NJPW New Japan Cup 2021 Review: Shades of Stacy Keibler

The 2021 New Japan Cup took place over more than two weeks, with 30 men fighting over fourteen shows for the right to be Kota Ibushi’s first challenger for the new IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. In the end, it all got overshadowed by a guy RKO-ing his girlfriend and the continuous scandals that NJPW hasn’t been able to shake since June of last year, but there were entertaining matches and moments along the way.

This review covers a lot of material, so let’s start with a road map. We’re going to look back at the whole tournament, starting with the overall booking, followed by appreciation for the Cup’s standout matches, and concluding with a breakdown of its incredibly stupid epilogue. First, let’s talk brackets.

Behold (NJPW)

Brackets and booking

Since NJPW dramatically expanded the size of the New Japan Cup a few years ago, there’s been a quantity vs. quality issue. Some first-round matchups that might not have happened in a 16-man lineup have been amazing, like Umino vs. Tanahashi, but it’s also added more forgettable matches that feel like filler – this year’s Nagata vs. Tsuji and Suzuki vs. Honma, for example, and David Finlay vs. Yoshi-Hashi happening in the second round when that pairing feels very first round. But a bigger issue for the brackets and the progression of the tournament this year was predictability.

Unless NJPW had ended up doing something really surprising, each bracket didn’t have a credible tournament winner. The top left section had last year’s winner, Evil, but his recent booking didn’t make it seem like he could win, especially when his most likely semifinal opponent was Shingo Takagi, the most credible winner by far of the bottom left. New Japan did shake things up on the right side, with David Finlay getting a surprise win over Jay White to become the unexpected semifinalist from the bottom right – but there was no way he was going to beat Will Ospreay in the final four, the rising villain without a big statement win to his name since he became a faction leader.

High match quality and drama between opponents can do a lot to make up for predictability, but those qualities also weren’t present in every bracket. The top left peaked seriously with Tetsuya Naito vs. Great-O-Khan on the Anniversary Show and its highlights after that were Toru Yano matches. The bottom left, in contrast, delivered a lot more consistently, giving us Hirooki Goto vs. Taichi, Kenta vs. Minoru Suzuki, and Shingo Takagi’s MVP tournament run, with interpersonal rivalries throughout adding flavor. The bottom right was carried more by rivalries than in-ring work, with the bracket’s drama coming from revisiting Jay White’s feuds with Hiroshi Tanahashi and David Finlay, the latter delivering the biggest surprise of the tournament.

That brings us to the top right, the home of Will Ospreay, the guy who seemed to be by far the most likely person to win this tournament once they booked Okada vs. Shingo in the first round. (I’ll mention, for more casual fans or curious readers who don’t watch New Japan, Ospreay’s win seemed almost inevitable because of New Japan’s tendency to have guys trade singles match wins. Okada beat Shingo in the 2020 G1, so Shingo seemed due for that win, and Shingo beat Ospreay in the G1 after Ospreay beat him in the 2019 Best of the Super Juniors final, so Ospreay was due for that one. This is on top of the whole rising villain, new faction leader, no big statement win thing.)

This predictability wouldn’t have been so bad—the first Takagi vs. Ospreay was a fan-favorite and the concept of rivals who met in a tournament final two years ago on a collision course for a different tournament final is pretty cool—except that the Ospreay situation, a subsection of NJPW fully ignoring Speaking Out allegations against its talent, has been a dark cloud overshadowing the company for months. The bad will towards NJPW for its silence grew recently when they reportedly tried to work with Marty Scurll. This obviously doesn’t bum out everybody and is only an issue for part of their international fan-base, but it’s a sizeable part. People who have dealt with sexual assault as an issue in their lives are probably going to hate somebody who talked like Ospreay did about a rape victim for years, at least, (that’s not cancel culture; it’s a survival instinct and self-respect) and plenty of others are also fed up with this dude as a public figure and turned off by the ongoing issues within NJPW and British wrestling that Ospreay, to a certain extent, represents. This does not lend itself to this guy’s elevation to world title challenger status being fun to follow!

Some Ospreay matches in this tournament got hyped up as match-of-the-year candidates, but also a bunch of people either skipped those matches, pirated the tournament, or have been checking out of New Japan because of Speaking Out-related issues and general disinterest. So depending on your perspective, the top right section of the bracket was either a source of exciting matches or a source of frustration. (If it’s somehow both, I do not understand how it even possible or seems worthwhile to turn off the part of your brain that’s concerned about these issues in order to watch flips, but we’ll get back to this later.) As you know if you’ve read this column before, I’m way too deeply in my frustration to try to grind out Ospreay match reviews anymore, so he’s not going to be featured in my list of standout tournament matches! We’ll return to our tournament winner and his decision-making at the end of the article, but for now, let’s get to the good stuff.

The standout matches of the 2021 New Japan Cup (aside from Naito vs. O-Khan from the Anniversary Event)

Hirooki Goto vs. Taichi, first round, 3/5/21

Taichi and Goto, who both came into the NJC from the losing side of tag title feuds, fought for the NEVER title a few years ago and have faced off in the G1 since. We know what to expect from them at this point, and that they’ll probably deliver one-on-one—which they do in the main event of the first night of the New Japan Cup tour. The match is hard-hitting with a real sense of struggle and competition throughout, and a back-and-forth that keeps the crowd hot and hooked. The highlight for me is the sequence of Taichi and Goto angrily trying to out-lariat each other that’s more fun than most sequences of this kind.

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Shingo Takagi vs. Kazuchika Okada, first round, 3/6/21

This clash of tournament favorites was a step up from their strong G1 match last year, and an exciting and rare appearance of the true Big Match Okada. The intensity is high and neither man seems like they’re going through the motions at all; they even make the outside-the-ring stuff you see early in most NJPW matches more interesting than usual.

Takagi vs. Okada is the beginning of a very strong tournament run for Takagi, who not only wrestles amazingly throughout the NJC but is very much feeling himself in every match. What is turning a Rainmaker Pose into a double biceps but a display of Big Finalist Energy? In the ring and on the mic, Shingo veers into jock asshole territory more than he has in a while, but he’s in the beloved but morally-iffy L.I.J. and having great matches and being charismatic so he pulls it off, and following Takagi through this tournament is overall a good time.

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Great-O-Khan vs. Toru Yano, second round, 3/11/21

Unsurprisingly for a guy who operates on so much cartoon logic in serious bouts, Great-O-Khan turns out to be great at Yano matches. Yano vs. O-Khan is packed with slapstick bits that are within the expected Yano match realm but feel fresher than usual because of how character-specific they are for GOK. The taped hands behind his back, the threat to the trophy, and the reveal that O-Khan turned out to be carrying scissors on him the whole time (does he have those every match, or were they just for the tape?) are all original and funny. Also, it seemed like Great-O-Khan was willing to literally stab someone before, but it’s nice to know that for sure now.

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Kenta vs. Minoru Suzuki, second round, 3/13/21

Kenta vs. Suzuki is a clash of two huge personalities, two renowned hard-hitters, and two men whose hardest-hitting days are likely behind them. The newspaper thing is an even more personality-driven start than I expected, and they manage to pull off this full-on comedy bit and then quickly escalate into a slug-fest. There are a few moments where it feels very clear that these guys are not in their physical primes, but overall this match still slaps, literally and figuratively. After the in-ring action, promos, ’00s lore background of this match, and the emotional Takayama reference to boot, I’m very down for a rematch and extended feud between these guys if that’s really in the cards and not just Suzuki’s mind.

Shingo Takagi vs. Hirooki Goto, second round, 3/13/21

Right after Suzuki vs. Kenta, we get harder-hitting with the latest installment in Takagi and Goto’s Traditional Masculinity Power Hour (20 minutes or so.) NJPW’s two samurai enthusiasts haven’t had a bad match together before, and they don’t start now. There’s urgency and aggression fueling every minute of this match (ex. the exciting finisher attempts in the first five minutes, the lariat showdown) spiced up by how much these guys hate each other (ex. the hair pulling.) Including the pun-y promos they cut on each other during the build to this match, it’s really enjoyable to spend time with the Takagi-Goto forever-feud again.

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Jay White vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, second round, 3/15/21

It felt like White and Tanahashi couldn’t be separated for Jay’s first year or so as the Switchblade, but now enough time as passed that the matchup no longer feels done to death. Their beef this time around is based around White mocking the Ace for having less defined abs; it’s more than a little Divas and it’s a fun time. White, ahead of this match and when he later sets his sights back on Tana and the NEVER title, gets the opportunity to be less heavy than he was ahead of Wrestle Kingdom and in his feud with Ishii, and it’s an enjoyable change of pace for him. I’m here for a midcard champion Jay White phase.

The match itself is on the slower side and isn’t one of the most physically exciting of the tournament, but the rivalry and story behind it help keep the viewer invested. The finish is a cool wrestling moment on its own though, with Tanahashi’s counter of the Blade Runner into a Dragon Screw followed up by a forceful counter of a Dragon Screw into a Blade Runner.

Evil vs. Toru Yano, quarterfinal, 3/16/21

The first time these two faced off after Evil turned… evil, it was a duel of low blows and turnbuckle pad removal, and it was very satisfying to watch. They end up going a somewhat different direction here, and I don’t want to include a spoiler for the ending, but I will say that it convinced me that Toru Yano is Bullet Club Evil’s greatest rival. The best fit for the King of Darkness right now might be the KOPW title picture.

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Kenta vs. Shingo Takagi, quarterfinal, 3/16/21

If there’s one match people should watch from the 2021 New Japan Cup, it’s Kenta vs. Shingo Takagi. The beef between these two is that Kenta gave Takagi a concussion during a GHC Junior Heavyweight tag title match in 2008 (which can still be found online, but you have to look for it a little more creatively than you used to), and their NJC match brings out the closest to prime ’00s Kenta we’ve seen in New Japan. He delivers the kind of hard-hitting palm-strikes that immediately bring to mind why people get so reverent about NOAH and make you want to take back everything you ever said about him being maybe a little washed. Kenta and Takagi feel like they’re on the same or similar levels physically in this match when days earlier it had seemed like 40-year-old Kenta was maybe closer in shape to 52-year-old Suzuki. The Hawk vs. The Dog is so entertaining and well-done and the few promos they have together are so strong that I really hope we get to see more of them together in the future.

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David Finlay vs. Jay White, quarterfinal, 3/18/21

Like the Switchblade’s other notable match of the tournament, White vs. Finlay is very story-fueled. They bring up their history of White’s long Young Lion winning streak against Finlay that was also the background to their 2018 U.S. Championship match in the build, and their whole history gets a nice callback when White busts out the Boston Crab. Both White and Finlay have grown a lot since then, and their New Japan Cup clash might be the best singles match of Finlay’s career.

That being said, I have mixed feelings about Finlay’s push in this tournament. A downside is that it doesn’t really feel like it’s in service of Finlay; it feels like it’s in service of protecting the Ospreay vs. White clash of the top villains that would have been the semifinal if White had beaten Finlay. That would have been a much more hyped-up and less predictable match than Ospreay vs. Finlay, but so much so that I get why they didn’t do it. Still, it creates a situation where Finlay’s biggest success quickly brings to mind other people, which is not really flattering for him.

Finlay has gotten more entertaining in the ring over the past few years, but he’s still way more “yeah, put him in the G1 this year and see what happens” than “give him this match, please.” I think part of the lack of excitement behind him is also because he comes off like such a nice, regular guy, and not really like a wrestling character. This works for him as the straight man to Juice in their Impact World Tag Team Championship-holding (as of halfway through this tour) tag team, but when he cuts a promo on his own I still feel like it would feel more natural to hear him explain how his independent coffee shop ethically sources their beans.

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The final and the aftermath

Up until the actual tournament final, the final show of the 2021 New Japan Cup tour is watchable but not that uneventful. The night’s second-biggest moment comes before the first match, when Yoh appears and challenges for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship on behalf of Roppongi 3K. After this comes five tag matches that aren’t bad but aren’t worth going out of your way to watch. The most important development of the undercard is Kenta stealing Yoshi-Hashi’s bo staff, anthropomorphizing it, and later declaring on social media that they’re dating. The second most important development is that Toa Henare is angrier than ever about his stagnant career, and since there’s an Empire match with a mysterious X competitor in it coming up, I’d bet a few bucks he’s Empire-bound.

The main event is the New Japan Cup final, in which Will Ospreay defeats Shingo Takagi. It’s like their previous ones but with more interference and tables, and I could not engage with it at all so we’re skipping to the insane post-match segment. Before you even start doing any analysis on this segment, it is on its face very crazy and a complete flop.

You’d think this would have been said in a shocked tone, but not really because the commentary team seemed like they legitimately didn’t know what was going on! (NJPW)

Ospreay, with his Empire teammates by his side, cuts a standard post-win heel promo and calls out Ibushi, who’s sitting in on commentary. He tells Ibushi that the world title is his destiny, and he loves it more than anything. Then he stops talking, turns to his girlfriend, and RKOs her. (I’m saying RKO because, as many people have pointed out, the segment is very reminiscent of one from a 2005 episode of Raw involving Randy Orton and Stacy Keibler.) The moment immediately brings to mind the real-life scandal around Ospreay and misogyny and, in connection, all of NJPW’s ignored abuse-related scandals, and also I think he left a transitional phrase out of that promo, so it takes a second to connect the dots, like, oh, okay, so beating up his girlfriend he presumably loves is supposed to show how much he loves the IWGP Championship since he… did not beat up the belt? That’s not a great illustration, so maybe he really just wanted to hit his girlfriend?

The aspect of this scene that most causes it to fail as an illustration in the moment is that the audience in the arena doesn’t seem to understand what is happening because this “shocking” moment was set up with a promo entirely in untranslated English. The Japanese and English commentary teams also seem to have been left out of the loop, judging from their reactions. While Eng-com awkwardly tries to make sense of it afterward, the Japanese commentary team is confused the entire time, not even feigning horror at the scene of domestic abuse they’ve just witnessed. Top babyface Ibushi barely reacts either, I’m guessing in part because he also speaks very little English, which looks crazy. The only way this could have been executed more poorly is if Ospreay had botched the cutter.

Somehow a line from the night before, completely unrelated to this scene (NJPW)

This segment is one of those wrestling events that caused so many people to react so quickly on social media, with a lot of well-articulated and well-thought-out points being made on Twitter and elsewhere that make it hard to figure out what to say about it or where to start. (I usually don’t look at livetweets about shows I’m reviewing for this reason.) But I’ll start with how terrible this looks for Bea Priestley and Stardom. I’m not a fan of hers and I’m not all that invested in the well-being of her home company, but how this angle reflects on Priestley and Stardom still bothers me.

The only good reason for Priestley to be part of the Empire was for as an advertisement for Stardom on NJPW shows. Maybe she was really there mostly for self-promotion and to hang out with Ospreay, but Bushiroad corporate synergy was the good reason, and that was probably somewhat effective. (Priestley mostly hung out at ringside and didn’t do anything that wrestlers’ non-wrestler girlfriends and managers have done in the past, but she had a belt with her for a while.) Priestley can’t be at Sakura Genesis to support Ospreay because Stardom has a big show on the same day, but you know how they could have written her out of this without bringing up Ospreay and NJPW’s real-life trash behavior? Say she’s going to be at her real job at NJPW’s sibling company at that time, which you can check out later on Stardom World! Whether there’s going to be a big swerve where she unexpectedly gets involved on Ospreay’s behalf in some later match or if Priestley is being fully written off of NJPW through a breakup angle, it feels very exploitative for her to do basically nothing as part of the Empire for months, be presented as a domestic violence victim in a sleazy shock value segment, and then leave. It also doesn’t make Stardom look good for one of their former world champions to be put in this position.

Even if this is in-kayfabe fake domestic violence, this segment is irredeemable for not only how poorly it was executed, and how tone-deaf it is for Ospreay to be involved in this kind of angle. Any time you depict domestic violence in any kind of media, especially for shock value, it’s going to upset some people and spark debate because domestic violence serious issue that causes people pain and trauma in their real lives. But something that is almost unbelievably stupid and offensive, also in any kind of media, is putting someone with the kind of documented misogynistic behavior and additional alleged harmful behavior towards women that Ospreay has in an exploitative depiction of domestic violence.

It’s even dumber to do this in a company that saw its international goodwill drop significantly due to Speaking Out, a situation worsened so recently by the controversy surrounding Marty Scurll. This angle seems at best completely out of touch with the current wrestling and entertainment landscape, and at worst a mockery of fans’ concerns about how NJPW and the British wrestling scene have responded to abuse allegations. And they didn’t even get good shocked reaction soundbites from the commentary teams out of it.

That so much of this article and the overall wrestling fandom discussion about a large tournament that contained some really entertaining wrestling naturally ended up being occupied by the discussion of one post-match segment and various scandals exemplifies how negative NJPW’s international image has been in 2021. The NJPW stories that have spread outside of the fandom bubble (to the larger Western wrestling fan bubble) have been Jay White to WWE question mark, Moxley vs. Kenta and the Forbidden Door, RIP the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, working with Marty Scurll, and now a Will Ospreay domestic violence angle. Only one of those things has been unequivocally positive. While some performers and matches have shone in NJPW this year, the overall image of the company internationally is deservedly darker right now that, and especially as the profile of the Empire grows, it’s getting harder to see the light.

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Emily Pratt

Emily Pratt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She used to study, write about, and make theater. Now she writes a lot about pro wrestling. Pratt is a regular contributor for Fanbyte, with other bylines at Uproxx, Deadlock, Mind Games, Orange Crush, and FanSided WWE.

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