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New Japan Cup Preview: Who will face the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight champion?

The past few weeks for New Japan’s roster have been difficult, with multiple high-profile injuries forcing the company to overhaul entire cards and championship matches ahead of the recently-announced New Japan Cup tournament.

The winner of this year’s Cup will square off against the winner of Kota Ibushi vs. El Desperado at NJPW’s upcoming anniversary show at Nippon Budokan, and the winner will be crowned the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Champion.

Below are the list of competitors scheduled for this year’s tournament, along with my take on each wrestler’s likelihood of winning the Cup. Let’s get started.


EVIL

Last year’s New Japan Cup winner has had one of the most up and down years in recent New Japan history, winning the IWGP double titles at Dominion before losing them months later. Since then, he’s been on the losing end of feuds with top NJPW stars like SANADA and Kazuchika Okada. As winner of last year’s Cup, EVIL got a bye past the first round, meaning he will face the winner of Jeff Cobb and Satoshi Kojima. While NJPW tries to keep its former champions heated up for title challenges, it seems too soon to return to EVIL. An victory for him in this year’s Cup would mean his third challenge for the world championship in the last nine months.

Likelihood of winning: Low

Jeff Cobb

Cobb had one of the best matches of his career at this year’s Wrestle Kingdom, and has since joined the Great O’Khan’s new heel stable, United Empire. While Cobb is practically guaranteed to advance to the second round after redeeming his Castle Attack loss to Satoshi Kojima, it’s difficult to see him involved in the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match having never challenging for either top belt before.

Likelihood of winning: Low

Satoshi Kojima

Kojima has been on fire since wrestling KENTA Wrestle Kingdom 15. Unfortunately for Kojima, he’s not only going to struggle to win this tournament, but I think pinning Cobb at last week’s Castle Attack all but sealed his first round exit fate for this year’s Cup.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Tetsuya Naito

Naito started the year as IWGP double champion but has done very little since, outside of an odd detour to challenge only for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at Castle Attack Day 2. He failed, however, and now has to start from scratch in the New Japan Cup. While Naito does have a strong Cup pedigree, as the winner in 2016, Naito’s chances of winning it are the lowest they’ve been in years, considering he’s just been in two main events already. Going back to this well a third time would be shocking; instead, the more interesting question may be “Who is Naito putting over?”

Likelihood of winning: Low

Great-O-Khan

The Great-O-Khan’s first New Japan Cup will be a major test for him. He’s been protected in special singles matches against Okada and Tanahashi, two of the greatest in-ring workers of all time. While some are major believers in O-Khan, I simply don’t see the potential in this gimmick, which baffles me. So he’s a mystical character who also uses ref bumps and cheats, and throws absurd, fake-looking Mongolian chops? The charisma and star power are there, but I care about the matches themselves, and in that, he has a long way to go with this gimmick. As for his New Japan Cup chances? I legitimately have no way to evaluate that, but it would not shock me in the slightest if he beat Naito for his first major singles victory in NJPW.

Likelihood of winning: Low

Toru Yano

The clown prince of NJPW consistently punches above his weight in the New Japan Cup; in fact, you’d have to go back seven years to find a Cup where Yano didn’t advance past the first round. He’ll never win the whole thing, no, but crowds love his antics. His first-round opponent Bad Luck Fale, I could easily see Yano continuing his round one win-streak ovr him. However, what gives me pause is that Yano does hold the King of Pro-Wrestling championship, so whomever beats him has a claim to that championship, tournament win or not.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Bad Luck Fale

Fale is an accomplished New Japan Cup competitor, reaching the tournament finals in both 2014 and 2017, but it appears that his days of being a featured talent in NJPW are over. Still, he’s a valuable member of the roster due to his Oceania connections and work as a trainer. That said, he has absolutely no chance of winning this New Japan Cup and will likely be out of the tournament by the time his first match comes around.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Taichi

An intriguing dark horse for this year’s tournament is Taichi. He’s coming off his strongest Cup performance yet in last year’s tournament, where he knocked off both Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi, two of NJPW’s top stars. It seems like the winner of Taichi’s match with Goto will end up facing the favorite to win the whole tournament.

Likelihood of winning: Low

Hirooki Goto

Goto may as well be Mr. New Japan Cup, having won three separate editions of the tournament throughout his career. He’s still a supremely talented wrestler, but hasn’t challenged for NJPW’s top title in half of decade. He has an extremely tough route into the second and third rounds, having to go through Taichi first, then either Okada or Shingo in the second. As good as Goto is, though, he’s not winning this year.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Kazuchika Okada

The greatest IWGP Heavyweight Champion in history has a chance to further his legacy by winning this tournament and becoming the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. Okada faces Shingo Takagi in the first round, who is one of the four top favorites in the tournament, meaning Okada would win the whole thing or be finished after his first match.

Likelihood of winning: High

Shingo Takagi

Takagi has never challenged for either of NJPW’s top championships, nor has he ever finished with a winning record in a G1 Climax tournament, but he also just might be the very best professional wrestler in the world, combining the intensity and explosiveness of someone like Tomohiro Ishii with the timing and match layout of Hiroshi Tanahashi. This year’s Cup could be the perfect time to elevate Takagi, as it wouldn’t feel out of place.

Likelihood of winning: High

Tomoaki Honma

Mr. Kokeshi hasn’t won a singles match in NJPW since 2016. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, the broken-down Honma just isn’t beating Minoru Suzuki. The only question is whether Suzuki and him will put on a good match.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Minoru Suzuki

Suzuki is a compelling case as he somewhat exists outside of the traditional NJPW hierarchy. He’s booked like an absolute monster in multi-man matches but doesn’t ever really break through in a G1 or a New Japan Cup. In fact, he’s never even made the finals of a Cup, despite entering them on seven different occasions. Because he’s never won the big one, nor is he enough of a top-top guy to believably compete for the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, I feel comfortable in saying Suzuki is out of contention for a tournament victory this year.

Likelihood of winning: Low

Juice Robinson

Every time it feels like Robinson might break through, something unforeseen happens and he’s given a major setback. A broken hand made him struggle throughout his initial IWGP US Championship run. Both of his reigns were cut off by high profile outsiders in Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley. And then his major Wrestle Kingdom 15 singles match against KENTA was changed once he fractured his orbital bone. While I think there’s still hope for Robinson to eventually take that next step towards becoming a main event player in NJPW, it’s hard to see it coming in this tournament, where the winner will compete for the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.

Likelihood of winning: Low

KENTA

The man who busted through the “forbidden door” separating AEW and NJPW has been the talk of professional wrestling fans throughout 2021. After failing in his challenge for Jon Moxley’s IWGP US Heavyweight Championship, however, KENTA is left without a briefcase and without a purpose. Could KENTA continue to shock people with a strong performance in this Cup? I’d say there’s a higher chance of that happening than one might think; KENTA’s still a major name, a former star in NOAH and former WWE and NXT talent who has been featured in the main event of AEW Dynamite just a few weeks back. I’m not sure NJPW fans would love KENTA winning this tournament, but it’s also not out of the realm of possibility.

Likelihood of winning: Low

Hiroyoshi Tenzan

Poor Tenzan lost the ability to his signature Mongolian chops after losing a stipulation match with Great-O-Khan. Tenzan can barely walk these, so he’s not beating Ospreay, but I am fascinated to see what Ospreay can do. Has there ever been a greater disparity in athletic ability than Will Ospreay vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan?

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Will Ospreay

To me, all signs point to Ospreay as the winner of this year’s New Japan Cup. He is a truly transcendent in-ring talent, the type of person who should be in the main event picture for years to come. Ospreay is also such a can’t-miss prospect that making him your inaugural champion would add so much potential prestige to the scene, perhaps more so than anyone in the entire company aside from Okada or Naito. He also has the backing of United Empire behind him, reminiscent of Naito’s first IWGP Heavyweight Title win with a heelish Los Ingobernables de Japon.

Likelihood of winning: High

Gabriel Kidd

Kidd is a Young Lion and will not defeat Zack Sabre Jr. in the first round, but don’t pass on that matchup just because the result isn’t in question. These two have wrestled before in another world and Sabre consistently gets the most out of his infrequent chances with the rookies.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Zack Sabre Jr.

Sabre will always have a special relationship with the New Japan Cup, as his remarkable run through a gauntlet of top stars in 2018 provided him with his NJPW breakthrough. Unfortunately, since then, he really hasn’t done all that much aside from a couple nice G1 performances and a very enjoyable tag title reign with Taichi over the last year. Sabre is firmly entrenched in the upper midcard, a wrestler who will rarely lose but has also only been put in that top spot once, meaning he is probably not high on the list of choices to compete for a brand new world championship.

Likelihood of winning: Low

Yota Tsuji

Similar to Kidd, Tsuji is a Young Lion and as such will not advance past the first round. Also similar to Kidd, his first round match should be quite good, as he gets to face Yuji Nagata.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Yuji Nagata

While Nagata is still unbelievably talented, as ageless as anyone in wrestling, his time as a featured member of NJPW’s booking has passed. At this point, all we can hope for is some great matches, and if Ishii ends up beating SANADA, as I suspect, Nagata’s second round match looks appealing.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Tomohiro Ishii

Speaking of ageless wonders, Ishii had phenomenal match against Jay White, seemingly just to remind everyone that he’s as good as it gets in pro wrestling. While I always support Ishii going as far in the tournament as possible, he’s never really felt like a contender to win the whole thing. Would it be a nice story for Ishii to have a Cinderella run to challenge for the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Championship? Of course. Will NJPW do it? Probably not.

Likelihood of winning: Low

SANADA

SANADA feels rather aimless after yet another failed IWGP Heavyweight Championship challenge, his fourth in the last three years. As such, I don’t see NJPW returning to the well with him. NJPW clearly sees tons of potential in SANADA, and I still believe he’ll reach the pinnacle of the company at some point, but right now just doesn’t feel like the time. In fact, I predict SANADA will fall to Ishii in the first round.

Likelihood of winning: Low

David Finlay

In both 2019 and 2020, Finlay was set to make his New Japan Cup debut, and both times, circumstances out of his control prevented him from making that attempt. While Finlay has no chance to win this whole thing, I think we may see a rock-solid first run from Finlay in his debut Cup.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Chase Owens

I really don’t get why NJPW uses Owens the way it does. He’s a solid worker, but he’s been with the company for years now, and offers no real upside. They tried something with him a couple years ago in the New Japan Cup, giving him a win over then-IWGP US Champion Juice Robinson, but that match and his eventual title challenge were plodding, boring messes. Now, he’s stuck feuding with Toru Yano in gimmick matches over a comedy championship. I hope NJPW makes the right call here and has him lose to Filay, but either way, he’s not winning this tournament.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

YOSHI-HASHI

After years of feeling like the only person singing the praises of YOSHI-HASHI, his excellent performance in last year’s G1 Climax started to turn some heads. Since then, he’s also won his first career NJPW championship and will look to capitalize on that in the New Japan Cup. Two years ago, YOSHI-HASHI put together a nice run, defeating Manabu Nakanishi and Chase Owens before losing to Tomohiro Ishii in a truly excellent match, and a similar run could happen this year, based on the competition in his corner of the bracket. Still, YOSHI-HASHI will never be one of NJPW’s top guys, and as such, will fall eventually.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Yujiro Takahashi

Yujiro consistently finds himself in high profile positions through no real effort of his own; he was in a tag team with pre-LIJ Tetsuya Naito, he contributed to AJ Styles’ first IWGP Heavyweight Title win, and he was a major player in EVIL turning on LIJ during last year’s New Japan Cup. Unfortunately for Yujiro, when he’s taken out of those positions, he’s barely used. I could see him getting a win over YOSHI-HASHI in the first round before falling to Finlay in the second, but nobody out of those four has a chance to win the whole thing.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Toa Henare

One of the many unfortunate effects of the pandemic was that it stopped some real potential Henare’s push. He was matched up against Tomohiro Ishii in the first round of last year’s tournament, and many believed that would be Henare’s coming-out party. But the world changed, and aside from a so-so appearance in last year’s World Tag League, Henare has been completely ignored in terms of NJPW’s booking. While I see lots of potential in Henare, I don’t see it coming with an upset victory over Jay White.

Likelihood of winning: Nonexistent

Jay White

The Switchblade is one of the four wrestlers I’ve identified with the best chance to win this tournament. He and Ospreay appear to be the two who are currently being groomed to be the company’s top star going forward, and what better way to establish a new top star with a tournament victory and becoming the inaugural champion? His rivalry with Ibushi is ready-made, featuring classics in both the 2019 G1 finals and this year’s Wrestle Kingdom. If I were booking, I’d save Switchblade’s true coronation for Wrestle Kingdom, likely after EVIL and the rest of Bullet Club turn on him, but any time you have a superstar like him in a tournament like this, he’s one of the favorites.

Likelihood of winning: High

Hiroshi Tanahashi

The Ace, as the current NEVER Openweight Champion—or the now de-facto number-two title in the company—received a bye to the second round, where he’ll face the winner of Jay White vs. Toa Henare. The interesting thing about Tanahashi being the only real singles champion in this tournament (sorry, Yano) is that whomever beats him will have earned a shot at that belt. That’s something to look out for, but it also may not play into anything, as if he loses to White, I don’t see White “lowering” himself to challenge for the NEVER Openweight title. With that  said, Tanahashi’s status as a champion likely prevents any real chance for him to win this tournament, as I highly doubt they’d tease the outcome of a unification with yet another unification.

Likelihood of winning: Low


Predictions

I think there are four wrestlers with a legitimate chance to win this tournament: Kazuchika Okada, Shingo Takagi, Will Ospreay, and Jay White. But out of those four, I think Ospreay makes the most sense, for the reasons outlined above.

Final four: Jeff Cobb, Kazuchika Okada, Will Ospreay, Jay White

Finals: Will Ospreay over Kazuchika Okada

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