10. Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs Kazuchika Okada – 07/31, Gifu
Other than ‘Mr. August’ Masahiro Chono, there’s no one more decorated in G1 Climax competition than Hiroyoshi Tenzan. But the ‘Violent Bull’ of New Japan Pro-Wrestling is getting on in years and has made no secret that this year’s tournament will be his final stand. In fact, he wasn’t even selected for the tournament, in spite of some impressive performances in recent months, and only gained entry to the field when his tag team partner and long-time friend Satoshi Kojima graciously relinquished his spot to Tenzan. Suffice to say, Tenzan won’t want to let Koji down and is looking to make a big impression in this year’s competition. While the chances of him emerging ultimate victor are somewhat slim, there’s no reason Tenzan can’t make an impact and the best way to do that would be to defeat IWGP Champion Kazuchika Okada and earn himself a future title shot.
09. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Naomichi Marufuji – 08/06, Osaka
There’s some interesting parallels to be made between the careers of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Naomichi Marufuji, both at one time were considered the aces of their respective companies and both, at times, have suffered because of it in the fan’s estimation. After a single meeting as rookies in 2003, Tanahashi and Marufuji last faced off back in 2012 with Marufuji defeating then-IWGP Champion Tanahashi in the G1 to earn a title shot at King of Pro-Wrestling, where Tanahashi successfully defended his belt. Four years on and both men face off again, a little bit older, a little bit wiser and, for all their talents and accomplishments, both in danger of being left behind when it comes to the title scenes in NJPW and NOAH. Tanahashi’s made no secret of his desire to win the G1 and regain his IWGP title, but Marufuji has always had strong performances when flying the NOAH flag in New Japan and it will be very interesting to see which of these two men emerge victorious.
08. Katsuyori Shibata vs Michael Elgin – 07/27, Nagano
A meeting of two current champions here, as NEVER Openweight Champion Katsuyori Shibata takes on IWGP Intercontinental Champion Michael Elgin. These two heavy hitters have shared the ring as team mates on two occasions, but have never tested themselves against each other, let alone competed one-on-one with as much at stake as there is in the G1 Climax Tournament. Both men also amassed the exact same number of points in last year’s tournament (albeit in different blocks), but this year will be looking to improve on that tally and win Block A. There’s also the potential for a champion to become a double champion, as the winner of this match could possibly earn a NEVER or Intercontinental title match. As such, there’s a fair bit riding on this first time ever encounter that makes this one of the 2016 G1’s most intriguing bouts.
07. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Tomohiro Ishii – 08/03, Kagoshima
Tomohiro Ishii, a stalwart undercard worker who’d been toiling away in NJPW for a decade or so, had a break out year in 2013 with his inclusion in the G1 Climax. While there were many memorable bouts for Ishii, the one that stood out the most was his match against Hiroshi Tanahashi. Ishii hit a vicious screwdriver and managed to pin the most decorated wrestler in New Japan competition today, but while that success and his MVP performance in the 2013 G1 saw Ishii’s stock rise a great deal, it didn’t take him all the way to the top and three years on Ishii’s looking to make another big impact and force his way into the G1 final. For Tanahashi this match presents perhaps his toughest challenge of the tournament. Fresh off a nasty shoulder injury, Tanahashi may not be able to match Ishii’s physicality and aggression, as he did in the 2014 G1 when he beat Ishii at his own game. While Tanahashi is considered amongst the favourites to win the G1 this year, Ishii is something of a dark horse and this match could prove to be all-important for both men’s chances.
06. YOSHI-HASHI vs Tomoaki Honma – 07/24, Korakuen Hall
In 2014 NJPW underdog and huge fan favourite Tomoaki Honma gained entry into the G1 Climax Tournament and, in spite of trying his very best and with Honmania runnin’ wild in Japan, Honma failed to win a single match in his block. The next year ‘The Headhunter of CHAOS’ YOSHI-HASHI (another often-overlooked competitor) sought to gain entry into the G1, but was dismayed that the final spot was given up to Honma once again. YOSHI-HASHI felt this was a waste and, although Honma acquitted himself better in his second G1 outing by earning a single victory, YOSHI felt that the spot should have gone to someone more deserving. The two faced off in singles competition at King of Pro-Wrestling last year and, while Honma came out on top, YOSHI-HASHI’s standing with the crowd was clearly growing. He’s built on that well, with a string of solid performances in the World Tag League last December and some decisive tag victories over in the CHAOS feud with Los Ignobernables de Japon, and now has the fan’s support as he enters his first ever G1 Climax Tournament!
05. Tomohiro Ishii vs Naomichi Marufuji – 07/28, Tokorozawa
You’d be hard pressed to find a greater mis-match of styles than Tomohiro Ishii and Naomichi Marufuji. The ‘Stone Pitbull’ of CHAOS has never stepped into the ring with Marufuji and will be looking to bring his strength and determination to bear against a smaller, faster opponent, but Marufuji is no stranger to hard hitting wrestlers. Having been put through the wringer in his rookie years by the likes of Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa and Akira Taue, Marufuji knows exactly what it takes to absorb such brutal punishment and keep getting back up again. But Ishii presents an interesting challenge, nonetheless, and it will be exciting to see who emerges victorious when Tomohiro Ishii’s strength and resilience go up against Naomichi Marufuji’s speed and flamboyant strikes.
04. Tetsuya Naito vs EVIL – 08/07, Shizuoka
Since becoming the hard to regulate, out of control, ungovernable Tetsuya Naito we all know and love, there’s been one man staunchly at Naito’s side throughout the emergence of Los Ingobernables de Japon as one of the top stables in the world: ‘The King of All Darkness’ EVIL, formerly known as Takaaki Watanabe before he turned his back on NJPW and became one of Naito’s ungovernables. EVIL has had a rocky start to his fully-fledged New Japan career and it’s taken time for him to appear comfortable in the roll of the silent enforcer of Los Ingobernables, who also happens to weild a scythe and deploy finger lasers during his entrance. But his progress has been readily evident and Naito, EVIL’s mentor, his compadre, his pareja, has been quick to praise his rapid growth. His entry into the G1 this year is a huge opportunity for EVIL to show what he can do, but perhaps the most compelling of his match-ups is this meeting with the Los Ingobernables de Japon leader Tetsuya Naito.
03. Tetsuya Naito vs Kenny Omega – 08/12, Ryogoku Kokugikan
Another big first time ever match-up here, as Los Ingobernables de Japon’s Tetsuya Naito faces off against ‘The Cleaner’ Kenny Omega, pitting the leaders of NJPW’s two most nefarious factions against one another. Omega (current defacto head of The Bullet Club) has faced Naito a few times in some tag matches last year, but that was all before Naito took a trip to CMLL and returned as ‘El Ingobernable’ and, suffice to say, today’s Tetsuya Naito is an entirely different challenge for Omega to overcome. But Kenny is one of New Japan’s most explosive performers and is looking to make a big statement in the G1 this year, while there’s a good chance that the ultimate result of Block B could all come down to this one match. With so much on the line and given both Bullet Club’s and Los Ingobernables de Japon’s penchant for outside interference, there’s also a good chance that this match could become decidedly chaotic as both ruthlessly do whatever it takes to secure their place in the final.
02. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada – 08/12, Ryogoku Kokugikan
In a match that will quite likely be the deciding factor in Block A of the tournament, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada meet for the 10th time in singles competition. Their rivalry has somewhat defined New Japan over the past five years since Okada returned as ‘The Rainmaker, but this match has the potential to reignite a feud Okada thought was behind him. Having defended the IWGP Heavyweight Title against Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 10, Okada cemented his status as the Ace of NJPW, but Tanahashi is now out to prove that he still has some fight in him yet and wants to reclaim his title and his place at the top of the ladder in New Japan. Okada, looking to achieve the rare feat of winning the G1 Climax as IWGP Champion, will want a repeat performance of Wrestle Kingdom, but on the penultimate night of the tournament his greatest rival has the potential to become his greatest obstacle.
01. Katsuyori Shibata vs Katsuhiko Nakajima – 07/24, Korakuen Hall
Of all the fantastic looking matches in this year’s G1 Climax Tournament, the second ever singles meeting between Katsuyori Shibata and Katsuhiko Nakajima immediately stood out. Shibata and Nakajima are perhaps the two most evenly matches competitors in this year’s field, both skilled submission artists and both possessing some of the hardest kicks in professional wrestling. Their previous encounter (in short-lived upstart promotion Big Mouth LOUD) was a hard-hitting, uncompromising affair that saw Shibata force Nakajima to submit to a brutal armbar counter, but that was nine years ago and both men have grown a lot in that time. Shibata quit wrestling and tried his hand at MMA, before returning to New Japan in 2013 and working his way back up the ranks. Nakajima, the protege of Kensuke Sasaki, is only now just properly stepping out of his mentor’s long shadow and making a name for himself on his own terms. For Nakajima especially, he could make a big statement here in victory, avenging his loss to Shibata nine years ago, potentially earning a NEVER title shot and reminding NJPW and the fans exactly why he’s considered one of the best in the world.
The 26th NJPW G1 Climax Tournament starts tomorrow and all 19 shows can be viewed LIVE or On Demand for just ¥999 via NJPW World: http://njpwworld.com