New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Cup 2020 Night 8
July 3, 2020
We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of the New Japan Cup as we have our two semifinals. A rematch of last year’s cup finals between SANADA and Okada seems almost inevitable at this point, but here’s hoping that NJPW throws us a curveball before the night is over. Of interest for tonight, the second hour of the show is being shown live on TV Asahi in Japan marking a return of live, primetime wrestling on broadcast television for New Japan.
On a more important note, tonight’s action also represents what will hopefully be New Japan’s last empty arena show of the year (not including the already taped Lion’s Break Collision shows which begin tonight, or any other potential future cards that might be run under the NJPWoA banner). There will be plenty of time outside of a show review to reflect on NJPW’s hiatus and empty arena run, but I would feel it remiss to not comment at all on this development. With that in mind, from a match perspective, I feel like the wrestlers generally over-delivered during this empty arena run, with young lions, dads, and most in-between looking rejuvenated after a multi-month layoff. On the other hand, there is no denying that the shows have been missing something with the absence of enthusiastic crowds, which unfortunately has impacted the overall enjoyment of the product. Still, considering the larger context, from a wrestling perspective I feel like these shows have to be considered a success for New Japan.
Minoru Suzuki, El Desperado, Zack Sabre Jr., & Taichi def. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Yuji Nagata & Gabriel Kidd
We start things off tonight with one of two multiman matches for the night. Ultimately, this ended up being a little more fun than the typical New Japan early card tag match, as it mostly served as a showcase for the ongoing Tanahashi/Ibushi vs. Dangerous Tekkers feud. Mix in Suzuki and Nagata getting reacquainted with one another after their excellent tournament match, as well as a fired-up Gabriel Kidd getting rocked by Suzuki and you end up with a pretty entertaining tag bout. The ending sequence saw Kidd get a couple of young lion hope spots before Desperado put him away with his nasty looking punch and the Pinche Loco for the pin.
Really appreciated how strong Dangerous Tekkers looked here, as they worked over Tana’s knee during the match, and then put the boots to the champs post-match as well. The really solid booking of this feud, plus the star power of Tana and Ibushi (and to be fair of Taichi and Sabre), has made their inevitable title match the most eagerly anticipated NJPW Tag Team Championship match in years. ***1/4
Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii & SHO def. Tetsuya Naito, Shingo Takagi & BUSHI
Just as our opening match largely served as a backdrop for the Tag Title feud, our second match helped continue the SHO vs. Shingo feud for the NEVER Openweight Championship. As with almost all LIJ multiman matches, this was a relatively fun and smooth affair, though a little less memorable than the previous bout. In addition to the SHO/Shingo build we got a brief, but hot, exchange between Naito and Goto which more than anything left me wishing for Goto to get one more main event program before some of the younger guys overtake him on the card. SHO finished things off when he nailed BUSHI with the Shock Arrow for the victory, and then post-match he put Shingo down with a spear before holding the NEVER title high as a nice cherry on top for their feud build. ***
Before getting to the New Japan Cup semi-finals, we get a new vignette for the Grandmaster, revealing that he is indeed the returning Hirai Kawato under the new ring name of Master Wato. Post-vignette the newly christened Wato makes a surprise appearance…and kind of looks like a rejected Blue color cousin of SHO & YOH’s early Roppongi 3K characters. After a brief promo, the segment closes with a DOUKI sneak attack to set-up Wato’s first match. Man, I loved young lion Kawato…so I am excited that he is back, but I have to say that the new gimmick and debut came off fairly weak here. Here’s hoping he finds his footing with it, as I still think he has the potential to be an entertaining low-to-mid card worker in New Japan.
New Japan Cup Semi-Final
EVIL def. SANADA
For our first semi-final we have frequent partners, and two time former IWGP Tag Team Champions, squaring off against each other for the third time in a singles match (with them having previously split their two G1 encounters). The match begins with a handshake which EVIL uses as an opportunity to try to sucker SANADA in for his Evil STO finisher, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the match with both men being very familiar with one another and EVIL willing to resort to dirty tactics for an edge.
An early chinlock from EVIL isn’t the most inspiring sign for the match, but things pick up a little after that as both men get in their routine offense, including SANADA looking to lock in the Skull End every chance he gets. Unfortunately, there are a number of spots where their timing looks just slightly off, culminating in a near disastrous corner Shiranui/Slice Bread #2 from SANADA. It is worth pointing out there is a lot of good action here as well, especially with how both men are countering/transitioning between each other’s signature offense…but unfortunately the awkward moments do stand out. During one of the aforementioned counter attempts we get a ref bump (after two ref bumps on the previous show), and then EVIL goes…well full evil…as he brings chairs into the ring for his trademark homerun swing, lands a low blow for good measure, and then hits the EVIL STO just as our ref is coming back to for the evilly decisive victory.
So this match had obvious warts that in my opinion prevented from being great, but I would like to take a second to focus on EVIL’s character work here. I have to say that I really appreciate that early on they set the table for EVIL being willing to use dastardly tactics, and then how once the ref was out of the way he fully embraced his heel side against his stablemate and frequent tag partner. Combine this with his dismantling of YOSHI-HASHI’s leg the night before, and all of a sudden EVIL feels like he once again has a dangerous edge to his character that has been missing for far too long. Additionally, I am intrigued to see what implications this match might end up having on LIJ as a whole moving forward. ***½
New Japan Cup Semi-Final
Kazuchika Okada def. Hiromu Takahashi
Here we go, and even though there is no crowd there is still a big match feel for this one. Similar to Ishimori yesterday, early on Hiromu tries to use his speed to keep Okada on the back foot to mixed success. An early cobra clutch attempt serves as a transition to a period of increased Okada control, as he begins to hit some high impact moves on Hiromu, including a humongous flapjack. As the bout progresses I keep waiting for it to kick into a higher gear, but ultimately it largely feels like a paint-by-the-numbers Okada match more than anything else. Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t good action, and as usual for a NJPW main event the best moments are packed into the extended finishing sequence where both men start emptying their chambers looking for the finish.
During this stage, Hiromu gets a nice run where he hits a Rainmaker followed-up by a Time Bomb for a nearfall, and then shortly after counters an Okada Rainmaker into a triangle choke. Unfortunately for Hiromu, Okada is able to regain the advantage by reversing a Time Bomb #2 attempt into his jumping tombstone, which leads to the cobra clutch, multiple Rainmakers, and one final cobra clutch to win the match by referee stoppage when Hiromu looks to have passed out.
Alright, so I have thoughts about this match, that I want to preface by saying this was not the match expected coming in (though maybe it should have been), and consequently that might have affected my overall enjoyment of the encounter. That said, I thought this match was set-up beautifully for junior heavyweight Hiromu to fully tap-in to his reckless side against Okada in order to present him with a challenge unlike what he usually faces in the heavyweight ranks. I honestly thought such an approach would fit the empty arena vibe well, create good storytelling opportunities, and lead to a strong finish where Hiromu would ultimately crash and burn leaving him and his previously broken neck to fall victim to Okada’s recently established modified cobra clutch. But instead, we got what felt like an Okada 101 match that could’ve been against any other member of the New Japan roster…and which at times felt particularly soulless in a near thirty minute, empty arena setting. Don’t get me wrong, this was still a good/very good match…but I felt like this should have been a great match, and possibly match of the tournament, and it definitely wasn’t that. ***½
One last point before moving on to final thoughts. With the empty arena stage of the NJ Cup coming to a conclusion, I have to say that for the most part the shows have blown away my expectations. Many of the participants looked completely rejuvenated after the long hiatus, and quite a few of the wrestlers worked to minimize the negatives of the empty arena setting, leading to multiple truly great matches. Unfortunately though from my perspective, the most notable exception to this trend has been Okada, who throughout the tournament has looked a step below his usual tier of work, and to be honest hasn’t looked particularly inspiring or engaging throughout his tournament so far. Maybe he will flip the proverbial switch when fans return for the next show, but for me his run to the finals has been underwhelming at best.
While I didn’t think there were any great matches tonight, this still felt like a fun show that did important work in setting the table for the upcoming NJ Cup Finals and Dominion shows. In just a little over two hours we got two fun multi-man tag matches that highlighted two hot title feuds, an…interesting…re-debut of Kawato returning from his excursion, plus two solid semi-finals matches that included some notable in-ring character development for EVIL, and a first-time match between two of New Japan’s biggest stars. Definitely check out if you have the time.