Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
Confession time, dear readers: I never gave a fuck about the World Cup. Ditto the Stanley Cup. Really, any sort of cup not filled with some potent concoction of juice and liquor. I like the Super Bowl. I GET the Super Bowl. There’s a logical throughline that makes sense to me. We beat this guy, so now we go against this other guy, and if we beat him, we win a big, shiny thing. I am all about big shiny things. It’s kinda my #brand.
My understanding of and engagement with sports championships is directly proportional to how similar they are to the pro wrestling tournaments of my youth. You see, nowadays when the WWE has to settle a title vacancy, they default to randomly booked battle royales (where a bunch of men have to throw each other over the top rope to remain the last man standing). Don’t get me wrong. I love a good battle royale, but usually once a year at the Royal Rumble. Beyond that and I get fatigue. I really can’t escape the allure of a good, old fashioned tournament, though. Blame Tekken. Blame Dragon Ball Z. Blame society’s love of March Madness. I just adore brackets.
The WWE used to host an annual tournament called King of The Ring and it was totally my favorite thing ever. Usually there were eight men in the brackets, each having won a qualifying match to make it to the big dance, with all three rounds (quarterfinal, semifinal, final) taking place over the course of one night. There were deviations from this formula, of course, but to me, this was the best set-up. It was the perfect launching pad for showing how tough a babyface was by having him beat three formidable foes in one evening, ie Bret Hart in ’93, or by establishing a hateable arch foe, as with King Mabel in ’95.
King Fucking Mabel. Kind of a dud in terms of actually being a monster, but you can’t blame the build-up. The late, great Nelson Frazier’s ascendance to the throne was a perfect story to nine-year-old Dominic Griffin. Formerly of the tag team Men on a Mission, Mabel had gone from fun-loving hefty man to hateful heel, and this tournament was his homecoming. He beat Adam Bomb in the quarterfinal and got a bye past the semifinals when Shawn Michaels and Kama’s quarterfinal resulted in a no contest. He only had to defeat one man to make it to the final, whereas his opponent, plucky underdog Savio Vega, had to defeat three. Vega was a last minute replacement for Razor Ramon, so he had to defeat Irwin R. Schuyster (Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas’ IRL father) to even qualify for his spot. He then beat behemoth Yokozuna (by countout) and The Roadie (later known as Road Dogg.) Normally, this sort of babyface push would be a great plot to display a new hero, but his journey served to show us just what a pitiless monlith Mabel was, crushing Vega’s dreams in the final.
That’s why I love tournaments. You get a strong mix of interesting performers having exciting match-ups, some fresh and some furthering existing feuds, all in service of a functioning, logical enterprise that makes the wrestling feel like it matters. It’s sort of the best possible version of what DC and Marvel try to achieve with their annual crossover events. Characters come into the tournament with preexisting motivations, grudges, and backstory, and that intermingles with the natural tension and conflict inherent to the tournament to create layered, drama filled stories. At their best, of course. Not everything can be Secret Wars, so for every King of The Ring ’96 (where “Stone Cold” Steve Austin began his legendary hot streak) there’s a tournament like the one WCW held for their then-vacant United States Championship back in 1995. Seriously, that thing was a convoluted mess with too many participants, not much cohesion to the storytelling, and it felt like it lasted for six months. Sting won. I think. Anyway, it sucked.
As far as current day is concerned, there are lots of interesting tournaments outside of the mainstream. ECWA has the Super 8. Maryland Championship Wrestling has the Shane Shamrock Cup. CZW does The Best of The Best. We’ve talked about PWG’s amazing Battle of Los Angeles before, which happens again at the end of August with its most jam-packed lineup yet. Really, if we’re going to discuss prestige and drama and majesty with tournaments there’s only one modern day example worth exploring: The G1 Climax.
New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual G1 Climax tournament is the most incredible regular event going today. It’s had many iterations, but its current form as a double bracketed round-robin tournament has historically yielded the best results. Last year’s, the 23rd, was widely considered the best in the event’s history, but we’re halfway into this year’s and it’s definitely giving its predecessor a run for its money. With twenty-two competitors evenly split between two blocks, it’s the largest G1 ever. Every contestant wrestles every other opponent in their block, gaining points for wins, and the the men from each block with the most points face off in the final. It’s a lot of matches and this year, the tournament has been scheduled with more breaks and days off to give the roster more freshness, as last year’s schedule was brutal. We’ve had five days so far and already experienced some of the best in-ring action of the year.
Doubling back on my comic book crossover analogy: remember Avengers Vs X-Men? Vast cast, seemingly infinite number of plot threads, ambitious as fuck. That’s how the G1 is, except more often than not, NJPW bookers Jado and Gedo stick the landing. They cleverly juggle a veritable armful of performers and place them in matchups that function as enjoyable spectacles on their own, but when viewed cumulatively with the rest of the tournament, build these astonishing communal moments. There’s a reason the live crowds at every G1 show so far have been so hot. There are multiple plots and character arcs all being threaded through one giant needle with utter finesse, both from the bookers and the astronomical talent making it all happen in the ring.
Every wrestler in the tournament has his own story, kind of like Mortal Kombat. Kazuchika Okada, the former champion, is looking to repeat his 2012 G1 win to redeem himself from losing the top title. Tetsuya Naito is trying to do the same for his win from last year and his loss at this year’s Wrestle Kingdom. Toru Yano, a bit of a comedy act, is trying to win as many matches as quickly and as craftily as possible. Last year’s breakout Tomohiro Ishii is trying to prove he is more than just an underdog. Everyone has kayfabe reasons for behaving the way they do, but each performer is also aware how important a platform the G1 is, so everyone is on their A game. Current IWGP World Champion AJ Styles is out there wrestling the best matches of his career because he knows he has to prove himself to the G1 crowds. Satoshi Kojima is in his 40s and wrestling like he’s ten years younger. Why? IT’S THE FUCKING G1 CLIMAX.
The same way Marvel might use an event like AvX to tease the launch of a new title, the G1 is a perfect launching pad for future angles and matches. Naito upset champion Styles, so you know a title shot is in the books for the fall. NJPW ace Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata have had a quiet feud going in the press this year due to some comments Tanahashi made in his recent autobiography, so their tournament match was steeped in drama from the minute the brackets were revealed. Their match was an incredible outing that satisfied the tournament crowd, but truly was a tease for a future match (perhaps at Wrestle Kingdom 9 in January.)
Of every wrestling match brings with it a sense of suspense based around the potential for reversals and counters to famous spots from each performer, the G1 ups the ante. Rhythms and pacing are developed from the mixing and matching of various expected spots, whether it’s Okada’s finisher The Rainmaker or Shibata’s flying corner dropkick or King Fale’s Bad Luck Fall. Seeing how each man expects, anticipates and turns around spots and finishes from other matches is riveting and engrossing. Shelton Benjamin ran undefeated for four shows only to be bested on Day 5 by Shibata, a man who’s no nonsense strategy kicked right through the fancy footwork Benjamin used in his previous wins.
One wrestler who’s journey perfectly epitomizes why the G1 is so special is Tomoaki Honma.
Honma is a serious underdog and a last minute replacement for Kota Ibushi, who is out with a concussion. He’s one of the most fun wrestlers on Earth. Super jacked, bright blonde hair and Hulk Hogan colors, Honma’s entire act is based around his ability to take damage and get a crowd behind him. The singular unit of his performance is a falling headbutt he goes for in every match and nearly always misses. It’s like watching Buster Keaton. His ability to elicit a strong reaction from an audience with the exact same gag multiple times in a match is astonishing. You’re lulled into the rhythm of him never ever hitting the move so when it does connect, as if by magic, people lose their minds.
Honma has yet to win a match thus far, but when he got into the ring with Tanahashi, easily NJPW’s biggest star, the chants were far from 50/50. The crowd was universally behind Honma. There’s half a tournament left, so who knows how the final will go, but the beauty is the side stories. Will Honma win a match? Will someone finally beat the shit out of Yano? What will happen when The Bullet Club members Karl Anderson and AJ Styles have to face off?
The G1 is a comic book crossover where the tie-ins are just as exciting as the main title, the match-ups as enticing as the main event. It’s the grandest tournament there is and I will continue staying up til 6am to catch these matches live.
I leave you with Honma vs Nakamura, not the best of the G1 thus far, but definitely one of my favorites.
 EGOT or Die, y’all.
 Best said like “the fucking Catalina Wine Mixer.”
 The G1 effect is contagious. Just watch Johm Cena vs Cesaro from this Monday’s Raw and tell me they’re not trying to one up Tanahashi and the boys out East.