March has been an action packed month for New Japan Pro Wrestling, as we followed the gripping New Japan Cup 2021. From start to finish, we witnessed near countless great matches – with a few tournament MVPs standing out from the crowd.
Of course, finalist Shingo Takagi was an invaluable asset of the tournament, but under him the likes of David Finlay, Hirooki Goto, Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre Jr. and KENTA shone very brightly too.
Before I venture into my top 5 must-see matches from the month-long tournament, I’m going to throw in a smattering of honourable mentions:
– Zack Sabre Jr. (who will get a much-deserved mention in my top 5 later) had a fantastic technical fusion of the British catch-as-catch-can and traditional Japanese styles, against Young Lion Gabriel Kidd. Hirooki Goto and Taichi’s first round match was great, as was Minoru Suzuki’s battle with Tomoaki Honma, the following day.
– KENTA and Jay White both exuded great character work during the tournament, and while their match quality wasn’t quite at the very highest level, their cup matches (and accompanying promos) are well worth a watch.
Now, down to business.
1. Shingo Takagi vs Will Ospreay (Final – 21st March)
Kicking off my list is ironically the match which closed off the tournament: the final itself.
After both taking fantastic routes to the final, Shingo and Ospreay embarked on a great battle for the Cup’s overall spoils. Shingo focusde on both the injured shoulder and broken nose of Ospreay, while the Brit worked over his opponent’s already taped-up lower back.
This brought a nice, well-rounded structure to the match, as they each had a different body part which they went after almost unwaveringly. While I disliked SANADA’s tedious work of Ospreay’s nose in their Quarter Final encounter, it worked much better here as Shingo employed a more deliberate style than his contemporary.
Simply put, Shingo Takagi is the best wrestler in the world right now, and as such him putting on a killer match is nowhere near a surprise. He can wrestle a vast array of different matches – as his cup campaign demonstrated – with this only one of many examples.
2. Shingo Takagi vs Hirooki Goto (Quarter Final – 13th March)
Speaking of Shingo Takagi, his second round face-off with Hirooki Goto is further fuel to the fire of saying he is the best wrestler the world has to offer. This match was as hard hitting as you would expect. Strong style influences ran deep, as both men hit their adversary with glorious strikes, kicks and headbutts.
There is seemingly a constant flow of opinion which says Goto isn’t as good as he deserves credit for, but every year he delivers matches like this one, confirming that Goto is still a top level wrestler within NJPW.
Goto and Shingo have great in-ring chemistry, and this continued in their New Japan Cup face-off all the same, so it’s definitely worthy of its 4th place position on my list. They displayed their undeniable connection through various striking exchanges, counter sequences and a fiery, climatic closing stretch.
3. David Finlay vs Will Ospreay (Semi Final – 20th March)
David Finlay has had quite the tournament. His semi-final clash with Ospreay is the pick of a pretty great bunch. A sympathetic babyface isn’t the easiest role to play, but Finlay played it to utter perfection in this encounter.
Having landed horribly on his ankle when Ospreay reversed an Acid Drop attempt by launching him unceremoniously to ringside (and into the guardrails), he had his injury tortured for the remainder of the match. Ospreay played his part well too, but my focus is on the superb work Finlay showcased in selling his painful injury.
The facial expressions, agonising screams and willingness to throw caution to the wind married together a great wrestling match. When Finlay, for just a split second, looked like he was going to win despite the injury, it was piercingly snatched away from us. In defeat Finlay proved himself a great underdog wrestler. Perhaps, it is because he was defeated that he has proven himself as much as he did.
If the Jay White victory elevated his status, then his defeat to Ospreay cemented it.
Every good story has a great start and a great finish. Now, I’ve already looked at the finish, so it’s only right I touch on the start, too.
Shingo Takagi and Kazuchika Okada meeting in the New Japan Cup first round was a dream and a nightmare at the very same time. A dream because, well, it’s Okada vs Shingo, but a nightmare because it was set to wreck the brackets of anyone brave enough to make bold predictions for the tournament.
The match was very smart in the way it focused its energy on the pre-established injury to Okada’s back, an injury which had plagued the ‘Rainmaker’ for, what looks like, a significant portion of the year so far. Shingo’s aforementioned skill to work a multitude of different styles is delightfully clear here too, as a match focused on Okada’s back is unlike any of his other tournament outings.
Okada deserved a rest from high-intensity singles matches to allow his back to heal properly, so this match was a great way to both set that in motion and kickstart a great cup run for ‘The Dragon’.
5. Will Ospreay vs Zack Sabre Jr. (Quarter Final – 14th March)
Will Ospreay and Zack Sabre Jr. have wrestled timeless classic after timeless classic against one another in recent years, their most recent encounter being no exception to the overwhelming rule. There is a lot to unpack in this match just as a result of the sheer quality of detail it fused together.
Including pleasing callbacks to, and storyline progression from, their previous matches together, the match offered a well-rounded presentation of where these two are currently. This encounter was in noticeable contrast to their other clashes. The variety of their feud’s matches speak to their undeniable chemistry, and a much-needed quality of being able to craft great matches with one another.
Zack played the babyface, whereas before this spot was reserved for Ospreay. No matter their character roles, they never fail to amaze. For me, the unexpected (and unplanned) inclusion of blood served to heighten already palpable tension, as it encased the lengths to which these two were willing to go in order to reach New Japan Cup glory.
All in all, it’s been a wonderful tournament for NJPW, punctuated by stellar matches, intriguing storyline development and all-important character advancement throughout.
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