New Japan G1 Climax Special (Live Review from Long Beach)

I had the fortune of attending both New Japan G1 Climax Special shows live in Long Beach, CA. Words cannot properly convey what an awesome experience this was, but I will try my best.

Why New Japan?

I first became aware of Japanese wrestling in 1987, when my friend in the 5th grade gave me a copy of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s “Who’s Who in Wrestling” book. At the age of 10, this book quickly became my bible that I’d read cover to cover for many years. It taught me all the wrestling lingo, words like “babyface,” “heel,” and “selling” that my friends and I had never heard before. It began a lifelong love affair and infatuation with pro wrestling that is as strong today as it has ever been.

I had no money to subscribe to the Observer back then, but I still learned to love the writing of Dave Meltzer because of that damn book. I learned about Japanese stars like Riki Choshu, Tatsumi Fujinami, Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba, and even rookie Keiichi Yamada (Jushin Liger).

Better yet, I learned that so many American wrestlers I knew, like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, had rich histories in Japan. While everyone at school only knew the WWF, I was now familiar with New Japan, All Japan, Stampede, CMLL, World Wrestling Council, and all the other territories around the country and globe. I couldn’t watch them on TV, but I could read about them.

Fast forward to 1991, when I still had no money, but managed to subscribe to the Observer anyway. At that point, life changed. It opened up a whole new world to me, and before long I was trading videotapes with people around the country. At long last, I could watch Japanese wrestling and matches from other promotions. A compilation tape of Jushin Liger in particular got repeated viewings in my VCR. I was absolutely hooked.

In 1993 I turned 16, which meant I could finally drive. I heard about Yaohan, an Asian supermarket across town that had a video store inside. Here they were, right in front of me: original copies of All Japan and New Japan’s weekly television shows! At just $1 each! I’d rent them every few weeks, take them home, and dub them so I had my own copies.

In 1993 and 1994, All Japan was on fire, producing the best main events anywhere in the world. This was the golden era of Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Steve Williams, Stan Hansen, Gary Albright, etc. New Japan was also doing well, and they caught fire again in 1995 and beyond with their annual sellouts at the Tokyo Dome. Their Super J Cups were producing outstanding cruiserweight matches, and the product blew away the American product until the advent of the Monday night wars.

There was also All Japan Women, FMW, UWF-I, Michinoku Pro, and other Japanese niche promotions to whet any appetite.

After college, real life took over and I didn’t have time for Japanese wrestling anymore. Marriage, mortgage, career, etc all took precedence. The Japanese wrestling scene started to suffer around the same time. Giant Baba passed away, and All Japan was never the same. The rise of PRIDE hurt New Japan, and the TV time slot changes also impacted the popularity of Japanese wrestling. NOAH, which was created from the ashes of All Japan, only diluted the star power of the major promotions. The big names from the 90s began to retire, or in the case of Misawa, Williams, Jumbo Tsuruta, and Albright, they passed away altogether.

The American wrestling product also went downhill. ECW and WCW vanished, and WWE spiraled downwards following their peak in early 2001. It’s actually that frustration that gave birth to The Armpit in 2002, which is another story for another day.

The Rebirth

Under new leadership, New Japan began to rise again in the early part of this decade. Soon they were once again having the best matches on the planet, and business was starting to turn around. I still didn’t have time to watch much of it, but life changes. My divorce allowed me more time to do what I wanted, and soon I made New Japan a priority again. Once I re-started The Armpit in 2016, it then became my DUTY to watch Japanese wrestling again!

Early in 2017, it was announced that New Japan would run two shows in Long Beach, CA as part of their expansion into America. I got up early on a Saturday morning to purchase tickets, and landed the first few rows of both days. This was an event I was NOT going to miss. Long Beach was only a 5-hour drive from where I lived.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

I arrived in Long Beach on Friday night, having taken the day off from work to drive down. It was only in the lower 70s, but the humidity was such that it felt like it was 85 degrees. The meet and greet would begin at 12pm, so I walked half a mile to the Long Beach Convention Center with my ticket in hand.

I first stopped off at Hot Topic, which was across the street. Was I going to buy a Bullet Club shirt? Nope. I forgot my belt at home, and since all the DDP Yoga I’ve been doing is so damn effective, my already-small waist has shrunk even more. My pants were falling down, so I needed a belt ASAP to hold them up.

The guy working the register was huge. Lots of guys here were huge. Welcome to LA, where everyone is an aspiring bodybuilder or model. He asked why I was in town, and when I told him about the New Japan show, he was familiar with it and said the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega shirts had been selling well. I asked him if he was a wrestler, since he was pretty muscular. He laughed and said he was going to ask ME the same thing. Now THAT was funny.

Meet and Greet

I saw small groups of other confused fans. The lady up front directed us to where we should go. The area had a series of smaller buildings, so finding where NJPW was holding the show wasn’t exactly easy. Everywhere I looked were Bullet Club shirts.

I had expected a small crowd of maybe 100 fans, schmoozing with everyone on the show like Jim Ross, Josh Barnett, Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega, etc. Instead I saw a line that spanned the length of a football field. What the… for the meet and greet? It was completely oversold, with almost as many people there as were at the actual show later on.

It was also past the advertised start time of 12pm, and the doors were still closed. Finally they opened them, and after thorough checking of bags and tickets, we were all let in. And then? Yes, another line. A long, long line.

I was starving. The line finally made it through the venue, where tons of chairs were set up, next to the big screen. While it looked professional on television, the venue during the day time, with the lights on, looked like a glorified high school gym. The seats were on flat grounds, meaning it would be very hard to see later on. No bleachers? What were they thinking? Oh well, I had good seats, so it didn’t concern me.

The staff took our tickets and handed out tickets for autographs. I thought the autograph ticket would be good for getting autographs and pictures of everyone there. Nope. I later learned that each ticket entitled you to ONE picture and autograph. I didn’t know this, so when the staff offered me additional tickets later, I declined. Dumb ass.

Not knowing I only had a chance for one autograph, I chose the shortest line: Will Ospreay. The line for Kenny Omega spanned across the entire building! It would’ve taken an hour and a half. Roppongi Vice had a line as long as Ospreay’s, about a 15-minute wait. I believe either Tetsuya Naito or Okada or Jushin Liger had lines as well, but couldn’t see because there were too many damn people.

After I got my picture taken with Ospreay, I heard someone say they were all out of autograph tickets. Great. That, combined with my own starvation, made me leave. I had no patience to deal with that disorganized mess.

Next door was a Japanese anime convention, which was funny. There was another sort of event with a lot of Middle Eastern people. I went outside, where there were two food trucks. Between the Japanese anime convention and the Middle Eastern folks dressed nicely, there were LOTS of hot babes here! Beautiful gowns, high heels, caked on makeup, black hair, dark skin… mmmm.

And believe it or not, some of the wrestling fans brought cute girlfriends. I know, right? I’m from Northern California, where attractive women are an endangered species, and where men outnumber women about 10 to 1. But in SoCal, and in other parts of the country where these people flew in from, things are much more normal. Bottom line, there was plenty of eye candy to enjoy.

I walked back to the hotel and hung out until showtime. At 4pm I walked back to the Convention Center. Let’s do this!

G1 Special: Night 1

I will spare you the match by match rundowns, as you can find those elsewhere. Instead I’ll give some observations that only a live perspective can provide.

The lights were now dim, and loud music was blaring from the speakers that you’d recognize from New Japan television. I had seats in the 6th row, on the opposite side of the aisle. This allowed me to see the big screen, although even with being so close, seeing ANYTHING was hard in this building. I’m on the short side, so that didn’t help, but I was hardly alone in my complaints.

There was a New Japan program booklet on each seat, which was nice. As much as I wanted to read it, I used it to FAN myself because it was so Goddamn hot in the building. The place was packed, with most of the seats filled and tons of people in line buying merchandise, food, and beer. Since this was airing live on television, I knew things would start on time, unlike an ROH or PWG show that often starts late and ends in the middle of the night. Come 5pm PST, I was in my seat and ready.

I was not too far behind Jim Ross and Josh Barnett, who were seated at ringside doing commentary for AXS TV. They had a Japanese announcer announce the matches in Japanese, and then an American announcer announce them in English. Kinda cool, except it seemed to last too long and it made us pop twice for each name read. Based on reactions, it was clear the stars of the night were Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, and Jushin Liger.

Obviously Omega vs Michael Elgin was the highlight of the first night, with Naito vs Tomohiro Ishii being a close second place. I’d have given Omega vs Elgin ****1/2, although it apparently came across better on television because of our poor sight lines live. Naito-Ishii was ****1/4 live, which is what the Observer rated it as well. Omega was so incredible as a live performer, and he’s clearly in peak form right now.

Cody Rhodes vs Okada surpassed all expectations. It’s not that anybody expected a bad match, it’s that Okada has set the bar so ridiculously high this year and Cody didn’t expect to be someone to take it to that level. But he did. He was a strong heel, heavily booed. Despite what some have speculated, that this crowd booed anything related to WWE, that wasn’t the case. Jim Ross, for example, got a big reaction. Cody was booed because he played a strong heel and perhaps for his role in the Omega-Okada classic where he threatened to throw in the towel.

Cody vs Okada was good, and then after the brilliant false finish where Cody used the rainmaker for a near fall, the crowd stood up and never sat back down again. At that point we all felt, oh crap, Cody might really win this thing. He didn’t, of course, and that’s what makes Gedo such a great booker because that finish planted the seeds of doubt in our heads.

The whole crowd was red hot from start to finish, which made the show. Not for one second did we let up. We were going to ensure we helped do our part to make this show a success. And when Omega grabbed the mic at the end and addressed Okada, we all got the feeling we were watching something special and historical. And we were.

I got tacos during the Billy Gunn 8-man tag match. I could’ve waited until intermission, except we didn’t know there would be one. And if we did, the line would’ve been much longer. The tacos were pretty damn good.

During intermission I chatted with a friend who lives in my area in NorCal, and he shared my complaints about the sight lines. Still, he was having a great time.

After the show I waited behind Jim Ross and Josh Barnett, hoping to chat and/or get a pic with either of them. As soon as they went off the air, Ross stood up and walked briskly to the back. He moved quickly to avoid fans talking to him, so he obviously had to go somewhere because he’s made it clear he enjoys talking to the fans. None of us knew it at the time, but Ross had a relatively rough night on commentary. He mixed up the Briscoes, for example, and took awhile to warm up to his usual standards. I wonder how many fans at home actually noticed those mistakes, though.

Barnett talked to a couple people he seemed to know, including an attractive woman. I then walked home, on a natural high, and it took awhile to fall asleep from all the excitement. I watched some of the show on AXS TV in my room at night, and it looked really good.

G1 Special: Night 2

I didn’t have meet and greet tickets for this day, which was my choice and thank goodness I didn’t because yesterday proved to be a big disappointment.

I strolled to the building at just after 4pm, went through, and this time had MUCH better seats. 4th row, right by the aisle, just one seat removed from the gate. It provided a better sight line, and best of all, I got to slap hands and touch pretty much EVERYONE. T

Before the show started, Kevin Kelly and Don “Cyrus” Callis spoke to some fans.

The germs of Jushin Liger, Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and others permeated my hands. Unfortunately the person I wanted to touch the MOST was Brandi Rhodes, and she didn’t come out far enough for me to touch her soft, sensual skin 🙁

I was right there when Matt Jackson powerbomed Baretta on the ramp, which was a sickening thud and perhaps the craziest bump of the weekend. If it wasn’t that, it was Omega suplexing Ishii on the table outside the ring.

Omega-Ishii was ***** live, a clear step above Omega-Elgin the night before. It got ****3/4 in the Observer, which you can’t complain about, especially since live vs TV is always going to lead to variances.

The Young Bucks were spectacular, the wrestling version of the Harlem Globetrotters. When they did that insane Meltzer Driver, the crowd erupted into “Meltzer” chants that were very emotional given what Dave was going through at home with his father. He and his family watched that spot together and it really made them feel good. It was one of the highlight moments of the entire weekend. The man who got me into pro wrestling to this degree, in particular Japanese wrestling, was being honored at a very difficult time for his family. You can’t script these moments. I’m sure several other people were there who were also fans of New Japan thanks to the Observer, and their chants of Dave’s name drove that point home.

Another observation from being so close to the aisle is just how massive these guys are. I’m a small guy, but still, even guys like the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega are quite thick and muscular in person. Tanahashi was enormous, and Billy Gunn looked like El Gigante compared to even the bigger guys. It really, really, really made me feel even more small and pathetic than usual.

The second night was far more enjoyable to me, though that could just be because of where I sat. Again the crowd was electric and made the show. I told the guy next to me that I didn’t want this weekend to end, and he agreed. The people I met were all from out of town and all very nice. None of us knew each other, but we knew we shared the same passion for this amazing product.

I walked home on another high, and stayed up late again. Truly a memorable weekend and I will definitely be back when they return.

I was in attendance for AAA’s inaugural San Jose debut in 1993, which was equally insane and a great show with a hot crowd. I was also there for WWE’s debut in what is now the SAP Center (San Jose Arena) and Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. To be in attendance for all these shows, and now New Japan, made me feel like part of history. I’ve been to ECW Arena at its peak (1994 and 1995), and still I don’t think as good as those shows were, they could compare to this atmosphere.