New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Cup 2021 Final
March 21, 2021
Meet Our Reviewers
Neil David: Neil has been frothing at the mouth about how good the New Japan Cup has been, and frankly it’s all been a bit undignified. That being said, he’s up at 4am expecting the final to be the greatest match of all time. Follow him on The Twitter – @chubby_cthulhu
J. Michael: In my time zone, it is 1 AM, and I am currently ruminating on the butterfat content of premium ice creams. The splendor of New England is that the landscape is peppered with countless dairy farms and creameries. I’m stunned we are not a region of Yokozunas with such a concentration of demonically addicting cow resorts. If you’re interested in retweets about Despy, cows, fencing (the sport), Moroccan Nujabes-hop, and manga about pirates, by all means look @ryugu_jo.
Suzuki-Gun (DOUKI, Zack Sabre Jr. & Taichi) def. Gabriel Kidd, Yuya Uemura & Yota Tsuji
Neil: In a tournament defined by moving pieces, I hope Gabriel Kidd’s performance against ZSJ doesn’t get forgotten. Kidd’s problem is that he’s surrounded by a group of unique, captivating Young Lions. That being said, a problem for him but it’s a big win for us.
Uemura got a wonderful hot-tag to allow Kidd to blast away any amnesia by battling ZSJ once more. It also gave Zack the opportunity to display the best part of his game. Some may focus on his mesmerising submissions, but Zack’s patronising sneer is what makes it all work so brilliantly. Technical wrestling is so often dour and almost defiantly boring as if to prove a point nobody cares about. ZSJ juxtaposes this with annoying slaps, smirked one-liners and a captivating swagger.
A misstep from Yota Tsuji should have robbed him of steam, but ironically it added to the charm of the meaty boy who is just starting to realise his own strength. Taichi gets the win, and ZSJ adds an exclamation point by ripping Kidd’s nose off after the bell. ***
J. Michael: Sakura Denbu frontman YOH surprised everyone by returning before this match began. His haircut certainly suggested that he’ll soon be flashing hand signals to free-thinkers like Daniel Austin Healy and Travis Gordon Lopes Jr. as an otaku jock impresario bellows a stentorian charge to an empty Korakuen.
Dangerous Tekkers are headed to confrontation with Guerrillas of Destiny, but right now they are in a holding pattern. Yesterday, I was imbued with anticipation of an utterly strange mini-feud between Tekkers and SANADA-Naito. There are so many goddamn shows in the next few months that a conflict like that could be self-contained within a three-week span. Neil’s point about Tekkers demeanors would undergird such a feud spectacularly.
Tsuji battled with the intensity of someone who brutally flamed out on a twitter gamble with Tetsuya Naito, and the consolation prize was Taichi. Thankfully, Taichi is still overwhelmingly caustic and sour, and Suzuki-gun, despite the increasing popularity resultant from their endearingness, are still acrid bastards. They fucked up the Young Lion trio after the match in a splendidly frenetic bit of barbarous rampage. ***1/4
United Empire (Great-O-Khan & Jeff Cobb) def. Satoshi Kojima & Tomoaki Honma
Neil: O-Khan losing to Toru Yano caused some controversy for those of us who are firmly behind the bearded weirdo, but on reflection it probably shouldn’t have. A Yano victory is meaningless and easily forgotten, and a slow build will yield stronger foundations.
O-Khans work is wild, often relying on slamming someone haphazardly or grabbing an improvised hold. This can lead to an engrossing image, but against Honma is led to confusion. A rest hold looked more like a cuddle, so Honma’s subsequent selling seemed silly.
Kojima has been fired up by the United Empire so many times, it’s starting to seem redundant. The feud reached a wonderfully satisfying conclusion, but we’re getting a series of straight-to-DVD sequels that, while entertaining, rely on former glory.
A functional match, mired in its own insignificance. Much improved by the mic breaking in O-Khan’s post-match promo leading to a bellowed finale. **3/4
J. Michael: Jeff Cobb came to the ring absolutely saturated. I can’t believe how impressively damp he is. Cobb is not a sloppy person, this has to be an aesthetic choice. Maybe this is an homage? Doing these real-time reviews leaves me frantically searching the performance artist index of my brain. Did James Luna perform some sort of aquatic satire? Is New Japan installation art?
Neil is correct that the loss to Yano was a strategic one for O-Khan’s long-term booking, but it also cost him his hair, and I am not favorable to this adjustment to his look. The beauty of O-Khan was that he was sleek and polished, a proper Yuan Dynasty Emperor… save the unkemptness of his beard. O-Khan needs to be urbane; he is allowed one facet of disarray. Please tie your hair up, bb.
It’s time to accept that Satoshi Kojima is having a better 2021 than just about everyone in this company and around the world. His mobility is astounding for his age and the absolute calamity he has inflicted upon his body for three decades. His sequence with Cobb was proof of concept: strap Kojima up with the NEVER belt, a formal apology for depriving him of a legitimate G1 Climax send-off.
Then give him a proper G1 Climax send-off.
O-Khan is working new stances into his Mongolian Chops. The new one is sort of a crane stance, reminiscent of the utter nonsense you see in sabre fencing. Unless you are a Korean fencer and 6’2”, or a former wrestling and sambo national champion with a wall full of waifus, leave that stuff at home.
Cobb and O-Khan are a sensational tag team. Their tandem offense is exquisite, more so because they don;t perform tandem moves, they simply perform moves in succession. They did some of that here, at one point hitting a cool double kick amplified by the strength and size of both guys beyond the simplicity of the move itself… but I want to see them throw motherfuckers into the mesosphere. ***
BULLET CLUB (Yujiro Takahashi, KENTA & EVIL) def. CHAOS (SHO, YOSHI-HASHI & Toru Yano)
Neil: Expectations are everything in professional wrestling. Every word uttered and every move made should be building towards the next thing. It sells tickets and keeps the decade-long story of a promotion rolling.
So, what are the expectations here? A perfectly functional six-man is mired in the miserable expectations that EVIL brings. He’s not had a bad tournament, and from an objective point of view his semi-final against Shingo was good. But, with expectation being everything, he’s lying in the bed that he shit himself. If Togo is at ringside, my brain switches off.
With YOH announcing his return with a promo, SHO announced his revitalisation by battering EVIL. Of course, it didn’t last long and we soon had EVIL battering SHO on the outside of the ring with the shadows of Yujiro and Togo haunting the background of the image.
SHO got the chance to shine by taking a KENTA beat down, before YOSHI HASHI burst into the ring with the warm tag which quickly cooled. KENTA is always the smartest wrestler, and he showed his supreme intelligence here.
Yujiro got the pin, and suddenly the dark cloud of a title challenge started to form. **1/2
J. Michael: I’ve been fighting two things here that are distracting me on my TV: anime and an Olympic Channel documentary on Cuban boxing. I live in the taut liminal zone between taste and repugnance. The previous two matches won out; I don’t like the odds of this match
EVIL’s unyielding thickness really makes SHO look like a Junior. On the plus side for him, he was able to topple Ozaki when EVIL did that spot, whereas Shingo did not have the muscular heft to do so in the semi-finals.
YOSHI-HASHI vs. KENTA was a fun juxtaposition for the big CHAOS hot tag. YSH-HSH’s conflagrantly earnest passion, presented with an unfortunately blank face, is a hilarious contrast to the cooly serene misprision permeated over KENTA’s naturally expressive countenance. The funniest thing in wrestling is KENTA simply walking into the shot of the backstage comments. The disdain!
This truly is the year of the ascendent mid-card workhorse. YSH, Finlay, Despy. If the endless dream guides your restless spirit, INDEED. Of course, as I typed that, Yujiro, who fucking sucks and has a godawful boring finisher, put YSH away. Thankfully, KENTA is around to provide his brand of thoroughly unnecessary savagery, attacking YSH with YSH’s dopey Journey to the West staff. The truth is this: if KENTA is around, his personality is so overwhelming potent and idiosyncratic that everyone follows his lead.
Toru Yano was a participant in this match. **1/2
Los Ingobernables De Japon (BUSHI, SANADA & Tetsuya Naito) def. Toa Henare, David Finlay & Juice Robinson
Neil: No matter who takes the prize, the star of the Cup has been David Finlay. Maybe it’s the consistent fumbling of the biggest wrestling company in the world, but I find it impossible not to be engaged in a lower mid-card wrestler moving up a rung or two. Finlay has scratched and clawed his way to a potential losing record in a future G1 and I love it. Ignoring any non-kayfabe intelligence, it brings a grounded credibility to the promotion.
Henare was dangerously quiet here, volunteering to leave the ring first in an oxymoronic subtle scream of what’s to come.
T-shirt Naito may never have a five-star classic, but it’s always a big red flag for nasty calculated violence. From mocking Juice while punching his face to maniacal attempts to break Finlay’s ankle, Naito has found a way to be a central part of every match whether he takes a big bump or not.
Henare was a ghost for much of this match. Juice danced and frolicked his way through a battle with Naito, providing the perfect grounding for the miserable, destructive Henare to make a brief appearance. He makes some motions, does some moves and then takes the pin with a glazed expression on his face. He was left alone, completely dejected, while the uncaring FinJuice danced around with their newly won gold. This feels like a story on the backburner, but the full boil is a small twist away. **3/4
J. Michael: The intrigue here is that Henare delivered a truly sullen and exasperated backstage comment on the 18th after eating a pin to the dispassionate Bad Luck Fale. He was absent from the card on the 20th; this is his first appearance since that seemingly explicit shift in attitude. Is this an incipient heel turn?
Fittingly, this match started with Finlay and Naito. These two have never had a singles match; they haven’t even been in the same ring since 2018. Finlay. Post New Japan Cup run, feels like a different wrestler, so everything seems fresh.
So naturally, Naito decides to fuck around and mock Juice, and Juice tags in to administer his increasingly tiresome multi-man tag routine of crass screaming, stupid voices, and obtuse physical comedy, all while draped in an idiotic circus clown pattern. Thankfully, Finlay tagged back in, and it became apparent that Naito was hitting to all fields with this one; he got to engage in his favorite activity, the Juice arm thrust, and by doing so he also got to callously disregard Finlay.
Finlay, it should be noted, was wonderfully selling the leg he injured in the match with Ospreay from the night before.
It took nearly ten minutes for Henare to get involved. His sequences were inoculated with an impressive amount of fervent intensity and feats of strength and dexterity. But he completely lacks any eminence or germanity. And so, until he fully turns, he won’t evoke tangible crowd reactions and his segments in multi-mans will feel frivolous.
Though as I type that he is throwing a full tantrum after the match, abandoned by FinJuice and left with robotic Young Lions and a faction defined by aloofness to console him. Any notion of apprehension should be relieved, this is indeed the nascent stages of a turn of some sort. That frivolousness will fade as we reach the apex of that turn. Add Henare to that list of workhorses seeing their assiduousness pay off.
And BUSHI. ***
Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Kota Ibushi def. BULLET CLUB (Jay White, Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens)
Neil: This match opened with a wonderful image of the resplendent Tanahashi elevated and posing with a third tier championship like it’s the most precious evidence of his continued superiority. Then, the god Ibushi blessed the ring, ethereal and otherworldly as ever. Where was Okada during all of this? Present, yet distant. He stood in the ring with his hands on his hips pretending he had noticed something in the middle distance. At every moment, he was standing slightly away from his teammates. He slumped, while they stood ready. This story will burst, and it will be amazing.
Unfortunately, there was too much working against this match to make it interesting on its own merit. Fale is broken, Chase is a lower mid-carder at best and Jay White has little chemistry with Tanahashi.
I wonder if part of the problem is Ibushi. He doesn’t feel like a champion, and the big story of unifying the title is lackluster. It’s hard to engage in a story when my reaction to unification is “do it if you want but it’s pointless and probably a bad idea.” Some wrestlers are better at chasing than they are at being chased, but I think that Ibushi is beyond even that. There’s something too grounded about championships and unification, and it works against the “surpassing the gods” atmosphere he wants to excel at. I just don’t believe he cares about unifying a title for any other reason than he finds it hard to carry two big belts.
I felt a deep kinship with Okada when he politely clapped and went home to do something more interesting. **1/2
J. Michael: Ibushi’s backstage comment was full of his endearing platitudes and his commitment to leading us all to an iridescent future, but I was really hoping he said something like… nature separates, just like the tectonic plates beneath us. So much division. I, a supernatural being, unify. Renounce your trickster gods. Okada, a supercilious son of a bitch, had no comment. We’re looking at a solid two months of a relentlessly acidic Okada badgering a cheerfully oblivious Ibushi. If you’re not into that, take a hike.
There were a few things working against this match. For one, I’ve had enough of the undercard, even with the supergroup on one side of this match. Another: the emergent Okada-Ibushi story hangs over the match, the miasmic narrative fog that provokes me to concentrate my attention on them. Another: it’s hard to take my attention away from Okada and Ibushi because two-thirds of the opposing team are charmless prelim guys.
The work was fine. Four of the five main eventers in the company were in this match. Yes, the wristlock counter sequence between Jay and Tanahashi continues to be hilariously absurd. In this sequence, they reversed twelve successive times in a row. Clearly, they are ribbing us with that one. But still, it was well worked. And, despite my dismissiveness towards him earlier, Chase really is an excellent multi-man tag worker, and he has been for years now. He has several impactful strikes and combinations. His bounceback clothesline is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and he spams knees incredibly well. Leg-slapping is worth it for Chase’s knee strikes.
I’m baffled by Neil’s assertion that Ibushi doesn’t feel like a champion. How long has it been since a champion presented the comportment and deference to the title that Ibushi has? He drew a good house with SANADA. What he has lacked is an emphatic defense. The SANADA defense was perfunctory, and the Naito defense was mired in convoluted balderdash. The results of this night will provide Ibushi with the level of defense on par with the level of match he had to complete the double-night stand at the Dome. He is the best wrestler of his generation, and… well, as I type this he is fumbling over belts and headpieces. Believe in his sincerity, that’s all. ***
New Japan Cup 2021 Final
Will Ospreay def. Shingo Takagi
Neil: The planets aligned when Shingo decided to become a wrestler. There’s something magical about his perfection. He understands how to build a match as well as he understands the power of pregnant pause while he walks to the ring.
As if to recognize this was a battle between two of the best wrestlers in the world, they completely mirrored each other in the opening, from punches to big moves with realistic and grounded reversals. There was a deep weight to this, swapping the speedy reversals for clear, screamed equality. It was deliberate, yet purposeful in how it built momentum.
The build was stopped slightly with a bizarre joke – Red Shoes knocked Shingo’s hand while he worked the broken nose – which was an aside that wasn’t needed in a match where every movement mattered.
It was Ospreay that took the early lead, but he maintained an unusual subtlety that he often lacks. He was able to press ahead with his advantage without losing a cautious look in anticipation of the inevitable Shingo comeback. When it came, he raised the stakes with that horrendous Japanese table.
There was an element of “doing moves” during the middle and it didn’t really transcend until the third act. This is weak criticism, however, because the closing stretch was from another planet. The 450 to the outside was a perfect horror film, where the slow ascent up the ropes and Red Shoe’s protests allowed a glorious void of anticipation for the terror that was waiting.
Ospreay is able to add a sense of power to his flying, which worked incredibly on his shooting star press, but more importantly he was able to bring a great sense of desperation. A wonderful, stoic Shingo bursting into life against a terrified Ospreay was a glorious captivating moment but it soon ended with a swift defeat. The victory, while not easy, was definitive and powerful.
The booking may seem strange, as this felt like Shingo’s time when compared to the younger, recently revitalized Ospreay, but that is a debate for another day. This was a fantastic match, and it leads to a thrilling challenge.
Ospreay’s promo was undermined by the assault on his own girlfriend at the end. I’m not sure how it will be received but there was an unnecessary, determined shock that made me feel uneasy. This wasn’t a simulated fight between two people but simulated domestic violence. I will expand on this below. ****1/2
J. Michael: In my review of the semi-finals, I noted the beauty of the semi-final being the retention of carefree anticipation and the deferment of finality. I am feeling the weight of that finality here; watching Shingo’s entrance. I find myself anathema to any result but his victory.
These two will forever be chasing that 2019 Best of the Super Juniors Final, and clap crowd conditions are not exactly propitious for achieving that exultant level. Even this, a New Japan Cup Final, carrying the weight of a thoroughly successful tournament, is not enough to reach the pinnacle achieved two year ago. They did not reach such heights here, as they did not last fall in the G1 Climax, but they did have an excellent match, and a fascinating one in many ways.
There are things in this match that were a bit unpalatable for me. One was a bit frivolous, the other far more structural.
The frivolous bit was the injection of Bea Priestley into the match numerous times. Typing this after the event has ended, perhaps this was by design for something beyond this match, but within the match itself her inclusion was not only unwelcome, but disconcerting. The United Empire has been established as lawful miscreants, sublimely athletic bastards predominantly heelish in attitude but, possibly due to that athletic background, adherent to some kind of code of conduct. Priestley has accompanied Ospreay to nearly every match he has had since the formation of this unit, with minimal interference. Why this match/ That said, her interference was largely frivolous and inconsequential.
The structural part is more troubling, though the finish, though loathesome, essentially solves the problem but undermines the grade.Structurally, Shingo ate a lot of spectacular Will Ospreay offense. At a crucial point in the match, it became apparent that the balance of the match was nearly irreparable. Ospreay hit an Oscutter, then a Super Oscutter on the floor, then a goddamn 450 through a table, then a fucking shooting star press. At that point, Shingo had eaten too much offense to credibly win the match.
This was nearly redeemed by Shingo’s exhilarating no-sell sequence, replicating Murder Ibushi in a way, and resulting in a blistering sequence of incredibly rapid forearms. This is Shingo’s gift; he is so good that seemingly insurmountable imbalances can be overcome. No matter how much offense he takes, his offense is so fucking brilliant he can bridge even the most cavernous gaps.
That was a last stand for Shingo, however, as he was devastated with a rolling elbow, then a Hidden Blade, and finally the Storm Breaker. The ending solved the problem. It didn’t matter that Shingo received so much offense from Ospreay. His comeback didn’t matter because he lost. Imbalance justified.
But that complicates the evaluation of the match. Ultimately, Ospreay’s triumph after such minimal response from Shingo essentially defines this match as exceedingly one-sided.
The work was fluid and spectacular. If there is one component that I believe foments a 5-star match, it is the amount of spectacular moments within a match. Spectacular moments can be produced in any number of ways, but it is a necessary facet of a match. These two are absolutely brimming with spectacular moves, and they are spectacular on their own. Both exhibit an astounding proportion of mobility, strength, and speed. Both are also extraordinarily busy at all times. The first twenty minutes of this match were breezy as fuck, in large part because these two make exceptional use of empty space. As in, they allow very little. Even when Ospreay had Shingo caught in some holds, he was still working something in it, rabbit punching Takagi and stuff like that.
The crowd was active throughout, but this Xebio Arena has odd acoustics, or perhaps more accurately it has odd acoustics when 25% full. Either way, because of the structural foundation of the match, with such a wide discrepancy in favor of Ospreay, I don’t think this would be a 5-star match regardless of crowd restrictions. Lesser talents would not have reached the degree of excellence that these two did here. But for these two, it’s a halfhearted 4.5. This is how that concept exists. ****½
After the match, Ospreay called Ibushi into the ring. Someone put a shirt on Ibushi at some point. A plague on their house. Ospreay’s promo was good enough, focused on the idea that unification is irrelevant in the quest to attain the status as the #1 in the world. Kota Ibushi v. Will Ospreay certainly seemed like a big-time match at that point. And then… superfluous, unjustifiable nonsense.
Honestly, what does this add to the Ibushi match? It’s Will Ospreay vs. Kota Ibushi… a match that has been phenomenal each time it has occurred, but still feels fresh. One notion that emerged during this match: Will Ospreay is unfairly loaded offensively, and no one, not even Shingo Takagi, could possibly keep up with the depth of things he now brings with the additional power. Everyone except Kota fucking Ibushi, the best offensive wrestler alive!
Why overcomplicate things by having Ospreay demonstrate some performative nonsense in service of a banal motivation? “If I do this to my loved ones, what am I gonna do to you?” That fucking pedestrian drivel? And filtered through such an alarmingly antediluvian prism? It’s jejune and insipid.
Add to that the capricious characterization… he walks to the back with the kind of emotionless expression that epitomizes hegemonic rage coping mechanisms, and within five minutes he is yucking it up with his lads. What is the United Empire supposed to be right now?
When I was engulfed in the monotony of reviewing those New Beginning Road To’s, defending the SANADA-Ibushi build, I never expected it to be a fond memory. How could a build so incredibly dry present any historically favorable traits? Well, as all historical events do: in comparison to other events. As we find ourselves in another needlessly convoluted Ibushi program, think back to those salad days of January 2021, when the championship program was two affable himbos engaging in a daily affirmation that their title match is, indeed, for the titles.
Neil: There’s a debate to be had on what can and can’t be done in a wrestling story, and my previous stance has been that anything can be done as long as it feels necessary. Did Ospreay assaulting his girlfriend feel necessary? No. It felt egregious and designed for a cheap shock from people who didn’t really think, or care, about the image they were painting. It felt like a clumsy angle, completely at odds with the most serious subject matter it suggested. The boys laughing about the single life afterward confirmed my suspicions that this was just another angle to build to another title match.
Wrestling is, and should be, just as valid a medium for telling difficult stories as movies, TV or literature. It should tell difficult stories. However, it isn’t immune from criticism because “it’s just wrestling.” New Japan are accountable for presenting this, one of the most serious stories, in such a laissez-faire way. I don’t see why they had to do it at all.
I left this show feeling disgusted that they thought this was an appropriate way to build to anything whatsoever. This goes beyond booking gripes and heel run-ins. This was a clumsy, vile and, most depressingly, something that people will write off as “just pro wrestling.” I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, if you see this as “just pro wrestling” then you shouldn’t want them going anywhere near this.
The angle was disgusting. I think less of this company and I think less of all of the wrestlers involved.
J. Michael: This show, like all pandemic New Japan shows, lived up to the expectations of what was promised on paper. And on paper, this was a one-match show. That one match was excellent, but, alas, did not match the expectations evoked when that match is on the paper.
There are so many directions that this company is going in that are invigorating. Everything related to the Junior division, for instance. Especially the presumptive Desperado-Ishimori title match. The Ibushi-Okada stuff. White-Tanahashi for the NEVER title. The resumption of Dangerous Tekkers.
But once again we find ourselves confused and slightly unsettled by an exhausting main title program. They have the most straightforward champion possible and a bounty of preternaturally gifted opponents for him. It’s baffling that a show would end this way.