It’s year seven of the NJPW and CMLL collaboration for a January set of shows called FantasticaMania. They’ve settled into a pattern over the last few years, with a handful of shows around Japan and three nights in a row in Tokyo to close out the shows. It remains a strange follow up to WrestleKingdom 11: the big four matches from that show aren’t followed up, Bullet Club & Suzuki Gun are off, and the only CHAOS heavyweight on the shows is Kazuchika Okada. It’s an easy tour to skip for NJPW fans because it’s focused on a lot of people who aren’t considered “NJPW wrestlers”, but it does offer some of the best CMLL has to offer in once a year matchups.

The setup has changed a bit from last year. All shows from 2016’s FantasticaMania tour were eventually aired, between Samurai TV and NJPW World. This year, it’s been scaled back to only the tour opening event in Osaka and the final three nights in Tokyo. The Osaka show has some fun tag matches, but it won’t air on Samurai TV until about a week later, and all the non-Tokyo shows are simply build up team matches for later on. The focus of the tour is on the tour ending shows in Korakuen Hall, as normal.

Those Friday/Saturday/Sunday set of shows will all brought aired on NJPW World (4:30am ET/1:30am PT, running about two hours.) Only the final night will have commentary; last year, it was offered in both Japanese and Spanish, and it appears NJPW will offer the same this year.

The new opening match luchadors

NJPW & CMLL try to mix up the luchadors used for these tours. This can lead to disappointment—favorites Fuego and Mephisto are among not making the trip this time—it allows new people to get exposure in the early matches. This is usually a pretty lucrative tour, so spreading out the chances makes everyone a little happier. There’s four luchadores who are getting their shot in 2017. In increasing order of how interested you should be in seeing them:

Blue Panther Jr.: this is a debut, though it might not seem like it on the lineups. Family names hold lots of drawing power in Mexico, so the two sons of legendary Blue Panther are confusingly wrestling as “The Panther” (last year’s tour) and “Blue Panther Jr.” (this year’s tour.) This year’s version is the taller, stronger and less adept worker of the two, though he’s made some strides in the last year. Blue Jr. would probably benefit from some time outside of his comfort zone if he’s going to improve. Struggling on these shows might be to his long term benefit, though it doesn’t make for promising action on this tour.

Ephesto: Not actually a NJPW debut! Two gimmicks ago, as Safari, he and Sangre Azteca were part of the “Battle Final 2005” tour. It did not end well for him. His last NJPW match was a loss via referee stop, apparently with him getting injured since he missed the final day of the show. This same man also wrestled for Gran Hamada’s UWF in 1992 as Pantera del Ring. As you might be able to tell, this is an old rudo, just about eight months younger than Liger. Ephesto is one third of Mephisto’s Hijos del Infierno and a national trios champion, but he seems to be close to the end of his run. He’ll be fine enough in tag matches. If you ever find yourself fighting Ephesto, never slide out of the ring against him, he will tope you every single time.

Raziel: Long time early match wrestler who started out in CMLL as one half of a Roman themed tag team. He and his partner (Cancerbero) were standouts in opening matches, so CMLL rewarded them with new Guardians of Hell characters, and moved them all the way up to…the second match. His career has stalled out, and it’s taken a toll on the quality of his matches. Raziel’s more notable for occasional moments of sabotage on younger wrestler than good matches on his own. It’s frustrating, because Raziel is still good when motivated. He’s sort of a discount Ultimo Guerrero when he’s on, and makes sense to use in the early matches, but it’s still surprising CMLL or NJPW thought highly enough of a long term non-pushed luchador to include him on these shows.

Soberano Jr.: the biggest prospect of the newbies. A 23 year old third generation skinny flyer who’s looked impressive whenever CMLL takes off the handcuffs. He’s inching his way into the group of CMLL luchadors who actually have proper feuds and title matches, about six months after we’ve been begging for that move. Soberano is nicknamed “the next Sombra” on this tour. That’s probably too much right now – Sombra was farther along at his age – but frames the expectations on him. Soberano has to keep improving, but he’ll be in the bigger matches on this tour in future years if he does. (Soberano’s also the son of lead rudo Euforia, which CMLL readily acknowledges.)

None of these four have any big roles on the tour or figure to return to NJPW later this year; I could probably safely email Kraetsch their Year In Review profiles for the 2017 NJPW eBook as soon as this tour ends. These four working tag matches in the first few matches, with Jado, Gedo, rookies and whoever’s not busy. Soberano’s the one you want to keep an eye on, or at least expect to see him in some GIFs.

Friday Night Is For Lucha

NJPW usually logically builds these shows so the first day is a little bit skippable and the final day has the biggest. It’s much more evenly split this year, and with the most exciting matches on early Friday morning for most of us. Titán takes on Hiromu Takahashi in a non-title match, while Dragón Lee defends the CMLL Lightweight Championship against Bárbaro Cavernario. Neither outcome is in doubt, but Takahashi and Lee are matched up against opponents who will push them hard and simulate their future opponent. Cavernario is just about as crazy as Takahashi, and Titan & Lee share similar flying styles. These are fresh matches for even the most dedicated lucha libre watcher: Titán and Takahashi’s sole singles match in Mexico was not televised, and a Cavernario/Lee match hasn’t surfaced in two and half years.

The rest of the show is tag team matches, focused on building up later Korakuen Hall shows matches. It’s also one of three significant lucha shows that’ll be taking place over the same 24 hour stretch. Later that day, CMLL will have their usual Friday night Arena Mexico (card TBD, but probably leaning heavily on Caristico & Negro Casas.) AAA will also been in Mexico City for their annual Guerra de Titanes show. It won’t be streamed, but it will include a couple title matches and may include announcements about their big plans for the 25th Anniversary of their promotion and this year’s TripleMania. AAA didn’t seem to plan to be in Mexico City while CMLL’s big names were out of town, but it works out to be a busy weekend in lucha libre.

Saturday is the show with the most to prove

Is Maximo versus Hechicero for the CMLL Heavyweight Championship the strangest main event in the history of a NJPW co-promoted show? It’s the guy who was simply an extra body to fill out tags last year against a luchador who hasn’t been in Japan in three years, for a title which means nothing in Japan and not a lot more in Mexico. The match itself is strong and Maximo is always popular in Japan. It’s just an unusual pick, one which would not necessarily be seen a big match even in CMLL. If CMLL does the usual full crowd for this show, it’s a credit to the FantasticaMania brand.

Maximo will get the glory, but this is a bigger match for the rudo. Hechicero is loved in lucha circles, but more causal CMLL observers probably don’t get the hype. He’s looked good on this tour last year, and in his ROH appearances, but not at the level you’d expect for someone hyped as one of the best in the world by his backers. I think it’s more of a matter of opportunities than abilities, and this is an unexpectedly good opportunity for Hechicero to back up his billing. Hechicero’s also going to have the oddity of main eventing a (likely) sold out show in Korakuen Hall, then doing the same in the slightly larger Arena Naucalpan eight days later. Both shows are probably being sold as much on their brand as the matches, but it’s feat unlikely to be repeated.

Atlantis versus Rush is the semi main, only because NJPW is booking this and feels title matches are the most important. In Mexico, the same match would absolutely be the main event; it’s one of those huge matches CMLL could as an Anniversario match and sell out Arena Mexico in 24 hours. In Japan, I think it’s an important test for Rush. He’s coming off a middling World Tag League and needs to make a stronger impression if he’s hoping to be brought back to NJPW more than one tour a year. Atlantis hasn’t had epic matches in Japan and probably won’t here, but Rush has to do more than cost thru his trademark spots and sneak in a foul if he’s hoping to get invited back to NJPW or elsewhere.

Sunday Feels Like Deja Vu

Ultimo Guerrero versus Volador will be a pretty good match. I feel like this is a safe bet, because Volador has had twelve televised singles matches since June, which were all pretty much good. Ultimo Guerrero has had fourteen televised singles matches in the same time. They’ve had two singles matches, they were fine. This will be fine. It’s just not the fresh matches or novel featured on these shows in the past. It’s made worse because it’s these specific luchadors. Guerrero and Volador believe in doing all of their spots in every big match. It’s great if you check them out once a year, so the Tokyo fans will be thrilled, but it means their matches are about getting all those spots in, and not about switching it up all that much. CMLL running so many singles matches with a small set of wrestlers has exposed the weaknesses in their style.

The overall final night of FantasticaMania card is less creative than in past years. 2016’s card has the novelties of Liger/Virus and Komatsu/Tanaka’s final night in NJPW even beyond the big matches. It’s not totally a NJPW issue, CMLL hasn’t brought along enough new stars to allow for a bigger variety of matches. Still, it seems like a mistake for NJPW not to bring in a full set of tag or trios champions to allow them big matches beyond singles matches. It’s also disappointing to see them stay away from any NJPW/CMLL notable match outside of Titan/Takahashi. The teased Volador/Kushida match would make this final night a much bigger deal, and so would a Naito defending the IC title again someone like Ultimo Guerrero, or Rush teaming with the LIJ to try to get the Never trios titles back. It is also plain crazy Will Ospreay is on this tour for no other reason but to fill out tag matches. There are pieces around for an exciting final night lineup, and NJPW went with something less interesting.

The NJPW fan who only sees these guys once a year won’t care about all that. Volador/UG and Mistico/Euforia will get over well, even if they won’t be too surprising. The Cavernario/Takahashi vs Lee/Titan tag match on the final night, a rematch from Osaka, might be a show stealer. NJPW did make Kamaitachi/Dragon Lee a last minute addition last year, so maybe there’s even a little hope this vanilla lineup will get some surprise sprinkles after Saturday’s show concludes.

Dragon Lee’s Uncertain Future

There’s one possible “surprise” which is already sort of expected. Two years ago, NJPW surprised all by announcing Mascara Dorada would be joining the company on a one year loan. Dragon Lee might follow the same path. There’s been absolutely no news, simply speculation (a lot from me), about Dragon Lee going to NJPW. All we know for sure is NJPW thinks highly of Dragon Lee to fly him to Tokyo to do a run-in on New Year’s Dash, and loves his matches enough with Takahashi to make their title match the semi main on New Beginning instead of burning it off at FantasticaMania. NJPW sees Dragon Lee as someone they want to use outside of the context of specialty CMLL shows. It’s just a question of how often they want to use him.

I’ve been leaning towards Dragon Lee going basically full time in NJPW for a while, more as a NJPW necessity. He’s already on WWE’s radar, and might not be an option to NJPW later if they don’t make him a deal now. I’m less confident about this sequence as I write the preview. Dragon Lee only being on some of the New Beginning tour shows suggests he’s probably going back home for a while after FantasticaMania. (Plus, Dragon Lee’s still working in ROH, and that’s a little easier to do if he’s based in Mexico City and not the NJPW dojo.) Dragon Lee also hasn’t been advertised on any upcoming Mexico based show, so all outcomes are still on the table and we might not get an answer until the end of FantasticaMania. That, more than the matches, will be the big news of the tour.