The sixteen competitors have been announced for the fourteenth annual New Japan Cup tournament and it’s a great combination of debuts and returning New Japan Cup winners. There will be no time-limits and it will all be broadcast live on NJPW World starting March 9 through March 21, when the finals take place. The champions have been excluded from the tournament and the winner will have the choice to challenge for the NEVER Openweight championship, the IWGP Intercontinental championship or the IWGP Heavyweight championship on April 1 in the Ryogoku Sumo Hall. Last year, that winner was Katsuyori Shibata and the best match of 2017 was the result, when Kazuchika Okada defended the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against against Shibata at NJPW Sakura Genesis. The match was so intense, Shibata will never wrestle another match in his career due to suffering subdermal hematoma. This year’s lineup holds many interesting rematches and the opening brackets feature big main events like Tetsuya Naito against Zack Sabre Jr on the third night. Let’s take a look at predictions for the brackets starting in Korakuen Hall and the overall winner of the tournament.
Day 1: Tokyo, March 9
“The Tokyo Pimp” Yujiro Takahash (9th New Japan Cup) vs. Juice Robinson (2nd New Japan Cup)
Yujiro Takahashi has competed in the New Japan Cup year after year although he no longer is booked in the annual round-robin G1 Climax tournament. The Bullet Club member has been more focused on his ladies that escort him to the ring than winning matches and that’s why he isn’t as much of a threat as he once was. Kazuchika Okada once lost the IWGP Heavyweight Championship due to Yujiro defecting from CHAOS to Bullet Club, but those days are in the past and Juice Robinson is the one with the bright future heading toward main events in the coming years. Juice has been on a treadmill lately, not going far in singles action, but he was my early pick to win the tournament to challenge for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. A win over Yujiro, and kicking out of the Miami Shine in the process, will keep the popularity and confidence rising for Juice but he unfortunately will surely lose to Tomohiro Ishii in the next round of the tournament.
Michael Elgin (3rd New Japan Cup) vs. Tomohiro Ishii (10th New Japan Cup)
Michael Elgin is going through a turbulent time in his career but that hasn’t stopped the match quality or his bookings in NJPW every month. Elgin and Ishii have had wars in the past with Elgin throwing Ishii into the barricade with a powerbomb in a previous G1 Climax encounter. Elgin is the stronger man, but Ishii uses his experience and endurance to win matches – “The Stone Pitbull” has a reputation for equalizing any bout with a stiff lariat. This may be the best match of the opening round and the offense will be like two cement bricks colliding in the middle of the ring. The Revolution Powerbomb is a game-changer in Elgin’s arsenal, but the Brainbuster by Ishii is the clear cut prediction here.
Day 2: Aichi, March 10
“The Ace” Hiroshi Tanahashi (9th New Japan Cup tournament) vs. Taichi (1st New Japan Cup)
Hiroshi Tanahashi makes his return to New Japan Pro Wrestling after losing the IWGP Intercontinental Championship to Minoru Suzuki on January 27, when Tanahashi’s knee was dismantled. “The Ace” attended the New Japan Cup press conference and stated “I’m not jumping the gun here, I’m fully confident in my condition. I’ll show that I can still go. I’m not as kind as Naito. I may just finish him early” referring to his match with Taichi in the opening round. Taichi has the potential to further his career and earn more gold as he transitions from a Junior Heavyweight to a Heavyweight competitor and Naito is first for Taichi on March 6 at the NJPW 46th Anniversary. Tanahashi may not win another tournament in his career but he has done almost everything and reached lofty achievements in NJPW, as he is a former two time winner of the New Japan Cup tournament. Tanahashi’s right muscle is torn until surgery but that doesn’t stop his remarkable performances and highlight reel moves like the High Fly Flow to the floor. Tanahashi should win but maybe a feud is sparked as a result of this match.
Bad Luck Fale (5th New Japan Cup) vs. Lance Archer (4th New Japan Cup)
Bad Luck Fale won the New Japan Cup in 2015 and made it to the finals last year. Fale doesn’t get as much singles action as he once did when he was wrestling Shinsuke Nakamura just a couple years ago, but he’s a task to just take off his feet in major matches. This should be a match with lots of high-impact moves and both will look to end it early. Lance Archer gets right in the face of everyone he wrestles and this will be no different when Suzuki–Gun collided with Bullet Club. Archer is content with his Killer Elite Squad tag team with Davey Boy Smith Jr, so Fale should win with one of the biggest Bad Luck Falls we have ever seen on a near seven foot man.
Day 3: Hyogo, March 11
YOSHI-HASHI (5th New Japan Cup) vs. “The Golden Star” Kota Ibushi (2nd New Japan Cup tournament)
YOSHI-HASHI just had one of the best matches of his career against Tetsuya Naito at New Beginning In Osaka in a losing effort. The momentum is never really on the side of YOSHI-HASHI, but he can use that to his advantage and win when his opponents least expect it. Karma is one of wrestling’s most devestating and unique finishing moves that Kota Ibushi will surely have well-scouted. After reuniting The Golden Lovers tag team with Kenny Omega, “The Golden Star” still has the big picture in mind and that’s the main event with Kazuchika Okada. If any man can dethrone Okada’s six hundred plus days as champion, in my mind it is Ibushi. YOSHI-HASHI will wrestle a great match but he will fall to the Phoenix Splash. The outcome looks to be Kota Ibushi going far in the tournament and possibly winning it all like he did in his first New Japan Cup appearance in 2015.
Tetsuya Naito (7th New Japan Cup) vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (1st New Japan Cup)
This is the must-see match of the entire brackets until we get to the Semi-Finals with this being a match we haven’t seen outside of once last year. Naito won that match but what was amazing was Sabre taking down Naito and forcing a ground-game for almost the entire match. Sabre is years ahead of his age of thirty and NJPW is a perfect place for him where he can branch out from his matches in the United Kingdom as the British Heavyweight Champion for RevPro and as the EVOLVE Champion. Naito doesn’t like being frustrated, he’s the one that dictates the pace of a match. The style both decide to go in with tell you everything you need to know about the result. Naito will out-smart Sabre and avoid the chain wrestling to go for a more fast pace. It would be great to see Sabre higher up the card in the near future and facing Kazuchika Okada or Minoru Suzuki (his own stable-mate and RevPro tag team champion co-holder) but Naito will secure a victory with Destino. Is it too early for Naito to win the New Japan Cup after failing to Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 12? It was for Kenny Omega last year, Naito has a great chance of going to the finals but SANADA is waiting for him in his own bracket if they both win their matches and Los Ingobernobles De Japon will have to battle for supremacy with EVIL injured with a broken orbital bone.
Day 4: Kagawa, March 12
Davey Boy Smith Jr (3rd New Japan Cup) vs. Toru Yano (12th New Japan Cup)
Toru Yano has competed in every single New Japan Cup tournament in history since 2005. Yano loves to play games to start the match but that’s just to lure his opponent into his traps towards stealing the match. Davey Boy Smith Jr can’t stand wrestlers that don’t take things seriously so this one won’t be a terribly long match. If Yano is successful in his tactics then we could get an upset, although Davey Boy regards himself as more of a tag team wrestler. When Smith’s tag team partner Lance Archer was out with a back injury, Davey Boy Smith Jr didn’t receive too many singles matches, so NJPW may not have much planned for Smith. Yano nails a low-blow and goes on to meet Chuck Taylor or SANADA in the next round.
Chuck Taylor (1st New Japan Cup) vs. SANADA (2nd New Japan Cup)
SANADA just had the match of his life against Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at New Beginning In Osaka. Even though SANADA didn’t win the title that eludes him, the worldwide audience had realized the true, full potential in SANADA we have been waiting for. What SANADA lack in charisma he makes up for in highly athletic offense in lengthy matches. Chuck Taylor enters his very first New Japan Cup tournament after teaming with Baretta in the World Tag League tournament, which was Taylor’s debut in NJPW. Taylor loves to have fun more than any pro wrestler alive but he’s also very efficient at all aspects of the game. Taylor can fly with SANADA and an Awful Waffle could come suddenly in another upset win. It appears though that SANADA gets a decisive victory and his chances are high that he wins the whole thing.
So who wins the 2018 New Japan Cup tournament when we reach the finals on March 21? It really look like Tetsuya Naito gets redemption on paper but a rematch with Kazuchika Okada should wait a few months and a new challenger should rise. Despite Tanahashi returning early, he will likely make it to the Semi-Finals with a showdown with Tomohiro Ishii. Ishii always goes down to Tanahashi and that was no different last year. The factions are all in the mix with Suzuki-Gun, Bullet Club and Los Ingobernobles De Japon in the tournament but what if a CHAOS member won and challenged fellow CHAOS member Okada? Tomohiro Ishii brawling with Okada for the IWGP heavyweight championship would be a classic rematch from the 2015 G1 Climax tournament. What’s most interesting is that Ishii won that G1 Climax match and never received a title shot, but others that pinned Okada in G1 have received title shots like EVIL at King Of Pro Wrestling last year. It would be bittersweet if Ishii got his rematch three years later with “The Rainmaker” for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship instead of challenging for any other championship. Ishii enjoys his team with Toru Yano but he wants more out of his career – he has never been heavyweight champion in his twenty-two year career.