This year’s New Japan Cup brought in more eyes than usual; New Japan Pro Wrestling’s rise in the Western world has been bolstered by Wrestle Kingdom 9, NJPW World, and the ennui of mainstream American wrestling (and of course, the Voices of Wrestling brackets we all filled out).
Many storylines emerged from this year’s tournament. Kota Ibushi rose as a deserving victor and decided to challenge A.J. Styles for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Invasion Attack 2015, CHAOS continues to feud against the Bullet Club, and Hiroshi Tanahashi finds himself in a peculiar position on the mid-card moving forward, to name a few.
Besides some other talents showcased in the tournament, here are the highs and lows of the NJPW Cup 2015 and their possible ramifications for the above-mentioned talent and more:
Ibushi & Okada & Tanahashi & Nakamura
While the Beatles-inspired headline would make a great shirt, these four names are more or less the best representatives for the company, alongside the gaijin that make up the Bullet Club.
Ibushi’s triumph was aided by Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi’s early exits from the tournament. Both losses, Okada’s to Bad Luck Fale and Tanahashi’s to Toru Yano, were shocking at first, but in hindsight, it made sense for the two superstars to be exiled so early and promote the tournament’s unpredictability.
In Tanahashi’s case, his current feud against Yanu seems to be a hot one in terms of crowd approval, but it feels like it’s already fallen by the wayside. Their singles match was short-lived, as Yanu cheated his way to victory to and dumped Tanahashi out of the competition. Yanu’s tricks failed him against Ibushi in the second round, forcing him to. Yanu further haunted Tanahashi in tag matches during later events, specifically when he teamed up with CHAOS stable mate Kazushi Sakuraba and defeated Tanahashi, who was teaming with Captain New Japan, by pinfall (while the latter had Captain New Japan by his side). That match wasn’t very good, either, and it’s a little strange seeing Tanahashi throw himself on the ground in a pouting frenzy.
Having Tanahashi in a mid-card feud is great, just like WWE is currently doing with their golden boy, John Cena, or how Ring of Honor had Alberto El Patron duke it out against Jay Lethal instead of propelling him to the world title. The problem is we don’t need build up through tag matches, because the feud has surpassed those pointless affairs. The company needs to strike while the iron is hot, and booking another tag match for the PPV (Tanahashi & Katsuyori Shibata vs. Yanu & Sakuraba) just isn’t appealing. It’s wasteful for all involved. There’s no reason why Tanahashi and Yanu can’t have a singles match on the card. Even if Yanu pins the “Cosmic Star” again, it’s going to be repetitive and fruitless if they hold their singles encounter back.
In Okada’s case, he put over Fale clean in the first round, and then scored a pinfall on The “Underboss” in a six-man tag a few days later. The bookers used this platform to promote a feud between two towering athletes, which built interest for their clash at Invasion Attack. This feud seems perfectly fine considering the buildup has been good.
As the tournament reached the final four, it was clear Ibushi would take it home. He was favored against Tetsuya Naito in what was arguably the match of the tournament, and it would have been incredibly odd to have Hirooki Goto (a finalist and three-time tournament winner) or Togi Makabe awarded with top honors with no real future value. After Goto eliminated Makabe in a short, somewhat uneventful match, Ibushi’s win was written in stone.
That said, it was the right call, and one that should have been obvious from the get-go. This isn’t to say you should have known he was going to win. (Lord knows my bracket was a complete joke). It just felt like this was a long time coming, especially after his incredible display against Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 9.
Styles was noticeably absent from the festivities, along with his North American brothers The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. The former TNA superstar will be facing Ibushi on April 15, and truth be told, that match can’t come any sooner. It’s difficult to envision Ibushi topping Styles, but it would turn the tide and make for an interesting summer.
Regarding Nakamura, who is quite possibly the best wrestler in the world, it seems we’re left scratching our heads. He defeated Yugi Nagata at The New Beginning in Sendai, and then he was sort of forced to simmer down. He was the star attraction on the tag matches he was booked in during the tourney’s course and got the biggest pops.
It doesn’t take a Puro expert to notice he doesn’t have a featured program at the moment. It’s as if his agenda hasn’t been filled out for weeks now. It’s possible something will arise, but considering he’s rumored to be in a six-man tag contest at Invasion Attack (with Tomohiro Ishii & Yoshi-Hashi vs. Goto, Naito & Makabe), it’s obvious there isn’t a singles feud that makes sense.
Comparing his championship run to Daniel Bryan’s tragic run after WrestleMania 30 may be pushing it. It’s not like Nakamura will be forced to battle Kane for a few months, yet it’s very possible he’s going to be facing a string of undeserving contenders. Maybe something will come up with Goto, and that could be satisfactory. But as it stands, Nakamura is a champion with no challenges, meaning the promotion would be insane to take the Intercontinental strap off his waist. Some call for his move to the heavyweight picture, but what do you do with him until then?
A Wasted Opportunity for Shibata & Honma
The biggest mistake a mark commits is trying to put on the booker’s shoes. Simply put, the size won’t fit.
Tomoaki Honma could be the hottest star in NJPW right now. Virtually unknown in the Western world of wrestling, his matches are a delight, whether he be in an eight-man tag, or a brutally stiff contest for gold.
His five-star match against Ishii at The New Beginning in Sendai was scintillating, with many calling it the frontrunner for match of the year. Despite his popularity, Honma rarely wins singles matches, but makes the audience believe he’s going to triumph until it all comes crashing down.
Is he being buried? Not quite. You can look at it that way, or you can think about how losing while the crowd cheers his every move is getting him more praise in losing efforts. There isn’t a single soul in those venues that doesn’t want to see him win. That’s the beauty of his gimmick.
Honma formed a partnership on the final night with another beloved figure, Shibata. The two were at each other’s throats before the match started. We saw their tough-guy egos clash, and soaked up the fun. They took on The Bullet Club’s Tama Tonga and Cody Hall (who had a good showing these past few events, but has a long way to go, too), and ended up getting the win while almost coming to blows on several occasions – (including after the match).
It was fun to see them clash (which reminded us of their great encounter at the G1 Climax last year), but is that really where it stopped? With Shibata teaming with Tanahashi and Honma set to be in a tag match on the PPV, this partnership or potential feud has come to a halt. We can’t bank on it resuming, even if it will in a few weeks, because of the current scenario. As it stands, The Bullet Club’s Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows hold the IWGP Tag Team Championship. They can certainly cut the mustard, yet their reign is becoming a little boring, in contrast to the wild matches we’re used to with the IWGP Junior Tag Team Championship. After all, Michael Bennett and Matt Taven are being invited to challenge for The Bullet Club’s gold.
Why not have Honma and Shibata form a successful partnership while having urges to pummel one another until obtaining a title shot? They would be an ode to tag champions who won belts while hating each other. They wouldn’t exactly be Rock n’ Sock Connection, but remember the relationship between Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels when they held tag titles, or more recently, Team Hell No?
Since it would be smart for Ishii and Makabe to have one last go over the NEVER championship, this feels like a wasted opportunity for the “Honmamania” movement (and his lethal one-time partner, too).
The Filler Problem
One advantage NJPW has is the ability to include more than half the roster on every event. Casting aside the house shows with seven tag matches on the bill, there are a lot of three-on-threes, four-on-fours, and five-on-fives, and that’s dandy.
However, it’s becoming a little too repetitive. These tag matches opening events are becoming a dime a dozen, with fluctuating winners and no concept to underline. There’s no issue with watching talents like Kushida, Sho Tanaka, Jay White, and Mascada Dorada perform, but they could change it up a bit.
It’s hard to say how, and what format could improve these filler matches. Legends like Nagata, Satoshi Kojima, Jushin Liger, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan should be seen frequently, but not in the same manner week in and out. We applaud this promotion for having the best wrestling in the world, but some cards are a little difficult to get through when the first hour and a half is something you’ve seen a dozen times. This is by no means a call for abandoning efforts to get as much of the roster on the card as possible, it’s just a suggestion for something a little different. Dorada challenges Omega for the Canadian’s strap at the PPV, while Liger will be against Tiger Mask in a friendly fight for his NWA belt. Sometimes, good things arise from these contests, or it’s a matter of finding the right pairing for the future.
We need the mix of up and comers tussling with the legends, and vice versa, just not every single time. Then again, it’s not like they’re giving us Kane and Big Show in the co-main and main event showcases.
This year’s Cup reminded us why wrestling tournaments are a boatload of fun, but almost non-existent in the mainstream bubble. The tournament didn’t come close to rivaling the G1 Climax, which is an incredible watch, but was a good precursor.
There wasn’t anything grandiose to boast about, while there wasn’t much different from the astounding shows we’ve been seeing from NJPW lately. If anything, this tournament deserves a flat B for being pretty good, and keeping the ship sailing. It’s going to be a compelling year for NJPW, amidst all the extra attention the promotion is attracting. This was a good offering, even though some of the results required a little more critical thinking.