March 12, 2016: Shin-Aomori Prefectural Gymnasium Maeda Arena
Every year, New Japan Pro Wrestling holds the New Japan Cup, a single-elimination tournament to determine a new number one contender, originally for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, NJPW’s top prize.
In 2014, the stipulation was modified so the winner could challenge for the Heavyweight OR IWGP Intercontinental title. Last year, the possible prizes were modified again, with the winner now being able to challenge for the NEVER Openweight Championship as well.
New Japan has A LOT of tournaments (most of their special PPV cards seems to involve some sort of bracket), but this one is special in that it allows the winner to chase the top three singles titles in the company. The Heavyweight title is obviously one of the oldest and prestigious titles in wrestling. The Intercontinental belt, unlike WWE’s version of the same belt, is held to almost the same prestige as the Heavyweight strap, often being contended for in the penultimate match, co-main event, or even the main event, despite only being around for less than five years.
The NEVER Openweight title is the newest of the belts, and was originally set to be the equivalent of America’s NXT title, as it was created for New Japan’s developmental territory NEVER (“New Blood”, “Evolution”, “Valiantly”, “Eternal”, and “Radical”. Oh the Japanese and their names for things). Since then, it has turned more into a belt that re-invigorate careers, as Tomohiro Ishii used it to go from an old-timer on his way out, to brawling bad-ass that has held the belt on four separate occasions. Now, anything with NEVER in its name is known for hard-hitting, or “snug” matches, and is where wrestlers go to prove their moxie and endurance.
On March 12th, the semi-finals and finals of the tournament will be decided, with the winner being able to choose his title of choice to compete for at Invasion Attack 2016 in April. The undercard will have tag team matches including New Japan’s biggest stars and Young Lions (NJPW rookies) alike.
Below is my thoughts and predictions on the card, which be viewed live and on demand via New Japan’s subscription service, New Japan World.
Match #1: Jay White vs. David Finlay
Jay White and David Finlay are two of New Japan’s brightest Young Lions. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Young Lion is a rookie in Japan’s number one promotion. They are often required to live and work in the New Japan Dojo, and are often the first ones in the gym and the last ones to leave. They are required to wear black trunks, black boots, and often use their real names. When watching a New Japan event, one can see the Young Lions in red track suits, helping the competitors in and out of the ring.
The discipline and lack of glamour from this program helps build the best athletes possible, and helps non-Japanese wrestlers (known as ‘gaijin’, or ‘foreigners’) acclimate to the “strong style” of Japan, which is much more intense than most American wrestling. Japanese wrestling holds a lot of history and pride, and to have a match on an important card like this is quite an honor.
Jay White is a young wrestler from New Zealand, and joined New Japan after an audition in 2015. David Finlay, full name David Finlay, Jr., is the son of Fit Finlay, the Irish bruiser of WCW and WWE fame. His place as a Young Lion shows that it takes more than having a successful father to get places in New Japan.
This will no doubt be a good match, as both men will be doing there best to show us what they can do in a short amount of time. These men fought each other on March 4th, 2016, with Jay White beating Finlay in 5:41. It is very common for two Young Lions to be placed together as rivals and have many matches together, as they move up the card. This helps build a storyline and a bond over years of competition.
Therefore, don’t be surprised to see David Finlay pick up the win this time around, in less than ten minutes.
Winner: David Finlay
Match #2: Juice Robinson & Jushin Thunder Liger vs. Captain New Japan & Tiger Mask
It is very common for the undercard of tournament shows to be filled with multi-man tag team matches. This helps for a number of reasons:
1) It allows those who have lost in a previous round to still be on the card and get paid.
2) It keeps stars and legends in the spotlight without having them take as many bumps as they would in a competitive, 60 minute one-on-one encounter.
3) It provides the ‘slow build’ momentum of a card that New Japan loves so much, by having each match on the card grow with more back story, more prestige, more star power, and more titles on the line.
This match will see the legendary Jushin Thunder Liger team with Juice Robinson, who might be better known to American fans as the anti-fracking hippie CJ Parker in NXT. Still toting the dreads, but now with a new attitude, Juice has already seen improvement during his short time in NJPW.
Their opponents will be the fourth iteration of the legendary gimmick Tiger Mask, along with everyone’s favorite, chubby defender of NJPW, Captain New Japan.
This match will simply serve as a warm-up for the rest of the card, as all of its competitors will be older, inexperienced, or a combination of the two. Hey, at least New Japan doesn’t take its veterans and demand they be in the main event still (we’re looking at you, Big Show and Kane).
Captain New Japan is primarily a comedy character, and almost never wins anything. Liger is one of the guys most synonymous with Japanese wrestling, and with the recent death of his friend Hayabusa, expect him to get some more air time. Plus, Juice Robinson is the youngest of the four competitors, and needs the momentum.
I predict that Jushin will help pick up the win for the Young Lion by pinning the Captain.
WINNERS: Juice Robinson & Jushin Thunder Liger
Match #3: YOSHI-HASHI & Tomohiro Ishii vs. BUSHI & EVIL
This next match will see the baton-twirling undercard wrestler YOSHI-HASHI team with the “Stone Pitbull” Tomohiro Ishii against Naito’s henchmen in Los Ingobernables de Japón, “The King of Darkness” EVIL and BUSHI.
Tetsuya Naito was a generic babyface that was not getting over with the fans in Japan with his current gimmick, so he went to Mexico, where he saw the dark side. Joining the stable Los Ingobernables (“The Ungovernables”), Naito got nasty. Real nasty. He returned to Japan along with BUSHI and EVIL, two more wrestlers who were struggling to get over, and formed the Japanese branch of the heel stable.
Sadly, most of the success of Los Ingobernables de Japón stay with Naito. Tomohiro Ishii is the current Ring of Honor Television Champion, a belt he won from Roderick Strong on Japanese territory. He’s one of the toughest dudes in the promotion, maybe even the whole planet. Ring of Honor has a great partnership with New Japan, and New Japan will have to make sure that they keep the ROH TV title looking strong, so that it will be believable when an ROH competitor takes it off of Ishii.
On paper, this is a tag team match between two stables, CHAOS and Los Ingobernables, but to be honest CHAOS hasn’t really been that solid of a team, especially with their leader, Shinsuke Nakamura, going over to NXT. This will be more of a showing of Ishii’s strength, so expect him to grab the win. His odds increase even more knowing that he beat EVIL in the first round of the Cup.
WINNERS: YOSHI-HASHI & Tomohiro Ishii (CHAOS)
Match #4: Toru Yano vs. Tetsuya Naito (New Japan Cup Semi-Finals)
Toru Yano is a very unique character. He’s pudgy, pale, makes ridiculous faces, cheats as often as he can, whines constantly, and spends more time selling CHAOS DVDs than wrestling. He is completely unlikable, yet the fans eat his antics up. That’s what makes him the perfect underdog in these types of tournaments. His popularity even allowed him to get a title win at Wrestle Kingdom 10 along with the Briscoes from ROH.
Even though he may have lost the NEVER Openweight 6-Man titles to the Elite, he still has some luck. He’s managed to pick up two wins in the New Japan Cup, one via countout and one with a quick pin. This isn’t exactly a stellar record, and the truth is he has spent much less time competing in the tournament than his opponent has. His two matches total a little over six minutes, while Naito has spent nearly half an hour trying to win the Cup.
As mentioned above, Naito has a mean streak. And he’s not going anywhere. New Japan is riddled with stories of redemption, of wrestlers with generic gimmicks going out of the country and finding themselves. A lot of times these wrestlers are white-meat babyfaces who succumb to the dishonorable western culture and come back with a new attitude that shoots them to success. It worked for Okada and his “Rainmaker” gimmick, and now Naito is hoping it works for him. And quite frankly, I think it will.
The leader of Los Ingobernables de Japón started his mean streak by decimating the honorable Hirooki Goto at Wrestle Kingdom 10 before eventually losing the match. This must not sit well with the cocky superstar.
Plain and simply, Naito has the advantage. Not only will he most likely have his friends EVIL and BUSHI at ringside to even the odds, but he has more athletic ability than Yano. Yano is a great entertainer, but the viciousness of Naito will simply be too much for Yano to handle, no matter how many times he tries to use his little red chair.
Expect Naito to take advantage of Yano before the bell even rings, and to pick him apart for an easy win.
WINNER: Tetsuya Naito
Match #5: Hirooki Goto vs. Michael Elgin (New Japan Cup Semi-finals)
The last semi-finals match will see the NJC veteran Hirooki Goto face the “Unbreakable F’N Machine” Michael Elgin.
Elgin came to Japan from Ring of Honor in 2015 to compete in the G1 Climax (yet another tournament), and despite not going very far, he earned the respect of the fans. Elgin is a tough competitor who has traveled the world and is responsible for breaking men everywhere he goes.
However, Hirooki Goto has two things on his side: experience and heartache. Goto has competed in ten out of twelve (!) New Japan Cups, more than any other man. On top of that, he has been to the finals five times (more than any other man) and has won it three times (again, more than any other man). Something about the Spring just gets Goto going. Outside of statistics, Goto has a long history with the man who I am predicting to win the other semi-final: Tetsuya Naito.
Like Ishii and Naito, Goto was a stale character that has seen a sort of resurgence lately. Hirooki Goto endured Naito’s beating to win at Wrestle Kingdom 10, earning him a chance at Kazuchika Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Goto lost that match, ensuring that he will want to get another chance at the belt anyway he can. What better way than to break his own record on the 12th of March?
Michael Elgin is a beast of an athlete, and will have many more chances to win in New Japan in the future. But for now, the fact of the matter is that only one non-Japanese wrestler has won the NJC (Giant Bernard, AKA A-Train AKA Lord Tensai AKA Prince Albert AKA Breaking Ground’s Matt Bloom) and that was in 2006. Japanese promoters rarely hotshot wrestlers to the top of the card nowadays (with the Bullet Club being a notable, recent exception), which means that although he’s made it far in the tournament this year, he’ll most likely have to wait until the G1 this summer to try again for a title.
For now, expect the older veteran Goto to win, in what may very well be one of his last appearances on the top of the card. This will set up one hell of a grudge match in the finals.
WINNER: Hirooki Goto
Match #6: Ryusuke Taguchi & Katsuyori Shibata vs. Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan
Next on the card will be three tag team matches featuring Japan’s bigger stars. This will change up the pace of action while allowing the semi-final winners time to rest before their big match later in the night.
I’ll try to keep this short, as there isn’t much to say here.
Taguchi is an excellent Junior Heavyweight competitor that is now an Eddie Guerrero tribute act known as “The Funky Weapon”.
P.S.: That weapon is his ass. He hits people with his ass.
Shibata is a young competitor who currently holds the NEVER Openweight belt after enduring a beating at the hands of the NEVER Gatekeeper Ishii at Wrestle Kingdom 10.
Hiroyoshi Tenzan is a New Japan legend, referred to some as the Japanese Hulk Hogan. His long amount of time on top, combined with his red and yellow colors and bleach blonde hair, supports that. Although still very popular, both him and Kojima have been pushed towards the bottom of the card, both competing in the pre-show New Japan Rumble at NJPW’s biggest show if the year: Wrestle Kingdom.
In these sort of tag team bouts, New Japan rarely books upsets. Usually the teams with the biggest stars and title holders go over. Don’t expect this to be any different.
WINNERS: Ryusuke Taguchi & Katsuyori Shibata
Match #7: Manabu Nakanishi & Yuji Nagata vs. Kazushi Sakuraba & Kazuchika Okada
Again, more filler, but this should be entertaining nonetheless.
Nakanishi and Nagata are legends in New Japan, with both of them debuting in 1992. Sakuraba is a UWF Japan wrestler, an MMA pioneer, and shootfighter who debuted in 1993. Okada is the current IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the youngest winner of the G1 Climax ever.
Whoever wins in the main event will certainly want a shot at Okada in April, but for now, this is a great chance for the 28-year old champion to spend ring time with the legends that built his sport.
Yuji Nagata has won two New Japan Cups in the past, so expect him to spend a lot of time in the ring. Otherwise, Okada should hit his Rainmaker clothesline for the victory.
WINNERS: Kazushi Sakuraba & Kazuchika Okada
Match #8: Tomoaki Honma, Togi Makabe & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Yujiro Takahashi, Tama Tonga & Bad Luck Fale
The penultimate match on the card involves the current IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team champions Honma and Makabe, Tanahashi, who is perhaps the #1 star in New Japan (earning him the nickname “Japanese John Cena”) and the Bullet Club.
Honma was the equivalent of the Japanese Santino Marella: an experienced wrestler who was booked as a comedy character. His tenure in wrestling consisted of him losing most of the matches he was booked in, and his signature move is a falling headbutt, which he misses 99% of the time. However, this Fall he joined Makabe, another falling star, to form the team called Great Bash Heel. Despite having the term “heel” in their name, they were very popular with the fans, and won the 2015 World Tag League for a shot against Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows of the Bullet Club.
Their popularity took them to Wrestle Kingdom 10, where Honma and Makabe upset the top heel stable in the country to win the belts, which also happened to be Honma’s first title he ever won in New Japan.
With Anderson, Gallows, and AJ Styles leaving Japan to go to the WWE, and Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks focusing more on their subset of the Bullet Club, the Elite, the former hottest act in pro wrestling has cooled down quite a bit. Takahashi, Tonga, and Fale won the 6-Man belts from Yano and the Briscoes in February before losing them to that same team three days later.
With Omega going on record and saying that the Bullet Club was “no longer the Bullet Club” and that they are only associated with them because they’re the Elite’s “cash cow”, it may be better if the stable disbands and goes onto new projects, or if one of their members steps up to lead.
Otherwise, don’t expect them to beat the current tag champs and the hottest commodity in New Japan.
WINNERS: Tomoaki Honma, Togi Makabe (Great Bash Heel) & Hiroshi Tanahashi
Match #9: Main Event: Semi-Final Winner #1 vs. Semi-Final Winner #2
(New Japan Cup 2016 Winner and #1 Contender for Heavyweight, Intercontinental or Openweight Championship)
This is it. While there is no way to see who will be fighting for the Cup at the end of the night without watching it, I have a feeling that the two competitors with the most history and experience will move on.
Naito is on the run of his career right now, so don’t expect NJPW to cool him just to give Yano an upset. Similarly, Goto is the King of the NJC, so don’t expect him to lose to the newer, younger, Elgin. Not yet, anyways.
This match will be a drawn-out grudge match, plain and simple. Naito will have EVIL & BUSHI on the sidelines, while the ever-honorable Goto will take on the challenge, probably summoning the powers of the Wind Gods to help him (look at him and try to tell me he doesn’t resemble a Yu-Gi-Oh! Elemental).
Naito is set for some big things. Unlike WWE, New Japan rewards their competitors for going out on a limb and getting themselves over. Expect a lot of cheating, a lot of taunting, and a lot of hope spots. But also expect Naito to learn from his mistakes from Wrestle Kingdom. He has Goto’s number, and nothing will jump start his career more than to take out his nemesis in Hirooki’s own yard.
As for who he will challenge when he wins, well his options are open.
Kenny Omega has the Intercontinental belt right now, and there could be some fun matches between Los Ignorables and the Elite. Imagine if Naito can take not one, but both of Omega’s belts from him!
Shibata has the NEVER Openweight belt, a title that Naito has won before. He could come for the cocky young champion, but don’t expect it. Instead, expect Elgin or someone similar to set his sights on Shibata.
If I was a betting man, I’d say that Okada will be his target. Tanahashi is injured with a shoulder injury, and is expected to take some time off soon (which explains his first round loss in the Cup tournament and him only being in tag team bouts). Nakamura and Styles are both in the WWE right now, leaving only one of New Japan’s “Big Four” on the active roster. Okada has said in interviews that he wants to accept the challenge of carrying New Japan for a while, and he has run out of viable contenders.
Naito, however, has faced Okada for that same belt in the past. At Wrestle Kingdom 8, as a pre-Mexico face, Naito lost to Okada. In fact, the company had so little trust in Naito’s star power that they held a fan vote to determine which match would headline the biggest card of the year: the IWGP Heavyweight match or the Intercontinental Championship match between Nakamura and Tanahashi. In what must have been a huge blow to Naito’s ego, the Intercontinental match won the vote, proving that even the fans didn’t want to see the guy in the main event.
Now Naito has a new attitude, one that the fans can get behind full force. And with Okada being loyal to New Japan, a face turn is imminent. Expect Naito to win on March 12th and to seek redemption in the eyes of the fans, as well as Okada.
WINNER: Tetsuya Naito
What do you think of the New Japan Cup card? Who do you think will win? Please comment below with your thoughts, and keep checking out We Write Wrestling!