I believe that best and favorite can always be different.
I can acknowledge the former is better while at the same time preferring the latter. This holds true for wrestling. Bret Hart versus Mr. Perfect from WWF King of the Ring 93, for example, is the better match but my favorite is Bret Hart versus Mr. Perfect from WWF SummerSlam 91.
It is within those parameters I can say with no hesitation that Keiji Mutoh vs. Vader from the very first G1 Climax is my favorite match in the tournament’s history.
There have been way better matches—or my money Kota Ibushi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi G1 Climax 2018 Final—but when it comes to my favorite I come to this as my answer. The body of work is excellent but that’s not what puts it over the top.
What it boils down to me is the crowd response.
The crowd can make or break many a match, especially those with emotional and significant importance and meaning. I think we are learning that with matches that have those qualities, qualities that fail to amplify and fully connect due to the lack of crowd. Imagine the GCW Run Rickey Run ending with zero attendance. Imagine Hulk Hogan bodyslamming Andre the Giant to stone-cold silence. Hell, crowd reaction can enhance a mediocre or even bad match. Rick Steiner vs. Mike Rotundo at Starrcade 88 is quite mediocre in my eyes, but the audience exploding at Steiner’s victory is one of my top ten favorite crowd reactions of all time. Crowds are an important player in the event of things, and that should never be ignored or taken for granted. A great crowd can make what is good great, what is great legendary, and take the most middling affairs and make them out better than they are.
My favorite crowd reaction of all time is how the crowd responds to the ending of Vader vs. Mutoh. What’s equally incredible (and unfortunate) is there is no known official footage. We rely on an audience member’s handheld for the footage and we are blessed to have it.
Thanks to this recording, we can watch the drama unfold into a finish that ignites the reaction. The match isn’t long, but it’s one filled with drama and one the crowd is invested in before the happenings even start. Even at the introductions the energy and sound of the crowd incite the feelings of importance, something special happening and it’s with that foreboding I always upon every rewatch find myself prepared once again for the journey.
I love re-experiencing a worthwhile journey, and Vader versus Mutoh is definitely worthy. Vader is physical, tough, brutal. Mutoh is no slouch and not only survives and continues to get up from the onslaughts but is able to dole out his own punishment including added flair with handstand elbows and moonsaults. Sometimes Mutoh gets a little too cute so Vader responds by getting a whole lot of ugly. Vader is the man while Mutoh is the man with something to prove. The body of the match is well laid out, smartly wrestled, and fun. The crowd’s excitement and anticipation builds and swells throughout. Each time Mutoh survives and gets out of a pin attempt the crowd gets louder and louder and more excited at the possibility Mutoh will survive this and come out the victor. With each pin attempt, they count along in hopes that this will be the moment they are almost willing into existence. Then we arrive at the finish and aftermath.
The finish and aftermath are what cements this as my favorite G1 Climax match and has me going back to repeatedly. The finish is simple, Vader goes for a bodyslam and Mutoh rolls through and uses the momentum to position Vader into a pinfall. When that hand slaps the mat for the third time the magic unfolds. You felt the fuse lit as Mutoh and Vader make their entrances before the match and feel it as it shortens through the entire match getting closer and closer to ignition. When the bomb of celebration and rejoicing goes off the shockwave cannot be ignored and is forced to be experienced. Permit me a dated reference in saying it’s the Mary Lou Retton of crowd responses, a perfect ten.
The crowd counts along with the pin and then the cheers and applause are followed by mayhem in the best way possible. First, it’s just a few streamers, but then the seat cushions go flying. The seat cushions begin to pile in the ring covering it as Mutoh throws his fist up and the crowd roars in response. It is followed by the handshake between competitors. A worthy hard-earned handshake combined with loud thunderous chants. Mutoh goes corner to corner to soak in applause and thank everyone for their support as the crowd continues to roar on. It is an incredible aftermath, one that perfectly captures pro-wrestling at it’s emotional best. There are many exciting and thunderous crowd responses one can point to, and some even exceed this one. This one is special to me because officially it was never filmed, never broadcast. It is through luck that we are able to experience it. Therefore when I watch it I feel lucky and fortunate that we have excess to such a moment.
It’s shameful this only exists in imperfect handheld form, but I am thankful it exists. I am thankful that someone in the crowd recorded it and was willing to share. Otherwise, this may be a slice of pro-wrestling that we have lost. Truly it is a great match with amazing emotional aftermath that ranks it high up there in the echelon of G1 moments despite coming from the first iteration.
The journey is important, but when you arrive at the destination you want it to hit, want it to take hold, and want it to make you feel. For those in attendance for Vader and Mutoh that night, they felt, they responded, and they’ll never forget. For us who have to settle for a handheld copy, thankfully we can relive it whenever we choose. I mourn the realization that so many special moments did not get captured by even a handheld, it makes the ones we discover and have special and treasured.
It’s not the best G1 Climax match of all time. With the quality, we expect these days it’s nowhere near the top ten. It’s my favorite because when I watch it I remember that an invested and engaged crowd is the most important element in pro-wrestling. It’s not enough to have an audience, they need to care, respond, and when the end of the journey arrives, need to experience the destination. Feel it hit them with blunt emotional force. That’s a lesson some companies need to relearn when COVID ends and proper and full audiences can resume once more.