When New Japan Pro Wrestling announced the field for its 2017 edition of the New Japan Cup, it was one loaded with both a ton of talent and potential.
The winner would be allowed to challenge for any of the three major singles championships in the promotion: The Never Openweight Championship, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, and the holy grail the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
With the stakes so high, two men stood out as heavy favorites to both win the tournament and place a challenge to reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada: Kenny Omega and Minoru Suzuki.
Bullet Club leader “The Cleaner” Kenny Omega had kept a low profile following his legendary Wrestle Kingdom 11 bid for Okada’s title.
He and the rest of his renegade faction were absent for the majority of February, only returning at the tail end of the month for the ROH/NJPW co-promoted Honor Rising events. It seemed as if he were the likeliest to add the Cup to his growing gaijin resume and we would see a return match against Okada follow.
Shockingly, it wasn’t meant to be. Tomohiro Ishii had other plans in mind and scored a major upset over Omega in the opening round.
The other favorite was Suzuki-Gun kingpin Minoru Suzuki.
He too had waged a memorable war against Okada culminating in a title match at New Beginning in Sapporo. Despite doing massive damage to the Rainmaker’s leg, he fell short when Okada rallied late and put him down with the Rainmaker.
Undaunted, Suzuki and company bounced back with subsequent wins over Okada and various members of the rival CHAOS faction and seemed primed to dominate his way back to a rematch.
In another shocker, he was eliminated in the opening round by Katsuyori Shibata in a grueling battle.
Shibata advancing opened more than a few eyes. Not because a high profile victory from the former three time Never Openweight Champion was all that surprising but because the idea of him winning the big one felt unlikely.
At one point in his career, Shibata had been a can’t miss prospect that New Japan would eventually build itself around.
From his 1999 debut match against Wataru Inoue, he came off as someone destined for greatness alongside then-fellow rookies Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura. At the apex of his assent however, he departed the company in January 2005.
That so much time and effort went into his push was tossed to the side so he could become a freelancer was something the company never fully forgot and would seemingly never forgive. Even after his return in 2012, the possibility of a return to former glory was thought to be out of reach.
None of that prevented Shibata from carving out his own niche though. He and high school friend/rival Hirooki Goto engaged in several classics before becoming a tag team; together they captured the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships from Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows at Wrestle Kingdom 9 and held onto them for a month.
As a singles, Shibata had stand out matches and moments in various G1 Climaxes but to date has never advanced out of his block. Similarly he had won scattered matches in the New Japan Cup but had yet to close out with an eventual win.
That ended this year. Following the Suzuki upset, he defeated Juice Robinson, Ishii, and Bad Luck Fale to win his first singles tournament allowing him to challenge Okada for his first ever World Title match in the company.
Shibata has shown insane amounts of heart and determination but it will take more than even those admirable traits to topple Okada.
When they stare across the ring at one another on April 9 at the Sakura Genesis PPV, Shibata will be looking in the eyes of a true warrior.
While Shibata was working his way through the NJ Cup, Okada was anything but idle. Throughout the tournament he teamed with various members of CHAOS to defeat Omega (after his elimination) and the Bullet Club in a series of multi-man tag team matches. That only bolstered his momentum coming off the aforementioned successful defenses against Omega and Suzuki.
On top of that, he owns a victory over Shibata in their only other encounter in a thrilling classic at G1 23 in 2013.
Perhaps that loss stuck in Shibata’s mind as he turned up the intensity at the standard “Road To” events leading up to the Genesis showdown.
In the headline tag team matches, Shibata and a variety of partners ranging from Yuji Nagata to Tiger Mask IV defeated Okada and trusted CHAOS mate Yoshi-Hashi, Okada only picking up a sole victory in the middle of the tour’s stretch.
Shibata will bring forth his dizzying combination of strong striking capabilities and submission expertise. His go-to finishing sequence of a rear naked choke and Penalty Kick have put away everybody unfortunate enough to feel its wrath.
Yet Okada has demonstrated time and again that there isn’t much he can’t overcome. Tanahashi had his number at the Tokyo Dome for years but he vanquished him eventually.
Tetsuya Naito briefly derailed him but he rocketed back to recapture the title in short order.
Once fired up, Okada strings together a sequence of tombstone piledrivers, diving elbows, Heavy Rain, all ending with the Rainmaker. No matter the punishment sustained, once he gets into that groove it is damn near impossible for opponents to survive the onslaught.
Something will have to give though. Shibata will be the most motivated he’s ever been in his life while Okada will look to add another conquest to his growing dynasty. The action will be hard hitting and unforgiving.
Will Okada pay the penalty that enables Shibata to fulfill his destiny?
Or will Shibata see all his hopes and dreams washed away as Okada makes it rain as only he can?
Find out this Sunday at NJPW Sakura Genesis!