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31 Days of Wrestling (12/8/19): It Takes a Bird and a Villain (G1 Climax Finals: Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White)


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 2019 produced for us.

The conflict between heroes and villains is the most basic storytelling archetype of all time. New Japan Pro Wrestling knows that, and in the culminating match of the G1 Climax this year, they even helpfully color-coded who the good and bad guys are.

You could have gone deaf by how loud Budokan got when the match graphic was put up.

On the one hand, you have Kota Ibushi, clad in his signature blue, white, and golden tights. The inexplicable genius-nomad of wrestling finally settled down in New Japan after years of wandering around the world and/or breaking his neck. Ibushi was a hot bet to win Block A, and ended up the clear winner with 14 points. Some might say he was the boring, predictable pick—Ibushi fans may even claim it was just desserts after his middling 2018.

Totoong tao ba si Kota Ibushi? Eyewitness accounts remain inconclusive.
(Crowd went absolutely nuts when Ibushi came in. The cheers you hear from the
NJPW playback? A disservice to how loud the actual crowd was.)

On the other hand, there's Jay White in his black, notched conductor's vest. Whatever fans thought about his stumbling re-debut with Tanahashi in 2017 was well and fully-erased by the time of the B Block finals. The departure of fans from the Nippon Budokan the second White broke his 14–14-point stalemate with Tetsuya Naito was literally an exodus; whoever remained at Budokan made sure White knew how much of a slimy mouthbreather he was by drowning him in a sea of boos.

Dude was hated in the best way possible. The shouted insults to White came
from the non-gaijin/foreigner sections. G129 truly made White a bonafide heel to the home crowd.

Neither man was defined as the "big good" or "big bad" at the beginning of the tournament. Plenty of other competitors had compelling stories that made them top G1 picks. Will Ospreay (A Block) and Shingo Takagi (B Block) were fresh off the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, raring to prove that their skills surpassed weight divisions. KENTA (A Block) and Jon Moxley (B Block) needed to show that they were so much more than their respective U.S. runs. Tanahashi (A Block) looked for his last golden run, Taichi (B Block) must prove his worthiness, and so on.

Ibushi was slotted into the role of the good guy by default. All tournament long he was more concerned with surpassing his 'gods,' Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, chasing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and defining his wrestling than defending it (whatever that meant).

White was a loathsome git throughout his matches. But his brand of evil changed in just two nights. By ending the Cinderella story of Naito, he evolved from being an annoying former White Boy of Twitter with an unwashed beard and a sugar daddy with a similar, unfortunate beard situation to a heinous villain that must be defeated at all costs.
When people say that the energy in Budokan on August 12 was decidedly one-sided, they were not kidding. White and the Bullet Club—especially when they brought out KENTA—were received as if they punted a row of babies into the sun. The sheer heat they generated made Ibushi—already a hero to some due to his stupendous G1 performance—appear like more of a hero than he already was.

The careful seesaw between White's signature technical style and infuriating illegal tactics ratcheted the tension to a high degree. Here was the best of the Switchblade: a bastard who can go from throwing perfect Saito suplexes to laying flat against the mat to avoid killing blows like other wrestlers were dumb for not wrestling like he did.

White winning with his ring savvy could have been acceptable—winning via chairshots and interference? Instant replay of Vader beating Antonio Inoki at Ryogoku Sumo Hall, i.e. an angry shower of debris and a ban from Budokan.

No one but the most hardcore of Jay White fans cheered for him, much less wear his merch
(we're talking stink eyes from entire families and sections of complete strangers).

There were several moments where White almost beat Ibushi clean, and the in-arena audience let the folks at home know about it. Gasps and shouts reverberated around Budokan when White hit a reversal with a Blade Runner. The reputation of the Japanese crowd as respectful and restrained is true, but they went absolutely ape when Ibushi's shoulder barely lifted off the mat before the three count.

Jay is methodical when he's not scheming. He knew he couldn't stop for
too long to pick Ibushi apart. He did his best to break his body down instead.
(And boy, did the crowd hate that..)

True to the name of his old finisher (the Phoenix Splash, before he had to replace his neck and knees), Ibushi rose from certain defeat multiple times to beat White back down.

Ibushi, in his mid- to late-thirties, developed into a wrestler that can no longer be defined by his agility and wackadoo top-rope moves alone. He has power—each strike and suplex have weight in them that can knock the wind out of a viewer living three continents away. Once he gets going, Ibushi moves like a storm: a sudden, unpredictable, and destructive force.

And that's without unlocking "Demon Ibu," Ibushi's primal id-brain gone feral.

Same energy

Reckless, kinda dumb, a disgrace to the sport—variations of these three labels have been attached to Ibushi for as long as he has wrestled. Yet, only Ibushi's most ignorant haters can deny that he knows how to take the crowd by their wrists and take them on a rollercoaster of emotions. Here is a wrestling genius with a unique understanding of what it should be, and will do everything to make his vision a reality.

Watching Ibushi wrestle live feels like watching reality warp around him to make everything he does look effortless.
The finishing stretch of the match felt like the climax of every great action movie: fortunes are reversed at the drop of a hat, hearts leap up into throats, and assess are off every seat. Fans in Budokan were beyond chanting—"Ibushi," Jay," and what vowels they could scrap together filled the arena. Blade Runner or Kamigoye—will the self-righteous villain win, or will the unwitting hero bring his demise?

Three consecutive Kamigoyes sealed Ibushi's total victory, and his fate as the first man to ever win the Best of Super Juniors (2011), New Japan Cup (2015), and G1 Climax (2019).

Real talk: People noticed (and were excited by) Ibushi and White's attempts
to tell each other that they were still alive. This entire match had so many little details
to look out for that gets lost in the big picture.

In the end, neither man fully achieved their goals in the G1. White lost the tournament and moment to cement his status as NJPW's defacto magnificent bastard. Ibushi won the right to challenge Okada to the big gold belt, but he appears to be the least compelling figure in the current four-way between himself, the champ, White, and Naito.

Despite the eventual outcome, their match at the G1 Finals remains a great piece of storytelling in wrestling. Stories don't always have to be needlessly complex, nor its lineage traced to ten years ago. Sometimes, the best stories are boiled down to simple binaries—in this case, a hero determined to surpass gods who defeated evil instead.


Shine on, you crazy, crazy diamond.

(Alternative caption: 70% of the crowd refused to get out of their seats
until Ibushi walked backstage; Budokan staff had to
usher people out afterward.)

***

31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2019.

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