NJOA: As you will know, either from watching or reading our Unofficial New Japan of America Annual 2020, NJPW Strong debuted in August 2020 with the first-ever New Japan Cup USA tournament. It was won by KENTA, who earned a United States Heavyweight Championship match against Jon Moxley. Last week, after a six-month wait, we finally got that match at New Beginning in USA Night 2.
It’s clear NJPW wants to settle back into a “normal” rhythm for their tournaments and shows this year. They also want to align the tours and big shows for NJoA to closely match the schedule in Japan. As such. the New Japan Cup shifts back its normal calendar – dominating proceedings in Japan for the majority of March. Meanwhile, in NJoA, March will see the qualifiers for the 2021 New Japan Cup USA – with the tournament proper running through NJPW Strong in April. The winner of the New Japan Cup USA will, like KENTA last year, earn a title shot at the United States Heavyweight Champion, Jon Moxley.
While plenty of people in the wrestling world are already choosing their picks for the New Japan Cup, we don’t know much so far about the participants in New Japan Cup USA, apart from the first four people trying to qualify. But why let that stop us from speculating on the outcome? Let’s look ahead to this week’s NJPW Strong – Road to Strong Style Evolved 2021 – and the first two qualifying matches to get an idea of what’s to come.
Before we get to that though, we have an intriguing opening match on this week’s show. Clark Connors and Kevin Knight against Karl Fredericks and Alex Coughlin may not be a match that jumps out as a “must-see”, but it has all the potential to steal the show. As we have covered in our roster review, these four men are synonymous with the L.A. Dojo.
Karl Fredericks was the first graduate of the Dojo back in June 2020, and since then has had some great matches on NJPW Strong. Unfortunately, an injury has taken him out of action for a few months. He’s well thought of in NJPW, and will no doubt be heading to Japan at some point shortly. This tag match will give Karl the chance to start building the momentum he will want for 2021.
On the opposite side, Clark Connors is the second graduate – with Katsuyori Shibata confirming in a recent interview that he graduated by winning Lion’s Break Crown back in October. This seems to be news that wasn’t shared with the rest of NJPW, as Connors has been holding on to his role as “Captain” of the Young Lions. Given his promotion to the main roster, this match is a chance for him to start his breakout year in earnest – especially against his fellow graduate Fredericks.
Speaking of the “Captain” of the Young Lions, that distinction has now been passed on to Alex Coughlin. Road to Strong Style Evolved 2021 marks the official debut of Coughlin on NJPW Strong after a neck injury kept him out of action the last eight months. With the added responsibility, and a need to impress not only Shibata but the other Young Lions, Coughlin may well feel the pressure going into this match.
Kevin Knight is the “wildcard” in this match if such a thing could be considered. One of the newest members of the Dojo, Knight only started his wrestling training in January 2019 and joined the Dojo in 2020. He made his debut replacing the injured Fredericks in a tag match at the Super J Cup, and has become a regular face since. Fredericks and Coughlin may not have had the chance to scout him – or his outstanding dropkicks – properly. This is a good chance to get his first victory inside an NJPW ring.
This match has the potential to be a show-stealer – four hungry, young athletes with the world ahead of them. Connors has momentum on his side, but an inexperienced tag team partner. Fredericks and Coughlin are both returning from time on the shelf, and you would expect that to be a factor. I can see Connors getting the win, but regardless it will be one to watch for a glimpse into the future of NJoA.
NJOA New Japan Cup USA 2021
Talking of Young Lions, the latest recruit to the L.A. Dojo gets his chance to qualify for New Japan Cup USA against the leader of Team Filthy. The DKC has been wrestling since 2018, and entered the Young Lion’s system back in January, appealing directly to Shibata following a loss to Rocky Romero. Since joining the Dojo, DKC’s only victory has been against fellow Young Lion Kevin Knight. His only other two victories on NJPW Strong have been in tag team action alongside Clark Connors. Due to this, DKC’s relative inexperience and lack of momentum mean he is the underdog in this match – but with the fight he’s shown in recent weeks, and Shibata’s training, he is capable of an upset. This might be a step too far, too soon, but DKC will attempt to prove he has what it takes.
His opponent is one of the most dangerous men in NJoA. Former NCAA National Champion, UFC Fighter, and MLW World Heavyweight Champion, “Filthy” Tom Lawlor has wasted no time in creating a branch of Team Filthy on NJPW Strong. Backed by Danny Limelight and JR Kratos (and later Chris Dickinson), Lawlor went on an early surge in NJoA but lost his last match (a tag team match with Kratos) back in December. Lawlor returns to action looking to prove his dominance and will be a heavy favourite – not just for this match, but for the tournament as a whole.
This will be a hard-hitting, technical affair. With DKC embracing Shibata’s training, and Lawlor unafraid to use his amateur wrestling and MMA background, the chain wrestling will be intense. But, Lawlor will use his experience and striking ability to nullify DKC’s offence. I really can’t see past Lawlor taking the victory and moving on to the first round.
NJOA New Japan Cup USA 2021
Our main event of the night will highlight the difference between the two New Japan Cups. While the tournament in Japan is exclusively open to the Heavyweight side of the roster, the USA counterpart is an Openweight tournament. With Rocky Romero and Lio Rush facing each other to qualify, we will definitely have a Junior Heavyweight in the tournament.
Rocky Romero is a well-travelled and well-respected mat technician. He has well over 700-matches under his belt in NJPW alone. He has held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship eight times. He has even held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship – albeit under the Black Tiger mask. The King of Sneaky Style has said he wants one more “solid” singles run in NJPW. He’s stated he wants to win the Junior Heavyweight Championship in his own name before he retires, but at only 38-years old and looking as good as ever, a shot at the US Heavyweight Championship might be a good stop-gap until that point. Romero comes into the qualifier on the back of a tag team victory a few weeks ago and will look to cement his place as one of the mainstays of the NJoA locker room by progressing to the first round.
Lio Rush, on the other hand, is still new to NJPW. Making his debut in December’s Super J Cup – losing to El Phantasmo after some shenanigans – he made his NJPW Strong debut at the end of January. He was on the winning side of a six-man tag team match against Bullet Club, but a few weeks ago lost in a singles match to El Phantasmo. That said, Rush is the current holder of the MLW Middleweight Title and the AAA World Cruiserweight Championship, so is no stranger to success. His ability to switch from the technical aspects of wrestling to an aerial approach might prove his not-so-secret weapon.
If you’re wanting an incredibly intricate, technical wrestling match with a few key spots, you’re likely to get it with these two. What Rush lacks in experience, he makes up for in speed. What Romero lacks in agility, he makes up for in power. This will start on the mat, but don’t be surprised if it goes airborne quickly. Both have the tools to pull off the win, but I think Rocky’s desire to have that one final single Championship run will see the elevation of Sneaky Style against Rush. It may not be clean, but I pick Romero to squeeze through this qualifier.