Tanahashi now has his sights set on winning the tournament.
TOKYO — New Japan Pro Wrestling is going back to the future.
Hiroshi Tanahashi, the seven-time IWGP heavyweight champion, captured Block A of the G1 Climax after a thrilling 30-minute draw against Kazuchika Okada and he now advances to the finals of this year’s G1 Climax.
“A lot of people watch me and think I’m an old guy,” the 41-year-old Tanahashi said through a translator. “But my dream is still ongoing, so stop thinking like that.”
Tanahashi finished with 15 points, the most from either of the two blocks, while Okada finished in second with 13. He now awaits his opponent, to be determined on Saturday, which will be either IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito, or Kota Ibushi.
Tanahashi admitted to reporters afterward that he tweaked his knee in the match, but explained that the crowd—which was split evenly between the two genuine stars—gave him the adrenaline boost needed to finish the match.
“Fan support was huge, thank you for the amazing night,” said Tanahashi. “But it doesn’t mean I won the tournament. I’m only going to say one thing: I’m going to the final to win it.”
Tanahashi’s health has been an issue for the past two years, yet he confirmed this is the healthiest he has felt in the ring in recent memory.
“I’ve missed too much in the past couple years, but I felt my body was working for me in the Okada match,” said Tanahashi. “I felt like myself in the ring, I was able to work my style.”
The finish was the third draw between Tanahashi and Okada in their G1 Climax series, and this particular encounter—coming off their most recent match in May at Wrestling Dontaku, which was an Okada victory—saw Tanahashi reach deep into his moveset. He used Okada’s tombstone piledriver and the Styles Cross, along with his array of moves, in an attempt to put away Okada.
“I didn’t get the win tonight, but I trained hard and was better tonight than I was against Okada at Wrestling Dontaku,” said Tanahashi. “My body felt really good.”
Okada also met with reporters, but only apologized for the loss by saying “sorry” before walking off.
Tanahashi will face the winner of Block B, which will be determined on Saturday’s show. Omega (12 points) and Ibushi (10 points) square off against one another while Tetsuya Naito (12 points) needs to defeat Zack Sabre Jr. in order to stay alive.
Due to construction this summer at Sumo Hall, New Japan’s final three days of the G1 are being held at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo.
Speaking through a translator, Naito displayed a different side of his character when he explained that this G1 means more to him because of the venue.
“Budokan is a very special venue for me,” said Naito. “I watched pro wrestling for the first time as a fan here. I once fought at Budokan prior to this in a tag with SANADA. So tonight’s tag [a victory over Sabre and Taka Michinoku] with SANADA felt nostalgic. But tomorrow I have an important fight against Zack Sabre Jr., and I am in a must-win situation.”
Sabre expressed an entirely different sentiment about his upcoming match-up with Naito.
“If I beat him, he can’t go to the finals, no matter what happens,” said Sabre. “It’s my life’s mission to ruin Naito’s life, I f------ hate him.”
Another critical focal point to Friday’s matches was the interference from Bullet Club Firing Squad members Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa.
In addition to interfering in Minoru Suzuki’s match against Fale, they broke up the Kenny Omega-Young Bucks six-man tag against Kota Ibushi, “The Villain” Marty Scurll, and Chase Owens, and have served as a constant problem all throughout the G1 for Omega.
“Tomorrow, I swear to goodness gracious, if they try to ruin my match, things are going to get really ugly,” said Omega, who now prepares for one of the biggest matches of his career against Ibushi. “Let us settle this. Tomorrow’s not about you.
“Tomorrow is about the G1, the tradition, and who’s going to be the best in the bout between Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi. You’re not going to spoil it, I won’t let you.”
Ibushi, through a translator, noted that he is nervous for the match, which is in the same building as his famed 2012 match against Omega.
“I am not preparing differently for this match, I know Kenny,” said Ibushi. “Still, I wish that tomorrow won’t come. Kenny is my best friend, but I’m in a desperate situation to win this tournament.”
Sports Illustrated will be providing live coverage of the G1, including post-match interviews, during Saturday and Sunday’s shows, including the final match of the tournament that will see Tanahashi chase his third G1 title.
“This is my 17th G1 Climax,” said Tanahashi. “I’ve wrestled a lot in the G1, but I felt the greatest pleasure tonight.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.