SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
Five minutes is all it takes to realize that you’re watching one of the most athletically gifted professional wrestlers in the world today. The Golden Star of New Japan Pro Wrestling, although unsuccessful in the finals of the G1 Climax 28 tournament against Hiroshi Tanahashi, put one of the best overall performances in tournament history. So, why aren’t you writing about the winner of the tournament you ask? Well, when one single tournament is as packed full of jaw dropping matches as this one was, I’ve decided to spotlight the performer who has gained the most out of withstanding the competition in this grueling 29 day tournament.
Many wrestling in the fans in the United States may recognize Kota Ibushi from his work in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic where he was eliminated in the semifinals by losing to eventual tournament winner, T.J. Perkins (currently known as TJP). Ibushi then went on to compete in NXT’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, teaming with T.J. Perkins. The team of Ibushi and Perkins would eventually lose in the second round of the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic to Sanity. Ibushi’s professional career in WWE was short lived as he turned down a 5 year contract and made the decision to return to New Japan Pro Wrestling.
In 2016, Ibushi made the jump to NJPW where he returned under the character “Tiger Mask W”. Keeping his identity concealed as Tiger Mask W, Ibushi would go on to defeat Tiger the Dark at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in 2017. Ibushi would wrestle as Tiger Mask W for a very short period of time before entering the 2017 edition of the G1 Climax tournament mask-free and using his original name. Thus began the Era of Ibushi.
Almost immediately, Kota Ibushi started to catch the attention of the New Japan fans as well as the other performers on the New Japan roster. He quickly became one of the most sought after performers to work with because his level of athleticism would help elevate any match/storyline that he was included in. A history of teaming with the most popular star in New Japan, and possibly the world, Kenny Omega, certainly was a huge help in gaining such an impressive reputation. Ibushi would continue his singles career for NJPW in a noteworthy feud with “The American Nightmare” Cody (Rhodes).
The feud with Cody meant that Ibushi was caught in the middle of all of the Bullet Club disfunction determining who the rightful leader of the club was. After continuous attacks from Cody, Ibushi decided to come to the aid of his long time friend, and on Jan. 28th, 2018, Kota Ibushi saved Kenny Omega from the attack of fellow Bullet Club members and the Golden Lovers were reunited!
Entering the G1 Climax 28 tournament, every fan of New Japan had the Omega vs Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom 13 scenario in the back of their heads. Although the destination was not fulfilled, the ride to the finals was everything that New Japan fans expected it to be. Ibushi was the victor of the B Block, which some would consider as the more impressive block of performers, that included current IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Kenny Omega, current IWGP US Heavyweight Champion, Juice Robinson, and current Never Openweight Champion, Hirooki Goto. Ibushi managed to finish with 6 wins and 3 losses. His wins came against the likes of Tetsuya Naito, Tomohiro Ishii, Zack Sabre Jr., and fellow Golden Lover, Kenny Omega.
Every match that Ibushi was involved in made crowds cheer in awe, whether it was fighting off the Bullet Club Firing Squad in a losing effort against Tama Tonga, or competing in one of the most hard-hitting (stiff) matches that anyone will witness all year against Tomohiro Ishii. The ability to adapt and contour his wrestling style to his opponent makes Ibushi a very valuable asset to the New Japan roster. Even though every single match of Ibushi’s was above average at least, the matches that still have the wrestling universe buzzing were the semifinal match against fellow Golden Lover, Kenny Omega, and the G1 28 finals against The Ace of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi.
The match against Kenny Omega was much more than a tag partner vs tag partner match, it was a match that many planned on seeing in the main event of the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 13 for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This match also decided who would go on and challenge Hiroshi Tanahashi in the finals of the G1 Climax tournament. In front of a sold out Nippon Budokan arena, Ibushi and Omega put on a performance that people will talk about for years to come.
The match would conclude with Omega and Ibushi embracing each other in the middle of the ring as the crowd showed pure emotion for what they just witnessed. With Ibushi victorious against Omega, only 1 man stood between him and the main event of the Tokyo Dome. Unlucky for him, that man just happened to be living legend, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Kenny Omega announced before the event that he would be in the corner of Ibushi for support during the match, but we were all blown away when Tanahashi entered the arena with Katsuyori Shibata in his corner for the G1 finals.
Now I know I sound like a broken record when I talk about Ibushi putting on a fantastic or memorable match, but that’s how impressive he was throughout the duration of this tournament. The finals of the G1 tournament showed Tanahashi and Ibushi elevate the performances of each other to a level that Tanahashi has not obtained in a few years. The storytelling, false finishes, body language, emotion, and maneuver execution made this G1 final one for the history books. Although unsuccessful, Ibushi stood tall at the end of the tournament, embracing the love and passion from the fans.
What some people forget to realize is that we still have five months until Wrestle Kingdom 13, and the title picture does have a possibility of changing from now until then. We may get to see Omega vs. Ibushi at the Tokyo Dome, we may not, but either way I think we can all agree that Kota Ibushi will be in a meaningful and compelling match at the biggest show of the year for NJPW. I think it’s safe to say it’s just a matter of time until Ibushi reaches the absolute zenith of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: NEW JAPAN FOCUS: Showcasing Sanada, who at age 30 is entering his prime and having a groundbreaking year