In our preview of the B Block, we had a little fun with the introductory paragraph, seeing how far we could push the limits of our editor’s tolerance for smugly florid, congestedly ostentatious prose. And, like all aureate literature, it was born from desperation: with such a bounty of talent, adjustments, and possibilities, more than ever in the decades-long history of the G1 Climax, the burden of interpretation felt excessively onerous.
And here we are, nearly two months later, and we find ourselves immersed in desperation of an opposite flavor: the bounty of possibilities has turned into a dearth of results. Essentially: just what in the fuck was that? And what are we to make of it? Is there really anything to say, for a tournament that generated a paucity of buzz and left even ardent fans of the promotion uninspired?
Actually, yes, for those very reasons.
NJPW’s G1 Climax 33 concluded three weeks ago, and it’s taken that long to sort through, compile, process, decipher, and comprehend the numbers. Thankfully, numbers simply exist, yearning to be gazed upon and contextualized. Grasping for meaning and order from the broader, big picture concepts has ended up being a considerably more arduous endeavor.
And that’s what is so weird; this was not a G1 Climax that people will naturally recall, replete with legendary moments, captivating performances, or breathtaking matches seared into our memories. There exist, almost entirely connected to Will Ospreay, and without below the expectations of this, the workrate zealot’s pageant. Nor will it be looked back upon as a catalyst or volta in the New Japan continuum. Perhaps, in future years, we can wistfully look back upon this G1 Climax as a bellwether of sorts, with all the young guys performing so encouragingly.
But that’s as far as you could perceive it. This won’t be the G1 Climax we remember for their growth; this was just exposition. The G1 Climaxes we will remember will be the ones in the next few years, when they start actually producing results. G1 Climax 33 will be remembered more for the novelty; you’ll remember that year they were all in one block, toppled by the great, magnificent, unimpeachable, chimeric champion SANADA. And, possibly, that Hikuleo was the one to emerge from that faintly verdant miasma of draws and de facto championship defenses to advance into the finals tournament.
Why would this G1 Climax, whose main characteristic was existing as a series of matches that happened, and not much more, be so abstruse, so enigmatic to analyze? A confluence of things contribute to that difficulty: the swollen field, the swollen number of blocks, swollen size of the tournament, the multi-round tournament itself, the sudden bounty of guys stumbling towards retirement juxtaposed against guys literally stumbling out of the blocks (or bursting forth with swollen confidence).
And that is why, despite the exhausting process, we bitterly clung to the idea that there might be more to analyze from this year’s tournament. It certainly was not the lodestone we hoped it would be, enticing fans both lapsed and suspicious to return to the fold. Yet, the currently tenuous circumstances close the loop, at least in our examination. The feeling we had when previewing the B Block persists, just inflated; for the first time in years, we find ourselves pitifully mining for clarity, in the wake of a G1 Climax that just made things more nebulous. The question is whether that is a necessary step to a presumed rebirth.
And so, this round-up of G1 Climax 33, a largely jejune tournament with spikes of brilliance scattered throughout, will end up being separated into several parts:
- In-Ring Performances and Ratings
- The Effect of the 20 Minute Time Limit
- The Performance of the Young Wrestlers
- A Meaningless Month in the Life of Kaito Kiyomiya
- The Format
- The Booking
- The Scheduling
- The Attendance Numbers
G1 Climax 33 Wrestler Grades
Because there is such an overwhelming amount of things to evaluate, we will not grade the wrestlers as we did for our Best of the Super Juniors 30 post-script. We’ll still grade them, but we’re not explaining anything. Honestly, the Cagematch.net rankings seem fairly accurate enough to us, even if we feel they are a bit parsimonious with the numbers:
As usual, we follow the standard, boring pedagogical standard:
- A = Exceeds Expectations
- B = Meets Expectations
- C = Approaching Expectations
- D = Need Improvement
- F = I Expect You to Go Fuck Yourself
Jeff Cobb: B
Alex Coughlin: D
This is largely based on the block final main event with Osprey, and a strong second half of the tournament. The Okada match was shockingly restrained, possibly because of the shortened time limit, but that shouldn’t have hindered either guy.
That’s the one match that makes us wonder if the company was intently directing wrestlers towards austerity, because in any environment ELP-Okada should be a match of the tournament contender. Even if ELP was pacing himself, he wouldn’t suppress anything for an Okada main event. And if he did such a thing, and his strategy was to put everything into the Ospreay match… well, fair game. It paid off beautifully.
For EVIL, the numbers do not totally reflect the reality, which is the same as it ever was: the act is excruciating in some towns, and exhilarating in others.
David Finlay: C
It was not a landmark tournament for the Finlay defenders. As insufferable as his detractors are, his matches here fell into the “establish a pattern or persona” type of G1 Climax campaign. Unfortunately, this just fuels the Jay White comparisons, as White’s first two G1 Climaxes followed the same philosophy.
Finlay projects well, but the slow build style at which he’s so adept did not fit this tournament.
Hirooki Goto: C
Shane Haste: C-
Hikuleo improved as the G1 Climax progressed. He showed legitimate growth.
Tomohiiro Ishii: A
KENTA: We abstain >_> (…it’s a D+)
No one assesses KENTA more than we do, but we can’t cover for him this year. Even the backstage comments, of which he is the greatest of all time (and, subsequently, the best promo alive), were largely monochromatic by his standards.
KENTA seems to approach tours with a singular concept, and a formula for reaching it. This year, the concept was the kendo stick. Sometimes, it worked, sometimes it came across dispassionately. The hit rate was lower than ever. It’s Stan Musial hitting .255. KENTA is at his best when he’s a smirking iconoclast, and that came in paltry amounts this year.
Gabe Kidd: A-
Eddie Kingston: B-
Kaito Kiyomiya: A-
Tanga Loa: D-
We thought he had shaken off the ring rust and was starting to look adept out there, and then that thing happened, which you can’t actually see. The crowd responds to that sequence, and if you film it from a better angle, as they did before the Okada match, it can look convincing. But it’ll never convince anyone again.
Tetsuya Naito: A-
Ren Narita: B-
Mikey Nicholls: C
This is where “expectations” are a bit misleading. In nonsense pedagogical circles, when we say “expectations,” the expectation is “mastery.” As in, there’s a standard in the curriculum, and the learner needs to show mastery of that standard. Mastery is usually something like an 80, a B-.
That is to say, Mikey Nicholls exceeded everyone’s expectations, and exhibited more G1 Climax zeal than just about anyone else in the undercard. That said, he ranked 25th of 32 in Cagematch ranking, and our personal ratings were about the same. That’s why the numbers can’t tell the whole story; the numbers only suggest the story. Mikey Nicholls technically falls behind at least 15-18 guys, even besides the numbers. Guys who peaked high. But a lot of those guys simply performed as expected. No one surprised as much as Nicholls did.
Mikey Nicholls, all things considered, had a fine tournament. A couple matches bring his numbers down, but that’s just fucking noise. It doesn’t detract from a legitimate blow he delivered to any and all naysayers.
Kazuchika Okada: A-
Will Ospreay: A+
Chase Owens: D+
Zack Sabre: B+
The champion should not have anything under an A-, and unfortunately for SANADA, he was a victim of scheduling. If the Hikuleo match came later in the tournament, or the Owens match came earlier, if they just buried those fucking matches in the abcesses of the schedule, the perception would be different. But it’s hard to give him above a B+ when the bookends were so underwhelming.
Shingo Takagi: A
Hiroshi Tanahashi: C
Tama Tonga: C+
One thing that we always look for in G1 Climax matches is ambition. Not in the sense of guys trying to out there and reinvent the medium every match, but a fervency that is projected, a clear intent to wrestle to the standard of the G1 Climax. Tama projects self-assurance, and that goes a long way, but some of the matches this year were oddly pedestrian.
Yota Tsuji: A-
Shota Umino: A-
Toru Yano: D
G1 Climax 33 In-Ring Grade: B-
The Short Explanation: If we accept Cagematch ratings as a valid suggestion of general trends, then the in-ring performances in this year’s G1 Climax were stable, but still slightly lower than last year’s. That’s pretty disheartening and legitimately baffling, considering that this year saw the return of cheering crowds, which should have resulted in some kind of boost in match ratings and elevated public response.
The reason why the numbers remained stable can be numerically explained fairly easily: main event ratings were way down and the bottom half of the cards had alarmingly meager ratings. The only thing that kept the overall average from dropping more substantially was the strong performances found in the upper mid-card.
Explaining why this occurred is much more complicated, grounded in conjecture. We believe that there were are a few invisible hands at play here. One: the lack of zeal in the bottom half of these double-block cards, which falls on the wrestlers and the company. Two: the nostalgic, ahistorical notion that G1 cards of 2013-2019 were better than they actually were, which is a fan-centric issue. The third, and most potent factor, cannot be blamed on anything but nature: the erosion of fan ardor after years of pandemic clap-crowd New Japan, exacerbated by the current transitional, rebuilding phase.
A Note on Cagematch vs. GRAPPL Ratings, and an Involuntary Shift to Cagematch
In the past several years, for all the G1 Climax stat-related articles that we’ve written, including previews of each G1 Climax since G1 Climax 30, and previews of each final night in that same time span, and even omnibus stat treatments in the New Japan Year-in-Review E-books, we’ve always based our match rating metrics on GRAPPL. GRAPPL was easy to use, the numbers both stabilized quickly, calculations were easy. But GRAPPL is gone, and we have to use Cagematch. Cagematch kinda sucks.
The problem with Cagematch is that it has methods in place to combat abuse, and those methods are an absolute nightmare for this kind of useless nonsense:
- Matches do not get an official score until they have received enough ratings
- Matches under 5 minutes do not receive a score
The problem is a horrid, noxious little phenomenon called Simpson’s Paradox. The most easily comprehensible explanation can be found here. Basically, if you have uneven groups, everything falls apart when you try to cross-reference averages.
Simpson’s paradox fucking sucks. And, because of Cagematch’s controls, they are unavoidable.
Coming out of the Pandemic: When the Rehab Hurts Worse Than the Injury
But, really, none of that matters. Whether we are comparing data back 7-8 years with GRAPPL or Cagematch, how the 2023 numbers fit into the historical record is pretty clear:
People were not impressed and the numbers are exasperating. As you see in the chart below, the overall match average was slightly down from last year, 6.530 to 2022’s 6.688. This wouldn’t necessarily be an alarming result, if it wasn’t for the fact that this year had cheering crowds and last year didn’t. That alone sours the perspective on every number from this year’s tournament; anything less than a pronounced spike in the results could be considered a dolorous failure.
There’s some minor solace that the median was higher than the average. In fact, the 2023 median was higher than the 2021 median. Even so, both average and median are dwarfed by 2020, let alone any of the pre-pandemic years. This was not an instinctive return to normalcy… it wasn’t even a push towards normalcy. The sad truth is that the distorted normalcy established during the pandemic years will persist.
That said, the deeper you get the more encouraging things look for the future, even if the overall picture looks grim at the moment. Quite simply, the young guys saved the tournament, and they did it from the upper mid-card. But getting to that conclusion is a bit labyrinthine. Things are going to have to look worse before they look better. We have to arbitrate the overall drop in the numbers before we can consider the salvation.
First, let’s look at the main events.
The main event averaged dropped quite a bit, from 7.931 in 2022 to 7.241 in 2023. That’s a hell of a drop, nearly as drastic as the drop from 2019 to 2020. Therefore, it’s not an unprecedented decline, except for, you know, the fact that the first drop was caused by a global cataclysm, and this drop came during the recovery from that cataclysm.
Even worse: it propels the idea that the top of the card in 2023 has actually regressed from the pandemic era as much as the pandemic era regressed from the peak era. Consider that the 2020-2022 main event averages, all in the 7.9 range, were actually higher than the main event average of 2016 (7.763). And 2016 was certainly a peak-era G1 Climax. Of course, these numbers are an aggregate of random people’s judgments. They merely suggest a more ecumenical response, which may or may not be accurate. But even as a suggestion, it’s perplexing.
The Numbers Behind the Downturn
Even with the drop, main events averaged 7.241, while the overall average was 6.53. So where does the additional, pernicious drop come from?
For one, they took some chances with the main events this year, right from the outset: Hikuleo vs. SANADA. The Cagematch rating: 6.07. We didn’t see much out there that diverges from this number. Thus, right off the bat we were starting well behind previous years, which always loaded up Nights 1 & 2 with big time main events (and often semi-mains). The main event numbers clearly jumped, but they didn’t have a prayer of catching up to previous years, or even last year.
And we can’t just blame SANADA on this one, as is the trend. The average of SANADA’s three main events is 7.503. That’s certainly a drop from the general main event averages previous years, and the main event averages of previous year’s champions. Sure, Tetsuya Naito’s 2021 main events only averaged 7.63, but, as usual, the problem was EVIL. He brought Naito’s average way down that year (and also, as usual, people shamelessly under-rated an EVIL match). So yes, SANADA’s main events helped contribute to the year-to-year decline, no question. But not nearly enough to bring it down so low. What else dragged it down?
That’s tricky, since there was a lot of overlap between main event participants from 2022, besides the A Block newcomers. Specific match-ups might have been different, but it was the same guys as last year in nearly all of the mains: Okada, Tanahashi, Naito, Shingo, KENTA, etc. The holdovers from last year did drop. Tama Tonga vs. Tomohiro Ishii was rated 7.36 this year, down from 7.78. The Tanahashi-Goto main event earned a 6.29 rating this year, down from the 8.35 they put up last year. While not a main event in the 2022 G1 Climax, KENTA-Okada had a 6.34 rating; their 2019 G1 Climax main event garnered an 8.37, and that was considered underwhelming! Simply put, people just didn’t like the usual stuff as much.
And, of course, EVIL. The average of EVIL’s two main events is 5.12. As usual, EVIL is a culprit. Or, people’s acrimonious (somewhat myopic, somewhat accurate) perspective on him.
But we still haven’t solved the issue of the overall rating decline. The main events were down, but still well above the total average, as is always the case.
Weak First Halves: Like a Pavement Album, but In Reverse
So what brought the rating down? Simple: the first half of each show. For this one, we had to play around with the categories a bit. Basically, we lined up every match from 2016 onwards, based on their card positioning. But 2022 and 2023 had different numbers of G1 Climax matches per card, compared to prior years, and even within their own year.
To get around this, we started from the main events and worked backwards. So the main event is ME, the semi-main is ME-1, the next match down is ME-2, and so on. The result is this chart:
2023 numbers are brutally awful from Me-4 to ME-7. Well below six in each category. That might be harmless if those bars represented one or two matches, as it does with the 2022 numbers. But each 2023 bar in the ME-4 to ME-7 categories represents 12 matches. That’s 48 matches in total, more than half of the matches in the 2015-2021 G1 Climaxes (90 block matches total).
That certainly explains how the overall average was low, but the final wrinkle in this: why wasn’t it lower? If main events were down, and then the first half of the cards were so abysmally rated, why was this G1 Climax essentially flat from the last two years? That’s where the kids stepped in to save the tournament.
Mid-Card Kids to the Front: the G1 Climax A-Block Experiment Worked
While the ME-4 to ME-7 matches were putrid, the ME-1 to ME-3 matches were solid. ME-1 was certainly down from the 2019 peak, but well above the 2021-2022 nadir, while ME-2 was up there with the peak years. ME-3, while below 2016 and 2019, was actually higher than 2017 and 2018.
Obviously, this has to come with a note that the card positioning are not completely comparable. For instance, ME-2 was the 6th G1 Climax match on most 2023 shows, whereas it would have been the 3rd G1 Climax match over every card from 2016-2021. Roughly the same real card positioning, but very different in the G1 Climax positioning. Even so, they are equally removed from the main event, and those in those spots performed well above the mean this year.
We admit it’s a bit overzealous to put all of this acclamation on the young guys. Obviously, you see several established names that helped undergird this part of the card: Zack Sabre. Jr, Shingo Takagi, Will Ospreay, Taichi, YOSHI-HASHI, Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii. And some of the young guys find themselves firmly outside the top ten, namely Ren Narita and Hikuleo, who would have been higher on this list if not for their very low-rated match against each other.
But, looking at the top, we see Shota Umino at 2, Yota Tsuji at 4, and the still-31 HENARE at 5. And these are not just one-offs. Umino had three matches in this card positioning, Tsuji had FIVE, and HENARE had two. Gabe Kidd spent most of his time in the first half of the cards (and holy fuck, imagine what those numbers would have looked like without him), but his two matches had very respectable ratings.
And so, the main events were highly rated, but down from previous years, and the first half of the cards were rubbish (besides Gabe Kidd). That kept the numbers well below pre-pandemic levels, even though cheering was allowed this year for the first time since 2019. But, because of the strong showing in the upper mid-card, the numbers remained even with the last few years.
And, if you’re more interested in blaming and denouncing and being sour, here are the people who performed the worst when it counted the least:
My boy is at the top of that list. To quote Bruce McCulloch: Wow, that hurt.
Icarus or Qu Yuan? When Ambition Meets Bloat
As far as the sober response to this year’s G1 Climax matches, we’ve given some reasons for the “how.” The “why” remains elusive, and the numbers can’t answer that question. Our best estimation is a confluence of factors, some with significantly more avoirdupois than others :
- The expansion to 32 wrestlers resulting in far more undesirable match-ups
- The double-block nights diminishing the effect of the early-card matches
- Too many lower card matches that felt perfunctory, lacking the expected G1 Climax vigor
- Several nights with dismal and/or silently observant crowds, even worse than the fucking clap crowds
- Less emphasis on stacked opening and closing nights
- The evaporation of the company’s goodwill, which has not recovered in the West
- An nostalgic view of past G1 Climax tournaments, G1 Climax cards, and G1 Climax matches
To that last point, we have one more graph. This shows the amount of matches rated above 8.0, above 9.0, and below 6.0 between 2016 and 2023.
Without question, the agreeability was super high prior to 2020. You can go back and look at any number of G1 Climax cards from 2016-2019 and find them littered with uninspiring match-ups. Here’s a randomly chosen night from 2017:
- G1 Climax 2017 Block A: YOSHI-HASHI  defeats Bad Luck Fale  (10:21)
- G1 Climax 2017 Block A: Zack Sabre Jr.  defeats Togi Makabe  (9:30)
- G1 Climax 2017 Block A: Tomohiro Ishii  defeats Yuji Nagata  (13:51)
- G1 Climax 2017 Block A: Tetsuya Naito  defeats Hirooki Goto  (13:30)
- G1 Climax 2017 Block A: Kota Ibushi  defeats Hiroshi Tanahashi  (20:40)
Ishii vs. Nagata and Ibushi vs. Tanahashi would both be in the top 5 of this year’s G1 Climax, at 8.67 and 8.70, respectively. The first two matches… no ratings. Neither match has been recommended yet. Part of the reason we only go back to 2016 with Cagematch data is because so many 2015 G1 Climax matches have no ratings. Even 2016 is littered with non-ratings. Toru Yano has zero qualifying matches from that year.
And so, partly because Cagematch sucks, and partly because ratings were higher in the workrate whirlwind of the time, it seems like there’s just a sharper, captious eye towards things at the moment. It’s hard to tell how the expanded field and expanded nights contributed; were they the cause, or did they simply exacerbate an already existing issue?
None of those causes listed above are easily overcome, but the means needed to overcome them are already tangible. As those young guys move from the mid-card to the top of the card, it will be intriguing to see if the numbers rise with them.
When People Realize the Glory Years Are Over (aka, Post-Aizen Heel Turn Bleach Syndrome)
Our conclusion is that 2023 ratings, particularly the main events, reflect the sullen aftermath of the pandemic and its effects on Japanese pro wrestling, an ennui and torpor that will not easily be mollified. Obviously, that is not a novel or unprecedented perspective. Anyone following this company with some sort of viable critical agency has ascertained this stance, stretching back nearly a year.
But this G1 Climax was the confirmation of principle. The ambient disconcertment is manifest, unavoidable. The G1 Climax was not the panacea to assuage the company’s post-pandemic fluctuations. It’s not merely the numbers that exhibits this, but the configuration of the numbers. The contextualization doesn’t necessarily provide nuance, just corroboration.
It’s very much a microcosm, a representation of a fundamental facet of life: once lines are delineated between one phase of life and another, it’s hard to rekindle the past. It’s hard to go back to school, it’s hard to capture the love one once had… fuck, it’s a herculean task just to go back to work after the scant week of vacation time we pitifully cling to like it’s a truly benevolent gift from our employers (but at least I know I’m free, or whatever).
Simply put: the pandemic provided an unmistakable partition between the peak years and today, and now that the divider is clearly distinguishable, the feelings are muted. There’s a sense of real closure, and modern wrestling is anathema to real closure. We can understand why the worldwide leader, the only place that does professional wrestling correctly, is so thoroughly, profoundly frightened by the idea of ending a successful story. Of the denouement, of a culmination: they’ve spent years undermining the systems in place to refresh the plot.
It’s strenuous, and rare, for post-territory professional wrestling to transition from one blockbuster program to the other seamlessly. Even in the territories it was difficult. Of course, you could just emphasize the idiosyncrasies of the medium—a real-sport feel, the physicality, unique personalities, the perpetual continuation, the ability to layer conflicts without having to adhere to a formal structure (the old Freytag Pyramid, the kai-sho-ten-ketsu, etc.), the extended timeframes offering a built-in sense of accomplishment, and so on— instead of pitifully attempting to replicate other, more cosmopolitan culture. But, since we live in an insane world, it’s long past due for us to give insane solutions a chance.
And so, wrestling is film. Wrestling is also now theatre. Soon, wrestling will be opera. You know, mediums that have set, clearly defined beginnings and endings told in self-contained parcels. Mediums you can detach from and return to for an entirely different atmosphere. Modern wrestling’s composers seem fixated on this idea, as they run headfirst into the wall attempting the paradoxical: telling a self-contained story in perpetuity. The problem: in film, theatre, opera, etc., character and plot engage in an intricate waltz, propelling each other, but plot furtively takes supremacy.
And, as we’ve seen, when the plot ends, it’s time to move on, and many simply don’t come back. This is the inevitable result, no matter how stridently they are trying to fight it. They rush headlong towards the closure that will stymie them. New Japan, and all of Japanese professional wrestling, had this imposed upon them.
There are still a few places to escape from this aggravating lunacy, with New Japan still the biggest, and all were disproportionately devastated by the pandemic, while the facile dilettantes trying the dramatic nonsense described above basically danced around the whole catastrophe.
And that’s what sucks/ New Japan had the plan. And, like continuous storytelling necessitates, it was propelled by the characters, not the plot: run with Naito, season things with EVIL, give Ibushi his reign, elevate Ospreay, establish Shingo as a legitimate gatekeeper, swing back to Okada, etc. Whether they could have extended it long enough for the Reiwa Three and the rest to blossom without losing steam is unanswerable, but they clearly had a plan for a New Japan in the wake of Naito’s 2020 triumph. But a little infectious agent, imperceptible to the naked eye, thwarted them, and now they’ll have to regain the momentum.
Obviously, this is a little overwrought; New Japan still outdraws every other company, they still have a loaded roster, they still carry a tremendous amount of kinetic energy. It’s not like they were sent back to the starting gates, they just lost ground. Going to the reference in the section title above, it’s not like New Japan has turned into Hueco Mundo Bleach or anything, where everything sucks, and there is no escape, and the whole enterprise is creatively bankrupt, and they are on the path to cancellation.
It’s just a post-pandemic malaise, is all. And, hopefully, we have also shown, through the numbers and the interpretation of them, that the path out is discernible and conspicuous: the young guys are rapidly leveling up and they are going to be fucking great. We aren’t perspicacious enough to detect who will catch on, or if any will catch on. It’s possible that all of them fail to recapture that 2019 ardor. We can confidently predict that their era will fucking rule. It will be a densely superlative epoch.
If you made it this far, please look forward to Part II, where we scrutinize how the young guys in A Block performed, and how Kaito Kiyomiya… well, that was absolutely a month of his life spent in wrestling.
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