The G1 Climax is wrestling elevated to Art. And New Japan’s annual tournament is where the wrestling ring is a canvas for the world’s greatest artists to paint on.
NJPW G1 Climax: The Rich History of Pro Wrestling’s Biggest Tournament
While the G1 Climax has been a staple for the top Japanese promotion since 1991, it has gone through various other names and formats going back much further. So with that, let us look at the rich history of the biggest tournament in wrestling today!
Early Years (1974-1982): World League and MSG League
In April 1974, New Japan Pro-Wrestling founder Antonio Inoki recognized the need for an annual wrestling tournament where the best wrestler in the promotion for the period could be crowned. This led to him announcing the formation of the World League.
This was a sixteen-man round-robin league, with one group consisting of Japanese wrestlers while the other group saw athletes from all over the globe. The top four from each round qualified for a single group in the second round, where the eventual leading scorer would be declared the winner.
However, things turned controversial when Antonio Inoki, Seiji Sakaguchi, and Killer Karl Krupp ended up at the top with 5.5 points.
Three playoff matches then took place among them, which saw Inoki pick up back-to-back victories and become the first-ever winner of the World League in the process.
The World League remained an active tournament for the next three years, with there being one group for the entire field of participants, ending the distinction between native Japanese and foreign talent.
The 1975 version was once again won by Inoki, with the 1974 runner-up Seiji Sakaguchi winning the tournament in 1976 and 1977.
It was then renamed the MSG League in 1978 to bring the energy of the world-famous Madison Square Garden to the sumo halls in Japan.
Following the same single block format as its predecessor, the top two ranked wrestlers were Andre the Giant and Antonio Inoki. The latter picked up the victory via countout in the final and avenged his loss from earlier.
The legendary Inoki would win over the following three years. He could have won his fourth year in a row but had to drop out from a tantalizing prospect of a final versus Andre the Giant, as he had suffered an unfortunate injury. This resulted in Killer Khan, ranked next to Inoki, facing Andre in the final in an unsuccessful effort.
1983-1989: Creation of the IWGP, IWGP League, and the World Cup Tournament
Meanwhile, Antonio Inoki was still unsatisfied with the annual tournaments presented by NJPW and proposed the formation of a kayfabe wrestling governing body for the company: the International Wrestling Grand Prix, commonly known as the IWGP.
The body then announced a tournament of their own, called the IWGP League, which was similar to the World and MSG Leagues, having a single round-robin block.
The first IWGP League took place in 1983, which saw competitors from multiple continents, such as Australia and North America joining the native Japanese wrestlers in the participation field.
The final consisted of Antonio Inoki and Hulk Hogan, who was yet to become the megastar he became in the years to come.
The match’s finish sent shock waves all over the globe, as Hogan picked up a surprise win over the fan-favorite local after he knocked him out from the apron onto the floor, picking up a count-out victory in the process.
Hogan was also presented with the first-ever IWGP Championship Belt. However, this was more of a trophy and not a regularly defended title. Nevertheless, a year later, Hogan would face the 1984 winner of the tournament Inoki, in what was a fantastic rematch won by the Japanese legend to crown the official IWGP Champion.
Inoki, in 1987, became the first champion who defended the belt regularly. It should be noted that in later years Hogan has gone on record to say that his run with the belt was an official one, while NJPW tends to disagree with him.
While the future IWGP Leagues did not follow a specific format, one thing that remained constant was the sheer dominance of Inoki himself.
After winning the tournament in 1984, he won three of the next four future IWGP Leagues tournaments, with Andre the Giant again being the only exception.
A year later, in 1989, NJPW held its first and only World Cup Tournament, which consisted of four blocks of five wrestlers each, with the group stage followed by an eliminator round of matches.
Riki Choshu won the World Cup, his first significant wrestling tournament, before winning the G1 Climax years later in 1996 during his renaissance.
The Creation of the G1 Climax
NJPW discontinued the World Cup just after its first installment and replaced it with the name G1 Climax, conveying that the tournament was the “Grade One” of professional wrestling.
Through the 1990s, it was contested under various formats, such as a single round-robin format, two single groups, and a single elimination tournament. However, one thing that remained constant was being dominated by Masahiro Chono, Shinya Hashimoto, and Keiji Mutoh, commonly known as the “Three Musketeers of Fighting Spirit.”
Chono had the most successful resume among the three, winning five out of the first fifteen G1 Climax tournaments. Chono also has the distinctiveness of winning perhaps the two most significant iterations of the tournament, the first and the second in 1992, which was held for the then vacant NWA Worlds Championship.
These performances got The Musketeer the title of “Mr. August” from NJPW fans.
G1 Climax in Recent Years
Throughout the early 2000s, the G1 Climax usually consisted of 2 blocks of eight, with the top two from each block squaring up in semis and the final on the same night. However, the company saw a change in guard when a young Hiroshi Tanahashi won the prestigious trophy in 2007.
Since the new ace’s victory, the winner’s list saw more recent stars, such as Hiroki Goto and Shinsuke Nakamura, before being eventually won by Kazuchika Okada in 2012, who started the annual tradition where the winner of the G1 would go on to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom.
In 2013, the G1 Climax started consisting of twenty wrestlers in total. It became a month-long spectacle, a visual representation of the growth NJPW had achieved as initially, the World League was just a few days-long events.
While the current G1 format has seen world-class athletes from all over the world, Kenny Omega is, to this day, the only non-Japanese wrestler to win the coveted prize since Andre the Giant won the IWGP League tournament in 1985.
The G1 Climax keeps getting bigger and better. The ring is their canvas, and the greatest artists get to create their masterpieces there.
These stories may also interest you:
- Great Antonio vs. Antonio Inoki: A Match That Almost Proved Deadly
- Andre the Giant and Akira Maeda Fight That Turned REAL in Japan
- Rick Rude: A Ravishing Man with an Unfortunate End
- Magic at the Budokan with the Four Pillars of Heaven
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