Just over a year ago, New Japan Pro Wrestling made its first major standalone foray into North America with the G1 Special in Long Beach. In the main event of that show, Cody Rhodes' challenge for Kazuchika Okada's IWGP heavyweight championship fell short -- and the tensions between him and Kenny Omega began to rise above a simmer.
Their story -- one of two alphas, their clashing egos and their desire to lead the most popular faction in professional wrestling, the Bullet Club -- has taken many twists along the way. Matches crossing over between New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor, tag team matches and more than a dozen other players dragged into the middle of it all. Small details filled in along the way on "Being the Elite." Even the leadership of the Bullet Club has become a secondary part of the story when compared to the battle of wills that is Omega vs. Cody.
On Saturday night at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, it appears that we'll finally get closure to this story. Just one month after Omega vanquished one long-term rival in Okada to become IWGP heavyweight champion, his first defense of that title comes against Cody at the second NJPW G1 Special event.
As NJPW continues to make an effort to expand its reach in North America, it should come as little surprise that this was the main event they chose to highlight, with two performers that the audience they're hoping to reach knows well. Although there's been plenty of talk of Omega being a once-in-a-generation in-ring talent, while others have gone out of their way to dismiss Cody's in-ring abilities, the attributes they share and everything each of them has done over the past couple of years point to this being a tremendous match when all is said and done.
Each man is committed to telling long, complex stories in wrestling. Each has proved willing to throw caution to the wind at the right time when it can most benefit a match. When their two wildly differing in-ring styles came together in April in New Orleans, at ROH's Best in the World, the match benefited the year of storytelling they'd already done, and in turn the match benefited throughout. The controversial ending, which saw the Young Bucks get involved, miss a double superkick on Cody and land it on Kenny instead, allowed Cody to pick up the monumental win and set the stage for a match on Saturday that makes a lot of sense.
As Omega looks to take his next step towards cementing his status as NJPW's new No. 1, establishing himself and NJPW alike as global brands, the G1 Special in San Francisco is another test of his ability to serve as both spokesperson and in-ring standard-bearer. Omega has said on multiple occasions that at this point, in-ring execution is the least stressful part of his goal to change the wrestling world.
Since winning the IWGP heavyweight championship, Omega's certainly put in a lot of face time elsewhere, between The Elite's E3 showdown against The New Day and the CEOxNJPW show that he helped put together, but now it's time to begin his title reign. None are expecting a two-year, Okada-like reign heading in, but this first match will likely give us the first signs of what kind of champion Omega might be moving forward.
For Cody, it's his second consecutive G1 Special main event. He won't be taking part in the G1 Climax tournament, but this is the second of three world title matches he'll have for three different major promotions in a two-month period. There's almost no one who expect Cody to walk out of San Francisco as the new IWGP heavyweight champion, but the mere possibility of imagining what could happen should he shock the world on Saturday offers up a world of different possibilities for at least a dozen different wrestlers. It also stands as an opportunity to prove why he continues to be put in such prominent spots on such a consistent basis.
IWGP junior heavyweight championship: Hiromu Takahashi (c) vs. Dragon Lee
As highly anticipated as Kenny-Cody II is as a payoff to a long-term story, they might actually pale in comparison to the story and long series of matches that's come to a head between Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon Lee in San Francisco. Over the past four years, these two men have squared off one-on-one no less than 15 times, along with another 75-plus tag team matches on opposite sides of the ring. Each time out they seem determined to top their previous outing, and whether the matches have happened in Mexico, Japan or the United States, they've almost always succeeded.
Dragon Lee unmasked Takahashi in Mexico in a mask-vs.-mask match, they've traded the CMLL world lightweight title back and forth, and they even competed for match of the night honors on a night where the Young Bucks, Motor City Machine Guns and the Addiction had an all-time ladder match for ROH. Dragon Lee has held a significant edge in the series at 10-5, including wins over Takahashi in each of the past two Best of the Super Junior tournaments, but now the focus is on the IWGP junior heavyweight title around Takahashi's waist.
There may be many more battles to come, seeing as Dragon Lee is only 23-years-old and Takahashi is 28. If there's one match that stands out as a possible show-stealer, it's this one.
IWGP heavyweight tag team championships: The Young Bucks (c) vs. Sanada & Evil
After finally breaking through to win the IWGP heavyweight tag team titles at Dominion, the Young Bucks have something to prove in their return match against Sanada and Evil. There have been quite a few instances of teams stepping up for a title win, only to drop the belts back early in their reign. If the goal is to make these tag-team titles special, and not merely a tool to trigger a title change when any given show needs a little shot in the arm, the Bucks will have to start stringing together some wins. With Sanada and Evil each heading towards the G1 Climax tournament, their odds seem pretty good.
IWGP United States championship: Jay White (c) vs. Juice Robinson
Jay White shocked the world when he beat Kenny Omega on the second night of NJPW's The New Beginning show back in January, but he's only defended the belt three times since. His 25-minute match at Strong Style Evolved against Hangman Page was a thing of beauty, but his subsequent matches against David Finlay and Punishment Martinez weren't quite up to that level.
Juice Robinson has quietly been putting things together in Japan since leaving the WWE in March 2015, and although he does tend to dip into his bag of expletives on a regular basis, his postmatch promos for Japanese TV are among the most passionate and thoroughly entertaining videos that NJPW puts out on a regular basis. Robinson, should he win, would be the first American IWGP U.S. champion, but with a broken hand, whether or not that will happen remains to be seen.
The rest of the card for the G1 Special in San Francisco is filled with top-level talent in a variety of tag team and/or secondary title matches.
Kazuchika Okada & Will Ospreay vs. Tetsuya Naito & Bushi
Recently dethroned IWGP heavyweight and junior heavyweight champions Okada and Will Ospreay team up to take on Los Ingobernables de Japon's Tetsuya Naito and Bushi. There's plenty of history between Okada and Naito, and they'll almost certainly be back to battling for the heavyweight title before too long. This represents a high-profile opportunity for Bushi to show what he can do in the spotlight.
NEVER openweight championship: Hirooki Goto (c) vs. Jeff Cobb
After a few spot appearances for NJPW over the last couple of years, Jeff Cobb gets a chance to face a decorated veteran in Hirooki Goto with the NEVER open-weight title on the line. Goto recently traded the title with Michael Elgin, so there's no real telling which way this could go.
Hiroshi Tanahashi & Kushida vs. Hangman Page & Marty Scurll
Despite his lengthy stretch away from the IWGP heavyweight title, Hiroshi Tanahashi is still one of the most popular stars NJPW has to offer -- though his status as THE ace is probably as tenuous as it's been in recent memory. Kushida has been the anchor of the junior heavyweight division for a long time. Both step up when the spotlight is brightest, and with Page and Marty Scurll in the picture, this should be an entertaining match with more than a little humor sprinkled in along the way.
Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano vs. Minoru Suzuki & Zack Sabre Jr.
Speaking of humor, Toru Yano will bring it all with him into this tag-team match -- and Minoru Suzuki will try to snuff it out at every turn. Suzuki, who just celebrated his 50th birthday by having a 30-minute match in the rain with Okada, is still one of the most dynamic performers in pro wrestling today -- and his partner, Zack Sabre Jr., is still on the rise heading into the G1. The entertaining portions of this match will be well balanced by the intense showdowns Tomohiro Ishii will undoubtedly have against both of his Suzuki-gun opponents.
Yoshi-Hashi, Gedo, Rocky Romero, Yoh & Sho vs. Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, King Haku, Yujiro Takahashi & Chase Owens
As is often the case on any New Japan show, a large tag-team match will kick off the festivities. Most of these CHAOS and Bullet Club factions are well used to facing off against each other on various NJPW tours, but the inclusion of King Haku -- the father of Tama Tonga and Tonga Loa, and a legend in the world of wrestling -- is a fun bonus as part of this match.