New Japan Cup Bracketology

New Japan Pro Wrestling has announced that they are returning to regularly scheduled shows on Monday June 15th. The following day on June 16th, The New Japan Cup will begin! 32 men will enter this prestigious tournament, one man will prevail.

New Japan Cup 2020
Credit: NJPW World

The Cup final is on Saturday July 11th. The winner of the Cup will meet the IWGP Intercontinental and World champion Tetsuya Naito at The Dominion show the following night on July 12th.

We are getting a New Japan Cup AND Dominion within a 30 day period!? Shut up and take my money right now. The 16th New Japan Cup will start in June for the first time ever, this is all due to the Global pandemic putting a damper on the entire World’s plans for 2020. The New Japan Cup usually leads into Invasion Attack or the Sakura Genesis show. This year, those plans were scrapped and we are headed straight to the promise land that is THE Dominion show on July 12.

I am deeply fascinated by tournaments and brackets. My obsession with them began in 1989 and the NCAA college basketball tournament. I’ve been following brackets since I was four years old. My mom can recall a memory of me reading cards at a local target with perfect annunciation. Apparently a dozen people gathered around as I read a handful of cards and left folks shocked by my vocabulary. That spawned off to my OWN Sports Illustrated subscription when I was seven. While I have a vivid memory of sports history, I can remember seeing the SI issue with the 1989 college basketball bracket.

This beautiful, blank bracket with 2 sides of 32 teams. You can fill in the lines for office pool subscriptions or be your very own Nostradamus and predict who will win the championship. I proceeded to take 1st place twice and 2nd in my dad’s bracket pool 3 years running. From the ages of 9-11, I studied and was absolutely obsessed with brackets.

The 2016 New Japan Cup bracketCredit: New Japan Pro Wrestling

Wrestling Tournaments have such a special feel to them. The element of mystery with which talent will prevail in your favorite company. Who will have the rocket strapped to their back and represent their promotion as a tournament winner or a new champion? Tetsuya Naito was able to use his 2016 New Japan Cup tournament win as a stepping stone to his first IWGP Heavyweight championship. After returning from excursion in the Summer of 2015 with his newfound tranquilo persona, Naito captured lightning in a bottle and New Japan fans took notice.

Naito formed The Los Ingobernables de Japon stable upon his return. He used this newly formed stable to help catapult him to the top of the New Japan mountain. Kazuchika Okada has used his two New Japan Cup wins and converted those into two successful IWGP Heavyweight title reigns. Shinsuke Nakamura used his 2014 Cup victory and cashed in with an IWGP Intercontinental championship win over Hiroshi Tanahashi, making history as the only man to challenge and win the IWGP IC title after winning a New Japan Cup. These types of tournaments can indeed either make or break a talent.

Shinsuke Nakamura, Intercontinental Champion, 2014
Credit: NJPW

Since we are in the midst of a Global pandemic, I made an executive decision to run a handful of wrestling tournaments on Twitter. There were 4 different Twitter tournament formats for the wrestling community to vote upon. You could see there was genuine interest to fill a void left, as sports and pro wrestling came to a screeching halt. These brackets were a great distraction from today’s current events and also served a purpose. What were the opinions of our wonderful wrestling community on social media?

One of these tournaments came down to who people thought the best wrestler in Japan was from 1980-2020. The winner as voted on by the fans was New Japan Pro Wrestling’s “Ace” Hiroshi Tanahashi.

Folks, New Japan last ran a show on February 26th, 2020. So the excitement that has ensued in the last week has been incredible. While a few promotions decided to run empty arena shows during the pandemic, (we thank them so much for entertaining us during this unprecedented time) New Japan opted to shut down operations during the same time period. When news came down that the “King Of Pro Wrestling” was making its triumphant return to action, it was met with a joyous response from the wrestling community.

With almost four months off, New Japan Pro Wrestling had an unfortunate “offseason” for the first time in its 48 year history. While the shutdown was disappointing, there was a big positive outcome that came out of this.

Four months off is likely going to extend the careers of men like Tanahashi, Minoru Suzuki, Kota Ibushi and IWGP double champion Tetsuya Naito. Injuries have healed with the extra time away, giving them all a rejuvenated outlook in the immediate future. Wrestling is an amazing form of entertainment that doesn’t come without physical repercussions. I have a total appreciation for what these men and women do on a regular basis. The athleticism, stories told, and the passion from the performers are what make professional wrestling so appealing to fans all around the world.

Which leads us to two of my biggest passions on June 16th, wrestling and tournaments. We have the New Japan Cup front and center next week! A few talents were unable to travel due to COVID-19 safety precautions. So we have Junior heavyweights and taking some of the spots in the field. We get to see men like Hiromu Takahashi, SHO, YOH and Bushi take part. Which adds a mysterious element to the Cup’s outcomes. Here is a quick synopsis of what the 32 man field looks like this.

Your top quadrant belongs to two men, Takahashi and Tomohiro Ishii. While Toru Yano will have usual comedic relief match(es) in this tournament and pull of an upset; this spot in the final 4 will come down to Takahashi and Ishii. Gedo has been a master booker in his time with New Japan. He loves to give you an upset special during a tournament. Could he possibly hand the keys over to the IWGP Junior heavyweight champion? That would be special, but my money is on the workhorse Tomohiro Ishii. He is a man who puts on top flight matches every night but has come up short in major championship situations. He will not be outdone in the top half of the bracket.

Kazuchika Okada: Credit: Sportskeeda.com 2019
Kazuchika Okada- Credit: Sportskeeda.com

Quadrant 2 belongs to Kazuchika Okada. He is one of the best wrestlers in the World, and New Japan books and treats him as such. While he could have a tricky encounter with the always dangerous Minoru Suzuki, Okada will advance there. We could also see an Okada-Taiji Ishimori quarterfinal which would be delightful for wrestling fans. A top junior taking on the World’s best is not often seen. Nonetheless, this is Okada’s quadrant to lose. He’ll advance.

Quadrant 3 is overloaded with star power. Kota Ibushi meets Zach Sabre Jr for the 3rd year in a row at the New Japan Cup, this time in the first round! Hiroshi Tanahashi battles Taichi, and SHO will once again meet Shingo Takagi in a tournament setting. Their best of the Super Juniors bout in 2019 was one of the best in the tournament. Not to mention, SANADA is also in this quadrant and lurking to breakthrough and win singles gold. Sabre won the Cup in 2018, Ibushi in 2015. Tanahashi has won twice and while experience matters, it goes against New Japan logic to see repeat winners. I’m taking SANADA to get back to the Cup’s final 4.

SANADA New Japan Cup, 2019
Credit: NJPW

Your final quadrant features a lot of veterans and junior heavyweight talents. It would be amazing to see a guy like Bushi or YOH make the Final 4. Cinderella only makes it so far in these field settings. So I’m going with a proven talent to emerge from this 4th side of the bracket. I’ll take EVIL to defeat Hirooki Goto in round 2 and continue that momentum into the final 4.

We’re now left with Okada vs Ishii and EVIL vs SANADA in the semi-finals. Two CHAOS members going one on one. As well as two LIJ members squaring off in the other matchup. Okada and SANADA met in the final of the New Japan Cup last year. Gedo has a sharp memory and likes to throw twists in these situations. Ishii will pull off the biggest upset of his career and defeat Okada. While SANADA will prevail against his tag team partner.

Ishii vs SANADA, a contrast of styles in the New Japan Cup final. As alluded to earlier, Ishii is known to fall just short in big time situations. SANADA made it to the semifinals in 2018 and the Cup finals in 2019. You will see a match of the year type bout between these two warriors and I look for SANADA to become the 2020 New Japan Cup tournament winner. Which ensures he will meet his fellow LIJ stablemate Tetsuya Naito for IWGP double gold on July 12th at Dominion.

Folks, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. New Japan is up and running. We may see the Best Of Super Juniors and G1 Climax run later in 2020. Give me ALL of the tournament settings please! The New Japan Cup will provide the blueprint for how the rest of 2020 is ran going forward by The Kings Of Pro Wrestling. To which I say, if you’re not excited about this tournament bracket kicking off on Tuesday June 16th, you better check your pulse.