This year’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament is quite possibly the greatest Super Juniors tournament of all time.
More than simply great matches, Best of the Super Juniors 26 was highlighted by several different stories developing throughout the ranks. Some of the stories were a little bit more insignificant than others but they all worked together to develop characters and narratives.
Let’s start with the guy who—in my opinion—was the biggest star and MVP of the entire tournament: Shingo Takagi.
Shingo came into this tournament undefeated and was the heavy favorite to win the entire thing. Throughout the tournament, Shingo further established himself as the dominant junior who can believably wrestle as a heavyweight as well. He’s positioned himself as something of an ultimate boss. During the press conference for the BOSJ, everyone singled out Shingo as a guy they really needed to beat. His role throughout was that of an imposing, unstoppable monster that seemed to be too much for anyone to handle. Shingo played the perfect foil for guys like SHO, Jonathan Gresham, Dragon Lee, and, finally Will Ospreay who were great underdogs fighting overwhelming odds. Shingo dominated everyone in his block and was the unquestionable favorite to emerge as tournament champion.
Unfortunately, Shingo’s undefeated streak came to an end at the hands of Will Ospreay but even that win showed the tremendous story that had been built. Ospreay’s win would have less impact if it was against anyone else other than Shingo. In defeat, Shingo learned something that will help him become a better wrestler: his opponents were tougher than he gave them credit for. Reactions during his matches as well as post-match comments saw Shingo admitting to his lack of belief in opponents. In the end, Shingo developed new-found respect for the NJPW juniors division. The whole tournament was an eye-opener for Shingo as he realized what he needed to do to be the top guy. Shingo’s loss to Ospreay made him realize he was missing important experience in the heavyweight division. Best of the Super Juniors 26 is the tournament that not only cemented Shingo as an alpha in the junior division but will also propel him into future heavyweight stardom.
Will Ospreay has been in the transition between junior and heavyweight all year. His matches against Kota Ibushi, Jeff Cobb and his run in the New Japan Cup established him as a credible competitor in the heavyweight division. At the end of this tournament, Ospreay officially became a hybrid wrestler.
Ospreay is, right now, both a junior and a heavyweight. In his block, he wrestled a lot of guys that can be considered “flippy,” but didn’t revert back to his old ways often. Ospreay used his newly-developed heavyweight style against his opponents while integrated his old high-flying when the situation was appropriate. This made Ospreay very unpredictable and, in the end, dominant. Ospreay’s match against Shingo in the finals was the pinnacle of all his progression. It was in this match where Ospreay was able to fully utilize his new hybrid style. The finish of Ospreay hitting an OsCutter—his finisher from before—and turning it into his now-preferred finisher (Storm Breaker) was a great visual of this transformation.
Best of the Super Juniors 26 was also a coming out party for SHO. His match against Shingo really elevated the young junior to a new level. With new theme music, an updated look and strong booking throughout, SHO now takes on the role of a chosen star—a man destined by the company to be a future ace. SHO’s matches with the top guys in his block (Shingo, Taiji Ishimori & Dragon Lee) establishes SHO not as a top guy yet but as a guy that can hang with the best.
SHO’s Roppongi 3k partner YOH was one of the more interesting characters in the entire tournament. YOH and SHO have been positioned as equals in kayfabe. Despite the fact that SHO was seen as a better prospect than YOH: YOH performed better in the tournament than SHO, scoring 12 points to SHO’s 10. The match quality wasn’t far off either. I’m beginning to wonder if Best of the Super Juniors is the start of YOH’s slow and inevitable heel turn. The story writes itself: YOH had more points, had great matches but who got all the attention? Who received all the praise? YOH’s continued state of being overlooked just adds to the frustration that could swell up until he eventually explodes.
Dragon Lee came into this year’s Best of the Super Juniors as the current IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and wanted desperately to live up to the lofty expectations of past champions. Throughout the tournament, Lee kept bringing up a quote: “wrestling is like mathematics, you never stop learning.” With every new opponent and new style Lee faced, he was grateful for the learning experience post-match. It’s taken a while but Lee is building up a reputation with his peers, fans and the company.
- Rocky Romero and Tiger Mask were the old guard trying to prove they can still go.
- Gresham, Bandido and Titan were all trying to justify their spot in the tournament.
- Robbie Eagles began to slowly turn babyface as he starts to show the good side of his character.
- El Phantasmo was the new kid on the block becoming a formidable opponent and emerging as one of the Bullet Club’s premier juniors.
- The Suzuki-Gun guys were up to their old tricks wreaking havoc across the tournament.
- Ren Narita wanted just one win.
- Ishimori and Scurll were hungry for redemption