I know plenty of people were surprised to see New Japan veteran ace Hiroshi Tanahashi come out the winner of the G1 Climax 28. I know I was. Watching the G1 unfold, it seemed really obvious that we were heading for a Kota Ibushi/Kenny Omega showdown that would somehow need to culminate at the Tokyo Dome in January. Either that, or Omega was going to have a historic run through the tournament and become only the third man in New Japan Pro Wrestling to walk into the G1 Tournament as the Heavyweight Champion and win it.
Or we could have had Kazuchika Okada make a run for the belt Kenny Omega took from him at Dominion. Okada winning the case and challenging Omega would have made for an awesome main event at Wrestle Kingdom, even if it is the 4th meeting between the two. If you don’t like that, you could always have Tetsuya Naito go back to back and win it again. Omega v Naito would have been outstanding. What about a young guy like Jay White stepping up and taking the crown? He had a short undefeated streak in the tournament and it would have been believable.
Nope. We got exactly none of those things. We got Hiroshi Tanahashi. Weird hair, air-guitar playing Tanahashi. Wipes his sweat on old ladies Tanahashi. The once in a generation talent…from last generation. Stupid, sexy Tanahashi.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying any of these things to be insulting or disrespectful to The Ace. Hiroshi Tanahashi is the reason that New Japan Pro Wrestling is now the most successful and profitable wrestling company in the world not named WWE. He put the company on his back while they were in the darkest of times and helped lead them to where they are today. His resume is stacked and impressive (as are his pecs) and he deserves TONS of respect for what he’s done. But when I saw him win, I was confused, just like I’m sure a lot of other fans were. Tanahashi is still an amazing worker, but his time has come and gone. He’s the last of the “3 Musketeers” of NJPW. (Nakamura has outright said he’s working in America for the pay day and Shibata was forced into retirement due to injury). He’s still hanging on, but he’s not the dominant force he used to be. The names that have taken over the main event in New Japan are names like Okada, Naito and Omega. Tanahashi is still in the picture, but he’s definitely getting cropped out. So why give him the G1 Climax win? Does he really need another Wrestle Kingdom main event? Are they putting him there so they can have a stop-gap with the championship just in case Kenny Omega decides to sign with WWE in January? Or were the bookers clean out of ideas?
Well, I’ve been watching the build up to this match since the G1 ended and I’ve come to the conclusion that…this actually makes pretty good sense.
Hear me out.
Neither Tanahashi nor Omega has had what most would consider to be a “good year.” Kenny Omega started the year by trying to keep his stablemate Cody Rhodes away from his former tag team “lover” Kota Ibushi. Then, he got betrayed by Jay White who then beat him for the IWGP U.S. championship. This caused Cody to challenge Kenny as leader of Bullet Club. Kenny and Kota reunited, but the Young Bucks, Marty and Hangman Page sided with Cody. Even after all of that was finally squashed and Kenny became the Heavyweight champion, the Tongans blindsided him and splintered the Bullet Club.
Tanahashi started out his year getting completely annihilated by Minoru Suzuki, losing his Intercontinental championship to him in the process. Then he entered the New Japan Cup and made it to the finals before, again, being pieced apart and destroyed by Suzuki’s disciple, Zack Sabre Jr. Finally, a desperate looking Tanahashi all but begged Kazuchika Okada for one more shot at the Heavyweight belt that Okada had at that point held for almost two years. Okada obliged and Tanahashi lost. Again. And no, it wasn’t close.
So Kenny finally beating Okada was a good redemption story. Pair that with Tanahashi winning the G1, and you’ve got two people on very different, but very similar paths. Omega is trying to prove he’s ready to be the top guy and Tanahashi is trying to prove he STILL IS a top guy.
Since the G1 ended, Tanahashi has been throwing some jabs Kenny’s way. It hasn’t been anything serious, but he’s made it clear he not a fan of Kenny Omega. Shortly after the G1, when talking about the block final matches (Omega v Ibushi and Tanahashi v Okada) he said on a Japanese podcast, “Kenny and Ibushi stayed in their own universe. It was great for people that had been along for the whole ride, but it didn’t go beyond that. You needed to know everything that had happened between them for it to work”.
Tanahashi followed that up recently by equating Omegas matches to a movie without a plot. Quote: the last 5 minutes of a Kenny match is all that matters, because there’s no story.
The guy that wins the G1 is guaranteed to fight the IWGP Heavyweight Champion in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom at the Tokyo Dome the following year. You NEED to have a good story to warrant that spot. Two years ago, when it was Okada v Omega, it was Japan’s top star against a foreign invader. Last year, for Okada v Naito, it was the face of the company fighting the peoples champion. And now, Tanahashi has a reason to fight: Kenny Omega doesn’t deserve to be the face of this company.
I have to give the guy credit, he’s walking a fine line between wrestling purity and xenophobia, but he’s walking it well. Tanahashi spent years building New Japan into its own entity. He didn’t want it to be a fake version of Pride or UFC. He didn’t want gimmicky storylines like American wrestling. And he didn’t want it to be full of high spots and drama like Mexican Lucha Libre. Tanahashi wanted to build real puroresu. Strong wrestling and good characters that appealed to the Japanese fanbase so that they could compete with other Japanese promotions like Pro Wrestling Noah and Dragon Gate, which had stolen much of the young demographic.
Finally, the company is making money and they’re well respected. Young Japanese men are coming in and taking the reins of the company, leading it into the future. But the future isn’t what Tanahashi had planned. NJPW is planning more and more American shows. They have a dojo in Los Angeles. Their major titles are held and defended, outside of Japan, by North Americans. NJPW now includes all kinds of wrestling. North American grappling, martial arts, strong style, lucha. Kenny and The Young Bucks are on a mission to “change the world” of professional wrestling. Tanahashi is all for being inclusive but this is not what he signed up for. This is a man that is starting to hate his own creation. And Kenny Omega is the embodiment of everything he doesn’t like about the direction of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Kenny, for his part, didn’t seem to have much to say at the beginning. But as we get closer to January, he’s throwing some jabs of his own.
And this is from his interview on New Japan’s website:
In wrestling, we’re used to feuds being based on seemingly frivolous things. Many times, a personal issue has to be invented from nothing just to get some “heat” on a match. New Japan, at least in the last few years, have been able to create deep and interesting feuds that are based on issues much bigger than good guy vs. bad guy. Omega and Tanahashi are two phenomenal wrestlers with two very different ideas about what wrestling should be. Wrestling is subjective: there’s something for everybody and there’s no official rule that says you have to like or not like a certain style. But for these two guys to attack the way the other performs is a huge deal. It’s deep and personal and crosses kayfabe lines a little bit. And that’s fantastic. Because the fact that they despise each others styles so much is going to make things all the more epic when they have no choice but to get in a ring with each other. They each will try to work the match their way, both in storyline and in real life. It’s almost like watching a real MMA fight between a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt and a Greco-Roman wrestler with some American boxing training. Someone’s style will have to dominate, but whose will it be?
There’s no way for us to know if New Japan had this feud ready from the start or if this is something they had to cobble together at the last minute because the other storylines were not panning out. Maybe this really is just a fail-safe to make sure the belt stays on a New Japan mainstay if Kenny decides to go to WWE. Maybe this is a prologue to the eventual Ibushi v Omega at the Tokyo Dome that people really want. Maybe Tanahashi will lose his briefcase to Okada before he even gets to the Tokyo Dome. In any case, if it was planned, it’s beautiful story telling. And if it wasn’t, then my hat is off to these two guys making a great feud out of literally nothing. The Wrestle Kingdom main event is going to be spectacular, and even if you’re not totally on board with the old timer carrying the main event at the dome again, which I totally understand, give it a shot. New Japan is going to pull out all the stops for this years show and if Tanahashi v Omega is an early indicator of how the card is going to shake out, I’m really looking forward to the next few months of build up.