Welcome to the first in a series of pieces analyzing the latest major New Japan Pro Wrestling match cards, breaking down the implications of match-ups, wrestlers rising up and falling down the match order and ultimately trying to understand what on earth Gedo and Jado are up to as they lead us through the story of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

March brings with it the New Japan Cup, a 16-man single elimination tournament with a singles title shot of choice as the prize for the winner. With IWGP Heavyweight, Intercontinental, and NEVER title shots all potential choices for the winner, the eventual winner and their title shot of choice at Invasion Attack are actually very difficult to predict, which only makes the Cup more interesting. We’ll start with a brief look at the first round match card, then move on to the interesting stories and potential consequences of the tournament.

First Round Match-Ups

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Toru Yano: On paper, an extreme mismatch, but anything goes in a tournament match with the Sublime Master Thief. It seems almost insane to consider Tanahashi losing in round one to a DVD salesman, and I see no way that he loses, but this match should be fun regardless of who wins since it’s such a random, fresh match-up. It’s nice to see Yano not wrestling Suzuki or Iizuka.

Kota Ibushi vs. Doc Gallows: At New Beginning in Sendai, Ibushi and Naito teamed up to defeat Yano and Sakuraba. Golden Stardust have been a peripheral team since September 2014 on New Japan house show 6-man tags, but now seem primed for a tag team title match at Invasion Attack. This match and Naito vs Karl Anderson all but confirm this, as Ibushi and Naito should defeat the champs here to earn their shot. Goto and Shibata did the exact same thing in last year’s Cup.

Tetsuya Naito vs. Karl Anderson: Same story as Ibushi/Gallows.

Kazuchika Okada vs. Bad Luck Fale: The main event of round one, and a very intriguing match-up. Okada has been feuding with Fale since taking the Bad Luck Fall the night after Wrestle Kingdom 9. Whether he gets his revenge here or at Invasion Attack is up in the air, and NJPW could go either way.

Togi Makabe vs. Tomoaki Honma: The Great Bash Heels explode, as ultimate underdog Honma will look to upset “Man-Flu Makabe”. Makabe doesn’t need to win this tournament as he already has a guaranteed NEVER title shot, having NEVER (sorry) lost the belt by decision. As much as I would love to see Honma vs. YOSHI-HASHI in a battle of the jobbers, it’s not going to happen. Both guys are more valuable and more over as perpetual losers, and both have already gotten their big heroic victories in the last six months. Kokeshis will fly and Makabe will advance.

YOSHI-HASHI vs. Yujiro Takahashi: A rematch of last year’s Destruction match, and a blatant failure of fair seeding in this tournament. Yujiro is now about on the same level as YOSHI on the roster hierarchy, so needs at least one win to make him seem semi-important again.

Yuji Nagata vs. Hirooki Goto: Nagata lost fairly decisively to Nakamura at New Beginning in Sendai, and so his quest for redemption could well be a story in this tournament and going forward. If that is a prominent story going forward, Nagata will likely advance, otherwise Goto will move on to another Meiyu Tag war in round 2.

Satoshi Kojima vs. Katsuyori Shibata: Shibata against either Nagata or Goto is an excellent match-up, so I can’t see Kojima winning here. Still an important match for Koji to prove that he deserves to be higher up the card than hanging out with Jay White and Captain New Japan.

The No Hopers?

With the Suzuki-gun guys over in NOAH, the veterans and bottom feeders of the New Japan roster are filling out the bracket this year. Kojima, Nagata, YOSHI-HASHI and Honma are the guys fighting out of the prelim matches in an attempt to get big title shot. With a NEVER title shot up for grabs though, these guys do actually have a semblance of a chance of making the miracle run. Nagata seems to be in the midst of a ‘veteran underdog’ mini-push after his loss to Nakamura, while YOSHI and Honma, the eternal losers, could win one match in their relatively weak quarter of the bracket. It will be interesting to see if the underdogs are in the tournament only to make up the numbers, or if any of them have larger plans for the Cup and beyond.

Bad Luck for Okada

The main event of round 1 will see the Fale/Okada feud come to a head, but I don’t see this as the match where Okada gets his revenge for his New Year Dash loss. For one, Okada and Tanahashi aren’t going to be wrestling each other in a semi-final match in the first half of the Finals show. There’s literally no possibility of that match happening here. Either Tanahashi is losing to Ibushi, Okada is losing to Naito, or Okada can take another loss to Fale and build to an Invasion Attack match with more on the line. Personally, I’m not looking forward to a Fale/Okada match and this feud is mostly just a waste of time to keep Okada occupied until he can face Styles again. Fale had great matches with Nakamura, and could probably also be dragged to a good ones with Okada, but as a wrestler himself, he’s not very good. He works as a tangible monster to overcome and the Bad Luck Fall is a really cool move, but his matches just don’t have any juice unless Nakamura is injecting life into it. We’ll likely see what he can do in the Cup against several top level opponents, because I can’t see a reason to keep Okada alive in the tournament unless he’s winning the whole thing and moving on from Fale completely.

Is Ishii a Mega-Star?

With the NEVER Championship also being potentially on the line for the winner of the Cup, Tomohiro Ishii is being held in direct comparison with the ‘big’ champions; AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. Ishii elevated the NEVER title with his series of amazing matches for the belt throughout 2014. He may not have the ‘rock star’ qualities of Tanahashi, Nakamura and Okada, and I doubt he will ever hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but that doesn’t really matter. Just like Nakamura doesn’t need the top title because he has carved out his own niche and made ‘his’ belt just as important as the Heavyweight belt, Ishii has become synonymous with brutal, crazy and awesome NEVER Championship matches that are now a vital part of big New Japan cards. New Japan would not be as good as it is without him and the NEVER matches, and being considered a prize on the same level as Styles or Nakamura is a good indication of Ishii’s status as an upper echelon New Japan star. Ishii is heading to the UK in June as a bonafide star attraction, and his singles matches are consistently rated 4.5 stars and above. It happened pretty quietly, but Ishii is now a wrestling mega-star.

Not being in the tournament also means Ishii gets a break from singles action until April, which means he can finally get some R&R to heal his body, which is currently held together by bandages, old chewing gum and a child’s skipping rope.

So Who’s Gonna Win?

Everyone was perplexed after the Bullet Club inexplicably won the Tag Titles back from Meiyu tag at New Beginning in Osaka. Now I may well see a method to G&J’s madness. Just when you start to doubt them, they always seem to prove you wrong. With the tag titles out of the picture for the moment, Katsuyori Shibata can come out from left field and win the New Japan Cup, challenging AJ Styles or Shinsuke Nakamura (depending on Styles’ availability) at Invasion Attack. Shibata/Styles would be especially awesome and would provide a fresh match-up and give Styles’ reign plenty of legitimacy before an eventual showdown against Okada. G&J didn’t pull the trigger on Shibata winning the Cup last year after teasing it beforehand. It only makes sense that they’ll do it when barely anyone is expecting it, right? Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic falling for a Shibata main event push, even just for one show, but the pieces fit this time around.

Outside of my Shibata pick, there are some other obvious candidates. Hiroshi Tanahashi could come straight back to challenging Styles and perhaps even defeat him at Invasion Attack. Remember, Wrestle Kingdom 10 is far on the horizon and a Tanahashi/Okada main event where Okada finally becomes Ace and wins the IWGP Heavyweight Championship is a possibility.

Speaking of Okada, he is a very real possibility. Finally defeating Fale in round 1 (They’ve been feuding for a month, but it feels like years) and going all the way is a good redemption story after his torrid post-Wrestle Kingdom journey. Styles/Okada seems to be the eventual plan, so that Okada can get his revenge and win the title from the man he lost it to nearly a year ago. I’d say that’s coming in July at Dominion. For now, Okada’s getting killed in the Cup and getting the big win over Fale at Invasion Attack.

Bad Luck Fale is now cemented as the new Giant Bernard, and Bernard was always winning New Japan Cups. Fale’s only really good matches have come against Nakamura, so that could be in the cards again, although a Fale win would incite a fair few groans, from me included. Best to stay away from that and Nakamura/Fale for now.

The final logical choice for the win is Kota Ibushi. Ibushi has been outstanding as a New Japan heavyweight and has been very strongly booked with his only loss coming to Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom in my MOTY so far. Ibushi could well avenge that loss by winning the Cup and defeating Nakamura at Invasion Attack, but I feel it’s probably best to hold off on that big win for now. As I mentioned before, Golden Stardust look ready for a tag title match soon, so that will probably keep Ibushi busy for now. That of course doesn’t mean that he’s not going to be awesome, both in this tournament and beyond.

Final Thoughts:

Ultimately, the 2015 New Japan Cup is pretty unpredictable, with no obvious winner standing out and several interesting booking possibilities that will be fun to see play out. Pretty much anyone can lose in the first round or go on a big run in the Cup. That intrigue combined with several potentially great matches to look forward to make the NJC pretty exciting.