This week’s NJPW Strong sees the final round of qualifiers for the New Japan Cup USA 2021 tournament. I’ve written a few previews looking at the competitors looking to get into April’s tournament and win a shot at the IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion, Jon Moxley. Those of you following my predictions in these previews will hopefully share my delight at getting two clean sweeps after a poor start. This week is a bit tougher, especially with the main event tag team match. So, let’s see whether I can keep up my successful streak as we look forward to NJPW Strong: Strong Style Evolved 2021 night 2.
New Japan Cup USA 2021 Qualifying Match:
Connors and TJP are no strangers to each other in NJPW. They first met in the ring during the first round of the 2019 Super J Cup, with Connors on the losing side. Following that, the two teamed in the 2019 Super Junior Tag League, with their only victory coming in the final match against Tiger Mask and Yuya Uemura. Recently, they were partners in eight-man tag team action at New Beginning in USA night 2.
The most recent graduate of the L.A. Dojo, Clark Connors, heads into Friday’s match looking to get back on track after three successive defeats. Connors was involved in two match-of-the-year nominations in 2020, but 2021 hasn’t been as kind so far. Connors does have tournament experience on NJPW Strong, winning Lion’s Break Crown in October, dispatching Jordan Clearwater, Logan Riegel, and Danny Limelight in the final (one of the MOTY nominees) to lift the trophy. He, unfortunately, didn’t fare so well in the Super J-Cup 2020, being eliminated in the first round by Chris Bey. With his graduation from Young Lion, Connors will be looking to use the New Japan Cup USA to kick start his year and earn himself what many would see as a deserved title opportunity.
TJP is also a graduate of the L.A. Dojo, albeit from an earlier version of the famous wrestling school, so will have a strong idea of what Connors brings to the table. Like his opponent, TJP enters this match off the back of three defeats after starting 2021 with a pair of victories. In another interesting parallel, TJP also exited the 2020 Super J-Cup in the first round (at the hands of ACH). TJP has a lot more experience in NJPW than Connors, having debuted back in 2002. He has appeared in the Young Lion Cup (2004), Best of Super Juniors (2011), and twice in the Super J-Cup (2019 and 2020). The furthest he has progressed was the 2019 Super J-Cup – where he beat Connors in the first round but was eliminated in the quarter-final by El Phantasmo. TJP will want to get back into winning ways and change his fortunes in NJPW tournaments.
Both men are evenly matched in style, but TJP’s experience and innovative technical wrestling will make him a firm favourite. That said, Connors’ fire and intensity in recent weeks will be backed up by his desire to prove that his graduation is deserved, and he will want to prove his progression from Lion’s Break Crown to New Japan Cup USA. This will be close, but I can see TJP’s submissions proving too much for Connors.
New Japan Cup USA 2021 Qualifying Match:
Blake Christian has reached the semi-final of both NJPW tournaments he has entered. He beat Adrian Quest in Lion’s Break Crown first round, only to be defeated by Danny Limelight in the semi-final. In the Super J-Cup 2020, he was defeated by El Phantasmo, after getting past Rey Horus in the first round. Christian has had a quiet 2021 so far in NJPW strong, with only one appearance – teaming with Fred Rosser and ACH in defeat at the hands of Bullet Club. That’s not to say he’s been out of action, with regular appearances in other companies. With the news of his recent signing to NXT, Blake has the unique potential to take another major company’s trophy with him to WWE.
The man standing in front of him, Chris Dickinson, will see that prospect as an insult to NJPW and will do everything he can to stop him. The Dirty Daddy is still new to NJPW Strong and will want to put his last match – defeat at the hands of Ren Narita – behind him. Aiming to be the second member of Team Filthy to qualify (after Tom Lawlor), Dickinson will also hope to get his hands on Narita again in the tournament after the former Young Lion qualified last week. Chris has made no attempts to hide how much it means for him to be in NJPW, and he will be wanting to cement his place in the company with a run to a title shot.
While this won’t be one-sided, I can’t see anything other than Dickinson walking out victorious. Blake will want to leave NJoA on a high, but Dickinson will not want to allow even the slightest chance of an NJPW trophy leaving the company. He will also be looking to build Team Filthy’s momentum ahead of the main event.
This week’s main event is an interesting tag team match pitting Team Filthy against an unlikely pairing of David Finlay and Karl Fredericks.
2020’s New Japan Cup USA runner-up Finlay returns to NJPW Strong for the first time in 2021 after a gruelling showing at the New Japan Cup, where he defeated Chase Owens, YOSHI-HASHI, and Jay White before falling at the hands of eventual winner Will Ospreay. The ankle injury sustained in the semi-final loss caused some issues in the final event of the New Japan Cup tour and was a factor in the defeat suffered by Finlay, Juice Robinson, and Toa Henare at the hands of Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, SANADA and Tatsuya Naito). He, and his partner, will be hoping it has healed enough to not be a factor in this match – especially considering Lawlor’s submission expertise.
Karl Fredericks will also be wanting to keep his recent injury out of the reach of Lawlor, having been out a few months with a damaged shoulder. The Alpha Wolf made his return three weeks ago and was victorious in tag team action alongside Alex Coughlin (over Clark Connors and Kevin Knight). Fredericks missed out on the chance to enter a qualifier for the New Japan Cup USA tournament due to his injury, so will want to use this match to show the tournament field what he’s capable of, and build momentum to enter a future title picture.
The leader of Team Filthy, Tom Lawlor, will enter Friday’s match full of confidence having qualified for the New Japan Cup USA with victory over The DKC. Lawlor has only tasted defeat in NJPW once, in tag action alongside JR Kratos against Fred Rosser and PJ Black, and will want to avoid feeling that again. This is the first time in the ring against either Fredericks or Finlay, and he will be feeling confident that his martial arts background will give him the tools he needs to take advantage of the recent injuries. Lawlor will have the added edge of wanting to show how dangerous he is to the rest of the New Japan Cup USA field ahead of the brackets being announced.
Danny Limelight hasn’t lost in tag team action on NJPW Strong since August and will want to carry that record through Strong Style Evolved. Victorious last time out alongside Chris Dickinson (against Ren Narita and TJP), Limelight’s agility and speed are a fantastic compliment to Lawlor’s technical approach. This is the first time they’ve teamed in a straight-up tag match, but they will have had plenty of time to strategise and develop a plan. Part of this will surely involve Limelight’s pinpoint precision – both with strikes and high-flying assaults – to target the injuries of his opponents.
While the pairing of Finlay and Fredericks is an odd one – especially given the momentum of FinJuice in gaining the Impact Wrestling Tag Team Championships and appearing with them in Japan – I don’t expect them to have any issues with cohesion in the ring. Fredericks is highly adaptable and will have studied his partner well. Strangely, Fredericks and Finlay have the tag team experience edge – just. They have teamed twice in 10- and 12-man elimination tag matches against Bullet Club, whereas Lawlor and Limelight have only teamed once – in 8-man tag action.
This will boil down to how bad Karl’s shoulder and David’s ankle really are. Team Filthy will put both to the test, and – along with Chris Dickinson in his qualifier – I can see Team Filthy standing tall at the end of the episode.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling STRONG –Strong Style Evolved airs on Friday, March 26, 2021 (10 pm ET, 9 pm CT, 7 pm PT in America) / Saturday, March 27, 2021 (3 am GMT in the UK / 12 noon JST in Japan), available on New Japan World and Fite.TV.