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NJPW: KUSHIDA, other newcomers invigorate Junior Heavyweight division

KUSHIDA returns to NJPW

KUSHIDA officially returns to NJPW this weekend for their a three-night stand at Korakuen Hall beginning July 3.

Although he is a six-time former junior heavyweight champion and an NJPW legend, KUSHIDA was gone long enough he feels fresh again. His return is a welcome shot in the arm to a division that is building momentum, as new faces from the Best of the Super Juniors 29 (BOSJ 29) tournament combine with the returning hero.

With restrictions in entering Japan are easing, and with fresh talent desperately needed, several new names were brought in for BOSJ 29. The good news for NJPW is that each did well and got over, which brings us a range of possible new matchups.

Here is a look at the wrestlers who weren’t figured in only a few months ago who could now have a big impact in the junior heavyweight division.

KUSHIDA

The biggest addition to the roster is KUSHIDA. He begins his run at Ishimori with series of tags pitting him against the champion and various Bullet Club partners, building toward an eventual title confrontation between the two. This is a smart move on all counts, as it will allow KUSHIDA to get shake off the WWE style and get back into the NJPW groove. He was used so rarely and so ineffectively in WWE he might have some rust to shake off.

Ishimori’s heel run with Bullet Club began about a year before KUSHIDA left for his unfortunate stint on WWE’s NXT brand. KUSHIDA never gained much traction in WWE, spending most of his time in the mid-card or even lower in the pecking order. Ishimori, meanwhile, established himself as one of the top junior heavyweight heels in the business. NJPW knows what they have in KUSHIDA and put him back in the title picture immediately.

Fans in Japan know what they have as well. KUSHIDA’s return after Taiji Ishimori successfully defended his IWGP Junior Heavyweight title against Hiromu Takahashi was met with great excitement from the Korakuen Hall crowd. Many of those same fans will be happy to see him back in the ring this coming weekend.

The heel-babyface dynamic is strong between these two. KUSHIDA is as pure a babyface as you can get, literally and figuratively. Ishimori is aligned with Bullet Club, the only pure heel faction in NJPW. We know both men are excellent workers, and KUSHIDA should be motivated to show he’s still on a top level. Their matches should be exciting to see.

Clark Connors

Connors is back in Japan after filling in for Tomohiro Ishii in a terrific performance at the Forbidden Door pay-per-view. All you can expect from someone in a last-minute substitute role is to work as hard as they can and get over. Connors accomplished that goal in a big way. After selling for the first part of his four-way match with Pac, Miro and Malakai Black, he went on a surprise offensive tear that put Miro through a table and had the crowd in Chicago chanting his name.

That showing came after he shined in the BOSJ tournament. Connors had a 4–5 record in his nine matches, but he looked good almost every night of the tour. He may not always be a junior heavyweight, but for now he’s a new babyface whose confidence seems to be growing show-by-show.

Alex Zayne

Zayne had a strong start to his BOSJ run, winning four of his first six matches before doing jobs down the stretch to clear the way for the New Japan mainstays such as Takahashi, Ishimori and SHO to finish at the top of the table. Still, Zayne got over with the fans in Japan and has been brought back for the tour beginning this weekend.

While Zayne isn’t a classic high flyer, he is capable of high spots when needed. He also resonated with the Japanese audience this Spring. He’s aligned with the Chaos faction on this tour, which gives him more chances to establish himself as a babyface.

Ace Austin

While not part of this tour, Austin got over in BOSJ 29 through his clever use of the magician gimmick and his subsequent heel turn on finals night, joining Bullet Club. His actions led to a heel finish on a prominent card, and this was when he officially turned. It showed us that NJPW has plans for him in the future.

His time in Japan will be limited as he is currently working with IMPACT! wrestling. He dropped the X-Division title to Mike Bailey and Slammiversary on June 19, so that could free him up for more NJPW work in the near future.

Francesco Akira and TJP

While TJP is a veteran, Akira is a new face for NJPW fans. Each finished this year’s BOSJ with eight points, but more importantly they became a new heel junior heavyweight team. They captured the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles from Master Wato and Ryusuke Taguchi soon after BOSJ 29 ended.

While Akira and TJP aren’t on this set of Korakuen Hall shows, they will be defending their titles someday. As part of the United Empire group, they can end up facing Bullet Club and be the babyfaces, or they can take the villain role against the other factions. Their title run gives the company plenty of options.

Titan, Wheeler Yuta & El Lindaman

These three had good moments during the tournament as well, but are stars for other companies and are likely to be occasional guests rather than steady NJPW stars. Titan is a CMLL guy and could come back for occasional tournaments. He could also be a featured guy if they bring back FantasticaMania, the tour NJPW did for years before the pandemic, featuring CMLL stars.

Yuta is moving up the ranks in AEW as part of Blackpool Combat Club, so he’s more likely to be in the States. He is likely to be brought in for future crossover shows.

The same can be said for Lindaman, a star from the GLEAT promotion. As long as the GLEAT-NJPW alliance remains intact, he’ll be making appearances now and then.

These fresh faces and the refreshed legend have the potential to provide good matches while putting new characters in front of the NJPW audience. That audience has clapped and stomped patiently, having seen little change in the roster since early 2020. It’s easy to imagine they’ll be ready to cheer and boo these new stars enthusiastically as soon as they’re allowed.


NJPW will broadcast the first of its NEW JAPAN ROAD series from Korakuen Hall in Tokyo on July 3 on the NJPW World streaming service at 2:30 a.m. (PT)/5:30 a.m. (ET)/10:30 a.m. (BST)

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