Even the most hardcore of All Japan fans don’t deny there has been a malaise in the promotion since the latter half of 2020.

The departure of former company president Jun Akiyama, a far too long SUWAMA Triple Crown reign and a poor 2020 Champion Carnival (except a tremendous final which saved it from becoming an all-time bad tournament) have soured many.

Recent events suggest there is beginning to be a turnaround. The awesome Shotaro Ashino and Jake Lee double turn was well received even by those who have been critical of the promotion. And Lee’s new heel faction, Total Eclipse has been off to a good start. And young wrestlers like Atsuki Aoyagi and Hokuto Omori have shown great progress as of late.

If these promising signs are to mean anything, the Champion Carnival has to deliver. There is only one wrestler that should win the tournament: Jake Lee. Now is the time to go all the way with him. Yuma Aoyagi and Shotaro Ashino would also be acceptable though they have both recently challenged for the Triple Crown. Anyone else, including Kento Miyahara, would be the company reverting to its worst instincts last year and just spinning its wheels instead of building new talent for the main event.

This year’s Champion Carnival consists of one block of ten wrestlers. It’s the first time the tournament has only been one block since 2001 (though in 2003 it was a single-elimination). However, prior to Keiji Muto’s jump to All Japan, it was usually a one-block, sometimes single-elimination tournament during the Giant Baba era. It’s 2 points for a win, 1 for a draw and double countounts and double disqualifications are zero points for both wrestlers.

Like recent years of the Real World Tag League, there will only be a finals (or a playoff if there is more than two) if two wrestlers are tied for the same number of points after all of the round-robin matches. Unlike in the G1 Climax, there are no tiebreakers. If two wrestlers are tied at the top of the standings, they must face each other again on the final show of the Champion Carnival, even if one beat the other earlier on in the tournament.

The tournament begins on April 9 in Osaka EDION Arena #2 and concludes on May 3 in Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. The winner of the Champion Carnival will face SUWAMA for the Triple Crown on May 16 at Ota Ward Gym in Tokyo.

Let’s take a look at the competitors in this year’s Champion Carnival.

AJPW Champion Carnival 2021

AJPW Champion Carnival 2021

SUWAMA (16th appearance, 2008 Winner, Triple Crown Champion)

The Triple Crown Champion is one of the most divisive champions in puroresu. Many claim that he is completely washed up, with his age catching up to him. There are also many who claim that he has still been having good championship matches. Even SUWAMA’s defenders agree with his detractors that his record-setting seventh Triple Crown reign is getting long in the tooth. He is almost certainly going to drop the Triple Crown to the winner of the Champion Carnival on May 16 at the big Ota Ward Gym show in Tokyo which will be the biggest venue All Japan has run since February 2019 at the now-defunct Yokohama Bunka Gym.

So I don’t expect SUWAMA to win (that would be a disaster) but I’d expect him to either defeat or draw with the eventual Champion Carnival during the tournament to build up the later Triple Crown match.

ZEUS (8th appearance, 2020 winner, All Asia Tag Team Champion)

Zeus has been a dependable workhorse for some time now. He was one of the few bright spots of the 2020 Champion Carnival and his All Asia Tag tile run has been very good, as has his recent feud with Yuma Aoyagi that will no doubt spill over into the Champion Carnival when they face each other. Zeus will get some big wins in the tournament, but he’s also the kind of guy that could lose to anyone as well. I would expect him to finish with a record just over .500, but he’s not winning as much as I wish he got another Triple Crown reign, now is not the time when there is younger talent (he turned 39 in January) to elevate.

Keep an eye out for his matches. Zeus’ power style works well against a variety of opponents and it also allows him to have good matches whether they go seven minutes or 27 minutes.

KENTO MIYAHARA (8th appearance, 2019 winner, World Tag Team Champion)

Miyahara is currently in his longest drought of not being the Triple Crown Champion since he first won it in February 2016. At first, he seemed kind of aimless, and spent a lot of time mugging to the crowd instead of focusing on wrestling in multi-man tag matches. Since reforming Nextream with Yuma Aoyagi and winning the World Tag Team Championship, Miyahara has a lot more direction though, in some ways playing second fiddle to Aoyagi who has been heavily emphasized in the tag title matches. It is a good use of Miyahara to use his credibility and aura to rub off on Aoyagi.

Assuming the booking itself is free of shenanigans, Miyahara, being one of the best wrestlers in the world is of course going to have a good tournament. The thing with All Japan is, you can never count him out of winning any title or tournament. He is the company’s biggest star by a wide margin, and as result can be the de facto safety blanket of the promotion when the main event without him is faltering. Because of how great Jake Lee has been since his heel turn and some other booking directions, I would be surprised if Miyahara actually did win, but if he does, it would be a huge mistake. He doesn’t need it, he has already won the Champion Carnival AS the Triple Crown Champion. And as I have been hammering home in this column, it’s time for someone new.

SHUJI ISHIKAWA (5th appearance, 2017 winner, GAORA TV Champion)

Ishikawa is another wrestler who many fans feel has lost a step or two. I definitely agree and I’d argue that he is looking weaker than SUWAMA these days when it comes to in-ring work. I did not enjoy his recent deathmatch with Jun Kasai for the GAORA TV title at all. I have nothing against deathmatches unless they are slow and plodding and Ishikawa versus Kasai definitely was.

At least despite allegedly being the bookerman or one of the bookermen, Ishikawa winning the GAORA TV title signals a shift down the card which I think is a good idea. There are fresh things for him to do in the midcard while others are elevated. Ishikawa will still probably get a big win or two but I would be shocked if he finishes near the top. It will be interesting to see who can get a good match out of him because I think he can still have one with the right opponent. The fact that he recently won the GAORA TV title should tell you he’s definitely not winning this unless every other wrestler in the Champion Carnival gets injured and cannot finish their matches.

JAKE LEE (5th appearance)

Jake Lee is on a roll. While generally beloved by hardcore All Japan fans, he has plenty of detractors among more casual fans who watch all types of puroresu, generally because they don’t think he has the presence or charisma to be a top guy. His heel turn and the formation of Total Eclipse is challenging that notion. Lee has been great since the turn and finally feels like he is ready to be one of the top wrestlers in the company. Lee has been an outstanding worker for a while now so I am confident that his matches will be great. There is really nothing more to be said about him that I already haven’t but I will stress again, HE NEEDS TO WIN THE CHAMPION CARNIVAL AND BEAT SUWAMA FOR THE TRIPLE CROWN. I always live in fear about All Japan actually striking when the iron is hot.

YUMA AOYAGI (3rd appearance, World Tag Team Champion)

While Jake Lee has been getting all the attention lately, Aoyagi has been on fire since the Real World Tag League. Despite the seemingly strange booking of having him turn on Miyahara in early 2020 then re-teaming up with him by the end of the year, it has worked. Aoyagi has been the workhorse for the team, and has scored huge wins in tag title matches but forcing referee stoppages on SUWAMA and Zeus via his End Game submission.

While I have stated my preference for who should win the Champion Carnival, Aoyagi has a chance of being the MVP in terms of who has the most outstanding matches. The company is really putting over his End Game submission so look out for him to score some huge wins using that move. Aoyagi is not going to win this because he is a tag champion and his elevation is going to continue within that role for the next little while.

I don’t think it is impossible that if there was a final playoff match, he could very well be in it.

SHOTARO ASHINO (2nd appearance)

Ashino is beloved by puro nerds but everyone agrees that his run thus far in All Japan has been botched. He challenged for the Triple Crown in a losing effort too early in his run in the company, and then lost again to SUWAMA in his second challenge for the title this past January. His face turn has given him a much-needed shot in the arm. In last year’s Champion Carnival he only really scored one big win over Shuji Ishikawa, so he needs to beat some more bigger names here if the company wants to keep people thinking he is at the main event level or just a shade below it.

I have total confidence in Ashino delivering in his matches, but less confidence in how he will be booked. Since his double turn with Jake Lee, Ashino has been doing the taped-up ribs gimmick, with Total Eclipse exploiting that in multi-man tag matches for heat. That could also give him an out if he ends up finishing in the middle of the pack. Because Ashino faces Lee right away on night one of the tournament, with how much they have been teasing the hatred between them, it would not shock me at all if they end up facing off again in a playoff final.

I doubt he wins it all. If All Japan ever does want to give Ashino the Triple Crown, he needs a longer rebuild and become a generational rival to Lee. And Ashino finally getting a definitive win over Lee to end their feud should be something that is drawn out longer.

KOJI DOI (1st appearance)

Doi joined All Japan a little later than the other members of Enfants Terribles. And him showing up to join them totally contradicted the booking in the final months of Wrestle-1. Doi has been a welcome addition nonetheless and has been a great heel. Doi is clearly replacing Kuma Arashi in this tournament. I like Arashi’s charisma and his work in tags, but Doi is a superior singles worker. Arashi singles matches that go past 10 minutes are often lackluster. I also think that Doi works better as the clear #2 in Total Eclipse with a more traditional bruising and power style to contrast with Jake Lee’s more shoot style influences. So I am excited to see Doi mix it up in some singles matches which he has had few of in All Japan so far. Looking at this lineup, it’s hard to predict who will end up on the bottom half of the standings at the end of the Champion Carnival, but Doi is my leading choice to finish in last place. If Doi has a great tournament, I think he will solidify a solid position in the company going forward, and he deserves it.

KOHEI SATO (1st appearance)

I have loved Sato over the years Zero1, but since he left that company and showed up in All Japan I have been unimpressed with his performances. I thought his Triple Crown match with SUWAMA in February was one of the weakest Triple Crown matches in a long time. And to be frank he looks sickly. He was never a muscle-bound guy, but he looks like he’s lost what little muscle he had. If I were booking this thing, I would keep his matches short and just be him and his opponents stiffing each other until someone can no longer stand up. I don’t have a feel for where in the standings he will end up, but if he does well, I would assume that All Japan will keep using him.

SHINJIRO OTANI (1st appearance)

Otani being announced for the Champion Carnival was a most pleasant surprise. He was definitely not someone that I would have guessed would have made in it. Now Zero1 does not make tape often so you may not have seen Otani wrestle in a while, but the guy can still go. He’s not 1997 Otani yet he’s still a brilliant worker with great psychology and he brings the surly old man attitude. I am pumped for his matches against the main All Japan guys, there are many first-time matches there. Otani has no chance of winning this, but like his former Zero1 colleague, Kohei Sato, I don’t know where he will end up in the standings at the end. Otani has put over just about everyone in Zero1 at some point, so he’s not allergic to doing jobs. As a big-name outsider, though, he will be given a substantial win or two. I will say he will end up with a 5-4 record which is perfectly respectable.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Winner

Jake Motherfucking Lee

Dark Horse Winner

There is no acceptable dark horse… only Jake Lee!