The Art of Wrestling: Best of the G-1 Finals

Best of the G-1 Climax, 8/7/04

August 7, 2004 was the final day of the G-1 Climax tour. The most successful fighters from each block met in a one-day single elimination tournament to determine the overall winner. Golden Boy Tapes‘ Best of Japan 2004 DVD set contains four matches from the final day.

Before we get to those four matches, I’d like to Jerad Moxley for taking the time to write and let me know that Yoshihiro Takayama was in fact already injured before his match with Kensuke Sasaki. Knowing that makes it possible to enjoy Sasaki vs. Takayama without feeling guilty.

Genichiro Tenryu vs. Kensuke Sasaki, Quarter Finals:

Two big-name outsiders meet in a battle of Hall of Famers. Tenryu is a certifiable legend, while Sasaki is, at best, on the bubble of receiving that level of respect. The match starts out looking pretty much like any battle between two big, experienced, power guys. They use Chops that get the sweat flying, Clotheslines, and the occasional Bulldog as they struggle to gain control of the match. Both men execute their basic power offense so well that very few people would have complained if the match had consisted of nothing else. Sasaki, however, blows all reasonable expectations out of the water by pulling out a Top Rope Rana, a Giant Swing, and a Plancha. Sasaki’s unexpected highspots manage to really draw my attention but, sadly, also make it apparent that Tenryu seems content to go through the expected motions without adding anything special to the match. Mr. Puroresu comes briefly to life during the frighteningly stiff Fighting Spirit segment of the match, but when he is not going toe to toe with Sasaki his facial expressions and body language communicate a kind of tired disinterest. It’s rather disappointing that Tenryu doesn’t hold up his end of the match, as Sasaki really pulls out all of the stops. Given their relative status, one might expect that Kensuke would get a great deal of offense in without being able to put the legend away. One might expect Tenryu to absorb a lot of punishment before catching the younger man with a big power move for the finish. That’s pretty much exactly what happens. It isn’t a great match, but it does serve as a very good showcase for how much Sasaki improved as a worker in 2004.

Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, Quarter Finals:

This is the first of three matches that together comprise the final chapter of the main story of the tournament. Nakamura is arguably the leader of the younger generation of wrestlers who want to use the tournament to establish a position at the top of the new Japan hierarchy. Tenzan is arguably the strongest wrestler of his generation, and he needs to beat all three New Musketeers to prove that he should be considered NJPW’s true Ace.

Nakamura’s semi shoot style mixes pretty well with Tenzan’s pure pro style in this match. Nakamura refuses to die, taking everything that Tenzan has to give and coming back for more. Tenzan, in turn, always has more to give him. It’s an effective story and they tell it very well. Both men end up coming across as real warriors. Nakamura gets busted open, which draws a lot of sympathy from the crowd. The audience has a huge reaction for each of Nakamura’s hope spots, but I personally never get the feeling that Nakamura is going to win. He wins me over as a fan, however, by running up the corner turnbuckle for his El Nino Moonsault while effectively selling his injured leg. In the end, Tenzan is able to avoid Nakamura’s Cross Armbreaker and lock in the Anaconda Vice for a submission victory.

Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Katsuyori Shibata, Semi Finals:

Shibata seems to be even more influenced by Shoot Style than Nakamura, and that might be why this is my least favorite of Tenzan’s last three tournament matches. Their styles don’t blend very well, and as a result the match doesn’t flow smoothly and it feels kind of like they are taking turns getting their moves in rather than working together to tell a coherent story. The match doesn’t suck or anything, it just isn’t as good as Tenzan’s matches with Nakamura and Tanahashi. In the end, Shibata passes out in the Anaconda Vice rather than submitting. Yamato Damashii!
After the fight they show Shibata staggering down the hall backstage, which entertains and impresses me as much as anything he did in the match.

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Finals:

This match marks the culmination of three separate storylines: Tenzan’s battle to prove himself the Ace of New Japan, Tanahashi’s battle to be seen as the best wrestler of the new generation, and the battle between the New Three Musketeers and the established veterans of NJPW.

Tanahashi has his second most awesome hairdo in place for the finals: The John Taylor of Duran Duran blonde bangs and dark, sculpted mullet. If I used the Scott Keith Rating System, that hairdo alone would be worth an extra quarter star. Not that the match would need it, this is a legitimate Match of the Year Candidate, and it would have made my 2004 short list had I seen it before the votes were tallied.

As I noted earlier, these two wrestlers have fantastic ring chemistry. Their styles compliment each other, and their work together flows as naturally as that of Benoit and Angle, Bret and Mr. Perfect, or Jack Brisco and Dory Funk, Jr. They do a lot of little things to make the match work, building on what has gone before. For example, the first time Tanahashi gets trapped in the Anaconda Vice, he rolls over so that Tenzan’s shoulders are on the mat. This was how Osamu Nishimura had beaten Tenzan, but in this case it only gets a two count.

The match is really well structured, properly paced, and full of exciting moments. There are a ton of highspots and near falls, but they are not just tossed out to pop the crowd. Each spot is an essential element of the story being told. Early in the match, Tenzan shows that his superior savvy and experience will be a big advantage when he repeatedly tricks Tanahashi into expecting one thing while delivering another. Later in the match, though, Tanahashi pulls a Ricky Steamboat special by skinning the cat to get back in the ring while Tenzan’s back is turned, outsmarting the veteran to regain the advantage.

Their first encounter in the tournament had mainly been about Tanahashi taking all of the punishment that Tenzan could dish out. In this match, the roles are reversed, and Tanahashi uses every move in his impressive arsenal only to find that he can’t put Tenzan away.

The ending builds off their previous match, as well. Once again, Tenzan locks Tanahashi in the Anaconda Vice. Tanahashi powers his way out as the superheated crowd goes ballistic, but Tenzan slams him down and locks the hold on a second time. Once again, Tanahashi has the fortitude to rise to his feet, and once again Tenzan has the tenacity to pull him back down and trap him in the Vice. Trapped in the middle of the ring, exhausted, Tanahashi has no choice but to tap.

Tenzan has proven himself the strongest wrestler in New Japan, and he will go on to see his push foolishly undermined so that the belt can be passed on to yet another disinterested mixed marital artist. Still, it seems churlish to complain about New Japan’s booking when they can still give us genuinely great matches like this one.

Next Week:

We’ll give New Japan a rest and take a look at some of what was going on in All Japan last year, including a match between Toshiaki Kawada and Satoshi Kojima.

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