March 6 Anniversary to see two more first round matchups
New Japan Pro Wrestling’s perennial single-elimination tournament, the New Japan Cup, spills into NJPW’s 51st Anniversary Event with the lower-right quadrant kicking off with two cup matches occurring from Ota City General Gymnasium on March 6th.
Each bracket quadrant is stacked with six heavyweight wrestlers this year, with two securing first-round byes. In the case of the lower-right quadrant, RevPro British Champion, Great-O-Khan, and 2022 New Japan Cup winner and NJPW World Television Champion, Zack Sabre Jr. are the lucky wrestlers with first-round byes, while the rest of the quadrant will wrestle for a shot at the round of 16. There are no first-time New Japan Cup entrants in the lower-right quadrant. This area of the bracket features two-time New Japan Cup winner and defending champion Zack Sabre Jr., along with two of the, surprisingly, least successful New Japan Cup participants of all time in Tomohiro Ishii and Yujiro Takahashi. Below, we’ll look at each wrestler’s history, and I’ll do my best to determine who has the best chance of advancing to the semi-finals on March 19th.
After spending much of his early career focused on the tag-team division, David Finlay’s first New Japan Cup in 2021 established him as a player in the singles division. The underdog, Finlay, buzzed through Chase Owens and YOSHI-HASHI before meeting what many assumed would be his demise in Jay White in the round of eight. In one of the greatest New Japan Cup upsets in recent memory, Finlay defeated Jay White to move on to the semi-finals, where Will Ospreay ultimately eliminated him. That 2021 tournament was, at minimum, a moral victory for Finlay, as many didn’t even have him exiting the first round, and there he was in the final four.
Finlay has once again used Jay White as the catalyst for his momentum in the New Japan Cup. After Eddie Kingston vanquished White at San Jose’s Battle In The Valley, Finlay seized the opportunity to make sure his face was the last one Jay White saw while laying in a cerulean blue ring, launching himself into the conversation of legitimate contenders to win the 2023 New Japan Cup.
Finlay’s momentum is primarily intangible, as he doesn’t have the depth of recent singles matches that others in the tournament are carrying into their first-round matches. Still, Finlay has proven himself to be a formidable tournament wrestler with solid showings in his first New Japan Cup and his first G1 Climax this past year. David Finlay’s first-round draw, Tomohiro Ishii, is a challenge on paper. Still, Ishii hasn’t gotten past the first round in his last two New Japan Cups, so that may give Finlay an opening to advance to the round of sixteen.
Every year, analysts, fans, and gamblers pick Tomohiro Ishii to bowl through the New Japan Cup and reach the later stages of the tournament, and seemingly every year, those same analysts, fans, and gamblers are left disappointed. Ishii is, without a doubt, one of the most beloved wrestlers on the New Japan Pro Wrestling roster, and he is a threat to win any match on any given night, but the New Japan Cup has not been especially good to him historically. Ishii has only advanced past the first round in 6 of his 14 New Japan Cup tournaments, and he has been eliminated in his inaugural tournament match in his last two tournaments. Ishii threatens to be victorious on any night, so he can never be written off. However, if his history in the New Japan Cup serves as any indication, Ishii may be headed for an early exit from the single-elimination tournament.
The RevPro British Heavyweight Champion, Great-O-Khan enters the 2023 New Japan Cup with a first-round bye. He will face the ever-threatening Tomohiro Ishii or the newly emboldened David Finlay in the round of 16. O-Khan has racked up impressive victories in his New Japan Cup appearances to date. Still, his first opponent in this year’s bracket will surely be a force to be reckoned with for The Dominator as he looks to improve his past performance while protecting the future of his Rev Pro British Heavyweight Championship.
Shota Umino is the sexy pick to advance out of the lower-right quadrant of the bracket. Still, aside from a top-tier look and the energy of a future ace, Umino hasn’t given much reason for us to be confident that he’ll get his hand raised throughout this tournament. The Roughneck is still looking for his first signature win as a proper member of the NJPW roster. He recently suffered big-match losses to Will Ospreay and Tetsuya Naito. While he enters his first-round match against Yujiro Takahashi as the absolute favorite, Yujro doesn’t check the big-match boxes that Umino is seeking as a candidate to carry New Japan Pro Wrestling into the next generation.
While nothing is ever certain, Umino defeating Yujro Takahashi feels like the lock of the first round. Should that be the case, Umino would meet NJPWWorld Television Champion Zack Sabre Jr. in a match that may have dual stakes. A win over the TV champion could put a title challenge in Umino’s back pocket while also serving as Umino’s first big win. Should that match come to fruition, it will surely be one to mark on your calendar.
There’s no way to spin it: Yujiro Takahashi is one of the least successful wrestlers in New Japan Cup history. With a 3-12 record and a .200 winning percentage in New Japan Cup matches, Yujiro enters this year’s tournament with the second-worst winning percentage in New Japan Cup history. Yujiro draws the young upstart, Shota Umino, in his first-round match, and while anything can happen, Takahashi is the clear underdog, and he is likely to exit the New Japan Cup in the first round for the seventh straight time.
Zack Sabre Jr. enters the 2023 New Japan cup with a 13-3 all-time record in New Japan Cup matches, making him the second-most successful New Japan Cup wrestler. With two tournament victories, ZSJ has proven that he will perennially be a contender in the annual single-elimination tournament. Someone with the strengths of Zack Sabre Jr. doesn’t necessarily need a first-round bye, but I’m sure the IWGP NJPWWorld Television Champion isn’t complaining.
While anything can happen, I anticipate Zack Sabre Jr. and Shota Umino meeting in the round of 16 for what will be an early Match Of The Tournament contender with both tournament and IWGP NJPWWorld Television Championship ramifications. Zack holds the record for submission victories in the New Japan Cup with 11, and he has proven that he can win any match, with any hold, at any time, making him a dangerous contender to reach the final four, no matter whom he faces.
Samsa’s Quadrant Prediction
Gosh, it’s hard to bet against Zack Sabre Jr. after he won two of the last five New Japan Cup tournaments, but this quadrant is stacked with sexy picks, and I can’t discount the possibility that 5 of these six wrestlers are legitimate threats to advance to the final four.
I can’t understate the value of a first-round bye, primarily when bestowed upon two established wrestlers like Zack Sabre Jr. and Great-O-Khan. Statistically, ZSJ is the clear favorite to go through to the final four, but my pick to advance is Great-O-Khan. O-Khan has quietly been very successful in the last 365 days, and while he is a little bit of a dark horse, if he can get through his round-of-16 curse, I think O-Khan will step up and represent The United Empire in the final four.
Chris Samsa is a professional wrestling statistician and research assistant supporting the NJPW English Broadcast team since 2019. Follow him on social media here.