New Japan Pro Wrestling hold their annual New Japan Cup starting on March 9th. A 16 man single elimination tournament held over 9 days, the winner gets to challenge for any championship they want. Last year's winner, Katsuyori Shibata went on to face Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a match which ended his career after hitting a headbutt to the champ.
This year's tournament offers a lot of interesting scenarios. With big names such as Tetsuya Naito, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomohiro Ishii all taking part it will be a great two weeks of wrestling action. So, Let's take a look at the first round matches and who might be going on to win this year's tournament.
First Round Matches
Tomohiro Ishii vs Michael Elgin
Battle of the big lads in what should be a big hitting contest between two of New Japans toughest wrestlers. Ishii comes into the tournament as one of the favourites. Often looked at as the most under-used guy in New Japan, the prospect of a title match with Okada makes a lot of people salivate. Elgin has been stuck in limbo of late and I would be very surprised if he made it past the Stone Pitbull here.
Prediction: Tomohiro Ishii
Juice Robinson vs Yujiro Takahashi
A repeat of last year's first round which Robinson won. The English commentary team have been bigging Juice up as a favourite for the tournament and it's hard to look past him winning here. Takahashi is always entertaining but Juice is the heavy favourite in this match. Juice is an ever rising figure in New Japan and after challenging for three of the four singles titles last year he will be looking to get the win here to go on and challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Prediction: Juice Robinson
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Taichi
The inclusion of Hiroshi Tanahashi in this year's tournament surprised a lot of people as it looked like he was going to take a well-deserved break to heal the bicep injury he suffered last year. It's very interesting to note that Okada' next defence of the title will see him equal Tanahashi' record of 11 straight defences, so it would be almost poetic if Tanahashi won this tournament to go on to stop Okada from equalling his record. This theory would make sense with Tanahashi returning from injury a lot earlier than expected, so it will be interesting to see what happens here.
Taichi has recently moved up to the heavyweight division and is becoming more popular all the time. It's also worth noting that Tanahashi has lost in the first round at the last three New Japan cups so I expect him to break that run here.
Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Bad Luck Fale vs Lance Archer
The two monsters of the tournament, this one will be a big old hoss fight. Fale is always a dark horse and after reaching the final of last year's tournament he will be looking to go one better this year. This is Archers fourth appearance in the New Japan Cup and while he has never won a match, with his power he will always be a tough first round match for anybody.
Prediction: Bad Luck Fale
Yoshi-Hashi vs Kota Ibushi
This match has the potential to be the tie of the round. Ibushi is currently involved in a Golden Lovers resurgence and Yoshi Hashi has just come of great matches with Naito and SANADA. Ibushi is the obvious favourite here but since a run in the tag division looks to be on the cards, it wouldn't be too big a surprise if Yoshi-Hashi comes out on top.
Prediction: Kota Ibushi
Zack Sabre Jr. vs Tetsuya Naito
A mouthwatering contest between two of the best wrestlers in the world and a battle between LIJ and Suzuki Gun. Seeing Zack in New Japan is always a pleasure and with his technical style he is a danger to anybody he faces. Naito is the favourite but when you look at the fact that both Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi lost in the first round last year then it shows that nothing is ever certain in the New Japan Cup. Plus, with Naito having only just lost to Okada it would seem to be a bit early for him to have another title shot.
Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.
Toru Yano vs Davey Boy Smith Jr.
You never quite know what to expect from a Yano match and it seems perfectly plausible that he could pull out the surprise here and get a roll up win over Smith. While I would personally love to see a good run from Davey Boy, Yano has made a career of pulling off shock wins.
Prediction: Toru Yano
Chuckie T vs SANADA
SANADA became a star after his great match with Okada at New Beginning and he has to be one of the favourite for this year's cup. The prospect of an LIJ semifinal is on the cards also and it will be interesting to see how he follows up from his breakout match last month. Chuckie T seems to be a replacement for his injured tag partner, Beretta so I'm sure he'll be looking to put on a good performance.
The perfect story would be Hiroshi Tanahashi winning and challenging Kazuchika Okada in a bid to stop Okada equalling his record. Whether he is fully recovered enough from his bicep injury though is the big question. The possible second round match between Juice and Ishii seems to be a big one, and it seems that whoever comes out of that match will be in a great position to win the tournament. In the other half of the draw expect Ibushi and SANADA to be battling it out in the semifinals.
It's a tough one to call but I'm going with a Tanahashi vs SANADA final. With Tanahashi coming out on top.