Imp’s NJPW Adventure
This Friday the New Japan Cup gets under way, with a whopping 32 participants it’s the largest iteration by a country mile. With double the wrestlers of the traditional 16 man tournament, this year’s immediately looks to be as unpredictable as ever. For the first time there’s now Young Lions in the Cup, lower card talent, multiple singles champions and even straight up New Japan debuts. For a tournament that often throws a spanner into proceedings, it’s almost impossible to accurately predict where this one’s going.
The other new addition is probably the biggest: with the winner going on to not face a champion of their choosing the next month as in year’s past, but instead going on to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the main event of the sold out NJPW-ROH G1 Supercard Show at Madison Square ‘God damn’ Garden.
The stakes are higher than ever, the brackets larger, the unpredictability greater; it’s fair to say this year’s New Japan Cup is setting up to be a belter. So let’s quickly go through the thing, see if we can’t at least dissect some of what to expect.
New Japan Cup 2019
Right, let’s get the blatant out of the way first, this tournament became immediately elevated the second Kota Ibushi announced his inclusion alongside his new NJPW contract. Well, technically his first ever NJPW contract. If you’ve ever wondered why the promotion seemed a tad hot and cold on pushing the Golden Star, that’s kind of why. The man’s always been a free spirit of sorts, not wanting to be tied down to any singular entity.
Well all that changed this past month, amidst all the AEW rumours and outside waves, Ibushi made a major splash by announcing he’s signed a contract with New Japan. Then in the same breath he informed the Osaka crowd he’d also be taking part in the New Japan Cup. Those two things were announced together for a reason, Ibushi isn’t just a high calibre inclusion, in my eyes he’s THE favourite.
In the past Tanahashi has voiced his desire for Ibushi to become this generation’s third Musketeer, the three wrestlers the company is built around. That fact wasn’t really brought up in the build for his Wrestle Kingdom main event with Omega, but you can bet your ass it’ll become significant now. It was a hell of a presentation for Ibushi, positioning him as a major player in the upcoming tournament.
Then the brackets were released.
Sunday 10th March, in the opening round Kota Ibushi takes on non-other than the IWGP Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito. Welp! If Ibushi really is to become a Musketeer, first he must beat one. Nothing like trial by fire, or tranquilo.
Suddenly, can I call Ibushi ‘THE favourite’ anymore? He’s going up against the #2 wrestler in the company, the rising star multiple fans have tipped to main event Wrestle Kingdom once again come 2020. Can I honestly say it’s a given Ibushi will win here and not to worry because Naito’s all set for a triumphant run in the G1? No, because even if Ibushi does win here, what about the rest of the field?
The Ace Hiroshi Tanahashi is in this same bracket, meaning we’d have a G1 2018 final rematch on our hands were Ibushi to best Naito and subsequently ZSJ or EVIL. That’s the other thing, last year’s winner is ALSO in this section. Zack Sabre Jr went on a tear last year, shocking everyone by beating Naito in the first round, then also Ibushi in the Quarter Finals. You can’t write the Suzuki-Gun man out either.
Speaking of, whoever reaches the semi-finals out of that section looks more than likely to be facing the villainous Suzuki-Gun leader Minoru Suzuki himself. If I am to stand by my prediction of Ibushi reaching the final from the right hand side of the brackets, he’d in all likelihood have to best Naito, ZSJ, Tanahashi AND then Suzuki. Bloody hell that’s a difficult road, his chances really don’t look great. But is that the point?
For comparison, the favourites from the left hand side look a ton easier for the favourites. With Kazuchika Okada’s biggest test seeming to be in the Quarter Final round against either one of the few men who seem to have his number in Bad Luck Fale, or fellow CHAOS staple Will Ospreay. The top left of the bracket his a few contenders, but none of them are expected to best Okada.
Maybe in New Japan Cups of the past you could see a surprise Semi-Final victory for the likes of Tomohiro Ishii, TAICHI or IWGP US Champion Juice Robinson. But with a Madison Square Garden main event on the line? I can’t see New Japan going with anything other than the biggest final possible here, and for me, that’s Kazuchika Okada vs Kota Ibushi.
Yes, sorry TAICHI stans, but the near bearer of Iizuka’s claw ain’t singing his way to the final. Maybe… dammit, after writing all that I still can’t shake the other tradition of sorts with the New Japan Cup.
Damn you TAICHI, making me all uncertain with the shock victories of the New Japan Cup’s past. Last year’s iteration is a great example, but the knockout tournament has somewhat of a reputation of delivering some surprise victories along the way. It’s common for top stars to be eliminated early on, see Tetsuya Naito losing to Zack Sabre Jr last year, Kenny Omega to Tomohiro Ishii the year prior or both Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi who both have first round losses to Bad Luck Fale on their resumes.
Surprise victories are commonplace when it comes to the New Japan Cup, it’s what makes them so unpredictable. So when I say I can’t see NJPW not going with the biggest match they could do this year, that’s purely because of the unprecedented nature of the Madison Square Garden show. But it doesn’t entirely fit with the history of the New Japan Cup itself. That doesn’t mean they sometimes don’t go with that big, epic final, but I can’t turn a blind eye to the nature of the Cup being one that consistently throws out surprises year after year.
When I fill out my predictions I find it impossible to guess which matches will act as this year’s surprises, but with double the participants you have to think there’ll be at least one. Right? Enter the likes of TAICHI, Will Ospreay, SANADA, Juice Robinson or bloody Bad Luck Fale again. Wrestlers either on the verge of something or steadily climbing the card, where a win in this tournament could do big things to set them up down the line.
There’s a reason I stared at Zack Sabre Jr vs EVIL in the first round for absolutely ages, unable to make a decision between the two. Because both men fit into ‘on the verge’ and ‘steadily climbing’, so God knows which way NJPW will go with this one. Would it count as a shock victory were EVIL to topple last year’s winner? Or will ZSJ be used as part of that difficult road for Ibushi? There’s multiple variables and I love it, but that does mean I’ve no idea who on Earth might be causing the upsets this year. All I can say is there’ll surely be at least one, with this many matchups there has to be… but who?
TL;DR scratch that first section, God knows who’s winning.
Since 2015 the New Japan Cup winner has gotten to challenge either the IWGP Heavyweight, IWGP Intercontinental or NEVER Openweight Champion. Given the latter two champions are actually in the tournament this time, things look to be a tad different. With the winner getting a set reward in an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match on a grand stage, the other champions have been granted the right to compete. Fair to say this mixes the state of play up a bit!
At first look the biggest inclusion seems to be IWGP Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito, that man simply being present completely throws a spanner into the works. The way Kota Ibushi was announced at New Beginning in Osaka made him a strong favourite, now all of a sudden he’s facing the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon in the first round. So what the hell happens now?
Don’t get me wrong, NJPW are very strong in the narrative/continuity department so I don’t expect Naito to win, but still, it made me question myself on something I was previously so certain. Especially as he lost in the first round last year as well, being the first of the many to tap out to Zack Sabre Jr. Will Naito really lose in the first round two years running?
The tranquilo one has vowed to become the first man to hold both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles at the same time, with his personal battles out of the way he’s more focused than ever on becoming New Japan’s Shuyaku (lead actor, top star). If there was ever a place to achieve that, Madison Square Garden sounds pretty nice.
Then there’s NEVER Openweight Champion Will Ospreay, who’s got the most interesting week out of all the participants. As he already has the opportunity everyone will be fighting for when he faces IWGP Heavyweight Champion Jay White this Wednesday at NJPW’s Anniversary Show in a Champion vs Champion special bout. The Aerial Assassin’s match may not be for the Heavyweight Championship itself, but he has the enviable opportunity of going one on one with the champion himself.
Out of all the potential challengers, Ospreay is the only one who gets to essentially spar with the champion. A scouting match of sorts, making the CHAOS man one of the most deadly potential opponents. Not forgetting that the NEVER Champion fits into that ‘steadily climbing’ selection of wrestlers, with a major win over Ibushi in the Tokyo Dome acting as a true elevating moment of his career.
The New Japan Cup could cement that, a strong run here could prove he truly is capable of hanging with the Heavyweights in a more permanent fashion. Which looks to be immediate tested as he’s up against veteran Bad Luck Fale in his cup debut, not a small feat by any imagination. On the other hand, Ospreay showed his strength as he hit his Stormbreaker finisher on big lad Jeff Cobb during ROH’s Honour Rising tour. So maybe he’ll be more up to the strength challenge than we’re expecting?
Finally there’s IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion Juice Robinson. The man who beat one of AEW’s brass at Wrestle Kingdom, then had an impressive display at NJPW’s US shows defending against Trent Baretta in impressive fashion. He had a difficult 2018 trying to maintain his steady rise through injury, but his US title win seems to have turned a new page for the leader of the new Lifeblood faction in ROH.
He looks to be set as a major player in ROH’s near future, so I’m expecting a strong showcase for him come MSG. With that in mind, does that mean we can also expect an impressive run in the New Japan Cup? He’s arguably got one of the easier runs to the Quarter Finals, with Chase Owens in the first round and most likely Yoshi-Hashi in the second. But he will be tested in mighty fashion come that third round when he faces either Tomohiro Ishii or TAICHI, for me that will be the moment where Juice will have to show his true strength.
Really the same could be said for TAICHI, whoever makes the Semi Final round out of those men will be able to honestly call their cup run a success. Both men are growing into somewhat of a more prominent role, that top left bracket will say a lot about the near futures of both men.
Finally, let’s end on some folk that are worth a quick mention, be it personal interest or a note of significance. The CHAOS stable has a new Western member! Mikey Nicholls (aka Nick Miller from The Mighty/TM61/not Shane Thorne of NXT fame) makes his New Japan Pro Wrestling debut in the cup itself this Saturday, he goes one on with Leo Tonga in a match where who knows what to expect. With Nicholls immediately joining a stable and being entered into the cup, I expect him to at least win his first match, but his second match will be against the leader of said faction in Kazuchika Okada.
There’s that trial by fire again.
Colt Cabana’s in this tournament! This is an actual thing and completely caught me in admittedly some confusion, that was until I saw the match right next to his in the brackets. None other than Toru ‘freaking’ Yano… is the ultimate comedy match of all time upon the horizon? The two met in ROH a year or so ago in a match the US crowd absolutely mental for, but I also get whilst I’m typing this that I’m also saying one of those men will be in the Quarter Finals. Suck it, it’s happening. Long live Yano! Buy his DVD dammit.
And then there’s the unfortunate news of David Finaly’s shoulder injury he sustained on ROH Honour Rising Night 2 ruling him out of competing. Looking at the brackets he could have been in for an interesting time, but he’s now been replaced by ‘Funky Weapon’ Rysuke Taguchi and with that Tanahashi’s road has arguably gotten even easier.
Well, until he faces Ibushi in the Quarter Finals that is!
Toodles, Chaps. Assen na yo.
Email Imp – firstname.lastname@example.org
Imp’s on LOP Radio every Thursday with Perfect 10 Wrestling! Talking through all the WWE Network shows from the past week!
Imp’s most recent NJPW columns:
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – The Era of the Switchblade Has Begun!
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – A New Beginning, A New Era
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – Is Kenny Omega Going To WWE or AEW?
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi Part 1: Becoming The Ace
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi Part 2: The Ace of the Universe
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