What a tournament the New Japan Cup 2019 was. Here are my pick for the top ten matches of the tournament.
10. Zack Sabre Jr. vs. EVIL – First Round
Since 2018, ZSJ and EVIL have developed quite the rivalry, having a series of great matches with each other, and Zack sending some wonderfully inventive insults over to the LIJ member. This first round New Japan Cup match centered around the two foes exchanging a series of counters with each other, attempting to better the other man and prove they were the more skilled, the result of which was great to watch from start to finish.
9. Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Kota Ibushi – Second Round
Zack Sabre Jr. is fascinating to watch. This submission master constantly looks for counters and ways to out-wrestle his opponent, inventing new ways to punish them as he goes. New Japan has done a brilliant job in showing how dangerous ZSJ is. Everyone he faces, regardless of how big of a star they are, has to wrestle his style of match. They are forced to try and desperately overcome his superior wrestling ability, otherwise they will inevitably tap, like we saw in this shocking second round loss for Kota Ibushi.
8. Kazuchika Okada vs. Michael Elgin – First Round
When it comes to big main event matches, hardly anyone in the world can come close to the masterful performer that is Kazuchika Okada. Along with being a fantastic wrestler with all the athletic gifts any competitor could hope for, The Rainmaker has the aura of a superstar surrounding him when he crafts these epic masterpieces. Whilst this is probably not the best Okada will be able to offer us in the tournament, it is still a solid example of why he is one of the greatest wrestlers of this generation.
7. Toru Yano vs. Colt Cabana – Second Round
If you don’t smile several times during this match, you need to check your pulse. This is a masterclass in old school comedy wrestling. Not one second is wasted in this, it’s like a sketch show condensed into a wrestling match, one quality bit after another. To pull something as funny and as well timed as this requires serious skill, something which both men involved have by the bucket load. It stood out completely in a bracket overflowing with fantastic strong style pro wrestling, a palette cleanser in the middle of the tournament, and I absolutely loved it.
6. Will Ospreay vs. Lance Archer – Second Round
In what is probably Lance Archer’s best singles match to date, the KES member took Ospreay to the limit by using his overpowering size to dominate the NEVER Openweight Champion. Despite his efforts though, Ospreay absorbed a barrage of grueling punishment, and managed to lift his much larger opponent up for the Stormbreaker, and a very impressive victory.
5. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shota Umino – First Round
Simple pro wrestling storytelling at its best. Two men at the opposite ends of their careers, each with more to gain than just advancing through the tournament with victory. Umino, the rookie, aiming to get the biggest upset victory in NJPW history. Tanahshi, the veteran, determined not to lose against a plucky underdog, otherwise his reputation would be in shatters.
Although the match is limited by the range of a young lion’s moveset, it is certainly not limited when it comes to excitement and drama. There is a false finish towards the end of this match which elicited a reaction that will cover your body in goosebumps. A master and a rookie colliding in one of the best young lion bouts you will ever see.
4. Kota Ibushi vs. Tetsya Naito – Night Three
Of all the first round matches that were announced prior to the tournament, this was certainly the most anticipated. The fact that one of these two top stars had to leave the tournament at the very first hurdle is shocking, yet it certainly did make for a great match.
At the beginning of the year, there was serious concern that Ibushi would no longer be a part of the New Japan roster, but in February those worries were kicked away when he announced that he would be staying with the company full time. And now, with him seemingly committing to NJPW permanently, it seems more likely than ever that he could go on to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a journey which all starts with this brutal bout.
Naito vs. Ibushi will leave you entertained and probably clutching at your neck in pain. The amount of times each man is dropped onto their head in such a small period of time during this match is both concerning and strangely thrilling. It’s two of the best in the world trying to pretty much destroy each other, and it makes for fantastic viewing.
3. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Yugi Nagata – Night One
It was clear from the main event of the very first show that we were in for one hell of a tournament.
Tomohiro Ishii seems to have chemistry with everyone he comes into contact with, being able to adapt to a multitude of styles and sizes. When he goes up against Yuji Nagata, you know they’re going to deliver a pure slug fest, and this first round match may just be the best encounter they’ve ever had.
Going back-and-forth with a multitude of stiff strikes and shots from bell to bell, Nagata and Ishii beat the absolute crap out of each other in the most entertaining way possible. Two ultra tough veterans determined to exhibit their stone-hard wills and burning hot fighting spirit, neither willing to stay down without one hell of a fight.
If you love physical, brawling fights, you absolutely need to watch this. The crowd explodes throughout marveling at these two warriors physically brutalizing each other, and you can’t help but get swept up by it. No doubt we will still be talking about this one at the end of the year.
2. Kazuchia Okada vs. SANADA – Finals
Going into this match, it was pretty much a guarantee Okada would walk out the victor, yet the false finishes in this epic definitely had us all questioning.
Although the first ten or so minutes of this match were a little slow, it built and built into a thrilling conclusion. The story told was that after being dominating by the former world champion Okada, the up-and-comer SANADA suddenly got the better of The Rainmaker and forced him to the brink of losing.
Given how praised and accomplished he is, it’s hard to claim any part of Kazuchika Okada’s wrestling ability is underrated, yet if there is any skill that doesn’t quite get the credit it deserves, it’s definitely his selling ability. Okada made SANADA look like he was so close to winning on several occasions. After being locked into the Skull End multiple times, Okada lifted his shoulder directly before the three count with so much exhaustion. It was one of the most lackluster pin escapes I can recall seeing, making it seem like Okada had used his last speck of energy to keep the match alive.
As SANADA went to hit another moonsault, Okada lightly grasped his opponent’s boot in an attempt to stop him, but did not have the energy to capitalize on it. As he took each step, The Rainmaker’s hands kept trying to pull him back, even resorting to holding onto the shoelaces in his boot. It was simple yet beautifully visual storytelling which elevated this match to another level.
The finals of the 2019 New Japan Cup helped remind us of just how incredible of a pro wrestler Kazuchika Okada is, and also how we’re in for a future world champion very soon with SANADA. An amazing end to a great tournament.
- Tomohiro Ishii vs. Kazuchika Okada – Semi-Finals
New Japan’s stable system has benefits and disadvantages. On one hand, it keeps fantastic wrestlers from facing each other on a regular basis, but on the other, it makes it all the more special when they end up clashing with each other. Case in point: Ishii vs. Okada.
Known for having one of the best G1 Climax matches of all time, these two CHAOS members have incredible chemistry together. They punish each other to an inhuman degree, and then beg for more. This match was a constant exchange of strikes and counters fueled by a red-hot crowd, gifting us with one of the best Rainmaker counters ever seen.
Tomohiro Ishii was the true MVP of this year’s New Japan Cup, with his performance culminating in this masterpiece of a match. After seeing these two go at in the semi-finals, I seriously hope they are placed in the same block during the G1 Climax this summer, we need to see them bludgeon each other once again.
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