The G1 Climax is one of the biggest tournaments in modern pro wrestling. Dating back to 1991, the G1 takes place every summer in New Japan Pro Wrestling, pitting their biggest heavyweight wrestlers against each other in a month-long round robin brawl for a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Over time it has built a reputation for producing some of the best matches of the year, making it an annual highlight of the pro wrestling calendar.
One of the things that stands out to fans about this absolute unit of a tournament is the range of talent that is included each year, including all of New Japan’s heavyweight singles champions, the occasional junior wrestler moving up weight class just for the tournament, and some outside up-and-comers trying their luck. Over the years, some truly unexpected entrants have competed in a G1 Climax or two, and some of the biggest names in Western wrestling have made appearances that are no longer talked about, so let’s take a look through the last almost three decades at some of the most surprising participants in this iconic tourney – here are the Top 10 Wrestlers You Probably Didn’t Know Competed in a G1 Climax.
For this list, I will be ranking these entries based on how surprising each of them is, either because of their fame in comparison to how well-known their appearance in a G1 is, or because they are simply not somebody you would expect to show up in a heavyweight tournament with a strong emphasis on in-ring action.
Also, the tradition of an annual heavyweight tournament held in August by New Japan started in 1974, back when it was then called the World League, yet the G1 wasn’t started until 91. Although the G1 is considered a continuation of that tradition, NJPW does not recognise earlier tournaments as part of the G1 lineage, therefore I will not recognise participants of those previous tournaments within this list, and dedicated a separate top 10 list for those, which you can read here.
10. Jim Neidhart
Interestingly, the 1992 (and second overall) edition of the G1 Climax was held to decide the new holder of the vacant NWA Heavyweight Championship, which had been on hiatus for a year due to Ric Flair taking the title to the WWF during his controversial departure from WCW. The NWA allowed WCW and New Japan Pro Wrestling to hold a tournament to decide a new NWA World Champion using the Big Gold Belt, which was incorporated into the annual G1.
As this single-elimination tourney was for a title mainly associated with the United States, a lot of American talents were brought over to compete – one of which was Jim Neidhart. Known predominantly as a tag team wrestler, it may come as a surprise that The Anvil has taken part in this legendary tournament. Although he lost in the first round to Kensuke Sasaki, that one match was enough to cement his place in history.
9. Milano Collection A.T.
For modern New Japan viewers, you will most likely know Milano Collection A.T. as a member of the Japanese commentary team, but he was once one of the most popular junior heavyweight competitors in the company, before having to retire in 2010. Although he is synonymous with the junior division, he did once surprisingly compete in the heavyweight-exclusive G1 Climax tournament in 2007, the same year he also won the prestigious Best of Super Juniors tournament.
With only four points by the end of the tourney, Milano wasn’t the most successful G1 participant that year, but he was without question the most stylish.
8. Arn Anderson
Considering he’s widely known as a tag team specialist, and the fact he’s a WWE Hall of Famer known by the vast majority of wrestling fans, it may come as a bit of surprise that Arn Anderson did once compete in the G1 Climax. In the aforementioned 1992 edition of the tourney, which had a heavy influx of Western talent, Anderson entered and was eliminated in the first round. Perhaps it’s obvious why he tended to stick to two-on-two matches throughout his career.
If you’re a knowledgable fan of Japanese wrestling as a whole, this one probably doesn’t surprise you, but if you just know Akebono as that guy who faced Big Show in a sumo match at WrestleMania once, you probably never expected to see this behemoth make an appearance.
The once famous sumo wrestler decided to make a full-time transition into pro wrestling after his WWE venture, and involved himself in the 2007 G1 Climax tournament. Akebono even managed to bag himself an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match at one point! (More about that here) Akebono continues to compete today in companies outside of New Japan, but I doubt he will ever compete in this prestigious tournament again.
6. The Barbarian
You know that guy that once had the record for the shortest time spent in a Royal Rumble match? You know, the one with the face paint in that clip of Hogan eliminating him that used to be shown in every Rumble video package? Well, the guy he used to team with actually competed in the G1 Climax in 1992 – who knew?!
5. Strong Man
New Japan once had a wrestler on its roster simply called Strong Man. That wasn’t his nickname, or even The Strong Man….just Strong Man. And this wasn’t in the 70’s or 80’s, this was during the decade we are in now! As a former competitor in strength competitions, New Japan named Jon Anderson in the most literal way possible in honour of his most obvious quality, and amazingly, Strong Man competed in both the 2010 and 2011 G1 Climax tournaments.
Just think, Wrestle Kingdom could have been headline by Strong Man. We could have been talking about the Okada vs. Strong Man seven-star match, but it sadly wasn’t meant to be as he left New Japan, and it seems all of wrestling, in 2013. Whatever you’re doing these days, I hope you stay strong, man.
4. William Regal
You’d think given how fantastic of a technical wrestler William Regal was, more people would talk about the fact he competed in a tournament so heavily focused on good quality wrestling matches? Well, in 1997 he did just that, sadly being eliminated in the first round by Bread Club’s own Satoshi Kojima. If only Regal had been involved in a round-robin edition of the G1 Climax, we could have had a whole month’s worth of quality technical matches to look back and binge upon.
3. Jushin Thunder Liger
Jushin Thunder Liger is easily one of the most renowned junior heavyweight wrestlers of all time. His innovative moveset, small stature, influential showmanship, and iconic character have made him synonymous with cruiserweight wrestling, which is exactly what makes his three appearances in the G1 Climax so surprising. In 2000, 2001 and 2006, Liger ventured out of his domain to give heavyweight competition a try, with unsuccessful results. Liger realised his strengths lie within the junior division, and still to this day carries on his legacy as one of the greatest of all time.
2. Ric Flair
When one of the greatest of all time has been in such a prestigious tournament, you’d think more people would talk about it, right?
Although it isn’t brought up much these days, the 16-time world champion, Ric Flair, competed in the 1995 G1 Climax tournament. Despite his extensive career by that point, Flair only managed to win one of his three matches in this 8-man tourney. Perhaps if Flair had made more of an impact in his block, maybe Nature Boy’s time in this heavyweight clash would be discussed more often, yet it still remains as a neat piece of wrestling trivia.
Barry Windham – 1992
Rick Rude – 1992
Bam Bam Bigelow – 1991
Tajiri – 2009
- Steve Austin
Yep, arguably the most popular wrestler in history has been in a G1 Climax. Long before his time as the Texas Rattlesnake, after only three years into his pro wrestling career, ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin was brought over to New Japan with many other WCW talent to take part in the 1992 G1 Climax tournament.
After an impressive victory over veteran Arn Anderson, Austin was eliminated by true Japanese legend, Keiji Mutoh, AKA The Great Muta. The G1 Climax finals were not in Austin’s future that year, but luckily for him, written within the parables of Austin 3:16, there was a different well-renowned tournament victory on his horizon that would do more for his legendary career than anyone could have ever expected…..hell yeah.
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