New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Cup 2021 Night 1
March 5, 2021
Korakuen Hall
Tokyo, Japan

Watch: njpwworld.com

The main interest in life is to become someone that you were not in the beginning.  I don’t think Michel Foucault was referencing professional wrestling booking when he said that, but he might have been.  He might have even been talking about the New Japan Cup, had he not died twenty years before it started.  

That quote, the idea of a person evolving to become more than they were, is what the New Japan Cup is to me and it’s why I can never skip it.  There may have been years where Okada or Naito took the prize in a piece-moving exercise, but it’s just as likely to be taken by a resurgent Hirooki Goto, a burgeoning Zack Sabre Jr or a reset EVIL.  There’s a chance that we can see the mid card wrestlers flex and bend, and there’s always the chance that one will take that critical step upwards.

The Cup isn’t the G1.  The winner doesn’t have to sell out the Tokyo Dome.  It’s a time to experiment, to be surprised and to give wrestlers an opportunity.  It’s a time for the mid-card wrestler to shine, and the best wrestlers are those with something to prove.

The sands of New Japan are moving, and I’m still prepared to move with them.

Suzuki-gun (DOUKI, Minoru Suzuki & Zack Sabre Jr.) def. Gabriel Kidd, Tomoaki Honma & Yuya Uemura 

Gabriel Kidd is a testament to the New Japan dojo.  He was a wrestler I was aware of on the British scene, mostly through his work with WCPW, and he was mismanaged to a fault.  He was forced into a smiling blue-eye role that fit him like a bad suit. The Gabriel Kidd in this match was very different.  

Gabriel Kidd was able to move while standing still.  He wrestled this match with a wonderful confusion, like his body was consumed with energy that his mind didn’t know what to do with.  It felt like he was bubbling.  Between bursts, the camera would catch a look that brimmed with vengeance and determination.  Kidd became the Young Lion with such dedication that any shot of him could be framed as a perfect example of youthful rage.  He perfectly encapsulated the energy of someone starting at the bottom.  His cries for more when ZSJ pounded his chest were heartfelt and real, not a tick in a box.

Zack Sabre Jr and Suzuki were masterful in their work with Honma.  ZSJ worked the neck with an uncomfortable viciousness, showing that lovely “pack of wolves” style that Suzuki-gun encapsulates. He wasn’t simply working a body part, however.  The smirk as he danced around the ref belied a callousness that will forever put Suzuki-gun above the likes of BULLET CLUB.  Suzuki-gun don’t cheat, they bully.  That’s what makes them the best heels in the company.

This match was a lovely bit of violence that you should not skip. ***3/4

BULLET CLUB (Chase Owens, EVIL, Taiji Ishimori & Yujiro Takahashi) def David Finlay, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tiger Mask & YOSHI-HASHI 

The pose off between Ishimori and Tanahashi really tested Ventura’s theory of “there’s always time to pose” but really it was as harmless as everything else here.  There was a slight wrinkle between Finlay and Owens which, given Finlay’s aggressively average work, is not something I can force an opinion about.  Fine, but skip.  **3/4

The United Empire (Great-O-Khan, Jeff Cobb & Will Ospreay) (w/Bea Priestley) def Master Wato & TenKoji (Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima)

Great-O-Khan has a chance to win the New Japan Cup.

I’m not sure why that statement is so controversial.  It seems to rile people up in a very bizarre way, like O-Khan’s is somehow a personal affront to them.  Nobody needs to worry about O-Khan for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Great-O-Khan’s push has been firm, yet measured.  He’s beaten Tenzan, but he’s lost to Tanahashi (again).  He’s beaten Naito, but only after his grueling championship match.  He’s being pushed, but he’s not getting the rocket pack.  He’s slowly learning and he’s slowly improving.

Secondly, we don’t know where O-Khan’s final resting place will be.  They’re going to push him until it doesn’t work.  If that’s an upper mid-card spot, then so be it.  I’ve heard criticisms that O-Khan is no more than a Goto, like Goto doesn’t hold one of the most valuable positions in a roster.  A credible midcarder is as important as a credible champion.  The glory of a championship belt is only true glory if it was a fight to get there.  Is it really a problem if O-Khan ends up with that role?

Thirdly, and most importantly, O-Khan is great.  I don’t often put myself over, but I have followed O-Khan’s career as close as any wrestling critic.  I have watched every single match of his career, and I have seen the pieces of a great wrestler floating around him.  Are they all together yet?  Not completely.  But the man can stand in a ring with his hands behind his back and tell a whole story in that single intimidating moment.  The gimmick might not work for you, but gimmicks evolve.  He’s in the early days of his first push less than twelve months after his return from excursion.  Don’t critique him like he’s just won the G1 and is about to headline the Tokyo Dome.  

I hope O-Khan wins the New Japan Cup and proves people wrong.  Not to take a victory lap, but so we can all enjoy him together.

Anyway, this was the millionth Empire/TenKoji match of the year and it was the same as all the others.  It’s a good joke, but we’ve heard it before.  ***

New Japan Cup 2021 First Round Match
Yano Toru def. Bad Luck Fale

Two years ago, this match would have been hell.  In the era of the bald old midgets ruining fifty percent of matches, it was almost an amuse-bouche.

Traditionally, these two wrestlers are the spoilers.  There are lots of lessons to take from the waning peak of New Japan, but one of the most vital lessons the peak highlighted was the importance of the spoiler.  On their day, both Yano and Fale could have beaten anyone.  What makes them special, however, is that they gained nothing by winning and the victim lost nothing by losing.  It was a perpetual upset that solved booking riddles.  They might never have great matches, but they were the bass players playing the root note.  They supported everyone else.

Fale moved slightly better than he used to, but he still needed a minute leaning on the apron after a couple of body slams.  In a stunning twist of fate, Yano continued the motif of his own tape being used against him which, of course, blows everything wide open.

He gets taped to the ring post, kicks Fale in the dick and then jumps inside the ring before Fale is counted out.  Short, harmless and skippable. **

New Japan Cup 2021 First Round Match
Hirooki
Goto def. Taichi

There’s something of Plato’s Cave about Hirooki Goto.  We think we know him.  He’s the perpetual bridesmaid.  He’s the geek who stands under waterfalls and then gets pinned.   For a while, his entrance video opened with him being smashed in the face by a Rainmaker.  Perception is often reality, and there’s a nasty rumour that Goto is a geek.

I think it’s time for some people to leave the cave and see Goto for what he really is.  He’s a credible threat in any situation and he has been for a long time.  Beating Goto has been positioned as a legitimate achievement and he has racked up an impressive collection of incredible matches along the way.  

This was atypical of the great match that Goto can give you, and Taichi was no slouch.  The opening chokes were infinitely more interesting than any Money Clip and were a foreshadowing of the brutality to come.  There was a vicious arrogance oozing from Taichi that was disgustingly captivating.  He glared at the ref with his hands around Goto’s throat and reminded me why he has grown into such an engrossing character.  He’s the epitome of Suzuki-gun – nasty, arrogant and very dangerous.

Neither man is afraid to take a bump and the third act of this match was a barrage of big bombs.  Goto managed to perfectly navigate speed and power with devastatingly sudden GTRs and Shoten Kais.  Everything he did looked dangerous, and his offense was often punctuated by brilliant, glassy-eyed selling from both men.  Their chests heaved as they gave everything they had, and it’s impossible not to be captivated by that commitment and heart.

This was a battle, and one the viewer felt a part of.  Great match.  ****¼

Final Thoughts

At two hours, the true opening night of the tournament was a breeze.  The opener was very good, the main was excellent and the rest was inoffensive.  I’ve been as wary of New Japan as anyone, but this is a good show to ease yourself back in.