New Japan Pro Wrestling’s much anticipated Lion’s Gate sub promotion makes its debut on February 25 from Shinjuku FACE in Tokyo with Lion’s Gate Project 1.
These monthly shows should serve as a great showcase for the five new young lions the company officially introduced to the public in January, along with current lions David Finlay & Jay White, and young wrestlers from Pro Wrestling NOAH (New Japan ownership group Bushiroad has a financial stake in NOAH, which may or may not be a controlling interest). While the debut lineup is made up entirely of New Japan and NOAH talent, New Japan had boasted that young wrestlers from all promotions would be welcomed on the shows. Hopefully that eventually ends up being the case.
Let’s take a look at the matchups on the debut card, and break down the participants.
Shuhei Taniguchi vs Takumi Honjo
Taniguchi—who recently turned babyface, shed his MAYBACH mask, and reformed his tag team with Go Shiozaki—was once a legitimate heavyweight prospect for Pro Wrestling NOAH. He has spent the last few years as part of heelish stables No Mercy and Cho Kibou-Gun, and with his lousy matches, goofy bident, and propensity for being disqualified, he’s gained a well earned rep for being one of the shittiest wrestlers in mainstream Japanese wrestling. Unmasked and with a renewed push as one of the top faces in the company, Taniguchi has been given a fresh start to get his career back on track. He’s already 39 years old, so there is little chance he’ll see a run on top, but a GHC tag title run with Shiozaki and a veteran gatekeeper role is not out of the question in a promotion that is very shallow on the heavyweight babyface side.
Taniguchi will face Takumi Honjo, who will be making his pro wrestling debut. Honjo is one of the five new young lions that New Japan introduced the week of Wrestle Kingdom 10, and will be the first true heavyweight young lion to debut since the days of King Fale and Takaaki Watanabe. The 23-year old checks in at 242 pounds and has the look of a future hoss, with a background in wrestling and judo. I expect a dominant squash, but hopefully we get to see at least a little bit of offense from the young boy.
Hirai Kawato & Teruaki Kanemitsu vs Hitoshi Kumano & Kaito Kiyomiya
A battle between the two men replacing Yohei Komatsu & Sho Tanaka in New Japan, and NOAH’s own opening match version of Komatsu & Tanaka.
I hesitate to call Hirai Kawato a man, because he literally barely is one at 18-years old. To put his age in perspective, in ten years, a full decade from now, he will be about the same age as Komatsu is right now, who just a couple of weeks ago left Japan for his learning excursion. Kawato’s body has yet to fill out, at a rail thin 176 pounds. He’s looked a bit awkward and uneven in his early bouts, but that’s to be expected of a teenager who has less than ten matches under his belt. He won’t turn 30 until 2028(!), so he has plenty of time to develop. Like Komatsu to Tanaka, Kawato will forever be linked to Teruaki Kanemitsu. They both debuted on January 3, and they’ll likely face each other countless times over the next few years. Kanemitsu is five years older and 20 pounds heavier than Kawato, and has already shown a nifty dropkick as part of his arsenal.
Hitoshi Kumano is getting to be a little long in the tooth experience wise (2016 will be his fourth full year as a pro) to be considered a young boy for very much longer. With that said, he’s still only 24 years old. He strikes me as a guy who will develop into a good hand and plus worker. At about 5’7″ 160, he doesn’t have the size to be a star, even if he eventually finds his charisma. He frequently faces and teams with Kiyomiya, a 2015 rookie who could stand a few more hours in the gym, but shows good fire in the ring. These two frequently occupy NOAH openers either against each other or as a tag team. Kiyomiya will be in the ring against opponents with less experience than him for the first time in this match, and Kumano’s ring generalship will be tested here.
David Finlay vs Taiji Ishimori
Finlay is advanced well beyond the young lion level, no matter what color his trunks are. Finlay is very, very talented, and very, very good. He debuted in New Japan last May, going 0-7 for a last place finish in his Best of the Super Juniors block, but has match records going all the way back to 2012 and has probably been wrestling for even longer than that. With two new young lions in the mix, a third debuting on this show, and two more debuting very soon, Finlay could be (and should be) heading on excursion very soon.
Finlay faces the current GHC Junior Heavyweight champion, Taiji Ishimori. It’s hard to believe Ishimori is only 33 years old. He’s one of the longest standing continuous members of the NOAH roster, having been with the promotion for ten years. Originally trained by Ultimo Dragon, Ishimori got lost in the Toryumon political shenanigans of the early 2000s, bouncing around short lived spin offs like Toryumon X and dragondoor (where he was being groomed as the ace), before landing in stable NOAH for good. He’s always been an underrated wrestler, but is currently in the midst of arguably the best run of his career. In a bit of trivia, long before The Award Winning WWE Network ever existed, Ishimori was one of the rumored names when the WWE cruiserweight show was first being talked about a decade ago, an idea which eventually morphed into the now infamous juniors division.
If given time, Finaly & Ishimori could easily have a 4-star match and steal the show. I doubt that will be the case, but it should still end up being one of the best matches on the card.
Jay White vs Yoshinari Ogawa
Like Finlay, White is a legitimately great wrestler and a young lion in name only. He debuted in New Japan in January 2015, but had plenty of experience working under the radar shows in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe previous to NJPW. He wouldn’t look a bit out of place as a pushed commodity in New Japan or if he stepped into a WWE ring tomorrow.
Ogawa is pushing 50, with a career that spans back to the glory days of All Japan Pro Wrestling and includes a short run as GHC Heavyweight champ. He isn’t pushed very hard these days, but “Rat Boy” can still go, even after a serious neck injury and 30 years of working the hard King’s Road style. This is the most intriguing match of the show on paper. If Ogawa is in a grumpy mood, he could choose to eat White up. That might be just as interesting to watch as a 50/50 match.
Manabu Nakanishi vs Quiet Storm
Yes, THAT Quiet Storm, who you might know from early ROH shows or grimy early 2000s Northeast indies. After failing to catch on in North America in the early days of the indie boom, he made his way to Japan, where he’s quietly (pun most definitely intended) carved out a long career. He spent time training under TAKA Michinoku and working K-Dojo shows before eventually moving on to Osaka Pro. When Osaka Pro effectively closed up shop (they still run as a shell promotion roughly once per month, supplemented by Dragon Gate talent in front of tiny crowds in small buildings) he caught on with NOAH, where he’s been a regular since 2014. He grunts a lot (seriously, this guy is the noisiest wrestler since Iron Mike Sharpe) and doesn’t get much of a chance to shine, so he takes a lot of shit from puro fans, but he’s a competent worker who isn’t nearly as bad as his reputation makes him out to be.
Nakanishi is completely washed up, and he wasn’t very good to begin with eve when he was in his prime. For those completely unfamiliar with puro, you may remember him from his excursion twenty years ago working as Kurosawa, during the early days of WCW Monday Nitro. This match has virtually no chance of being good, because at this point Nakanishi is nearly immobile to the point that he’s hard to hide in tags, let alone singles bouts.
TenKoji (Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima) vs Captain NOAH & Genba Hirayanagi
Between this and the Quiet Storm/Nakanishi match, this is where the card gets very un-liony.
Not much is known about Captain NOAH, other than his heartbreaking double cross of Captain New Japan on last year’s Suzuki-gun produce show in Korakuen Hall. There was something very familiar about his fist bump of Gedo, but the identity of this masked man is still a mystery. He forms an undercard comedy heel team with the veteran junior Genba, and they should make for short work for Tenzan & Kojima.
Juice Robinson vs Katsuhiko Nakajima
The former CJ Parker saw the writing on the wall of the quickly morphing NXT landscape, with the increased emphasis on recruiting international and indie stars to build a third touring brand, and surmised that he’d have a hard time breaking through without building a name for himself first. In what was a bold move, he quit WWE, and after a brief stint on the indie scene, joined the New Japan dojo. He hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in Japan, but he’s slowly showing improvements, and the New Japan fans are starting to take to him. He’s still just 26 years old.
Nakajima made his debut at 15 years old (FIFTEEN!), against Tomohiro Ishii in Korakuen Hall, and—as the adopted son and top student of Kensuke Sasaki & Akira Hokuto—he was earmarked for stardom from day one. He already had a decent career under his belt before he turned 20, working his first New Japan Best of the Super Juniors tournament at 16, and winning the All Japan junior heavyweight title at 19. He jumped from All Japan to NOAH with Sasaki and the rest of Sasaki’s Diamond Ring crew in 2008. Even after Sasaki folded up Diamond Ring a few years later, Nakajima continued to work NOAH as a freelancer until signing a contract and officially becoming an roster member at the end of 2015. With the freelancer designation behind him, the glass ceiling has been removed and NOAH is currently giving him the hardest push of his career, as he’s set to challenge for the GHC heavyweight title soon. Some wrestlers his age (27) are just getting started. With all of that said, his career has to be considered somewhat of a disappointment at this stage. Diamond Ring contemporary Kento Miyahara has passed him by, recently winning the All Japan Triple Crown. Nakajima has been a full time pro wrestler since 2004. If his body holds up, he has ten or more prime years in front of him, so there is still plenty of time to live up to what may have been unfair expectations to place on a 15 year old child. It’d be pretty amazing, and also a bit of a shame, if it turns out that he peaked at 20.
This will get time in the semi main event slot, and it has a chance to be the best match of Robinson’s career. It will no doubt be the best match of his New Japan career.
Yuji Nagata vs Mitsuhiro Kitamiya
To give more perspective on Nakajima’s age, Kitamiya—who is also a Kensuke Sasaki/Diamond Ring guy—was born seven months after Nakajima but didn’t start wrestling until 2011, seven years after Nakajima’s first bout. He’s NOAH’s top prospect by a mile, with a real chance to break out as the heavyweight star that the promotion desperately needs. He sort of lost his way booking wise after Takeshi Morishima retired, as he was being groomed as Morishima’s protege. Even though he jobs most of the time he usually outshines his veteran opponents. I’m a little surprised that he got the main event slot over Nakajima, but it could be because they wanted a true prospect in the spot to fit the theme of the show, and Nakajima is well beyond that point.
Kitamiya will face Yuji Nagata, who spends a ton of time in the New Japan dojo working with the new recruits. I like him in this role as the Lion’s Gate taskmaster, and hopefully there is a rotating door of young dudes waiting to get schooled by the legend. It’ll start with Kitamiya, who will show his usual fire in what will probably be the highest profile match of his career to this point. I’m sure Kitamiya will be hungry to impress people, and Nagata is a great opponent to work with in a spot like this.