New Japan’s last show of the year saw the conclusion of the Young Lion Cup – who would walk away with the Victory trophy?

We’re back in ShinjukuFACE in Tokyo for this one… fixed camera, no commentary. You know the drill by now!

Young Lion Cup: Ren Narita vs. Tetsuhiro Yagi
The freshly-shorn Yagi looked to come out all guns blazing here as the battle of the zero-pointers got us underway.

Yagi tries cornering Narita, but of course there’s a fightback, with Narita working up to some mudhole stomping that forced the ref to separate the pair. There’s a pretty instantaneous receipt from Yagi though, who followed up with a slam as his bid to avoid the wooden spoon ended with a near-fall that time. A pretty stiff series of boots to the back kept Narita down as he’s forced to scurry to the ropes to avoid being turned over for that Standard Issue Submission, and once he got back to his feet, Ren tries a comeback with some overhand chops. Except Yagi fired back with some louder ones of his own as neither man seemed to be able to edge ahead for any period of time.

Narita fires back again with more stomps and chops, before hitting a nice hiptoss out of the corner for a two-count, followed by a sweet back body drop. That’s another two-count, as Narita teases the Standard Issue Submission, dragging Yagi into the middle of the ring as he finally rolled him over for the Boston crab.

Yagi tries to crawl to the ropes, and eventually makes it despite Narita’s best efforts, as things broke down until Yagi blasted Narita with a dropkick off the ropes. From there, Yagi works over Narita’s leg for a spell, eventually leading up to another Boston crab, forcing Narita to crawl for the ropes, before being dragged back to the middle of the ring… Yagi lost the hold, and turns it into an Indian deathlock instead, then a beautifully bridging Muta lock as Ren clung on past the ten minute mark…

Yagi lost the deathlock again and this time Narita’s able to crawl to the ropes for another break… but somehow Narita’s able to mount another comeback as it became a matter of whether they’d get a winner inside the 15 minute time limit or not. Both men unloaded with more chops, with Yagi knocking Narita down for another hurried near-fall, and it’s wash-rinse-repeat with chops and kicks as Narita held on, kicking out of inside cradles and the like and even getting his foot on the rope to save himself.

In the dying seconds, Narita even found his way into another submission, this time forcing Yagi to reach for the ropes to keep the match alive, but in the end time ran out as both men’s hurried attempts for the win bore no fruit, and so they share the spoils. Narita and Yagi finish the cup with no wins, five losses and a draw, ending with a point – the equivalent of a participation award. This was a fine opener for what it was, with Yagi edging ahead overall, but both men showed plenty of heart and fire… exactly the qualities you need in a plucky up-and-comer! **¾

Young Lion Cup: Shota Umino vs. Hirai Kawato
Kawato’s pretty much out of the cup at this point, as even a win here would mean he’d lose on tie-breakers to Kitamura… but there’s pride to play for, and he goes straight for the knee of Umino, wearing him down with a leg grapevine.

Umino’s really developed in the last few months, having picked up two wins in the tournament up to now, but going into this with a visibly taped-up knee is asking for trouble. Despite that, Umino’s able to turn the tables on everyone’s favourite Yorkshire Terrier like Young Lion, grabbing a brief Boston crab on Kawato before sparking a strike battle. Kawato responds with a back body drop for a solid two-count, followed by a single leg crab as he’s modified the Standard Issue Submission. It’s all Kawato for a spell, ending when he takes a middle rope dropkick from Umino for a near-fall, as Shota worked up into the proper Standard Issue Submission.

Kawato almost makes the ropes before he’s dragged away, then makes it at the second attempt. The receipt follows with a Boston crab of his own, which again ends with a rope break, as Kawato changes tack and decides to fly with a missile dropkick, before busting out Trouble in Paradise – the corkscrew enziguiri – for the win! Well then, Kawato’s finished on eight points, but at best he’s got a shot at a three-way tie if Kitamura loses the next match…

This was a pretty good outing, solidifying Kawato above Umino in the Young Lion pecking order, as you’d expect. Solid in-ring work too, but these guys are really good for the relatively little ring time they’ve had. **½

Young Lion Cup: Katsuya Kitamura vs. Tomoyuki Oka
The situation is simple: if Kitamura wins, he wins the cup. A draw would mean he’d share with Oka, and a loss would give us a three-way tie as Oka, Kitamura and Kawato have wins over each other.

Out of the six in the tournament, Kitamura’s easily the most developed in terms of confidence, something that a losing run in the World Tag League clearly didn’t dent. He and Oka squared off before the bell, and we started off with both men neutralising the other as early attempts for a lock-up produced nothing.

Duelling attempts for hiptosses didn’t work either, so they decided to throw some forearms instead, then some chops, with Kitamura seemingly edging ahead there as he chopped Oka down for a near-fall. Shoulder tackles follow as you can tell these two have borrowed pages from the Nakanishi playbook, before Kitamura throws in some knees to shake things up, only for a shoulder tackle from Oka to finally put the muscle-man on his back.

With Kitamura down, Oka goes to his more usual game of submissions on the ground, trying a modified STF on Kitamura, before switching it into an Arabian clutch instead. A rope break ends it quicker than a Sabu slip-up, and Kitamura’s back on the offence, choking Oka in the corner with a boot as the referee is again forced to separate the pair. Kitamura keeps up with a running shoulder block as he seemed to have the edge on Oka, but a dropkick puts paid to that as the Tokyo crowd surprisingly got behind Oka, even more so when he landed a flying forearm for a near-fall. Oka tried to follow up with a deadlift belly to belly, pulling Kitamura off the mat for the move, but it’s only enough for another two-count.

Kitamura’s able to rebound from that, reversing a suplex before measuring Oka for a huge spear, before going for a Jackhammer… which lands as Kit-berg gets the win and the Young Lion Cup! This was a lot closer than I thought, but in the end Kitamura has been miles ahead of the pack from the off. A deserved win, and now Kitamura will be hoping to emulate the careers of fellow winners like Satoshi Kojima, Hirooki Goto and Manabu Nakanishi… Kenzo Suzuki, not so much!. ***

They presented Kitamura with the trophy afterwards, which had VICTORY inscribed on the front plate. I feel like I’m playing generic Pro Evolution Soccer now with this…

Manabu Nakanishi & Kotaro Yoshino vs. Dinosaur Takuma & Hiroyoshi Tenzan
The Dino Stones Explode! Okay, not quite – but after the last few Lion’s Gate shows, they’re in an open relationship, I guess, as they’re tagging with a New Japan Dad here. Nakanishi got into the spirit of it by painting his face… but sadly, Tenzan didn’t put a bone though his hair.

After referee Marty Asami had checked Yoshino’s afro, we got going with Tenzan and Yoshino teasing a test of strength… except it just turned into an excuse to dance. Reversing waistlocks were another excuse for Yoshino to dance, and no, Tenzan wasn’t impressed as Nakanishi accidentally tagged in with a high five.

Nakanishi’s smart to the dancing as he outsmarts the Dinosaur with the test of strength before switching it up into a series of chops, as Takuma’s attempt to hit back went poorly. Why’d you try and suplex someone bigger than you? Or run away when he can grab your tail?

Takuma’s left on the defensive for a spell, with Yoshino and Nakanishi barging him down as Yoshino worked a series of sit-down splashes from the ropes for a near-fall. There’s a spell of cheating as Nakanishi yanked Takuma’s tail from the floor, which was the easiest, yet most ridiculous heat I’ve seen for some time.

Things almost culminated when Yoshino hit a TKO cutter and a big splash for a near-fall onto his Dino buddy, but Takuma’s able to hit a jaw breaker before he outsmarted Yoshino with a sidewalk slam and finally make the tag out to Tenzan. There’s Mongolian chops for Yoshino as whatever edge Nakanishi and and Yoshino fell apart, as Takuma became an able replacement for Kojima as the two T’s hit some Honma-like Kokeshi.

Nakanishi counters an attempted double-team suplex as he finds that Yoshino’s a good replacement partner too, with the pair hitting duelling lariats, then duelling Argentine backbreakers. Well, Yoshino tried… but Tenzan was just too big, as he slipped out as Takuma almost beat Nakanishi with a death valley driver. That’s where the dino fun stopped though, as a Polish hammer set up Nakanishi to follow in with the Argentine backbreaker, and the Dinosaur taps! Considering Nakanishi and Tenzan had been in some achingly-slow matches recently, this was a quite sprightly-paced match… plenty of fun to be had, even if the optics of the Dino Stones opposing each other looked odd. **¾

Daisuke Kanehira vs. Satoshi Kojima
Last time out, Kanehira lost to Kojima in a tag match… and that match is splitting up for our final two matches of the year out of New Japan. The 33-year-old Kanehira, out of indy group HEAT UP has a big challenge here against the “home” favourite Kojima, who hopefully hasn’t filled up too much on bread and potato crisps lately…

Kojima goes for some ground-based stuff early, looking for a chinlock on Kanehira, before opting to batter him with some shoulder blocks. That tactic backfired as a shoulder block from Kanehira sent Kojima outside, and we’re into the realm of barely-captured brawling around ringside as the hard camera is forced to zoom out. The pair brawl onto the apron as Kojima tries to block a suplex, before dumping Kanehira onto the apron with a DDT. Altogether now – “it’s the hardest part of the ring!”

Back inside, Kojima goes back to the rear chinlock, before he knocked Kanehira down with a swift forearm and a side Russian legsweep for another two-count. Machine gun chops follow as Kojima heads up top for his diving elbow as we get another near-fall, and it’s all Kojima here as a rolling elbow knocks Kanehira down once more. Just like that, Kanehira gives himself a lifeline courtesy of a scoop slam, and he takes advantage of that opening with a dropkick into the corner, but Kojima resists the side suplex, only to run into a cross armbreaker as Kanehira switched things up. Kojima eventually makes it to the ropes, but he ends up taking that side suplex anyway…

A reversed suplex gives Kojima the chance to land a brainbuster as he made a comeback, and it’s a really swift one too as he quickly goes to the Strong Arm lariat for the win! This was decent, but the big problem with these Lion’s Gate shows is that when it’s a singles match (or indeed, any New Japan vs. outsider match), the “home” guy almost always wins, which takes some of the suspense away. Still, pretty good bell-to-bell, with Kanehira getting some good offence in. **¾

Yuma Aoyagi vs. Yuji Nagata
Your last New Japan match of the year pits the New Japan dad against the Tokyo Sports newcomer of the year – and currently one half of the All Asia Tag Team champions – Yuma Aoyagi.

Early armwringers led to no success as Nagata tried to use his experience to edge ahead, as he used a hammerlock to try and force a pin. Aoyagi didn’t take kindly to that as he took Nagata to the ropes for an unclean break, which sparked a little bit of forearm-based offence as he looked to put the veteran down. Nagata tried to evoke memories of their tag team meeting last month as he threw Aoyagi outside, but the youngster quickly returned to the ring before deciding to change plans and take Nagata outside. Well, that happened to him last month, so why not? Problem was, it meant that the hard camera was caught on the hop, eventually moving into place as Nagata took over.

Back in the ring, Nagata starts to fire away with shots to the gut, then a series of stomps to finally knock the plucky Yuma down. A series of kicks to the back and front of Yuma’s midriff followed as Nagata was all fired up… but he threw one kick too many and Aoyagi’s able to catch one and mount a comeback of his own, featuring some aerial stuff as a crossbody off the top rope almost got him the surprise win.

Nagata’s quickly back in control though, with a knee to the gut taking Yuma into the corner, where he’s met with a running boot to the face and an Exploder out of it. A Shirome armbar almost forces the submission, but Yuma holds on, only to get kicked again after making the ropes. The arm continued to be targeted, but Aoyagi’s able to resist a suplex… only to fall into a brainbuster that almost put him away.

One last comeback from Yuma saw him lose a forearm battle to Nagata, before hitting a Triple H-style high knee and a not-Triple H-style German suplex for a near-fall, before Nagata hit back once more with a release backdrop suplex. It’s all Nagata from there though, as he lands an enziguiri, before finishing off Aoyagi with a Backdrop Hold for the win. Nagata gave plenty of offence to Aoyagi, but considering this was a New Japan veteran versus a rival promotion’s newcomer, this went as well as you’d think. A solid match to close out the year for the company. ***¼

These Lion’s Gate Project shows rarely disappoint, and it was no different today. The conclusion of the Young Lion Cup confirmed where we all thought this current crop of youngsters fall in the pecking order, and now the question remains: will the tournament prove to be busy work for these rookies, or will Kitamura be able to parlay it into anything of value in 2018?