New Japan Pro Wrestling
Kizuna Road 2021
June 14- July 2, 2021
Korakuen Hall
Tokyo, Japan

Watch: NJPW World

For enduring a full calendar year of bollocks and rubbish and fucking nonsense (and most of the highest-rated matches of 2021, and El Desperado removing his mask, and so on and so on), we were rewarded with a trial series of matches for two very seasoned Young Lions: Yuya Uemura and Yota Tsuji.

Quite literally, Uemura and Tsuji are equals in duration and experience. Both men debuted at Lion’s Gate Project 11 on April 10, 2018. Uemura tapped out to Ren Narita, and Tsuji tapped out to Tomuyuki Oka. To note, the main event of that show saw Ayato Yoshida and GO Asakawa (The Political Casualties) defeat Shota Umino and Yuji Nagata.

Since then, Yuya Uemura has wrestled in 288 matches and Yota Tsuji has wrestled in… 288. The exact same number. For reference, and this isn’t exactly fair at all, considering that the bulk of their matches have been multi-man tags, and openers without any stakes, here’s a random wrestler that everyone knows: Taz. According to, Taz wrestled in 439 matches in his career, from his first entry (a loss to Vic Steamboat in Vermont) to his final entry (the second One Night Stand in 2006). Uemura and Tsuji are already 65% of the way there, before they have even truly started. How they feel about the suburban blight of parked school buses has unknown, or at least it has not found its way into English translation.

The point is, these trial matches are for guys who have wrestled a lot. Nearly 300 matches in three years, with nearly half that time being distorted by a generational global catastrophe. But the idea that the pandemic totally fucked these guys is only partially supported by the numbers. It may have derailed their progression from certain perspectives, but not necessarily their match density. By the time of the lockdown last year, after roughly 22 months of action, Uemura had already racked up 175 matches and Tsuji had delivered 177. That means that they’ve actually gone up in matches per month, from a little over eight to a little under nine.

The same skepticism applies to the excursion problem.

Much has been made of how these guys have been essentially trapped in Japan. The presumption is that if the pandemic did not occur, these two would be somewhere else. At the very least, Yota Tsuji would be neck-deep in llave. Looking at recent history, that may or may not be true. When Great-O-Khan went to RevPro, he was roughly 18 months and 184 matches into his NJPW career. Master Wato was 193 matches and about 25 months into his NJPW run when he was sent to Mexico for his Joycean-lengthed excursion. Of course, those are only two of the most recent ones. YOH, an Observer Rookie of the Year, waited nearly three years and 300 matches before being sent off

Of course, the numbers is where the similarities end. Although they’ve wrestled the exact same number of matches, over the exact same length of time, Tsuji clearly seems like the superior. He’s older, for sure, but only by about 10 months. He’s bigger, no doubt, but… ok, so he’s bigger by a lot. But Tsuji clearly seems ahead, in certain ways.

Tsuji has size, earnestness, and moves. He carries himself like a ring crew leader. He has a punchable prick face, and he always looked grimaced and out of breath, but it’s easy to clearly and distinctly recall aspects of his matches.

With Tsuji, there is a concrete sense of who he is and what he does. He has more moves, for one. He even has combinations. He does the running senton followed by the Mount Tsuji (he even has named moves, at least on the English side). He has an exceptional spear, one that seems him fully extended in mid-air, a callback, assuredly, to his American football background (though I’m pretty sure tackling like that would get you locked in a cold, damp, dark room, Leach style).

Uemura is the opposite, which works against him in some ways, but also very much to his favor when analyzing him. Uemura has speed (though sometimes too much speed, ask Nakashima, if you even remember him), fire, and an almost indefatigable amount of brazenness. And yet, it’s hard to recall specific things when it comes to Umemura’s matches.

In full disclosure, I favor Uemura, to the point where I think Uemura is a major star in the making. Certainly, Gedo feels that way; those that have kept up with the backstage comments this year have seen Jay White and Gedo latch onto Uemura as their personal plaything, relentlessly taunting and abusing the poor lad. When Uemura isn’t around, sometimes they have ended their promo by literally saying that they are going to leave so that they can go pester Uemura, with Gedo shouting in his raspy drawl, “Yuyaaaaaa!!” Gedo doesn’t give anyone this much attention unless he sees something big. I mean, it’s right in the goddamn thumbnail here:

But I struggle to think of definitive moments with precision. I recall moments where he’s cornered Minoru Suzuki and audaciously slapped the King. I recall nebulous things like fire, and intensity, and passion. But concrete actions, I struggle to recall them. I recall liking his matches more than the other Young Lions, that’s it.

It’s not necessarily his fault, since his moveset is still essentially the skeletal Young Lion starter set with a Kannuki suplex thrown in. But in comparison to the concrete, robust repertoire of Tsuji, Uemura falls significantly short. In Uemura’s favor, though, this means that he has the intangibles down pat. He connects.

The schedule for the Young Lions was laid out on June 8:

Yuya Uemura

  1. Minoru Suzuki on June 14
  2. Zack Sabre Jr. on June 15
  3. Hiroshi Tanahashi on June 16
  4. Taichi on June 22
  5. Kota Ibushi on June 23

Yota Tsuji

  1. Hiroshi Tanahashi on June 14
  2. Taichi on June 15
  3. Kazuchika Okada on June 16
  4. Zack Sabre Jr. on June 22
  5. Great-O-Khan on June 23

Opponents shared: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr.

Differences: Uemura faced Minoru Suzuki and Kota Ibushi. Tsuji faced Kazuchika Okada and Great-O-Khan.

Night 1
June 14, 2021
Korakuen Hall


Yuya Uemura Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #1
Minoru Suzuki def. Yuya Uemura

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

The benefit of reviewing these matches as a complete package is the opportunity to appraise the critical reception to these matches, and gauge public response to them. The reception to this match was fairly warm, and I have to wonder if this is, in part, due to most observers of New Japan correctly decided to pick and choose which parts to watch from the deluge of content unleashed upon us in the last six months. By limiting your scope to only pertinent substance, one wisely ignores all the undercard material (and, frankly, a lot of the main event material as well). Because of this, however, one might have missed the heavy escalation in Uemura’s increasingly brazen prodding, badgering, and outright provoking of Minoru Suzuki in the last few months.

It was because of that suicidal intensity that this was my most anticipated match of the entire Gauntlet, and also the one that disappointed the most thoroughly.

To be clear, the match was excellent and exhibited remarkably intelligent and restrained design. Everything in the bout was a struggle for Uemura. He had to fight for a headlock takeover to degrees you almost never see in a modern match. The match was heavy on fundamentals. Arm wringers were slowly, laboriously transmorphed into headlocks. Suzuki quietly and methodically worked on the legs, moving with dementedly glacial speed to torment the upper leg with twists and stretches before moving down to bar the lower leg and work the ankles.

Suzuki was supercilious, purposefully using delayed reactions and languidly phlegmatic reflexes to illuminate his unquestionable superiority. At one point he put Uemura in a kimura on the goddamn floor, simply because he could. Who the fuck does that? Sadistic Suzuki does things in a match simply because he wants to show his opponent’s futility in stopping them. Again, all logically consistent with what you would expect from any contest between Minoru Suzuki and a Young Lion.

But this was not any contest between Minoru Suzuki and a Young Lion. This was a match between Minoru Suzuki and Yuya Uemura, a Young Lion that has aggressively courted Suzuki in multi-man tags for months. We here at Voices of Wrestling have covered twelve such matches that have taken placed in the last eleven months. If someone dropped into this match without any knowledge of their previous encounters, they sure as fuck wouldn’t have presumed any previous encounters, and certainly not the ones Suzuki and Uemura were having.

On these monotonous, emotionally cataclysmic 2021 New Japan Korakuen Hall Residency tours,  the highlights of many shows, the redeeming elements to be honest, have been Uemura’s audacious attempts to attain some kind, any kind of recognition from the King. Uemura has even taken to backing Suzuki into a corner and slapping him across the face as hard as he can, something one can see in some of their recent multi-man interactions. The result? Suzuki usually fires out of the corner, only to be thwarted by some kind of robust athleticism by Uemura. The result of that is usually a red hot near-fall, and then the complete and thorough dismantling of Umemura’s whole person.

The ferocity, the intense barbarous sanguinity of a ruthlessly severe Minoru Suzuki mercilessly battering a Young Lion desperately yearning for his recognition… where was that dynamic in this match? It was absent, and in that deprivation, this match appeared sterile and anticlimactic, not even a pale facsimile of their multi-man encounters because they didn’t even try to replicate those encounters.

I’ve watched this back several times now, simply to disengage from the hang-ups one would have when watching this match in real time. And, without hesitation, I can assert that this was a very good Young Lion match. Suzuki broke out that sickening dropkick of his, where he propels one foot with such momentum that it looks like it could legitimately crush someone’s larynx. Uemura presented some exquisite death selling, to the point that it brings attention to the ref’s malfeasance in even allowing the match to continue.

But, to reiterate, this match was bizarrely disconnected from all their previous interactions. This was one of those cases where a fiery multi-man build-up resulted in a flat singles match. The reward came in how little you knew of the participant’s history. It was a professional and respectable Young Lion match. And because of that, it failed. ***1/4

Yota Tsuji Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #1
Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Yota Tsuji

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

The theme of night 1: wrestlers the Young Lions have the most invested history with, although in the case of Tsuji here the history is less explicit. Tsuji inherited the role of Tanahashi support system from Oka, and that is the bulk of their connection, as they’ve only ever shared a ring 7 times, all of them as tag team partners in multi-mans. Five of them took place this year, with the initial two taking place at Fantasticamania 2020, before the world imploded.

These Tsuji-Tanahashi-etc. squadrons are a full 0-7, with Jeff Cobb taking Tsuji on four Tour of the Islands on the Road to Castle Attack, and Hiromu besting Tsuji with two Boston crabs on the Fantasticamania 2020 tour. The one outlier is very recent: on Night two of the Road to Dominion 2021, it was actually Uemura taking the fall after eating a Bloody Cross from Ishimori.

Thus, this match was largely based on abstract concepts of connectivity. Would this be a heated affair between an established star and a potential successor? A technical expression of their mentor-mentee relationship? A brutal squash by a preening, callous ace?

It ended up being the middle one, unexpectedly evolving into a leg v. leg match, almost as if Tsuji picked up on some sort of unspoken challenge by Tanahashi during the bout, one in which became a training exercise filtered through a game of one-upmanship. It also displayed the master-protégé aspect of their relationship, exhibiting a very Uncle Iroh-Prince Zuko energy, with Tanahashi seamlessly switching between the nurturing Ace, gently guiding his principle along, and the heartless bastard Ace, severely assaulting the poor lad’s leg.

One thing that emerged in this match was a throughline between Tsuji’s matches: his Angle-esque failure to hit a specific top-rope move. In this case, Tsuji’s ineptitude at hitting a simple top rope splash, a delightfully antediluvian bit of risktaking that perfectly embodies the Young Lion experience: stuck in time, immersed in evergreen fundamentals and systemically constrained in what they can do in the ring, a top rope splash is the sort of Lawnmower Man-esque high tech leap you’d expect from them.

What Tsuji did here at the end was either an impressively brilliant recovery or a sublimely brilliant bit of planning, and it doesn’t really matter which. As he climbed to the top rope, something Kevin Kelly noted in the English commentary he most likely has never done in a broadcast match, he displayed the awkwardness one would expect from someone who had never climbed the buckles before: his left foot slipped on the top rope as he climbed and fell to the second rope. Really, this was a meaningless gaffe, but then Tsuji did a couple of classic slaps of his left knee, the knee Tanahashi had been working on for much of the match and stabilized himself atop his perch. It was an excellent touch.

Certainly, one can question what the purpose of a Young Lion match is, and what they are trying to convey to the audience and assess in the performer. Does it matter that Tsuji essentially blew off the leg work for an explosion of offense, with Tusji administering a suplex and giant swing followed by a boisterous running spear and a firm Boston crab?

I don’t know, didn’t Tanahashi do the same? Are the Young Lions being assessed in how they consistently sell a limb, the most arduously exhausting discourse in wrestling criticism, or are they being judged on how well they beguile the audience in forgetting all that in the emotional peak of a match?

Tanahashi, for his part, looked stiff. And not in the sense that he stiffed the kid, stiff as in his joints looked fused into place and he seemed incapable of body rotation. The final slingblade looked awkward as fuck, just dreadful. Partially, it was because Tanahashi couldn’t get all the way around Tsuji, which certainly could have just been an issue of timing rather than a lack of burst or mobility. But at various points in the match, Tanahashi looked rigid, which thankfully was not a detriment to a match like this, and Tanahashi looked much sprier on the preceding nights of the tour, so it must have been some sort of Night 1 thing. ***1/4

Night 2
June 15, 2021
Korakuen Hall


Yuya Uemura Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #2
Zack Sabre Jr. def. Yuya Uemura

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

One of the pleasures of the Young Lion gauntlet is how the matches tend to emphasize the idiosyncrasies of the opponents, amplified in a situation like this with common participants.

Zack Sabre Jr’s function, like all the others, is self-evident: to provide the Young Lions a unique chance to show their growth. But the concentration of it on display here, specifically with him, and in the Tsuji match on Night 4 reminds me of something Heidegger once said. Heidegger analyzed the origin of art by examining, in excruciating thoughtfulness, the thingly nature of things, the equipmental being of equipment, and the workly character of a work. It really is a long-winded barge of rubbish, replete with nonsense self-contained continental philosophy phrases like “matter-forms” “thing beings” (as opposed to “thing-concepts,” something, like, totally different, you fucks), and line-after-line of phrases that would send Zack Sabre Jr into a tailspin, trying to devise holds to name them after.

The main thrust that I believe is pertinent here: the value of equipment is in its reliability, and it is in that reliability that we uncover what kind of thing it is. Zack Sabre Jr’s equipmentality, his reliability, is to be the stringy matwork warlock of the gauntlet, stretching the Young Lions, stretching himself in the process of more deeply stretching the Young Lions, and to generally be besides himself in apoplectic indignance and call the Young Lion a “cheeky bastard.” And so, Zack Sabre Jr’s two matches are amongst the highest rated on both GRAPPL and Cagematch, and comfortably the highest average amongst the three common opponents.

This match was largely Sabre toying with Uemura. Equally strong and effective from the top or bottom, any position was one of strength for Sabre. Uemura was stronger and generally faster, but Sabre was faster in application. Uemura’s main tactic of escape was a simple rope break. Few can match Sabre’s creativity in mat and submission wrestling, but Uemura has… well, he has no creativity. It’s part of his charm, but also got him eaten up here.

Umemura did have one strong sequence in which he caught Sabre in a perpetual rotation of chicken wing reversals, got Sabre in a headlock and go-behind, a snapmare, which Sabre contorted into an armwringer with flip, and a strong kickoff from Uemura that sent Sabre outside the ring.

Uemura managed a few shoulder tackles, a decent dropkick (didn’t hit at the eak, but gets so mch air that even a missed peak still hits higher than many), and an excellent Northern Lights suplex, but he also ate a hefty plateful of European uppercuts. One Sabre did that elbow stomp thing he does, that weakened arm became his safety net. Uemura managed to catch an armbar, but Zack hit the falling back-kick to the arm and that halted the momentum.

What Uemura showed here was a wonderful ability to rouse the crowd and evoke sympathy and engagement when outmatched. Though there are several points in the match where Uemura takes the initiative, they are almost always swiftly rebuked by Sabre.

The best example of this is the finish. Uemura caught another armbar, but Zack rolled through. Uemura held on and tried for his Kannuki suplex, and Zack rolled that into a pin, which Uemura reversed. Zack rolled out of that and trapped Uemura in his “Selected Technical Works, 2004-2013,” sitting down on Uemura’s neck, folding him up like an accordion whilst pushing his arms straight back. Brutal on so many different points of Uemura’s neck and shoulder region. It was over just like that.  We Are the Tekkers Makers. ***1/2

Yota Tsuji Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #2
Taichi def. Yota Tsuji

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

If Zack Sabre Junior’s function is as the niche genre element, the grapple and submission-based wrestler from whom the Young Lions must test their abilities to adapt, Taichi is the traditional option, a mid-card main eventer.  Oddly, Taichi holds both the longest and shortest match times amongst the three common opponents in this gauntlet. This match was not only the longest amongst the common opponents, but the longest in the entire gauntlet, clocking in at 14:14.

Taichi is a very valuable opponent for these guys; he is high enough on the card that he can be plugged into main events, at least when the company ventures north into Hokkaido. Recall, the last the second-to-last major event main event was Taichi vs. Kazuchika Okada at the second New Beginning in Sapporo show.

And yet, the gap between a Taichi and a Yota Tsuji is not insurmountable. At least, it doesn’t appear that way, we don’t perceive such a glaring chasm between the two, because Taichi usually loses those main events and because he usually inhabits some level of mid-card outside of those programs. There’s also still a freshness to heavyweight contender Taichi, despite his age; though it may seem like lifetimes have passed since Taichi’s leap in weight classes, Taichi has only participated in two G1 Climaxes thus far.

And so, Tsuji’s role in this match, which he executed wonderfully, was to match Taichi’s charisma and exquisite sense of timing. Taichi knows how to build a near-fall and exactly where to place it, and this mixes with his very modern sense of kicking and ability to unleash combinations at the right moment. Tsuji was charged with making the crowd buy into those big near-falls, whenever they came about.

We were even presented with a scene of moral dilemma, as Tsuji contemplated using a chair against Taichi on the outside, a bit of retribution for Taichi doing the same at the beginning of the match. Because  any ethical decision in professional wrestling is unequivocally dumb and renders you as a publicly dumb person, Tsuji declined the opportunity. As many noted, these gauntlets are clip farms, providing fecund grounds for future b-roll nonsense and One Piece level backwards-looking canon. This should certainly be one of those moments, either an early confirmation of the eternally moralistic Tsuji or an amusing example of a young Tsuji’s naivete.

The crucial moment was, as noted above, when Tsuji kicked out at two after Taichi’s Dangerous Backdrop. This stirred the crowd, and that alone means the match was a success. That was the assessment of Tsuji in this match. People cared that he kicked out after a trademark move by a wrestler of Taichi’s level. The superkick that followed did put him away, which highlights another aspect of these matches. Whereas just about every New Japan match exceeds well beyond its peak, these ones end in the midst of theirs. ***1/2

Night 3
June 16, 2021
Korakuen Hall


Yuya Uemura Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #3
Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Yuya Uemura

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

Finally, we can make direct comparisons between the two Young Lions, as their first common opponent is shared with this contest. Of course, it also allows us to compare how the opponent approached both of their charges, a bit of a tricky situation considering that Tanahashi decidedly looked a half-step behind in the Tsuji match. At times, there was a total lack of coordination. It looked like Tanahashi needed a warm-up match; unfortunately for Tsuji, the warm-up match was his most substantive pairing.

For Uemura, getting Tanahashi two days later resulted in a smoother match, for sure. What emerged from this one is a tandem narrative being told: Tsuji’s size allows him to be more competitive, while Uemura, a junior amongst heavyweights, has to exert insane amounts of labor just to execute simple actions like a headlock turnover. In this case, he had to work assiduously just for the goddamn lockup!

One facet of these gauntlets that some picked up on was the post-match posture of the Young Lions, particularly Uemura. Tsuji generally stayed in the corner, shifting back and forth, warming up  a bit, sometimes with his hands on his hips, sometimes leaning on one leg. General kinetic stuff in the pre-match moments. Uemura had one specific pre-match routine: he took the center and did not yield. In fact, he hardly even acknowledged his opponent. He simply stoically held place, looking forward and never turning his head once, no matter where his opponents went (save for Suzuki, who literally pushed him out of place).

The one exception: Tanahashi’s entrance. When Tanahashi climbed the ropes for his pose, Uemura turned to face that corner. He didn’t attack him from behind, he just turned and watched. Again, for each of the four other matches, Uemura firmly stood, eyes forward without response. This was the one time he followed the track of his opponent.

But it didn’t stop there! As Tanahashi descended the corner and walked across the ring to the opposite corner, Uemura, unfazed, showed not an ounce of recognition to Tanahashi when the Ace walked by, and then turned to face him at the other corner! And took a few steps closer to him, to boot. This was deliberate, seeped in equal parts deference and provocation. It certainly appears to be one of those moments that eagle-eyed easter egg spotters will bookmark for later.

Or, it confirms my theory that Uemura actually is Tanahashi’s younger self and that Looper was a prescient documentary. The villain was called the Rainmaker, for fuck’s sake. They weren’t even trying to hide it. To the Bald Junior Booking Committee reading this: please book Tanahashi in a retirement match against Uemura to close the loop.

The match itself had little chance of living up to that minuscule, captivating moment. Grappling occupied the first full five minutes of the bout, which ended up being 38% of the match. That was broken up by a slap exchange, and then two more minutes of holds, with Tanahashi working on Uemura’s legs, which, to be fair, Uemura did sell after his big dropkick. And then discarded, which was fine. Tana worked the legs for a minute at best.

And it did play into things in the end. Tanahashi was determined to finish the kid with the cloverleaf, although I guess he wasn’t too resolute. In his first attempt, he gave up the hold a couple of seconds before Uemura actually grabbed the ropes. If Tana was the Young Lion, Jado would be beating that ass to the point that Bear Bryant’s soul, played by Tom Berenger, would appear and ask him to ease up.

Can Uemura get a crowd behind him, when against the Ace? He could, although he had the unfortunate luck to inherit one of the least expressive crowds in this run of shows. When Uemura seamlessly turned a sling blade in the Kannuki suplex, and then instantly went to the Boston crab, one lamented the unfortunate context of this gauntlet. That should have been a pop of the year contender.

Unfortunately, Uemura’s springboard crossbody was a little awkward, requiring him to take a second to compose himself, so it wasn’t exactly a springboard, but it did establish Uemura’s successful counterpart to Tsuji’s top rope splash fail-recurrence.

Of course, like all good Young Lion matches, the ending was abrupt. Tanahashi ended Uemura’s momentum with a significantly better Slingblade than the one he used on Tsuji, and an equally nasty Cloverleaf. Incidentally, Uemura and Tsuji both lasted 12 seconds once the hold was locked in. ***1/2

Yota Tsuji Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #3
Kazuchika Okada def. Yota Tsuji

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

Poor Tsuji. If there was one match to circle on this schedule and just draw a countless amount of question marks around, it was this match. And, just as with the company he embodies, Okada matches expectations, for better and worst.

If you take GRAPPL and Cagematch together, this is the second worse rated match in the tournament, exceeding only Tsuji’s match with Great-O-Khan. And frankly, that’s not worth much because the rankers at those places, especially GRAPPL, are astoundingly stingy and parsimonious when it comes to GOK matches. As far as the other non-common opponents, Okada is well behind Suzuki and not even close to Ibushi.

It was also the shortest match in the gauntlet, by a lot. The average match in Tsuji’s gauntlet was 12:12, and the overall average match length was 12:23 (yes, that’s how close the match times were, a mere 11 second difference between the two gauntlets over five matches). This match went 8:53. It was 20% shorter than the next shortest match in Tsuji’s slate of matches.

Certainly, one could say that, in the course of a gauntlet like this, conceptual matches are to be expected. It makes logical sense that Okada would be borderline offended to be in this match, and display body language that suggests that a Young Lion match is waste of his time, and near malfeasance in squandering one of his precious singles matches. Okada was often enervated and leisurely in this one, taking long pauses between… well, just about everything in the opening moments of this one. He held an affronted posture. Without question, if this was his role, he played is perfectly.

If this was Okada playing a role, that is. Does 2021 Okada get that principle of charity?

As if in anticipation of such languorous drivel, Tsuji attacked strong and intensely from the opening bell, which we had not seen yet in either gauntlet. It was a welcome sight, and probably confirms the deliberate narrative theory of the match.

Okada warmed up mid-way through and broke out some peculiarities. One was an octopus hold thing that actually provoked an auditory response from the crowd, somewhat astonished to see 2021 Okada stretch his bulky limbs around the bulky joints and trunk of Tsuji. Okada also seemed single-mindedly determined to hit a Tombstone on Tsuji, which also stirred the crowd, mainly because why the fuck would you even try to do that in a Young Lion match? That’s the sort of goofy reflexive Okada stuff that, even in his pandemic inconsistency allows Okada to maintain and even strengthen his amiability and charm.

Okada nailed a perfect fucking dropkick. He also couldn’t resist ending this is an amusing way, teasing a Rainmaker, then slipping behind Tsuji on the ripcord pull (even though he could have easily just hit the lariat and finished it there), and flipped Tsuji over into the Toque Espaldas pin. What a fittingly bizarre finish for this goofy performer. I swear this guy only does stuff these days just to pop himself with some kind of worker’s conceptual humor.

I’m not sure what Tsuji was supposed to exhibit here. Okada, being the #1 guy in the company, would seemingly be the biggest challenge of all, forcing the Young Lion to keep up with a prime Ace’s level. But Okada wrestled like an indifferent Ace. Not one attempting to extract some kind of unforeseen fire out of his novice opponent… just indifferent. It’s hard to interpret. Was Tsuji supposed to find a way around the story of Okada’s insouciance? Was he supposed to find a way to garner audience investment with such a detriment?

I can’t say Tsuji did either, so I cannot say that he succeeded in this match, but I can’t exactly say he failed, either. He was so thoroughly outclassed, given so little to do and essentially zero shine, one wonders if the whole point was for him to just go out there, get nothing, and explicitly display the gap between him and Okada. ***

Night 4
June 22nd, 2021
Korakuen Hall


Yuya Uemura Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #4
Taichi def. Yuya Uemura

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

Night 4 was the inversion of Night 2, as both Young Lions faced a member of the IWGP Tag team Champions, Dangerous Tekkers. Being that Tekkers represented 2/3rds of their common opponents, this night presented the most analytical depth as it allowed for direct compare-and-contrast opportunities.

Uemura’s match against Taichi was an improvement upon Tsuji’s match with the Holy Emperor, and Tsuji’s battle with Zack Sabre Jr. was slightly better than Uemura’s from the previous week. This was due to the adjustments made by the Young Lions in the interim, and also the inherent differences in the Young Lions that suggested that these match-ups suited them better.

Tsuji and Taichi are about the same size, which presented a unique dynamic in concert with Taichi’s habitually competitive match structure (the facet of Taichi’s game that also . On the other side, while they have drastically different body types, Uemura and Zack Sabre Jr’s basic stats are not much different. Sabre is 3 cm taller and Uemura is 5 kg heavier, if one is to believe NJPW’s official profiles. and tread cafefully tjere. According to them, for instance, Tetsuya Naito outweighs Juice Robinson by six pounds.

As noted, Taichi’s uniquely positioned to offer the Young Lions the closest thing they will have, at this stage in their development, to a main event style match. Taichi is the sort of upper mid-carder that would never actually lose to a Young Lion, but whose shifting card placement permits some stimulating near-falls. In this, Uemura’s amorphousness works much more in his favor against Taichi.

The key here was that Uemura’s selling was phenomenal. Not limb selling, that arid fucking nightmare of wrestling discourse. What Uemura did so wonderfully was bump and sell for Taichi’s kicks. Considering that Taichi is

At the 2:27 mark, Taichi side-stepped an Uemura corner charge and absolutely leveled him with a roundhouse kick. Uemura did 85% of the work, lifting himself up on Taichi prep and throwing himself back on the contact. It looked fucking awesome, providing such a clear delineation between Uemura’s initial fire and Taichi’s long control. Uemura sold it like he was legit out and unable to continue.

If Uemura understands the importance of such visual cues and is willing to throw his body around to emphasize the point… he may have Tanahashi’s face but we may have another Naito on hand here. This was confirmed after Uemura turned a powerbomb attempt by Taichi into exceptionally close near-fall; Taichi responded by obliterating him with a gamengiri, which Uemura sold by landing straight on his fucking neck and folding back onto himself. Great stuff.

Four matches in, we can now also begin appreciating things in relation to the earlier bouts, and for Uemura two things stood out here, one in contrast to his earlier self and one in contrast to Tsuji’s earlier self.

Against the previous Uemura, this one finally, finally, came storming out the gate, exploding upon Taichi with the alacrity that defines him, which has made its absence in this trial series so frustrating. Perhaps the goal was for Uemura to show restraint, to literally test his ability to work a match without the traditional Young Lion fire that he exemplifies. That’s a sagacious choice for the applicable utility of this gauntlet, but there’s one more thing: I have to watch this fucking thing. Yearning for the Young Lions to exhibit their most fecund traits is exactly maximizing my Young Lion gauntlet experience. But here, Uemura exploded from the bell, overwhelming Taichi to the point where Taichi had to escape to the outside, where Uemura busted out something new and hit a crossbody off the apron.

Thus began the second phase of Uemura’s growth-by-contrast sequence: enthusiastically working over Taichi on the outside. This contrasts directly with Tsuji’s ringside treatment of Taichi on Night 2. At a key moment in that match, Tsuji chose not to wallop Taichi with a chair, despite Taichi choosing to do so to Tsuji in the beginning portion just minutes before. Uemura didn’t hit Taichi with a chair here, but he aggressively pursued Taichi out there.

Tsuji’s pristine behavior on the outside against Taichi, in comparison to Uemura’s belligerence, might one day serve as an interesting signal point when their true personas emerge. In this match, Uemura’s intensity was the key ingredient to this match being either the second or third best match of the gauntlet. ***1/2

Yota Tsuji Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #4
Zack Sabre Jr. def. Yota Tsuji

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

Tsuji came into the tournament with a distinct advantage over Uemura: he is a heavyweight, a true heavyweight, against a gauntlet of heavyweight division competitors. This is amplified by the fact that one of their common opponents, Zack Sabre Jr., is very comfortably below the heavyweight barrier.

This was used to brilliant effect in this match. For the sad motherfuckers that deliberately watched every one of these matches and then voluntarily wrote a 9,500 word piece on them, the sight of Tsuji frustrating Sabre with his power advantage was a delicious one. It allowed Tsuji to approach a match from a different angle, one where he held nearly as much control as his opponent. And, in comparison with his dojo mate, it was the clearest revelation of the differences between them.

Whereas Sabre easily cut off any momentum Uemura momentarily gained on the second leg of the gauntlet, Tsuji’s momentum was not as easily thwarted. In fact, the opposite. At certain points, when Sabre tried to stymie Tsuji, sometimes in the same manner that he did to Uemura, Tsuji simply brushed him off, the benefit of substantially outweighing your adversary.

Sabre might be the perfect opponents or Young Lions in these multi-stage match sequences, and not just for the stylistic changeup he presents, as noted above. The other aspect of Sabre’s game that makes him an exquisite choice to face these guys is his innately British reactions to everything in the ring. Sabre is perpetually yelling during a match, but it is not totally an expression of pain. There is an overt sense of aggrievement, that he is aghast at the gall of his opponent to challenge him. Not that it’s a uniquely British trait to be offended when an opponent stands up to his assertion over them. It’s a trademark of colonialism in general, not just the British flavour. But it’s exceptionally funny and ZSJ does it a lot.

And so, Tsuji’s reversals, thudding strikes, cheeky gamesmanship, and power led to one constant stream of irascible OY!’s from Zack. Because Zack is such a brat, it was up to Tsuji to make it believable that Sabre would be so aggravated with him. Tsuji accomplished this well, and Sabre’s tantrums seemed organic, the natural result of Tsuji shrewdly understanding his strengths and, four matches into the gauntlet, understanding in a rudimentary manner how to leverage them. It was a great story. This was Tsuji’s one chance in the tournament to really show off his power and size, and he did so with aplomb. ***1/2

Night 5
June 23, 2021
Korakuen Hall

Yota Tsuji Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #5
Great-O-Khan def. Yota Tsuji

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

For the only time in the series, Tsuji found himself in the opener, and it’s unfortunate that it was the Great-O-Khan match where he sunk to the bottom of the card, since it was the match in his series that had the most legitimate storyline elements. And that’s not even taking into account that Tsuji’s first match ever was against O-Khan, back on April 10, 2018, as noted in the introduction.

It was only months ago that Great-O-Khan persecuted Tsuji for Tsuji’s role as Tanahashi’s Young Lion second, the role that Great-O-Khan recently played himself. O-Khan pestered Tsuji relentlessly for weeks, attempting to poison the lad’s sentiments against his hero, the Ace. The efforts were unsuccessful on O-Khan’s part, but fruitful for Tsuji; he was allowed to play a prominent role in the Tanahashi-Khan NEVER Openweight title match at Castle Attack (the good Castle Attack). Tsuji emphatically asserted his loyalties to Tanahashi, and Great-O-Khan ate yet another prominent singles loss.

Incredibly, that was four months ago, even though it seems like either 15 seconds or 15 years have passed since.

O-Khan went on to a thoroughly enjoyable feud with Naito, easily the best backstage comment rivalry in ages (that didn’t involve KENTA). Here O-Khan was entrusted to culminate Tsuji’s gauntlet. It was an intriguing choice, considering that O-Khan’s entire package is still divisive amongst the fanbase. Some consider O-Khan to be a gem, a captivating marvel that is legitimately brilliant at small details and restraint. Others, on the other hand, are buffoons incapable of processing what is in front of them. It’s a toughie; it’ll take a while before these sides come together.

But it is true that O-Khan was a strange choice for a Young Lion gauntlet match, even with the built-in connections between these two. His wrestling is indeed sober, unpretentious despite his own forthright intensity. Time itself becomes a device, which is a very mature approach to matches but one that doesn’t exactly pay off for someone without the cache to exploit it. It’s a substantive reason why some still scoff at him, even though the pauses between sequences will gain dramatic tension as O-Khan’s career progresses. I don’t believe it was a frivolous concern to wonder if O-Khan could carry a Young Lion match.

Here, though, it came across at times as indolent, very much aligned with how Okada handled the Tsuji match. The difference was that in the Okada match, his lissomness between moves evoked some kind of thought. Here, I imagine one’s interpretation is, once again, divisive. Those favorable to O-Khan would suggest that this worked to make Tsuji’s explosive comeback more intense, whereas if you are an O-Khan detractor you just felt the time pass, slowly, intolerably.

Tsuji needed those paroxysms in this match, because this was probably his worst match-up. In O-Khan, he faced an opponent as big as Okada, but younger and considerably more invested. And so, Tsuji was at a power disadvantage like he had not faced in this series. He needed that Young Lion turbulence to hang with O-Khan, that was the basis of his assessment here. Tsuji did well, at several points catching O-Khan off-balance and unprepared for Tsuji’s heavy speed, burst, and ability to string together moves. O-Khan, for his part, did an exceptional job putting this over.

The story here was that without that burst, Tsuji was thoroughly outmatched. Outmatched on the mat, for sure, to the point where O-Khan simply let Tsuji up, a few times, just to show the vast difference in aptitudes between a national champion wrestler and, ya know, a football player. Tsuji was completely overwhelmed in the chop exchanges as well. The difference in the sound of their chops was unambiguous. And, as has been the story in nearly every match in both gauntlets, after a final flourish, the Young Lion fell victim to their own zealousness. Tsuji followed up a quick roll-up near-fall with a charge. They always charge. O-Khan nailed him with a pharaonic belly-to-belly suplex, and a quick, bouncy Boston crab ended things.

It is a bit of a trade-off… whereas Uemura was presented with a big spectacular send-off match, Tsuji got a story match. But one must consider that O-Khan and Tsuji is, potentially, a long-term rivalry that New Japan is smartly nurturing. By having his final gauntlet match be more based in utility, Tsuji gains more in the long-term. ***1/2

Yuya Uemura Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #5
Kota Ibushi def. Yuya Uemura

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

The blue-ribbon event of the 2021 Young Lion Gauntlet was worth the wait. It was assumed that Kota Ibushi would treat this in a very Ibushi-esque manner: with full sincerity, far beyond the scope of the match, exceeding the context, and almost aggressively committed to benefice. The assumptions were correct (to replicated for Ibushi’s match against Tsuji).

This match was something like a compendium of highlights from Uemura’s past matches, filtered through an Ibushi lens: the deep headlocks and minute struggles to achieve simple grapple movements of the Suzuki match, the strong lockup and clinching found in the Tanahashi match, and the superciliously truculent taunting (and merciless kicking) of Taichi. Uemura responded with his most intense performance of the gauntlet.

Three minutes into the match, Ibushi simply decided that the grappling was over, stood up, laid a snapping kick into Uemura’s ribs, and demanded that Uemura stand and trade with him. It was the most overt example of a Young Lion being goaded into his engaging in his opponent’s strength, and the results were an much a fait accompli as you’d expect: Ibushi dropped Uemura with one steel-veined forearm.

And really, can we talk about Ibushi’s arms? They look like a fucking tributary map. He’s throwing haymakers at this poor kid, and it looks like someone was bludgeoning Uemura with a drain basin chart. It’s grotesque.

Uemura did his pre-match routine of taking the center and steadfastly looking forward, never once allowing his opponent the satisfaction of garnering his attention. He met his match here, though, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Kota Ibushi in 2021, it’s that he will lean into a staring match. SANADA, Naito, Ospreay, Shingo, etc. Even Cobb, up to that mesmerizing pull-apart brawl. They’ll stare at each other on the apron, at ringside, sitting cross-legged in the ring, from the ring to the entrance paths. They’ll engage in polite conversation about the championship belt, replete with copious hand gesturing, affirming it’s status as a belt and confirming that, as a championship belt, a person attains ownership of it through a professional wrestling contest.

Ibushi stared down Uemura throughout this match. So, he levels the poor bastard with a vicious forearm, with his hard-as-steel veins popping out. The follow-up: intense glaring and adjuring of Uemura to get up and trade some more. Uemura made it to the ropes after being locked into a camel clutch… Ibushi glared at him, led the crowd in some clapping, and then resumed his badgering of the kid. Uemura went for a dropkick, and so Ibushi held the ropes, stomped over to a shattered Uemura and put his boot in Uemura’s xiphoid process, and then waited him out.

Still, Ibushi gave a lot in this one. The pauses were a key element of this. Unlike Okada with Tsuji, this took a much more salutary tenor. It was more like Ibushi was giving the crowd time to build steam in their support of Uemura, and if he sensed that they weren’t organically expressive enough he got them on track.

Ibushi also bumped, as you would expect. When Uemura hit the dropkick, Ibushi went right on the base of his goddamn neck. There wasn’t much choice, though; Uemura got ridiculous height on it. He actually kicked down to Ibushi. It was, one dares to say… distinctly Okada-esque. Both the Japanese and English commentary popped for that one. Uemura does not have much in his arsenal at the moment that would match Ibushi’s preposterous athleticism. The one thing he has is the dropkick, and he absolutely nailed it.

The story here was that Uemura did not have the resolve, nor the self-restraint, to ignore Ibushi’s constant, truculent provocation and exhortations. But this also gave Uemura chances to shine. When Uemura strung together a nice sequence and went for the Boston crab, Ibsuhi felt offended enough to start jabbering at Uemura from the bottom, demanding that Uemura start slapping him. Uemura inexplicably obliged, which initially led to him being lit up by Ibushi.. BUT Uemura powered through and used his leverage to win the exchange. It was a great moment for him. Of course, Ibushi then picked his ankles and hit a vicious double stomp.

And then more glaring and kicking. Again, the crowd filled the space with clapped support for Uemura, in flighted waves. Ibushi, understanding that this only works if he really punishes the Young Lion, laid in more kicks and then locked on a brutal-looking reverse full nelson thing, and the crowd certainly noticed the grotesqueness of it.

It ended with Ibushi applying an unfortunately off-center half-crab. Afterwards, he refused to have his hand raised, to transfer that energy to Uemura. It was a fitting end to a wonderful gauntlet series in which both Young Lions showed a commendable amount of charisma and aptitude. ***3/4


Night 6
June 22, 2021
Korakuen Hall

Yota Tsuji Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #6
Kota Ibushi def. Yota Tsuji

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

Unexpectedly, a sixth leg of the gauntlet was added at the conclusion of the June 23 matches. Officially, the gauntlet concluded on Night 5, but these are clearly additions to the gauntlet, as the two Young Lions square off against the participants in the upcoming Tokyo Dome main event title match.

This also gives us a fourth common opponent, as Kota Ibushi completes the duo with this contest. And boy, was it common. There were some key differences, but for the most part this was, almost to the beats, a replication of the Ibushi-Uemura match.

It started slowly, with some very deliberate grappling, until Ibushi unilaterally decided that he would like to move on to a phase of the match where he kicked the stuffing out of Tsuji. As in the Uemura-Ibushi bout, this match was imbued with long pauses by Ibushi, designed to allow the crowd time to build steam in their support for the Young Lion, or allow Ibushi to provoke their support for his opponent.

As stated above, Tsuji has more concrete attributes and a more defined moveset, and thus more things in this match were tangibly memorable in comparison to Uemura’s bout. For instance, while most of Uemura’s exchanges with Ibushi were one-sided and basic forearms, in this match Tsuji drew a full-on slap exchange from Ibushi. Sure, Tsuji looked entirely inept at it, flailing against a guy that hits so fucking hard he knocks his trainers mitts off, but Tsuji prevailed in the end. When Ibushi slapped the bejesus out of the snide prickface and hit the ropes, Tsuji hit a thunderous spear on him. It’s probably the most retainable moment in the two Ibushi matches in the gauntlet.

This match also built upon the Uemura match. One of the more captivating episodes in the previous match was when Uemura locked Ibushi in the Boston crab position, but before Uemura could turn him over, Ibushi instigated Uemura into a slap exchange, which he ended up losing. It turns out Ibushi and Tsuji learned from this. On the initial attempt by Tsuji, Ibushi started squawking again, but instead of engaging in a slap fight from the bottom, where he has no advantage, he pulled Tsuji down and flipped him over. But Tsuji also learned from the Uemura match. When he went for a crab the second time, instead of allowing Ibushi time to maneuver, he wrenched Ibushi upwards and turned it into a giant swing. Those little details say a lot about Tsuji’s potential.

This one ended the exact same way the Uemura match did: with a strangely uncoordinated half-crab by Ibushi. Despite the match being so similar to the Uemura match, it’s a bit hard to decipher and assess Tsuji’s performance, but I believe that what Tsuji showed here was an ability to match Ibushi’s mental pace, and to effectively build a match as it progresses. In the end, this was possibly the best match of the gauntlet, less overt than the Ibushi-Uemura match but one that had a more fluid and sturdy gradual build to the finish. ***3/4

Yuya Uemura Young Lion Gauntlet Series, Match #6
Shingo Takagi def. Yuya Uemura

Watch: New Japan World (Japanese) / Watch: New Japan World (English)

As stated above, it’s hard not to view things related to Uemura through the prism of Gedo. Gedo clearly has interests here, or else they wouldn’t interact so much on camera. If Uemura is a Gedo favorite, Gedo sure isn’t trying to be clandestine about it. During the gauntlet, at the very least you could say that Tsuji’s slate looked better on paper. He got to face Tanahashi and Okada. And sure, one paper-thin extra layer of thought would lead one to instantly realize that Okada was probably going to be the least determined opponent in the gauntlet, and that did prove correct, but at least Tsuji got to battle the two top guys of the era. And, as it turns out, his extra match was against Ibushi.

But Uemura got it back by getting to face the reigning champion. And not only that, he faces the champion in the champion’s first singles match since winning the title. In sum, Uemura got to finish his gauntlet against Ibushi and Shingo, the two most guaranteed effort and match quality guys in the company at the moment (active, at least). As I type this, GRAPPL released their top ten matches of the first half of 2021. Shingo was in four, including three out of the top 5. Certainly Uemura was positioned quite well in the culmination of his gauntlet.

Uemura had found himself across the ring from Shingo a total of seven times before this match, all tag matches. It’s fairly spread out, too: twice in 2018, twice in 2020, and three times in 2021 (three days in a row, in fact: March 28-30). In this set, Uemura ate three pinfalls and was tapped out once (to BUSHI, who sucks). Shingo only accounted for two of those falls, but once, on October 23, 2018, he got the fall on Uemura. It was six months removed from Uemura’s debut, and only two weeks after Shingo’s New Japan unveiling.,

This one started slow and methodically, though this highlights a strength both wrestlers have: accentuating their efforts by sharp movement. The sharpness of their body language makes them seem even more intense than they already are. It’s sort of like a feint, or a juke, in other sports. The only way those work is if you do it with real fervency, as if you were truly performing the action that you are faking. Your opponent has to believe the action, and the only way to get them to believe is to commit with your body. Guys like Shingo and Uemura do that in the ring. Shingo could easily tone this down and still look more assiduous than anyone else on the roster; the way he applies, run, grinds, and such all give the illusion of almost impossibly vehement effort. It’s almost as if these guys are exceptional pro wrestlers.

Because this match-up so two wrestlers that are always percolating, in a constant state of agitation, this ended up being a lot of fun. Whereas Ibushi, in his two matches, spent a lot of time peeking towards the crowd, almost as if asking them, “How would you like to respond to this?,” Shingo was less subtle. When he threw Uemura to the outside, he literally flexed his arms and essentially shouted, “Hey you motherfuckers,  just tossed this kid and how do you like that?! Respond! RESPOND!”

Uemura managed to get a headlock, arm drag, dropkick, flying forearm, running dropkick, back suplex, and excellent German suplex on Shingo. That was the extent of his offense. And yet, the crowd was progressively louder, more active, and more engaged. Uemura seemed to have momentum. Sure, this is partially a result of Shingo exquisite selling. But it also a testament to Uemura’s skill at getting a crowd invested with a very simple set of actions.

Uemura’s bloodied mouth was a great visual, although it never really became a part of the match, and can’t really be attributed to anything directly. Uemura ducked Shingo’s sliding clotheslines. At that point, his mouth was clean. He rolled Shingo up, and then hit a bridging, German. He came up from Shingo’s kickout with the blood starting to flow.

After the German, Uemura failed in his attempt for a Kannuki suplex, slapped Shingo a few times, and then got nailed with a Pumping Bomber. That is the move that put him down on October 23, 2018. The result was the same here. ***1/2

Want more proof that Gedo has found his boy?

The post-match.

First, Shingo gave Uemura a few slaps on the chest. Uemura tried to grab Shingo’s hair, requiring Shingo to slap his hand away, never once stopping the conversation he was having with the Young Lion. That was funny.

But then the ref brought Shingo’s belt out. From his back, looking thoroughly dazed, suddenly Uemura’s vision came into focus and he instantly started to reach for the World Championship. And you can’t try to explain this as Uemura being a Gundam otaku; he could only see the side plates from that angle. His yearning reach turned him over to his side, as the ref pulled the belt out of his grasp.

We were treated to a closer shot of Uemura’s focused expression, bloodied mouth and all, wide-eyed with the grand prize inches away from him. His final reach was a collapse. It was pathetic, and captivating.

Maybe Uemura doesn’t pan out. But if he does, that’s the moment we’ll be revisiting. If he ever gets a title shot, New Japan will be mining our memories of July 2, 2021, when Yuya Uemura first got close enough to get a taste of that title, that symbol of a new era.

Final Grades

Listen, no matter what people tell you, or what some of those with a couple years of teaching experience and a doctorate in Education may assert are best practices, assessment is a very human practice. It doesn’t matter how elaborate or intricate your pile of rubrics are. Here’s the catch: it’s still a personal judgment. The grader uses their own expertise and judgment to determine the difference between “thoroughly” and “adequately.” You can’t quantify this stuff, no matter how much the data hounds and school choice honks try to turn everything into a business.

And so, it is actually unfair to decontextualize grading. It is inherently dehumanizing, and also ignores the unique efforts put in by the ones being graded. Yuya Uemura and Yota Tsuji debuted on the same day, and have the exact same number of matches, but there are substantially different.

Of course, I gave them the same grade. And really, for many of the same reasons.

First, some stats:

  • Total Ring Time (12 matches): 2:28:35
  • Avg. Match (12 matches): 12:23
  • Longest Match: Yota Tsuji v. Taichi (14:14)
  • Shortest Match: Yota Tsuji vs. Kazuchika Okada (8:53)
  • Overall GRAPPL Avg: 3.26
  • Overall Cagematch Avg: 6.74 (3.37)
  • Highest rated match on GRAPPL: Yuya Uemura vs. Kota Ibushi (3.61)
  • Highest Rated Match on Cagematch: Yota Tsuji vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (7.41)
  • Zack Sabre Jr Avgs: 3.385 on GRAPPL, 7.18 on Cagematch, 13:16
  • Taichi Avgs: 3.21 GRAPPL, 6.86 on Cagematch, 12:13
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi Avgs: 3.13 GRAPPL, 6.55 on Cagematch, 13:27
  • Kota Ibushi Avgs: 3.425 GRAPPL, N/A for Cagematch (Tsuji match NR at publication), 12:08

Yuya Uemura: A-

  • Total Match Time: 1:15:21
  • Avg. Match time: 12:34
  • GRAPPL Avg.: 3.363
  • Cagematch Avg: 6.95 (3.475)

Uemura is a tricky one to assess here because I’m not sure that he showed anything outside of what we already knew about him. He’s fast. He’s intense. He does all the little things that get a crowd behind a Young Lion. He did all of those things in this gauntlet. His range remains limited.

A lot of this comes down to his toolbox. As noted several times already, Uemura is working with a significantly smaller playbook than Tsuji. Through the course of this gauntlet, he displayed just about everything he could. He is maxed out on this phase of his Young Lion career.

But what he did show was superb. While he did not reveal more internal range, he did show an immense amount of external range, adapting to a number of different styles and personality types. He was probably in the B+ range until his final two matches, against the current champion and that champion’s upcoming challenger. He met the challenge.

Thus, I rate Yuya Uemura to have exceeded basic mastery, but just barely.

Yota Tsuji: A-

  • Total Match Time: 1:13:13
  • Avg. Match time: 12:12
  • GRAPPL Avg.: 3.153
  • Cagematch Avg: 6.476 (3.385)

Tsuji falls into many of the same assessment points laid out for Uemura.

Because Tsuji has a more defined and elaborate moveset, it’s actually tricky to assess him as well. What can one say when analyzing him? “Tsuji strings together moves wonderfully.” “Tsuji works very well in the Young Lion structured match.” “Tsuji looked like he belonged against ____.” Because while he has a moveset, it’s still a limited one. Tsuji has also reached the ceiling of this phase of his Young Lion career.

Tsuji exerted his strengths throughout, and for that he was able to overcome his deficiency in fire and intensity (at least, in comparison to Uemura). He pieced together several spots that played out across the matches, such as his failed top rope Mount Tsuji. He showed a resilience and a competence. For that, I rate him solidly above mastery. Unlike Uemura, though, there’s a feeling that there were some points left on the table.