If you watch more New Japan Pro Wrestling than just the big matches, you’ve probably seen the Young Lion system in action. Trainees at NJPW’s dojo wrestle in the opening matches of the company’s shows and working as ring crew as they spend the first few years of their career fairly under the radar. This September, however, the dojo boys will get a more of the spotlight than usual when the Young Lion Cup returns on the Destruction tour.
What Is A Young Lion?
Young Lions (aka young boys) are wrestlers who are currently training to wrestle for NJPW. They live in a dorm-style house near the dojo, where they perform household duties for themselves and their trainers. They do about a million squats a day and bulk up by eating a ton of chankonabe, the stew traditionally used by sumo wrestlers to gain weight. At New Japan shows, they set up the ring, hold the barricades between the ringside area and the audience in place, and shield the audience from brawls happening beyond the barricades. Sometimes they eat chair shots and other attacks from heels, especially those in Suzukigun and especially Minoru Suzuki.
When they wrestle, these young men wear plain black trunks, start their careers with shaved heads, and work with a restricted move-set in order for them to perfect their fundamentals and learn how to build a compelling match using the most basic of wrestling techniques. If they wrestle anyone who isn’t a trainee, they are certain to lose until they graduate the dojo. Most go on a learning excursion overseas and come back with new skills, a new or more developed character, and sometimes a new ring name. But before this really kicks off their career, they win the investment of the audience while they’re at their least flashy through their basic matches, their perseverance in the face of losing constantly, and what shines through of their personalities.
What Is The Young Lion Cup And How Does It Work?
The Young Lion Cup is an all-trainee tournament that gives them opportunities to show their skills through singles matches with other trainees. It hasn’t been a regularly occurring event, with the 2019 iteration only the twelfth New Japan Cup since the tournament was created in 1985.
The rules have varied over the years, but this year’s tournament consists of one block of eight wrestlers, competing round-robin style. They’ll earn points the same way wrestlers do in Best of the Super Juniors and the G1 Climax: two points for a win, zero for a loss or no-contest, and one for a draw. Unlike those tournaments, though, the matches will have a time limit of only fifteen minutes, and since there’s only one block, there won’t be a match set apart as the final. The wrestler with the most points at the end of tournament competition will be the winner.
A wrestler winning the Young Lion Cup is a sure sign that NJPW has big plans for his future, and most of the winners have gone on to be notable names in the company. 1986 winner Keiichi Yamada went on to become Jushin Thunder Liger and Masahiro Chono won in 1987. When the tournament returned for four consecutive years from 1993-1996, it was won by Hiroyoshi Yamamoto (now Hiroyoshi Tenzan), Satoshi Kojima, Manabu Nakanishi, and Tokimitsu Ishizawa (now Kendo Kashin.)
The first Young Lion Cup winner of this century was Kenzo Suzuki, who you might be familiar with as the man WWE gave the ring name Hirohito and an anti-America gimmick in 2004. (Suzuki has wrestled for All Japan Pro Wrestling since 2010.) The most remembered about the 2000 iteration of the tournament might be that it included the match between a young Katsuyori Shibata and Masakazu Fukuda that resulted in Fukuda’s death after an internal brain hemorrhage.