NJPW Review: New Japan Cup 2020 Quarterfinals and Semifinals

Enter the Grandmaster and all hail the King of Ball-Stomping

FanFyte’s regular New Japan Pro Wrestling coverage begins at the end of NJPW’s series of no-audience shows: the quarterfinals and semifinals of the NJPW World Special New Japan Cup 2020. These shows featured some exciting matches, some confusing submission choices, and a post-excursion return that somehow combined the energy of Jay White showing up as The Switchblade and Komatsu and Tanaka appearing as a boy band, and it made for an all-around entertaining five-ish hours of wrestling.

The journey/tourney so far

Since these reviews are starting at the beginning of a tour/arc, let’s kick off with a short recap of how New Japan got to this unique point. Starting in late February, the company went on hiatus for about three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They announced their return after the end of Japan’s state of emergency (Japan hasn’t squashed the coronavirus as effectively as Vietnam or New Zealand, but they’ve been one of the more successful countries at flattening the curve so far, although confirmed cases in Tokyo are now on the rise) with a version of the New Japan Cup very different from the one originally scheduled for March.

(I should also mention that New Japan Pro Wrestling of America is also putting on short Friday-night wrestling series called Lion’s Break Collision that consists of matches pre-taped in front of no audience in the COVID-19 hotspot of Southern California. These shows feature the LA Dojo boys, Rocky Romero, Jeff Cobb, TJP, and eventually Tom Lawlor. In contrast to the company’s practices in Japan, you could find out people working on these shows had to be tested for Coronavirus first from behind the paywall of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter rather than NJPW’s company website, or from Romero’s episode of the NJPW Official English Podcast ten days after the Lion’s Break series was announced.)

Aside from the absence of fans until the July 11 final and the health requirements for wrestlers (and fans, when they return), the biggest changes to the tournament were in response to Japan’s currently closed borders. With all international talent (aside from Gabriel Kidd and Zack Sabre Jr., who remained in Japan during the hiatus) unable to perform, NJPW shook up the New Japan Cup lineup with some Young Lions and junior heavyweights, and the juniors did surprisingly well for a group of people who previously tended to always get pinned in multi-man tag matches that included heavyweights.

What in kayfabe has been referred to as “the walls breaking down” between the divisions was in real life more of a “smash glass in case of emergency” situation. Mixing up juniors and heavyweights turned out to be an easy trick to generate new matchups and drama. Case in point: Hiromu Takahashi’s entire tournament run, which concluded with two of the best matches of the July 2-3 shows.

July 2, 2020 – The Quarterfinals

Hiromu Takahashi def. Tomohiro Ishii

The only way in which Hiromu vs. Ishii didn’t deliver was that you had to wistfully imagine how crazy a Korakuen Hall crowd would have been going for this match rather than actually hear it. Ishii gives the junior champ everything and Hiromu steps up more and more as the match goes on, and things get more and more exciting as the two fan-favorites ramp up the intensity.

It’s easy to feel proud of Hiromu as he gets closer to victory and eventually earns it. It’s a straightforward win over a well-established heavyweight, and because Takahashi’s kind of the baby brother of L.I.J., it feels almost like a coming of age moment despite his many previous accomplishments and his being 30 years old. From here, there’s no way someone could root against the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion going into his semi-final match with Okada.

(Also: Danielle and LB talked about this match in the latest episode of the Fanfyte podcast!)

Evil def. Yoshi-Hashi (2m00s)

Evil completing destroying Yoshi-Hashi in two minutes is the result of two big developments, one in kayfabe and one in real life. The real-life one was that it turns out Yoshi-Hashi was probably shoot-limping his way to the ring because he’s now out of action with a knee injury. The kayfabe one is that Evil, who’s now a tournament finalist, had started leveling up and heeling up during his second-round match with Goto, and he continues that trajectory with one of NJPW’s rare squash matches.

After stomping Goto’s balls and declaring he would win the Cup “by any means necessary,” Evil ruthlessly targets Yoshi-Hashi’s knee in their quarter-final match, puts him in the Scorpion Deathlock, and moves on to the next round by ref stoppage. His character work fits his win; he’s doing the same King of Darkness gimmick, but with more dominance and less camp.

The only thing that might be off about this Evil angle is if he’s supposed to be a real boo-able heel now because he’s a popular guy and I think plenty of fans want more for him, something like a New Japan Cup win and a big double title match. The Osaka crowd will almost definitely root for him to beat Okada and will probably still express their support for him during most of a match with Naito, no matter how much ball-stomping he does. But honestly, that’s probably not a big deal. Evil’s wrestling is the best it’s ever been, he’s making the most of the opportunities he’s being given, and he looks like he beefed up in quarantine. People might support him a little too much, but the important thing is they’ll probably still tune in and show up to see him.

NJPWWorld

Kazuchika Okada (6’3″) def. Taiji Ishimori (5’4″)

Kazuchika Okada vs. Taiji Ishimori is a first-time-ever battle of two children of Toryumon who went on to become extremely influential and successful elsewhere. More importantly, it’s a battle between two men with an eleven-inch height difference. The top highlight of this match has to be when Ishimori got on his tippy toes to rake Okada’s eyes.

Most of the more serious cool spots in this match also showcased Ishimori’s skills, like that incredible moonsault off the second rope to the outside and the La Mistica-esque transition into the Yes Lock, which also showed off Okada’s abilities as a base to those watching for that type of thing.

Aside from the Cobra Clutch (stay tuned for Cobra Clutch takes; they’re coming), the other most memorable parts of this match were when it included, in addition to these two men who are very talented and look very hilarious standing next to each other, Gedo and his new super-effective spanner. Ishimori has been the one guy in this era of Bullet Club who doesn’t use interference, but I guess the exception is when Gedo’s out for revenge? Was the 15 minutes of Gedo-Okada in the first round not enough? Because I feel like it was enough!

NJPWWorld

Sanada def. Taichi

Taichi came into his match with Sanada off the back of a tournament standout against Ibushi, and Sanada off of a solid handsome battle with Sho. Taichi vs. Sanada, another of the NJ Cup’s first-time-evers, was a clear step down for both performers. Aside from the Paradise Lock spot, Taichi referencing Jumbo Tsuruta, and a fun finish, there’s almost nothing memorable in this match that really sticks, or at least nothing positive.

The finish, though, shows off one of Sanada’s biggest strengths. Part of what made him stand out as a tag wrestler, apart from his effortless athleticism, was that he seemed secretly smart behind his too-cool-to-make-facial-expressions façade, and that shows here when he manages to outsmart the interference and pin Taichi with a bridging clutch hold in a matter of seconds.

The biggest weakness in Sanada’s game, which has become much more obvious as he’s become a higher-level singles guy, is the Skull End, and it somehow looks even worse when Taichi applies it. There are so many parts of this submission that look like they’re supposed to do something, but they all look bad. The Dragon Sleeper on the ground always seems like anyone could just sit up to escape it (which is eventually what Sanada does!) and the body scissors don’t seem like they’re convincingly restraining anyone either. Is the focus supposed to be on the shoulder closer to the applicant’s body? Are we supposed to think sitting up out of the submission means the restrained person risks popping out their shoulder? I’m not usually a nitpicky person about the alleged physics of wrestling moves, but the Skull End is so confusing it drives me to nitpick.

July 3, 2020 – The Semifinals

Evil def. Sanada

Sanada has a much stronger match and Evil continues his dominant streak when both halves of L.I.J.’s heavyweight tag team face off in the semifinals. It’s a higher-stakes situation than either of the previous two times they’ve gone one-on-one, and both Evil and Sanada effectively play up the higher tension and bring some extra intensity. Again the increased seriousness and evilness of Evil stands out (Your tag partner’s balls, dude? Is nothing sacred?), but both wrestlers deliver really strong performances here and put on one of the tournament’s better matches.

Kazuchika Okada def. Hiromu Takahashi

Hiromu doesn’t just take on Okada in the semi-finals; he takes on Big Match Okada in a match that solidifies his position as not just New Japan’s junior ace, but one of the top guys in the company as a whole. We haven’t seen Okada on the A+ tier of his A-game since Wrestle Kingdom, and seeing him bring that cool calculation and focus for his match with Hiromu makes this feel like a win for both wrestlers, no matter the match’s result.

The match is also just really fun and easy to watch, more so than its almost 30-minute runtime would suggest. It keeps that high intensity from Evil vs. Sanada in the air, Hiromu’s nearfalls here are more exciting than those in any other match this tournament, and we get lots of amazing dropkicks – another element that makes this feel like classic Okada.

The one downside of this match is Okada’s continued insistence making his Cobra Clutch a thing. It looks a lot better when combined with Rainmakers (something else that validates Hiromu), but it still just doesn’t look good or convincing as a move. Okada’s never been a submission guy, and there’s a disconnect between how effective his Cobra Clutch looks and how effective NJPW is telling viewers it is. The Rainmaker was built up for years to be one of the most exciting finishing moves in pro wrestling and it never lost its luster, which makes this feel like a real “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation.

Hiromu vs. Okada was so great, though, that I kind of want to move the Cobra Clutch take to another section of the article because this whack submission really didn’t overshadow the rest of the match at all. But instead of doing that, I’m going to request we all take a moment to visualize literally any dropkick from this match before moving on to the next section so we end the Okada-Hiromu part of this review with good vibes.

Dangerous Tekkers and a Final Boss

Along with either Evil or Okada vs. Naito for all (two) of the marbles (belts that he has), July 12’s Dominion event now officially includes Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi) challenging Golden Ace (Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi) for the heavyweight tag titles and Sho challenging Shingo Takagi for the NEVER Openweight Championship, both matches that have been hyped up throughout this tournament.

The tag title feud, which began just before the hiatus, was built through Ibushi beating ZSJ, then Taichi beating both Tanahashi and Ibushi, and both Zack and Tana seconding and getting involved in the Taichi vs. Ibushi match. Both duos kept the tag titles in their minds and promos throughout the tournament along with the goal of facing Naito in Osaka, and Taichi finally makes the challenge after he’s out of the Cup. At that point, any regular NJPW viewer can tell the match is going to be on for Dominion, and Ibushi sprinting murderously backstage after Suzukigun on July 3 just keeps the momentum going. Overall, Golden Ace vs. Dangerous Tekkers has been one of the best heavyweight tag team rivalries New Japan’s had in a while, and there’s every reason to think its championship match will deliver.

Sho and Shingo also do a great job at building up their title match, continuing the fast-tracked version of their slow-burn feud after their second singles match was one of the best bouts of this tournament. Takagi wants revenge for his first-round loss and tells the guy with the 8-bit theme song he’s his “final boss.” Sho, after losing in the second round, wants the NEVER title, but also something like emotional validation, not just from the company or the fans, but from Takagi himself, as shown in that very vulnerable “Are you thinking about me? Do you see me now?” backstage appeal.

Along with cutting some of the tournament’s most substantial promos, these two continue to work really well together during six-man tags on the quarterfinal and semifinal shows, and in their post-match confrontation on July 3. Sho seems pretty doomed at Dominion (although Yoh being out injured might mean the opposite, I guess), but he still comes out of all his interactions with Takagi looking good. Him dodging that belt attack and getting the better of Shingo is a rare cool moment for him outside of a match, at least up to that Ospreay-esque version of his archer pose.

Kawato is back and he watched at least two of the Ip Man movies on the flight back from Mexico

Outside of tournament and title feud action, the July 3 show saw the debut of THE GRANDMASTER aka Master Wato aka former New Japan dojo boy Hirai Kawato. Kawato back after a two-year excursion in Mexico that did not go well. So far, it looks like his post-excursion New Japan run also might not go well! He’s calling himself a “grandmaster” when he was born in 1997 and nobody born in the nineties is qualified to be a “grand” anything yet. He makes the derpiest face in the world during his pose in the ring and immediately gets attacked from behind with a pipe. It terms of entertainment value, his return was a huge success, but maybe not in the way NJPW intended. Unless they intended him to be Yoshi-Hashi 2, a comparison quickly drawn by a fair amount of at least the English-speaking fans (including FanFyte editor lb hunktears.)

But it’s worth pointing out that Okada also had a not-great excursion and didn’t have his look down when he made his big return, and that Kawato was a promising trainee pre-CMLL and that his matching electric blue hair and velour changshan situation is very adorable. I’m just saying he might have options, and that match with Douki on July 11 could actually kick ass, though it’s a lot less bulletproof than Evil vs. Okada.

NJPW 7/2-3/2020

7.5

Pros
  • Hiromu Takashi is now Big Okada Match certified
  • Taiji Ishimori is 5'4"
  • Sho and Shingo seem like they're having a nice time
  • Master Wato
Cons
  • Nothing was wrong with the Rainmaker???
  • Get well soon, Yoh and Yosh-Hashi :(
  • Master Wato
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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 about pro wrestling for Fanbyte and Deadlock. Her other bylines include With Spandex on UPROXX, Orange Crush, Mind Games Magazine, FanSided WWE, and Diva Dirt.

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