The Art of Wrestling: Best of the G-1 2004
The G-1 Climax is New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual heavyweight tournament. In 2004, they stretched the tourney out into eight different events over nine days. There was a two-block round robin style qualifying section running from August 7th through 14th, building up to the top guys in each block facing off in a single elimination tournament on the 15th in front of a packed Tokyo Ryogoku Kokugikan crowd. The final day was also broadcast on TV Asahi in prime time, drawing good ratings despite competition from a huge PRIDE FC Mixed Martial Arts show and the Athens Olympics.
As is often the case with the G-1, 2004’s tournament told a number of compelling stories. The main thread running throughout the nine days was that the New Three Musketeers, Nakamura, Shibata, and Tanahashi, wanted to use the tournament to prove that the young generation was ready to take it’s place at the top of the New Japan pecking order, while the middle generation of Tenzan, Nagata, Nakanishi, and Nishimura were determined to stop the younger stars from climbing the ladder. Intertwined with these stories were Tenzan’s desire to establish himself as the top wrestler of his generation, and Tanahashi’s drive to show that he was indeed New Japan’s top star under the age of thirty. Another great story line was provided when a light heavyweight wrestler, Koji Kanemoto, qualified for the tournament. Despite the fact that New Japan’s Juniors have consistently been among the promotion’s best wrestlers, they have never been booked as equal to the Heavyweights. Even Jushin Lyger has always been cleanly defeated when matched up against a larger wrestler. The 2004 G-1 provided Kanemoto with his chance to reverse that trend. 2004 also saw three noted outsiders wrestle in the Tournament. While Tenryu, Takayama, and Sasaki were hardly strangers to the New Japan audience, none of them are on the regular New Japan roster, and in kay fabe terms it would have been a disaster had any of them won the tournament. As such, every one of their matches was full of drama. Sadly, Takayama was injured early in the tournament and had to withdraw, robbing us of several potentially great bouts. Takayama has yet to return to the ring, but David Ditch says that he remains close to the business, visiting backstage and doing TV commentary. He is apparently determined to fight again, and I will be happy when he does. From what I’ve seen, Tenryu seemed largely to just be going through the motions and coasting on his enormous reputation, whereas Sasaki really had his work boots on. Tenzan, Tanahashi, Kanemoto, and Nakanishi were among the others who were at their very best in the tournament.
The Golden Boy Tapes Best of the 2004 G-1 subset does a great job of covering all of these main stories, although Nakanishi’s return to form is sadly ignored. Then again, there are probably fewer than a dozen Nakanishi marks in North America, myself included, so that comes as no real surprise. From what I’ve read and seen, the following matches pretty much represent the cream of the 2004 G-1 crop. Whether you’d love these matches largely comes down to whether you like Strong Style Wrestling.
Relatively few fans of Japanese Pro Wrestling would pick the New Japan Heavyweight style as their favourite. The New Japan Junior Heavyweight style and the All Japan Heavyweight style are far more popular. The G-1, however, can generally be relied on to produce at least a couple of legitimate Match of the Year candidates. The 1991 Finals match between Mutoh and Chono, 1995’s Mutoh vs. Hashimoto finals, and the 1998 quarter final chop fest between Hash and Tenryu rank as three of my favorite matches ever.
The tourney is also cool because the finals are sometimes used to elevate a young wrestler, sometimes used to showcase a current star, and occasionally used to generate a nostalgic pop. It is, therefore, really hard to predict who might win.
Will the 2004 tournament produce another MOTYC? Will any young stars be elevated? Will Tenzan prove that he’s really the ace? Read on!
Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Koji Kanemoto (8/7/04):
Two of the biggest story lines got established on the first day, as Kanemoto showed the heart and determination to hang with the heavyweights while Tenzan showed that his Anaconda Vice submission hold was stronger than Kanemoto’s Ankle Lock. Koji managed to apply his finisher three times, only to have Tenzan escape it. After a long back and forth battle, Tenzan finally locked his hold on. Koji refused to tap out, and the fight was ended by referee stoppage. The Anaconda Vice is a very cool and lethal-looking submission, kind of a cross between a Chicken Wing arm lock and a Can Opener neck crank. Tenzan had forced NOAH’s Jun Akiyama to submit to the hold to win the 2003 G-1 Finals, and this match served to remind everyone that Tenzan still has that powerful weapon in his arsenal while at the same time showing that Kanemoto belonged in the tournament.
Koji Kanemoto vs. Osamu Nishimura (8/8/04):
Kanemoto’s second match of the tournament was a great technical encounter that featured many quick reversals. The psychology was classic, as Kanemoto dismantled Nishimura’s leg to set up his submission finisher while Osamu held on and waited for an opening. Once again, Koji fell just short of victory as Nishimura was able to reverse Kanemoto’s Ankle Lock and turn it into a lightning-quick modified cradle for the pinfall victory.
Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (8/8/04):
The young generation vs. middle generation story really takes flight with this match, which builds very well to a finish that features several believable near-falls. Tenzan and Tanahashi work very well together and there is a real sense of struggle involved in every hold and throw that they execute in this match. The story of the match ultimately boils down to Tenzan hitting Tanahashi with everything he’s got, but Tanahashi always finding the strength and courage to battle back. What does Tenzan have to do to put this guy away? Once again, he locks on the Anaconda Vice, but even then Tanahashi stands up and starts to fight his way out… only to be thrown back down and forced to tap.
Kensuke Sasaki vs. Yoshihiro Takayama (8/8/04):
I feel a little uncomfortable analyzing this match, as Takayama collapsed unconscious after the bout and was later diagnosed with cerebral thrombosis. It is easy to see how someone could have been hurt in this match, as neither man appeared to hold anything back. They just threw big bombs and hit each other with full force power moves both in and out of the ring, and kept up a torrid big man pace until Takayama put it away with his Everest German Suplex Hold. As I wrote above, I sincerely hope that Takayama will be able to come back at full strength some day, as there aren’t many people who can wrestle his kind of match any more.
Kensuke Sasaki vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan (8/10/04):
This is one of those matches that seem to be the exclusive property of Japanese Heavyweight wrestlers: A half-hour draw that flies by in what feels like less than fifteen minutes. The story is simple: New Japan’s regular army ace is defending his promotion against the invading outsider. They start the match at full speed, work in all of their big classic spots, and even try out some new stuff. Highlights include a Plancha, a Senton, and a Northern Lights Bomb from Kensuke; and a Diving Headbutt and a sick Tenzan Tombstone Driver from Hiroyoshi. Near the end, Sasaki even attempts to lock Tenzan in his own Anaconda Vice. Unlike many time limit draws, this match was entirely satisfying.
Kensuke Sasaki vs. Koji Kanemoto (8/11/04):
Five years ago, Sasaki faced Jushin “Thunder” Lyger in a singles match that was basically a squash win for the bigger man. A lot of people still hold this against New Japan and Sasaki, feeling that the legendary Lyger should have been shown more respect. This match hopefully marks a big step in the right direction for both Kensuke and the promotion, as it saw the powerful heavyweight sell convincingly for Kanemoto, making the smaller man look like a real threat to pull off the victory. The psychology was sweet and simple, as Kanemoto used his speed and swift kicks to wear Sasaki down, concentrating most of his effort on Sasaki’s left knee. Even in victory, Sasaki continued to sell for Kanemoto, dragging his left leg behind him as he threw the final Lariat.
Osamu Nishimura vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan (8/13/04):
This was the New Japan equivalent of a face vs. face match up, as two members of the regular army fought a clean match that tested Tenzan’s explosive power against Nishimura’s superior technique. I feel that I should point out that Nishimura looks physically terrible here, with saggy man boobs, skinny arms, a pasty complexion, and a little beer belly. He still moves exceptionally well in the ring, though. They work through a number of clean breaks and fun early-90s style Pro Wrestling spots to tell a story of mutual respect. In the end Nishimura once again reverses a finishing hold, this time the Anaconda Vice, to get a quick reversal for the pin. This helped keep Nishimura strong. He ended the tournament with only two wins, but both of them were over impressive opponents.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Koji Kanemoto (8/13/04):
Koji has won some hard-fought victories over some of the lesser heavyweights, and been valiant in defeat to the bigger names. The story of this match is that if Tanahashi can beat Kanemoto he will in effect be proving himself to be a big name. To work properly, then, this match should not just be about Koji looking good against a heavyweight, but also about a youngster looking good against a veteran. Hiroshi sets the tone immediately when he declines to shake Kanemoto’s hand, and bidness really picks up a couple of minutes later when Tanahashi has the temerity, the effrontery, to SLAP Koji in the face. The match then ceases to turn on careful mat work and begins instead to tell a tale of hatred and violence. Both men end up looking great because both are able to communicate the desire to actually harm one another, and both are able and willing to sell the violence and damage which that desire entails. In the end, Tanahashi is unable to put Kanemoto away decisively, and he has to resort to a Nishimura-like quick cradle out of nowhere to keep from losing the match. He has the victory, but you can see from Tanahashi’s face that he isn’t satisfied, and I for one would pay to see these two fight again.
Kensuke Sasaki vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (8/14/04):
Sasaki nails Tanahashi with a Lariat right off the bell, and it looks at first as if this match will be about the young guy being put in his place. Kensuke repeatedly crushes Hiroshi with big power moves, then adds a nasty slap in the face by using Tanahashi’s trademark Dragon Suplex and Dragon Sleeper against him. The beat down continues, interrupted by a couple of brief but exciting offensive flurries from Tanahashi, until the younger man is laid out flat by a sick Tornado Bomb. Sasaki arrogantly beckons the ref to count his opponent out. Tanahashi barely beats the ten count, and for a moment it seems that the story will be that of the big bully’s arrogance costing him the victory, but then Sasaki wins the struggle to prevent Tanahashi hitting his Dragon Suplex, and the pendulum swings again, and again, and again… Here I am, watching maybe my twentieth match of the past two days, and I’m yelling “What?” at the screen in wild disbelief. I’m reminded that Sasaki was one of Tanahashi’s mentors, and it therefore makes sense that they should try and pull off something special with this match, but it doesn’t quite explain how Kensuke keeps pulling out crazy moves as though he were El Hijo del Sasaki or something. I don’t want to give away the ending, since this is really a match where either guy could have won. The ending is great, however, and it fits the rest of the match perfectly. After watching the match a second time I’m convinced that Kensuke was absolutely the Most Improved Wrestler of 2004. I believe that if New Japan pushes Tanahashi properly then he could be The One to lead them back to the Promised Land. I also believe that if more people had seen this match and if it hadn’t been overshadowed by the finals then it would have been at least a low end contender for Match of the Year.
That takes us to the end of the round robin matches. I have my reviews of the single elimination matches written out in longhand, but there are just too many other things I need to get done today, so I guess we’ll get to them next week.
Thanks for reading!
Elsewhere on the Site:
There have been a ton of great articles posted on the site this week.
Between David writing about his trip to Japan, Bufton recommending Joshi and telling us about the ladies on the indy scene, Andy covering ROH, Eric actually devoting his column space to writing about wrestling, Iain and Ross starting off their US-based Top 50, A handful of great reviews from Fitzgerald, and the Rev bringing the world of MMA to the Pulse… I’d say we have an article this week on pretty much any topic a sane wrestling fan could want to read about. I’m loving every moment of it!