Previewing the 2019 New Japan Cup
March 7, 2019
By: Lou Pickney
Beginning in just a matter of hours is the biggest New Japan Cup tournament of all time, both in terms of participants and in the stakes: 32 wrestlers, single elimination, with the winner challenging IWGP Heavyweight Champion "Switchblade" Jay White in the main event on Supercard at Madison Square Garden in New York City on the night before WrestleMania 35.
Unlike the G1 Climax round-robin tournament, the NJ Cup is very easy to follow: 31 singles elimination matches with no time limit, including 16 first-round matchups spread out over the course of four nights.
The field wasn't seeded, and it's easier to look at it as a blind draw for a soccer tournament versus, say, the fully-seeded NCAA men's basketball postseason tournament.
If you would like to enter (for free) into the 2019 Voices of Wrestling pick 'em contest, your time is running out.
Here is my entry, which has Okada beating SANADA in the tournament final match on March 24 in Niigata. Taguchi replaced Finlay, but everything else stayed the same.
It's easier to break the tournament tree into four parts, which I will identify by the wrestler listed in the top spot of each of the four sections. The age listed for each wrestler is as of the start of the tournament on March 8, 2019.
YUJI NAGATA BRACKET
March 8 - Tokyo (Korakuen)
Yuji Nagata (50) vs. Tomohiro Ishii (43)
The main event of opening night at Korakuen Hall, Nagata vs. Ishii, should be an outstanding match. Visa issues kept them from facing off during the NJPW New Beginning USA show in Los Angeles in late January, but they've met in the past in some great encounters, and this should be a memorable matchup as well.
Nagata leads the all-time series 7-3, including wins over Ishii in the 2006 and 2007 New Japan Cup. But Ishii has won their last three matches, plus Nagata hasn't beaten Ishii since Power Struggle 2011, more than seven years ago. Also, there have been whispers about Ishii being in a key match on the MSG show, and Ishii advancing to beat Juice Robinson in the quarterfinals would potentially set up Ishii to challenge for Juice's IWGP U.S. Championship.
PREDICTED WINNER: Tomohiro Ishii
Tomoaki Honma (42) vs. Taichi (38)
Honma's recovery from a neck injury that left him paralyzed initially has been nothing short of remarkable. Unfortunately, it's that injury which makes Honma matches somewhat difficult to watch these days, especially his Kokeshi headbutts.
Taichi inherited Iizuka's Iron Finger From Hell after Iizuka left it in the ring following his retirement match, and it wouldn't surprise me if that came into play in this match.
Honma leads the all-time series with Taichi 4-0, twice in All Japan and twice in New Japan, though they haven't wrestled since September 2009.
PREDICTED WINNER: Taichi
Manabu Nakanishi (52) vs. YOSHI-HASHI (36)
With an eye injury sidelining Yujiro Takahashi from the 2019 New Japan Cup, there was a late replacement made. New Japan Pro-Wrestling didn't identify who the late substitute was, but considering that this was a likely first-round spot for Yujiro and that Nakanishi almost never works singles matches anymore, that is my suspicion.
It's tough to figure out NJPW booking sometimes (unpredictable in a good way), but presuming that they are heating up Juice Robinson for a singles match at MSG, I suspect the original plan was Yujiro winning here and then Juice beating Yujiro in the second round, with him beating Bullet Club wrestlers in back-to-back rounds.
And, if you believe that Gedo is going to keep his tournament tree as originally planned, that would strongly suggest Nakanishi will be getting the unexpected win. Perhaps YOSHI-HASHI will end up advancing, but I like Nakanishi as a surprise winner.
It's the New Japan Cup, after all, where surprises are a time-honored tradition. Plus, if YOSHI-HASHI was booked to win, they could have plugged in a young lion like Ren Narita or Yota Tsuji to do the job. And that didn't happen.
This will be the first-ever singles match between Nakanishi and YOSHI-HASHI, though they've faced off in plenty of tag team matches through the years.
PREDICTED WINNER: Manabu Nakanishi
Juice Robinson (29) vs. Chase Owens (29)
With the departure of so many North American wrestlers with the pending start of All Elite Wrestling later this year, it helps that New Japan has been developing other young foreign talents, like Juice and Chase.
Juice would seem to be a heavy favorite here with him presumably defending his IWGP United States Championship at MSG, likely against Ishii as noted above. This should be a good match though, with Chase being somewhat underrated as an in-ring talent.
A loss by Juice here would be a major upset, not impossible but highly unlikely. This will be their first-ever singles match.
PREDICTED WINNER: Juice Robinson
KAZUCHIKA OKADA BRACKET
March 9 - Aichi
Kazuchika Okada (31) vs. Michael Elgin (32)
The show order aside from opening night (Nagata/Ishii main and Juice/Chase semi-main) has not yet been released, but Okada vs. Elgin will likely be the main event. Aichi is Okada's hometown, so while Elgin is an established star who might be a dark horse pick with a better draw, an Elgin win over Okada in Aichi in round one would be an upset of monumental proportions.
This isn't WWE where wrestlers get beaten in their hometown to limit any sort of organic local reaction, after all. Moreover, Okada is the strong favorite to outright win the tournament, particularly with Kenny Omega revealing that Omega vs. Okada was the original plan for MSG before Omega and NJPW parted ways.
Okada leads the all-time series 3-0, with singles match wins over Elgin in the 2015, 2017, and 2018 G1 tournaments.
PREDICTED WINNER: Kazuchika Okada
Mikey Nicholls (33) vs. HIKULEO (28)
American fans might better know Nicholls under his WWE name of Nick Miller from his time in NXT. Nicholls reportedly wanted to be closer to family in Australia, which isn't the easiest thing to do when you're based in Orlando, Florida.
It will be interesting to see how HIKULEO fares in what will be only his second singles match; his first was in 2016 against Henare on a New Japan show in Auckland, New Zealand. He was used as a replacement for an injured Kenny Omega in mid-late 2017, and broke out of his young lion shell early last year... only to be derailed by a knee injury (ACL tear) soon thereafter.
This is an intriguing matchup, and one of the less obvious outcomes to predict in round one. The winner of this match will almost for sure face Okada and lose to him, and part of me wonders if New Japan will see if HIKULEO is capable of being carried to a good match by a top guy like Okada.
But Nicholls is arriving in his first match since leaving NXT, and New Japan tends to set up new arrivals to look good. Plus, if Nicholls can have a good match with HIKULEO and a great match with Okada, that would create some interesting possibilities for on down the line.
PREDICTED WINNER: Mikey Nicholls
Will Ospreay (25) vs. Bad Luck Fale (37)
Ospreay is the NEVER Openweight Champion, and he has been facing (and beating) wrestlers from the heavyweight side of the invisible junior heavyweight wall. And Fale is one of the largest wrestlers in the entire company.
This will likely be in the semi-main slot, so they should get some time in their first-ever singles match.
While I expect the strong push of Ospreay by New Japan to continue, if he makes it to the quarterfinals, he would likely face Okada.
In that scenario, Okada vs. Ospreay would have six days of build going into their match. But Twin Messe Shizuoka only has a capacity of about 1,500 or at most 2,000. NJPW seldom holds big matches there, and aside from one night of the 2015 G1 Climax tournament, it has been mostly "Road to..." shows with a bunch of multi-man tag matches.
That's not to say it won't happen, but it would feel like New Japan burning a main event that could possibly fill up Sumo Hall on a building that will likely sell out whether it's Ospreay, Fale, Archer, or even Henare on the other side.
You might see higher-profile quarterfinal matches on the other side of the bracket one night later, also listed as Shizuoka but roughly 50 miles away at Act City Hamamatsu, which is a larger facility.
I'm projecting Ospreay to advance here, but anticipating a surprise loss to Lance Archer in the second round. Though I could also see Fale vs. Okada for the eighth time since the start of 2015 in the Shizuoka main event.
PREDICTED WINNER: Will Ospreay
Toa Henare (25) vs. Lance Archer (42)
This is a bit of a trap spot here, as if Fale beats Ospreay, I would put Archer on upset alert, since there is a long-arc story being told between Henare and Fale. Henare passed up a chance to be on the New Zealand Olympic wrestling team to instead train with Fale.
That led to Henare going from training in the Fale Dojo to the New Japan Dojo, and now working his way up on the undercard on New Japan shows. And Henare is only 25, so his best years should be well ahead of him. This will be their first-ever singles match.
Archer's size really stands out in New Japan, particularly seeing him at a live show. Okada vs. Archer in the quarterfinals, if that were to happen, would be the first time for them to face off in a singles match since 2014.
PREDICTED WINNER: Lance Archer
HIROSHI TANAHASHI BRACKET
March 10 - Hyogo
Hiroshi Tanahashi (42) vs. Shota Umino (21)
Quite the age difference here between the Ace and Umino, the promising young lion who is the son of referee Red Shoes. This will be their first-ever singles match.
I imagine the idea is to have a quality singles match between the two while Tanahashi is still able to go at a high level. Umino is already considerably better than many established NJPW wrestlers. It probably didn't hurt that Umino grew up around the business, but he has natural talent, great athleticism, and what looks like a very bright future ahead.
Young lions don't beat regular roster wrestlers in New Japan, let alone a legend like Tanahashi. And the only way I could see that happening here would be if Umino breaks out red boots for the first time, indicating a completion of his young lion run without going on excursion.
But that would be unlikely, and after seeing Umino vs. Zack Sabre Jr., I actually would like to see Umino spend some time in RevPro learning new chain/submission wrestling moves.
PREDICTED WINNER: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Hiroyoshi Tenzan (47) vs. Ryusuke Taguchi (39, subbing for David Finlay)
It was tough timing for David Finlay, who suffered a shoulder injury on night two of Honor Rising that will keep him out of the tournament. Much like replacing Yujiro was likely tricky since I suspect his replacement will likewise win in round one, I also think Finlay was slotted to win over Tenzan.
Changing the booking to a victory for Tenzan would necessitate two Tenzan singles matches in the span of a few days, and Tenzan doesn't work many singles matches anymore. Plus, you would think the winner will be doing the bulk of the bumping against Tanahashi, and Tenzan is so physically wrecked at this point that he can't be expected to do that.
Ultimately, the decision was made to add Ryusuke Taguchi. There is an amusing line of thought that Taguchi will aim to win the tournament and beat Switchblade to become the 69th IWGP Heavyweight Champion, similar to how he was the 69th IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion.
But, more likely, Taguchi was deemed worthy of beating a well-decorated ring veteran in Tenzan and able to have a good match with Tanahashi in round two, and thus he was plugged in ahead of a young lion.
This will be the first-ever singles match between Tenzan and Taguchi.
PREDICTED WINNER: Ryusuke Taguchi
Kota Ibushi (36) vs. Tetsuya Naito (36)
This is the most highly-anticipated matchup of round one, and it will almost certainly be the main event. These are two of the top stars in the company, and they've had some absolute classics over the past few years.
Ibushi leads the series 3-2, and I suspect that will become 4-2 Ibushi, with Naito then freed up to build toward an IWGP Intercontinental Championship match at MSG, at least if such a match is planned. The star ratings are from Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
8/2/2013: ****1/4 (Tokyo Korakuen, 2013 G1) Ibushi wins in 13:16
3/15/2015: ****1/2 (Hiroshima, 2015 New Japan Cup semi) Ibushi wins in 14:14 (and Ibushi went on to have a ****1/4 win over Goto later that night)
8/5/2015: Unrated, WON: "Great main event" (Iwate, 2015 G1) Naito wins in 17:18 in the main event
7/17/2017: ****3/4 (Sapporo, 2017 G1) Naito wins in 24:41 in the main event (memorable match where Don Callis lost his voice and Kevin Kelly had a great solo call)
8/4/2018: ****3/4 (Osaka, 2018 G1) Ibushi wins in 25:09 in the main event
PREDICTED WINNER: Kota Ibushi
EVIL (32) vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (31)
This is a return match of sorts between EVIL and Sabre, with EVIL having beaten Sabre last month at New Beginning in Sapporo in a **** match, their lone previous singles encounter.
This should be good, though I fully anticipate Sabre not only winning, but making it all the way to the semifinals. Whichever wrestler survives to the quarterfinals out of Ibushi, Naito, EVIL, and Sabre will have earned it, to be sure. Definitely adds to the "random soccer tournament draw" feel of this year's New Japan Cup.
PREDICTED WINNER: Zack Sabre Jr.
TOGI MAKABE BRACKET
March 11 - Kagawa
Togi Makabe (46) vs. Colt Cabana (38)
It's my suspicion that Colt Cabana was a late replacement for Trent Beretta, who departed NJPW along with Chuck Taylor last month to work for AEW. It's also known that Beretta was in line to get a pretty strong push had he stayed.
Makabe could very well win this, but I have a feeling Cabana is going to get the victory, possibly en route to a berth in the quarterfinals.
PREDICTED WINNER: Colt Cabana
Toru Yano (40) vs. Davey Boy Smith Jr. (33)
Yano leads the all-time series 2-0, with wins over Smith in 2005 and in the first round of last year's NJ Cup. YTR seems to revel in outsmarting/infuriating members of Suzuki-gun. Last year Yano's win over Smith came via countout.
I'm going with Yano, though my confidence level on that projection is relatively low.
PREDICTED WINNER: Toru Yano
Satoshi Kojima (48) vs. Minoru Suzuki (50)
It's really something that both Kojima and Minoru can go at such a high level considering their respective ages. But, since the 2017 G1, Kojima's single matches have become more scarce. Minoru winning seems likely, and if that happens it will be Minoru vs. the Goto/SANADA winner in round two, which sounds like a good match either way.
Minoru leads the all-time series 5-4, including five matches that took place in All Japan Pro-Wrestling. Most recently, Minoru was victorious over Kojima in a 2017 G1 match.
It's possible that Kojima will pull off the upset, but the odds seems somewhat long for him on that, at least in my estimation.
PREDICTED WINNER: Minoru Suzuki
Hirooki Goto (39) vs. SANADA (31)
Goto pinned SANADA in a tag match at the New Japan 47th Anniversary show. And Goto also has a great track record in New Japan Cup tournaments, including three Cup wins in a four-year span (2009, 2010, and 2012).
SANADA is my pick to make the finals against Okada, and that starts here against Goto. This could end up being the main event of the Kagawa show and could be quite good.
The all-time series is tied 1-1, with SANADA beating Goto in the 2016 G1 and Goto beating SANADA in the 2018 G1.
PREDICTED WINNER: SANADA
See any mistakes, omissions, or needed corrections? Please let me know: @LouPickney