It’s now Spring, and you know what that means – time for the Champion Carnival. This year is the 42nd edition, making it one of pro wrestling’s longest running tournaments.

There is also more excitement for this year’s tournament than the previous two that happened during the pandemic. That is in part because the field is the strongest it has been since 2019 (though I’d argue it’s not as strong as that year’s tournament). But another factor is that All Japan is slowly but surely pulling itself out of the malaise of 2020-2021. Despite some high profile departures, young talent is getting pushed and match quality is improving. While pandemic attendance comparisons are often a fool’s game, the company is posting some better numbers now that Kento Miyahara is Triple Crown champion again. Even if those stronger numbers are because venues are loosening their attendance restrictions, it is at least a sign that All Japan’s decline has been a little overstated.

This year’s tournament returns to the format that the Champion Carnival has had throughout most of the 21st Century, a two block round robin. Whereas last year’s tournament was one block of ten wrestlers, this year we are getting two blocks of six wrestlers.

This year’s Champion Carnival begins on April 9 in Osaka with every competitor having a match on that show. The last A Block matches occur on April 24 at Korakuen Hall while the final B Block matches happen on April 29 in Nagoya. The finals are on May 4 back at Korakuen Hall. All Japan, unlike other prominent promotions, does not have tie-breakers in their tournament so if there is a tie for first place, that will probably be settled by having an extra match on the final block shows as they have done in the past when that has happened. Let’s take a look at this year’s participants.

Champion Carnival A BLOCK
SHOTARO ASHINO (3rd APPEARANCE, WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPION)

After a lot of complaining (at least from international fans) about how he’s been treated since joining the company, Ashino is now in a good place teaming with Suwama as Runaway SUPLEX who are the world tag champs. He’s going to have a great tournament match wise at least. He has history with a number of the wrestlers in this block like T-Hawk who was his rival in Wrestle-1, to Ryuki Honda, Shigehiro Irie and Jake Lee who have much more recent history with him. I don’t think he’s going to the finals but it is certainly possible. It’s even possible he wins it all, but I’d say he’d be the third most likely to do so.

RYUKI HONDA (1st APPEARANCE)

This is Honda’s first Champion Carnival, but boy does he deserve to be here. Don’t listen to some critics who were disappointed with his Triple Crown match against Kento Miyahara. The 22 year old has really stepped up the past couple of months and has had some great performances, in particular his Last Man Standing match against Shotaro Ashino on March 21. Since turning heel at the end of last December, he has quickly grown into the role, and I think he’s already a better heel than Jake Lee is. Honda will probably get a big win or two in the tournament because it’s clear the company has long term plans for him, but he’s not going to the finals. The biggest match for him on his schedule is another match against Ashino on April 13 in Yokohama. I would also look out for his match against Jake Lee on April 23 in Chiba as they teased tension within Total Eclipse between the two. That story will probably continue there. Honda is facing Shuji Ishikawa on the final block show; he may end up playing spoiler to the Big Dog.

SHIGEHIRO IRIE (1st APPEARANCE, GAORA TV CHAMPION)

Irie’s role as GAORA TV Champion has been good for him and the belt. He’s a great worker who can have good matches with the kind of freelancers they usually bring in to challenge for the belt. Now that he’s no longer the 2AW Openweight Champion he can take more losses. I think there’s a good chance that he ends up being the glue that holds this block together. That’s no slight against the others in the block, just emphasising that he can perform well against opponents with a variety of styles. He’s not sniffing the finals, but he will probably find a new challenger for his title and could have a memorable run.

SHUJI ISHIKAWA (6th APPEARANCE, 2017 CHAMPION CARNIVAL WINNER)

There were definitely grumbles once it was learned that Ishikawa had become the booker alongside Tajiri. Certainly some booking decisions seemed as if Ishikawa was keeping himself strong at the expense of younger wrestlers. That has definitely been much less of an issue over the past several months however; Ishikawa has been putting more people over. The Champion Carnival will be a good measure of if that was just a blip or an actual trend. Ishikawa has also been scrutinized over the past couple of years for losing a step or two in the ring (he will be 47 in September, to be fair), but since about mid-2021 he’s stepped up his game. While he’s not the wrestler he was five years ago, he can still be relied on to deliver a pretty good match, especially against skilled opponents.

Even if Ishikawa books himself to get a few big wins, I just don’t see him going anywhere near the finals. He protects his spot to a certain level of detriment to the company, but he’s not a complete megalomaniac when it comes to his booking. Plus facing Ryuki Honda on the final A Block show is just too perfect of a spot for an upset to put a young talent over.

JAKE LEE (5th APPEARANCE, 2021 CHAMPION CARNIVAL WINNER)

Ah Jake Lee, I have so many things to say about you. First, he’s looked good in the ring since he returned from injury on March 21. A broken nose and orbital bone shouldn’t affect one’s overall athleticism, and it hasn’t. He’s become more comfortable as a heel for sure, but looking at just how fast Ryuki Honda adapted to being a heel does make Lee look like he’s underachieving. Despite his Triple Crown reign being lacklustre and ending with a whimper with him vacating due to injury, Lee still seems to be a focus for the company. I actually think he is the top candidate to win the Champion Carnival because it looked as if they were building to yet another Lee versus Kento Miyahara match before his injury. Also, the next Triple Crown title match is happening in his home prefecture of Hokkaido.

For these reasons, plus one I will get to later when I discuss his most likely opponent in the finals, he’s my top pick to win it all. I actually don’t think it’s a bad idea for him to score a repeat win in this tournament either. It keeps him as a top player without having to win the Triple Crown again, and I don’t think he will be getting another reign with that title for a while. However, given what has already been invested in Lee, you need to keep him at the top of the card in some form, and winning back-to-back Champion Carnivals does that.

T-HAWK (1st APPEARANCE)

Like Irie, T-Hawk will probably be a glue guy in this block. He can have great matches against all types of opponents. He doesn’t seem to be emphasized a whole lot in GLEAT right now, so picking up some losses doesn’t seem to be a big deal, though I’m sure they will give him one or two big victories. The chance he wins the block is nil, but he does face Jake Lee on the final block show so it’s not impossible he’s in contention going into the last night. This might also be a swan song for T-Hawk in All Japan because there are reports that we will be seeing a lot more Stronghearts in New Japan. I’m probably most looking forward to his matches against Shotaro Ashino, Ryuki Honda and Jake Lee. Let’s hope if he’s done with All Japan after this tournament for the foreseeable future, he goes out with a bang.

Champion Carnival B BLOCK
YUMA AOYAGI (4th APPEARANCE)

Aoyagi really showed his development in last year’s tournament, and I expect him to reach an even higher level this year. For my money, he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world right now. He has a very realistic chance of winning this tournament, but I think they might be saving Aoyagi vs. Kento Miyahara for the 50th Anniversary Show in September. However, if they have another main event planned, which I think is very possible, Aoyagi could get the nod here. But right now he’s the second most likely to win after Jake Lee, I think. However, his match against Miyahara on the final night screams a possible time limit draw to let someone else advance to the finals. Like many in this block, my most anticipated match for him is against Takuya Nomura. Aoyagi and Miyahara will no doubt put on another banger too. And it will be interesting to see if he finally gets his first singles win over Suwama this year.

KUMA ARASHI (2nd APPEARANCE)

My hot take in this tournament is that Arashi is the weakest link in the entire thing. I know he has his fans and has that chubby guy charisma, but he’s a much better tag team wrestler. It’s not that he’s a bigger guy who gets gassed easily, it’s more of a case that he can’t fill up a match beyond ten minutes with interesting stuff other than his big moves. If his matches are kept short he could be fun. There is a decent chance he upsets Kento Miyahara on the opening night because he’s said he wants to challenge for the Triple Crown. I’m not actually against that happening because Miyahara pulled out a shockingly decent match out of Abdullah Kobayashi and Arashi is much better than that. But other than getting that big upset, Arashi has zero chance of winning the block and will probably end up with a losing record.

KENTO MIYAHARA (9th APPEARANCE, TRIPLE CROWN CHAMPION, 2019 CHAMPION CARNIVAL WINNER)

It’s Kento Motherfucking Miyahara. He’s proven now that he’s the Triple Crown champion again after nearly a two year drought, that he’s a legitimate draw and still an incredible wrestler. There’s no real bad matchups for him in this block. He’s even got chemistry with Yoshitatsu. The things to watch for him in the tournament is who he loses to in the block matches to set up Triple Crown matches down the line. You can never count him out of going to the finals or even winning it all, but as I previously mentioned, facing Yuma Aoyagi on the last block night looks like a scenario where there’s a time limit draw and someone else sneaks through to the finals. Miyahara could really put together a case for most outstanding wrestler of the year with some of the matchups he will have in this block if all goes well.

TAKUYA NOMURA (1st APPERANCE)

Nomura’s inclusion in the Champion Carnival is responsible for a significant amount of renewed hype the tournament is getting among All Japan fans internationally. While he’s had a decent number of matches in the company over the years, they have always been solidly in the midcard or even opening the show. Now, that changes. We are going to be getting Nomura vs. Kento Miyahara for fuck’s sake. Nomura versus Yuma Aoyagi is tantalizing as well; hell even against Suwama could be very cool. Big Japan doesn’t truly give Nomura the push that he deserves despite being a former Strong Heavyweight Champion. That’s why I think he won’t be leaving the block stage, but will probably get a couple of big wins. Setting up a later Triple Crown match could be a very cool thing, but I have no idea if that’s something they would actually do.

Honestly, my fantasy final would probably be Nomura vs. Jake Lee. Anyway, prepare for a tremendous run of matches from Nomura. If social media is any indication, he will have a good amount of eyeballs on him in this. There’s also the very real possibility he ends up the MVP of the tournament based on match quality.

SUWAMA (17th APPEARANCE, WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPION, 2008 CHAMPION CARNIVAL WINNER)

It seems surprising that Suwama has only won the Champion Carnival once. Mind you it was in an all-time final against Hiroshi Tanahashi that is still remembered to this day. Because I like to overthink things, a part of me wonders if they just have Suwama win it all and face Kento Miyahara in Sapporo in May, especially because it will be the first show for All Japan there since the pandemic began. It still has a chance of drawing well there though it’s been done to death in Tokyo. But I like to think that the company is serious about pushing younger talent and freshening up the main event scene. That being said, I think that Suwama is very likely to make it to the finals because they have reignited his feud with Jake Lee upon the latter’s return from injury starting with the Total Eclipse vs. Voodoo Murders match on March 21. That match was built around Lee and Suwama having a heated brawl. On subsequent spot shows, they have also been continuing the feud. So with them in separate blocks, it makes sense that the place to continue it is in the finals. To throw another wrench in my theory though, Suwama faces Yoshitatsu on the final B Block show and that could also be an upset that prevents Suwama from making it to the finals. Anyway, despite all of my rambling about alternate scenarios, I still think Lee vs. Suwama is the most likely final, but don’t bet the farm on it.

As for the quality of Suwama’s tournament, I think it will probably be good. Despite clearly losing a step, I still think Suwama is better than many give him credit for. Yuma Aoyagi, Takuya Nomura and of course Miyahara should be able to have good matches with him. Plus he also has this shockingly good chemistry with Yoshitatsu that defies all logic. His match against Kuma Arashi might not be good though.

YOSHITATSU (4th APPERANCE, AJPW TV 6-MAN TAG TEAM CHAMPION)

It’s his kingdom, and we’re just living in it. After sitting out last year’s Champion Carnival, Yoshitatsu returns. Ideally, it’s time for him to step back from the tournament. However, he’s in a block where wrestlers like Kento Miyahara, Yuma Aoyagi and Takuya Nomura will be able to pull something decent to good out of him which is why I don’t think he’s the weakest link in this. Then there’s the aforementioned chemistry with Suwama. His match with Kuma Arashi is a big question mark, and I have a feeling it will end up being the comedy match of the tournament and probably not very good. At least Yoshitatsu has no chance of winning this block, though he may play spoiler to Suwama. He’ll probably finish with a losing record.

PREDICTIONS

Champion Carnival Finals: Jake Lee vs. Suwama
Champion Carnival Winner: Jake Lee
Dark Horses: Yuma Aoyagi, Shotaro Ashino

Hear more of Gerard’s thoughts on All Japan, the Carnival, and the wider world of puroresu on his podcast the Emerald Flowshow