For the second year in a row, New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s USA branch, NJPW Strong, will be presenting the New Japan Cup USA. Last year’s tournament, which ran from August 7 – 21, was won by KENTA. The prize was a chance to contest for the NJPW United States Championship, which was held then (and currently) by AEW star, Jon Moxley. This year, NJPW has raised the stakes, as the winner of the New Japan Cup USA will be crowned with a brand new championship. This year’s tournament features some familiar faces as wrestlers representing Major League Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and NJPW, will all compete for the glory and right to be named the first-ever NJPW Strong openweight champion. Let’s take a look at the field of the elite eight and the matchups on tap for the quarterfinal round, which takes place on April 9.
Brody King vs Chris Dickinson
Brody King – Making his return to the New Japan Cup USA, and doing so with a new chip on his shoulder, is ROH wrestler, Brody King. The 34-year-old King lost in the first round of last year’s cup, as he was pinned by Tama Tonga. But this time around, King returns looking to make it much further and possibly even win the tournament and the title. After spending much of the last few years with Villain Enterprises, King is now at the helm of a faction of his own (which just so happens to feature his quarterfinal opponent) as he looks to feud with Los Familia Ingobernables and their leader, RUSH. As ROH 19th Anniversary went off the air, King stood tall, his sights on the ROH World Championship made clear. A regular on NJPW Strong, King is looking to find success within that show as well. He’s picked up a handful of singles wins recently, including against Bateman to qualify for the New Japan Cup USA. Overall in his career, King has won seven titles, many of which have come in the tag team scene. But now, King is in pursuit of singles gold, both in ROH and NJPW, and he certainly has to be one of the favorites to come away with the new title.
Chris Dickinson – One of NJPW Strong’s newer wrestlers, longtime indie veteran Chris Dickinson is getting his overdue and well-deserved chance with a major promotion. Recently aligning himself with Team Filthy, the 33-year-old Dickinson brings quite the resume to his first appearance in the New Japan Cup USA. A nine-time champion across six different promotions, the “Dirty Daddy,” has wrestled for just about every major indie company in the U.S. Dickinson was primed to have his breakout at 2020’s WrestleMania Week, with nearly 10 matches scheduled for the extravaganza. COVID-19 put a damper on that, but only for the time being. Dickinson made his mark the following year in a big way, debuting in NJPW in 2021 and posting a record of 5-1 in his first six matches on NJPW Strong. One of these included his victory over Blake Christian to qualify for the New Japan Cup USA. A force to be reckoned with in NJPW Strong, Dickinson has to be someone looked at to go far in this tournament with a potential final against his Team Filthy partner looming.
Both King and Dickinson bring experience and success to the table and both are guys who NJPW could build around as the new champion. This is a first-round matchup that really is worthy of the finals as it should be hard-hitting and engaging throughout. Not to mention, these are two guys who know each other very well, especially lately as they’ve joined forces in ROH. It’s a tough call but we’ll give the slight edge to King here to better his result from last year and advance to the semifinal.
Clark Connors vs Lio Rush
Clark Connors – Looking to prove he is a young lion no more, the 27-year-old Clark Connors is hoping to make his New Japan Cup USA debut in a big way. Wrestling only since 2017, Connors spent much of his early career with West Coast Wrestling Connection and DEFY, before making his ROH debut in a proving ground match in 2019. Connors would then go on to spend time in NJPW’s LA Dojo, where he added Katsuyori Shibata to his list of trainers, a list that already included Lance Storm. Considered one of the dojo’s most promising prospects, Connors shot to success in NJPW Strong, where he has been a fixture for the show since the beginning. The winner of the first-ever Lion’s Break Crown Tournament in 2020, Connors officially graduated from the dojo earlier this year. In his young career, Connors has taken part in the Young Lion Cup, the Super-J Cup, and teamed with TJP in the Super Junior Tag League. But now, after defeating his partner and mentor TJP, Connors’ biggest opportunity awaits as he has his eyes on his first-ever career title, the Strong Openweight Championship.
Lio Rush – “The Man of the Hour,” Lio Rush has been on a tear since leaving WWE last year. The 26-year-old standout, Rush came to WWE in 2017 following an explosive indie career that saw him win six titles and achieve stardom in promotions such as Combat Zone Wrestling, ROH, Evolve Wrestling, PWG, and more. In WWE, Rush also found success, winning the company’s Cruiserweight Championship. Since leaving WWE, Rush has added two more accolades to his resume, including the MLW Middleweight Championship which he won in a must-see match against Myron Reed. Rush made his NJPW debut in last year’s Super-J Cup, but lost in the first round. In 2021 however, the young star has been in the midst of some of the best work of his career and some of this has been seen on Strong. Despite only wrestling a few matches for the show, Rush has impressed. He defeated longtime NJPW vet Rocky Romero to qualify for this year’s cup, the first appearance of his career.
Another tough match to call, this quarterfinal pits two young and hungry wrestlers against each other in what is sure to be a great contest. Rush is looking to continue his recent run of success and Connors is primed to shed the label that defined his early career. The young lion is no doubt one of the names Strong will be built on, but Rush’s momentum may be too much to quell here. This should be a top-notch match but in the end, look for Rush to advance for a showdown with King.
Ren Narita vs Tom Lawlor
Ren Narita – Speaking of young lions, the 23-year-old Ren Narita is one of the LA Dojo’s rising stars, and for good reason. Just three years a pro, Narita has been a young lion since 2017. In the ensuing three-plus years, he’s managed to turn heads, taking part in the Best of the Super Junior Tournament and finishing second in the Young Lion Cup, both in 2019. Shortly after, Narita joined the dojo, where he is refining his skills under Shibata’s watchful eye. Perhaps this tournament’s biggest underdog, Narita has a bright future in NJPW and he’s shown that this year on Strong with wins over Bateman, Dickinson, and Misterioso to earn his spot in the New Japan Cup USA.
Tom Lawlor – From the octagon to the squared circle, Tom Lawlor has enjoyed a fantastic pro wrestling career despite only really being active on the scene for the last four-plus years. The 37-year-old exudes heel heat and has found success in no shortage of promotions, namely MLW, where he is a former world heavyweight champion. The leader of Team Filthy, Lawlor has begun his NJPW career with a perfect 4-0 singles record in singles competition, picking up wins over wins over Alex Coughlin, Fred Rosser, and Romero, before defeating The DKC to qualify for his first-ever New Japan Cup USA. One of Strong’s top names to watch, Lawlor has brought his talent and his crew over to the Friday night program, adding JR Kratos, Danny Limelight, and Dickinson to the Team Filthy ranks. The group, which has representatives in MLW and now NJPW, is part of the reason for Lawlor’s sustained success. He is no doubt one of the favorites to win the cup this year and the shiny new title that comes with it.
Ren Narita is going to be a big name in Japan one day, but that day is not today. Sometimes you just get unlucky with a first-round matchup and such is the case here. Lawlor is one of the guys at the top of the list to walk away with the title and beating Narita is just the first stop on that journey.
Fred Rosser vs Hikuleo
Fred Rosser – A professional wrestler since 2002, the 37-year-old Fred Rosser has found a home in NJPW Strong. Mostly known for his time in Chaotic Wrestling and then of course, in WWE as Darren Young, Rosser had largely left wrestling in 2017 following his departure from Vince McMahon‘s company. He took part in just a handful of matches over the next two years, but then, in 2019, NJPW Strong came calling. One of Strong’s earlier additions, debuting on the fifth episode of the program, Rosser has had an up-and-down record with the promotion. But the former Prime Time Player and Nexus member hasn’t let that stop him from putting forth solid matches every time out. Rosser has won nine titles in his career, but none since 2015. He’ll look to turn that around with a strong showing in his New Japan Cup USA debut.
Hikuleo – The younger brother of legendary NJPW tag team, Guerrillas of Destiny, the 30-year-old Hikuleo has carved his own path since being on excursion in the U.S. and UK with Rev Pro Wrestling. Hikuleo made his in-ring debut in 2016 and has spent the next several years honing his craft, preparing for a return to Japan, perhaps to stand by his brothers’ side. But in the meantime, Bullet Club‘s “Young Gun” has impressed with NJPW Strong, picking up wins over King, TJP, and Jordan Clearwater to qualify for the New Japan Cup USA. But winning the cup may not be Hikuleo’s only goal. With a controversial loss to Rosser as the only blemish on his Strong singles record, Hikuleo demanded to face his rival in the first round, a demand that was granted.
This should be a real fight between two of NJPW Strong’s top hosses. The bad blood between Hikuleo and Rosser should lend itself to this being one of the more brutal matches of the first round of the New Japan Cup USA. Both men have a real shot to win this and Hikuleo will no doubt look to avenge his loss to Rosser earlier this year. But with talk that the Tongan is headed back to Japan perhaps sooner rather than later, we’re backing Rosser in this one, to advance to a semifinal meeting with Lawlor.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. You can watch New Japan Pro Wrestling and NJPW Strong on NJPWWorld.com; The King of Sports Streaming. Make sure to follow the New Japan Cup USA, from April 9 – 23.
Looking to talk wrestling, pro football, or any number of sports? Head on over to the LWOS Boards to engage in conversation with fellow fans and discuss NJPW.