25 Matches that Defined 2016 #13 – Kenny Omega vs. Hirooki Goto, NJPW G1 Climax Day 19
Kenny Omega vs Hirooki Goto
New Japan Pro Wrestling G1 Climax Day 19
14th of August 2016
Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Tokyo
This match is to decide the winner of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual G1 Climax tournament. Japan’s Hirooki Goto faces off against Canadian import and leader of the Bullet Club heel stable, Kenny Omega. As if a tournament final doesn’t offer enough of a big fight feel, two of the biggest start in New Japan’s history in the shape of Masahiro Chono and Keiji Muto are out to do guest commentary. Japanese football legend Masashi Nakayama is also there for some reason.
The pace is slow to start, with Goto relying on his greater power and Omega trying to use his speed and agility when he can, as with a moonsault from the outside barricade that very nearly knocked the G1 trophy over. Goto gets booed for his first really big kick. It’s very rare for the Japanese wrestler to get heel heat when fighting a foreigner, and I wonder if this is borne out of crowd resentment for Goto being in the final ahead of top stars like Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Goto has won the G1 before and is a multi-time winner of the less prestigious New Japan Cup, but he has failed to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, New Japan’s top accolade, in no fewer than eight attempts; he’s got a reputation as a choker on the big stage. Omega is drawing more cheers than boos and only really draws the crowd’s ire when he does something really scummy, such as spitting in Goto’s face or raking his eyes. The Japanese fans seem to find his arrogance more amusing than enraging.
The pace picks up when Omega hits a huge dive over the ropes to the outside and a stiff missile dropkick to the back of Goto’s head, but in the process he tweaks the knee that had been (kayfabe) bothering him increasingly throughout the tournament. Goto doesn’t zero in on it, but it does hamper Omega’s efforts for the remainder of the contest. An example of this can be seen when, in response to a pair of Ushigoroshis (Goto’s Death Valley Bomb onto his knee), Omega essays one of his own but hurts himself in doing so. The match draws to its climax with the two men trading increasingly big moves and increasingly close near falls. Omega hits a sit-down elevated powerbomb and then misses a corkscrew 450 Splash, allowing Goto to get a 2-count from a spinning inverted uranage; Omega nearly wins with a Dragon Suplex but then gets clobbered with a gigantic Lariat and Goto’s old Shouten Kai finisher, and the crowd go absolutely bananas when Omega kicks out.
Finally, Omega serves up a one-two punch of a single-underhook Brainbuster and a belly-to-back inverted mat slam, but Goto gets his shoulder up with his last ounce of strength. Omega hits his One-Winger Angel finisher (a move named, rather wonderfully, after a song from the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack) and gets the 3-count to become the first foreigner to win the G1 since its founding in 1991. He then cuts a great promo eviscerating everyone who said that the Bullet Club was finished and everyone who speculated he might be off to the WWE, saying he’d provided everyone in Orlando with a tournament’s worth of study material so they can become “the next Kenny Omega-lite”. He also provides this excellent line: “Don’t be afraid to dream. Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars. But let me warn you now – right as you’re about to reach that dream, someone like me swoops in and takes it from you!” Then he begins speaking in Japanese, which is especially significant, as it’s common knowledge amongst wrestling fans that Omega speaks the language fluently, but up until now in his New Japan run he’s pretended he doesn’t understand Japanese, just to try and piss people off. This gets an enormous pop; I’ve no idea what he said but it was very well delivered.
How it defined 2016:
New Japan is the second biggest professional wrestling company in the world, and the annual G1 Climax is the most prestigious wrestling tournament. The winner challenges for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the main event of the traditional January 4th Wrestle Kingdom show at the Tokyo Dome, which is New Japan’s version of Wrestlemania and in recent years has tended to draw between 25,000 and 35,000 fans. So it’s fair to say that the G1 final is always a big deal. But what made things especially intriguing this year is that 2016 saw New Japan forced to do a lot of rebuilding after AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, two of its top four wrestlers, jumped ship to WWE in January. Additionally, Kota Ibushi, who New Japan had clearly pegged as a future top guy, decided he’d prefer to travel the globe taking Burning Hammers from Brian Kendrick, fighting a man with a box on his head and wrestling fat dudes in Colchester (all of which are incredibly wonderful things in their own way). And on top of everything else, Okada and Tanahashi, the two remaining main eventers, had headlined three of the previous four Wrestle Kingdoms against each other and so could not be called upon to do so again without inviting charges of staleness and lack of roster depth. New Japan had to create new stars, and fast.
In part, 2016 has been the story of Tetsuya Naito’s long-overdue ascension to the top. The victim in the past of poor booking, untimely injuries and in-ring performances that brought to mind an ersatz Tanahashi even at their best, Naito began to hit his stride in 2015 with a new languid, disrespectful heel character, matched with a greater tendency to brawl and cheat his way to victory, and a stable of suspicious weirdos called Los Ingobernables. New Japan firmly established Naito in the top echelon of talent by having him beat Okada for the title in April, and even though he lost it back to the former champ in his first defence, his group’s merch continues to sell by the bucketload and he’s set to take on Tanahashi at the Dome in a match he may well win. But three main eventers instead of two still wasn’t enough.
Kenny Omega’s rise to the top was more gradual.Until the end of 2014 Omega was contracted to comedy promotion DDT, and spent his initial year in New Japan as the ace of the company’s slightly moribund Junior Heavyweight division.However, the Bullet Club’s self-proclaimed ‘Cleaner’ (because he cleans the trash out of New Japan) was booked incredibly strongly at the start of 2016. The night after Wrestle Kingdom 10 he pinned Nakamura in a tag match, and then shockingly turned on Styles to usurp the Bullet Club leadership and send the former head honcho packing from the company. A few weeks later he pinned Tanahashi to win the IWGP Intercontinental Championship that had been left vacant by Nakamura’s departure.
Three of New Japan’s old Big Four had been defeated, and yet in the following months it appeared that Omega’s place was to be in the upper midcard, joining stablemates The Young Bucks in their wacky antics and defending the IC title against other midcarders while ceasing seriously to challenge top talent. This impression seemed to be confirmed when he lost his belt in a ladder match to Michael Elgin, an entertaining hoss and Tanahashi’s tag partner but hardly a marquee player in the company.
When the G1 rolled around, I felt sure that it was Naito’s to lose. How wrong I was. New Japan had other ideas, and Omega’s commanding victory in the tournament cemented his place as a headline act in the company for years to come. As 2016 comes to a close, Okada vs. Omega looks set to draw a strong if not gigantic crowd to the Dome, and New Japan appear to have weathered the storm caused by losing two huge stars at the same time. The product still has issues – an overreliance on rematches, a relative paucity of native talent coming through and a surfeit of belts – but the future seems a lot brighter than it did at the start of the year.
I’ll be honest, I was dreading this match. Tanahashi vs. Naito was the final I was expecting, and with one round of group stage matches left for me to watch, nothing had dissuaded me of this notion. I was a bit behind with my G1 viewing, and as I fired up NJPW World (available for only 999 yen a month, Maggle-san) I saw a thumbnail informing me that Goto vs. Omega was the final I would be getting.
What the hell, I thought. It says something that out of the almost four hundred people who participated in Voices of Wrestling’s G1 prediction pool, absolutely nobody called these two contesting the tournament’s last match. In a little bit of a huff, I watched Tanahashi and Okada battle to a time limit draw in their usual ***** match, a result which sent Goto into the final as the top wrestler in Block A, and then stuck on Naito vs. Omega, which would decide who won Block B. That match was, if anything, even better, and Omega’s performance (especially in selling) was fantastic, but Omega vs. Goto still did absolutely nothing for me on paper.
I had long been critical of Omega’s work in New Japan; clearly a great athlete, but I found his overacting somewhat cringeworthy, and his wackier in-ring ideas, the sort of thing he was doing in DDT, didn’t feel quite appropriate for a big name in New Japan’s environment. There was a nice arc being told throughout the G1 where Omega gradually became less apathetic, more serious and more intent on proving himself as a top competitor, but I was still sceptical. Goto, meanwhile, had had an actively bad tournament. He’d produced a stiff, entertaining match with Tomohiro Ishii, but then who doesn’t? Goto’s lowlights included an underwhelming bout with Tanahashi (a man known for his ability to get quality matches out of just about anyone), a dull effort with Okada, and a main event with Togi Makabe (a man known for his ability to get mediocre matches out of just about anyone) that was so incredibly boring that I almost clawed my eyes out.
Happily, this match was amazing. Goto was at his hard-hitting, dynamic best, and looked a different performer from the rest of his turgid tournament run. But Omega was the centrepiece. This felt very much like a rollercoaster ride designed by the maverick Canadian, a work of mad genius that I felt surpassed the wonderful G1 finals of 2014 (Okada vs. Nakamura) and 2015 (Tanahashi vs. Nakamura). It’s one of those matches that offers exciting action when viewed in isolation, but really becomes a classic when you have access to the context.
On his way to the ring, Omega said, “I’ll be calling on the power of all the good brothers – past and present – to pull this one off.” I dismissed this as a throwaway comment, but towards the end of the match its true meaning became apparent. The sit-down elevated powerbomb and then misses a corkscrew 450 Splash are both Kota Ibushi moves, which he calls the Golden Star Bomb and the Phoenix Splash respectively. Ibushi and Omega were a tag team in DDT, and so Omega’s use of these manoeuvres functioned as a nice shout-out to an absent friend. However, his later appropriation of other wrestlers’ moves offered powerful symbolism that did a really effective job of complementing his tournament win in establishing him as a top wrestler in New Japan.
The single underhook Brainbuster I mentioned in my report above is also known as the Bloody Sunday, and another name for a belly-to-back inverted mat slam is the Styles Clash. Omega used the finishing moves of the previous two Bullet Club leaders; Prince Devitt (now known as Finn Balor in WWE) and AJ Styles. Then, when Goto kicked out, he got the win using his own finisher, as if to make the point that in winning the G1 he had accomplished something that his predecessors not only never did, but would not have been able to do. This was my favourite ending to a match all year, and not only cemented Omega’s ascension to main event status but provided fans with a memorable denouement to a G1 that only really caught fire intermittently.
At the start of the tournament I couldn’t imagine any other winner except Naito, but following the G1’s climax I can say that I wouldn’t have done any part of the final differently.