The annual New Japan Cup kicked off in Nagoya on Saturday, with a first round of matches that threw up a couple of shocks, but precious little excitement.

Suzuki-gun (El Desperado & TAKA Michinoku) vs. Ryusuke Taguchi & Hirai Kawato
The plucky Kawato started off against TAKA, and he held his own until Desperado snuck in a kick from the apron. That’s where things went south for the rookie, as Desperado tagged in and tore apart at his taped-up shoulder, with Taguchi sporadically coming in to make the save.

TAKA and Kawato trade dropkicks, and then we get Taguchi’s hip attacks, before he and TAKA land enziguiris to drop the other. A springboard dropkick from Kawato takes down Desperado for a near-fall as he again tried to eke out a win, only to get flattened with a spinebuster as the veteran took over.

We almost had a shock when a Taguchi help attack knocked Desperado into a backslide for a near-fall, but after an eye rake took out Taguchi it was only a matter of time before a gutwrench powerbomb earned Desperado the win. Quick and inoffensive for an opener – Kawato’s good in his role as a plucky Young Lion who’s desperately trying to run before he can walk. **½

Manabu Nakanishi, Tiger Mask & Tomoyuki Oka vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima & Jushin “Thunder” Liger
You know the score with these – Tenzan and Nakanishi started, trading slow-motion shoulder tackles before Tenzan went to headbutts and Mongolian chops. Tenzan busts out a Kokeshi for a near-fall – because his hit – before Liger and Tiger came in, with the latter dropkicking Liger to the outside for a tope.

Tomoyuki Oka begged to be brought in against a downed Liger, keeping up the slight issue they had at the anniversary shows, and Oka gleefully put the boots to the veteran. Liger takes an atomic drop into the corner, but managed a comeback against Tiger Mask, hitting a Shotei. Kojima adds the machine gun chops to Tiger, who replied with a Tiger bomb before reaching out for the tag.

Oka squashes Kojima with a lariat, before an overhead belly-to-belly suplex and a big splash from Nakanishi softened up the tag champion for a Boston crab, but Nakanishi easily powered out. Of course, in the end it was Oka who took the fall with the Strong Arm lariat, bringing an end to a typical New Japan Dads (plus Nakanishi’s “son”) tag. **½

Kenny Omega & Yujiro Takahashi vs. YOSHI-HASHI & Tomohiro Ishii
Takahashi dispatched Ishii to the outside before the bell, just so he could go after YOSHI-HASHI by himself. That didn’t work, as a step-up rana too down Omega, who then had to deal with Ishii’s forearms and chops.

The preview for tomorrow’s cup match saw Ishii hit a back suplex, before he was taken to the outside by Takahashi, which is where the pendulum swung. Takahashi worked over Ishii’s left leg, before unwisely going into a slapping fight… which he lost. Ishii tried for a suplex, before having to make do with a slam, only for Omega to rush in and knock YOSHI-HASHI off the apron to prevent a tag out.

Ishii finally makes that tag in and goes after Yujiro with shoulder tackles and a flip neckbreaker. The Bunker Buster gets Yujiro a two-count, before a Fisherman’s buster takes down the Head Hunter as Omega returned to the fray, landing a gutwrench powerbomb for a two-count. Ishii cuts off Omega’s momentum with a lariat, whilst YOSHI-HASHI threw in one of his and a flipping powerbomb for another two-count.

Omega elbows out of a pumphandle driver attempt, then gets caught with a back cracker before the Bullet Club leader breezed into a comeback with a knee trigger and the One Winged Angel for the win. Nothing spectacular, but nothing horrible either – it was just there, really. **¾

Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, Hiromu Takahashi, SANADA & BUSHI) vs. Katsuyori Shibata, KUSHIDA, Juice Robinson & David Finlay
KUSHIDA demanded that he start against Takahashi, and that’s what we got for a change… with Takahashi raking the eyes of his next challenger, who replied with chops and shoulder tackles.

In a fun spot, KUSHIDA tried for an ankle lock – and yes, Takahashi was still scared of it – before we segued to Finlay and BUSHI, before a tag gave way to Robinson. Juice caught a crossbody from BUSHI and turned it into a Fireman’s carry only for SANADA to break it up as the match spilled to the outside.

BUSHI used his t-shirt to choke away on Juice whilst Tetsuya Naito went at Finlay’s shoulder in the crowd. Back inside, Naito gets a near-fall out of a neckbreaker on Juice, then SANADA tried to beat on Shibata. Which went about as well as you’d imagine, with Shinata unloading with forearms and a diving dropkick in the corner.

BUSHI breaks up an abdominal stretch from Shibata, but gets knocked to the outside, before SANADA eats an STO after he tried for an eye rake. SANADA takes a uranage backbreaker from Finlay for a two-count, before his Skull End attempt on Finlay’s ended as the ring filled up for a parade of moves that left everyone laying. The ring quickly cleared, allowing SANADA to put the Skull End back on for the tap-out. Decent, but very low on the list of fun Ingobernables tags. **¾

Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Taichi & Takashi Iizuka) vs. Kazuchika Okada, Hirooki Goto, Gedo & Jado
Desperado had the short straw this time, trying to control Iizuka’s leash, and we had a jump start again as Suzuki went straight for Okada. The IWGP quickly countered by sending Suzuki chest-first into the guard railings, as Kanemaru and Jado stayed in the ring for some chops.

Gedo took a rope-hung armbar as the tide swung in Suzuki-gun’s way, whilst Iizuka and Taichi headed to the crowd again. Yep, it’s one of THOSE Suzuki-gun tags. Suzuki and Okada headed up the ramp for some stomping, whilst Taichi drove his mic stand, then the ring bell into Gedo’s eyes. Some eye rakes followed, as Taichi and TAKA did the “low blow, fake count” gimmick. This’ll be entertaining some people… not me.

Suzuki tags in and makes things interesting with a keylock on Gedo, then a double leglock to Gedo and Okada at the same time. Iizuka continues to wear down on Gedo’s leg, before Hirooki Goto finally made a tag in to drop Iizuka with a spinning heel kick and a back suplex for a near-fall. A choke from Iizuka takes down Goto, before Okada came back in to drop Suzuki with a DDT and an uppercut for a near-fall.

Suzuki avoids an Okada dropkick then immediately tags out… but all of Suzuki-gun enters the ring for a series of avalanches, before Taichi scored a two-count from a Suzuki PK. A neckbreaker slam takes down Taichi, as Okada gets in a top rope elbow drop, only for the ring to fill once more as Taichi manages to drill Okada with the mic stand for a near-fall, before a Rainmaker manages to put away Taichi for the pin. Eh, this isn’t going to figure highly on Okada’s match-of-the-year ballots – an average match dragged down with the usual Suzuki-gun antics. **¼

New Japan Cup – First Round: Tanga Loa vs. Yuji Nagata
Nagata was replacing the injured Tomoaki Honma in the tournament, and my word, Nagata was giving me G1 flashbacks as his entire spine was covered in marks from cupping therapy.

They traded holds at the start, with Tanga Loa surprisingly forcing Yuji into the ropes with a hammerlock in a shockingly technical start. A drop toehold sees Nagata try for an early armbar, but Loa scrambled to the ropes before recovering with a slam that sent Nagata rolling to the floor. His back can’t have been helped by an Irish whip into the guard railings, which left him open for some forearms from above… all to the eerily-familiar sound of indifference. I thought the Guerrillas of Destiny had left that behind.

Back inside, Loa keeps up the pressure with a legdrop for a near-fall, before scoring with a running powerslam as he went up top for a swandive headbutt… and missed! The Nagata comeback came by way of kicks, with a Yakuza kick eventually getting followed by an Exploder for a near-fall. Loa thought he’d won it with a German suplex, before trying for a Cobra clutch… which Nagata swiftly reversed out of and into the armbar.

Tanga Loa rolled him up but only got a near-fall as Nagata went back to the kicks, before he was caught and drilled into the corner. Nagata rebounded with another Yakuza kick, then a brainbuster for a near-fall, before landing the Backdrop Hold for the win! This was… a match, at best. The indifference from the crowd didn’t help, nor did the fact that this felt like it was played at half speed. **¾

New Japan Cup – First Round: Tama Tonga vs. Toru Yano
Please be quick…

Tama Tonga jumped Yano at the bell and threw Yano’s own DVD into him – breaking the case! Yano replies with his usual spots, sidestepping a charging Tonga then playing Benny Hill as he ran into the ropes for a break.

Yano screamed in horror as he took an elbow drop then a choke, before he tried to undo the turnbuckle padding. Eventually he got the cover off, but Tonga stopped himself from running into it, only to get yanked down by the hair. A spear from Tonga takes down Yano after some more tomfoolery, before he came back to block a Gun Stun, only to grab the referee and eventually hit a low blow, then a schoolboy for the win. If you like this sort of thing, then it was peak Yano, but sadly behind the comedy distraction, there was nary a match to speak of behind it. *

New Japan Cup – First Round: Bad Luck Fale vs. Michael Elgin
Hoss fight! Although I doubt that the “infinite” time limit will be called upon here!

Elgin gets the first edge with a shoulder tackle to the outside, but Fale turns things around on the outside, posting Big Mike, then sending him into the guard rails. After returning to the ring, Fale literally kicked Elgin in the goddamned head as the pair slugged it out with Fale’s clubbing forearms taking him down to the mat for a near-fall.

Elgin tries for a sunset flip, before rolling away from a sit-down splash as the pair traded more blows before an enziguiri and a big boot took down Fale. Big Mike pulled off a suplex for a near-fall, then low bridged Fale to the outside, but the Underboss returned to hit a Samoan drop as Elgin hit the ropes.

A series of avalanches in the corner got Elgin back on top, before he blocked a Grenade attempt, punching free then smacking into Fale with a rolling elbow. Fale stayed on his feet though, and returned with a big boot before he was knocked down by a Big Mike lariat for another two-count. Elgin tried in vain for a powerbomb, so he just whacked Fale with a forearm before going for a German suplex.

That too didn’t work, as Fale pulled off a judo-style throw before landing an avalanche then a big splash for a two-count. Fale then tried for the Bad Luck Fall, before changing it up to a Grenade, which Elgin dodged and switched into a German suplex to finally take him down. Another lariat attempt followed, but Fale responded with a spear instead, before surprising Elgin with a Grenade for the win. That was… surprising? A pretty good match despite the pace – a decent hoss fight, and probably the best thing on here so far. Fale gets Yano in the next round. Oh no… ***

New Japan Cup – First Round: EVIL vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Winner faces Yuji Nagata in the semi-finals, which may tip the result before they even lock up.

From the off, Tanahashi caught EVIL’s boot as the early back and forth led to headlock takedowns before EVIL took him to the outside, where Tanahashi reversed an Irish whip into the guard rails. They remain outside where EVIL places a chair on Tanahashi’s head, before batting it off of the Ace’s head. That had to suck, no matter how you spin it. Tanahashi barely made it back in before the 20-count, only to get worn down in the ropes again by EVIL.

EVIL keeps up the pressure with a surfboard stretch, then with a grounded cravat, before ending a fightback by sending Tanahashi into the corner. He ducked a crossbody and threw in a back senton for a near-fall, before resorting to an eye rake as another cravat was almost fought free of. Tanahashi rakes the eyes for an instant receipt as they went back and forth with that illegality, before a Superman punch (of all things!) knocked down EVIL.

Tanahashi slams EVIL, only to miss with a flip senton off the middle rope, as EVIL again took over, this time landing a release Fisherman’s buster. EVIL followed up with a diving clothesline off the top, before he took Tanahashi onto the apron for some back and forth forearms, only to get blocked as he tried to send Tanahashi to the floor. A Dragon screw in the ropes was the counter as EVIL ended up rolling to the floor for cover, but Tanahashi decided to head up top as he connected with a High Fly Flow instead.

After rolling EVIL back inside, Tanahashi went for a second High Fly Flow, only to be crotched as the referee was shoved into the ropes, allowing EVIL to head to the floor and whack Tanahashi with a few chairshots. The favour was returned, sending EVIL into the corner, as Tanahashi looked to make a comeback, throwing referee Red Shoes to the mat as he shrugged off his attempt at a separation.

A snap suplex onto the chair left EVIL reeling, as did a Slingblade, but EVIL got the knees up to block another High Fly Flow attempt and they ended up going back to teeing off on each other, at least until EVIL’s double-handed chop took down his foe. EVIL lands a clothesline as the referee returned to count a near-fall, then came close again with a fireman’s carry spinebuster slam.

EVIL wrenched away again with a chinlock, forcing Tanahashi down for another two-count, before an STO was blocked and met with a headbutt. Tanahashi threw in a Slingblade, but had no answer when he found out that EVIL had learned how to spew mist from BUSHI. One STO later, and EVIL booked his semi-final spot! A good main event, and is this the sign of a new push for EVIL, or another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series? ***¾

What Worked: Hardly anything. This show wasn’t a slog to get through, but everything up to the main event was “meh” at best.

What Didn’t: I don’t know whether it was the pairings, or this cup show coming so soon after the Anniversary show, but it felt like a lot of these matches were warm-ups to the real thing, if you get my point.

Thumbs: Down. Don’t waste your time. Skip to the main event, or just read my report and hope night two is better!