New Japan Pro Wrestling announced the first-round matchups for the annual New Japan Cup, which includes wrestlers making in-ring returns from injury, the unexpected participation of a performer recently released from WWE NXT, and at least one match people might have predicted as the tournament final.
But First, What Is The New Japan Cup?
NJPW has held the New Japan Cup in the spring once a year since 2005. It’s always been a single elimination tournament, but the winner’s prize has changed over the years. At first, the winner got an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match, like the G1, but starting in 2014 could instead use his win to challenge for the Intercontinental Championship, and starting in 2015 had the choice of the NEVER Openweight Championship as well. These matches have taken place on a variety of big shows, including Wrestling Dontaku, Invasion Attack, and, in 2017-8, Sakura Genesis. This year, the New Japan Cup winner will face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion (currently Jay White) at the ROH/NJPW G1 Supercard event at Madison Square Garden on April 6.
Something else that makes this year’s tournament a little different is that it features a whopping thirty-two competitors, while previous iterations have included between fourteen and sixteen. Their matches will take place over the course of twelve shows between March 8-24, with four tourney bouts on each of the first four shows and two on each of the rest until the final.
What’s Happening In The First Round?
As pointed out in this handy translated graphic from the Super J-Cast, each of the first four New Japan Cup shows features one full first round of bracket competition.
The first night kicks off with Manabu Nakanishi vs. Yoshi-Hashi, followed by Tomoaki Honma vs. Taichi – who previously feuded leading to a tag match on the most recent TakaTaichi show, and IWGP United States Champion Juice Robinson vs. Chase Owens. Especially since Yuji Nagata and Tomohiro Ishii recently rekindled their feud sparked a New Year’s Dash, it’s safe to say their match will be the most hyped of the night.
The second night opens with Hikuleo making his in-ring return and New Japan Cup debut against Mikey Nicholls, fka Nick Miller of The Mighty, who was released from WWE in December 2018. Nicholls briefly worked in NJPW in 2014-5, along with Shane Haste (now Shane Thorne) and Naomichi Marufuji, as part of an inter-promotional storyline with Pro Wrestling NOAH leading up to Wrestle Kingdom 9. He’s back in New Japan now minus TMDK or his NOAH buddies, but, according to Rocky Romero in the tweet above, is already part of the Chaos stable.
The March 9 show also includes Kazuchika Okada vs. Michael Elgin in Elgin’s return to the NJPW ring after an injury kicked him off the Wrestle Kingdom 13 card and Killer Elite Squad’s Lance Archer vs. Toa Henare in the latter’s New Japan Cup debut. Additionally, NEVER Openweight Champion Will Ospreay, coming off a special singles match against fellow-champ White on March 6’s Anniversary Show, will face Bad Luck Fale in a bout that could signal Ospreay’s moving up to heavyweight but also could be connected to the new-ish element of his gimmick where he’s trying to be a true openweight wrestler and compete for both weight classes and wrestle everyone possible.
March 10 includes Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. David Finlay. Finlay dislocated his shoulder this past weekend in the main event of the second Honor Rising show, but apparently, the injury was not severe enough for him to be immediately pulled from the tournament. Hiroshi Tanahashi will face NJPW dojo trainee Shota Umino on the same show, and Evil and last year’s New Japan Cup winner, Zack Sabre Jr., will again face off for the next chapter of their heated rivalry.
The most surprising match on this show is Tetsuya Naito vs. Kota Ibushi, a pairing that fans might have expected to see as the tournament final. This tournament has loomed large in both men’s current angles. Naito recently cut promos about petitioning the company to let him participate in the Cup despite being the current IWGP Intercontinental Champion and about how his goal is to become the first man to hold the IC and Heavyweight titles. In Ibushi’s return-from-injury speech, he mentioned that his return to the ring would be at the New Japan Cup and that and his star power immediately made him one of the favorites to win the whole thing. Ibushi and Naito are two of NJPW’s most popular wrestlers and two a lot fans have wanted to see win the Heavyweight Championship for a while. Basically, this match should both rule and stress people out!
The tournament’s fourth night closes out the first round with Togi Makabe vs. Colt Cabana – who made his well-received NJPW debut during Honor Rising, Hirooki Goto vs. Sanada, old rivals Satoshi Kojima vs. Minoru Suzuki, and Toru Yano vs. Davey Boy Smith Jr., a rematch from the first round of last year’s New Japan Cup.
What do you think of these brackets and the new tournament format? Do you think you know who will end up facing White at MSG? Let us know in the comments!