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31 Days of Wrestling (12/9/18): To Surpass God



Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. Once again, we're at that point where we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling 2018 produced for us.

How can this match not be on this list? The finals of G1 Climax 28 defined the main event of Wrestle Kingdom in 2019, showcased the evolution of Kota Ibushi's wrestling philosophy, and hinted at the nefarious side of Hiroshi Tanahashi. Helps that it was one of the best matches of the year too.


This year's G1 was narratively-charged for Ibushi and Tanahashi. Tanahashi clearly had his eyes set on becoming the Ace again and cannot be content with playing for lesser prizes like he did with the Intercontinental Championship a year ago. Ibushi, on the other hand, finally seems to have a relatable goal: to follow his newfound ideals about wrestling and surpass his 'gods.'

Ibushi has always been about transcending limitations. He just made this more explicit by naming his knee strike Kamigoye (η₯ž = kami, god; θΆŠγˆγ‚‹ = koeru, to go beyond/exceed/surpass; kamigoe = to exceed god). It didn't help that he inherited the move from his other god, Shinsuke Nakamura, nor that he debuted this move against Tanahashi in G127.

Ibushi's personal god deux, Tanahashi, took exception to the move that took him out in Kagoshima. In a Tokyo Sports article, as translated by Chris Charlton, Tanahashi says he plans to surpass the surpasser who had once called him god. The man also took exception to the focus on Ibushi and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. He couldn't handle being parted from the spotlight.



In that aspect, Ibushi's comment on Tanahashi reminding him of Antonio Inoki makes sense. Tanahashi is defending his way of wrestling, just as Inoki, the board, and the public that coined the term "Inokiism" did just a decade ago. (Excellent Reddit thread on the irony of Tanahashi's position as the old guard here.)

Tanahashi's legacy is his wrestling philosophy, explored in his 2014 book "Why Hiroshi Tanahashi was able to change NJPW." Tanahashi and Inoki, tired of the banter, spoke at length about moving away from strong style to a new kind of pro wrestling that would give NJPW back its vitality:

"We take pride in creating a new generation of wrestling that children and women can enjoy, get excited, even go bananas, go home with satisfaction, and want to come back for more." [x]

"Wrestlers thought they had to appeal to the fans that wrestling is as intense as MMA.
 But wrestling is supposed to be exciting in more other ways." [x]

Casual Ibushi watchers might look at his flips, neck bumps, and brutal strikes and think, that's totally the kind of fast food wrestling Tanahashi hates. Contrary to this, Tanahashi has expressed admiration for Ibushi's potential, and for good reason. Ibushi's best matches show a healthy respect for how his moves can impact the story he tells in-ring. They're also the kind of matches that any person can watch. Just look at his match with Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 9, or heck, the match in the title of this article, for starters.

But the Ibushi now is not the same Ibushi who called Tanahashi god. Ibushi then used to think that merely wrestling and keeping the fans happy was enough. A few years wiser and fresh from a year of being a wrestling nomad, Ibushi had the most genuine fun he's had in ages in a G1 where he put himself ahead of the fans.

"This time it was about wrestling the way I wanted to wrestle. I always want to make the fans happy when I wrestle, but this time, more than that, I did what I wanted." [x]

And fans, who were already enamored with this nomad prince of wrestling, ate it up. Which, of course, was unacceptable to Tanahashi.

Tanahashi showing up with Katsuyori Shibata, who would have been replaced by Nakamura in another world, in his corner in the 2018 G1 Climax finals was not a coincidence. Here, Tanahashi seemed to say, look at the gods you admired. You will not surpass us.

Ibushi, with Omega in his corner, unleashed his inner madness to try and do so.

Their near-35 minute match had the mythic part down, but it also told the story of two mortal men who would do everything to fight for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Tanahashi's reasons for winning are obvious. One of Ibushi's reasons is the man-god he's up against, and the other is the man standing in his corner.

(This article, however, is not the place to discuss Ibushi's feelings on being in Omega's shadow for once. That's for another 31 DoW. If they let me write another one.)

Tanahashi's pacing, Ibushi's ruthlessness, and their mutual dislike of having healthy necks and knees made for a classic spectacle. Each big move branded the words "Fighting Spirit" branded repeatedly on the viewer's forehead. Every move by Tanahashi was matched with equal force by Ibushi; and for each time Ibushi's got the upper hand, Tanahashi retaliates with his own almighty bitchslap.


Ibushi, the prodigal son returned to New Japan, did not surpass god that night. But, as Charlton exclaimed on commentary, "his arms were just long enough to punch god in the face."


Unlike last year at Power Struggle, however, Ibushi did not show reverence to Tanahashi at the end of the match. He also refrained from hitting him, as Omega would have in his place. Ibushi didn't need to do either 'cause he is neither Tanahashi nor Omega.


‘Tanahashi moves away a bit and I knew then he was sending me a message. He was saying ‘come on, hit me, show the people that you stand for (Kenny’s/‘athletic’) style. But that’s not me either. I don’t stand for either style. I didn’t choose. So I didn’t do anything.' [x]

This will not be the last match between Ibushi and Tanahashi. As long as Tanahashi expects more from Ibushi, and Ibushi aims to surpass men-turned-gods, fans can expect more classics like this in the future.




***
31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2018.

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