New Japan Pro Wrestling announced the field for its annual G-1 Climax, a month-long tournament pitting the best of NJPW and outside invitees against each other in round-robin competition.
In recent years, the winner of the G-1 Climax — which features two brackets, with the winner of each facing in the championship — has earned an IWGP Championship match at Wrestle Kingdom in January.
The added stipulation of a guaranteed Wrestle Kingdom title shot gives the G-1 Climax an aura comparable to WWE’s Royal Rumble; that is to say, the pool of potential winners is limited. New Japan’s current direction suggests either a repeat victory for 2016 G-1 Climax winner Kenny Omega, setting up Okada-Omega III next Jan. 4 in the Tokyo Dome; or Tetsuya Naito, whose disrespectful Intercontinental Championship reign has made him one of the hottest acts in the promotion.
However, the two most intriguing entrants are two of the least likely to win.
Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. bring an element of punk rock to the G-1 Climax. That’s punk rock not in the cliched sense; neither is tattooed, pierced, sports a mohawk or throws up devil horns. Rather, the two embody the ethos of counter-culture within wrestling that the punk scene was to music.
Punk was born on infusing a preexisting genre, broadly defined as rock-n-roll, with a unique and high-energy style. Kota Ibushi certainly does that.
Ibushi works an exciting style that produces memorable, often show-stealing matches regardless his opponent. He’s becoming one of the most celebrated in-ring talents in the world, excelling both in serious bouts with Shinsuke Nakamura — a 5-star classic that served as the semi-main event of NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 9…
…or in comedy matches where Ibushi’s a fireworks-wielding mad man.
Punk rock had its own sub-genres, and Zack Sabre Jr. comes from a much different world than Kota Ibushi. In a landscape dominated by hard-hitting strong style or high flying, Sabre stands out as a throwback. His submission-based offense and hold-escaping defense hark to the classic World of Sport from Sabre’s native England.
The World of Sport approach is so completely different from anything in modern wrestling, it makes Sabre stand out from the crowd.
Punk was about more than performances. The attitude of punk is founded on an ideal of bucking corporatization of the artform. Eschewing the mainstream comes with the risk, however. Most punk acts built their fan bases at the grassroots level, papering windshields and driving from dive club-to-dive club around the country in vans.
In later years, file-sharing programs streamlined bands’ efforts to reach their audiences around the world.
Both Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. have embodied the punk-rock ethos with their tireless globetrotting. Yes, both are working for the second-largest promotion in the world and participating in its signature event. But rewind 12 months from the 2017 G-1 Climax.
In the summer of 2016, both Ibushi and Sabre were introduced as participants in the 32-man field of WWE’s inaugural Cruiserweight Classic.
Consensus among wrestling fans heading into the CWC projected a Sabre-Ibushi final. The two international superstars were certainly the best talents in the tournament, and both wrestled in some outstanding matches en route to the semifinals.
Both lost in the semis, however — a decision tied to WWE introducing its new Cruiserweight Championship at the conclusion of the CWC. Neither Sabre nor Ibushi signed exclusive contracts with the global brand.
It’s one year later, and spurning the largest corporation in professional wrestling did nothing to hinder the global reach of either. On the contrary, the duo have been two of the best and most in-demand wrestlers in the world this year, as their G-1 Climax invites attest.
Sabre has wrestled in outstanding matches for such promotions as PWG in California; WCPW in England; EVOLVE in Philadelphia; and New Japan.
Ibushi excelled through a new outlet for his creativity, working in NJPW as anime character Tiger Mask W. His IWGP Championship with Kazuchika Okada in March ranks among the best bouts of 2017.
The G-1 Climax is another stage for two of professional wrestling’s most punk-rock stars to shine; the independent up-and-comers with a prominent platform at the biggest festival of the summer.