As a lifelong wrestling fan who only started watching New Japan Pro Wrestling as of last year’s Wrestle Kingdom (thank you Jericho/Omega, perhaps the most important NJPW match of all time for that very reason), I have to admit, this review marks a couple firsts for me: the first time watching the Young Lion Cup and the first time watching a full show with Japanese commentary. In fact, this might actually be the first “Road to…” show I’ve ever watched, come to think of it. I can’t help it, there is so much wrestling to watch in this world and so little time in the day. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience on all fronts (even if I did conspicuously miss the explanations of the storylines and character dynamics along the way). Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Alex Coughlin def. Yota Tsuji @ 10:12 via submission with a half crab
The first match of the Young Lions Cup starts the way you’d expect: basic, fundamental stuff with a little extra effort behind it. I mean that as both a compliment and something of a critique—for guys like this who are just learning the basics, it’s likely going to take a little extra effort to make those basics look good, but you can also see the extra effort which makes everything look a little bit better than when you see veterans doing basic stuff like this on muscle memory. It’s really cool watching these young guys put their full weight into headlocks and armbars and crabs and chops. One thing I noticed: I don’t know if this is character work or just their actual fundamentals but Tsuji’s knife-edge chops looked very weak (or at least sounded weak—lord knows, judging by Alex Coughlin’s chest, they didn’t feel weak) whereas Coughlin’s looked/sounded like grim death. Also interesting that Coughlin has chosen “no-selling the chest” as an attribute of his wrestling character, particularly because it totally works for him considering the size of his damn pecs.
I like what Tsuji did here going after Coughlin’s back and Coughlin does a really good job selling. Both guys do a really good job making all their moves believable and meaningful. Tsuji in particular wrestles with a great sense of urgency which is one of the most important attributes for a wrestler to have. This match is impressive and actually starts getting really good when Coughlin puts Tsuji down with a HUGE chop but Tsuji responds with a big body slam. The finish is excellent with Tsuji trying to go back to attacking the back with a Boston Crab but Coughlin powering out and getting back to the ropes after some back and forth, then reversing a half crab attempt into one of his own and torqueing the leg for the submission.
Clark Connors def. Shota Umino @ 6:50 via submission with a modified Boston Crab
Tournament favorite Shota Umino (“Shooter”) makes his Young Lions Cup debut here against the captain of Katsuyori Shibata’s L.A. Dojo, Clark Connors, and this one is hot from the first bell. The two immediately launch themselves at each other and start firing with urgency and workrate and some stiff shots. It’s a very back and forth match with neither guy getting too much momentum going but both getting significant time to “lead” the match which is good experience for them. The finish is really interesting in the context of what Shibata said in an interview about how a lot of guys in New Japan now play to the crowd too much instead of staying on their opponents: Shooter goes to the top rope for a big dropkick but Connors smartly takes a step back to dodge and then locks in a Boston Crab. Shooter gets to the ropes eventually but Connors stays on him and catches him with a spear before locking in the crab again and this time rocking way back with all his weight until Shooter taps.
I guess it’s not exactly super surprising for the tournament favorite to lose his first match, from a booking stand point, but it is definitely still shocking, especially from a kayfabe perspective. Anyone who’s seen Shooter wrestle has seen why they’re so high on this kid at the New Japan Dojo. He’s definitely destined for big things but, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, that doesn’t actually necessarily make him more or less likely to win the YLC. Because as much sense as it makes to push this kid to the moon, he also probably doesn’t need to win the YLC nearly as much as some of the other guys that aren’t being talked about as much—especially the L.A. Dojo guys. And speaking of the L.A. Dojo guys: it’s really telling to see in the backstage interviews how much the L.A. Dojo guys are making the YLC about the dojo battle while the New Japan Dojo guys aren’t really focused on that. Definitely looking forward to seeing how that dynamic plays out.
Michaels Richards, Karl Fredericks, & Satoshi Kojima def. Ren Narita, Yuya Uemura, & Hiroyoshi Tenzan @ 9:43 via pinfall with a Kojima Cozy Lariat on Uemura
I love all the pushing and shoving from the Young Lions before the match. You can really tell how hungry these kids are. I like having Kojima and Tenzan start the match, though, because beyond acknowledging their history and beyond the fact that I sure do love me a good Mongolian chop, it also gives the Lions the opportunity to come into the match on hot tags and go hard on each other. The competition between the Lions in this match is fierce and I love it! I’m pretty new to NJPW and this is the first time I’ve watched a Young Lions Cup so maybe this is normal but man, these guys are really wrestling with a chip on their shoulders; they clearly have something to prove out there.
One thing I noticed with a few of these guys (and with Yota Tsuji, as I mentioned earlier) is that they could really use some work on their knife edge chops. It’s a lot harder than it looks to get that huge slapping sound to really reverberate which is why you see even veterans have a hard time doing it sometimes. But the knife edge chop is one of the most important weapons in any wrestler’s arsenal—and if you don’t believe me, name for me the last time you watched an entire wrestling match (an actual match, not like a 2-3 minute thing) that didn’t contain a single knife edge chop.
I like the call having Michael Richards get some one-on-one time with Tenzan here and he takes a beating but comes back and gets some good shots in—though I do kinda wish he’d gotten more but Tenzan is a very seasoned veteran so it’s understandable. Uemura also gets some nice feature time—mostly he takes a beating from Kojima but he also gets to kick out of Kojima’s cutter before succumbing to a nasty Cozy Lariat that looked like it caught him up under the jaw pretty hard. After the match Narita and Fredericks trade some words and a few shoves and it’s definitely got me pretty excited to see their YLC match on Thursday. Backstage Tenzan puts over the Lions and says that while the tournament isn’t exactly about dojos, he doesn’t want the Japan guys to let NJPW down by losing to the L.A. guys.
El Phantasmo, Chase Owens, Yujiro Takahashi, & Taiji Ishimori def. Will Ospreay, Robbie Eagles, Toa Henare, & Tomoaki Honma @ 8:48 via pinfall with an Owens package piledriver on Henare
I liked this match and it had some good stuff but for a match that’s pretty clearly centered around the feud between Ishimori/El-P and Ospreay/Eagles, there was very little storytelling or really any interaction at all between the two teams. We’d already gotten some of that at Royal Quest so it wasn’t totally unforgivable but it was also pretty much the entire reason for this match to exist so I couldn’t just let it slide either. There’s still lots to like here like Ospreay adjusting to El-P countering the separation flip at Royal Quest by alternating the kicks with Eagles which was a very cool spot. Ospreay/Eagles and Ishimori/El-P are both so great together as tag team wrestlers and I can’t wait for their match in Kagoshima on the 16th!
Backstage Honma has some strong words for “that guy from Bullet Club” who he feels doesn’t appreciate the NEVER title’s history and should “stop talking big” because “some may forgive you but I never will.” Also apparently the double Spanish fly (which I’m not a huge fan of mostly because it seems to take too long to set up) is Ospreay/Eagles’s finisher and they’re calling it the Red Wind—so that’s…something. There’s also a very intriguing moment with Ishimori in his backstage comments where he points out that Robbie Eagles looks “livelier” tagging with Ospreay than he ever did with him and even goes so far as to admit that he kinda misses him. He’s quick to walk it back by saying he’s glad he has the Super J-Cup winner on his team now but it definitely sounds to me like they might be sewing some seeds of doubt between Ishimori and El-P here that could eventually lead to a break-up. I’d be into that but mostly because Ishimori is my favorite junior heavyweight now that Shingo appears to be moving up to the heavyweights.
Tomohiro Ishii, Yoshi-Hashi, & Rocky Romero def. Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, & Jado @ 10:28 via submission with a Yoshi-Hashi Butterfly Lock on Jado
I really like the dynamic here with Ishii fresh off losing the NEVER title to KENTA which means he’s got some rage to take out on the members of Bullet Club and he does a really good job of getting that across here. After another Bullet Club sneak attack before the bell (you’d really think people would be expecting it by now), Ishii cleans house, and when he comes in on the hot tag he’s got some serious fire in his belly but the much larger Tanga Loa overpowers him. Ishii tags in Yoshi for help but Jado catches him with the Singapore cane and then all hell breaks loose in that glorious NJPW multi-person match “breakdown” sort of way. This probably should have been the finish of the match but after that scorching hot sequence, the pace kind of awkwardly slows back down for Yoshi to catch Jado in a Butterfly Lock and tap him out.
After the match, GoD try to hit Magic Killer on Yoshi but Ishii breaks it up and Yoshi hits fisherman’s buster on Tama Tonga followed by an Ishii sliding lariat. Ishii then grabs the tag titles and declares his and Yoshi’s intentions for a title shot. Backstage, an angry Tanga Loa reminds Yoshi and Ishii what happened the last time the pair faced Guerrillas of Destiny and then Tama Tonga cuts a very good promo about how Ishii is getting old and he can see it in his eyes.
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Ryusuke Taguchi, SHO, & YOH def. Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre, Jr., Yoshinobu Kanemaru, & Douki @ 10:48 via pinfall with a roll-up
This is largely a hype match for Sabre and Tanahashi’s rematch for the RevPro title on the 15th in Beppu and it definitely satisfies in that regard but it also satisfies because Suzuki is the greatest and makes himself the star of any match he’s in (without distracting from the point of the match too much). From going around nailing Young Lions (and even taking a swing at the announce team) to chaining armlocks with ZSJ to nerfing Taguchi’s ridiculous butt-based offense three consecutive times by literally moving a few inches to the side, Suzuki, as always, is the man. Tanahashi also gets a typically fun Tanahashi fire-up spot and cleans house which is followed by some good stuff between him and ZSJ. Somewhat puzzling finish with Douki side-stepping Taguchi’s “hip attack” but Taguchi turning it into a roll-up for the pin—the puzzling part being that Red Shoes Umino very clearly and majorly drops the balls by not realizing that Douki’s feet were pretty obviously on the rope. Not sure what the deal was there—there’s no way that could have been a botch, it was too obvious.
Of course ZSJ has another tantrum post-match (clearly this, too, is freaking Boris Johnson’s fault). Backstage ZSJ says he feels naked because Tanahashi has his belt. He says he’s written him off so many times but no matter how many times he puts him in the hospital he keeps coming back so he’s going to change tactics: he may not be able to finish Tana off, but he can embarrass Tana the way Tana embarrassed him by taking his belt back in Beppu. Tana says in his backstage comments that he knows ZSJ has a bag of tricks and that he is going to force ZSJ to show him everything he has on the Destruction tour—and as he’s walking away, he says “I’ll show mine, too.” Intriguing…
Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, & BUSHI def. Jay White, Bad Luck Fale, & Gedo @ 10:32 via submission with an EVIL Sharpshooter on Gedo
This is definitively the first match of the show that was really good. All the matches were good but this one and the main event were on a different level. The pre-match stuff is hilarious with Naito giving Jay White a gift of a blindfold with the Naito target logo over the eye. Jay briefly contemplates the gift and then pulls it over Red Shoes Umino’s eyes and he pantomimes not being able to see before pushing it up to his forehead. Naito pulls it back down briefly, Red Shoes pantomimes again, Naito kicks him lightly in the leg, Red Shoes sells and then takes off the blindfold and tosses it back to Naito. I hope there’s some kind of pay-off with that blindfold in Kobe on the 22nd.
I also thought it was noteworthy that once again everyone on the Los Ingobernables de Japon team got their own entrance with their own music. The same thing happened at Royal Quest with Naito and SANADA which, of course, was more significant, if less surprising, considering SANADA’s huge 2019 singles push. But here even BUSHI and EVIL get their own entrances. It might be nothing, but in a world where both SANADA and Shingo Takagi are poised to be two of the biggest breakout stars in the company, it’s certainly worth paying attention to.
There’s so much to like here. The opening sequence is great with Naito avoiding Jay to agitate him leading to a compelling showdown between Fale and BUSHI. BUSHI does an admirable job but gets destroyed, of course, and then, once White and Gedo have knocked EVIL and Naito off the apron, now Jay wants in the match. Great character work, as always, from Jay White (not to mention he spits on Naito again in this match, despite getting Destino’d for it at Royal Quest and nearly getting his eyeball ripped out). I also love how Red Shoes will often refuse to count a pin that comes off of cheap, dirty tactics or cheating—particularly when Jay White and Gedo are involved.
The money part of this match is Naito getting a great spot where he gets to put the wood to Jay White for a while until Jay White is able to turn things in his favor and take a couple pounds of flesh of his own. That’s followed by some great back-and-forth stuff leading to hot tags where EVIL gets his hands on Gedo leading to a multi-person “breakdown” full of great tandem stuff and culminating with EVIL tapping Gedo out to the Sharpshooter. EVIL also gets a white hot moment where he clotheslines Fale over the top rope and if I’m being totally honest, I would be kinda into the idea of an EVIL/Fale feud—I don’t even like Fale but they work well together and I wouldn’t mind seeing more.
After the match, Jay White murders some Young Lions and then he and Naito trade words. However, when Naito gets backstage, he turns his focus to another target: Kota Ibushi. Naito calls out Ibushi for not being there despite being the G1 winner and wanting to be the first double champion. He says Ibushi shouldn’t be so “tranquilo” and that people soon forget about you if you’re not around. It’s exciting to see how much groundwork they’re putting into this whole Ibushi/Naito Wrestle Kingdom angle and I’m really looking forward to seeing where it goes. Hopefully wherever it goes, it ends with Naito raising the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental championships at the end of the night on January 5th.
Shingo Takagi & SANADA def. Hirooki Goto & Kazuchika Okada @ 14:33 via pinfall with an O’Connor Roll
This match, unsurprisingly, was DOPE. The action is hot, the pacing is pitch perfect, and it hits all the notes it needs to as a hype match for two of the most highly anticipated matchups on the Destruction tour: Okada/SANADA and Shingo/Goto (side note: am I the only one who kinda wants Shingo and Goto to be a tag team purely so that they can call themselves Shingoto?). It starts by giving us something that none of the other matches really did—extended periods of in-ring action between the men who will be facing each other in a couple weeks. Both pairings get a nice, lengthy amount of time together but use it for very different purposes: Okada and SANADA spend most of their time feeling each other out while Shingo and Goto jump straight to fighting spirit shoulder blocks and forearms and chops—all of which makes all the sense in the world which I absolutely love.
The action heats up when SANADA takes Okada to the outside and Shingo follows suit with Goto leading to SANADA and Shingo isolating Goto. Goto gets some great hope spots before Okada gets the hot tag and goes HAM on SANADA. There’s some good back-and-forth between the two and then Shingo gets his shot at Okada (and I just have to say: I can’t WAIT for these two to step in the ring one-on-one someday because that is going to tear the house down). Okada weathers the storm and tags in Goto and he and Shingo go back and forth for a while which is HOT FIRE. SANADA gets some time to shine off the hot tag leading to a breakdown leading to SANADA getting the win with an O’Connor roll on Goto. What a match!
After the match, both pairings face off but keep it respectful. Shingo and SANADA are about to leave but SANADA lingers and the crowd chants for him so he says a (very) few words: that Korakuen Hall is his favorite place in the Bukyo district. The announcers’ reaction is great, too: “That’s such a qualified statement. He only speaks the bare minimum, doesn’t he?” Backstage Goto calls out Shingo for calling him fake and challenges Shingo to show him his Japanese spirit and show him what he’s really all about. Shingo says he’s angry that Goto asked for a rematch immediately after Shingo beat him, somehow implying that it was a fluke or that he underestimated or looked past him which he says is BS. Shingo also puts over the importance of this as his first official heavyweight match and says he can’t lose no matter what and will put everything into this match—more than any of his G1 matches.