New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Cup 2016 – Night 1
March 3, 2016
Ota Ward Gymnasium – Tokyo, Japan

Keep up with our 2016 New Japan Cup Pick’Em contest at How’d you fare after the first day? 

The New Japan Cup is the Rodney Dangerfield of New Japan Pro Wrestling because the annual spring tournament don’t get no respect. Of course, the Cup pales in comparison to the summer’s G1 Climax spectacular but since it’s inception in 2006, the New Japan Cup has done a great job of setting up month’s worth of storylines while always having engaging stories throughout the tournament. When the initial list of participants was announced, many questions New Japan’s depth, lamenting the devastation left by the exodus of Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. What the 2016 New Japan Cup offers to many of its participants is a chance. A chance to shine on a big stage in singles matches. A chance to show to the world that they deserve one of those empty spot left by the departing names.

This year more than New Japan Cup prior offers opportunity. (And look, we don’t get too many high-rate singles matches in New Japan anymore, cherish them while ya can, okay?)

Before the event started, Bushiroad president Takaaki Kidani had three big announcements:

  1. Michael Elgin has signed a two-year contract with the company
  2. Katsuyori Shibata once again has a contract with the company, signing a one-year deal
  3. The Super J Cup is coming back!

The first two, again, present great opportunities for two men to fill the spots left by their predecessors. Elgin in particular will slot right into the Karl Anderson role as a the “ace” gaijin, a role he should fit perfectly.

The final announcement, holy shit. Everyone knows about the historic 1994 Super J Cup, one of the best wrestling tournament in history but the Cup had a great reputation even after that inaugural event — even if it was held in the deepest, darkest shadows of Japanese wrestling (I’m looking at you Osaka Pro).

Dormant since 2009, the tournament presents more opportunity not only for New Japan’s juniors but juniors from multiple promotions as Kidani announced Pro Wrestling NOAH, KAIENTAI-DOJO, Dragon Gate, ZERO1, Ryukyu Dragon Pro-Wrestling, Suzuki-gun, CMLL and Ring of Honor as participating companies. The tournament will kick off August 21, after the G1 Climax and fills a nice void as the heavyweight take some time off after a grueling G1 season.

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Toru Yano def. Yujiro Takahashi

As expected, a confrontation between everyone’s favorite clown Toru Yano and Mr. R Rated would be complete madness and, guess what, it was. Yujiro began the match attacking Yano on the outside. Yujiro’s Bullet Club stablemate Cody Hall got in on the action too helping Yurjio continue the attack. Yano was ran into the post, into the ring bell all the while the referee begged Yujiro to bring it into the ring. Not tonight, pal. Undaunted, the referee finally began to count the two men out.

The dastardly Yujrio then choked Yano with a chair, stole a copy of his DVD and ripped it open, tossing the remnants into the crowd. This enraged Yano who sprung up, grabbed Yujiro’s legs, threw him to the outside and rolled into the ring just barely beating the 20-count and winning by count out. I can’t even rate this match because literally one second took place inside the ring but regardless, it was a fun, light-hearted way to kick off the tournament. NR

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Michael Elgin def. Hiroyoshi Tenzan

The newly-contracted Elgin felt important from the outset of this match as the first half acted almost solely as a showcase match. Tenzan had almost no offense and allowed Elgin to show off his array of offense all to very loud “EL-GIN! EL-GIN!” chants throughout. It still amazes me the transformation Elgin has made since last August. This was a guy that was receiving audible groans at Chicago-area indie shows I attended, he had lost any and all connection to independent wrestling fans and seemed destined for another life, outside of the wrestling business. Now in just a few months he’s transformed himself into an international star and will be entrenched into New Japan’s upper midcard for years to come.

After a first half dominated by #BigMike, Tenzan regained momentum and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand with a series of fast-paced (well, fast for 2016 Tenzan) comebacks. At one point, Tenzan appeared to have Elgin caught in the Anaconda Vice but Elgin smartly caught the ropes with his foot. Tenzan teased a moonsault but Elgin cut him off and reversed it into a buckle bomb and an Elgin Bomb for the victory. Tenzan worked his ass off and these two shocked me with a high-quality, under 10 minute match. ***½

After the match, Elgin tried to acknowledge Tenzan with a handshake but the New Japan legend wanted nothing to do with him, rolling out of the ring. I doubt that’ll be significant down the line but it was a nice touch to show how much a loss meant to him.

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Tama Tonga def. Togi Makabe

The entrances alone foretold the result of this match as Tama Tonga appeared jazzed well beyond his normal energy while Makabe seemed to be going through the motions. While this result may be a surprise to some, over 64% of our pick’em participants selected Tonga to defeat Makabe so this wasn’t out of nowhere. Still, saying it’ll happen and actually seeing it are two different things. NJPW absolutely made the right call in giving Tonga this win and giving him some much-needed protection as he molds into his increased role in 2016. The match itself was nothing special and was highlighted by a closing stretch that saw Makabe miss a King Kong Knee Drop giving Tonga all the opening he would need. Makabe, clearly frustrated he couldn’t put away the lesser Tonga, shoved the referee aside giving Tonga enough time to bust out a Gun Stun (ode to his departed former stablemate Karl Anderson). Tonga finally put Makabe away with Veleno (his jumping underhook DDT). **¼

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Satoshi Kojima def. Tomoaki Honma

Honma vs. Kojima had a 0% chance of not being at least “pretty good” and boy did they blow those expectations out of the water. Though it was just under 12 minutes, the entirety of the match felt like two guys who wanted to win as quickly as possible to prevent the other from gaining any type of advantage. In that way it felt like a classic NJPW G1 match and also had elements of peak 1990s All Japan Pro Wrestling. From beginning to end, this semi-sprint saw Honma doing everything he could to hit a Kokeshi and Kojima doing everything he can to destroy Honma with a lariat. A great sequence in the waning minutes saw Kojima go for a lariat with his right arm only to have Honma block it with sheer desperation. Unfazed, Kojima took his head off with the left arm. Stil, that wasn’t enough as Honma found a way out of it. Desperate to put him away, Kojima bounced off the ropes and hit another huge lariat to finally pick up the win. I need a cigarette after this one. ***¾

Kazuchika Okada & Kazushi Sakuraba def. Katsuyori Shibata & KUSHIDA

Another fun, beautifully-paced match coming once again just under 12 minutes. I really love the flow of this show. A showcase match for CHAOS more than anything, Okada and Sakuraba dominated the offense of the match. A personal highlight of the match was KUSHIDA rolling with Sakuraba. Ardent puro fans will know their relationship dates back many years and it’s clear KUSHIDA always relishes an opportunity to get in the ring with his mentor. Shibata and Okada also had a passionate exchange at the beginning of the match teasing the newly-signed Shibata was a potential title challenger down the line. It’s a shame KUSHIDA had to take the fall but he’s the junior, Shibata needs to be protected right now and CHAOS had to win for the purposes of the post-match. Not a match to go out of your way to see but certainly continues the positive momentum of this show. **¾

After the match, Okada grabbed a mic and pointed to the video screen. There, European wrestler Will Ospreay was revealed as the newest member of CHAOS. Ospreay got down to business right away, challenging KUSHIDA for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship.

If you aren’t familiar with Ospreay and have never seen his work, well, you’ve really missed out one of the premiere talents in the world of wrestling. Ospreay’s high flying will dazzle but he has a certain in-ring charisma that immediately grabs your attention. Check out what you can of his, if you need a guide, our 2015 Match of the Year countdown may be a good start as he was well represented throughout.

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Hirooki Goto def. Yuji Nagata

Though Goto vs. Nagata lacked the intensity and pace of the previous first round matches, it wasn’t any worse for it. Instead, the story of this match focused on Nagata challenging Goto throughout. Nagata was positioned as the smarter, more experienced wrestler who took advantage of every single opening Goto gave him. Goto eventually relished in the challenge, pleading with Nagata to punish him with kicks. Or so it seemed. Goto immediately grabbed ahold of Nagata and hit him with a nasty looking backbreaker. You can see this being used as either a) Goto has a new edge to him or b) Goto took the opening Nagata gave him and made the most of it. Either way it was great storytelling that the first ten or so minutes of the match helped develop.

Goto finally finished Nagata off with the Goto-shiki, a convoluted but super cool looking pin/hold combo. So long as you weren’t expecting a high-paced slugfest, you’ll enjoy what these two did. ***

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Tetsuya Naito def. YOSHI-HASHI

Natio was his usual chicken-shit self in the first half of the match routinely taking YOSHI-HASHI to the outside and in one sequence whipping him into the barricades which feel resulting in Tacos flying into the fans.

It felt inevitable that YOSHI-HASHI would lose in pathetic fashion but no, Tacos started firing up and actually for a few moments appeared to be in control. He teased a Loose Explosion (senton) but Naito moved at the last minute avoiding defeat. What followed may have been the highlight of YOSHI-HASHI’s career as he and Naito got into a long slap fight which saw Tacos taking advantage until two thunderous slaps from Naito put him on the ground. YOSHI-HASHI wasn’t done yet, locking Naito in a dragon sleeper. The crowd was invested but knew there was no way in hell Naito was going to lose. They were right, a few moments later Naito broke out of the hold and hit the Destino for the win. ***1/4

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Tomohiro Ishii def. “King of Darkness” EVIL  

This was perhaps EVIL’s most complete performance since returning to the company. With Ishii helping to keep the match grounded and intense, it was just the right blend of outside shenanigans (chair shots aplenty in the beginning) and strong, fierce work. EVIL has had trouble harnessing the “monster” aspect of his character but he was right at home here with Ishii. EVIL felt right at home in previous NEVER Openweight Championship eras with stiff suplexes, loud chops and lots of grunting. The closing stretch saw the two exchanging a series of hard lariats with neither man relenting.

The veteran was just a little stronger and a little faster on this night and after two super strong lariats, Ishii put EVIL away with the Brainbuster. With roster spots up for grabs all across the roster guys are stepping up left and right. On this night alone both YOSHI-HASHI and EVIL stepped up in big ways. This would’ve fit as the NEVER Openweight title defense on any major show. A fantastic showing by both men. ***¾

New Japan Cup – 1st Round Match
Bad Luck Fale def. Hiroshi Tanahashi

Our first true “upset” of the tournament (less than 50% of our pick’em participants thought Fale would emerge victorious) saw Bad Luck Fale completely control the pacing of the match. If you enjoy Fale’s hulking style, you’ll enjoy this match but it was very much a Fale-dominated contest. I suspected Tanahashi would be getting the tournament off to rest his various ailments. Fale is the perfect guy to beat Tanahashi at this point in that he loses but it never seems to reduce his aura as a monster capable of beating anyone. Fale has a history of beating some of the top stars in the company (most notably Kazuchika Okada last year post-Wrestle Kingdom) so it fit the story perfectly. Tanahashi rallied multiple times throughout the match but the power of Fale was just too much to overcome. The former ace of New Japan had a chance to put Fale away with the High Fly Flow but Fale grabbed him with a chokeslam and followed up with a Bad Luck Fall for the victory. These two have had better matches but again, the story fit perfectly here so I have no complaints. ***1/4

Final Thoughts: Night 1 of the 2016 New Japan Cup was the “Rich Kraetsch” special: everything was good, some stuff bordered on great but more than that, nothing was bad and it was a clean, easy watch. This year’s tournament is going to be a lot of fun, get in on the ground floor and watch Night 1.

Keep up with our 2016 New Japan Cup Pick’Em contest at How’d you fare after the first day?