February 25th, 19:00 from Shinjuku FACE, Tokyo
Primarily a showcase for the Young Lions of New Japan, the card also features the younger wrestlers of NOAH, and a couple of veterans from both companies. The long-term goal is to develop an NXT-style sub-promotion where young wrestlers from all over the world come to compete. Project 1, as the name suggests, is the debut show.
Really basic set up with one light over the ring and a spotlight for entrances. It’s like we’re back in time 50 years, and I can dig it. Also, this is single camera, no commentary. Before the announced card began there was an amateur wrestling contest between two guys who’ll be entering the New Japan Dojo next week, then Yuji Nagata welcomed us to the show.
Here we go…
Video package to start with soundbites from each of the Young Lions taking part today. They each draw a self-portrait of their future selves too (Finlay’s is of his Wrestle Kingdom entrance, riding a unicorn to the ring).
Takumi Honjo vs. Shuhei Taniguchi
A short match to get us started. Honjo (23) was the clear favourite here, with NOAH veteran Taniguchi widely-regarded as a pretty shitty wrestler. Basic stuff, but the strikes were surprisingly stiff, Taniguchi in particular laying in the elbows. Honjo tapped to the Boston Crab in under five minutes. 1/2*
Hirai Kawato vs. Hitoshi Kumano
This was supposed to be a tag match, but Teruaki Kanemitsu got the flu and so we get this pairing and Kaito Kiyomiya faces Taguchi in the match that follows. Helpfully, Kawato (18) wore black and Kumano (24) wore red. Again, basic stuff, but these two were clearly further along than Honjo (and probably Taniguchi). I liked that they concentrated on making standard manoeuvres look like potential match-enders. A sweet Perfectplex got the win for Kumano at 6 minutes. *1/2
Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Kaito Kiyomiya
Taguchi was parachuted in from the main roster to face NOAH youngster Kiyomiya, who wore an outlandish (for a Young Lion) green getup. They told a neat story here, with Taguchi controlling early, Kiyomiya Building Momentum™ in the middle, then the veteran having enough in the locker to put the kid away. Taguchi picked up the win with Dodon’s Throne (a double-chickenwing facebuster) at 7 minutes. Kiyomiya looked decent. **
David Finlay vs. Taiji Ishimori
Ishimori was, until yesterday, the GHC Junior Champion. Finlay is the son of Fit. Slightly strange dynamic here with Ishimori the tiny high-flying heel and Finlay the bigger ground-based babyface. As such, Finlay controlled the early going, working an armbar, until Ishimori came back with a springboard dropkick and a plancha to the outside. Double knees in the corner followed by a Codebreaker got two, then Finlay caught Ishimori and hit the Finlay Roll for a two-count. He wrapped him up in a Brock Lock, but Ishimori made the ropes. A beautiful bridging German suplex from Finlay got two, then Ishimori hit what I can only describe as a Tombstone-Codebreaker, also for a two-count, before the 450 Splash ended it at 9 minutes. As I’ve said before, Finlay has a distinctive way of moving round the ring and he’s shown solid improvement in his time with New Japan so far. **3/4
Jay White vs. Yoshinari Ogawa
The first few minutes were devoted to some very nice mat wrestling between the 23 year-old New Zealander and near-50 year-old NOAH veteran. White then made the mistake of trying too much and got caught off the second rope, leading to Ogawa taking control and working on the leg, Bret Hart-style. White eventually managed a dropkick, his comeback leading to a suplex for two, then a single-leg crab – Ogawa just reaching the ropes. White headed up top, but Ogawa ducked and White tweaked the leg on the roll through. Ogawa with a Dragon Screw, then the figure four, and that was enough for the tap out at 9 minutes. An enjoyable, competently-wrestled match. White shows ever-more promise and given how well he’s started the year, who knows where he’ll be by the end of it. ***
Project 2 is set for May 19th at the same venue.
Manabu Nakanishi vs. Quiet Storm
Hoss fight! Quiet Storm (yes, the same one from the early days of ROH) is something like a dwarf gorilla and Nakanishi is a grumpy old bastard. This was wrestled like a battle of the giants, when in fact Storm is 5’6” and Nakanishi 6’1”. Surprisingly not terrible, actually. Nakanishi’s refusal to be thrown into irish whips is entertaining and the crowd really is impressed if someone can lift him for a suplex. A torture rack got the the win for Nakanishi at 8 minutes. Moving on. *
Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Captain NOAH & Genba Hirayanagi
This began as a comedy match (with Team NOAH even doing the Steiner Brothers pose), until Kojima got in the ring and slapped Hirayanagi around like a little bitch. Tenzan and Kojima proceeded to get their signature strikes in before Hirayanagi hit the penis-variation of the Dragon Screw and got the hot tag to Captain. The NOAH contingent managed to get crossfaces on both member of TenCozy, but the legal man Koijma made the ropes. Hirayanagi then spent a good minute hyping the crowd for a move and, surprisingly, did then hit the top-rope dropkick. TenCozy got rid of Captain, then Hirayanagi nearly got the roll-up on Kojima, but a big Western Lariat put him away at 12 minutes. I could’ve sworn they were chanting Ko-Ji-Ma to the rhythm of New Day Rocks/Sucks. Anyway, this was fine and relatively amusing. **
Juice Robinson vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima
Nakajima is recently signed to NOAH, after years of competing there as a freelancer, and is moving towards a shot at the Heavyweight belt. Robinson is the former CJ Parker of NXT who made the bold move of asking for a release in order to make his name elsewhere. Big boots from Nakajima in the opening minutes, but his shoulder was taped up so naturally that’s what Juice went after. He hit a nice leg capture suplex, then went to a variety of submission holds, but Nakajima delivered a Dragon Screw to kickstart a comeback. A couple more big boots connected, but Juice hit a spinebuster to stem the tide, then Nakajima got the backdrop suplex and both men were down. Axe kick from Juice for a near fall. Three side kicks from Nakajima didn’t put Juice down, then Juice nailed a lariat and powerbomb for a very close two-count. Missed moonsault from Robinson, then a big dropkick from Nakajima, followed by the Penalty Kick and a Brainbuster gave him the win at 13 minutes. This was a good opportunity for Juice and I thought he looked decent here, easily the best match of his I’ve seen. ***1/4
Yuji Nagata vs. Mitsuhiro Kitamiya
Kitamiya is 27, so still considered a promising youngster, if not technically a Young Lion. A lot of back and forth, with neither man able to exert control for very long. As the match progressed, Nagata was falling further behind, struggling to keep up with his younger opponent – his leg having been targeted. Kitamiya pulled the straps down and charged at the veteran, but got caught in the Shirome armbar. Main Event Elbow Battle followed then Nagata caught Kitamiya with an Exploder. High knee in the corner, backdrop suplex – two-count only. Slaps from Kitamiya, backdrop suplex hold from Nagata, and that was enough for the three-count at 14 minutes. Nagata offered a handshake but got a hard slap to the face in return. A solid main event match, with Nagata’s fire outlasting Kitamiya’s youthful exuberance. ***
Nagata thanks the crowd for coming and asks if they enjoyed seeing the future of Japanese wrestling. Judging by their response, they did.
Final thoughts: There was nothing out of the ordinary here, nothing terrible either, but if you’re interested to see where New Japan may be headed in the more immediate future check out Finlay and White’s matches and Nakajima vs. Juice (which was the best match on the card).
My next review will be the final of the New Japan Cup on March 12th. See you then.