After several months without any shows, New Japan took its first steps out of lockdown and into the new normal a few weeks ago with the launch of the New Japan Cup 2020.
As in previous years, the New Japan Cup breaks down the barriers between weight classes with junior heavyweights and heavyweights competing against each other with a few Young Lions (NJPW trainees) thrown in for good measure. The Cup represents a perfect jumping on point for new fans, given the slightly reduced roster for the purposes of the tournament.
As we take a look at the best matches of the single elimination tournament ahead of the final this Wednesday 8th July, the significance of this year’s New Japan Cup is arguably greater than ever before as the winner gets a shot at Double Gold Champion Tetsuya Naito, the holder of the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles.
Toru Yano vs. Hiromu Takahashi
Probably a perfect jumping on point for NJPW newbies, given the chaos that ensued between these two. Known more recently for his comedic style, Yano is a master of his craft operating at the height of his powers. The self-styled Goodwill Ambassador for Hokkaido, Yano can always be counted on to have a plan up his sleeve (or in the waistband of his tights) and Hiromu maintains his brilliance through his distinctiveness, flair and originality.
Even Hiromu’s entrance wearing a hard hat to protect his flowing locks was gif-worthy. While Yano chasing the best junior heavyweight in the world around with a pair of hair clippers is just the kind of light relief that we need in these trying times. This match also has the greatest finish of all time with Yano being shoved in a lift so that Hiromu could win via count out. Sneaky.
Minoru Suzuki vs. Yugi Nagata
The spirit of old school Strong Style is embodied in New Japan matches like this. Heavy strikes, loads of suplexes dumping each other on their heads and all of this from two wrestlers who, I think it’s safe to say, are in the twilight years of their careers. This one also offered a shock result for many, with Nagata managing to get through to the next round. However, this could be another one of New Japan’s patented long-term booking strategies. A riled up Suzuki is a dangerous thing, after all, and certainly not to be underestimated.
Shingo Takagi vs. SHO
If the previous match presents the ideal of old school Strong Style, then this match showcases its future. With Shingo having run rampant through the junior heavyweight division since his New Japan debut (he was undefeated for a year), his transition to the heavyweight division has brought him more success in securing the NEVER Openweight and Six-man Tag Team Titles. As SHO looks to make his name against Shingo, things have played out in compelling fashion with SHO knocking Shingo out of the New Japan Cup and subsequently challenging him for his NEVER Openweight title.
This match was characterised by the raw strength and power of its participants with bully boy Shingo trying to muscle his way past SHO but to no avail.
Watching SHO in singles matches is utterly compelling, mainly because of the contrast between his intense attitude compared to his tag team career with YOH as Rappongi 3K. This isn’t to diminish Rappongi 3K in any way given their history in New Japan (they defeated the Young Bucks on coming back to the company from excursion to the US) but SHO’s singles run will be a highlight of the remainder of 2020.
SANADA vs. Evil
A rare one-on-one encounter for the two Los Ingobernables de Japon teammates, this was an absolute barnstormer. Evil has been truly living up to his name, with chair shots and low blows helping him to win his way to the final of the Cup.
Having two partners work their way through reversal after reversal and trying to use each other’s moves against them might sound a bit formulaic, but this match was different. SANADA found myriad ways of working his way into his Skull End dragon sleeper finisher and Evil’s cunning in this tournament has been unprecedented.
The unbridled lack of kinship between the two former IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions certainly throws a question mark over their future as a team and begs the question whether SANADA will be able to forgive and forget.
Given LIJ leader Naito’s hopes for greater competition within his stable, he may regret that statement come New Japan’s Dominion event on 11th July if Evil can make his way to the final and win himself a title shot.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiromu Takahashi
When the greatest heavyweight in the world faced off against the best junior heavyweight in the world the result was just what you would expect – a whole load of awesomeness. Okada is the most dominant IWGP Heavyweight Champion in history yet he still managed to make Hiromu, in the weight division below him which is a big deal in New Japan, look amazing. In fact, considering Okada trained in Mexico and Hiromu’s excursion was to CMLL, it should come as no surprise that the two would be able to build an exciting match built on a common pro wrestling philosophy. Hiromu was so close to winning that, for a moment, it seemed like the main event from the cancelled anniversary show might finally become a reality but it wasn’t to be. Maybe one day, though.
It’s fantastic to have New Japan back and this list is certainly not comprehensive. Honourable mentions should go to any of Tomohiro Ishii’s matches and to the strong showings put in by Yota Tsuji, Gabriel Kidd and Yuya Uemura in their first round matches. Not only does NJPW lend itself to empty arena shows due to its more sport-like presentation, it’s certainly helped to have a tournament to build anticipation ahead of the return of a more complete roster. With Dominion looming on 11th July, it remains to be seen whether Naito’s dominion over the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles will continue into the summer.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @goodmanstephenj. Thanks for reading!