With just days to go until New Japan’s 22nd annual Best of the Super Jr’s tournament, which sees sixteen competitors from across the world competing in a grand total of fifty six matches, this year’s tournament has a lot of action on offer. The line-ups this year include representatives from Ring of Honor, the NWA & CMLL, with the biggest surprises being the inclusion of Barbaro Cavernario (who made a great impression during the NJPW/CMLL FantasticaMania tour this past January) and the New Japan debut of David Finlay Jr. (who has been training at the NJPW Dojo in recent months). With all thirteen shows on the tour being broadcast on NJPW World (four of them live, the other nine on tape delay), that’s a lot of wrestling to get through, so I thought I’d list twelve of the best looking matches on paper from each day and explain why I’m excited.
. RPG Vice vs reDRagon – Day 01, Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
Kind of cheating here, two matches in one as RPG Vice & reDRagon face off with Rocky Romero vs Bobby Fish and Trent Barreta vs Kyle O’Reilly on the opening night of the tournament. These two teams have been seeing a lot of each other recently, as they’ve vied for both the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles and ROH World Tag Team Championship over the past few months, but while reDRagon have the greater experience as a tag team, in singles competition the experience has to go to RPG Vice. This is Trent’s second Best of the Super Jr’s and Rocky’s seventh, whereas both O’Reilly & Fish are competing in the prestigious tournament for the very first time, so it’ll be interesting to see the outcome of their singles encounters. You have to feel that Kyle would have been more at home wrestling Rocky, what with their styles being fairly similar, relying on some vicious striking ability. Similarly, Trent & Bobby (being the larger members of their respective teams) would have negated any size advantage had they been wrestling each other, but as it is both Rocky & Kyle will have to contend with opponents larger than themselves.
. Ryusuke Taguchi vs Barbaro Cavernario – Day 02, Kuki City Gym, Saitama
‘The Funky Weapon’ Ryusuke Taguchi is one of New Japan’s more unorthodox competitors, which has only become more and more apparent with age. His move-set is peppered with nods to greats of the game from whom he draws influence, such as Eddie Guerrero, Milano Collection A.T. and Shiro Koshinaka, which manifests itself in a number of ways. Most notably with his ‘flying hip attack’ (an arse to the face) that often leaves many international fans groaning, but never seems to fail to amuse the Japanese crowds in attendance. Meanwhile, Barbaro Cavernario is easily one of the most unothodox competitors in CMLL, if not the wrestling world at large. The ‘Barbarian Caveman’ and current CMLL Mexican Welterweight Champion shows no fear as he routinely puts his body on the line in search of victory and has put many top-level competitors away with his devastating ‘La Cavernaria’ submission. But Taguchi is no slouch either, as a former two-time IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, five-time IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Champion and a former CMLL World Welterweight Champion, he’s one of the most decorated Jr. Heavyweight wrestlers on the New Japan roster and this match should prove to be an intriguing clash of the unorthodox.
. Jushin Liger vs Kyle O’Reilly – Day 03, Tsubame City Gym, Niigata
Getting to wrestle the legend that is Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger is surely something of a watershed moment in most wrestler’s careers, so it’s all the more remarkable that at the age of 50, Liger’s still in the ring and offering up those moments to wrestlers decades his younger. Although he and O’Reilly have faced each other across the ring in a couple of tag matches, this will be their first singles meeting and, even though Liger’s a bit more portly, somewhat slower and lacking the stamina of his youth, many a competitor has discovered that at any age Liger is not to be taken lightly. O’Reilly, however, is making a name for himself as a tough singles competitor, winning the PWG World Championship in 2014 and wrestling some of the top names in the business today. In New Japan he’s been more focussed on tag team wrestling, winning the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles in November of last year, but that could change with some big wins in the Best of the Super Jr’s and they don’t come much bigger than Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger.
. Rocky Romero vs Nick Jackson – Day 04, Yamagata Sports Centre
Despite competing in over thirty tag matches over the years, the singles encounters between Rocky Romero and Nick Jackson are few and far between. The first coming in 2006, back when one half of The Young Bucks was calling himself ‘Slick Nick’, the second taking place in the 2014 Best of the Super Jr’s tournament. Rocky picked up the win over young Slick Nick nine years ago, while Nick cost Romero his chances of going to the finals of last year’s Super Jr’s. Rocky will likely be looking for a measure of revenge, doubly so as the Bucks derailed RPG Vice’s status as IWGP Jr. Tag Team Champions just twenty eight days into their reign, meanwhile Nick has a good oppertunity in this tournament to further establish himself as more than a tag team wrestler. Whether his brother, Matt Jackson, or any of the other Bullet Club members are at ringside remains to be seen, but if that’s the case Rocky may have to wary of outside interference.
. Jushin Liger vs Chase Owens – Day 05, Aomori Nippon Budokan
After being introduced to the New Japan crowd as the young ace of the NWA, you could forgive Chase Owens any embarrassment over the fact that Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger beat him, took his title and then put up a big fight when he tried to reclaim it. Not that losing to Liger could be considered all that embarrassing, but you get my point. Further more, the fact that Liger then dropped the title to another NWA wrestler, Steve Anthony, robbed Chase of his chance for revenge. So, with an 0-2 record against the legendary Liger it’s safe to assume that Chase Owens will be coming into this match with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge to settle, but Liger has motivation behind him as well. With thirty one in-ring years under his belt, this could potentially be one of Liger’s last chances to win the tournament he’s previously won on three occasions (a record he shares with Koji Kanemoto) and, for the Best of the Super Jr’s most famous and most prolific participant, a way back to the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title he’s held a record eleven times, but has been unable to recapture since 1999.
. Tiger Mask vs Rocky Romero – Day 06, New Sunpia, Tochigi
More so than any other match in this year’s tournament, this one has history. Rocky & Tiger Mask have faced off in singles competition on seven occasions since 2004, but in all but one of those matches Tiger Mask was the victor. That has to rankle Romero, who in 2005 donned the historic Black Tiger mask and firmly aligned himself as Tiger Mask’s sworn enemy. Rocky won the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title as Black Tiger and held onto the belt for 134 days, but was unable to defend the title against his rival. Four years later, Rocky attacked Tiger Mask with a renewed vigour, trying to unmask Tiger Mask for the first time in his tenure as the character (this iteration of Tiger Mask is the fourth to have worn the hood). Ultimately, Tiger would again wind up the victor and Romero was forced to unmask and reveal his identity. In their one meeting since (during last year’s Best of the Super Jr’s tournament) the animosity between Romero & Tiger Mask wasn’t in the least bit diminished, but again Rocky came out on the losing side of the equation and, ultimately, it cost him a chance at winning the Best of the Super Jr’s, an accolade that has so far eluded him. Suffice to say, Romero has a lot of incentive on his side, while Tiger may perhaps be a bit overconfident in facing an opponent he’s bested more often than not.
. Alex Shelley vs Mascara Dorada – Day 07, Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a first time match-up between Alex Shelley and the current CMLL World Welterweight Champion, Mascara Dorada. Up until Dorada’s signing of a year-long contract with New Japan and his inclusion in this year’s Best of the Super Jr’s tournament, there hasn’t been much chance for their paths to cross. However, that can only add to the excitement for this meeting between one of Mexico’s best young luchadors and one of America’s top Jr. Heavyweight wrestlers. While Dorada is a consummate luchador, his repertoire full of armdrags and headscissors (not to mention the death-defying dives off the ropes and out to the floor), Shelley’s wrestling style takes influence from a multitude of backgrounds, lucha libre included. It’s this variety of style that’s helped lead him to three IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Title reigns and to becoming one of the Japanese crowd’s favourite gaijin wrestlers. The IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title still remains beyond his grasp however and, after coming very close in the finals of the 2013 Best of the Super Jr’s, Shelley will undoubtedly be looking to win the tournament and earn another shot at ‘The Cleaner’, Kenny Omega.
. Gedo vs Chase Owens – Day 08, Kira Messe, Numazu
Although Gedo (known more these days for being the Raintaker to Okada’s Rainmaker) has found greater success throughout his career as a tag team wrestler with his long-time tag partner Jado, he’s picked up some big wins in singles matches over the years, competing in eight Best of the Super Jr’s tournaments and three Super J Cups. Most notably, he won his block in the 2005 Best of the Super Jr’s, only losing to Tiger Mask IV in the finals. For Chase Owens, however, this is his first Best of the Super Jr’s tournament and his first time in the ring with Gedo. It’s likely that he’ll discover what a crafty competitor Gedo can be, his popularity with the crowd and the danger of the eponymous Gedo Clutch. But while Owens gives up a lot of ground to Gedo in terms of experience, he’s already an accomplished performer in his own right and been one of the more prolific NWA World Jr. Heavyweight Champions in recent years. What’s more, it’s likely that he’ll be accompanied to the ring by NWA Shacho Bruce Tharpe, who is intent on doing whatever it takes to prove the NWA’s superiority and two of the best managers in NJPW interacting should hopefully prove to be a lot of fun.
. Mascara Dorada vs Bobby Fish – Day 09, Ibaraki Sports Centre
When I saw the cards for this year’s Best of the Super Jr’s tournament, this was one of the matches that leapt right off the screen for me. I’m a big fan of Mascara Dorada, he’s one of the smoothest, most spectacular luchadors you’re ever likely witness and does some amazing stuff in the ring that has to be seen to be believed. While his opponent here isn’t quite as known for high flying antics, Bobby Fish is a remarkably versatile performer and has a lot of experience wrestling in Japan, having been making yearly tours with Pro-Wrestling NOAH since 2006 until last year, when he and Kyle O’Reilly began to compete for NJPW. Fish is equally at home wrestling a fast and frenetic Jr. Heavyweight tag team bout as he is a smash-mouth brawl or a mat-wrestling clinic, but it’s safe to say that here he’ll be having to contend with a decidedly tricky, unpredictable and gravity-defying opponent in Mascara Dorada.
. Jushin Liger vs Ryusuke Taguchi – Day 10, Nagoya Conference Hall
Despite competing together in the Jr. Heavyweight division for many years, Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger and Ryusuke Taguchi haven’t ever once faced off for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title. Theirs is a rivalry set entirely to the backdrop of the Best of the Super Jr’s and, as it stands, Liger and Taguchi are tied on three wins a piece after six meetings in the tournament. That makes this a tie-breaker. Of the two, Taguchi has found the most success in recent years, getting to the finals of the 2011 tournament before finally winning it in 2012. Comparatively, Liger has struggled to make an impact since he last won it in 1999, but he has defeated Taguchi in their last two tournament encounters and will be looking to take the lead in their rivalry here. Not to mention the possibility of winning the tournament itself which, in spite of time starting to catch up with him, must feature prominently in Liger’s thoughts as he heads into his twentieth Best of the Super Jr’s. Meanwhile, Taguchi will be dying to earn another shot at current IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega, who defeated Taguchi for the belt at Wrestle Kingdom 9 this past January.
. Yohei Komatsu vs Barbaro Cavernario – Day 11, Chino City Hall, Nagano
It’s hard to recall a New Japan Young Lion as impressive as Yohei Komatsu in recent memory. One of the highlights of the Young Lion system New Japan has used to train its wrestlers since the promotion’s inception is that you get to see the month-by-month growth of the wrestlers as they play the underdog role, battling against odds that always prove insurmountable. The crowd always take to the trainees and desperately urge them on, reacting in shock and excitement when one shows exceptional fire or ‘fighting spirit’, that never-say-die attitude the Japanese fans so love. Komatsu has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years and it’s great to see him get an opportunity here in his first Best of the Super Jr’s tournament. He’ll face a hell of a battle against Barbaro Cavernario, however, and it’s difficult to predict how the match will go, or how Komatsu will react to the unconventional style of the CMLL Mexican Welterweight Champion.
KUSHIDA vs Alex Shelley – Day 12, Korakuen Hall, Tokyo.com
Last, but not least, a first-time match-up here with a battle of the Time Splitters. Since becoming tag team partners in 2012, Alex Shelley & KUSHIDA have found IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Title success on two separate occasions. But, while Shelley is the senior of the pair, with more years of experience and a far longer resume to his name, KUSHIDA beat him to the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title (even if his time with the belt wasn’t the most auspicious of reigns). Shelley showed nothing but support for KUSHIDA, but he would still desperately like to call that title his own and you know he won’t be pulling his punches here, even against a tag partner and friend. KUSHIDA, meanwhile, will be eager to win the Best of the Super Jr’s and test his mettle against the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, Kenny Omega. They last met in the 2013 tournament and, although Omega won that meeting, that was a different side of Kenny Omega. But KUSHIDA’s changed a lot as well, he’s more self-assured in his wrestling and has obviously benefited a great deal from having a world travelled tag partner like Alex Shelley at his side. With both Shelley & KUSHIDA in with a good shout of winning their block, on the penultimate night of the tournament it could all come down to this match.
The 22nd Best of the Super Jr’s tournament kicks off on Friday the 22nd of May, concluding on June 7th, and it can be watched in its entirity with a subscription to NJPW World; http://njpwworld