This year’s New Japan Cup was unique in multiple ways. It was the biggest version of the tournament New Japan Pro Wrestling had ever attempted, with a field of thirty-two wrestlers instead of the usual sixteen. Additionally, the man to fight his way through this most difficult version of the Cup would be granted his IWGP Heavyweight Championship match in the main event of the ROH/NJPW G1 Supercard show at Madison Square Garden, the first event run by either company at the historic venue, against current title-holder Jay White.
The tournament boiled down to Kazuchika Okada and Sanada on March 24 in Niigata. Recently one half of the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, Sanada was a dark horse pick to win his bracket but managed to defeat Hirooki Goto, Minoru Suzuki, Colt Cabana, and Hiroshi Tanahashi to make it to the final. Okada, the most obvious pick to win his bracket, defeated Michael Elgin, Mikey Nicholls (fka NXT’s Nick Miller), Will Ospreay, and Tomohiro Ishii.
Okada defeated Sanada in a hard-fought match just over thirty-three minutes long by pinning him after a Rainmaker. This was the second New Japan Cup win of his career – Okada previously won the 2013 tournament and went on to defeat Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the second time.
After his victory, Okada got on the mic and made a speech praising NJPW and his opponent, even complimenting Sanada and saying he’d wrestle him again after MSG. Jay White, with manager Gedo by his side, then entered the venue to loud boos from the crowd.
After a brief promo in which Gedo told Okada he’d “go to hell” at MSG, White made a lengthy speech in English that he restarted multiple times to wait for the crowd to stop booing. The IWGP Heavyweight Champion even received a rare heckling at an NJPW show when a man yelled for a translation of White’s promo as it turned into more of a rant.
White’s promo included:
“I bet you never thought that this would happen. The two of us in the ring, but it’s me as the champion and you as the sorry soul trying to prove that he’s worthy of a shot at me and this belt. But let me reassure you, this is very real. Me as the champion is very real. This is reality. This is your reality. This is the reality that everybody lives in now.
But congratulations, you have won the New Japan Cup and with that, you have won the privilege to once again step in the ring with me, but this time it’ll be at Madison Square Garden, New York City. And you have fought hard for this and I’m sure you’ll fight hard in New York, but it’s too bad that your efforts will be for nothing because you can’t beat me. You have never beaten me and you never will, especially not for that belt. I am better than you and you know it.”
White brought up again that this would be his third win in a row (out of three singles matches) against his arch-rival and that he vowed to retain his title at MSG before ending the promo with his catchphrase.
Okada’s response was much briefer. He cut on the mic and said, “I don’t understand what you said,” and after cheers from the audience, added, “I’m going to say one thing. I’m on another level to you!”
After posing with the New Japan Cup trophy amidst blue confetti, Okada walked up to 2017 tournament winner Katsuyori Shibata, who had been sitting in on commentary for the main event. Shibata applauded him and shook his hand. Backstage, a reporter’s question regarding Okada being Shibata’s last opponent of his career (in The Wrestler’s title shot earned by his New Japan Cup win) caused the already-emotional Rainmaker to start crying.
Okada’s road back to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship picture has been a long one. After losing the title to Kenny Omega at Dominion 2018, he had an identity crisis, just barely fell short of the G1 Climax 28 final later that summer, failed to defeat Tanahashi for his Tokyo Dome main event contract that fall, and lost a non-title grudge match against White at Wrestle Kingdom 13 in January 2019.
But defeating Bad Luck Fale at the New Beginning in Osaka in February finally started on a winning streak of singles matches that carried through the New Japan Cup. On April 6, we’ll see if he can keep it going with the win over Jay White that has eluded him thus far and along with it, a fifth win of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.