New Japan Pro Wrestling returns to Shinjuku FACE on May 19 for their second Lion’s Gate offering, Lion’s Gate Project2.
The lineup features the usual heavy dose of New Japan and NOAH talent, including most of the young boys from each promotion, with the added addition of Kaientai Dojo being sprinkled into the mix this time around.
Absent from the card are three young lions that New Japan is apparently keeping stored away in bubble wrap. Katsuya Kitamura and prized prospect Tomoyuki Oka (who many feel is a potential future ace) faced off in a three minute exhibition match back in February at Lion’s Gate Project 1, but have yet to make their official pro debuts. Many had hoped that they would finally debut here.
Their classmate, beefy judo hoss Takumi Honjo, made his official debut at LGP1, dropping the opener to NOAH veteran Shuhei Taniguchi, but has only wrestled five total matches since, and has not worked a single match at all in close to two months. Honjo looked awkward in the Taniguchi bout, but it was his first career match, and he wasn’t exactly working with top class talent in Taniguchi. These shows are presumably designed to allow young talent to gain valuable in ring experience, so it’s a bit odd to see three highly touted rookies work a grand total of one official match between the two shows so far.
But hey, enough about what you won’t be seeing. Let’s break down the matches which can be watched live on NJPW World tomorrow morning.
Hirai Kawato vs Kaito Kiyomiya
This is a battle of teenagers, with both dudes coming into the match at the barely legal age of 19. Kiyomiya (12/9/15) had less than a one month jump start on Kawato (1/3/16) to start their respective careers, yet has a whopping 42 match experience edge as a NOAH regular while NJPW uses Kawato more sporadically. They’ve faced each other once before, at the We Are Suzuki-Gun II show in March, which saw NOAH prevail over New Japan as Kiyomiya & Hitoshi Kumano defeated Kawato & Teruaki Kanemitsu (a match that was originally scheduled to take place at LGP1, but was forced to be reshuffled when Kanemitsu fell ill before the show). Kawato has never won a match (0-11-9). Kiyomiya comes in at 3-58-1, with only one singles win.
Kiyomiya is listed at a lean 5’11” 187, with a frame that figures to fill out as he matures. He projects as a heavyweight, and is a guy well worth keeping an eye on as he’s shown some good potential. He lost to New Japan veteran Ryusuke Taguchi at the LGP1 show.
Kawato is a little shorter and a bit lighter than Kiyomiya, and sports a shockingly (bordering on comically) thin body. It’s way too early to tell if he can add enough weight to that frame to be a heavyweight, but with guys like Oka and Honjo in the same class, I’m leaning towards him being a junior. He won’t turn 30 until 2027, so New Japan has plenty of time to bring him along slowly.
Look for Kiyomiya to pick up his second career singles victory, but a 10:00 draw (or even a Kawato win) isn’t completely out of the question.
Shiro Tomoyose vs Teruaki Kanemitsu
Another battle between NOAH and NJPW first year wrestlers, and the Lion’s Gate Project debut for both men. Tomoyose wasn’t booked for the first show. Kanemitsu was, but fell ill and was scratched. They’re four years older than Kiyomiya and Kawato.
Unless we see a draw, someone’s ‘O’ has got to go. Tomoyose is 0-25-1 in singles matches, and Kanemitsu has never won a match, period (0-15-8).
This bout will take place in the same building and almost one year to the day of Tomoyose’s May 21, 2015 pro debut. As far as Kanemitsu goes, I’d say he’s slightly ahead of Kawato in his development (he already sports a very good looking dropkick), but both NJPW young lions in these first two bouts are well behind their NOAH opponents in their respective career arcs, as the NOAH boys work far more frequently on the road, and it shows.
Ayato Yoshida vs Hitoshi Kumano
K-Dojo’s Yoshida (23) is the first non-NJPW or NOAH wrestler to participate on a Lion’s Gate show. Yoshida is a true rookie, only 50 matches into his career following a November 2015 debut, but unlike his NJPW and NOAH counterparts, Yoshida gets plenty of booking respect in the smaller and shallower K-Dojo promotion. He’s a part of the NEX4 unit, a group of rookies that generally takes their lumps against veterans like TAKA Michinoku, Hiro Tonai, and Ricky Fuji, but go toe-to-toe with lower ranked veterans and the other younger wrestlers. Yoshida won the 2016 K-METAL League, which mostly consisted of his NEX4 rookie stablemates, so combined with being booked here, it appears that this is the rookie K-Dojo is getting behind the most.
Kumano (24) is a grizzled vet by young boy standards, closing in on four years into his NOAH career. He’s starting to show plenty of polish, and we’re nearing the point where he might be elevated into the very competitive and talented NOAH junior mix. I expect Kumano to win here. He always beats Kiyomiya and Tomoyose, he won against Kawato at LGP1, and Yoshida would figure to be beneath him in the pecking order as well. This has a chance to be a better match than some people might think.
David Finlay vs Yoshinari Ogawa
The grimy veteran Ogawa, known as “Rat Boy” because, well, he looks like a rat (and also wrestles like one), delivered one of the best matches of LGP1 with his no nonsense win over Jay White. Ogawa is the perfect opponent for younger wrestlers on these shows, because if he’s motivated, and he appeared to be against White, as a young wrestler you are bound to learn something new.
Finlay, who inadvertently worked the Twitter world into a shoot with his off-handed comment about leaving Japan in May (it appears it turned out to simply be a short break and trip home) lost to Taiji Ishimori in a solid match at LGP1. Finlay always brings it. I have a feeling he’ll work very well with Ogawa, so this has a chance to be the best match on the show if they click and have good chemistry together.
Captain NOAH & Genba Hirayanagi vs Mohammed Yone & Ryusuke Taguchi
If the NOAH bookerman and one of NOAH’s key dojo trainers are going to be in the building anyway, I guess you may as well shoehorn them into these shows, but why not against a couple of the unused young boys we discussed earlier instead of a veteran team like TenKoji, who they faced at LGP1? This time around they draw the The Funky Weapon and Mr. Afro, a tag team that none of us knew we ever wanted but that we may find out we needed all along.
Yone is your classic “lunch pail” guy. His 20-year career began in the early 90s, bouncing around places like BattleARTS and FMW, before landing in All Japan. He’s one of the few remaining NOAH originals, making the jump from AJPW with the rest of the mass exodus in 2001. The quintessential mid carder, Yone has had his moments, including two GHC tag title runs with Takeshi Morishima (during Morishima’s key formative years), and a third tag title run with Takeshi Rikio after turning heel, cutting his trademark afro, and forming heel unit Disobey, which was probably the biggest attempt of a major push in his career.
Aside from some minor one night tournament wins and a long run with the long forgotten GHC Hardcore Openweight title, Yone’s only other major accomplishment was winning the 2012 Global Tag League with Naomichi Marufuji after going back babyface and joining BRAVE when the heel push didn’t really take. He’s had three GHC Heavyweight title challenges over the years, usually as a placeholder challenger in between major shows. These days, he fills out the undercard on the babyface side, teaming with younger wrestlers, and occasionally pulling an upset or two with the move he popularized, the Kinniku (Muscle) Buster. Yone was never and will never be a major star, but that’s OK. Wrestling needs big stars like Kobashi. Wrestling needs workhorses like Nakajima. Wrestling needs weird characters like Genba. And wrestling needs lunch pail guys like Mohammed Yone.
Jay White vs. Naomichi Marufuji
White has been on fire lately, whether it’s killing it in openers against David Finlay, taking Kenny Omega to the limit, or his solid match against Yoshinari Ogawa at LGP1. I think he’ll have an excellent match here against hardcore whipping boy Marufuji.
Often times with wrestling fans, an opinion gains momentum like an avalanche, and people pile on and go overboard. Despite bold booking that helped rebuild his company from a black hole, and creating new star after new star, Gedo is a terrible booker and the village idiot. Roman Reigns shows improvement and has a couple of good matches in between multiple duds, and all of a sudden in some circles he’s one of the best workers on Earth, while others still claim he’s completely terrible. “Cena sucks” was a rallying cry for many years, despite the fact that John Cena never, in fact, ever really sucked beyond his very early formative years. The instant reaction era of social media where instantaneous opinions on everything are a requirement and fear that anything less than a flaming hot take will be ignored has created a perfect storm where hyperbole rules the day.
Naomichi Marufji was a much better wrestler ten years ago. In fact, Naomichi Marufuji was one of the best wrestlers in the world ten years ago. Prior to that, he was part of one of the greatest teams of the aught decade, and in watching those matches back, was in many ways the backbone and stabilizing force of the team even if KENTA was very obviously the burgeoning star of the pair. Somewhere along the way, Marufuji regressed. He got chop happy. His closing runs became exceedingly excessive, even by modern puro standards where excessive closing stretches are expected and accepted. With all of that said, Marufuji is very far from the terrible pro wrestler that avalanche opinion would have you believe. He may have ruined his chance to be remembered as an all-timer, and he’s not cracking many Wrestler of the Year lists these days, but he’s still a solid worker. He has his bad days, but he also still has his good ones. Marufuji is currently on the down escalator, passing Roman Reigns as Roman rides up. At this very moment, they’re at about the same level, high fiving as they pass, one trending up, the other trending down. Neither guy is terrible, and neither is great. But if we aren’t being extreme, we’re afraid we aren’t being heard.
Go Shiozaki vs. Juice Robinson
Don’t look now, but Juice Robinson’s plan to reinvent himself may finally be coming together, and it all started with his great performance at LGP1 against Katsuhiko Nakajima.
The Robinson/Nakajima match was easily the best match of Robinson’s New Japan run, and he’s been riding a bit of momentum ever since. After months of not knowing what to make of him, fans are starting to “get” him. His signature stuff is starting to get over, and he’s not always the one eating the fall in his tag bouts anymore. He received his first New Japan title shot (NEVER Openweight trios) in March, has been a frequent tag partner of Hiroshi Tanahashi, and has picked up U.S. bookings in high profile places like ROH and AAW. All told, he’s still only eight months into his NJPW run. I think some people may have been too quick to bury him. I prefer his path and like his long term outlook more than someone like Tanga Loa, even though Loa debuted in a semi main event of a PPV and instantly won a title. Robinson’s path has allowed him to acclimate to his surroundings and learn the style at a fair pace, while Loa has been tossed into the deep end without a life jacket. Loa was not ready for his spot, and if he doesn’t learn to swim quickly, he’ll have a stench of failure that is hard to kick. Meanwhile, Robinson just keeps plugging along, working in the dojo, improving, slowly getting over, and raising his profile. I thought it was very unfair to put Loa in that position, as he screams of someone who could use further development, and quite honestly, he belongs on shows like this one.
Shiozaki was one of three former Burning members (Kotaro Suzuki & Yoshinobu Kanemaru, plus non-Burning member Akebono) to hop off of the sinking ship of AJPW, and one of two (along with Kanemaru) who ended up back in NOAH. The mini exodus ended up being the best thing for all parties involved. Kanemaru is now a member of Suzuki-gun. Shiozaki is in line for a top babyface push. Kanemaru was just another guy in All Japan, and Shiozaki was about to be passed by emerging star Kento Miyahara. There was also the issue of All Japan’s money issues, with Kanemaru and Suzuki openly stating that money problems were the reason they exited. For their part, All Japan was relieved of four veteran salaries they couldn’t afford, and after a few months of uncertainty in terms of how to replace the lost talent, eventually hooked up with Big Japan, the result of which has been fresh cards with new matchups, an exciting new champion and potential big star in Miyahara, and positive momentum for the first time in years. Crowds have been improving, helped in part by using local indie talent to supplement cards in places like Osaka.
Shiozaki will beat Juice here, and there is a very good chance he’ll be the one to unseat Takashi Sugiura as GHC champion. Roster upheaval freshening up cards has been a running theme in the world of puro in 2016.
Katsuhiko Nakajima, Masa Kitamiya, Shuhei Taniguchi, Quiet Storm vs Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi, Satoshi Kojima, Hiroyoshi Tenzan
It’s the New Japan Dads vs Team NOAH.
NEVER champion Yuji Nagata has been positioned as the Lion’s Gate kingpin, which along with his feud against Katsuyori Shibata, has reinvigorated his career following a totally inconsequential 2015. On the opposite side is the rechristened Masa Kitamiya (who recently took on the first name of his mentor, Masa Saito), the man Nagata defeated in the main even of LGP1. Keep an eye on the interactions between those two.
Instead of this hodgepodge 8-man tag, maybe they should have had someone on the NOAH side challenge Nagata for his new title. I understand New Japan is protective of title matches, and these are meant to be developmental shows more than anything else, but what harm would it do to have Kitamiya lose a hard fought 12 minute title challenge, or to give a little payoff to Nakajima’s big win over Juice at LGP1 by granting him a NEVER title shot? As it stands, the only things to look for here is if they subtly build one of the four NOAH wrestlers for a match with Nagata at LGP3, and if Kitamiya is protected to some extent by having Quiet Storm take the fall. Otherwise, this screams of a by the numbers Bushiroad style mid card multi man match, and I greatly prefer Nagata do a “take on all comers” gimmick in these main events, even if the NEVER title is off limits.