If nothing else, it was a strange G1. With a roster already limited by travel issues and the loss of Tetsuya Naito to injury on the opening night, an ordinarily prestigious tournament began to just feel, well, ordinary.

Now, we arrive at the final. On one side, Kazuchika Okada. In last year’s G1, Okada took on a new finishing hold in a confusing and aimless story. He seemed off to a degree that fans were unclear whether he was hurt or telling a story. Either way, even in defeat, his bout at MetLife Stadium against Jeff Cobb in September seemed to mark a return to a healthy, full force Kazuchika Okada. In this year’s relatively thin B Block, he looked tremendous while often lacking a quality opponent to make magic with. 

In Kota Ibushi, he might have that quality opponent. Ibushi faced a difficult road back from a lengthy battle with aspiration pneumonia, and it seemed to take him some time to find his footing in this year’s tournament. Some might be frustrated by a fourth consecutive final featuring Kota, and I certainly wouldn’t blame you for that, but it’s difficult not to get excited about this matchup.

As for the undercard? Well, unless a fan-favorite legend decides to come out of retirement in an unannounced match, it might be a slog.

Toru Yano & Yuji Nagata def. United Empire (Great-O-Khan & Jeff Cobb) (8:29)

This was a nice curtain call for the United Empire side. In the tournament, Jeff Cobb nearly went undefeated with a slew of strong performances, while O-Khan proved multiple times over that he’s ready for the New Japan main event scene. They kept things light, but there were some fun sequences. The 53-year-old Nagata was killer in sequences with both O-Khan and Cobb. Later, the United Empire boys took turns hoisting Toru Yano up in gut wrench suplexes. Yano scored a low-blow pin on O-Khan for the surprise win at around 8:30. **¾

BULLET CLUB (EVIL, SHO & Yujiro Takahashi) def. CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI) (11:20)

On a card with so little substance to it, this match seemed to carry some welcome weight: The reigning NEVER Six-Man champs up against the full force of the House of Torture. Honestly, the matchup brings out the best traits of both. The CHAOS team is the babiest of faces. Goto built sympathy having his shoulder injury exploited while Ishii stood by as the steadfast hot tag. Then there was YOSHI-HASHI, the centerpiece of the team, who’s crafted a strong 2021 by exceeding everyone’s minimal expectations for him – both in and out of kayfabe. 

The House of Torture squad played their hits, if you can call them that. At 11 minutes, the schtick didn’t get a chance to wear on you quite as badly. Brevity benefits a guy like Takahashi, who can fool you into seeming explosive in small doses. An interference-laden final stretch led to EVIL pinning YOSHI-HASHI with his finishing STO. The Bullet Club offshoot held up the belts, indicating that they’ll be the next challengers. This was fun enough, but I’m not so sure I’m looking forward to the 35-minute version. ***

Bullet Club (Chase Owens, KENTA, Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) def. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tiger Mask, Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma (10:41)

I expected this to center on the Guerrillas of Destiny, as the team seems destined for a tag title shot and Tama is fresh off a clean victory over Okada. I was way off. The focal point was Tanahashi and his IWGP US title. He and KENTA had excellent chemistry as always and after the match, KENTA laid down the challenge. Chase Owens, who holds a G1 win over Tanahashi, scored the win with an ugly-looking package piledriver on Honma. He deferred to KENTA, telling Kevin Kelly after the match that he’ll be returning to the United States for a while. 

It’s worth mentioning that if, like me, you skipped the Junior Tag League, it was nice to see Tiger Mask out there today. My man was cookin’ out there with KENTA and the Guerrillas. These 50+ wrestlers are crushing it in Budokan. What is this, NOAH? *** 

Then they showed an ad for a new New Japan mobile game called Strong Spirits. I can’t really get a grasp on what’s going on in it, but it looks like there’s video of Hiroshi Tanahashi working out so you just tell me how much it costs and I’ll pay that. 

Then, this happened:  

UWF Rules Exhibition Match: Katsuyori Shibata vs. Zack Sabre Jr. went to a Time Limit Draw

When Katsuyori Shibata’s music hit and he emerged from the curtain, the response might not have been as explosive as you’d imagine. And understandably so — we’ve been teased with Shibata appearances that seemed to go nowhere. Then, the announcement came that he and Zack would be having a five-minute UWF rules match and, with it, the reaction you’d expect. Chris Charlton’s excitement was infectious, his voice cracking with an “Are you kidding?!” as the reality set in. It seems, after four and a half long years, Katsuyori Shibata is really back. 

What do you want me to tell you about the match? It was a grappling exhibition between a couple of geniuses. It was fluid, exciting, and Shibata even snagged his sleeper and a Cobra Twist while time was expiring. Zack, snarky character and all, always seemed very aware of how big the moment was. Charlton apologized for having to stop and take a picture mid-match. Kevin Kelly reminded fans to absorb the last fifteen seconds, just in case it was the last we ever got. It all felt big, it all felt special, and it all was both. 

Shibata took the mic and said next time he’s in a ring, he’ll be in full gear for a fight. 

Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi, SANADA & Shingo Takagi) def. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Master Wato, Ryusuke Taguchi & Satoshi Kojima (12:17)

You need something tremendous to follow a moment like that and, so, out came Master Wato. It was cool having all of LIJ (barring the injured Naito) back together again, and even cooler that BUSHI’s entrance mask had a big dinosaur snout coming out of it. To his credit, Wato is looking pretty shredded these days. Kojima, who rocked in Naito-replacement bouts during the tournament, had a fantastic sequence against SANADA. Shingo closed out Tenzan with a Pumping Bomber, after a surprisingly physical closing stretch. Cool, cool, cool. Is it time for the G1 final yet? ***

G1 Climax 31 Final: Kazuchika Okada def. Kota Ibushi by referee’s decision (25:37)

After a tense feeling-out period, exactly on cue with the timekeeper’s five-minute call, Okada and Ibushi began a high-speed rope-running sequence that ended in a Rainmaker tease and a mutual grin. The crowd was up and we were off. 

The two traded shots with the crowd as audibly engaged as a clap-crowd can be. Charlton did a fantastic job laying out Ibushi’s difficult path to this match, having not only overcome the A block but a scary bout with aspirational pneumonia. At the same time, Okada took the fight to the outside for his signature boot over the railing. Kota cut it off for a Dragon Suplex to the floor. 

On regaining control, Okada locked on the Money Clip. That hold has brought matches to a complete halt in the past but, here, each time Ibushi came close to escaping he was met with devastating offense – a Tombstone, a backbreaker. It was a cool application of the move, repeatedly stifling and punishing Ibushi. Naturally, when Kota broke free for a headscissors followed by a gorgeous top-rope Asai Moonsault, Budokan went wild. 

Okada kicked out of the first Kamigoye, of course. Ibushi, pulling out all the stops for a match of this magnitude, took to the skies. The Phoenix Splash is a move Ibushi has likely done hundreds of times with no issue. Hell, he used to finish every match with it. Here, Okada moved out of the way and a bad landing appeared to dislocate Ibushi’s shoulder. And that’s how Kota Ibushi’s emotional run back to the top and the 31st G1 Climax came to an end. They’d have to detach the bottom rope to get him out of the ring. The match was really developing into something special.

After the match, Okada made some vague comments about the IWGP World Heavyweight title, and how he might just prefer to have the old title belt instead. Even our interpreter Chris Charlton had a hard time interpreting this one. Tama Tonga appeared backstage to challenge Okada for the G1 winner’s briefcase. The aftermath of the G1 seems kind of scattershot as we begin the road to the three shows that comprise Wrestle Kingdom.