The end is nigh.

Today was the end of league play in the 26th G1 Climax as the competitors in the B Block took to the ring at the legendary Ryogoku Sumo Hall to determine who would face surprise A Block winner Hirooki Goto in tomorrow’s final.

Four men – Tetsuya Naito, Michael Elgin, Katsuyori Shibata and Kenny Omega – entered the final day still with a chance to advance. Natio was in the driver’s seat, controlling his own ‘destino’ as all he had to do was win. Everyone else needed Naito to lose and a little help to have a chance.

Tiger Mask, Jushin Thunder Liger, Manabu Nakanishi, Hioryoshi Tenzan vs David Finlay, Ryusuke Taguchi, Captain New Japan, Yoshitatsu

Yesterday, Tenzan wept in the arms of his friend after having what was almost certainly the last G1 match of his storied career. While his story was not what so many wanted it to be – the old gunslinger trying to be as good as he ever was one more time – in the end it was as poignant as one could hope. Tenzan, the greatest G1 competitor in the history of the tournament, was able to step up and have some matches well beyond the level his broken down body should have been able to.

Today, he is teaming with Nakanishi and the junior seniors. Such is his new lot in life.

As for the match itself, it was exactly what you would expect. The match did not stick around long enough to be offensive, Finlay stood out every time he was in the ring, and Tenzan got the pin over the hapless Captain New Japan with a moonsault. The crowd at Sumo Hall gave him a warm, appreciative ovation as the next (final) chapter of his career. Or maybe we just saw the last chapter, and now he is onto the epilogue. **1/2

Juice Robinson & Togi Makabe vs Naomichi Marufuji & Tomohiro Ishii

Makabe and Ishii were not in contention on the last night of the A Block, but that did not stop them from beating the holy living hell out of each other. They were obvious dance partners in this throw away tag match.

As for Marufuji, his summer vacation from the wasteland that is NOAH is almost over, but he certainly made the most of it. He finished just a single win short of making the finals of the tournament, coming up short yesterday against Goto.

And then there is Juice…….who had one of his best matches in New Japan here.

Makabe/Ishii did their usual dance (including a post match pull apart, which hopefully does not indicate future match ups), but Marufuji and Juice had a very entertaining closing stretch including a big clothesline/double knee gutbuster that almost got a three count for Juice. On the English commentary, Corino and Romero discussed Juice as a possible future foreign ace. Such a thought sounds crazy, but after this G1, weirder things have happened.

In the end, Juice fell to a shiranui to close out a quick and crisp tag match which is definitely worth a watch. ***

KUSHIDA, Satoshi Kojima, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Jay Lethal, BUSHI, SANADA

This was a match all about setting up future matches.

Kojima will be challenging Lethal tomorrow on the undercard of the finals for the ROH title, so there was some interaction to set that up. They looked good enough together that there is no reason to expect that tomorrow’s title match will not be good.

More importantly, we discovered our likely next junior title challenger. BUSHI got the pin on KUSHIDA following a double knee facebuster, after KUSHIDA had already eaten a Lethal Injection from Lethal.

We also got some nice SANADA/Tanahashi interactions, and if Kevin Kelly has the stroke in the ROH office he is now rumoured to, expect to see SANADA in ROH. Kelly LOVED gushing over SANADA. Time will tell if these two end up working each other in the fall, but SANADA has a pinfall win over Tanahashi, and Tanahashi will need something to do before he gets his IWGP title shot at Okada (come on – you KNOW that match is coming).

Everything in the match is fine, and everyone is (varying levels of) good, but you are not missing much if you skip this one. **1/2

Briscoe Brothers, Gedo, Goto, Okada vs Adam Page, Yujiro Takahashi, Tanga Roa, Tama Tonga, Bad Luck Fale

Goto, a night after winning the A Block, the night before competing in the Finals, made a grand entrance to…..Okada’s theme.

Kind of perfect when you think about it.

I have said since he joined CHAOS that this was not the end point of Goto’s evolution, and I think the subtle disrespect he is constantly shown is leading to the next step. It is telling that in the short time since Invasion Attack, the Ryogoku crowd has gone from veraciously jeering every move he made in the ring to being completely on his side. For all the talk about Goto having been cut off at the knees so many times that it will be impossible for New Japan to ever have him at the top of the card, I think it is clear that when Goto beaks through, he will have the crowd behind him. But that is a story which may or may not be told…..

The story being told here to start was that Okada was aggressive and cranky after failing to win the A Block, failing to beat Tanahashi, and – most importantly to him – failing to prove once and for all that he is the true ace of the promotion. That frustration came through as Okada insisted on starting the match and instead of his usual condescending clean break against the ropes with Fale, he put a forearm in his ear.

As for the tag team champion Briscoes, they look noticeably excited to be wrestling on such a big stage in Japan, and looked good as the big spot guys in this match. The tag division has gotten the short shrift over the past few years, but at least the team holding them right now is fresh and capable of entertaining matches. Not much else to be said.

As for this match, Yujiro got the pin on Gedo, but then took a beating from the Briscoes before he was saved by Adam Page. Tomorrow’s challengers laid waste to the Briscoes, who will looking for revenge along with a title defence.

Another inoffensive but unimportant tag match. Skip if you want to get to the good stuff quickly. **1/2

Yuji Nagata vs Tomoaki Honma

Honma comes into the last day of the Block with two wins and, apparently, a broken rib. To be honest, of the two it is the wins that really hurt him more.

Last year, Honma’s tournament was enitreily based around trying to break his long losing streak in singles matches, and particularly getting a G1 win after going winless the previous year. Crowds loved him, and hung on every near fall in every match he had. Now he is a lower card guy who wins some but loses more. The thrill of the chase is now gone and, as talented as he is, that thrill was what Honmania was based on.

As for Nagata, the Anti-Aging Hero has had a resurgent 2016, with his NEVER title run and series with Shibata. He led the Block for the first bit of the tournament this year, but came into this match already eliminated.

Both competitors were certainly showing the wear and tear of the last month, as the match was slower than expected and never really got out of second gear. Honma got the win with a top rope kokeshi, and likely lines himself up to be the next contender for the NEVER title. **1/2

Toru Yano vs YOSHI-HASHI

YOSHI-HASHI has had a successful G1, putting on good matches and showing he can be a valuable part of the roster, rather than just being the guy who gets pinned in Okada tag matches. It has taken a long time for him to get this point, as he is no spring chicken at 34, better late than never. Hell, it is New Japan so he likely has 10 more years in him if he stays injury free.

Yano, who has already been sent off to NOAH, managed to have his best G1 record-wise, while pissing off tons of fans with a style that is certainly atypical of what you expect from New Japan in general, and the G1 specifically.

The battle of CHAOS members was short, with typical Yano shtick leading to a low blow and a pinfall win. If you are reading this, you know what this match was – watch it if you like Yano; skip if you do not. NR

Katsuyori Shibata vs EVIL

EVIL has been a personal favourite of mine in the G1, and with a win here will avoid finishing last in the Block (fellow G1 virgin YOSHI-HASHI is his competition for that spot). He has a win over the IC champ Elgin, so a win here gives grounds to challenge for both secondary titles.

Shibata comes in as one of the four men with a chance to win the block. He needs to vanquish EVIL, and then hope that both Elgin and Naito lose to get to the Finals and face his friend and former tag partner Goto. The built in story of that match makes that scenario more likely than it was before yesterday.

The English commentary team had a good discussion about how Shibata has had to win the crowd over slowly since his 2012 return. It may shock quite a few people in the west, but maybe the crowd was not ready for Shibata to win the title in 2013 contrary to what most of wrestling twitter.

EVIL kicked off the festivities with a BRUTAL attack on Shibata’s arm outside the ring. He took a chair to Shibata’s already injured arm while it was wrapped around the guardrail. Just PLAIN NASTY. While EVIL stuck to working over the arm and shoulder, it is unfortunate for him a sore shoulder does not prevent one from kicking you really hard. Which is what Shibata did once he was down one arm.

Limb work fetishists should be pleased with the arm work playing into EVIL being able to defend and escape Shibata’s rear naked choke set up. Add in a nasty, nasty half and half suplex that looked like it may have dislocated Shibata’s shoulder, and Shibata then fighting off Red Shoes wanting a doctor to take a look, and this match should get a lot of love from that crowd.

While Shibata fought valiantly, EVIL the wrestler hit Evil the move for the pin. Great storytelling in the match, and EVIL is now a legit NEVER contender. On top of that, he bookended his G1 with wins over the secondary champions. So while he may not have been a contender to win the block it is hard to call his tournament anything but a resounding success, especially considering the quality of matches like this. On top of all this, there isnice built in storyline as to whether he can beat a fresh and healthy champion in a rematch.

Great match that deserves to be watched. ****

Michael Elgin vs Katsuhiko Nakajima

Last year, Michael Elgin was not Big Mike yet, and everyone laughed at both his ill fitting suit and his ill fitting placement in the G1. Then he got in the ring and proved that not only does he belong in New Japan, but that he belongs at the top of the cards. He comes in needing a win here for a chance to advance to the Finals – and that is not outside the realm of legit possibility.

Nakajima is another guy on work release from NOAH, and has certainly made a big impression in the G1. The hardest kicker in the tournament – if not all of wrestling – Nakajima did not have a bad match the entire tournament…..but his resume was missing that one big performance to define his tournament.

Until today.

Sweet Jesus, what a match. This was one of the hardest hitting matches I have ever seen. Nakajima focused on the taped up shoulder of Elgin with brutal kicks, while Elgin would try and fight through the pain, even hitting the hardest lariat I can ever remember seeing.

Nakajima took the win with a brainbuster, but the journey to the brainbuster was amazing. If you like wrestling as sport, you would be hard pressed to find a better match than this. No, it did not have the years of back story and emotion that yesterday’s Tanahashi/Okada draw did, but what it did have was a fully self contained story that was told perfectly. This was not a “time and place” match; this match could be watched by anyone, anywhere at any time and they would fully understand everything going on.

My crystal ball says some people will complain about Elgin’s selling of his arm/shoulder; my crystal ball also says you will not let those complaints obscure the joy that is this match.

One final note – Marufuji has a win over Okada, and now Nakajima has win over Elgin. If I were a betting man, I would put money on a little NOAH vs NJPW challenge at the top of a PPV coming soon. ****1/2

Tetsuya Naito vs Kenny Omega

Yesterday, Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi stepped into the ring and delivered yet another classic in their ongoing series. Thirty minutes later, they had eliminated each other, allowed Hirooki Goto to shockingly head to tomorrow’s finals, and energized everyone who had begun to suffer from G1 fatigue after 16 nights and 75 tournament matches.

Tonight, Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito raised the bar. And then some.

They walked into the ring with a ticket to the finals at stake but – just like Elgin and Nakajima prior – no real back story or emotion tied to their pairing. Where Okada and Tanahashi have four years of shared history which imbues even the slightest interaction with depth and meaning, Omega and Naito started with a lily white canvas.

And they painted a masterpiece.

Omega’s dedication to NJPW has been questioned. His ability to fully forgo the goofy aspects of his personality/character has been questioned. Those questions have both been answered. He entered this match 100% serious, and put in hands down the best performance of his NJPW career.

As for Naito, while no one doubts his talent, throughout this G1 – and his entire life as an Ingobernable – the complaint has been that his character seeps into his matches, making them less than they could be otherwise. Today was the perfect merger of his character and his talent, as he was tranquillo to start, but once Omega upped the ante, Naito met the challenge head on.

The result was an incredible, near thirty minute epic that should have even the most jaded of wrestling fans wrapped up in the drama. From the point that Omega powerbombed Naito through a table at ringside and followed it up with one of the craziest dives this side of Kota Ibushi, this match just kept escalating until it hit a fever pitch.

And then it stayed there until the end.

And what an end. After Naito reversed an attempted one wing angel, Omega anticipated a reversal to his second attempt and instead destroyed Naito with a Croyt’s Wrath that nearly defied logic and makes one wonder how strong Omega really is. That was not enough to finish Naito off but, as the time limit wound down, Omega finally hit a one winged angel and got the shocking three count.

By Omega winning, a common theme from those who complain about New Japan should now be laid to rest. Hopefully the last two days (and honestly, the better part of 2016 should have done it) have annihilated the notion that Gedo’s booking of New Japan.

It was a foregone conclusion that Tanahashi was going to win the A Block.

It was a foregone conclusion that Naito was going to win the B Block.

Now that the G1 finals are going to be a showdown between perennial underachiever Goto and insurgent oddball Omega, the rest of 2016 is entirely up in the air.

We entered the G1 with the prevailing theory being that Okada and Naito were alone at the top of the promotion, with Tanahashi frozen out of the title picture in living legend land, with relative newcomers like Elgin and Omega fighting for relevance.

At the close of league matches, we have an Okada more vulnerable than any time during his run, having suffered losses to Marufuji, Fale, Ishii and unable to put the final nail in the coffin of Tanahashi. Add whichever of Goto or Omega prevails tomorrow, and the list of legitimate title challengers is longer than it has been in years.

Add that to the number of other people who been elevated through the tournament – a list that includes Elgin, Shibata, EVIL, YOSHI-HASHI, SANADA, Tonga and Nakajima – and it is difficult to say that New Japan has not now fully replenished itself from the ‘great exodus’ after January’s Tokyo Dome show.

Going forward, New Japan is about as stale as fresh baked bread. *****