The latest round of the Lion’s Gate Project shows saw the start of the new Young Lion Cup!

It’s been 12 years since the last Young Lion Cup was held, and we’re keeping with the same round-robin format here as New Japan looked for a successor to Hirooki Goto. Prior Young Lion Cup entrants have included such luminaries as Yujiro Takahashi, Naofumi Yamamoto (now Yoshitatsu), Shinya Makabe (now Togi Makabe), Kenzo Suzuki and Katsuyori Shibata.

Young Lion Cup: Ren Narita vs. Hirai Kawato
As expected, this was a rather even start, with Kawato edging ahead as he grounded Narita and threw some shots from above. A back body drop gives Hirai a one-count, before he sunk into a camel clutch that forces Narita to drag himself to the ropes for a break.

Kawato’s attempt to slam Narita gets countered out into a dropkick, as Ren grabbed a cravat in a bid to force a submission, but they make it into the ropes instead as Narita made a rare trip up the turnbuckles for a middle rope legdrop! That’s good for only a near-fall as Narita then went to a chinlock, which Kawato escaped as he made an attempt to fight back.

A scoop slam leaves Narita in prime place for a Boston crab, and once Kawato dragged him back into the middle of the ring it looked like it was only a matter of time… but Narita fought to get to the ropes! From there, Kawato’s springboard dropkick gets a near-fall, before he busted out a spinning roundhouse kick for the win! New stuff from Kawato, and he gets the first points on the board in this round-robin format. Basic, but we’ll be seeing a lot of this as the Lions are paired off with each other. **¾

Young Lion Cup: Katsuya Kitamura vs. Tetsuhiro Yagi vs. Katsuya Kitamura
My God, the size difference on show here… on paper, Kitamura should be devouring Yagi, but first he’s toying with his prey, offering up shoulder tackles that Yagi dished out with glee. Of course, Kitamura’s shoulder tackles left him laying, but a dropkick quickly turned the tables as Yagi started to stomp away on his muscle-bound foe.

Yagi busts out a triangle armbar as he tried to make Kitamura give up… and although Kitamura tried to monster up into a powerbomb, it took him two goes to pull him up… and even then it ended up needing a rope break as Kitamura could only place Yagi on the top rope.

When Yagi moved away from submissions, he initially struggled, needing two goes to slam Kitamura, before rolling him over into the Standard Issue Submission. Yep, we’re going to see a LOT of Boston Crabs here. Yagi switches it into a Muta Lock of all things, as we’re seeing these kids trying stuff they’d never usually have a chance to on the main shows, but Kitamura had to reach for the ropes to get himself free.

We go back to the back-and-forth strikes as Kitamura edges back into things, with a brutal chop knocking Yagi down for a two-count. That gave him some momentum to charge into Yagi a few more times, before a brutal rolling spear knocked Yagi down once more ahead of a Jackhammer for the win. Kit-berg wins! This was fun stuff, but outside of the tournament setting I’d have liked to have seen this be much more dominant… ***

Young Lion Cup: Shota Umino vs. Tomoyuki Oka
On the last few main shows he’s done singles matches in, Umino has gone to time limit draws… can he break the streak here? Shota charges into Oka at the bell as the pair threw forearms… but Oka ended up taking an early lead as Umino was left reeling from overhand chops.

To his credit, Umino kept on fighting, as he tripped Oka into a toe hold, keeping him on the mat after a rope break as he looked to remove any hopes of Oka having a vertical base. Problem was, once Oka broke free, he made Umino pay for that, tying him in knots before pulling him into a rear naked choke as Shota managed to get a foot to the rope. A front facelock keeps Oka in charge, as he pulled Shota into an Arabian clutch… but still, there’s no submission. Instead, Shota fought back and surprised Oka with a missile dropkick, before a running forearm looked to set up for a single-leg crab… which Oka instantly crawled to the ropes to escape from.

Oka retaliates once more, but a dropkick stops that train, before Umino lost Oka in a slam… and somehow got a two-count out of it. Standard Issue Submission attempt follows, but again Oka breaks the crab via the ropes, before showing Umino how it’s done as a slam and a Boston crab eventually led to another rope break. Another bodyslam sees Oka set up for his overhead belly-to-belly suplex, which gets him a near-fall, and then it’s back to the Standard Issue Submission as Umino taps to the Boston crab! Decent stuff, but this was perhaps the roughest of the three cup matches on show. **¼

After the first round of matches, Tomoyuki Oka, Katsuya Kitamura and Hirai Kawato have 1-0 records, whilst Ren Narita, Tetsuhiro Yagi and Shota Umino are (naturally) 0-1. Three matches and 40 minutes into the show… it’s interval time!

Kotaro Yoshino vs. Manabu Nakanishi
Yoshino is the other half of the Dino Stones team from the Kaientai Dojo, alongside Dinosaur Takuma. He’s a wrestling Fred Flintstone!

Yoshino’s attempt to fool around with Nakanishi in a test of strength seemed to anger the veteran, who gladly threw some forearms and chops. Kotaro’s didn’t seem to have the same effect, and he was quickly thrown to the outside by his afro the fixed camera shot really came into play here. Chops around ringside give everyone a closer view of the pair, as Nakanishi seemed to have little problem with the dinosaur’s buddy.

Shoulder tackles from Yoshino had a small effect, eventually taking Nakanishi down for a Vader bomb, but that was nowhere near enough to put the veteran away. Yoshino stupidly tried for an Argentine backbreaker, then a bodyslam, but Nakanishi fell onto him… so he tries again. Of course, Nakanishi had no trouble with his own slam before Yoshino finally succeeded with his own.

Another clothesline from Nakanishi set up for an Argentine backbreaker, and just like that Nakanishi got the submission. This was alright, but I didn’t care too much for Yoshino seemingly planning on doing one thing and having no plan B. **½

After the match, Dinosaur Takuma hit the ring and confronted Nakanishi with a bone. Nakanishi grabbed Yoshino’s club and chased him down as the Dino and his buddy thought better of it.

Go Asakawa & Yuma Aoyagi vs. Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan
Back from a tour of Mexico, here’s Kojima! He starts off against Aoyagi, exchanging takedowns before Asakawa and Tenzan had a go.

Asakawa scored a near-fall over Tenzan from a simple elbow drop, but the veteran quickly responded with shoulder tackles and Mongolian chops… as did Kojima as Asakawa quickly found himself on the wrong side of the match. Kojima pulled Asakawa into an armbar on the mat, before whipping him into the ropes for another double-team.

It’s really one-sided, as TenKoji’s offence on Asakawa started to drag… until he finally slipped free and tagged in Aoyagi. It wasn’t exactly a hot tag from the crowd’s perspective, but Yuma was able to put down Tenzan with a running forearm for a near-fall. A crossbody off the top gets a similar result, before a Mountain Bomb dumped Aoyagi in the middle of the ring.

Kojima returns with Machine Gun chops in the corner, following up with the top rope elbow, before Asakawa returned and trapped Kojima in a version of EVIL’s Banshee Muzzle. After getting free, Kojima finds himself taking a Fisherman’s suplex for a near-fall as Asakawa had to fight off both opponents at once… unsuccessfully, as a slipped-up TenKoji Cutter almost got the win.

Instead, Asakawa ducks a Strong Arm lariat, then kicked out from a brainbuster as Kojima finally landed the Strong Arm for the win. This went as expected, but it was a struggle at times. Asakawa spent way too long getting beaten down, and the slipped TenKoji Cutter at the end sort-of personified the whole match. **

Daisuke Kanehira vs. Yuji Nagata
Main event time now, as Kanehira returned to the Lion’s Gate Project for the first time since going down to YOSHI-HASHI back in May. I don’t think his luck will change here…

Nagata and Kanehira went back-and-forth early, with Kanehira scoring a shoulder block to take down Nagata as he started to target the veteran’s arm. After escaping an armbar, Nagata returned the favour, working on the arm before pulling Kanehira into an armbar… but not your favourite eye-rolling kind. Kanehira again escaped and drilled Nagata with a knee to the cut as he came flying off the ropes, but it’s nowhere near enough, so a dropkick into the corner followed, before a hiptoss took Nagata into a cross armbreaker. This time, Nagata escaped into his sit-down armbar, forcing Kanehira to squirm towards the ropes for freedom.

After he got back to his feet, Kanehira ate some kicks to the chest, before sparking some back-and-forth forearms… which he lost out on, naturally, as the tide kept swinging back and forth, leading to him grabbing a sleeperhold that Nagata powered free from, and kicking free with an enziguiri. A Backdrop Hold quickly dumps Kanehira onto the mat, and fortunately that’s all as Nagata gets the expected win. A fun main event, but like most of these matches, the aim is to get the youngsters experience, rather than high-profile wins, which hurts a lot. ***

The introduction of the Young Lion Cup to these shows is a good thing – if only so the latest crop of youngsters have something to fight for. However, it’s split these shows in two: with (somewhat) meaningful matches between New Japan guys, whilst the “New Japan Dads” take on outsiders in matches that are pretty much foregone conclusions. Given the disparate experience levels on show, these aren’t going to be cards for those of you keen on “workrate matches”… but this is really a show I’d watch the first half of and skip the rest.