The New Japan Cup is a single-elimination tournament held annually since 2005. Before we get into this year’s tournament- the biggest of all time- let’s take a look brief look back at the tournament’s history. Who won each year? What did they go on to do with the title shot they earned?
All tournaments consisted of 16 men unless otherwise noted.
Previous New Japan Cup Tournaments
2005: Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Manabu Nakanishi. Interestingly, this was an openweight tournament with many juniors taking part. Also, the winner did not receive a title shot. This was the only time this happened.
2006: Giant Bernard def. Yuji Nagata. Lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar on 5/3 at Fukuoka International Center (New Japan Cup Special Night 2).
2007: Yuji Nagata def. Togi Makabe to win a 14-man tournament that featured Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Giant Bernard getting byes to the 2nd round. Defeated IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi on 4/13 at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium (Circuit 2007 New Japan Brave Night 5).
2008: Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Giant Bernard. Tournament went back to 16 men and, again, was openweight with several juniors participating. Tanahashi lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinsuke Nakamura on 3/30 at Korakuen Hall (New Dimension).
2009: Hirooki Goto def. Giant Bernard to win a 14-man tournament that featured Yuji Nagata and Bernard getting byes to the 2nd round. Goto lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi on 5/3 at Fukuoka International Center (Wrestling Dontaku).
2010: Hirooki Goto def. Togi Makabe to win a 15-man tournament after receiving a bye to the 2nd round. He lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinsuke Nakamura on 4/4 at Korakuen Hall (New Dimension).
2011: Yuji Nagata def. Shinsuke Nakamura to win after the tournament returned to the 16-man format. It would remain as a 16 man tournament until this year. Nagata lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi on 4/3 at Korakuen Hall (New Dimension ~Pray, Hope, Power~).
2012: Hirooki Goto def. Hiroshi Tanahashi. Lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada on 5/3 at Fukuoka International Center (Wrestling Dontaku).
2013: Kazuchika Okada def. Hirooki Goto. Defeated IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi on 4/7 at Sumo Hall (Invasion Attack).
2014: Shinsuke Nakamura def. Bad Luck Fale. This was the first year the champion had the opportunity to choose either the IWGP Heavyweight or Intercontinental title rather than just getting an automatic Heavyweight title shot (this would be expanded to include the NEVER title the following year). Nakamura was the only man to ever choose the IC. He defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental Title on 4/6 at Sumo Hall (Invasion Attack).
2015: Kota Ibushi def. Hirooki Goto. Lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion AJ Styles on 4/5 at Sumo Hall (Invasion Attack).
2016: Tetsuya Naito def. Hirooki Goto. Defeated IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada on 4/10 at Sumo Hall (Invasion Attack).
2017: Katsuyori Shibata def. Bad Luck Fale. Lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada on 4/9 at Sumo Hall (Sakura Genesis).
2018: Zack Sabre Jr. def. Hiroshi Tanahashi. Lost to IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada on 4/1 at Sumo Hall (Sakura Genesis).
So, there you have it. The entire history of the New Japan Cup. If you’re keeping score at home, the NJC winner ended up going just 4-13 in their chosen title shot; if you remove the Nakamura Intercontinental outlier, they’re 3-13 in IWGP Heavyweight title shots. Is this year going to be different for the winner?
Changes to 2019 New Japan Cup
The tournament itself, meanwhile, will be undergoing some big changes in 2019. It’s the first 32-man tournament ever, doubling the field of competitors. It’s the first time we had a number other than 16 since 2010. It’s also the first time the winner will get their title shot outside of Japan, as the winner will challenge IWGP Heavyweight Champion Jay White at Madison Square Garden in, presumably, the main event of the NJPW/ROH G1 Supercard event. It’s the first time the winner won’t get their title shot in Tokyo’s Ryogoku since 2012, as the past 6 years the winner got their shot at Invasion Attack/Sakura Genesis. And finally, it’s the first time in 6 years the winner will automatically challenge the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Starting in 2014, the winner could have chosen to challenge for the Intercontinental title. Starting in 2015, they could also have chosen the NEVER Openweight Title as well. All of that is out the window now, which means the IC Champion and NEVER Champion will both participate in the NJC for the first time since 2013 and 2014, respectively. Finally, with the last minute addition of Ryusuke Taguchi (replacing the injured David Finlay) this will be the first NJC to feature a junior participating since 2009.
With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the full 32-man field! We’ll go in the order of the tournament bracket (which you can see below), so wrestler 1 is facing wrestler 2 in the first round, the same for wrestler 3 and 4, and so on.
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2005), Lost in Final to Giant Bernard (2006), Won Tournament (2007), Lost in Semifinals to Hirooki Goto (2009), Lost in 1st Round to Yujiro Takahashi (2010), Won Tournament (2011), Lost in 1st Round to Minoru Suzuki (2012), Lost in 1st Round to Suzuki (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Goto (2015), Lost in 1st Round to Goto (2016), Lost in Quarterfinals to EVIL (2017)
Nagata makes his return to the tournament after taking last year off, bringing a ton of past experience including three appearances in the finals and two victories. However, he’s also gone out in the first round six times, making him a bit of a ‘feast or famine competitor.’ Will 2019 be first round exit number seven, or will he succeed in defeating Tomohiro Ishii, someone who he’s been trading blows with since January 5th? Nagata and Ishii have quite the past history, having met in singles matches ten times dating back to 2006. Nagata won the first 7 meetings in a row from 2006 through 2011, including two New Japan Cup 1st Round matches in 2006 & 2007, but Ishii won the next three, all G1 matches in 2014, 2015, and 2017. Can Yuji break Ishii’s streak?
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Yuji Nagata (2006), Lost in 1st Round to Nagata (2007), Lost in 1st Round to Hiroyoshi Tenzan (2008), Lost in Quarterfinals to Yutaka Yoshie (2009), Lost in 1st Round to Togi Makabe (2010), Lost in Quarterfinals to Hirooki Goto (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Tetsuya Naito (2014), Lost in Quarterfinals to Naito (2016), Lost in Semifinals to Katsuyori Shibata (2017), Lost in 1st Round to Michael Elgin (2018)
Another man with a ton of experience, CHAOS’ Stone Pitbull has appeared in the NJC 10 times, but has only made it out of the first two rounds once. After it looked like he was making some progress- getting out of the first round in 2016 and then finally making it to the Semis in 2017- he was stopped dead in his tracks by Elgin last year. This year, he’s matched up with the same man who sent him home early in his first two tournaments way back in 2006 & 2007. Ishii is always someone who the fanbase seems to pick to go further than he actually does, whether in this tournament or the G1, but his tournament could very well come to a quick end at Yuji Nagata’s hands for a third time. Should he go on a deep run, getting out of his side of the bracket and making it to his first NJC final ever could take him through none other than CHAOS leader Kazuchika Okada, as the two would meet in one of the two semi finals if they each win their first three matches.
Affiliation: New Japan Army/GBH
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Takashi Iizuka (2007), Lost in 1st Round to Giant Bernard (2008), Lost in 1st Round to Iizuka (2009), Lost in 1st Round to Toru Yano (2010), Lost in 1st Round to Togi Makabe (2015), Lost in 1st Round to Satoshi Kojima (2016)
Poor Honma has the unique distinction among this year’s competitors of the most New Japan Cup appearances without ever making it out of the first round (beating out fellow frequent loser YOSHI-HASHI by 1 more appearance), but he’s probably happy just to be participating again after missing the last two with a spinal cord injury. In fact, he was actually already slotted for 2017’s New Japan Cup, where he would have met Tanga Loa in the first round, before suffering said injury (and being replaced by Yuji Nagata). Honma was eliminated twice in the past by the recently retired (uh, we think) Takashi Iizuka, which makes his first round opponent all the more interesting: the inheritor of Iizuka’s Iron Fingers From Hell, Taichi.
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2018)
Taichi was a freshly minted heavyweight last year and ended up drawing quite the difficult opponent for his first ever New Japan Cup match, as he wasn’t able to pull off the upset of all upsets against Hiroshi Tanahashi. But a lot has changed for him in a year: he’s tasted his first non-junior gold in NJPW and recently he got the biggest pinfall of his career over Tetsuya Naito (albeit with the assistance of a belt shot). Given his first round opponent is Honma, it seems likely that Taichi will go at least one round further than last year, but can he go even deeper than that? There’s, frankly, not a lot in his quarter of the bracket that looks insurmountable for him, which means NEW JAPAN CUP SEMI FINALIST TAICHI~! could be coming soon to a screen near you.
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: Lost in Final to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2005), Lost in Semifinals to Giant Bernard (2006), Lost in Quarterfinals to Bernard (2007), Lost in 1st Round to Rhino (2008), Lost in 1st Round to Yutaka Yoshie (2009), Lost in 1st Round to Masato Tanaka (2010), Lost in Quarterfinals to Shinsuke Nakamura (2011), Lost in 1st Round to Toru Yano (2013)
One wonderful benefit of expanding this tournament from 16 to 32 men is the participation of the New Japan Dads this year, and that even includes Mr. Monster Morning for the first time in six years. Nakanishi’s past results are fun for a couple of reasons: he’s basically the Texas Rangers of the New Japan Cup, getting really close once and then progressively further and further away each year. He’s been around so long that the list of guys who eliminated him is pretty amazing. Bookended by Tanahashi and Yano, you’ve got current WWE talents Shinsuke Nakamura & Rhino, current WWE producer Giant Bernard, ZERO-1 mainstay Masato Tanaka (during his time as an NJPW guest star), and former NJPW wrestler/jolly pink fat man Yutaka Yoshie. That would be the weirdest 5-man unit ever but I kinda want to see it now. Anyway, Nakanishi is probably just going to be first round fodder here, but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t rooting for him to make it to the next round at least . And hey, given who he’s up against, you’d have to think it’s at least possible, right?
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to La Sombra (2012), Lost in 1st Round to Yujiro Takahashi (2015), Lost in 1st Round to Tetsuya Naito (2016), Lost in 1st Round to SANADA (2017), Lost in 1st Round to Kota Ibushi (2018)
Oh dear. Oh boy. It’s YOSHI-HASHI. What is there to say about this poor guy? The most damning thing I can say about his success in New Japan over the years is that I once saw a photoshopped image of him wearing a shirt that says “I’M THE GUY WHO SUCKS” and wasn’t 100% sure it was fake. It could have been real merchandise, because that’s basically poor YOSHI’s gimmick. He’s still looking for his first New Japan Cup victory and one would think a favorable draw against one of the New Japan Dads might just be the ticket, but at the end of the day, would you really be surprised if Nakanishi gets him up in that Argentine Backbreaker and YOSHI just submitted? I know I wouldn’t be.
IWGP US Heavyweight Champion
Affiliation: New Japan Army/Lifeblood
Past NJC Results: Lost in Quarterfinals to Katsuyori Shibata (2017), Lost in Semifinals to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2018)
Though the US Heavyweight Title hasn’t been around long (only since July 2017), Juice will be the first reigning US Champion to take part in the New Japan Cup after the champion at the time of 2018’s tournament, Jay White, skipped out on it. Juice has spent the first two months of 2019 sending other gaijin off to AEW, first taking the belt back from Cody in his last appearance at Wrestle Kingdom and then successfully defending against Beretta in his second-to-last appearance during the New Beginning in USA tour. Perhaps apropos for a US champion, Juice has spent far more time in the US than Japan so far, both on that aforementioned tour and also in ROH, where he and David Finlay formed the Lifeblood stable with some Ring of Honor newcomers. To be honest, it’s made him and the US belt feel kind of lost if you only watch New Japan, especially considering the New Beginning in USA shows only just went up on March 3rd, over a month after they took place. Perhaps Juice can make up for lost time by going on a bit of a run in the New Japan Cup. He’s had decent success already in his first two years and has somewhat of an easy path, with a first round opponent who he certainly would be expected to beat, a second round match against either Nakanishi or YOSHI (two more guys he would be expected to beat), and a quarter final match that would be against one of Nagata, Ishii, Honma or Taichi. That’s not exactly murderer’s row either, making Juice a very realistic possibility to go to the semifinals for the second straight year.
Affiliation: BULLET CLUB
Past NJC Results: None
Chase will be on the case of the New Japan Cup for the very first time in 2019, as the expanded format finally gets him into the mix over two years after he first made his surprising jump to heavyweight in the 2016 World Tag League. He’s also the first BULLET CLUB representative we’ve come across so far, as he’s one of just three members participating and trying to give us an all-BC MSG main event. He and frequent running buddy Yujiro Takahashi defected back to the BC proper from the Elite near the start of the year (something we probably all should have seen coming when they just never stopped wearing BC logos all over their gear like the rest of the Elite guys did, honestly). One would have expected Yujiro in this tournament as well, but word from the Wrestling Observer is that he’s out with an injury. Anyway, this was a lot of words stalling us from just getting to the obvious: have fun taking that there Pulp Friction, Chase!
Past NJC Results: Won Tournament (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Bad Luck Fale (2015)
This will be Kazuchika Okada’s first appearance in the New Japan Cup in four years, and only his third overall, which might seem shockingly low at first. However there’s a very simple reason why Okada has participated so few times: he was the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the time of every other tournament since 2012! He’s very used to being the guy defending his title against the winner (as he did successfully against Goto in 2012, Shibata in 2017 and Sabre in 2018, with his only loss coming to Naito in 2016) but doesn’t often find himself fighting for said title shot himself. Both times he competed in the NJC, he was coming off IWGP Heavyweight Title losses to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom, and he got vastly different results each time. In 2013, he rebounded pretty much perfectly by winning the Cup and then going on to defeat Tanahashi for his second IWGP title at Invasion Attack. In 2015, on the other hand, he lost to Bad Luck Fale in the first round. This year he has to be considered one of the four major favorites and he’s probably helped immensely by the fact that two of the others are facing each other in the first round. But, he doesn’t exactly have a cakewalk to the finals either. He’s got a former IWGP Intercontinental & NEVER Openweight Champion as his own first round opponent, and should he make it all the way to the quarterfinals, he could find the very man who last eliminated him from the NJC waiting for him. But a win here would give Okada the chance to finally get his revenge on Jay White after a humiliating defeat at the Tokyo Dome (and a previous loss in the G1 last year too), so you know Okada will be fighting hard for his chance to make it rain at Madison Square Garden.
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: Lost in Semifinals to Hirooki Goto (2016), Lost in 1st Round to Bad Luck Fale (2017), Lost in Quarterfinals to Juice Robinson (2018)
Michael Elgin is one of only five wrestlers to hold both the IWGP Intercontinental & NEVER Openweight titles (the others being Masato Tanaka, Tetsuya Naito, Hirooki Goto and Minoru Suzuki) but of course there’s another major singles title out there he’s yet to hold: the IWGP Heavyweight. Elgin has never received a one-on-one shot for the belt, though he once faced AJ Styles and Kazuchika Okada in a 3-way match for an ROH/NJPW show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in May 2014. He wouldn’t exactly seem like he’d be next in line for a shot either, so winning the New Japan Cup and going to MSG may be his only chance. He’s had some decent success in the tournament so far but has yet to make it to the finals. If 2019’s going to be his year, he’s got a hell of a 1st round roadblock to get through, as he’ll have to defeat the Rainmaker for the first time in his career. They’ve met three times in singles matches, all in the G1 Climax (in 2015, 2017 and 2018) and Okada has won all three times.
Past NJC Results: None
You’re going to probably read a lot of articles that state “Mikey Nicholls is making his New Japan debut in the NJC” (I just read one today, in fact!) so let me just start out by saying that isn’t true. Nicholls appeared alongside his ex-partner Shane Haste as TMDK at Wrestle Kingdom 9, when Toru Yano recruited them and Naomichi Marufuji from NOAH to help him defeat Suzukigun in an 8-man tag. This ended up being the impetus for Suzukigun’s two-year exodus to NOAH, as they came seeking revenge on Marufuji and TMDK. So in a weird way, Nicholls already helped change the face of New Japan in one lone appearance. He also appeared once on a Korakuen Hall show way back in 2006, teaming with new WWE producer Hartley Jackson in a losing effort against Hirooki Goto and Minoru Tanaka; that didn’t have quite as strong an effect on NJPW, presumably. Nicholls departed NOAH in March of 2016 to have a largely uneventful run in NXT, where he went by the name “Nick Miller” and TMDK became TM-61, for whatever reason. But, after asking for his release toward the end of last year, here he is as the newest New Japan foreign regular. We’ve already learned via Rocky Romero’s Twitter that he’s joined CHAOS and that he’ll be going by the name “Mad” Mikey Nicholls. One could note that they had a spot for a gaijin heavyweight open following Beretta’s departure, and this also makes a certain amount of sense given the past ties to Yano we just covered. Making your full time return to New Japan by entering the New Japan Cup is a hell of a way to do it, and he seems likely to get a win to start things off given he’s up against Hikuleo. Should Nicholls do what’s expected, his second round match could very well end up being against his new CHAOS leader, Kazuchika Okada. Talk about an interesting way to start your New Japan career…
Affiliation: BULLET CLUB
Past NJC Results: None
Hikuleo, the much larger younger brother of the Guerillas of Destiny, missed almost exactly one year of action with an ACL tear. His last appearance came during the middle of 2018’s New Japan Cup tour (on March 10th), and he finally returned to the ring teaming with his brothers on March 1st on the Anniversary Series event in Saitama. He took the pinfall during that return match and seems likely to settle back into the same role he occupied before he went down to injury. This is much like Toa Henare and David Finlay before him; young lions who “graduate” (via getting gear makeovers/actual theme songs/name changes) without going on any excursion often struggle to beat anyone except young lions. Finlay’s slowly started to turn that around and win some more falls, but it took him years to get to that point. All of this is to say that Hikuleo seems extremely unlikely to defeat Mikey Nicholls in his first round match, but who knows?
NEVER Openweight Champion
Past NJC Results: None
Will Ospreay is, of course, making his debut in the New Japan Cup, as junior heavyweights never competed in the Cup in any of the years he was active in New Japan. Though no one has said that Ospreay’s officially graduated to heavyweight, his status as NEVER champion and his pinfall victories over many heavyweights of late have sort of made him a de facto one anyway. Perhaps his entry here should be considered his official graduation. Ospreay will also be the first NEVER Openweight Champion to compete in the NJC since 2014, and only the second overall. The NEVER title was introduced in late 2012 and the first champion, Masato Tanaka, did not compete in the 2013 NJC. Tomohiro Ishii competed as reigning NEVER champion in 2014 and did not give Will a very high bar to clear, as he lost in the first round to Tetsuya Naito (the man he had beaten for that title just a month earlier, in fact). The following year in 2015 it was determined that the NJC winner could choose to challenge for the NEVER title (though no one ever actually made that choice and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they would have, honestly), which meant the reigning champion didn’t take part for the next four years. But all of that has been lifted this year, with the winner competing for an automatic shot at IWGP Heavyweight Champion Jay White at MSG, and that gives Young William his opportunity. Should Ospreay want to move on, he’ll have to defeat a man who has ended many promising New Japan Cup runs prematurely over the years in Bad Luck Fale. And if he does get past Fale and beat his 2nd round opponent as well, he could have none other than CHAOS leader Kazuchika Okada waiting for him in the quarterfinals in what would be a rematch from 2018’s Anniversary Show main event.
Bad Luck Fale
Affiliation: BULLET CLUB
Past NJC Results: Lost in Final to Shinsuke Nakamura (2014), Lost in Quarterfinals to Tetsuya Naito (2015), Lost in Quarterfinals to Michael Elgin (2016), Lost in Final to Katsuyori Shibata (2017), Lost in Quarterfinals to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2018)
Bad Luck Fale has done a lot of damage in the New Japan Cup in his half-decade of participation. He’s never once lost in the 1st round (a bad sign for Will Ospreay, perhaps) and he’s eliminated a pretty amazing list of competitors over the years, including a number of former IWGP Heavyweight Champions: Togi Makabe (2014), Tetsuya Naito (2014), Kazuchika Okada (2015) and Hiroshi Tanahashi (2016). That’s quite the list of scalps claimed by the Rogue General, making him perhaps the preeminent modern spoiler in the NJC. Should he get past Ospreay and his second round opponent, he could have another shot at ending Okada’s tournament in the quarterfinals. But he would need to get all the way to the Final to have another chance at taking out Makabe, Naito or Tanahashi.
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: None
Toa Henare will be making his New Japan Cup debut in 2019; another one who perhaps owes his participation to the expanded 32-man format. It would be a major upset just to see him get out of the first round, but at the very least expect him to put up a hell of a fight against his bruising opponent Lance Archer in what looks like a classic “hoss battle”.
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Togi Makabe (2012), Lost in 1st Round to Kazuchika Okada (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Prince Devitt (2014), Lost in 1st Round to Bad Luck Fale (2018)
Both members of Killer Elite Squad will be proudly representing Suzukigun in the 2019 New Japan Cup, but should they want to face each other in the tournament they’ll have to both reach the Final, as they’re on opposite sides of the bracket. Archer has competed four times in this tournament and never made it out of the first round, but it would be a surprise to see that streak hit five just given who his opponent is. Should he defeat Henare, as expected, he could find himself face to face with the man who ended his NJC last year, Bad Luck Fale. Or, alternatively, he could end up against NEVER Openweight Champion Will Ospreay, who teamed with Hiroshi Tanahashi to defeat Archer & Smith on the 2/21 Korakuen. Though Ospreay pinned Smith, it would still be a chance for Archer to get some revenge for his teammate, perhaps.
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: Won Tournament (2005), Lost in Semifinals to Yuji Nagata (2006), Won Tournament (2008), Lost in Quarterfinals to Tetsuya Naito (2010), Lost in Final to Hirooki Goto (2012), Lost in 1st Round to Toru Yano (2015), Lost in 1st Round to Bad Luck Fale (2016), Lost in 1st Round to EVIL (2017), Lost in Final to Zack Sabre Jr. (2018)
The Ace of the Universe has a long history when it comes to the New Japan Cup, and not all of it is positive. He’s won this tournament twice, though both wins came quite a long way back in 2005 and 2007. Like Kazuchika Okada, he also skipped many tournaments due to being a champion at the time, but he has a much worse record when the tournament winner cashed in their title shot on him: he lost the IWGP Heavyweight Title to tournament winners Yuji Nagata (2007) and Kazuchika Okada (2013), and also lost the IWGP Intercontinental Title to Shinsuke Nakamura (2014) when Nakamura became the first (and so far only) winner to select an IC shot. He did successfully defend the Heavyweight strap against Hirooki Goto (2009) & Nagata (2011), but that still leaves Tanahashi with a 2-3 record against NJC winners. To add insult to injury, after his own win in 2008 he failed to beat Nakamura for the IWGP Heavyweight Title, and he didn’t even get a title shot for his victory in 2005!
Last year Tana went all the way to the finals for the first time since 2012, breaking a three year streak of going out in the first round. We’re on the other side of the bracket now which means Tana doesn’t have to worry about Fale or Nagata eliminating him this year, but everyone else who eliminated Tana over the years happens to be on this side. Should he get through the first two rounds, he could have last year’s winner Sabre, Naito, or EVIL waiting for him in the quarterfinals. In fact, the only possible opponent he could face in the quarters that hasn’t eliminated him in an NJC before is Kota Ibushi, which isn’t exactly a walk in the park either! And should he get past all of that, he could still have either Goto or Yano waiting for him in the semis. But Tanahashi is fighting for a chance at redemption, as a win in the tournament could be his only path to getting a rematch with the man who beat him for the IWGP Heavyweight Title last month in Osaka. Don’t count out the Ace!
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: None
It’s not every day that you see a young lion in the New Japan Cup, and even with the expanded 32-man field, Shota Umino’s entry in the tournament should show just how much promise New Japan sees in him. As far as I can tell, no young lion has ever competed in this tournament before this year, so Shota will always be able to take pride in that accomplishment. Of course he faces a very stiff test right in the first round, and it’s awfully tough to imagine him defeating the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi to move on. But sometimes you win even when you lose. For Shota, just climbing into the ring in this tournament to face the Ace is already a huge victory.
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: Lost in Semifinals to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2005), Lost in Quarterfinals to Tanahashi (2006), Lost in Semifinals to Togi Makabe (2007), Lost in Quarterfinals to Makabe (2008), Lost in Quarterfinals to Toru Yano (2011), Lost in 1st Round to Karl Anderson (2012), Lost in 1st Round to Anderson (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Michael Elgin (2016)
Hiroyoshi Tenzan will be making his first appearance in the New Japan Cup in three years. At least he doesn’t have to worry about getting eliminated by Karl Anderson (who’s of course long gone) or Michael Elgin (unless the very unlikely happens and both make it all the way to the finals) again. However, the man who ended his very first two appearances in the NJC (13 and 14 years ago, so there’s probably a few of you reading this who weren’t even born yet) would almost certainly be waiting for him in the very next round should Tenzan get past Taguchi. Talk about a reward for picking up your first win in the New Japan Cup in eight years: having to face the Ace in the next round. Yikes.
Affiliation: New Japan Army/Taguchi Japan
Past NJC Results: Lost in Quarterfinals to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2008)
David Finlay was originally scheduled to participate in his first ever New Japan Cup this year but, in a bad break for him, had to withdraw after suffering a shoulder injury against the Briscoes in the main event of Honor Rising Night 2. His replacement is none other than Ryusuke Taguchi! Taguchi had teased on Twitter that he wanted to be entered into the tournament in hopes of becoming the 69th IWGP Heavyweight Champion (as he was the 69th Junior champion in the past), and his wish ended up being granted. Believe it or not this actually isn’t Taguchi’s first time in the tournament, however; early on the NJC had an openweight format, with juniors participating in 2005, 2008 and 2009. Taguchi took part in the 2008 tournament and even won his first round match against fellow junior Jushin Thunder Liger, before going out in the second round against the tournament’s eventual winner, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Should Taguchi pull off the upset over heavyweight Hiroyoshi Tenzan, his second round opponent this year would very likely be…..Hiroshi Tanahashi! The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.
Affiliation: New Japan Army (?)
Past NJC Results: Won Tournament (2015), Lost in Quarterfinals to Zack Sabre Jr. (2018)
If you’re a fan of New Japan Pro Wrestling, you likely breathed one massive sigh of relief on February 11th when Kota Ibushi walked out in Osaka and announced to the entire world that he’s staying in NJPW for the foreseeable future. Our very own Super J Cast reported that Ibushi had signed a 2-year contract with the company, which would mark the first time he’s actually been signed since he was on a dual NJPW/DDT deal prior to withdrawing due to injuries in February 2016. I’m also assuming this means Kota is returning to the New Japan Army, as he was always considered a member of hontai in the past before the Golden☆Lovers reunion in early 2018 and his weird quasi-BULLET CLUB/Elite affiliation, but no one has actually said that Kota has rejoined the main army to my knowledge. Could Kota stun us all and reveal that he’s actually joined CHAOS, or even LIJ?! It seems unlikely, but I suppose the possibility is there.
Ibushi, of course, is one of seven former New Japan Cup winners in this year’s field, but he and his first round opponent Tetsuya Naito are the only ones unlucky enough to be facing a fellow ex-winner immediately. He and Naito would both be considered two of the four big favorites (along with Okada and Tanahashi), so we’ll lose one of them right out of the gate. If Ibushi does manage to beat Naito, he could immediately come face to face with the man who eliminated him last year, as Zack Sabre Jr. might be his opponent in the second round (for the second straight year). Talk about a brutal path just to make it to the quarterfinals. Kota is looking to win the tournament for a second time and this time succeed in his title challenge after he came up short challenging IWGP Heavyweight Champion AJ Styles at Invasion Attack 2015. At least he doesn’t have to worry about Kenny Omega getting up on the apron this time around.
IWGP Intercontinental Champion
Affiliation: Los Ingobernables de Japon
Past NJC Results: Lost in Semifinals to Togi Makabe (2010), Lost in 1st Round to Masato Tanaka (2011), Lost in Quarterfinals to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2012), Lost in Quarterfinals to Bad Luck Fale (2014), Lost in Semifinals to Kota Ibushi (2015), Won Tournament (2016), Lost in 1st Round to Zack Sabre Jr. (2018)
Everyone knows that Tetsuya Naito has a love/hate relationship with the IWGP Intercontinental Title. After all, this is the belt that caused him to lose out on the main event of the Tokyo Dome in 2014 when the fans chose Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi’s title match over his and Kazuchika Okada’s. But, at least some of that resentment stems from when Naito held the IC title in March of 2017. He made it repeatedly clear in interviews that he still wanted to enter the New Japan Cup to compete for a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Title, only to find himself left out of the field, as the company held fast to a rule stating the IC champion didn’t compete in the tournament since the winner could choose to challenge them for it. It was after this snub that Naito began really abusing the poor title belt in earnest, tossing the thing as hard as he could into every ring post and pair of steps he could find until Hiroshi Tanahashi finally took what was left of it from him at Dominion in June. But the title belt doesn’t have anything to worry about this year, as the rule established in 2014 that the reigning IC champion doesn’t compete in the tournament was lifted. Naito will now become the third Intercontinental Champion to take part in the New Japan Cup, and the past results of his two predecessors are quite literally as distinct as you can get: Hirooki Goto won the tournament in 2012, while Shinsuke Nakamura went out in the first round (to Davey Boy Smith Jr!) in 2013.
Naito has stated that his current goal is to become the first double champion in New Japan history (which Goto failed to do after winning the NJC, losing his IWGP Heavyweight Title challenge to Okada in 2012), but to do that he’ll have to get through a brutal death march of a Cup bracket. It starts with Kota Ibushi, a man who eliminated him in the semifinals in 2015 and beat him in the G1 Climax last year. Overall Naito is 2-3 against him, with G1 wins over him in 2015 & 2017 but another G1 loss in 2013. Should Naito get past that test, he’ll either face his own stablemate EVIL or the man who eliminated him from both this tournament AND the G1 Climax last year, Zack Sabre Jr. (though he did finally beat Sabre at Power Struggle last November at least). And if he makes it to the quarterfinals, he could have Hiroshi Tanahashi there waiting for him! That’s what it will take for Naito just to make the semis, but if he wants any chance at making double champion history at the equally historic Madison Square Garden, he’ll have to find a way through it.
Affiliation: Los Ingobernables de Japon
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Tomohiro Ishii (2016), Lost in Semifinals to Bad Luck Fale (2017)
EVIL makes his return to the New Japan Cup after missing last year’s due to injury and will look to follow up on his semifinal appearance in 2017. He and his partner SANADA are coming off a tough loss for the IWGP Tag Team Titles to the Guerillas of Destiny at Honor Rising, but there’s no better way to make up for that than having a deep run in the New Japan Cup. Of course, like the wrestlers we’ve covered above, he’s kind of in a difficult quarter of the bracket for that. He’ll have a first round matchup with last year’s NJC winner Zack Sabre Jr. (who pinned EVIL repeatedly with flash pins late last year before EVIL finally beat him at the first night of the New Beginning in Sapporo), a possible second round match with either Tetsuya Naito or Kota Ibushi (neither of whom he’d be considered a favorite to beat), and a possible quarterfinal match with Hiroshi Tanahashi. Maybe the one bright spot there is he did manage to eliminate Tanahashi from the NJC back in 2017, but he’ll have an awfully tough path ahead of him just to make it to a rematch with the Ace.
Zack Sabre Jr.
Past NJC Results: Won Tournament (2018)
Last year, Zack Sabre Jr. became the fifth wrestler to win the New Japan Cup on his very first try, joining Hiroshi Tanahashi in 2005, Giant Bernard in 2006, Kazuchika Okada in 2013 and Kota Ibushi in 2015, but failed to win the IWGP Heavyweight Title from Okada at Sakura Genesis. This year, he’ll be looking to be just the second person to go back-to-back as New Japan Cup champion (Hirooki Goto did it in 2009 & 2010) and become the fourth person to win the tournament twice (along with Goto, Tanahashi & Nagata). Sabre is coming off his first real lull in New Japan since his NJC win, as he’s lost many of his biggest matches- to Naito in the Power Struggle semi-final, to EVIL at New Beginning in Sapporo Night 1 and to EVIL & SANADA (teaming with Minoru Suzuki) at Night 2. But anyone who looks past him in a tournament like this does so at their own peril. Armed with his lethal array of submission holds, his flash pins, and the Zack Driver he used to eliminate Tetsuya Naito from the G1, there’s absolutely no reason why Zack can’t go on a run again in this year’s Cup. What looks like a very difficult quarter of the bracket (easily the most stacked of the four), is actually filled with guys who Zack ran through to win last year! Should he beat EVIL, he’d face either Tetsuya Naito, who he beat in the first round, or Kota Ibushi, who he beat in the quarterfinals. And if he makes it to the quarterfinals this year, he could end up facing the man he beat in the final last year, Hiroshi Tanahashi! His other victory in the NJC last year was against SANADA in the semifinals, and this year in the semifinals he could end up facing, you guessed it, SANADA. So all Zack Sabre Jr. may have to do to reach his second straight New Japan Cup final is beat all the same people he beat in last year’s New Japan Cup. Will he make the main event of MSG an all-gaijin affair?
Affiliation: New Japan Army/GBH
Past NJC Results: Lost in Quarterfinals to Yuji Nagata (2006), Lost in Final to Nagata (2007), Lost in Semifinals to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2008), Lost in 1st Round to Shinsuke Nakamura (2009), Lost in Final to Hirooki Goto (2010), Lost in Semifinals to Nakamura (2011), Lost in Semifinals to Goto (2012), Lost in 1st Round to Yujiro Takahashi (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Bad Luck Fale (2014), Lost in Semifinals to Goto (2015), Lost in 1st Round to Tama Tonga (2016)
The Unchained Gorilla is one of only two wrestlers to reach the New Japan Cup final at least twice without ever winning it (the other being Bad Luck Fale in 2014 & 2017), losing to Yuji Nagata in 2007 and Hirooki Goto in 2010. Between his two finals and four semifinals appearances, Makabe has gone deep in the NJC many times, though he was out in the first round in two of his last three appearances. He’s taken the last three years off from the NJC but returns this year (likely due to the expanded field), so can he recapture some of his old NJC magic and go on yet another deep run? Should he get out of the first round he’s got some interesting possible matchups: he could face his recently reunited Most Violent Players partner Toru Yano in the second round, and could find Hirooki Goto (who has eliminated him three times from this tournament) waiting for him in the quarterfinals.
Affiliation: Ring of Honor
Past NJC Results: None
It’s Colt Cabana! Yes, the ring veteran will make his New Japan Cup debut this year as the lone ROH representative (most of their roster will be busy with their 17th Anniversary Show PPV on March 17th, right smack dab in the middle of this long tour). He’ll be the promotion’s only hope at taking the IWGP Heavyweight Title challenger spot at the joint promoted Madison Square Garden show. Cabana suddenly finds himself with the rather unique distinction of working for both NJPW and DDT at around the same time (especially nowadays when their cross promotion is non-existent), as he appeared for DDT in Japan last year and was recently announced for their Wrestlemania weekend show in New York. So, as unlikely as this scenario may seem, he could be challenging for the Ironman Heavymetalweight and the IWGP Heavyweight titles in the same weekend. Should Colt get past Makabe in the first round he could be faced with a new friend he made during Honor Rising weekend, Toru Yano, in a match that would surely be filled with wackiness.
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Giant Bernard (2006), Lost in 1st Round to Shinsuke Nakamura (2007), Lost in Semifinals to Bernard (2008), Lost in 1st Round to Milano Collection AT (2009), Lost in Quarterfinals to Togi Makabe (2010), Lost in Semifinals to Yuji Nagata (2011), Lost in 1st Round to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2012), Lost in Semifinals to Kazuchika Okada (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Minoru Suzuki (2014), Lost in Quarterfinals to Kota Ibushi (2015), Lost in Semifinals to Tetsuya Naito (2016), Lost in Quarterfinals to Bad Luck Fale (2017), Lost in Quarterfinals to SANADA (2018)
Toru Yano brings the longest active streak of any New Japan Cup participant, as he’s appeared in every single NJC since 2006, which will make this his 14th straight appearance. This means the only one he’s missed is the very first edition in 2005. Yano doesn’t have to worry about Bernard flying over from Orlando or Milano coming from the announcer’s desk to eliminate him, but nearly everyone else who’s taken him out over the years will be in this tournament. He could see Makabe in the second round, Suzuki or SANADA in the quarterfinals, and any one of Tanahashi, Naito, or Ibushi in the semis. Of course Yano has memorably pulled off some amazing upsets in this tournament over the years, perhaps most famously his hair pulling rollup elimination of Tanahashi in the 1st round in 2015 in under three minutes! He finds himself face-to-face with Davey Boy Smith Jr. in the first round for the second straight year, and one has to think Davey Boy will be more careful about getting caught on the outside this time around, after losing by a surprise countout last year.
Davey Boy Smith Jr.
Past NJC Results: Lost in Semifinals to Hirooki Goto (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Shinsuke Nakamura (2014), Lost in 1st Round to Toru Yano (2018)
Davey Boy was responsible for one of the most memorable upsets in the history of the New Japan Cup when he took out then-Intercontinental Champion Shinsuke Nakamura in the first round in 2013. Unfortunately for him he wasn’t able to take the belt off Nakamura at Invasion Attack a month later, but it’s an interesting point to note since the IC and NEVER champions are both taking part in this tournament for the first time in many years. The person they lose to will likely be first in line for a title challenge just like Smith was, unless of course that person goes on to win the NJC entirely! Smith returned to the Cup for the first time in four years in 2018 but went out to Toru Yano via countout; when he was the one who got the upset he turned around and lost to Nakamura in the first round the following year. Will he be the Nakamura to Yano’s Davey Boy in the first round this year? It’s worth noting that, should he get past Yano and then through the second round as well, his possible quarterfinal opponents include Hirooki Goto (who took him out in 2013) and his Suzukigun boss Minoru Suzuki.
Affiliation: New Japan Army
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Togi Makabe (2011), Lost in 1st Round to Tetsuya Naito (2012), Lost in 1st Round to Tomohiro Ishii (2013), Lost in 1st Round to Katsuyori Shibata (2015), Lost in Quarterfinals to Toru Yano (2016)
Kojima is yet another New Japan Dad making his first appearance in the NJC in a while; he last appeared in 2016. The last time he appeared, he made it out of the first round for the first time in his career (via a win over Tomoaki Honma) before bowing out quickly to Yano in the next round. This time around, he finds himself matched up with the man who took his very unit from him way back in May of 2011. Yes, for those of you who don’t know, before it was Suzukigun it was known as Kojimagun, as Kojima lead a unit of himself, MVP (the ex-WWE wrestler, not the NJPW tag team), Taichi, TAKA Michinoku and Nosawa Rongai (before he quickly had to bow out after stealing a taxi – yes, really), but Taichi and TAKA betrayed Kojima and reintroduced Minoru Suzuki to New Japan as their new leader. The rest, as they say, is history. What better way for Kojima to get revenge on Suzuki for a unit theft from 8 years ago that he may or may not even remember, than by pulling off a shocking first round upset in the New Japan Cup?!
Past NJC Results: Lost in Quarterfinals to Togi Makabe (2012), Lost in Quarterfinals to Toru Yano (2013), Lost in Semifinals to Shinsuke Nakamura (2014), Lost in 1st Round to Katsuyori Shibata (2017)
Suzuki returns to the NJC after taking a year off due to being the reigning Intercontinental Champion during last year’s tournament. He’s had less success in this than you might expect for someone of his stature, as he’s only made it as far as the semifinals once in four tries. A win over Kojima in the first round seems fairly likely and would set him up to face someone he has recent history with: either Hirooki Goto, who he had a long feud with over the NEVER Openweight Title, or SANADA, who he beat in a singles match at New Beginning in Sapporo only to then get pinned by him in their tag title match the next night. Getting through to the quarterfinals could see him matched up with Togi Makabe (who he feuded with over the IC title briefly last year), Toru Yano (who he seemingly has feuded with off and on for all of eternity) or Davey Boy Smith Jr. (who’s his stablemate). And if you’re looking or hoping for that Suzuki vs. Sabre matchup we’ve yet to get in New Japan, it would take both guys reaching the semifinals.
Past NJC Results: Lost in 1st Round to Manabu Nakanishi (2005), Lost in 1st Round to Hiroshi Tanahashi (2008), Won Tournament (2009), Won Tournament (2010), Lost in 1st Round to Shinsuke Nakamura (2011), Won Tournament (2012), Lost in Final to Kazuchika Okada (2013), Lost in Quarterfinals to Minoru Suzuki (2014), Lost in Final to Kota Ibushi (2015), Lost in Final to Tetsuya Naito (2016)
Hirooki Goto has the record for the most New Japan Cup wins, having won the tournament in 2009, 2010, and 2012. Of course I shouldn’t have to tell you that he failed in his title shot all three times (against Tanahashi, Nakamura, and Okada respectively), but perhaps the fourth time could be the charm for Goto, if he can win just one more time! In addition to his three tournament victories, he’s lost in the finals three more times, including in his last two appearances, so his six trips to the final is by far the most in NJC history (Tanahashi has appeared in four finals, and then you have Giant Bernard & Yuji Nagata tied with three each). Goto missed the last two New Japan Cups due to being the reigning NEVER Openweight Champion each year, so perhaps returning to a tournament that’s been very kind to him over the years is just what he needs to get his NJPW career back on track after a less than inspiring past few months.
Affiliation: Los Ingobernables de Japon
Past NJC Results: Lost in Quarterfinals to Tomohiro Ishii (2017), Lost in Semifinals to Zack Sabre Jr. (2018)
We’ve finally reached the 32nd and last competitor in this year’s New Japan Cup: LIJ member SANADA. SANADA will be appearing in his third straight tournament and has made steady progress each time, losing in the second round in 2017 and then making it a step further before falling to the eventual champion in the semifinals last year. The 32-man nature of this year’s tournament means you can be ambiguous about what that trend continuing would mean; at first glance you’d say it would mean he goes to the finals and loses, but technically just going to the semifinals again would mean he won one more match and made it one round further than he did last year. Interestingly all three LIJ members find themselves on the same side of the bracket, though SANADA is the only guy who isn’t in the same quarter as Naito and EVIL, so any all-Ingobernable matchup for him would have to come in the semis. And one last little note you may want to keep in mind: the semifinals and finals this year will take place in Niigata, which just so happens to be SANADA’s hometown. This feels like a moment to stroke our collective chins and say “Hmmm…”
So that will do it for our full roundup of all 32 men in the New Japan Cup! Don’t forget to check out the New Japan Cup live roundtable pick ‘em episode I did on Wrestling Omakase alongside four great guests, as we gave all of our picks for the tournament. Also be sure to join Voices of Wrestling’s New Japan Cup Predictions contest.
Last but not least: enjoy the biggest New Japan Cup ever!