Niigata saw another pair of fantastic matches as the finals for the 2019 New Japan Cup were put in place!

Kevin Kelly, Rocky Romero and Excalibur were on commentary from the Aore Nagaoka.

New Japan Cup 2019 – Semi-Final: Tomohiro Ishii vs. Kazuchika Okada
These two have only had three prior meetings, all in the G1 Climax… with Okada having won in 2013 and 2015.

They start with a tie-up that saw Okada back up Ishii into the ropes, not breaking as he instead threw an elbow strike. That just sparks a back-and-forth, before some shoulder tackles just produced satisfying thuds as Okada eventually took Ishii down. A playful series of boots to the back of Ishii’s head possibly wasn’t the best idea for Okada, who used his head to fight back before he just bounced Okada off of him.

Elbows and uppercuts led to Okada throwing Ishii outside, but the Stone Pitbull’s right back with a powerslam on the floor, before some gag-inducing chops back in the ring saw Ishii try to open-up Okada’s chest. Okada demanded he try again, as he seemingly wanted to bleed again… either that or rupture a pec! Okada stems the tide with a DDT, eventually taking Ishii outside for a plancha, before Ishii avoided a top rope elbow drop back inside, as he quickly got back to his feet. The response from Okada? More elbows in the corner, as Ishii sank to his knees before he rose back up and started to walk through them… only for Okada to do the same! A missed enziguiri starts a long series of swinging and missing from both men until Okada dumped Ishii awkwardly on a neckbreaker slam.

From there, Okada slams Ishii ahead of the Rainmaker elbow… before Ishii popped up to boot him in the head. Okada shrugs it off and drops him with a flapjack, following up with a shotgun-style missile dropkick for a near-fall. Ishii escapes a tombstone before he countered a second neckbreaker slam with a folding powerbomb for a two-count. A German suplex and a running lariat drops Okada, but only for another two-count… so he goes for a sliding lariat, only to be caught with a leaping dropkick as Okada popped right back up.

Ishii blocks the tombstone again as both men looked to go for the same move, but it was Okada who landed it before he looked for a Rainmaker… except Ishii headbutts it away and lands a clothesline of his own! Another clothesline from Ishii looked to set up for a superplex, bouncing Okada off the mat for yet another two-count! The sliding lariat follows for another near-fall, before an Okada dropkick acted like one big press of the reset button.

A backslide from Okada set up for a Rainmaker… which lands, as Okada keeps hold of the wrist, only for a second Rainmaker to just be absorbed as Ishii headbutss his way back in… then gets dumped with a German suplex! Ishii hiptosses his way out of a Rainmaker, and comes back in with a cross armbar, but Okada got to the ropes just as it looked like he was going to tap.

Another dropkick from Okada catches Ishii out, as does a shotgun dropkick into the corner… but Okada runs into a dropkick for just a one-count! Ishii lands another, which this time had much more effect as Okada almost lost. One more dropkick snuffs out Ishii’s offence, but he somehow finds a counter to the Rainmaker, headbutting Okada before a sheer drop brainbuster was countered into a spinning tombstone, followed by a Rainmaker as Ishii’s fate was sealed. Excellent stuff, with Okada booking what some may have felt was a sure-fire spot in the finals. Hard-hitting, but neither man seemed to have had the win in the bag until the finish. ****¼

New Japan Cup 2019 – Semi-Final: SANADA vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Only two prior meetings between these guys yielded a 1-1 record, with SANADA winning at the G1 in 2016, as Tanahashi levelled things up a few months later at Power Struggle.

With this being SANADA’s home town, this was a partisan crowd for the LIJ member, with Tanahashi perhaps getting some unusual jeering aimed at him. From the opening tie-up, we have a switcheroo as SANADA took Tanahashi into the ropes for a clean break as the early going saw neither man hold an advantage. Takedowns and escapes were the theme of these opening stretches, as the pair took a rather measured approach to the match. SANADA uses a leg grapevine to try and force a submission, only for Tanahashi to get free with a cravat. A snapmare’s countered out of as both men go for dropkicks… and the eventual square-off as the crowd applauded. An attempt at the Paradise Lock ends with Tanahashi rolling up SANADA for a two-count as he proceeded to go after the LIJ man’s legs, dropping an elbow across the knee, setting up for an Indian deathlock that SANADA tried in vain to chop his way out of.

A rope break eventually gets SANADA free, as he comes in with a double leapfrog dropkick, then a plancha to the outside as SANADA played to his people. Tanahashi catches SANADA heading back into the ring, trapping him with a Dragon screw in the ropes as he almost embraced the crowd’s boos. From there, Tanahashi keeps up the pressure with a slam and a flip senton, before SANADA avoided a Slingblade… and then quickly got taken down with a Dragon screw.

SANADA returns the favour, much to Niigata’s approval, but Tanahashi turns it right back around as he Dragon screwed the leg into the mat ahead of a Cloverleaf attempt. A rope break saves SANADA again, as he tried to fight back with a ‘rana… only for Tanahashi to catch him and counter back with another cloverleaf, sitting down big time as SANADA was again forced to scramble into the ropes.

Perhaps frustrated, Tanahashi picked up SANADA, who fought back with forearms, only for Tanahashi to dropkick away the knee as he teased another Dragon screw. We’re back to strikes with uppercuts and forearms ringing around the arena, before SANADA caught out Tanahashi with a brief attempt of Skull End. It’s countered into Twist and Shout, with SANADA hitting a Magic Killer of sorts using the ropes as a second man. A Tiger suplex followed as SANADA gets a near-fall, before he scooped up Tanahashi for another Skull End… clinging onto the move as Tanahashi almost got free… before SANADA let go and hit a pair of moonsaults. The second one lands on Tanahashi’s knees as the Ace countered back with a roll-up for a near-fall, as the pair got closer and closer to victory.

SANADA tried to counter out of a TKO, but ends up in his own Skull End as the pace quickens with back-and-forth roll-ups, before Tanahashi tried for another Dragon suplex. It’s countered out of again as SANADA flips into a Skull End, swinging Tanahashi around before a version of a Slingblade got the former champion out. Another Slingblade drops SANADA for a near-fall, before SANADA flipped out of a Dragon suplex and… found an O’Connor roll blocked by some hair pulling.

SANADA counters a Japanese clutch pin into a Skull End as he looked to have Tanahashi trapped… he tries to fight out, but all of a sudden SANADA forces the submission, and that sure fire Tanahashi/Okada final was smashed, as we’re getting Rainmaker vs. Cold Skull on Sunday! A rather more measured match than the other semi-final, but neither man gave any mercy as Tanahashi’s dream of main eventing at Madison Square Garden came to an end. ****¼

Two absolutely amazing semi finals here, with Ishii/Okada for my money just about edging it – and now we head into Sunday’s tournament final (also in Niigata) as SANADA looks to get perhaps the biggest win in his career and book an IWGP title match in MSG against Jay White. Can he do it, or will Okada get the shot instead on WrestleMania weekend at the G1 Supercard?