Since 2005, NJPW has held one of its more captivating and exciting tournaments of the year, the annual New Japan Cup. While only in existence for the past twelve years, it has seen many a talented wrestler redeem a heartbreaking loss, remind audiences why he is an elite athlete, or finally open some eyes to the talent he truly possesses. For the winner comes even greater reward: A coveted championship opportunity.
From 2006 through 2013, the man skilled enough to outlast field of sixteen in a single elimination format was granted a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. From 2014 to present, the options to also select the IWGP Intercontinental and Never Open Weight Championships have also been on the table. Of the twelve that have won the tournament to date, only four were successful in capturing the championship they selected.
Yuji Nagata (2007) defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Kazuchika Okada (2013) did the same, Shinsuke Nakamura (2014) defeated Tanahashi for the IC Championship, and Tetsuya Naito (2016) defeated Okada to claim his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Given the stipulation, the reigning champions do not participate in the tournament. Starting tomorrow morning, the first half of this year’s tournament will begin their quest to join that elite group.
In Part I of this preview, we will examine the four matches to be contested in Bracket A.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. EVIL
This will be the sixth appearance for New Japan’s Ace, his only win coming in 2005 while also sitting out several due to holding a championship at the time. He was knocked out of last year’s opening round by Bad Luck Fale and has not tasted singles gold since February 11, 2015 when he lost the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to AJ Styles. Most recently he has had two runs with the Never Open Weight Six Man Tag Team Championships teaming with Yoshitatu & Michael Elgin and Ryusuke Taguchi & Manabu Nakanishi.
This will be EVIL’s second New Japan Cup. He too was eliminated in last year in the opening round by Tomohiro Ishii. Once an assuming young boy, EVIL has seen a surge in success since turning to the dark side and joining Tetsuya Naito’s Los Ingobernables de Japon faction. He held the Never Open Weight Championship for ten days in 2016 and is currently reigning with fellow LIJ members BUSHI and SANADA as the Never Open Weight Six Man Tag Team Champions for the second time.
This looks to be a really great bout on paper.
Tanahashi’s back injuries combined with the years of wear and tear he’s put on his body in general have somewhat slowed him down; however that has not prevented him from giving his usual thousand percent in every match he competes in. He can still find a way to pick up a victory when it matters most.
EVIL’s makeover has sent him higher than many anticipated when he returned from his excursion to Ring of Honor. His confidence has soared and he has found an in-ring style that serves him well. It also doesn’t hurt to have loyal LIJ allies always nearby to help out.
Whoever walks away with the victory will have truly earned it.
Tanga Loa vs. Yuji Nagata
This will be a very interesting bout to keep an eye on.
This will be Loa’s first New Japan Cup and really the most important singles match in his career. After stints in WWE and Impact Wrestling, he joined his brother Tama Tonga in the villainous Bullet Club to form The Guerillas of Destiny. While they were slow in gelling as a team within New Japan’s tag team division, they eventually were firing on all cylinders. Two reigns as IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions and a revered World Tag League 2016 Finals bout against Great Bash Heel have put him on a path full of potential. Since GOD dropped the titles at Wrestle Kingdom 11, Bullet Club hadn’t had much influence in the company until returning in full force in February. This will be the perfect opportunity for Loa to really showcase how far he’s come in the ring. It’s both a gift and a curse that said opportunity comes against timeless legend Yuji Nagata.
Nagata is a two time NJ Cup winner with mixed results. In addition to the aforementioned 2007 win and subsequent title victory, he topped the 2011 tournament but came up short against Tanahashi in their championship encounter. The leader of Blue Justice primarily competes in multi-man matches with the likes of Jushin Liger, Manabu Nakanishi, Tiger Mask IV, and TenCozy when not tangling with young lions such as Tomoyuki Oka and Henare. That may leave the impression that he is past being able to find success in major fashions but that is far from the case. In 2015, his last major title chase to date, he nearly defeated then-IWGP IC Champion Shinsuke Nakamura in a classic bout.
That is something Loa will have to keep in the back of his mind. He is young, talented, and arrogant and those three traits wouldn’t be able to save him once Nagata’s eyes roll back into his head and he cranks back on the Nagata Lock. Nagata will need to be weary of any Bullet Club involvement as well as Loa’s impressive speed and power strikes he has learned the past two years.
Either a salty veteran will teach a lesson in respect or victory will indeed be too sweet.
Tama Tonga vs. Toru Yano
In a battle of Bullet Club against CHAOS, two rivals collide in a pivotal bout.
This will be Tonga’s third New Japan Cup. In 2013, he was eliminated in the opening round by Hirooki Goto. Last year he defeated Togi Makabe before being eliminated by Goto a second time. As a founding member of the Bullet Club in 2013, the other son of WWE Legend Haku has only seen fleeting opportunities to display everything he has in his bag of tricks. Primarily he has seen his best success in the tag team ranks with two runs with the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships and an a one time reign with fellow BC members Bad Luck Fale and Yujiro Takahashi as the Never Six Man Tag Team Champions. He has improved vastly year to year and could very well be primed to advance up the ranks of the singles division, thus putting himself into title contention for the first time in his career.
He finds himself up against the very aloof but no less brilliant mind of Toru Yano.
CHAOS’ devious one never looks much like a threat toting around DVDs and spewing water but he has consistently found ways to score massive upset victories in both the NJ Cup and G1 Climax. In his ninth NJ Cup, the master of low blows will have to once more utilized his cunningness and put away his past fears of Tonga and his lizard like movements. Yano and Tomohiro Ishii stole the tag team titles from GOD then properly won them at Wrestle Kindom 11 so the stakes will be a bit more personal for both men.
In the end it may very well boil down to who can effectively cheat better to pick up a key victory.
Yano will no doubt look for a low blow/cradle combination as well as removing a ring corner’s padding. Tonga will have the advantage if he can avoid being trapped into Yano’s games and maintaining even temperament. Yano is a genius at flustering opponents enough that strategies and game plans go by the wayside.
Can Tonga go a long way in improving his fortunes or will Yano add another highlight to future DVDs?
Michael Elgin vs. Bad Luck Fale
This promises to be the most bruising, head on collision scheduled for the entire tournament. An unbreakable spirit will try and slay Bullet Club’s Underboss for the second year in a row.
In last year’s tournament, Michael Elgin defeated Hiroyoshi Tenzan while Bad Luck Fale upset Tanahashi in the opening round leading them to one another in the second. It was a bruising affair but Elgin managed to put Fale away before being eliminated himself by Hirooki Goto in the following round.
That loss has simmered in the mind of Fale who is more determined than ever to reinvigorate his singles career. While the BC has undergone leadership changes from Prince Devitt to AJ Styles to current leader Kenny Omega, Fale has been a constant fixture and imposing force. However recent history has not been too kind.
After a brief run as IWGP IC Champion in 2014, he has primarily partnered with a variety of fellow Bullet Club members notably Yujiro Takahashi, Bone Soldier, Chase Owens, among others. However his fortunes could change in a tournament he has cemented himself as being a dangerous, viable participant in.
In 2014 he made it to the finals before losing in a classic bloody war with Shinsuke Nakamura. In 2015 he pinned Kazuchika Okada in the opening round before being eliminated by Tetsuya Naito. While his ring style doesn’t leave anyone confusing him for Will Ospreay, Fale has become comfortable in big match situations and has found a style that works for him. He will no doubt attempt to impose his size and brute strength against a man who will welcome facing such a challenge.
Michael Elgin has fans harkening back to the days when pure bad asses like “Dr Death” Steve Williams and Stan Hansen plowed through everybody and everything in their sight line. The former ROH World Champion is committed to honoring those legends while also adding in his own brand of punishment and delivering of pain. A broken eye socket at the hands of Tetsuya Naito sidelined the former IWGP IC Champion for several months but he returned full force in January; he won Wrestle Kingdom’s annual New Japan Rumble and went right for Naito. At The New Beginning in Osaka PPV, he put Naito through the wringer but ultimately fell short in his bid to regain the title.
To get back on track he will have to take down Fale. Neither man will budge an inch and fans can expect a slugfest to ensue. Whoever can set the pace and keep his opponent from getting in a rhythm is most likely to emerge victorious. Fale’s signature moves The Bad Luck Fall and the Grenade will require significant damage to Elgin in order for them to be used effectively. Likewise Elgin will need to tear into Fale to set up his devastating Elgin Bomb or Burning Hammer.
Only one mountain of a man can move forward, who will blink first?