5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi - NJPW G1 Climax 2018

5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi - NJPW G1 Climax 2018

If the Wrestling Observer is to be believed, the year 2018 was something of a banner year for historically-great matches. During that year, pro-wrestling’s most (in)famous journalist gave his famed 5-star rating to a whopping TWENTY matches. Of those twenty matches, fourteen were put on by New Japan Pro-Wrestling and half of those were during the same month-long tournament. Clearly New Japan’s wrestlers must be the best in the world and possibly the best wrestlers ever if they’re churning out this many great matches in such a short period, right? Let’s find out.

Today we look back at what many people have called the best G1 Climax match ever. It’s a genuine dream match that was many years in the making and was one of the best examples of New Japan’s successful long-term storytelling approach. When it first took place, Meltzer loved it so much he broke his own scale again (though that scale seems to have less and less value as time goes on) and rated it *****3/4 stars out of five. But was it really that good? There’s only one way to find out.

Today we revisit the 2018 G1 Climax finals singles match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

Kota Ibushi debuted in NJPW in 2009 after spending many years before than on Japan’s independent scene. His NJPW debut coincided with Hiroshi Tanahashi’s rise to the position of NJPW’s unquestioned ace, and the two of them had faced off a few times over the years. But while Tanahashi had spent many years firmly at the top in New Japan, Ibushi had to claw his way up and had to work very hard to break the thick barrier that existed between the upper mid-card in New Japan and the world title scene. It took him a long time, until he finally got his chance here.

Going into this match, Tanahashi and Ibushi won their respective blocks in the 2018 G1 Climax tournament. The winner of this match could challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at next year’s Wrestle Kingdom event, and both Tanahashi and Ibushi had strong motivations to win this match and get there. For Tanahashi, whisperings of him being past his prime and no longer the ace started getting to him, and he wanted to prove his doubters wrong. As for Ibushi, it just so happened that his close friend Kenny Omega was world champion and he wanted to face Omega on the biggest stage in Japan, Wrestle Kingdom in the Tokyo Dome. Ibushi had beaten Omega to advance to the finals of the G1 the night before this one, and wanted a chance to fight for the gold against his close friend. But to do that, Ibushi had to overcome Tanahashi. But to Ibushi, Tanahashi was more than just a wrestler or the company ace. To him, Tanahashi was his god. Ibushi basically worshipped Tanahashi as this mythical wrestler that defied all known laws of reality to be able to wrestle at such an elite level for so many years and still be universally adored by the NJPW faithful (to be fair, there has been ample evidence to support the claim that Tanahashi was and is that damn awesome).

Needless to say, both wrestlers had lots of fans going into this match because there would be an amazing outcome regardless. Assuming Omega kept his title until Wrestle Kingdom, Omega would face either Tanahashi or Ibushi in the main event of that show. That would be a huge match no matter what because all three of them were among the best pro wrestlers on the planet at the time. The question was, who would win, the rising (golden) star Ibushi or the man he considered to be his god?

The match

This the final match of the 2018 G1 Climax tournament, with the winner getting the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Challenge Rights Certificate. It originally took place on August 12th, 2018 and was rated *****3/4 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It really is hyped up as one of the greatest pro wrestling matches of all time. Let’s see if that’s true.

The bell rings and the fans are firmly behind Tanahashi. They do some basic grappling for the first few minutes which leads to a stalemate. So does their second chain grappling sequence. After some more tension and teases, they lock up again and Tanahashi applies a very tight headlock. Ibushi quickly counters into a headscissor, and then reapplies that quickly when Tanahashi tries to escape. They do some more amazing technical chain grappling until Tanahashi knocks Ibushi down with a running shoulder tackle. Except Ibushi springs right back up, because he’s not having any of that crap. Tanahashi charges but Ibushi drops him with a karate kick. Ibushi whips Tanahashi into a corner but Tanahashi pounces right back out and dropkicks Ibushi’s knee. Tanahashi attacks both of Ibushi’s legs and then applies a modified Figure-4 leglock-type move to work both those legs over. Ibushi gets to the ropes, screaming in pain all the while. He eventually gets to his feet and hits back with forearm shots but Tanahashi shuts him down with kicks to the knee. Tanahashi charges but Ibushi lands a desperation wheel kick. Both men go down with Ibushi looking worse for wear.

Ibushi hobbles around and goes for an Irish whip but Tanahashi reverses. Tanahashi charges but Ibushi flips and rolls over him and lands a powerslam/springboard moonsault combo for two. Despite that, Ibushi’s still moving slowly, barely able to put his weight on both legs. Ibushi goes for a German suplex but Tanahashi escapes by kicking his leg. Tanahashi charges but walks into a standing dropkick and escapes the ring. Ibushi charges for the triangle moonsault, sees Tanahashi coming to dropkick his knee, jumps, and double foot stomps Tanahashi’s chest on the ring apron. Damn that has to hurt like hell.

Back in the ring, Tanahashi fights back with forearms and elbows both of Ibushi’s legs as he tries to answer with kicks. Tanahashi charges but walks into karate kicks each time; but on the third he catches Ibushi’s leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Tanahashi dropkicks Ibushi in the corner and Ibushi responds by double-stomping Tanahashi’s back. Another dropkick sends Ibushi out of the ring and Tanahashi climbs the top rope. But Ibushi cuts him off and goes for the lawn dart. But Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. Running corner dropkick from Tanahashi. Ibushi gets back up and they trade stiff forearm shots. Ibushi looks to be almost completely out of it, but Tanahashi dared him to hit back and he does. Tanahashi wins the exchange and kicks Ibushi’s knee again but Ibushi ducks and Tanahashi goes over the ropes. But instead of falling, Tanahashi channels his idol Shawn Michaels and skins the cat…only to be caught by Ibushi. Wheelbarrow piledriver. Tanahashi gets spiked on his head, but still kicks out at two.

Ibushi goes for a powerbomb but Tanahashi counters into two dragon screws, followed by a Texas Cloverleaf. Tanahashi’s really trying to destroy Ibushi’s legs here. Ibushi crawls to the ropes (and to his friend Kenny Omega, who is watching from ringside) but Tanahashi pulls him back and sits even deeper. Somehow, somehow, Ibushi gets to the ropes. But that doesn’t stop Tanahashi from stomping on Ibushi’s knees to weaken them even further. And then to punctuate that approach, Tanahashi lands a dragon screw through the ropes, which sends Ibushi falling out of the ring. But Tanahashi’s still not done. High Fly Flow from the top turnbuckle to the floor.

Tanahashi gets back to the ring first and Ibushi does the same at the count of eighteen. Tanahashi charges for a slingblade but Ibushi cuts him off with a snap Frankensteiner. Springboard asai moonsault by Ibushi. Crazy move.

Twenty minutes have passed as Ibushi tosses Tanahashi back into the ring and lands a springboard dropkick. Ibushi places Tanahashi on the top rope and goes for a superplex but Tanahashi bitchslaps him instead. To which Ibushi responds with a gorgeous springboard avalanche Frankensteiner. Holy shit. Ibushi pins. Tanahashi kicks out. Bridging dragon suplex. Tanahashi kicks out again. Ibushi has this crazed look on his face. Ibushi goes for the Kamigoye (double-wrist-clutch knee strike) but Tanahashi counters into a roll-up for two. Running knee strike. Ibushi goes for a powerbomb but Tanahashi escapes and bitchslaps Ibushi once again. Ibushi’s head slumps down. The camera zooms in and he has this empty look on his face. Oh, dear God. MURDER IBUSHI has awakened. He fires a MASSIVE chop to Tanahashi’s chest and Tanahashi staggers backward. Followed by multiple stiff slaps and kicks. He stomps and kicks Tanahashi in the corner and gets in the ref’s face as the ref admonishes him. But then Tanahashi fires back. And by ‘fire back’ I mean literally start hulking up like this is the 1980s. Ibushi slaps the hell out of Tanahashi’s face and Tanahashi no-sells like Hogan. An absolutely brutal slap exchange follows. SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! Tanahashi looks like he’s winning. Then all of a sudden, BAM! Discus lariat by Ibushi. Both men go down.

They trade forearms as they get up and then Tanahashi hulks up once more. They repeat the exchange once more. SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! Ibushi lands a big forearm shot. Tanahashi answers with European uppercuts. Ibushi slaps back and goes to whip Tanahashi. But Tanahashi counters into a huge slingblade for two. Dragon suplex, no, Ibushi blocks, no, Tanahashi traps the arms. Bridging straightjacket suplex. Ibushi kicks out. High Fly—no, Ibushi gets his knees up. Boma Ye. Shades of Shinsuke Nakamura. Followed by double knee moonsault splash. Tanahashi writhes in pain. Lawn dart by Ibushi. Tanahashi gets launched head-first into the turnbuckle.

Ibushi punts Tanahashi in the back and then pulls him over the ropes. Over-the-rope German suplex. Shades of Ibushi/Nakamura from Wrestle Kingdom 9. Ibushi’s not done. Last Ride Powerbomb. He goes for the pin. Tanahashi kicks out at 2.99! Amazing near-fall.

The fans chant for Tanahashi as Ibushi pulls down his knee pads. He goes for Kamigoye but Tanahashi escapes. But Ibushi counter’s Tanahashi’s counter. Bridging straightjacket suplex by Ibushi. Tanahashi kicks out. Kamigo—no, Tanahashi counters into a Twist and Shout swinging neckbreaker. Then a second one. He goes for a third but Ibushi counters into a suplex. But then Tanahashi counters that and goes for a dragon suplex, only for Ibushi to elbow out. Ibushi tries to fight back but Tanahashi dodges his attacks. Bridging dragon suplex gets two. High Fly Flow to Ibushi’s back. High Fly Flow to a standing Ibushi. Then a third High Fly Flow. One, two, three! There’s the match!

Winner of the 2018 G1 Climax Tournament after 35:00: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Review

What an insane wrestling match! That was outstanding. It was a terrific blend of mat wrestling, psychology, brutal striking and fantastic storytelling. It had all the features of a truly historically-great match. But it also had one critical flaw that, in my opinion, detracted from it in a pretty big way.

The match followed Tanahashi’s typical but time-tested main-event formula: it started slow and technical, then switched to some limbwork, and concluded with a mad dash to the finish with both wrestlers looking for any possible avenue to victory. But there was a wrinkle in Tanahashi’s strategy in this match: he accidentally awakened MURDER IBUSHI!

For those that don’t know, this is an alter-ego of sorts of Ibushi’s, a Mr. Hyde to his regular Dr. Jekyll. When MURDER IBUSHI comes out, his face becomes cold and void of emotion and he becomes a remorseless striking machine that hits disgustingly hard, even by New Japan standards. That was put on full display here as Ibushi almost turned Tanahashi into hamburger meat with a volley of brutal strikes. But he didn’t do that just for the sake of gratuitous violence; there was a purpose behind Ibushi unleashing the beast. He needed to go the extra mile in the hopes of defeating Tanahashi and hoped this beast mode would help him do that.

But it didn’t work. Ibushi came incredibly close to winning, but the Ace was still better than him. Tanahashi out-wrestled, out-struck, out-dove, and out-lasted Ibushi in this match. When he didn’t counter Ibushi with one clever move after another, he did something unexpected: he hulked up. Seriously, Tanahashi behaved like Hulk Hogan did in his heyday by taking a ridiculous amount of punishment from a seemingly unstoppable force and still pushing forward. Except the difference here being that Ibushi and Tanahashi hit each other MUCH harder than Hogan and any of his opponents ever did. And to be honest, that hulking up bit wasn’t tacky or out of place; it actually made the match better. Tanahashi showed his incredible resolve by pushing forward despite seemingly insurmountable odds. No one ever tanked through Ibushi’s strikes like Tanahashi did here. He showed a level of intensity that I have never seen from him before. I’ve seen many great Tanahashi matches, and in the majority of them he either maintains control over his emotions, shows flashes of anger (but the good competitive kind, not the malicious kind) or in extremely rare cases shows deceit and underhandedness borne out of desperation.

But never before have I seen Tanahashi show so much raw intensity than during that extended exchange with Ibushi. Tanahashi’s will to win despite his age and mounting injuries made him the biggest hero in the world on this night. The fans were absolutely rabid for him because he made them believe in him perhaps more than ever before. He showed such incredible heart and determination that you couldn’t help but cheer for him, even if Ibushi was hungrier and more determined to win. And as the match built and built towards its climax, Ibushi’s belief that Tanahashi is indeed a god became less and less farfetched.

That whole story of Ibushi summoning his darker side and Tanahashi fighting through the pain brought this match to another level. Ibushi showed busted out all his big moves and went to greater heights than ever before just to match Tanahashi. But Tanahashi was one step ahead of him and managed to overcome Ibushi in the end. But it wasn’t easy for Tanahashi; he had to bust out not one, not two but three consecutive High Fly Flows to keep Ibushi down for the pin. In doing so, he made Ibushi look like the biggest threat he had ever faced. And just like that, Ibushi broke through the barrier and carved out a place for himself in NJPW’s world title conversation.

But despite all those great features, there was one glaring problem in this match: Ibushi’s inconsistent leg selling. This is an issue that I’ve seen come up in many great matches before: Okada/Omega II, the Four Pillars V, Bryan vs. KENTA, just to name a few. And in this match that issue came up once more. Here, Tanahashi spent a long time working over both of Ibushi’s legs with devastating dragon screw leg whips and punishing submission holds. Ibushi sold at first, but then completely stopped selling consistently because ‘he had to get his moves in’. Ibushi has made a name for himself as a ‘spotty’ wrestler, i.e. someone that does crazy spots and sequences as his biggest selling point, and a lot of his biggest moves force him to rely on his legs. Tanahashi knew this and attacked those legs of his to weaken Ibushi’s offensive arsenal. But Ibushi stopped selling as soon as it was time for him to hit his springboard moves and go for all of his kicks and knee strikes. He did come back to selling at a few points later on, but his selling was inconsistent at best. Ibushi was in the ring with a man he considered his god and he barely even sold for him.

It would’ve been significantly better as a match if Ibushi remained consistent in his leg selling. Or better yet, if he realized in the moment how screwed he was and fought like hell to come up with a new strategy to answer Tanahashi’s limb-targeting onslaught. Instead, Ibushi landed all of his big moves later on in the match, including some crazy dives and heaving lifting moves, all of which required his legs. So there Ibushi was lifting, jumping, flipping and sprinting on what might as well have been two completely healthy legs. That sort of inconsistency really hurt the match because it rendered Tanahashi’s focused legwork useless. It didn’t play into later parts into the match or even into the finish, even though it should have.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Were it not for Ibushi’s inconsistent selling of his leg and failure to do something different to take that major leg damage into account, I’d be praising this as one of the best NJPW matches ever. The crowd was nuts for this match, which wasn’t surprising given the absolutely spectacular in-ring action these two wrestlers showed here. This is easily a MOTYC for 2018, which is saying a lot considering how many terrific matches came out of that company that year.

If you want to see a great blend of pure grappling, intense strike exchanges, a great story, incredible drama, high stakes, constant twists and turns, and an incredible atmosphere, this is the match for you. I recommend it very highly, even if it does feature some inconsistent selling from one of the two wrestlers involved. This is a fantastic match all around.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.