New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Cup 2021 Night 5
March 10, 2021
Sandan-ike Park Gymnasium
Kyoto, JAPAN

Watch: NJPW World

New Japan Cup 2021’s Round 1 has concluded, and with it so has a stunningly jejune period for the company. By adding some tangible stakes, restricting the inane bilge and hogwash, and imbuing the proceedings with some audacious scheduling and bold booking decisions, things seem fecund once again.

Our Match Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the New Japan Cup Undercard

  • BULLET CLUB (EVIL, Bad Luck Fale, KENTA, and Dick Togo) def. Yuya Uemura, Juice Robinson, Toru Yano, and Hiroshi Tanahashi
  • The United Empire (Great-O-Khan, Will Ospreay, and Jeff Cobb) def. Tomoaki Honma, Yuji Nagata, and Satoshi Kojima
  • Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, SANADA, Tetsuya Naito, and Shingo Takagi) def. CHAOS (SHO, Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Kazuchika Okada)

What To Look For

KENTA is the most compelling wrestler in the world

KENTA is the best at this. He is now, and he was in 2020. If you voted for anyone besides him for Best on Interviews, as phenomenal as those people were, you were wrong. You’re judgments were false, your evaluations flawed. No one touches KENTA right now. No one juggles the complexity of styles and sentiments that he does.

And this carries over to his in-ring as well.  His facial expressions are inherently hilarious, imbued with acrid misprision, exponentially funnier the more meaningless the match. The more inconsequential a match, the more captivating he is. He is so thoroughly contemptuous to everything around him, it’s worth sifting through the undercard to watch.

Yuya Uemura should win the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship

This one is pretty self-evident. Often in these multi-man’s, it’s hard not to groan when someone tags in the Young Lion at the critical part of the match. Especially when they have other options, or you’ve seen way too many Road To’s in a concentrated period of time, or both. In Uemura’s case, though, it’s always a pleasure. His tag precedes a guaranteed segment of forthright intensity and it is a joy to see that candid celerity unrewarded, and to see him vehemently defeated. He sells it that well.

On a side note, looking at the title IWGP World Heavyweight Championship… do you wonder if the Wrestling Wikipedia Squadristi have had a collective meltdown over how nebulous the transition to the new championship has been? Could you truly be against the unification if they did?

The Empire Are Already the Best Multiman Unit, Maybe One of the Best Ever

Another self-evident observation. The only drawback thus far has been the abandonment of O-Khan’s shifting ring gear. During the New Beginning tour, O-Khan came out with different gear depending on the situation. It is jarring to see him in full regalia and mannerisms to someone else’s music. The Empire should only come out to his music, simple as that.

There is an exquisiteness to the way they work together, three disparate styles, and how they have developed a functionality so quickly. They also do not repeat spots show-to-show. They are a lot of fun to watch, and it will only be more delightful once they add a junior and a pin-eater.

The Fuck is Okada On?

Okada is really on one, which is presumably building towards an eventual showdown with Ibushi, but goddamn is this going to be an aggravating journey. Okada’s backstage comment in response to his loss to Shingo Takagi, one of the greatest wrestler’s of this generation, was to lament that he was now lamer than the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.

Okada’s persona at one time was that he was lost without the title, oblivious as to how one functions without a championship. Now, things have twisted to the converse: he is convinced that the titles are lost without him. He’s very vocal about this, filtering his disdain through a populist amalgamation of grievances he gathers from discontented Western puro twitter.

Yet in matches he is full Goofball Okada, airdrums w/ cymbals hits and all. In this match, he began with Naito. Naito has been excessively jocular since the Dome, and he came across austere in direct comparison to Okada. The incongruity between in-ring Okada and backstage comment Okada is puzzling. Maybe marrying into that Love Live! money disabled his ambition.

Wait a minute…

  • Bad back
  • Married into bigtime anime money
  • Lack of sustained drive after their big run
  • Infrequently reminds us of his brilliance, but only enough to keep us satiated until he has to do it again… too much dialogue

MY GOD OKADA IS TOGASHI.

New Japan Cup 2021 – First Round
David Finlay def. Chase Owens

I’ve written over 50.000 words on New Japan for this website in 2021 alone, and I forgot about this match. I watched the subsequent two, then started to write this review before I realized this match existed. I didn’t miss much beyond what you would expect: a perfectly adequate, perfunctory wrestling match. Simple, economical, and unmistakably an event which occurred.

Chase came out wearing white headband, which really highlights the Lebron-esque headband expansion he’s exhibited in the last year. It’s like cosmic inflation theory, just a burst of growth in such a short time. And, like that theory, it very neatly solves a dilemma of physics. Almost too neatly. It’s a sad reminder that Chase is younger than me and, even though my hairline is orders of magnitude more in tact than his, I will assuredly die before him regardless.

David Finlay has grown into his look. Unfortunately, he kinda looks like a guy that is a very big fan of Jay Johnston. And not because he’s a fan of Guy Whitey Corngood or can recite the Lie Detector Sketch. He just recently became a fan.

Speaking of looks, Finlay is seconded by Juice Robinson, who looks downright ordinary here. You might be persuaded to believe that that he is not regularly look like a complete fucking idiot. Thankfully, the pattern on Finlay’s tights are a useful reminder of Juice’s new visage, and that these two collectively decided to fashion their new presentation around a beach ball balanced on a seal’s nose at the circus.

Everything was exceedingly proficient. It was a professional match fitting of the top undercard position. Finlay continues to suffer from a distinct lack of alluring moves. Not that he needs to become 1999 Nova, but he doesn’t have anything in his toolbox to enchant the crowd at crucial moments. It’s not stifled, but it is definitely too unpretentious.

Chase does have those tools, but it takes a while to get there, and you’re left wondering if he works better in New Japan as a tag guy. The opening matwork was decent, but considering Owens’ credentials and background, it feels like he could push that sequence more. He’s at his best when he’s spamming thrust knees and dropping his legitimately awesome bounce-back lariat.

Honestly, it was hard to concentrate on this one, because seeing these two in the ring… I just kept hearing Alex Koslov in my brain, stammering on relentlessly throughout the match. With cogent clarity, my brain ran me through the full Koslov gauntlet. He jumped all over Kevin Kelly’s play-by-play with his own play-by-play. When prompted for color commentator insight, he responded with more play-by-play. And when someone hit a really cool move, he proffered a thoroughly clinical, “Wooow.” Chase and Finlay deserved better.

One part near the end was a bit odd. Owens went to the outside and, disconnected from the match, pulled up the ring mats. Juice, incapable of restraining himself from injecting entirely meaningless distraction in a match, protested vociferously. This tied up Unno and allowed Chase to hit Finlay with the revitalized Texas Heavyweight Championship. But then Finlay kicked out.

The New Japan Cup has been remarkably clean through the first round. I almost welcomed the idea of this belt shot leading to a pin; it’s a bit incomprehensible, really, doing that spot and having a kickout. It’s a round one match… either have the belt shot lead to the finish or have the belt shot thwarted.

Eleven minutes was the perfect length for this, though I do wish they had a bit more concentrated action. The finish was nice though, and something the first round of the New Japan Cup needs more of: finishes without finishers. ***1/2

New Japan Cup 2021 – First Round
YOSHI-HASHI def. Yujiro Takahashi

As both competitors walked to the ring with their phallic props, I realized that this is essentially a prick-waving contest with a heavy swordfighting element. But most metaphors don’t bear close examination, and this one doesn’t either. Although it is tempting, these two lack subtlety, either through excessiveness or earnest sincerity. It really breaks down as this:

Yujiro: Hello! I am a pimp! See these buxom ladies accompanying me to the ring? I coordinate prostitute activities for them. Furthermore, I fuck them. If they have no clients, I fuck them instead (I don’t pay, of course). What do you mean, the yakuza? Do they still exist anymore? Studies suggest they don’t, ACUTALLY! Pulls out portfolio of binders Here, read for yourself. Runs away

YOSHI-HASHI: I AM WRESTLLAAAAAAAA!!! HHRAAAAAAAA!

Thus, a staff and a cane are simply that. No symbolism applicable.

Fun fact, these guys were born within 18 months of each other.

As with the previous match, the balderdash in this match was limited, inconsequential, and utterly baffling. Yujiro used his cane on YOSHI-HASHI early in the bout. That much was expected, but unexpectedly he did it right in front of the goddamn referee.

When dragging YOSHI-HASHI to the entranceway, Yujiro halfheartedly pushed Unno, who stumbled and inexplicably sold the push by leaning on the apron. Leaning on the apron while facing the entranceway, offering him an unhindered view of Yujiro taking a running start and battering YOSHI in the face with the cane. Unno’s response? His trademark “stern expression with fists on hips.” Like a Marcy D’arcy pecking hen routine.

You have to sift through some excruciatingly boring parts of this one to get to the good stuff. Yujiro, like Finlay, has a repertoire replete with  far too many dreary components. Unlike Finlay, he has more spectacular looking stuff, but the torrent of mediocrity you have to wade through to reach them is discouraging.

It also doesn’t help that Yujiro moves with a narcoleptic mobility when controlling a match. The G1 Climax is substantive evidence that Yujiro can offer something worthwhile besides tag matches, but match length has to be carefully considered. Yujiro’s average match in the G1 was 10:29, with a median of 11:03. This match here was longer than every one of his nine G1 2020 matches.

Yujiro needs a controlled match length and frankly, substantial narrative support. And even then, it might not work (evidence: his run with Kazuchika Togashi). Even during the energetic portions of the match, Yujiro faltered a bit in the climactic moments, mainly because his finisher fucking sucks and no one cares when he teases it.

Pulling back the curtain: I got so bored with Yujiro’s control period that I went and got a slice of chocolate torte with ganache I made. I’ll be doing like 20 extra minutes of footwork drills and lunge-distance target practice to make up for it but holy fuck, was that delicious.

The crowd woke up for YOSHI-HASHI’s comeback, because YOSHI-HASHI, unlike others, had a breakthrough and has developed the capability to inject legitimately gripping sequences into matches. He has also improved on the stiffness of his work;  that has had a direct impact on how much more expressive audiences have been during his matches post-lockdown.

This opened things up for Yujiro as well, and we were treated to some sensational segments with beautifully traded lariats. One sequence (at 1:41:00) had some awesome fire-ups from both guys, punctuated by lariats and a full-nelson suplex from YOSHI. That was the peak and probably should have ended the match, at about 13 minutes. Instead, YOSHI-HASHI one-upped Yujiro’s crowd-killing expertise with the ultimate crowd-killer: the butterfly lock. And yet, the crowd still clapped along until YOSHI-rolled through and hit the Karma for the win.

After the match, YOSHI-HASHI made it very clear to Yujiro that he had the bigger stick, literally. ***3/4

New Japan Cup 2021 – First Round
Jay White def. Toa Henare

Henare’s theme frightens me, with its martial time signature and Bomb Squad-level density of sounds. Jay, on the other hand, was effusively lighthearted in his entrance, and it should be noted that he essentially ignored Kidd and Tsuji to pester Uemura. The Young Lion matrix is pretty interesting, when you lay it out:

Young Lion Nexus

Yota Tsuji

      • Hiroshi Tanahashi supporter/stan
      • Obsessed with Tetsuya Naito
      • Recruited by Great-O-Khan

Gabriel Kidd

      • Pizza party BFF’s with Hiroshi Tanahashi
      • Obsessed with Togi Makabe
      • History with Suzuki-gun, particularly Minoru Suzuki and El Desperado

Yuya Uemura

      • Ice cream party BFF’s with Taiji Ishimori
      • Obsessed with Minoru Suzuki
      • Issues with El Desperado
      • Scapegoat of Jay White and Gedo

Henare started with a bit of Maori dance, and this highlights the national connection between these two.  Jay even let slip in the beginning of the March 6 comment, absent-mindedly referring to Henare by his real name. Of course, being reminded of their shared country could lead you to take a perspective on this match that is, uh… a bit metaphorically unsettling.

The story of this one is that Jay had to pull out his entire arsenal of tactics to control the pace of the match. And by God, did he control. At the twenty-minute call, it seemed like Jay had controlled 90% of the match. Of course, that’s a ludicrous illusion… he had actually controlled 80%.

Even so, Jay expertly used Henare’s zeal and alacrity against him. It wasn’t necessarily that Henare was an idiot face fighting a genius heel; Henare was simply too fired up for his own good and Jay used the momentum to his own favor. These were the things that Ishii didn’t fall for, and it’s key to point that out because Henare still openly pines for that Ishii match. And so, when Jay played the game of leaving the ring, drawing Henare out, returning to the ring, and attacking Henare when Henare re-entered… Ishii knew how to counter that with in-ring feints. Henare’s not seasoned enough, and this match did an excellent job illuminating that.

Jay and Gedo ceaselessly jabbered throughout this match. And that is quite literal; at all points of this match, at least one of them was screaming something. There were no gaps. Gedo was perpetually screaming either support for Jay or unsolicited advice to Henare. What sort of tea therapy Gedo must require after these matches is mind-boggling to consider. You would have to exhume and revive Sen no Rikyu himself to administer the ceremony necessary to replenish Gedo after these sessions.

Welcome to thee,

O blade of switchability

Contrast Jay’s control period to Yujiro’s. White has several distinct areas of superiority in this facet of the game, and they are not necessarily innate; these are things White has clearly put substantial physical and mental practice into refining. Jay does unrelenting crowd work during his control, especially when he settles into a hold. He also makes sure to punctuate the periods of listlessness with impactful moves, providing a wonderful oscillation of pace and force. He has cultivated an excellent system with impeccable timing.

Henare, for his part, sold very well. At one point, Jay did his over-the-top rope suplex thing and Henare took a brutal sounding bump to the floor (at 1:55:25). Just a horridly dull thud, one that sounded grimly deep and painful. It also brought attention to Jado at the commentary table, wearing a Red Sox cap. Of course Jado wears that hat in 2021. Thanks for reminding me that my home team’s ace this year is Nathan Eovaldi and #1 outfielder is Hunter Renfroe. Thanks a whole lot for that and the 30 years this biz, you bastard.

Once Henare asserted himself into the match, things were exceptional. Henare’s strikes look great, he kept pace with Jay’s reversal dances,  and his moves look tremendous, gladiatorial, and powerful. Unfortunately, the finish was super flat. Jay hit the half-nelson suplex, and the crowd absolutely died. A bit of dual selling revived them, but then they flatlined once more as Jay hit another half-nelson suplex, followed by a Blade Runner for the pin. ***3/4

The match didn’t feel long, even at 25 minutes, but the crowd’s silent reaction to the finish was unsettling. Afterwards, Jay demanded that Kidd give me Henare’s icebag, and vowed to disunite the World Heavyweight Championship. For those keeping score:

Reactions to IWGP Title Unification

In Favor of Unification: Great-O-Khan, Yuji Nagata, El Desperado, Tama Tonga

Opposed to Unification: Jay White, Taichi, Kazuchika Okada

Strategically Silent: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Nihilistically Ambivalent: Tetsuya Naito

Final Thoughts

This is a strange one to assess. None of these matches were captivating enough, on paper or in execution, to wholeheartedly recommend. They are in no way essential. But they are ultimately recommended due to the competent work, clean finishes, and agreeable chemistry on display in all three tournament matches. The first round of the New Japan Cup concludes as a successful string of cards that, hopefully, rekindled the spirits of supporters that found the past couple of months unbearably arid.