New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) is back after a 110-day absence, diving right into the 2020 New Japan Cup.
The 32-man single elimination tournament was originally scheduled for March, however, NJPW was forced to go on hiatus due to COVID-19. One winner will be crowned, earning the right to face IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito at Dominion.
This year’s tournament features an interesting twist.
Historically the New Japan Cup tournament has been for heavyweight wrestlers only. However, due to the circumstances, this year's tournament features a blend of heavyweight and junior heavyweight wrestlers as well as NJPW's trainees called Young Lions.
It’s entirely possible a junior heavyweight could challenge for the top heavyweight belts at New Japan’s Dominion show July 12.
The first round of this year’s New Japan Cup featured hard hitting strong style action, dominant victories and surprising upsets. These are five matches you should check out.
5: Night three: Zack Sabre Jr vs Kota Ibushi
This was neither man’s best match nor their best match against each other but it's still worth checking out.
Zack Sabre Jr. and Kota Ibushi are two of the top talents in New Japan. However, something about this match felt off. Perhaps it was because they had to follow what is regarded as the best match of the tournament to date or because the main event was planned to run long.
What you’ll see in this match is Sabre Jr’s ability to bend limbs in directions you never imagined. He fights with a submission based style and has a hold for everything.
This is quite a contrast to Ibushi, a former kickboxer, who fights with hard kicks, stiff strikes and always at one hundred miles an hour. Ibushi is often regarded as being indestructible and having no regard for his own body.
Yet this match may have been one of Ibushi’s most tame ever. He spent the majority of the match counter grappling but was able to deliver a few kicks when needed.
There was nothing pretty about this match, but it isn’t bad by any means. If you appreciate technical wrestling and counter based maneuvers you’ll like this one.
It isn’t the fast paced style we usually see Ibushi work and he adapted nicely to the circumstances. Seeing Ibushi slow things down for a modest crowd of zero people was stress relieving and there’s plenty of more time for him to destroy his body.
The finish of the match came just past the 15 minute mark. Ibushi delivered his Kamigoye knee strike and pinned Sabre Jr. for the win.
4: Night three: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Taichi
Over the past year, Taichi has been built up as a serious singles contender. The Suzuki-un member has floated around the NEVER and IWGP Intercontinental Championship scenes, but the New Japan Cup 2020 may be his path to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Tanahashi on the other hand continues to shine as the “ace” of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. At 43-years-old he still has a lot left in the tank.
This match started in typical Taichi fashion with a cheap shot. Before the bell even rang Taichi was on the offensive. Since the match hadn’t officially started, Taichi was able to inflict all sorts of punishment on Tanahashi outside the ring with weapons.
It appeared as though Taichi was going to walk away with a cheap upset victory, yet Tanahashi managed to roll into the ring. Even as Tanahashi was attended to by the referee and two Young Lions, the assault continued.
Tanahashi rose to his feet and the bell sounded. Taichi was ready and hit the ace with one of his trademark high kicks, sending him to the floor.
Another member of Suzuki Gun, DOUKI, came to the ring shortly after and attacked Tanashi with a pipe.
Still the ace refused to go down and it was here when he would begin to make a charge. Tanahashi was able to hit a flying forearm and a top rope senton which nearly ended the match.
Tanahashi managed to hit his signature High Fly Flow from the top rope on to a standing Taichi even though move is usually delivered to a sprawled out opponent. The Suzuki-gun henchman was able to halt his opponent's momentum at every turn.
DOUKI continued to make his presence felt on the outside, jumping on the apron to distract Tanahashi. However, the ace had seen enough and knocked DOUKI off the ring, blocking a low blow from Taichi too.
As the match neared its finish Taichi teased his finisher Black Mephisto. Tanahashi was able to counter with a few forearm shots, a staple in his offence.
Yet, much like earlier in the match, Tanahashi had his momentum brought to a crashing halt. Taichi was able to counter a whip attempt and turn it into a backdrop.
Taichi was now in firm control of the match hitting a jumping high kick and an axe bomber. Next, he emphatically removed his tearaway pants, revealing a pair of black trunks with a gold trim.
Historically speaking, whenever Taichi rips off the pants, the end is nigh and this occasion was no different. Taichi delivered a superkick to his opponent and capped off the main event by hitting Black Mephisto the win.
Just like that Taichi had scored his first career singles victory over Hiroshi Tanahashi, an extremely impressive accomplishment. It may have come with cheap tactics, but Taichi’s clean pinfall victory over the ace of New Japan can not be understated.
Some have Taichi going all the way in New Japan Cup 2020. If one thing is for sure, it’s that by pinning one half of the IWGP Heavyweight Tag-Team Champions Taichi and another member of Suzuki Gun are one step closer to the gold.
3: Night one: Tomohiro Ishii vs El Desperado
New Japan Cup day one needed to have a memorable main event--Ishii and El Desperado delivered. The clash between heavyweight and junior heavyweight stars was phenomenal.
Something everyone should know about Tomohiro Ishii, is he’s a heavyweight with junior heavyweight speed. Ishii usually hovers around 220lbs but the 110-day break did him wonders as he looked better than ever.
The 20-minute match had great pacing. A show of poor sportsmanship occurred in the beginning of the match when Desperado taunted Ishii, the shorter of the two fighters, by patting him on the head.
El Desperado’s mind games fueled Ishii with rage, but the “Stone Pitbull” wouldn’t fall victim to his opponents' tricks for long. Ishii used a combo of thunderous chops, punches and grapple maneuvers to weaken his opponent.
The story in this match revolved around Ishii’s leg, which El Desperado targeted nearly the entire match. Limb targeting is something simple, yet so effective in terms of pro-wrestling storytelling.
At one point, Ishii’s leg had become so damaged he couldn’t get his opponent up for a signature powerbomb. In reality this was likely a botched move however, the previous attacks on his leg made it seem as though this was part of the match.
Don’t get it twisted, El Desperado is a conniving villain just like his Suzuki-gun stablemates. With the referee distracted, Desperado removed the ring padding from the corner, goading Ishii into hitting his head into the exposed turnbuckle.
In a last ditch effort to win the match, El Desperado pinned his opponent, grabbing his tights for extra leverage. Ishii kicked out, but would soon find himself having to outlast a blue thunder bomb, an elbow to the face and a superkick.
Just as it looked as though Tomohiro Ishii was going to be upset in the first round, he put the stone in “Stone Pitbull,” delivering a vicious headbutt to El Desperado. As the match reached its climax, Ishii would soon get a dazed Desperado up for a brain buster to seal a victory.
This match was amazing from bel to bell. It had everything from excellent pacing, false finishes and hard hitting action to great storytelling. If this match featured on a one-off card, it would probably be the best match of the “pandemic era” of wrestling. However, the match quality only went up from here.
2: Night two: Minoru Suzuki vs Yuji Nagata
Yuji Nagata and Minoru Suzuki are two wrestlers on opposite sides of 50. While both 52-years-old, their careers are headed in different directions.
A two-time New Japan Cup winner, Nagata is entering the twilight of his career. While he doesn’t move the way he used to, “Blue Justice” can still pull out a great match when it matters most.
Suzuki, the leader of the Suzuki Gun faction, is still on top of his game even in his early 50s. He’s regarded as one of the most terrifying men in New Japan and no Young Lion is safe when he’s around.
So, what happens when two 52-year-old legends of the trade meet in the ring? Magic--who would’ve thought.
The story of this match is fairly simple, but in wrestling less is always more. Suzuki spends most of the match brutalizing Nagata, who won’t back down.
If you’ve ever wondered what Strong Style is, this match should answer your question. The pair not only traded a plethora of forearms in a show of strength, but also opened handed slaps.
Suzuki clearly came out the winner of the slap-off, drawing blood from his opponent but this only made Nagata more determined.
Minoru Suzuki will do whatever it takes to win, even if it takes cheap tactics. While Nagata was down outside the ring he grabbed a chair.
The referee was quick to confiscate the illegal item, but Suzuki knocked him over in a chaotic sequence of events. Luckily for Suzuki, there were more chairs to be found and with the referee down he picked up another and swung it into Nagata’s right arm.
Things only got worse for Nagata, who had his left arm driven into the metal barricade. There was no way he could get back into the ring.
Thus, the referee began his count and just before he hit 20, a battered Nagata willed himself into the ring.
The man they call “Blue Justice” was beaten, but not without fighting spirit. Pulling himself to his feet, the two once again exchanged strikes.
Suzuki brought his opponent to the ground and went for a running kick to the chest. However, Nagata blocked it and delivered some offence of his own.
As the match reached its end, Nagata had found new life. Even after absorbing two dangerous looking headbutts from his opponent and outlasting the sleeper hold, Nagata was still in it.
He managed to hit an exploder on Suzuki, who got up and tried to cinch in a submission. Nagata instead hit a suplex and used his weight to cover Suzuki for the pin and win.
A brutal match between two foes had come to an end and the world was buzzing. While this one wasn’t pretty, it was a beautiful slugfest.
Dave Meltzer, a respected wrestling journalist rated it 4.5/5 stars in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Go out of your way to watch this one, matches between two 50+ year olds rarely deliver but this one definitely did.
1. Night three: Shingo Takagi vs SHO
In 2019, Shingo Takagi and SHO faced off in Best of the Super Juniors 26. Shingo was steamrolling through the junior heavyweight division while SHO was getting his first shot at juniors singles action.
One year later, the two have met again and a rivalry has bloomed before our eyes. SHO, along with his tag-team partner YOH continue to dominate the junior tag-team division, of which they are currently champions.
Shingo on the other hand, has moved up to the heavyweight division. He is currently the reigning NEVER Openweight title holder and is one third of the NEVER 6-Man champions.
These two came out firing on all cylinders. From the opening bell to the end of the match, not a second was wasted.
SHO scored the first takedown, dropping Shingo to his feet early. However, the young junior heavyweight’s confidence cost him as his kick attempt was caught.
A lariat from Shingo was well scouted by SHO, who often blocked the attempts with a lariat of their own. These two had each other well scouted leading to an abundance of counters, blocks and both men hitting the same move at the same time.
The biggest difference in their meeting this year was Shingo’s added weight. For every three attacks SHO hit, it only took one move for the NEVER Openweight Champion to take him down.
Absorbing the punishment from Shingo only fueled SHO’s hunger for victory. He was able to absorb a side-suplex, kip-up and deliver back-to-back waist lock suplexes, with his opponent scurrying into the ropes to avoid a third.
Shingo followed this up by using misdirection to cut off the ring. He used his momentum to hit the ropes and charge forward for pumping bomber, his signature running lariat.
As Shingo picked up SHO’s lifeless body and hit a noshigami, this match looked over. However, SHO valiantly kicked out with just a second to spare.
Very rarely does anyone kick out of the pumping bomber, but on this day SHO kicked out of it twice.
With very little offence left in his arsenal, you could sense the desperation building inside the mind of Shingo Takagai. If his signature move couldn’t put SHO away, he’d need something better.
Shortly after, the two men found themselves perched at the top rope. Just as it looked like Shingo was going to superplex his opponent off the top rope, SHO countered, reversed the momentum into a top rope powerbomb and drove his knees into Shingo’s back.
For the first time in the match SHO was in the driver's seat, eyeing a massive upset. Yet, just as SHO called for Shock Arrow, his finishing move, Shingo put the brakes on his attack delivering a sickening headbutt and Made in Japan.
There was only one thing left for Shingo to do, and that’s hit his finishing maneuver, Last of the Dragon and advance in the tournament.
Just as Shingo went for his finish, SHO blocked it and cinched in a kimura. Shingo tried to roll through but found himself on the receiving end of a piledriver.
An exuberant look came across SHO’s face as he couldn’t believe what was happening. As the fire in his eyes grew, SHO delivered a Shock Arrow to his opponent and covered him for the pin and upset victory.
Not only did SHO score one of the biggest upsets of the year, but he also pinned the NEVER Openweight Champion. The next time these two meet, the stakes will be higher with a championship on the line.
The first round of the New Japan Cup 2020 has come to an end. NJPW delivered in its return to action, producing some of the best wrestling of the “quarantine era”
Not every match was perfect, but these five stood out amongst the rest. Now as our focus shifts to round two, the match quality is expected to go up.
Stay tuned to The Intermission Sports for move coverage throughout New Japan Cup 2020.