2021 has been a whirlwind year for New Japan.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to wreak havoc and cause a number of issues—including limited attendances at shows, clap crowds, positive outbreaks amongst wrestlers, and a globally divided roster—the company has soldiered on regardless, crowning new world champions in Kota Ibushi, Will Ospreay, and Shingo Takagi, running shows with fans again in the United States, and teaming up with other wrestling companies such as AEW and Impact. 2022 is fast approaching, and lord willing New Japan will celebrate its 50th anniversary with loud crowds, a full roster, and a reinvigorated audience.
But before we get to the new year, we still have one big piece of business to attend to: Best of the Super Juniors. Due to scheduling changes last year thanks to the pandemic, the iconic junior heavyweight tournament normally held in late spring was moved to late autumn and ran in conjunction with World Tag League. That format remains the same for this year.
Best of the Super Juniors is an annual tournament held every year by New Japan Pro Wrestling. It began as the Top of the Super Juniors in 1988 before adopting the Best of the Super Juniors name in 1994. Some of the legendary names who have won BOSJ in the past include Jushin Thunder Liger, Black Tiger II (Eddie Guerrero), Koji Kanemoto, Milano Collection A.T., Kota Ibushi, Prince Devitt, Ricochet, KUSHIDA, Will Ospreay, and Hiromu Takahashi.
The tournament is held in a round-robin format. While normally the participants would be split into two blocks, this year’s field of 12 will only be in one. Each wrestler will have a match with every other wrestler in the block in order to score points. The scoring system is as follow:
A win is worth two (2) points.
A draw is worth one (1) point.
A loss is worth zero (0) points.
The two wrestlers with the most points at the end of block play will advance to the finals where it will be winner take all. Should there be a tie for first or second place, the tiebreaker will go to the winner of the block match. (For example, last year El Desperado, Hiromu Takahashi, and Taiji Ishimori all finished block play with 14 points. However, Desperado and Takahashi both beat Ishimori in their block matches, so they were the ones whom advanced to the finals.)
This year’s tournament will run from November 13 to December 15, with the finals taking place in Ryogoku Sumo Hall. The winner of the finals will receive an IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship match at Wrestle Kingdom 16 in the Tokyo Dome. In the event that the current champion El Desperado wins the whole tournament, then he will likely either name his own challenger, or be challenged by someone who beat him during block play.
The Mighty Boosh (pretty sure that name’s not taken) enters his ninth Best of the Super Juniors. While his LIJ tag partner Hiromu Takahashi has won this tournament twice, BUSHI has never even made it to the finals. Always a jet black bridesmaid, never the jet black bride. BUSHI’s fortunes don’t look to change this year, though the former IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion tends to finish with a respectable amount of points, and in the past has picked up big block wins against the likes of former BOSJ winners Will Ospreay, Ryusuke Taguchi, Tiger Mask, and KUSHIDA. The big fish that he has yet to score a win over is Hiromu himself; could this be the year he finally gets the W over his fellow Ingobernable?
If I was a betting man, I would put all my chips on Our Pal DOUKI to win this year’s tournament and spend the winner’s purse on a new gold-plated pipe… okay, maybe not. No, DOUKI is not what you would call a heavy favorite. He’s primarily the loss post for Suzuki-gun tag matches and his prior attempts to win BOSJ were as successful as using a banana as a hammer (he’s only amassed 6 points over two years). The odds of him going all the way are not good, BUT! You can’t deny that DOUKI has earned the respect of many—including myself—this past year or so. He puts in the effort despite his lowly standing on the roster, and has shown to have some great chemistry with guys like Hiromu Takahashi and fellow lovable loser YOSHI-HASHI. We have grown accustomed to his half-face, and honestly isn’t that the real prize?
The current IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion and multi-time former IWGP Jr. Tag Team Champion has seen his stock sore throughout the pandemic era of New Japan Pro Wrestling. In fact it was his performance in the finals of last year’s BOSJ against longtime rival Hiromu Takahashi that elevated Desperado in the eyes of many fans; his deliberate unmasking during the climax of the match was a visual that will be remembered for a long time to come. Since last year’s tournament, Desperado has gone on to win the IWGP Jr. Title twice, but just because he’s the champion going in doesn’t mean he’ll have it easy. The last time the Jr. champ won this tournament was Prince Devitt’s clean sweep back in 2013. As the champion, he’ll certainly be in the mix as the tournament nears its completion, but with the competition stiffer than an old man on Viagra, it’s not a guarantee that he’ll make it to the finals once again.
El Phantasmo is no stranger to winning junior heavyweight tournaments. He’s a back-to-back Super J-Cup winner, claiming 2020’s trophy as his ticket back into the New Japan spotlight since the pandemic hit. Since then ELP has won the IWGP Jr. Tag Team Titles twice with tag partner Taiji Ishimori, and came close to winning the vacant IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship at Castle Attack in February. The “Headbanga” often uses nefarious tactics to secure victories, namely his Johnny Cage-style punch to the groin and his Sudden Death superkick (which may or may not involve a loaded boot). Phantasmo’s bag of tricks (that sounds like a magic kit, actually) should be expected all throughout this tournament, and with him being a favorite, a spot in the finals is more likely than not.
The wild and wonderful Hiromu Takahashi is always a favorite to win Best of the Super Juniors; hell, he’s done it twice! After dropping the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship to Taiji Ishimori at Summer Struggle in Jingu in August 2020, Hiromu won last year’s BOSJ and reclaimed the gold at Wrestle Kingdom 15. But the road is seemingly never easy for Hiromu. Just 51 days after winning the belt, Hiromu was forced to vacate the title due to a pectoral muscle injury (the second time an injury’s forced him to vacate). Upon his return, he challenged Robbie Eagles for the title, only to come up short yet again. Hiromu enters this year’s BOSJ on yet another path to redemption. He could easily claim his third trophy on his way towards Wrestle Kingdom 16 and another high-profile clash with current champion El Desperado. The likes of El Phantasmo, Robbie Eagles, SHO, and others will not make it easy though.
It’s no secret that Master Wato hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire since his post-excursion return last summer. An awkward botch here, an ugly pair of blue pants there. As a fan of the HBO show Succession, I can’t help but compare him to the character of Greg. He’s an awkward dweeb trying to navigate a world of slick cut-throats. While other characters glide through this world like sharks in water, he sloshes his way around like a vineyard grape-stomper, trying not to trip over his own feet. He tries his best though, you can’t deny that, and while Wato may be a geek in a lot of respects, that doesn’t mean he’ll be counting the lights as often as someone like DOUKI. In his BOSJ debut last year, Wato finished with 8 points, and in all likelihood, that’s where he’ll end up this year too. “Not great, not terrible,” to quote another HBO show.
Robbie Eagles wanted to enter his third Best of the Super Juniors as IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, but a loss to El Desperado at Power Struggle tossed those plans out the window. Eagles is still a champion—he’s co-IWGP Jr. Tag Team Champion with Tiger Mask—but he must now fight his way back to singles glory through 11 other guys, including Desperado himself. Anyone who watches Robbie Eagles knows how talented he is in the ring, and his presence in New Japan has been a well-needed spark to the junior division in the back half of 2021. Eagles may not be the odds-on pick to win, but if he does, he can kick off 2022 with another championship match in the Tokyo Dome and reclaim his spot at the top of the junior leaderboard.
Ryusuke Taguchi is the most experienced wrestler in the field, entering his 18th BOSJ tournament (16th consecutive). He’s also a former winner, two-time runner-up, and more often than not is still in the mix when the block play is winding down to its final stages. How can a man known for using his rear end as a weapon be so capable in these tournaments? Ah, such is the way of Big Match Gooch, who turns up the heat when it comes time for Super Juniors. While Taguchi’s days at the top of the junior division are seemingly behind him, you can never discount Gooch picking up some solid wins over the course of the tournament. Expect more of the same this year.
After turning on YOH during the summer, SHO also turned his back on CHAOS and being a nice boy in general. He adopted a sinister sneer, crazy eyes, and a ruthless mean streak, along with a new submission finisher called the Snake Bite. To make matters worse, he aligned himself with Bullet Club’s new House of Torture sub-faction with EVIL, Dick Togo, and Yujiro Takahashi. It’s described as “the worst of the worst,” and with SHO adopting the “Murder Machine” moniker, his vicious style fits right in. It also spells danger for anyone standing in his way of winning this tournament, including YOH. SHO is already one-third of the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champions. Can he add his first BOSJ trophy to the mix?
He was the Jr. Champion throughout last year’s BOSJ, but that’s not the case this year for Taiji Ishimori. The “Bone Soldier” enters his fifth tournament without any gold around his chiseled waist and you can be sure he’s not happy about it. He’s probably not happy about missing out on the finals last year either thanks to a final block day loss to El Desperado. Ishimori has a chance for revenge against Desperado, as well as other rivals like Hiromu Takahashi and Ryusuke Taguchi, on a potential path towards total BOSJ victory. Of course, that path also leads through his tag partner El Phantasmo, which would be a first-time match between the two. Don’t you hate it when cute couples fight?
*Max Caster voice* YOH! YOH! Listen! The former IWGP Jr. Tag Team Champion and Super Jr. Tag League winner missed out on last year’s tournament due to injury. YOH can be a bit of an odd duck behind the scenes (see: his toilet paper art), but when it comes to the ring, he’s serious business. That’s especially true in recent months, with him seeking revenge on his former tag partner and generational contemporary SHO. SHO destroyed YOH in the breakup of Roppongi 3K in August and then defeated him in a singles match at Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome, but a few months later at Power Struggle YOH stormed the ring after SHO’s match, looking to settle the score. With a match against SHO on the final block day, YOH could potentially take down his former partner to either secure his spot in the finals or stop SHO from securing his.
Kanemaru was all set to compete in last year’s BOSJ when a last-minute injury took him out of the tournament and put Yuya Uemura in his place. This year Kanemaru is ready to make up for lost time with a bottle full of whiskey and a 25-year wrestling veteran mindset. The 45-year-old “Heel Master” is never a favorite to win Best of the Super Juniors, typically finishing at the lower end of the pack each year, but don’t mistake his lack of results for a lack of skill. Kanemaru is one of the craftiest wrestlers on the roster, able to adapt to practically any scenario you put him in (a “Swiss army wrestler” as Joe Lanza once dubbed him). Don’t be shocked if the former GHC Jr. Heavyweight Champion grimes his way to a few key wins as the tournament progresses.
Most shows will be shown live on New Japan World. Matches are in ascending order on the card unless otherwise noted. Only tournament matches are listed.
November 13, 2021 @ Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
- BUSHI vs. DOUKI
- Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs. Taiji Ishimori
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Robbie Eagles
- Master Wato vs. El Phantasmo
- YOH vs. Hiromu Takahashi
- El Desperado vs. SHO
November 15, 2021 @ Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
- YOH vs. DOUKI
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. BUSHI
- Master Wato vs. Robbie Eagles
- Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs. El Phantasmo
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. SHO
- El Desperado vs. Taiji Ishimori
November 18, 2021 @ Nagano Sports Park Gymnasium, Nagano – VOD only
- DOUKI vs. El Phantasmo
- YOH vs. BUSHI
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. SHO
- Robbie Eagles vs. Taiji Ishimori
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru
- El Desperado vs. Master Wato
November 21, 2021 @ Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, Aichi
- Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs. DOUKI
- Master Wato vs. Taiji Ishimori
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. YOH
- BUSHI vs. SHO
- Robbie Eagles vs. El Phantasmo
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado
November 24, 2021 @ Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Master Wato
- Robbie Eagles vs. YOH
- Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs. SHO
- El Desperado vs. DOUKI
- Taiji Ishimori vs. El Phantasmo
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. BUSHI
November 27, 2021 @ Fujisawa City Akibadai Bunka Gymnasium, Kanagawa
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru
- DOUKI vs. SHO
- Master Wato vs. YOH
- BUSHI vs. El Phantasmo
- Robbie Eagles vs. El Desperado
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori
November 29, 2021 @ Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. DOUKI
- Robbie Eagles vs. BUSHI
- YOH vs. Taiji Ishimori
- Master Wato vs. SHO
- El Desperado vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Phantasmo
December 3, 2021 @ Tokorozawa Citizen Gymnasium Sub Arena, Saitama
- Master Wato vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru
- Robbie Eagles vs. DOUKI
- BUSHI vs. Taiji Ishimori
- SHO vs. El Phantasmo
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Hiromu Takahashi
- YOH vs. El Desperado
December 5, 2021 @ Twin Messe Shizuoka, Shizuoka
- DOUKI vs. Taiji Ishimori
- YOH vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. El Phantasmo
- Robbie Eagles vs. SHO
- Master Wato vs. Hiromu Takahashi
- BUSHI vs. El Desperado
December 8, 2021 @ Yawatahama Citizen Sports Center, Ehime
- Master Wato vs. BUSHI
- Robbie Eagles vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru
- YOH vs. El Phantasmo
- Taiji Ishimori vs. SHO
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. El Desperado
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. DOUKI
December 11, 2021 @ Akurie Himeji, Hyogo (Match Order TBA)
- Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Taiji Ishimori
- Master Wato vs. DOUKI
- Robbie Eagles vs. Hiromu Takahashi
- YOH vs. SHO
- BUSHI vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru
- El Desperado vs. El Phantasmo
December 15, 2021 @ Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Tokyo
Best of the Super Juniors 28 Final: X vs. X
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