New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Cup 2021 – Night 12
March 20, 2021
Xebio Arena Sendai
Sendai, Japan

Watch: NJPW World (JPN) / Watch: NJPW World (ENG)

There’s a uniquely resonant splendor in a semi-finals. It is the best part of any tournament, and the last purely joyful one. It is our last chance to savor irresolution.

If the entire enterprise is enacted to crown a victor, our consideration founded on our desire for outcomes, why would the semi-finals be superior? Because each victor has the expectation and anticipation of a greater step ahead. That is the key word: anticipation. The expectation of another day, another round, another chance. Circumstances propitiously nebular enough for the viewer and critic to suffuse their discourse, contemplation, and delineation, but narrow enough to give enough meaningful shape to all that bombast.

The semi-finals are the last point of any tournament which ends in hope. Finality is deferred. Early rounds are imbued with excitement and novelty, but also replete with mismatches and subdued consequence. The finals provides the highest prestige and consequence, but, ultimately, the painfulness of irrevocable finality (unless, you know, you paid someone to take your SATs, or someone in a Hungarian branded bespoke suit you met once gave your mother’s step-cousin a gold chain, or John Chaney tried to kick your ass and you stayed at your podium. Things like that). The semi-finals is firmly in the goldilocks zone of any tournament formatted event; it holds the highest balance of consequential stakes and anticipatory continuity.

It might actually hold the highest amount of both consequence and anticipation. Because the successive rounds of matches have honed down the competitors to the best and the most adroit,  the concentration of talent and superlative execution is high enough to neutralize the smaller amount of matches. And as the consequences lead directly to the final, the developmental investment is substantial, the composite of every preceding contest. Anticipation in most tournaments theoretically peaks in the aftermath of the semi-finals.

At the culmination of a tournament, or any event (a multi-day convention, the Olympics, etc.), there is a rush of elation, a euphoria that something was accomplished intermingled with the pride of achievement. But that is stalked by the dread and the prickly, urticating melancholy that nothing more is left. The vacancy that follows is a stark reminder of the elephantine insignificance of it, of us, and the Camus-ian indifference of everything. There’s nothing sadder than a Closing Ceremony. Thankfully, wrestling doesn’t have those. If anything, historically when something closes no one finds out until well after the fact.

For one day, in this protracted but largely rehabilitative New Japan Cup, we can remit that nonsense mortality and embrace the buoyant majesty of incomplete process.

All that vacuously academic nonsense above was in appreciation of such a well-conceived and structured tournament. The New Japan Cup 2021 yielded fruitful semi-finals match-ups, with two substantively engrossing stories. On the left side of the bracket, we have the old-stablemates stand-off between EVIL and Shingo Takagi. On the right side, the Cinderella story of David Finlay as he confronts the highly favored, vaingloriously loquacious persona of Empire Will Ospreay.

It was a successful night that did everything a semi-finals should do, replete with extraordinary competition and a lavish supply of anticipation for the final.

Notes from Undercard: The First Existential Novel

1st Match: The United Empire def. Yuya Uemura and Juice Robinson

2nd Match: CHAOS (SHO, YOSHI-HASHI, and Toru Yano) def. BULLET CLUB (Jado, Chase Owens, and Bad Luck Fale)

3rd Match: Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, SANADA, and Tetsuya Naito) def. Suzuki-gun (DOUKI, Zack Sabre Jr, and Taichi)

4th Match: Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kota Ibushi def. BULLET CLUB (Yujiro Takahashi, KENTA, and Jay White)

What To Look For


Despite studying this sort of stuff for years, I forgot about that pesky indifference of the universe. Long-winded introductions to reviews, multi-man tags, any sequence of electrical pulses racing through our nervous system that evoke a sense of composure: all meaningless. YOSHI-HASHI has once again been  confirmed as the only truthful prophet in this world, because it all can change in an instant.

Things happening miles beneath us can topple the synthesis of all our comforts in seconds. And not merely in places like the Ring of Fire. For instance, examine the wondrously banal utopia of New England, devoid of consistently predictable calamities. There are numerous of geological oddities and currently inactive fault lines that, for reasons largely debated and unknown, can thoroughly upend the fuck out of our precious autumnal calendar sensibilities.

The most famous is the 1755 Cape Ann Earthquake in the upper northeast of Massachusetts. Despite being thousands of miles from hot fault lines and tectonic activity, a level VIII earthquake ravaged the colony and caused billions of dollars in damages.

Historians and scholars should be instantly triggered by that year number. If you are dumb enough to commit to the formalized study of the past, the year 1755 generally means one thing: Lisbon.

Across the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Ann and a fortnight previous, Portugal’s capital was decimated by its own  Great Earthquake. That one that not only resulted in unfathomable damage and suffering but also became a cause celebre of the Enlightenment, in its apex. Voltaire particularly exploited it with delicious audacity, but even the more sober fuddy0duddy Deists of the time had quite an arduous grapple with the philosophical implications of such seemingly senseless catastrophe. I recommend Nicholas Shrady’s The Last Day for an excellent survey of that event, mainly for it’s opening paragraph which contains some of the most gloriously pretentious renderings of historical diction this side of Schama:

…Whitestoned Lisbon lay mantled in a keen autumnal light that cast elongated shadows from the summits of the surrounding hills to the banks fo the River Tagus. A faint northeast breeze carried ribbons of chimney smoke from the cooking fires of the city, spiraling aloft into the cerulean sky, and caused the standards of the battlements of the tenth-century Moorish-built Castelo de Sao Jorge, which kept vigil over Lisbon, to scarcely waver.

I’m not sure the 2021 Miyagi Earthquake will arouse such florid prose, mainly because, as one of the first people writing about it, I offer this august response: Can we give these people a fucking break already?!

The emotional chords of this country, and the Miyagi-Fukushima area in particular, were already noxiously abraded by the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, whose epicenter was less than 50 miles to the east of this one. Remember: one of that quake’s many sobriquets is the goddamn Great Sendai Earthquake. The region was offered a grim commemoration of that catastrophe in the form of the 2021 Fukushima Earthquake on February 13th. For emphasis: an earthquake equally potent as this one happened only 35 days ago, with an epicenter a mere 50 miles to the southeast of the epicenter of this March 2021 quake. Sendai felt a 5+ intensity for that one.

This seismic activity occurred not far off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, the capital of which being Sendai, the city that contains the Xenio Arena. The New Japan Cup Semi-Finals card was the inaugural event for the company in this venue, and alarmingly close to the epicenter of this earthquake. Check out this map for a sense of scale:

Measuring a 5+ on the Japanese Meteorological Agency intensity scale (the same intensity as the Fukushima earthquake in February), the New Japan viewership were left with a stunningly surreal scene, a rattled tableau which extended to 25 minutes of posturing, posing, and bewilderment. Ibushi immediately did the “keep calm” gesture, though in typical Ibushi fashion he was facing the ring when he started doing it. Jay White did not consider Ibushi’s advice, getting the fuck out of the ring as the arena lights came on and the camera panned up to show the disturbingly immense but soundly engineered rigs and lights high above the audience convulse and sway.

Jay White is unflappable, though. Whether being stalked by a MMA legend working his way into a shoot (firing) or in the center of the ring during a 7+ Richter Scale earthquake with an epicenter a marathon’s run away, Jay White does not falter. As Makoto Abe outfitted himself with his most euphoniously tranquil tone to address the audience, White appropriated The IWGP Heavyweight, IWGP Intercontinental, and NEVER Openweight championship belts, carrying them to the backstage area as the Bullet Club team was escorted from ringside roughly 5 minutes after the initial shake.

When presented with discomforting situations of incomprehensible stress, people reveal their internalized coping mechanisms. Tanahashi’s mechanism was as predictable as the Finlay-Ospreay outcome: posing. Air guitaring. More posing. Literally polishing his abs with his own hands when asked to pose for pictures. Tanahashi represents noble overcorrection.

Ibushi walked around, aimlessly offering the “stay calm” motion, engaging in arbitrary conversation with a bug-eyed Gabriel Kidd, and, of course, posing. Ibushi remains Ibushi; the same impulse that compels him to acknowledge every fan wearing his merchandise, with the sort of authentic, genuine sincerity that defines this man’s persona, also compels him to lap the ring several times, doing whatever he can to model equanimity and provide reassurance. Ibushi represents empathetic uncertainty.

Okada… Okada was demurely detached. He mostly stood around, watching Ibushi and Tanahashi, and if you were watching the VOD and skipped the earthquake, you’d easily be convinced that this was simply the post-match celebration. If this was a criminal serial, you’d instantly deduce that Okada was the culprit, that he single-handedly caused the earthquake himself and buried the evidence in the foundation of his basement, or stuffed it in a condom and swallowed it, knowing that by the time he’s reunited with said condom the coast will be clear.

Okada represents internalized acclimatization, which was fully represented. It was the most represented, in fact.

While my heart was racing in a frenzied internal panic, with faint memories of the 1989 Bay Bridge World Series, when my extremely young sensibilities where frightened by the incomprehensibility of a geological process I only knew from a textbook interrupting my favorite thing in the world, Japan was composed. Nobody in the building panicked;  no one on camera is caught even leaving their seat (and considering the draw, you could see just about everyone in the standard wide shot). Disquietment was sparse.

As Chris Charlton explicated on the English broadcast, this is an accepted part of life in Japan. There are protocols and exhaustively rehearsed procedures for these things. The fact that the match that was interrupted was resumed within less than half an hour is a testament to their pragmatic preparedness. It was a surreal situation, but not a tragic one.

The Most Hackneyed Idea I Can Think of: K-Pop Comparisons

I don’t know how to transition out of a goddamn mid-show earthquake, considering the labyrinthine sensations connected to a Sendai-centric earthquake, so allow me to give insight into the way Voices of Wrestling works.

On Wednesday, I left my house in the mid-afternoon, drove an hour, attended an hour-long competitive training class for my dopey bourgeoise sport, and then checked the Slack before driving home. Literally every second of my departure was filled with a bunch of dudes engaged in extended fumbling for some sort of solid grasp of K-Pop and a logical measurability of its popularity. You better believe I was BLARING “Russian Roulette” 50 times in a row on the way home.

In the wake of such a unsettling thing (the earthquake, not the Slack), I’ll use that conversation as the inspiration to provide an unexplained list of which K-Pop artists are represented by which K-Pop units. It’s the most hackneyed thing I could possibly think to do, and several of the choices are basic as fuck:

  • Suzuki Gun = Red Velvet (The most adorable unit. I’d give anything to hear Suzuki end a promo with, “Suzuki-gun… Ichibe-be-be-ban)
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi = HyunA
  • TenCozy = SNSD

Okada and Ibushi are Headlining One of These Grand Slam Shows

In the aftermath of the earthquake, one thing became very apparent: the seemingly arbitrary reunification of the Ibushi- Tanahashi-Okada supergroup was not arbitrary at all. Like all supergroup unifications, it had a devious, utilitarian purpose: to begin the Ibushi-Okada story, a program that will, presumably, carry New Japan into the summer. The conflict began when Okada nonchalantly detached himself from the pre-match posing of Ibushi and Tanahashi. That one background  action would have sufficed as an initial seed of discontent, but the match itself contained three further instances so explicit that I can’t even attempt to classify them as clues..

One was when Okada demurred at the notion of tagging in Ibushi, followed by Ibushi blind-tagging himself in and providing an additional, insouciant slap to the back to Okada’s head.

The second was when Ibushi nailed Takahashi with a Kamigoye for the win. Okada and Ibushi intently stared the other down during the entire action. The frostiness was manifest.

The third was Okada leaving the ring after the pinfall, once again rejecting participation in any Golden Ace proprieties.

For all the bluster about Ibushi being turned heel by administrative procedure, his persona remains endearingly sincere. This was in full display during the earthquake interim of this match. This is the best Ibushi. Humane, affable, and earnestly considerate.

Okada has increasingly reclaimed his disdainfully imperious persona as the months have progressed with him severed from the company’s top title. This is beginning to amalgamate with a new persona trait, one that could only emerge once Okada reached full veteran status: a highfalutin, self-impressed contempt for the current operations, openly and invidiously pining for the days when he propelled and defined the company. He doesn’t like this new definition, he find the new parameters abhorrent, and there’s a trace of rancor here that was sent when he was battled EVIL. EVIL was vanquishable.

Ibushi is not so easily subdued.

New Japan Cup 2021 – Semi-Final
Will Ospreay def. David Finlay

These two were born within nine days of each other in May 1993, but Will Ospreay seems years ahead of David Finlay. He achieved international success significantly earlier, and has attained the status of unit leader as Finlay is just now beginning to emerge as a credible singles competitor. Finlay is openly campaigning for a G1 Climax spot, years after Ospreay entered the tournament as a Junior.

The discrepancy between the two is self-evident; absent of any warm-up shows to build this match, this is the conceit that Ospreay leaned upon heavily on Night 11, openly laughing at the notion of meeting David Finlay in a match of such heightened consequence. Clearly, he considered his passport to the finals stamped.

Thankfully, wrestling is very fake, and these sorts of gaps can be bridged very quickly. David Finlay was a likely first-round elimination three weeks ago. Now, it would be malfeasance to preclude his entrance into the G1, and foolish to resume the status quo moving forward. It’s akin to El Desperado in the Junior division. Finlay and Despy’s assiduousness has resulted in escalating sapience and a growing number of fans recognizing the inherent endearingness of both wrestlers. This has allowed Despy to escape the prelims and breeze his way to the top of the mid-card, piercing the ceiling enough to inhabit the main event scene as well. Perhaps Finlay has begin the same ascent. Just as in the ADEQUATELY ATTENDED BUDOKAN ANNIVERSARY SHOW did for Desperado, this New Japan Cup might be an attempt to naturalize the idea of David Finlay in elevated card positions such as this one.

This match surely evidenced things that Finlay needs to refine, but as I noted in my review of Night 6, the list of qualities David Finlay needs to refine is an progressively contracting list. There were times during this match where I yearned for a bit more fluidity in his matches. Often in this tournament things have proceeded to exhaustion selling before that exhaustion seems justified.

Complementary to that, in comparison to Ospreay he lacks riveting combinations. Ospreay easily strings together moves and strikes. This provides him a bag of tricks that are failsafe tools for engaging the audience. We saw the same in the main event; Shingo possesses the same deep toolkit. Finlay has unquestionably improved his arsenal and his look, and we should all look forward to this evolution as he starts to cleave things together. The G1 Climax this year will be the perfect format for him to workshop these things.

Right now, things are still a bit staccato, but the signs that he has the foundational components to enhance his repertoire are lucid. In this match, he was particularly impressive in the way he sequenced and placed the signature facets of his repository. For example, Finlay has become very sagacious and fervent with his European uppercuts, delivering them in an eclectic mix of angles and positions; these are the sinews of a David Finlay match.

This simplicity is charming, and allows Finlay to stand out, as they are fairly idiosyncratic in New Japan, and also robustly establish that he belongs in situations like a New Japan Cup semi-final. The European uppercut exchange between Finlay and Ospreay in the latter stages of this match was compelling in its novelty, its intensity, and its clear message: Big Boy Will Ospreay, who emphasized his new size by badgering and overwhelming Zack Sabre Jr., could not do the same to David Finlay. David Finlay was a valid participant in this match, against a bona fide main eventer in a meaningful match of substantive ramifications.

The injury story that surfaced in the latter portion of the match might have exhibited a hackneyed, cringeworthy triviality in other contexts. In this context, however, we find a company that infrequently engages this sort of garishness (the garishness they do engage in was exhibited in the main event, of course) and an underdog circumstance which allowed such indulgence. It was also achieved through spectacular means: David Finlay went for his Acid Drop finisher, but Ospreay tossed him wholesale over the ropes. Take Spike Dudley risks, take Spike Dudley bumps along the way.

Of course, even these propitious conditions would be negated if the execution was not so exquisite, and David Finlay was engrossingly exquisite in his performance.

It would have been easy for this to have devolved into facile balderdash. If this match was produced by a scruffy-faced, cross-eyed instructor it assuredly would have resorted to cartoonishly callow mannerisms, an insulting lack of sophistication, and an inherently monochromatic distrust of the audience. David Finlay did not succumb to any of that bollocks.

His performance was believable, succinct, and dexterously genuine. His crumpled sell on the first shoeless Acid Drop attempt was sublime, and made the subsequent rana reversal near-fall exponentially more breathtaking. The crowd grew increasingly empathetic as Finlay persevered through Ospreay’s relentlessly cavalier offensive sequences, culminating in a gripping closing stretch in which each wrestler executed tremendous counter-actions.

Finlay countered the Oscutter with the Prima Nocta. Side note: if anyone reading this has David’s ear, could you please convince him to change the name of that move now that he’s finally getting a real push?  Of all the things I’d rather not be reminded of during a professional wrestling match, Belladonna of Sadness is at the absolute top of that list.

When Finlay went for the Acid Drop once more, Ospreay converted this into a powerbomb (slightly bobbled, but caught and adjusted, which made it even sicker in execution) and Storm Breaker combination. The fact that Finlay accomplished all of this with one shoe is actually a testament to Ospreay. Ospreay amplified the conditions that made Finlay shine so iridescently.

Ospreay held up his end spectacularly. Consider, Ospreay did minimal aerial offense in this match. He did more in imploring Unno to end the match after Finlay’s injury, insistently declaring his intentions to “do a dive,” then actual diving. The lawful ruthlessness that his character has been grasping for since the formation of The United Empire was realized in this match. Ospreay’s barbarous capitalization on the leg injury was a magnificent catalyst for the heroicism of Finlay, highlighted by the merciless removal of Finlay’s boot, done with a repugnantly peremptory flair.

It was an obvious story, but implemented so goddamn well that I would slot this match just behind the Naito-GOK, Shingo-Okada, and Ospreay-ZSJ bouts as the matches of the tournament. If it was the Final, I might have gone higher, but as I alluded to in the introduction, the sense of resolution and ultimate consequence of a final round might have altered the complexion of such a story. A semi-finals might have been the perfect place to attempt this kind of match. ****1/2

New Japan Cup 2021 – Semi-Final
Shingo Takagi def. EVIL

The critical response to this match has been well below my analytical assessment of it, and even further below my ultimate rating. This is totally understandable, a predictable and coherent reaction to the perfunctory, jejune monotony of EVIL and Dick Togo’s heat death tactics.

There was a ref bump, and it was stunningly artless. This initial ref bump was accompanied by equally primitive interference by Dick Togo. He ran in and they hit a Magic Killer. It was so creatively bankrupt that no one bought it as the finish, even conceptually.

There was a second ref bump, this one subtle… incredulously subtle. If you missed it, or were wondering what in the fuck Unno was doing while Togo administered the obligatory garotte wire bunkum, Unno was actually bumped after Shingo kicked of from the post-Magic Killer pin. That kick-out propelled EVIL slightly skyward, at least 4 whole inches, landing sorta kinda nearly almost near Red Shoes and then rolling delicately into him. Not onto him, just into his, side-to-side. That was the ref bump. this incapacitated Unno for nearly three minutes. It was foolish, fatuous, absurdist drivel. I had to re-watch The General six times to rekindle my belief in human physical capability.

But that is where the senselessness begins and ends. The critical aspect of this match, which made it the best match of EVIL’s 2021 and the best match that Bullet Club EVIL has had with anyone outside of Tetsuya Naito: structure. Filtered through a healthy strain of comparative restraint. Those two examples of chicanery are the entirety of the Dick Togo rubbish, aside from a couple of minor, normal ref distractions. Because the big interferences spots were condensed into one extended sequence, they did not disrupt the flow of the match as significantly as they did in the Jeff Cobb match.

I went a full star lower on the Cobb match, and it is entirely based upon structure. The Cobb match was disconnected multiple times by Dick Togo officiousness, to the point where any semblance of continuity was lost by the end. Jeff Cobb did enough impressively powerful feats to save the match from being a complete disaster, assuredly. But the fragmentation of the match itself, each bit of interference demolishing any regained momentum, resulted in a mind-bogglingly frustrating experience.

The compaction of Togo stuff allowed this match to establish an actual identity, congruous between the pre and post-Togo action.

Another aspect that made this match more pleasant: significantly less EVIL control. Whereas the Cobb match had an excruciating EVIL control segment, accentuating the parts of EVIL that were bothersome even before the heel turn, this one was essentially a back-and-forth affair the whole way through. Besides the abdominal stretch spot, EVIL didn’t apply any soporific holds. He even changed up his stale, barren home run chair swing gimmick, this time simply suplexing Shingo onto a pile of chairs. How prescient was Thoreau when he said: “Simplify, EVIL. Simplify. I say, let your fuckery be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”

How does Shingo, and Naito for that matter,  get just an excellent match out of EVIL when Okada, Cobb, and others could not? It is the deft touch for injecting vehement energy into a match, and having the velocity to do so. Shingo is an alchemist at the pinnacle of his potency. He provided the physical contrast to EVIL that Naito did in some of his matches with EVIL, unable to match the astounding, mesmerizing thickness of EVIL, but possessing a remarkable burst that looked even more explosive in juxtaposition to EVIL’s methodical balderdash. Shingo’s velocity is already frenetic enough, but his virtuosic changing of pace here made it appear even more so.

The match itself was bereft of anything spectacular; one wishes that EVIL would work more power back into his game. As before, these are complaints that pre-date the heel turn. Its not as if EVIL was consistently a delightfully brutish powerhouse in LIJ. Sometimes you got the EVIL of the 2018 G1 Climax, and just when you were ready to give up on him entirely you’d get the EVIL of the 2019 G1 Climax. His personality is still deficient; the most interesting thing he did as an individual in this match was a brief instance where he taunted the crowd with clapping. Ah, the influence of Jay White and KENTA, I thought. And that was that. That was where his personality flourished, in those meager seconds.

The crowd was hard to interpret. At times they were fully invested. Illogically, they were increasingly loud during the garotte sequence; sometimes it is helpful to observe and acknowledge that things might work for the live crowd that are completely anathema to the remote viewing audience. Even so, the crowd literally stopped cold when EVIL brained Shingo with a chair. Now, the Japanese announcers were in full “fill the clap-crowd void with screams” mode, so perhaps I missed an audible crowd gasp. EVIL really clocked him square on the crown of his fucking head, but somehow that cued the crowd to go dead silent for 8-10 seconds before resuming their support of Shingo.

One must also acknowledge contextual and historical influencers on a match and card. In this case, a 3.5 star match is substantially elevated by a competitor’s preceding failures. EVIL did better here, and Shingo’s fiery, intense sorcery resulted in a competent, often and-hitting, and satisfying match. ****

Final Thoughts

A uniquely historic night in Sendai produced two excellent matches, one a legitimately superb bout and the other a shockingly pleasant EVIL match accomplished through the zealous charm of Shingo Takagi. As with all penultimate events, this was the last night of a tournament that we can look forward to something further, and this night certainly gave us something to look forward to. Considering the exhilarating performances of Will Ospreay and Shingo Takagi on this night (though possibly outdone by David Finlay’s exquisiteness), one should expect scales to be obliterated in the finals.