5-Star Match Reviews: Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White – NJPW G1 Climax 2019 Final
For New Japan Pro-Wrestling, the summer of 2019 was all about bouncing back. The company lost several major international stars in the form of Kenny Omega, Cody, and the Young Bucks. Even if they weren’t the biggest stars to the native Japanese audience, they were important to many fans outside Japan. So when they left, New Japan needed to replace them and ensure they had enough talent to fill the void.
That led to the 2019 G1 Climax, which was filled with great matches as expected of NJPW. But one of them was said to be so great that it broke the proverbial scale…and this was a match without Kenny Omega OR Kazuchika Okada. But was it really that good? Read on to find out.
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.
Both tournament blocks in the 2019 G1 Climax boasted deep rosters filled with talented wrestlers. White was in the B Block and sought to continue his upward momentum that began when he pinned company ace Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 13. Things started off poorly for White as he suffered three consecutive losses to Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Tory Yano. But he bounced back and beat everyone else in his block, including tournament debutants Jon Moxley and Shingo Takagi, as well as initial block favorite Tetsuya Naito.
Ibushi had a similar slow start, losing his first two matches to KENTA and EVIL. But Ibushi bounced back sooner and beat everyone else. And compared to White, Ibushi had a much harder time getting to the final. Not only did he have to beat his own block’s tournament debutant in Will Ospreay, but he had to beat far bigger threats as well. Ibushi beat a much bigger and stronger Lance Archer, he pinned the company ace Okada, and he avenged his loss from the prior year’s final by beating Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Those last two feats were especially important, but now Ibushi had a new threat before him. White and Ibushi had never faced off before; the only match they had prior was a tag match in 2015 and back then they were partners. So even though Ibushi was the favorite to win this match, it wasn’t going to be easy. White had proven himself a dangerous and credible main-event-level threat by beating Okada (no small feat, then or now) and by reaching the G1 finals. But while Ibushi reached that same finals match on his own, White had help. White had his Bullet Club allies – especially his manager Gedo – backing him and interfering in his matches. With that said, could Ibushi, the favorite, overcome even greater odds? Could he continue his own upward momentum and win despite the very high likelihood of Bullet Club getting involved? Or would he succumb to the numbers game and lose in the finals just like he did in 2018?
This match originally took place on August 12th, 2019. It was rated *****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. In other words, it’s one of those purported scale-breaking GOAT matches that have been taking place far more often as of late. Let’s see if its reputation is well-deserved.
White comes out first but is flanked by a ton of his Bullet Club buddies, including newest recruit KENTA. The crowd boos loudly as BC do the Too Sweet gesture. But White’s cockiness ends soon after as referee Red Shoes ejects everyone in BC except for Gedo. Red Shoes gets tons of applause but then makes a concession to Gedo. He allows Gedo to stay but only if Gedo remains next to one of the ringposts.
Finally the bell rings and the crowd chants Ibushi’s name. then those same fans turn on a dime and boo White for bailing to ringside and then he taunts Ibushi to come outside. Nothing happens for a bit and then the two wrestlers finally lock up. Ibushi gets a clean break and White goes for Ibushi’s bad leg but Ibushi dodges. Gedo picks at Ibushi’s leg form ringside and White goes for the leg again. Red Shoes breaks this all up and then expels Gedo from ringside to a huge pop. Wow, a referee that actually has guts and personality without being a cartoon. What a rarity.
Ibushi chases White down and throws him back into the ring. They have a quick exchange and Ibushi keeps tossing White back into the ring each time he tries escaping. Ibushi hits a dropkick and then goes for the triangle moonsault. But before he can dive, White cuts him off and traps him between the corner ropes. White starts picking apart Ibushi’s left knee with stretches and by throwing him knee-first into anything he can find. The crowd boos as White stretches Ibushi’s knee through the barricade and then smashes it into a ringpost and into the side of the ring.
White lands a snap suplex and the snap causes Ibushi to lands hard on his feet as much as on his back. Ibushi kicks out of a pin following a dragon screw leg whip but White shuts him down with a strike flurry and another snap suplex. Then white lands an underhook suplex into the turnbuckle which causes Ibushi’s leg to hit a hard surface once more. Ibushi kicks out again so White trash-talks him. he stamps on Ibushi’s foot and Ibushi hits back but White shuts him down once more. White charges to the ropes and Ibushi goes for his usual snap Frankensteiner counter, but this time White blocks and counters with another dragon screw. White charges into a corner and catches Ibushi’s leg on an attempted boot block. Then White switches to Ibushi’s bad leg but Ibushi hits an enzuigiri using his free good leg. Ibushi hobbles out and then somehow connects with the snap Frankensteiner. Not sure why White would sell so much for a move that has less power behind it but that’s neither here nor there.
White gets a boot up to block a corner charge but then runs into a snap powerslam yet kicks out at two. Ibushi goes for his follow-up roll into a second-rope moonsault but delays and jumps using only one leg. he connects with the flip but only gets a two-count. then Ibushi hits a martial arts rush followed by a standing moonsault splash and suddenly isn’t selling his knee at all. Then he goes for a moonsault knee splash but White rolls away and now Ibushi goes back to selling properly.
White hits a DDT followed by a corner elbow and a shoulder leg breaker. Ibushi kicks out of a pin following a twisting neckbreaker and then kicks White away as White teases an inverted Figure-4. Ibushi blocks a heel hook as well and then sees White charging for a knee clip. Ibushi jumps up and double stomps White’s back. Then Ibushi goes for a Lawn Dart but White blocks and kicks Ibushi’s bad knee some more. Ibushi hits back with a roundhouse kick but White bounces off the ropes and lands a flatliner followed by a deadlift German suplex. White lifts Ibushi onto the top rope, hits his bad knee some more, and lands a top-rope superplex. Ibushi tries lifting his leg to change the degree of impact but fails and hurts his leg some more. then White goes for a Kiwi Crusher Fisherman Brainbuster. Ibushi counters with a wheelbarrow piledriver. Both men collapse.
White and Ibushi trade elbows until Ibushi wins the exchange. Ibushi tries capitalizing on this sudden window of opportunity but White shuts him down with a strike combo followed by a big lariat. But Ibushi fires up anyway. He goes for a running lariat. White ducks and hits a high-angle uranage. That’s followed by a Kiwi Crusher. One, two, Ibushi kicks out.
White teases his Blade Runner finisher but Ibushi escapes and goes for his Kamigoye running knee strike (using the bad knee for some reason). the two block each other some more until Ibushi lands a sleeper suplex. White escapes another Lawn Dart and then tosses Ibushi into referee Red Shoes. Red Shoes gets hit hard and falls to ringside as White lands a low blow. With the ref down, Gedo comes back carrying a steel chair. White hits a chop block and grabs the chair as Gedo holds Ibushi’s foot in place. Then White smashes Ibushi’s leg and ankle with the chair. White follows with a dragon screw and then locks in his inverted Figure-4 leglock. Gedo pushes the ref into the ring and tries waking him up. Ibushi spends an incredibly long time locked in White’s hold. Yet somehow, he manages to grab the ropes to force a break.
After a long time, Ibushi slowly gets up and White goes for a sleeper suplex. Ibushi escapes it and hits a backflip kick and then fires up. Ibushi magically gains enough strength and willpower to hit the Lawn Dart and then lands an over-the-rope deadlift German suplex. One, two, White kicks out. Ibushi teases a Last Ride Powerbomb. White blocks and hits Ibushi’s bad leg some more. Then White bitchslaps Ibushi. Big mistake. That awakens his alter ego, Murder Ibushi. Ibushi hits multiple stiff slaps and body shots. The ref pulls Ibushi out of a corner as Ibushi dares White to come at him. White obliges, walks forward, and hits another big slap. But the instant he touches Ibushi, Ibushi drops him with an even harder slap. Ibushi teases a wind-up lariat. White hits first with a dragon screw. White goes for another one. Ibushi hits first with a lariat. That’s followed by a Last Ride from Ibushi. One, two, and White kicks out. Ibushi channels Nakamura and goes for a Boma Ye. He charges…and White just sinks down. Ibushi just stops and seems to play along with White’s charade. There’s this dumb ‘what is this’ exchange between Ibushi and Red Shoes when suddenly White distracts Red Shoes. Then from behind out comes Gedo. Gedo tries attacking Ibushi but Ibushi kicks him down. White capitalizes with a sleeper suplex. Ibushi lands on his feet and hits a Boma Ye to the back of White’s head.
Some Young Lions pull Gedo out of the ring as Ibushi teases another knee strike. A second Boma Ye connects. White kicks out. Ibushi goes for the Kamigoye. White blocks by kicking Ibushi’s knee. Ibushi keeps trying for that move but White does whatever he can to stop it and weaken Ibushi’s bad knee even more. Ibushi hits some roundhouse kicks with his right leg and tries the Kamigoye again. This time White blocks and hits his own Blade Runner finisher. But he can’t pin right away due to his own exhaustion so he goes for a cross-arm Brainbuster. But Ibushi resists that and lands a big head-butt while maintaining wrist control. Straightjacket German suplex by Ibushi. White escapes and lands two sleeper suplexes. Cross-arm Brainbuster connects. but White still isn’t done. He wants another Blade Runner. But Ibushi counters it into a knee strike to White’s head. Ibushi tries yet another Kamigoye. White blocks and tries Blade Runner. Ibushi escapes and lands two more standing kneelifts, followed by a successful Kamigoye. One, two, and – no, White survives. One more Kamigoye! One, two…and three! There’s the match! Ibushi wins the match and the G1!
Winner of the 2019 G1 Climax tournament after 31:01: Kota Ibushi
That match was solid but nowhere near the 5-Star level, much less above it. It had strong wrestling and a great crowd. Now normally those two elements alone are enough for a match to really reach that top level. But there was a problem in this match: only one of the two wrestlers involved sold for his opponent and had his opponent sell for him, and that wrestler was Jay White. He did a great job controlling and directing the match whereas Ibushi’s work as the match’s hero was…inconsistent, which has become par for the course for big Ibushi matches.
The match’s story was great for the most part with White excelling as the annoying and cocky villain. He used dirty tricks whenever possible and made the most out of Gedo acting as his evil manager. If any regular NJPW fan reading this is wondering why New Japan has invested so much time into Bullet Club and its various sub-groups, watch this match. The crowd reactions to BC’s expulsion from the ring area and the hostility they have towards Gedo and all the rest were incredible. Getting Japanese fans to boo is like pulling teeth but White – with Gedo’s and the rest of Bullet Club’s help – got the job done. White made it so easy for the fans to rally behind Ibushi and stay behind him no matter what. To an extent he made the outcome almost predictable; there was no way that Ibushi was going to lose to such a despicable villain regardless of how successful White had been thus far in the G1 tournament and in New Japan in general.
But White came close several times. He exploited Ibushi’s big weakness like a consummate pro and did everything possible to slow Ibushi’s march forward. He got the crowd emotionally invested in Ibushi’s comeback and still kept fans on the edge of their seats as he and Ibushi danced around each other with countless last-second counters. It really came down to the wire here; both wrestlers could’ve won conceivably by the end. But even though Ibushi endured more punishment and had the crowd’s support, he didn’t really earn the win here. White was the better wrestler overall in this match thanks to better offense and better selling. He had such a great strategy and did such a great job of selling the idea that Ibushi was in real danger that he should’ve won.
If only Ibushi returned the favor and sold properly for White. That didn’t happen and it really hurt this match.
One of the things that hurt Ibushi and his matches is his blockheaded approach when it comes to selling. Ibushi uses his legs a lot in his matches, more than most other wrestlers since he loves to kick, jump, and dive. White knew this, which is why he attacked Ibushi’s leg so thoroughly throughout the match. So why would Ibushi attack with that same body part that’s being torn apart and causing him immense pain? Why would he go for his same kick combo, standing flips, and springboards, when he has one leg? Sure, one could argue that Ibushi’s showing fighting spirit and ignoring the pain. But the problem with that is that he isn’t convincing or compelling when doing that. And while Ibushi was more consistent in his leg selling than he had been in previous matches, that selling was still consistently spotty. It made little sense for Ibushi to survive such an intense and focused attack on his leg from White and Gedo and a steel chair, and then survive over a minute in a punishing inverted Figure-4, and then have enough leg strength to lift White onto his shoulder, run, and spike him with a Lawn Dart, and then do a deadlift German suplex while standing on the rope.
Maybe New Japan wanted Ibushi to wrestle like he’s a superhero, as someone that can take a ton of punishment and still survive. That mindset does make sense; pro-wrestlers are, by and large, tougher than average people. And yet, in terms of telling a proper story, Ibushi’s comeback was too jarring. It was too close to a protracted dismantling heat segment to come across as believable, regardless of the crowd’s reaction. Timing things out and spacing sequences together is important in wrestling. Going from zero to sixty or from one extreme to another in short order makes a match less entertaining because the audience doesn’t get enough time to digest something that just happened. If too many high-octane segments are spaced so close together, then the audience won’t be able to enjoy the match fully because they’ll be overwhelmed with too much happening all at once. It also becomes harder to suspend disbelief because the realism of NJPW’s Strong Style is juxtaposed with Ibushi’s spotty style. It’s like watching a deep and tense drama and then there’s some random slapstick thrown in as well; even if the two ‘styles’ tell the same story, they contrast too much with each other to tell that story effectively.
I couldn’t help but compare this match to a true wrestling classic: Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama from July 1998. Kobashi had an injured knee going into that match and Akiyama knew it. Akiyama attacked that injured knee at every opportunity and forced Kobashi onto the defensive when doing so. Although no-one believed a then-still-midcard Akiyama could beat Kobashi in Kobashi’s first world title defense, the possibility of an Akiyama win became much more likely after Akiyama disassembled Kobashi’s knee. And a big part of that success was how that injured limb was worked into the match. Not only did Akiyama have a weakness to exploit that hurt Kobashi badly and made a possible submission victory believable, but Kobashi couldn’t even fight back for a long time. Kobashi couldn’t do almost any of his regular moves because he only had one leg. He had to slow down after hitting a leg drop. He was sluggish when moving around the ring. He couldn’t even lift Akiyama up for a powerbomb without selling his knee. In doing so, Kobashi couldn’t maintain enough momentum to hurt Akiyama while Akiyama was able to weaken Kobashi mostly without slowing down. It wasn’t until Kobashi fired back with full-power lariats that he was able to survive Akiyama. That match ended with everyone getting something positive: Kobashi retained his title, Akiyama looked like he belonged in the world title conversation, and the fans got their money’s worth with an outstanding match.
None of that psychology, logic, or commonsensical match structuring was present here. White wrestled smartly but Ibushi basically went ‘screw your psychology, I have flips to do’ and didn’t do a good enough job making White’s careful attacks mean anything important. Had Ibushi been grounded or rendered unable to do his trademark moves, then this match would be remembered better. Instead, it’s just another re-tread down a similar road but with a few Bullet Club tropes thrown in.
Final Rating: ****1/4
This was a match that needed Ibushi to do something different. It was built around him being hamstrung and incapable of using his main weapon to its fullest. He would’ve really shown how good of a wrestler he was had he started using his arms and hands more. And it’s not like he isn’t a proficient striker, either; he throws a mean lariat and is as quick and hard-hitting with his hands as he is his with his feet. Instead, what we got was another case of Kota Ibushi doing his style of match while struggling to really make his opponent’s work mean something.
The match did have some impressive moments and solid wrestling but it wasn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Ibushi did most of his biggest spots, even though the match’s psychology and story were both screaming at him not to and show some restraint. White was great as an underhanded heel, but there wasn’t much point in investing in what he was doing since Ibushi didn’t go the extra mile to make it work. It was like eating a fancy three-course dinner except you devour the main course quickly so that you can get to the dessert as soon as possible.
This match fails to reach that upper level and only has a few interesting elements to it. If you really want to see just how hated Bullet Club was at one point (even without Omega and the Bucks) then this match is worth watching. But ultimately, this match serves as a sort of warning: having the best strategy and showing off one’s scientific grappling know-how only works when the wrestler taking all that damage puts in the same level of effort in selling it as the wrestler hitting it.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.