New Japan’s first tournament of the calendar year—NJPW’s New Japan Cup 2016—wrapped up this past weekend from Aomori, Japan, immediately impacting the future of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, as well as how the next major event will play out.
Without further ado, here are the Highs & Lows of New Japan Cup.
It Is What It Is
You should realize by now that this particular tournament isn’t easy to predict. Most New Japan onlookers had Tetsuya Naito taking home the trophy from the very beginning, but the road to the final wasn’t a foreseeable one. Hiroshi Tanahashi suffered another first round exit (his second in a row) to Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga shocked Togi Makabe in the first round, and to top it all off, Toru Yano was inches away from booking his place in the final match of the tournament. This isn’t a bad thing, either; tournaments, which aren’t easy to come by in major wrestling promotions, should be fun, surprising, and tough to call, even though the winner can be predictable. It’s not exactly the G1 Climax, which is a longer, more rigorous tournament with a little more upside (headlining the Tokyo Dome), yet the events themselves are full of action, while the matches are short and to the point. The New Japan Cup is special in a sense where it dictates pace in terms of the next few title matches, as well as the next pay-per-view as a whole, which just so happens to be Invasion Attack.
This loophole, however, in which Naito accepts Kazuchika Okada’s title challenge instead of using his winning shot (presumably saving it for the Dominion event), can be a little bit of a downer. Obviously, it’s a deal that favors the heel, yet there are happenings on the outside that should be taken into account. Hirooki Goto, who lost to Naito in the final, had lost his way until accepting Okada’s handshake, meaning he’s accepting a place in the CHAOS stable. Many observers are hinting that Goto will join Los Ingobernables (even though this may not be the wisest choice when examining his New Japan future), which makes for interesting shows down the stretch. Maybe a possible Goto heel turn isn’t doing wonders for anyone right now, but neither was Naito before his Mexican venture. Let’s see how it plays out.
Surprise Ospreay Surprise
Speaking of the shape of things to come, Okada introduced the newest CHAOS member on the first night of the tournament, speaking over a downed KUSHIDA after their tag match and introduced Will Ospreay into the fray. This pretty much sums up the gifts fans received on that said night, including the return of the Super-J Cup and Michael Elgin’s two-year-contract announcement. Ospreay will challenge KUSHIDA at Invasion Attack for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight title, sure to dazzle the Japanese crowd and make his presence felt for those unfamiliar with his work. (You may want to check out some of his matches in Revolution Pro, Pro Wrestling Guerilla and PROGRESS, having wrestled the likes of Okada, AJ Styles, Matt Sydal, Zack Sabre Jr. And Kenny Omega, to name a few.)
Ospreay’s New Japan journey is similar to Ricochet’s in a sense that the American only needed a few matches to wow the crowd and become a fan favorite.
Ironically, Ricochet also had a stellar IWGP Jr. Heavyweight title match against Kota Ibushi at Dominion 2014, a match that made him a star in the promotion (he even battled KUSHIDA for the belt at last year’s G1 Climax Final). But unlike Ricochet, Ospreay’s going to be around a lot more, signing for the promotion at the tender age of 22. “The Aerial Assassin” also has a chance to become Britain’s first IWGP Jr. Heavyweight champion, which raises the stakes for this particular encounter. Will KUSHIDA prove to be too much, or will the Japanese wrestler continue to play hot potato with a title that seems destined to be around his waist?
Here To Stay?
One thing that stuck out on these string of events was the future of Bullet Club, and how the faction doesn’t seem to be dying down any time soon. Not only has the club’s future been put into question on this very column, it feels as if their days are numbered, thanks to the exodus that saw Prince Devitt, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows move over to WWE, all in the past few years. It feels like Bullet Club is a group divided these days, with leader Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks running The Elite, while original members Bad Luck Fale and Tama Tonga run the rest of the ship.
Speaking of those two, they came out looking strong in the tournament, each defeating two main eventers in Tanahashi and Makabe. Both Fale and Tonga didn’t make it out of the second round, yet looked brutish in defeating the former Ace and Great Bash Heel in a six-man tag match on the third night.
While Fale still needs room to grow into his own, Tonga seems poised to be the group’s next big star, complete with an underrated game in the ring and the face paint to make your children run. He’s also formed a tag team with his brother, Tanga Roa (formerly known as Camacho), who is yet to make his debut, but has a good chance of beating both Makabe and Tomoaki Honma for their IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles.
While the group’s luster is mainly carried by The Elite, the rest of the clique still carries the weight.
It hasn’t been a good start of the year for the beloved Tanahashi. He lost his final showdown to Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in a gut-wrenching defeat, and one that will no longer allow him to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at the Tokyo Dome. He then came up short against Kenny Omega at The New Beginning in Niigata for the vacant IWGP Intercontinental title, followed by a first round exit to Bad Luck Fale on night one of the Cup. So, is his stock at an all time low?
Tanahashi, who holds the record for most IWGP Heavyweight title reigns at seven, may be slowing down, but he isn’t going anywhere any time soon. With Okada fending off interest from the WWE, Tana serves as the backbone to New Japan, and losing doesn’t exactly hurt him because he’s had such a storied career. Even though Tana has lost three major match ups three months into the year, cards can be built around his presence alone, and considering he’s possibly been matched up with Fale for a feud in the next coming months, it shows that he’s helping younger talent in mid-card matches. As for the booking, this is what New Japan needs; Tana will take a backseat and let others into the main event picture while challenging for titles here and there. It’s the type of scenario fans would love to see with John Cena in WWE. Unlike WWE, though, New Japan can afford to do this with Tanahashi, and unless he loses the rest of his matches in 2016, this won’t hurt him all that much.