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History of New Japan's G1 Climax
By JOHN F. MOLINARO -- SLAM! Wrestling

As is the case each year when August rolls around, the talk among North American wrestling fans these days centres on SummerSlam and its as-of-yet unannounced main event. The annual spectacular put on by the World Wrestling Federation has built a reputation for staging some of the best wrestling on these shores, becoming the most anxiously anticipated wrestling event during the summer months.

  At the same time, fans on the other side of the globe, specifically Japan, are excited over an annual summer tradition of their own. August means only one thing to Japanese wrestling fans as New Japan Pro Wrestling kicks off its tenth annual G1 Climax tournament today in Osaka.

  Each year, the G1 serves as a showcase for the top heavyweights in New Japan, providing them with a platform to put on some of the best matches of the year before throngs of rabid Japanese wrestling fans and media. The weeklong event draws standing room only crowds each night, record receipt gates and garners front-page coverage on the sports sections of several of the daily newspapers in Tokyo.

  But much more than quality wrestling put on before the most knowledgeable and astute wrestling fans in the world, G1 is about the fine art of storytelling. The G1 has set the standard for effective, compelling storylines that are weaved and woven over a series of memorable and historic wrestling matches. Each year, New Japan goes to great lengths to painstakingly book a tournament that has become famous for its meticulous attention to details, textbook use of psychology, clean finishes that elicit thunderous responses from the crowd and mastery of storytelling within the wrestling ring.

  Perhaps the G1's greatest legacy, and there are many, is its unequalled ability to elevate a mid-card wrestler to the upper echelon of its roster, instantly creating a new superstar. The booking formula of the G1 is very simple: have the older, legendary veterans job to the younger stars stuck in mid-card positions. Fans of WCW who complain about the politics in that organization and how older stars refuse to step down and put over the young stars and pass the torch would have a hissy fit if they realized that this is routinely done during the G1 without the older wrestlers so much as blinking an eye in protest.
G1 Climax 2000 opening day poster


  What the G1 has become, then, is a fountain of youth. New Japan knows that the key to its past success has been creating new stars and realizing when the older stars on top have to be phased down. The G1 has become an invaluable resource for New Japan towards that end, helping them keep their roster replenished and their product fresh.

  From 1991 to 1996, New Japan was the most financially successful promotion in the world. Not surprising, it was the most efficiently and competently run wrestling office, acting as an archetype for other promotions to model themselves after. A big part of that has to due with the G1.

  It all started in the summer of 1991. New Japan was coming off a memorable spring season, highlighted by a Tokyo Dome spectacular on March 21 that saw Ric Flair defend his WCW World title against Tatsumi Fujinami before 64,500 fans. The promotion was riding an unbelievable wave of popularity and wanted to ensure that it continued through the summer months.

  Hence, the birth of the G1 Climax tournament. The concept was simple: bring together the top eight heavyweight wrestlers in the company and have them compete in round robin matches where the winners of the two divisions would then square off in the tournament finals. New Japan saw the financial success and critical acclaim that rivals All Japan Pro Wrestling had garnered with their annual Carnival Championship and wanted to duplicate that.

  The first G1 was held over four days, from August 7 to August 11 at Tokyo's venerable Sumo Hall. The sight of so many historic matches, memorable angles and groundbreaking feuds, the Sumo Hall was the perfect choice to house an event that would go on to establish itself as the premier wrestling tournament in the world.

  The field at the inaugural G1 read like a who's who of New Japan's roster: Keiji Mutoh (currently competing in WCW as The Great Muta), Fujinami, Scott Norton, Big Van Vader, Masa Chono, Shinya Hashimoto, Bam Bam Bigelow and Riki Choshu.

  Mutoh, then a mid-carder who was best known for his stints with the NWA in 1989, bested IWGP Heavyweight champion Fujinami, Norton and Big Van Vader to take first place in Division A, earning himself a birth in the finals. By beating established stars like Vader and Norton and a legend like Fujinami, Mutoh made a name for himself and instantly became a top star.
G-1 CLIMAX FAST FACTS
  • MOST G1 APPEARANCES: Masa Chono (9), Keiji Mutoh (9)
  • REIGNING IWGP HVWT. CHAMPS WHO WON THE G1: Keiji Mutoh ('95)
  • G1 WINNERS WHO WON THE IWGP HVWT. TITLE LATER THAT YEAR: Kensuke Sasaki ('97)
  • MOST APEARANCES WITHOUT WINNING THE G1: Shiro Koshinaka (6), Hiroyoshi Tenzan (5)
  • BEST G1 RECORD: Masa Chono - 3 championships ('91, '92 & '94), finalist ('96) and semi-finalist ('93, '95 & '98)
  • COMPETED IN G1 AND ALL JAPAN'S CARNIVAL TOURNAMENT: Vader - G1 in '91, Carnival in '99 & '00.
  • NOTABLE COMPETITORS: Arn Anderson, Steve Austin, Buff Bagwell, The Barbarian, Bam Bam Bigelow, Ric Flair, Tony Halme (AKA Ludvig Borga), Jim Neidhart, Scott Norton, Lord Steven Regal, Rick Rude, Terry Taylor, Barry Windham, Big Van Vader


  •   But that's only half the story. Two more stars were created at the first G1, Masa Chono and Shinya Hashimoto. Like Mutoh, they had been toiling in the mid-card for several years and were looking to advance up the roster. They were placed in Division B with Bam Bam Bigelow and Riki Choshu.

      Choshu, one the biggest names in the history of Japanese wrestling and the booker of New Japan, realized the opportunity presented before him. He knew he directly had the ability to help elevate Chono and Hashimoto to the next level and make them into instant stars. Choshu had just begun to enter the twilight years of his career and realized it was time to let some of the younger stars challenge him for his top spot in the roster.

      In one of the most selfless booking acts ever, Choshu went 0 for 3, putting over Chono, Hashimoto and Bigelow clean. The wins by the young upstarts over the Japanese legend sent their respective careers through the roof, as they became the stars that lead New Japan in the ensuing years.

      As a result of finishing with the second and third highest point totals in the G1, Chono and Hashimoto squared off in a sudden-death match, where the winner would face Mutoh, who finished first in point total, in the finals. Chono and Hashimoto put on a clinic of a match, noteworthy for its realism and stiffness that saw Chono score the win via submission.

      And so it came down to Chono and Mutoh in the finals. The two young wrestlers were on centre stage for the entire Japanese wrestling public to see. Having just been passed the torch, their every move in the championship match would be studied and scrutinized by the demanding Japanese fans and media. The question arose: did Choshu make a mistake or would Chono and Mutoh rise to the occasion?

      In turned out that Mutoh and Chono put on a 30-minute mat classic brimming with incredible athleticism, electric crowd heat and unmatched psychology. In the end, Chono pinned Mutoh in a five-star match that solidified both men as the future flag-bearers of the promotion.

      What they also did was make Choshu look exactly like the genius he was. The significance of what Choshu accomplished with that first G1 can't be understated and should not be made light of. He set the course of the future of New Japan Pro Wrestling, establishing three of the major stars that would carry it through the most financially rewarding run of business that any wrestling promotion in history has enjoyed. Choshu's selflessness is even more astounding in light of the political culture of today's North American scene where the older stars blatantly refuse to put over the younger stars.

      A year later, the G1 underwent a change in format and the stakes were a lot higher. New Japan had a working agreement with WCW. At the time, WCW were planning to revive the NWA World title. The two promotions put together a G1 tournament where the winner would be crowned the new NWA World champion.

      The format was changed to a 16-man, single elimination tournament featuring the top stars of New Japan facing off against WCW's best, including Steve Austin, Rick Rude, Barry Windham, Arn Anderson.

      For six days, sold-out crowds jammed into Tokyo's Sumo Hall to see this most unique of tournaments. In the end, as WCW Executive Vice President Bill Watts and WCW booker Dusty Rhodes sat ringside, Masa Chono captured his second consecutive G1 tournament, defeating Rick Rude in the finals and was crowned the new NWA World Heavyweight champion. The Sumo Hall erupted in jubilant chaos as Chono was paraded around the ring on his countrymen's shoulders, soaking in the thunderous applause from an appreciative audience that just witnessed six spectacular days of wrestling.

      The 16-man single elimination format returned in 1993, this time with an all-Japanese roster of talent. Betting pools, similar to the ones that take place during the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, started this year, as fans wagered whether or not Chono could make it three years in a row.

      It turns out he didn't. Instead, booker Choshu decided to give it to an old legend, Tatsumi Fujinami who defeated Hiro Hase (Choshu's assistant booker) in the finals. Still, the match was put together in such a way that Hase came out looking stronger than ever, and was elevated higher up on the New Japan roster.

      In its first three years, the G1 had established itself as the World Series of pro wrestling. And like the World Series, where Reggie Jackson earned the name "Mr. October" for his outstanding play during the Yankee's championship run of the late 70s, Masa Chono quickly earned the nickname "Mr. August".
    G1 2000 CLIMAX BLOCKS/DIVISIONS
  • BLOCK A: Tatsumi Fujinami, Yuji Nagata, Takashi Iizuka, Tatsutosho Goto, Jushin "Thunder" Liger
  • BLOCK B: Kensuke Sasaki, Osamu Kido, Satoshi Kojima, Brian Johnston, Hiro Saito
  • BLOCK C: Manabu Nakanashi, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Tadao Yasuda, Osamu Nishimura, Kenzo Suzuki
  • BLOCK D: Masa Chono, Shiro Koshinaka, Yutaka Yoshie, Junji Hirata, Tatsuhito Takaiwa


  •   Chono had won the first two G1s and competed in the semi-finals of the '93 tournament. Reverting to the old two-division round robin format, the G1 finals that year saw Chono defeat Kensuke Sasaki (wrestling under his alter ego, Power Warrior) claiming his third G1 championship and cementing his dominance of the tournament in stone. Over the next few years, Chono would go on to appear in two semi-finals and was a finalist in 1996, adding the name "Mr. G1" to his formidable dossier. With the possible exception of Ric Flair and Starrcade, no other wrestler on the planet has been more closely identified with a wrestling card or tournament than Chono has been with the G1.

      By the time 1995 rolled around, Keiji Mutoh was considered one of the best wrestlers on the planet. He had done it all in New Japan: main-evented some of the biggest events in wrestling history, captured countless accolades from the Japanese press and piled up numerous titles.

      The only thing that he hadn't won was the G1. Coming into the 1995 tournament, Mutoh was the IWGP Heavyweight champion, having disposed of Shinya Hashimoto on May 3 before 48, 000 fans at the Fukuoka Dome. The betting line going into the tournament was that Mutoh would finally win the big one.

      Placed in a four-man division, Mutoh out-pointed Masa Chono, Shiro Koshinaka and Ric Flair to take first place. After beating Scott Norton in the semi-finals, Mutoh went on to vanquish Hashimoto in the finals at Tokyo's Sumo Hall. The crowd noise that ensued following Mutoh's climatic win was pure pandemonium.

      Like North American wrestling fans who argue which is the best Starrcade or WrestleMania of all-time, Japanese fans engage in spirited debate over which has been the best G1 tournament.

      While opinions may differ over which has been the best WrestleMania, there is an almost unanimous consensus among Japanese fans that the 1996 version of the G1 was the best.

      It's hard to argue otherwise. Both from a financial and aesthetic point of view, the '96 G1 was a smashing success. From August 2 to August 6, the tournament played to standing room only crowds each night at Sumo Hall (a total audience of 55, 000 fans), taking in a total gate of just over $3.2 million (U.S) and another $750, 000 in merchandise sales. Not bad for five days' work.

      More importantly, New Japan set a standard of in-ring excellence during those five days that may never be matched by any promotion ever again. According to journalists and hardcore wrestling fans who watch and study all the major wrestling cultures, three of the five nights at the '96 G1 rank among the best overall cards of the 1990s.

      What made the '96 G1 so special? Riki Choshu.

      During the 80s, Choshu was among the very best in-ring workers in Japan. He was a legend that was revered by the public. By 1996, he was no longer the top man in the promotion and his career had started to wind down. He had openly talked about retirement and stepping aside in order to make room for the new crop of young stars that New Japan had been cultivating.

      Prior to the tournament, Choshu publicly announced that this would be his last G1 tournament. Word of this made its way to the front pages of Tokyo's sports newspapers that covered the G1.

      In the years previous to this year's G1, Choshu, realizing his best years had passed, hadn't booked himself in the top tier of the promotion. By making the public announcement in the media prior to the tournament, Choshu successfully set himself up as the sentimental fan favourite, trying to beat the odds one last time before retiring.

      "(The retirement announcement) worked to perfection," wrote Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, in the August 14th, 1996 issue. "The reaction to Choshu on the first night, and for that matter, for the rest of the week, had the kind of intensity that you'll rarely see in any sport. He was (like) Jimmy Connors in his last U.S, Open, the overwhelming sentimental favourite."
    New Japan booker Riki Choshu.


     "Like Connors in his last U.S. Open, (Choshu) had long since come full circle," wrote Meltzer, who attended each night of the '96 G1 in person. "From the rebellious bad guy with so much charisma that he changed the decade long booking patterns, to the veteran whose days as a headliner seemed over but for this one week, he was attempting to relive his past glory. The plan worked, which is the beauty of pro wrestling, in that unlike real sports and the Jimmy Connors story, stories like this can be written for maximum drama and emotion and with the right finish, and this was Choshu himself writing the beginning of his final story of a wrestler."

      And what a final story it was. Choshu booked the most memorable G1 ever, with heartstring-tugging storylines that had so many twists and turns that it took the sold out audiences on an emotional roller coaster.

      Choshu went 4 and 0 in the round robin portion of the tournament, defeating Shinya Hashimoto (at the time New Japan's biggest star) on opening night in a classic match that is still remembered to this day in Japan for its tremendous storytelling and psychology. The division came down to a winner-take-all-match with Kensuke Sasaki, a wrestler Choshu trained for pro wrestling.

      Choshu's unquestioned booking brilliance was on display here as the storyline of the teacher vs. the protege helped make the contest into one of the most emotional matches in the G1's history. The hot crowd, clearly siding with Choshu, went bonkers when Choshu forced the young lion to submit.

      Over in the other division, the story was the upsets. On the opening night, defending G1 champ Keiji Mutoh put over mid-carder Kazuo Yamazaki. That gave Yamazaki instant credibility and put doubt into the minds of many fans that pegged Mutoh as the odds on favourite to win the block. Choshu had once again pulled off a major surprise at the G1 while at the same time establishing Yamazaki as a star. Yet another example of textbook booking by the master.

      The finals this year came down to Choshu and "Mr. August" Masa Chono: the standard storyline of the old master vs. the young star. What followed was one of the best-booked wrestling matches of the G1.

      Right out of the gate, Choshu dictated the pace of the match, nailing Chono with three straight Saito-suplexes. Chono took control, immobilizing Choshu on the floor with the STF. As Chono rolled into the ring, Choshu lay motionless on the floor. The crowd, at a fever pitch at this point, were pleading with Choshu to get up and continue.

      And then it happened. Tatsumi Fujinami, Choshu's most famous in-ring rival from their ring wars in the 80s, slapped Choshu in the face in an attempt to revive him. The crowd grew even hotter. Another twist in the story.

      Choshu rolled back into the ring where Chono captured him in a Boston Crab. Choshu made it to the ropes, eliciting a huge pop from the crowd. Chono then spit on Fujinami, enraging the veteran. Another turn in the story.

     Choshu kicked out of two pin attempts following two successive piledrivers. Chono then applied his STF only to have Choshu make it to the ropes. The fans, at this point, were coming unglued.

      And then the final chapter of the story. Choshu made one last comeback, nailing Chono with a running lariat. Lying in a stupor on the mat, Chono was easy prey for the aging legend. Choshu executed his signature move, the Scorpion deathlock, forcing Chono to submit sending the delirious crowd into pure bedlam.

     Choshu had won the G1 in his last attempt, sealing the deal with an unforgettable match with great heat and fantastic psychology that told a story.

      After years of using the G1 to create new stars at his own expense by selflessly putting them over himself and downplaying his own importance, Choshu used this G1 as his farewell. The next day at a news conference, Choshu announced 1997 would be his last year in the sport and that he was retiring.

      Nobody could have conceived a better way to send Choshu out. The '96 G1 to this very days stands as a lasting testament to the booking acumen of one of the best bookers ever in wrestling.

      The following year, the G1 went back to the philosophy of elevating a young star up the roster. Kensuke Sasaki was the benefactor this year, winning the 14-man single elimination tournament, defeating Hiroyoshi Tenzan in the finals. The tournament helped both stars. Tenzan became a member of NWO Japan and was involved in major programs in New Japan that year. Things worked out a little better for Sasaki as four weeks after winning the G1, he defeated Shinya Hashimoto to capture the IWGP Heavyweight title for the first time.
    G-1 CLIMAX WINNERS
  • 1991: Masa Chono beat Keiji Mutoh in the finals
  • 1992: Masa Chono beat Rick Rude in the finals
  • 1993: Tatsumi Fujinami beat Hiro Hase in the finals
  • 1994: Masa Chono beat Power Warrior in the finals
  • 1995: Keiji Mutoh beat Shinya Hashimoto in the finals
  • 1996: Riki Choshu beat Masa Chono in the finals
  • 1997 : Kensuke Sasaki beat Hiroyoshi Tenzan in the finals
  • 1998: Shinya Hashimoto beat Kazuo Yamazaki in the finals
  • 1999: Manabu Nakanishi beat Keiji Mutoh in the finals


  •   By 1998, the G1 had eluded the grasp of New Japan's top drawing star of the 1990s, Shinya Hashimoto. Like 1995's G1 where fans thought it might be Keiji Mutoh's turn, this year's tournament began with speculation as to whether or not Hashimoto would finally win the big one.

     The 16-man elimination tournament was highlighted by the push of Kazuo Yamazaki. Yamazaki torched through the tournament, defeating IWGP Champion Kensuke Sasaki in the second round and Masa Chono in the semis on his way to the finals. Like it did in '96 after upsetting Mutoh, Yamazaki's career received a shot of adrenaline as he was featured more prominently in New Japan in the following months.

      Meanwhile, Hashimoto eliminated Japanese legend Genichiro Tenryu in the second round and up-and-coming star Satoshi Kojima in the semis. With a strong showing in the tournament capped off by an excellent match in the semis, Kojima instantly gained credibility and was elevated to the next level.

      But this year's G1 was all about Hashimoto as he defeated Yamazaki in the finals to win the championship.

     Last year the G1 came full circle. In 1991 at the first tournament, it was the trio of Hashimoto, Chono and Mutoh that were given significant wins over the established veterans, elevating them to New Japan's upper tier. In 1999 that same threesome now found themselves in the roles of putting over the younger stars.

      And like Riki Choshu before them, they did so without batting an eyelash.

      Yuji Nagata went 4 and 0 in the round robin portion of the tournament before losing to Mutoh in the semis. Even though Mutoh went over, it was booked in such a way that Nagata was made to look strong and got the rub from working with Mutoh. For the past year Nagata has been one of New Japan's top stars.

      Manabu Nakanishi made it to the finals on the strength of his win over Hashimoto, the defending G1 champion.

      In a scene that bore a startling resemblance to the teacher vs. student scenarios that Choshu had booked so many times before, Nakanishi scored the biggest victory of his career in the finals, forcing Mutoh to submit to a torture rack to claim the G1 title. The crowd popped huge for the finish as another young wrestler had been elevated in New Japan's roster. Mutoh, having been a part of this storyline himself so many times before when he was elevated, took a page out of Choshu's book and was remarkable in putting over Nakanishi and making him into the new star.
    G-1 CLIMAX SCHEDULE

      August 7th at Prefectural Gym, Osaka: BLOCK A Tatsumi Fujinami vs. Jushin "Thunder" Liger, Takashi Iizuka vs. Tatsutoshi Gotoh BLOCK B Kensuke Sasaki vs. Brian Johnston, Osamu Kido vs. Hiro Saito BLOCK C Osamu Nishimura vs. Kenzo Suzuki, Manabu Nakanishi vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan BLOCK D Masa Chono vs. Tatsuhito Takaiwa, Shiro Koshinaka vs. Yutaka Yoshie

      August 8th at Prefectural Gym, Osaka: BLOCK A Tatsumi Fujinami vs. Yuji Nagata, Takashi Iizuka vs. Jushin "Thunder" Liger BLOCK B Osamu Kido vs. Satoshi Kojima, Brian Johnston vs. Hiro Saito BLOCK C Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Kenzo Suzuki, Tadao Yasuda vs. Osamu Nishimura BLOCK D Masa Chono vs. Yutaka Yoshie , Junji Hirata vs. Tatsuhito Takaiwa

      August 9th at Sun Plaza, Hiroshima: BLOCK A Takashi Iizuka vs. Yuji Nagata, Tatsotoshi Gotoh vs. Jushin "Thunder" Liger BLOCK B Hiro Saito vs. Kensuke Sasaki, Brian Johnston vs. Satoshi Kojima BLOCK C Manabu Nakanishi vs. Kenzo Suzuki, Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Tadao Yasuda BLOCK D Masa Chono vs. Shiro Koshinaka , Junji Hirata vs. Yutaka Yoshie

      August 11th at Sumo Hall, Tokyo: BLOCK A Jushin "Thunder" Liger vs. Yuji Nagata, Tatsotoshi Gotoh vs. Tatsumi Fujinami BLOCK B Satoshi Kojima vs. Kensuke Sasaki, Brian Johnston vs. Osamu Kido BLOCK C Manabu Nakanishi vs. Osamu Nishimura , Kenzo Suzuki vs. Tadao Yasuda BLOCK D Junji Hirata vs. Shiro Koshinaka , Tatsuhito Takaiwa vs. Yutaka Yoshie

      August 12th at Sumo Hall, Tokyo: BLOCK A Tatsotoshi Gotoh vs. Yuji Nagata, Takashi Iizuka vs. Tatsumi Fujinami BLOCK B Satoshi Kojima vs. Hiro Saito, Kensuke Sasaki vs. Osamu Kido BLOCK C Manabu Nakanishi vs. Tadao Yasuda , Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Osamu Nishimura BLOCK D Junji Hirata vs. Masa Chono , Tatsuhito Takaiwa vs. Shiro Koshinaka

      August 13th at Sumo Hall, Tokyo: SEMI-FINAL Block A Winner vs. Block B Winner, (1) Block C Winner vs. Block D Winner (2) FINAL Semi-Final 1 Winner vs. Semi-Final 2 Winner


     While elevating a new star shouldn't be questioned, the choice of it being Nakanishi has been over the past year. He's failed to live up to expectations, while at the same time Satoshi Kojima and Yuji Nagata, both of whom were being considered for Nakanishi's spot, had banner in-ring years.

      It was as if the 1999 G1 was a precursor for things to come in New Japan. The year 2000 has been anything but a banner year for them. Declining house show attendance, a stale in ring product and rumblings of a major shake-up in the company's management have dominated headlines for most of the year. It seems that, in all reality, as the G1 goes, so go the fortunes of New Japan

      Which brings us to this year's tournament. The names of Kojima and Nagata are being bantered around as is that of long time mid-carder Takayuki Iizuka. First timers Jushin "Thunder" Liger and IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion Tatsuhito Takaiwa will infuse a level of excitement into the tournament. And while Mutoh is abroad in WCW and will miss the tournament for the first time, there's a certain level of excitement for this year's incarnation.

     New Japan has adopted yet another format change, this time going with four divisions of five wrestlers where the top point getters in each division will then face off in a semi-final. Some say that this time, New Japan will get it right and make the correct selection in elevating and creating that next big star.

     Still, certain questions linger. Does Choshu have any more chapters left to add to this ongoing saga? Will the absence of Mutoh and Chono's nagging injuries hurt the tournament's credibility? Will the junior heavyweights be simply used as fodder? And will they make the right choice in selecting the next star of the promotion?

      Time has shown that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Riki Choshu, above all else is a student of the game. He learns from the past. He has proven himself to be among the very best bookers in the history of the sport. If anybody can pull off some magic when times are tough, it's him.

      Whether or not he has any more tricks up his sleeve... well, we'll know the answer to that by Sunday.

    More on the G1 Climax:

    G1 Climax 2000 Countdown
    SLAM! International Wrestling




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