoming the public face of the still-new United Empire faction during Will Ospreay’s absence. Fresh off a hard-earned victory against Okada at Wrestle Grand Slam after having been repeatedly stymied by the Rainmaker in the past, look for Cobb to be a major force in this year’s tournament. His physique and style make him a still-unique opponent for much of the block, with plenty of opportunities for creative and hard-hitting fights. His rematch with Okada will be hotly anticipated by the time of the last night of the B block, and Cobb is a not-all-that-dark horse candidate to take the match and the whole block.
Fans can moan and stomp their feet all they want (or, in the case of EVIL’s recent appearance at the close of the Tokyo Dome Wrestle Grand Slam, pointedly do neither of those things and instead greet him with stony indifference), but it looks as though New Japan is doubling down on the interference-heavy, “heel heat” incarnation of EVIL we’ve had since 2020’s New Japan Cup. The emergence of the “House Of Torture” within Bullet Club, rumored to be a pet project of Dick Togo’s, seems to indicate that despite the lukewarm at best response to EVIL’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign, we’re in for more of the same. More Dick Togo garrote wire spots which run counter to New Japan’s traditions. More predictable ref bumps and distractions that completely shatter pro wrestling’s suspension of disbelief. More of the same, formulaic EVIL matches which have been part and parcel of declining North American interest in the New Japan product during the COVID era. After coming up short against Shingo at Wrestle Grand Slam, a B block win re-establishing EVIL at the top of the card and setting up a war between Bullet Club factions is a very real possibility, god
help us all.
No other member of the NJPW roster has been able to tell as many subtly crafted stories over the course of a G1 tournament as The Ace. Whether he’s playing heel sotto voce in order to give shine to an opponent in their hometown, selling the pathos of lengthy losing streaks which seem to indicate that his glory days are indeed behind him, or playing with current understandings of kayfabe by integrating seemingly legit injuries into his matches, there is no wilier veteran in the company. His recent retention of the IWGP US Championship seems to point to Tanahashi remaining just outside of the main event mix; while he can’t be considered a major candidate to win the B block, look for him to have some hopeful winning streaks and, above all, do his best to keep the B block from being outshone by the somewhat swankier A block.
“They’re off, boys!” Chris Charlton’s signature call of Taichi’s Chippendale impression has never signaled the same uptick in a match’s intensity as Okada’s Rainmaker pose. But, even the staunchest of Taichi doubters, such as myself, has to admit that his slow but steady rise up the card has been accompanied by notable in-ring improvement. You still won’t get meat and potatoes NJPW classics from the Holy Emperor, but bizarre time-eaters like his Intercontinental Championship match against Tetsuya Naito in 2019 (y’know, the one that began with a full twenty minutes of injury stalling) have been replaced with far more enjoyable fare, like his and Ibushi’s striking (pun fully intended) tribute to Kawada during last year’s G1. While he won’t be a significant contender in the G1 itself, look for Taichi to set up World Tag League matches with long-time rivals like Tama Tonga, and possibly even a US Championship challenge should he defeat Tana.
If it took me a long time to admit that Taichi had indeed improved in the ring, it took me even longer to admit that Sanada had stalled out. Even accounting for the occasional misstep, the Harrison Bergeron-esque offsetting of his natural good looks with bizarre grooming choices, and a general lack of effect, the sheer raw potential Sanada has hinted at since his 2016 arrival in New Japan has been tantalizing. But year after year of Sanada failing to amplify his in-ring intensity or presence in big moments, to the point that the English commentary has at times openly begged him to show more fire, has inevitably quelled that intrigue. For every one match like his 2019 G1 victory over Okada, a nail-biting highlight of that year’s tournament, there have been four like this year’s Wrestle Kingdom match with EVIL, in which what should have been the blow-off to a year-long blood feud was treated like the initialing of insurance paperwork: purely a formality. Sanada’s G1 will likely be an adjunct to his recent tag run with Naito (which has been a serviceable enough diversion for both men) and he will likely play spoiler to EVIL in the last B block show (that match looks to have been quietly moved to the top of that card, replacing Okada/Cobb), but again, be sure to set aside time for his match with Okada, the one man capable of consistently tapping into Sanada’s too-often dormant potential.
Longtime NJPW aficionados know what to expect from Goto at this point in his tenure. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, the days in which Goto was a legitimate contender for a G1 block, let alone the entire tournament, are firmly behind him. But despite those limitations, NJPW remains a company where in-ring prowess is still prized above everything else, and that’s where the hard-hitting fighting spirit of Goto comes into play in the G1. After a couple of middling matches with him in the past, Goto locking horns with a reinvigorated Jeff Cobb could very well be a show-stealer. Look for him to be the B block equivalent of his CHAOS stablemate Tomohiro Ishii – a workhorse who’ll do his damnedest to pull good to great matches out of some of the block’s lesser competitors.
The Guerrillas of Destiny’s role in New Japan is a bit of a head-scratcher right now. For the past couple of years, the heavyweight tag team division has been marked by interim singles pairings like Golden Ace and Naito/Sanada, as well as the unlikely yet slowly emergent Dangerous Tekkers much more so than traditional tag teams like Tama Tonga and Tonga Loa. Factor in Tama Tonga’s contentious relationship with the G1 itself, and he and his brother do seem like odd men out this year. Frankly, a change of scenery in the form of a sojourn to New Japan’s rapidly expanding US presence would likely do G.O.D. a world of good; their recent confrontation with the Good Brothers at the Resurgence show made them feel as fresh as they’ve been in a long time. In terms of this G1 itself, Tama’s combo of crowd work and methodical in-ring likely won’t move the needle or be a contending factor, though his match with EVIL could provide a bit more clarity as to the House Of Torture’s role within Bullet Club itself.
Much like Taichi, years of underperformance have made it difficult to accurately gauge Yoshi-Hashi’s recent work. Hell, I have friends who’ve been ironically championing the Loose Explosion for so long they worked themselves into a shoot years ago. But in this strange, purgatory-like COVID period of New Japan, Yoshi-Hashi’s presence in CHAOS’ NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship team has been a highlight on many otherwise aimless cards. The length of his reign with Ishii and Goto has finally given Yoshi-Hashi some purpose, the three-card monte speed of the matches has papered over his faults, and his once near-comical fire-up spots now actually mean something. All that said, at the end of the day this is still Yoshi-Hashi we’re talking about: he’s in the G1 to pad the real contenders’ stats and get a couple of upset wins. But having a glimmer of credibility in the perennial underdog can’t do anything but help.
The de facto pin-eater for the B block, Chase Owens may not from the outside appear to be quite as easy a rest day match-up as the A Block’s Toru Yano, Owens’ recent opponent in that inexplicably protracted KOPW I Quit match. However, the word on Owens has always been that he’s a locker room favorite who works soft and makes his opponents look good. The over/under on his win count should be set at 0.5, but at least he’s decidedly more watchable than Yujiro.
That’s it for the B block preview, folks! I’ll be back on Sunday with a full report on the opening day of the G1 Climax B block competition.
Bruce Lord will be filing reports for all of the B Block events of the G1 Climax while Mark Buckeldee will covering the A Block here at POST Wrestling.
You can join POST Wrestling’s G1 Climax Contest for free at http://www.postwrestling.com/g1 with the deadline this Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET.