You only get once chance to make a first impression. Though it had previous tournament iterations, the 1991 G1 Climax tournament was the first one to carry that name and be shaped in a similar way to the tournament that now consumes our summer puroresu watching.
In wrestling history, the first instance of something is usually remembered more so for the historical impact compared to the actual in ring quality of the event. WrestleMania 1, 1/4/92 Tokyo Dome Show, TripleMania I and 1988 SummerSlam are all historically significant shows in that they represent some of the biggest branded shows of the past 30 years in wrestling history.
However, each of those shows receives praise for the historical nature of them being first instead of the classic matches that were competed on those respective cards. Even with the tournament nature of the wrestling business today, tournaments like PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles, The Ted Petty Invitational, CHIKARA’s King of Trios and wXw’s 16 Carat were more or less figuring things out in that inaugural year which led to refinement in subsequent years.
This premise makes it even more amazing in the fact that Masahiro Chono and Keiji Mutoh had one of if not the best G1 Climax matches of all time in the very first year of the tournament in the tourney final.
History now remembers Mutoh and Chono as 2/3rds of the revered Three Musketeers that along with Shinya Hashimoto dominated the New Japan Pro Wrestling landscape in the 1990s. The road to the tournament final in 1991 was murkier and the Chono vs. Mutoh final and success was far less certain to be a sure thing.
All Japan Pro Wrestling was thriving under old guard vs. new guard system of Misawa and Company vs. Jumbo and Company but New Japan had other ideas in mind of mainly mixing the younger talent like Chono, Mutoh, Hashimoto, Sasaki against each other to form long standing rivalries. Even though this is a tournament final that wasn’t advertised before the tournament started, it does show some foresight that the Chono vs. Mutoh match took place nearly 15 months before All Japan first main evented a Budokan card with Misawa vs. Kawada. A lot was riding on the success of this match financially and aesthetically and both Chono and Mutoh delivered a classic that cemented themselves as two of the most important figures in New Japan history.
The road to the August 11, 1991 finale is fascinating.
Mutoh and Chono both made their professional debut on October 5, 1984 against one another. For the first year or so, they were frequent opponents for each other in the Young Lion matches that still open up New Japan shows today. One common theme emerged, Chono never defeated Mutoh.
Soon, Mutoh was thrusted up towards the top of the card as a frequent tag partner of Antonio Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami. After that, we know Mutoh had an extended run in WCW as The Great Muta before returning to New Japan in 1990. This amazingly means that Mutoh and Chono did not have any singles matches from October 1985 until June 12, 1990 where Mutoh was once again victorious. Upon returning, Mutoh and Chono were placed into a successful tag team that had semi main events on the bigger New Japan shows. They never did main event Sumo Hall though as a tag team or in singles competition.
This leads to the August 11, 1991 G1 final which would be their first singles match in over a year and Chono still sitting without a victory vs. his colleague in Mutoh. Chono had risen among the ranks and was seen on more equal footing as Mutoh and Hashimoto by the 8/11/91 match, but there was certainly an inkling that if forced to choose just one individual of the Three Musketeers, Chono wouldn’t be the first (or second) choice.
In the tournament proper, both Chono and Mutoh had separate but strong journeys to reach the finale. Mutoh defeated IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tatsumi Fujinami on August 9 for the first time in singles competition. This was an integral changing of the guard result.
Fujinami was the successor for Inoki and along with Choshu, they dominated the main event scene in the 1980s in New Japan. Even though Fujinami and Choshu had marquee matches after the 1991 G1 Climax, this victory by Mutoh coupled with Choshu finishing last in his group helped signify the changing mentality of the promotion overall. With Fujinami out of the running, an August 10 (my fifth birthday) showdown was looming between Mutoh and Vader.
Vader debuted in 1988 in New Japan as strongly as you could by squashing Antonio Inoki in four minutes to a shocked crowd. Three years later and his single match defeats were few and far between. He had lost to Inoki (duh), Fujinami (always seen as a kryptonite for Vader), Salman Hashimikov (when New Japan was dominated by the Russian feud of 1989) and Choshu (as a main event in Sumo Hall in August 1990 after a lengthy chase). That is a stout shortlist (Hashimikov aside) of New Japan pillars.
In addition, the singles matches Vader had with the Three Musketeers up to this point all resulted in an emphatic victory for the Boulder, Colorado big man. In Mutoh’s first Sumo Hall main event singles match, he pins Vader after a tremendously physical fight that goes less than fifteen minutes. The crowd responds with a thunderous applause and an organic gesture of throwing their purple seat cushions into the ring. The seat cushion throwing is a sumo tradition usually reserved when a top ranked Yokozuna loses to one of the lower ranked Maegashira.
This upset by Mutoh fit that gesture and set the scene for Mutoh entering into the final the next night. Who Mutoh’s opponent would be was still to be decided.
On August 9, Chono and Hashimoto wrestled to a 30-minute draw tying them in the B Block with five points apiece. Chono vs. Hashimoto’s 30-minute draw is an excellent match that proved Chono could go toe to toe with anyone and seem credible. A playoff match would have to take place on August 11 with the winner facing off vs. Mutoh as the main event. The playoff match has more of a rushed and frantic feel compared to the draw but again emphasizes the progression of Chono and especially his STF finisher. He works over Hash’s leg and is able to put him away with an STF submission vaulting him into the final vs. Mutoh. The way the tournament laid out for Chono is akin to him having to beat different bosses in a video game before hitting the ultimate showdown vs. Mutoh. His whole career had been building up to this match. Would Chono be successful or choke away another opportunity?
Some matches have that electric feeling during the introductions. The crowd is buzzing and you can sense as a viewer 26 years later that this was a big moment. Sumo Hall was on the precipice of seeing the new generation ascend to new heights in New Japan and the faithful crowd could sense that. The opening matwork and tension is tremendous. New Japan was built on matwork. Going through the New Japan World archives will fill you with tons of 1970s Inoki matwork that even a matwork connoisseur like myself can have glazed eyes while watching. The opening stanza of this match created intrigue and showed a beautiful progression from the 1970s matwork style that indoctrinated the company to the heavy bombs and dramatic near falls that will inhibit the promotion to this present day. Nothing in the opening ten minutes of this match is conceded between the two men. We are locked in a battle of wills for dominance. Mutoh tries to pick up the pace after five minutes with a handspring elbow but misses. Chono promptly gives him a back suplex and Sumo Hall erupts. Chono shows some great maturity here in not getting overzealous but by applying another move that puts pressure on the shoulder of Mutoh that will be exposed while applying the STF. Chono throws punches in the first strike exchange. These two are friends but there is an understated rivalry that is now boiling to the surface.
A big transition happens here where Mutoh slows things done to regain position. He applies first his Mutoh Lock and then a Cattle Mutilation. These are clever submission moves to help pad a match and are expertly applied by Mutoh. Sometimes Mutoh can be prone to lazy matwork but the way he locks in the holds here show that he is trying to utilize a strategy that will achieve victory. Chono breaks free from that and now seizes the opportunity to push the pace with his wounded arm. Chono hits a tope through the ropes and then does a big dive from the top rope.
The impact and craziness of the spot pales in comparison to the one Kenny Omega hits in the 2016 B Block finale vs. Tetsuya Naito but the impact into the overall story arc of both matches is similar. Chono is going to have to take some risks to reach the heights he hasn’t seen yet in his career. Rather those risks will pay off or bite him in the ass remain to be seen. Chono piledrives Mutoh inside the ring and Mutoh expertly rolls to the floor to catch a break as he is overwhelmed. Chono gets greedy and tries a piledriver on the floor. This is reversed and then Mutoh piledrives Chono straight onto the concrete. Females in the crowd shriek at this move and the crowd is now reaching a crescendo they won’t come down from as we enter the finishing stretch.
Mutoh gives one piledriver for a nearfall. He then applies a Gotch-style piledriver which adds more insult given Chono’s technical wrestling background being raised in the Karl Gotch mentality. Every time Chono kicks out, the facials by Mutoh are excellent in showing that he realizes he is facing a different man from before and that he will have to reach new depths to secure the victory. Mutoh comes up empty in the moonsault and after another stiff stomp to the face, Chono applies the STF that has given him so much success throughout the tournament. Mutoh is able to clasp onto the ropes and Chono takes another big chance with a shoulder tackle from the top rope. Instead of going back to the STF, Chono reaches down and breaks out the Octopus (a Fujinami favorite) and applies that instead.
This like the Gotch piledriver that Mutoh hit earlier adds insult to injury in the eyes of Mutoh. The tide turns continue in the finishing run with both men applying the right amount of selling to emphasize the damage that has been done. A spectacular visual occurs with Mutoh jumping off the top rope and leaping over Chono who was trying to hit him with a dropkick. Human chess matches in wrestling are utterly fascinating and both men trying to outthink each other is tremendous throughout this closing stretch. Chono goes for the STF again but that has been well scouted by Mutoh and it will take more than that to put Mutoh away. Ditto Mutoh and the moonsault as Chono gets the knees up on the second attempt my Mutoh to land the move in the match. With both competitors looking like they are in the fifth set at Wimbledon, Chono needs to pounce on this latest opportunity. He does with a single powerbomb that achieves the victory and his first pinfall in a singles match over Mutoh.
To say Sumo Hall erupts is an understatement. The sea of purple cushions that come raining down from the heavens is one of the most emotional moments in pro wrestling that I have ever viewed. That spontaneous explosion of jubilee at the match and Chono’s crowning achievement is nothing short of romantic. Chono has finally scaled the mountain top and the spectators are there to show their appreciation at being able to witness this milestone. Chono and Muto embrace as Hashimoto makes his way down to join the celebration. The visual of the three addressing the crowd is another iconic visual to end the evening and show that the Three Musketeers are the pivotal force in New Japan.
Much like white smoke signifying a new pope, the purple rain from the Sumo Hall spectators visually and emphatically signified a new guard within the world of puro. A new king had been anointed and his name was Masahiro Chono.
Chono along with Keiji Mutoh and Shinya Hashimoto would lead the promotion within the vision set out by Antonio Inoki when the company was founded in 1972. The cushion throwing at the end of this match was also iconic in the fact that this wasn’t an appreciation from a big upset like the cushion throwing is normally reserved for. This reaction from the crowd was a spontaneous combustion of emotions that were released by the beauty of pro wrestling. I have had the honor of such experiences such as screaming until I am hoarse for a week at Goldberg beating Hulk Hogan. This very website was built on the foundation of such a response from the CM Punk vs. John Cena Money in the Bank 2011 title match. These moments in wrestling are rare but in many ways, it is why I keep coming back to the hobby and always keep a close watch on the future prospects of wrestling. You never know when that next era will begin.
Chono and Mutoh arguably never did have a better match than this one on August 11, 1991 but from that point forward, they were made men and kings amongst the purple rain.