New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Cup 2016
March 12, 2016
Aomori, Japan

Watch: /GIFs thanks to @SenorLARIATO

Jay White def. David Finlay

To the surprise of no one, these two have more than competently filled the shoes of Yohei Komatsu and Sho Tanaka in the role of young lion rivals who moonlight as tag team partners, consistently opening shows with crisp, well worked singles matches that always fall in the *** – ***1/2 range. I don’t think this will come off as controversial at all, but as great as Komatsu & Tanaka were, these two guys are better. Finlay should be. He’s got the experience edge and the pedigree. White is at a similar stage of his career as Komatsunaka, and I think like Finlay, he’s a little ahead of those guys as well.

These guys have a neat little story going. Finlay won the first head to head singles match, but has now dropped his fifth straight. Lately, he’s dominated the bulk of the matches, only to make a mistake at the end, with White pulling it out. Again here, it looked like Finlay had White beat with a crab hold, but White ended up reversing and getting the tap. Another solid match between the two, as White widens the gap and takes a 5-1 head to head lead. ***

Jushin Thunder Liger & Juice Robinson def. Tiger Mask & Captain New Japan

Is the Jushin Thunder Liger/Tiger Mask tag team dead? They stopped teaming during the build to their December NWA World Junior title match, and while they’ve been on the same side for six and eight man tags, they haven’t worked together in a 2 vs 2 tag match since October 25, 2015 (while actually opposing each other several times during that period).

If you were looking for a reason to pay close attention to this completely meaningless prelim bout, there was some genuine intrigue in terms of who would take the fall – the veteran Captain New Japan, or pseudo young lion Juice Robinson, who has been on a genuine roll lately and is starting to get over. Robinson tapped the Captain with a seated cobra clutch, so that could be his new finish. Or it could have been his finish this entire time, because he almost never scores a fall.

Tiger Mask dusted off his NWA junior title for this one, and based on the post match shenanigans, it looks like we’re getting another Liger challenge. That’s fine by me. It’s a prelim level title that gives the veteran juniors something to do. I have no problem watching a little 9 minute Jushin Thunder Liger title match if it means sitting through one less meaningless undercard tag bout. This also sets up a potential title change, because then Liger could drop the title later this year in America, which makes more sense than NWA promoters booking a “who cares?” dude like Tiger Mask IV in the states (although sadly, I’ll admit that I’d probably drive a few hours to see a mediocre Tiger Mask U.S. bout) **1/2

EVIL & BUSHI def. Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI

EVIL pinning Ishii was a major statement, and represents the next step in his elevation. From a booking perspective, this was a great time to pull a move like this, with Ishii not occupied in a current program, and with EVIL making a clear challenge for the ROH TV title in the post match. Maybe Watanabe wants the title so he can ignore it the same way ROH ignored him while he was on excursion. **1/2

New Japan Cup Semi Final
Tetsuya Naito def. Toru Yano

Like he’s been doing all tournament long, the Sublime Master Thief tried to steal this one, attacking Naito with a chair before the bell while Naito was casually disrobing, and then emptying his arsenal of roll ups and school boys. Naito turned the tables and won with a sneaky cradle of his own, and did so before he even had a chance to take off his Tony Manero Saturday Night Fever leisure suit. I’ll go **, I guess. It was only like 60 seconds long, but it was a hot 60 seconds because the Yano quick wins are over, and it was fine for what it was.

New Japan Cup Semi Final
Hirooki Goto def. Michael Elgin

This was a hot match that made me very badly want to see a long main event between these two. It was a total sprint from the start, so you knew they were going short, which made for some cool edge of your seat style drama knowing that the fall could come at any time. For the finish, Goto ducked a lariat and tied up #BigMike (copyright Voices of Wrestling) in a La Magistral variation to score the flash pin, which Elgin kicked out of a split second too late, continuing the story of Goto winning by any means necessary and sneaking past opponents by the skin of his teeth. This “Broken Goto” story is very intriguing, and I can’t wait to see the direction it takes. It’s also worth noting that the crowd was very pro-Elgin, and gutted with the result, immediately going from hyped to silent when Elgin went down. ***1/2

TenKoji (Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima) def. Katsuyori Shibata & Ryusuke Taguchi

As expected, Kojima strongest arm’d Taguchi out of his boots to set up his NEVER title challenge of Shibata. Shibata didn’t bother waiting for Kojima to finish his promo, delivering a running boot to Kojima’s face mid sentence, leading to a short scuffle before Shibata ended up KO’d via Cozy Lariat. Kojima then styled over Shibata’s dead body while holding up the NEVER belt. Kojima came off like an absolute boss here, and this was another great build to a future title match (Invasion Attack?). ***

Kazuchika Okada & Kazushi Sakuraba def. Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi

Nakanishi is beyond shot, and it’s time to send him off to Dradition with the rest of the senior circuit. Sakuraba did a dive, so that was cool. Extra quarter star for that. **1/4

Bad Luck Fale & Tama Tonga & Yujiro Takahashi def. Hiroshi Tanahashi & Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma

Any casual New Japan viewer could have served as the agent for this one. Lots of Honma selling, Tanhashi/Fale interactions, Makabe tagging in once and largely taking the night off, and Tonga beating Honma to set up his tag title challenge. Tonga’s double underhook DDT looked good here.

Tonga finally named his mystery partner/newest Bullet Club member, “My brother, Micah Tonga!” (at least I think that’s the name he growled out), which this writer will arrogantly back pat himself for correctly predicting on June 13, 2014. Micah and/or Camacho will have a lot to prove when he gets here. Never a standout in either of his forgettable WWE or TNA runs, he is now coming to a place where the working standard is higher and fans are more apt to see through guys who can’t go. Being a great worker is not a required prerequisite to pro wrestling success, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. He found no traction in places where it’s easier to excel if you’re mediocre bell to bell, and now he’s coming to a place where that stuff does tend to matter, at least a little more. A bad in ring debut could really dig him a hole, and while I like Tama Tonga’s upside, it’s not as if Micah is going top be able to skate through his debut riding the charisma wave of a partner who is a made guy himself, as Tama is still finding his footing as a pushed commodity with the fans. Micah does have one thing on his side. If I were a debuting in New Japan, my top choice for opponent would be Honma, who is over, will sell his ass off and will make you look like a million bucks, and whose matches always have enormous heat. A heated Honma match can help mask nerves or a shaky performance. ***

New Japan Cup Final
Tetsuya Naito def. Hirooki Goto

Goto comes close, only to fall short again. Some good subtle stuff here, including Goto using the Shouten Kai, which was a legitimate convincing false finish, because he had stored it away lately while winning his matches with far less impactful moves to support his “take the wins however you can get them” gimmick. Naito announced his intentions to challenge Okada at Invasion Attack, which means we all worked ourselves into the proverbial shoot by speculating that he might hold back his challenge for Osaka later this year. EVIL & BUSHI rolled the carcass of Goto over to Naito, but instead of a Los Ingobernables de Japan invite, they delivered a southern territory style boot stomping. Okada made the save, and this time, Goto accepted his handshake. CHAOS invite? Flat end to his mental instability gimmick and a return to Goto being Goto? A set up for a potential swerve? I don’t know, things are hard to read, but I’m very curious where Goto goes from here. ***3/4

Final Thoughts: Another fun show for New Japan, which is having quite the year in terms of both fun shows and interesting booking directions. Nearly every bout on this show either advanced a storyline, set up a new match, or both. It feels like everyone on the roster has some semblance of a direction or story, all the way down to the prelim level with guys like Tiger Mask, and all of it feels fresh, which is a refreshing change to the repetitive feel of the back end of 2015.

As far as the top of the card, I’m not too sure what I think about Naito facing Okada this soon. I would have spent more time building to what is very clearly the biggest match currently in the holster, but with that said, there was no other obvious (or viable) IWGP title challenger, and Invasion Attack in Sumo Hall is one of the biggest and most important shows of the year. This speaks to the hit the company took in terms of depth with the WWE jumps, which is a problem that has been addressed in the booking over the last three months, with the elevations (or at least to this point attempted elevations, as we wait to see who catches on and who doesn’t) of LIdJ Naito, Kenny Omega, EVIL, Tama Tonga, Tomoaki Honma, and others. Attendance has been trending very slightly downward, but largely flat, so it will be interesting to see how Invasion Attack does (which according to reports had a surprisingly strong advance, even before any of the matchups were clear), and to see if the company can hold steady while they wait for the next wave of stars to emerge.