The 21st edition of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Best of the Super Juniors Tournament took place from May 30th through June 8th. Three of the shows (opening night in Korakuen Hall, 4th day of the tournament from Korakuen, and the finals) were available on iPPV while the second show and last day of round robin aired on Samurai TV. Select matches from those shows are discussed below.
(05/30) Mascara Dorada vs. TAKA Michinoku
New Japan does not have a very good track recorded of pushing CMLL wrestlers. A guy like Dorada gets booked for the Best of the Super Juniors to fill one of the outsider spots that lends a touch of intrigue and worldliness to the tournament but is often treated as just another guy in. It is a bit unfortunate, really. The junior division in New Japan is somewhat weak at the present. Mascara Dorada had already been on two tours with the promotions this year and has gotten over. There seems like only upside in giving him a slightly harder push.
Dorada pulls out a bunch of his usual, very good flying offensive moves here. TAKA is a good foil for Dorada. He eats his offense well, throws in some well-timed comedy, and given his background he works very well as the rudo in a more lucha-style match. The match was short as it clocked in at under six minutes but it was a fun opener to the get the tournament started. Dorada got over in front of the Korakuen Hall crowd – as if there was any doubt – but predictably ended up on the losing end.
(05/30) Tiger Mask vs. Rocky Romero
Romero entered the ring wearing this really cool mask that was a hybrid of his old Black Tiger mask and his present day Forever Hooligan persona, complete with an eye patch over the left eye. It was a really nice touch to turn a completely nondescript opening night match up into something more by drawing on their shared history. Romero – as Black Tiger IV – feuded with Tiger Mask in the mid and late 90’s in a continuation of the long-standing Black Tiger/Tiger Mask rivalry. Romero wagered his mask against Tiger Mask IV’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship at the 2009 Tokyo Dome show and lost. Romero donning the mask gave the match an added spark and focus area.
Tiger Mask IV eventually pulled the Black Tiger mask off of Romero which then allowed for the match to settle in to a more normal routine. Tiger Mask IV as never been anything special and now is relatively advanced in age, but he looked good here trading convincing near falls with Romero. It wasn’t enough, however, as Romero caught his old rival in a pinning combination to pick up two points on the opening night of the tournament.
(05/30) Ricochet vs. Alex Koslov
Alex Koslov was part of the most memorable match of the opening day but definitely not for the reasons he had hoped.
Several minutes into what was a pretty decent match at that point, Koslov attempted the step up tope con hilo that Mascara Dorada has made famous. Ricochet appeared to catch Koslov just fine, but Koslov nonetheless came down awkward on his left arm and separated his shoulder. It was immediately obvious that something was wrong as Koslov withered on the arena floor in pain. The ringside doctor took a look and popped Koslov’s shoulder back into place which at least theoretically would allow him to continue. Koslov had Ricochet chase him around the ring and then applied several rest holds back in the ring as he tried to regain his bearings. By this point the match had lost any momentum it had built in the opening minutes which is of course totally understandable.
Much to Koslov’s credit, he somehow was not only able to continue wrestling a relatively normal match but by about the 12-minute mark they had recaptured the audience and were building a pretty solid, little match. That is until Koslov attempted a top rope move and crumbled to the mat upon landing on it feet first. He grabbed his shoulder that presumably had popped back out and the referee immediately called for the bell, awarding the match to Ricochet.
(05/30) Kenny Omega vs. Ryusuke Taguchi
Kenny Omega versus Ryusuke Taguchi does not necessarily fill like a main even caliber match for the opening night of a big tournament. The match was essentially an outsider versus a veteran with little to no momentum who just returned from a long absence back in March. To be fair, the 2014 BOSJ lineup did not necessarily produce many obvious main event caliber matches on paper so it wasn’t like there were a ton of obvious options floating out there.
Underwhelming as the match might have appeared it turned out to be a solid capper to the opening night. Omega has a certain goofy charisma about him which is why he is such a good fit with the DDT promotion. It helps to make up for his wrestling style that is essentially a potpourri of high impact moves and comedy bits. Omega singles matches can feel disjointed and this one did to an extent, although they held it together just enough to put it firmly in the “watchable” bin. Taguchi has had an underwhelming run since returning – his title shot versus Ibushi was relatively poor – but he is generally solid and was so in this match.
After an ending stretch that was heavy on teases and reversals, Omega picks up the win. Post-match he addressed the crowd speaking what – to me untrained ears – sounded like solid Japanese. The crowd reacted to most everything he said so it must have been fine. He vowed to win the tournament and to the credit of both Omega and New Japan, they had me believing after the opening night that he stood a real chance to do just that.
(05/31) Ricochet vs. Taka Michinoku
In baseball, if someone says a player provides a positive veteran presence it is a nice way of saying that he is no longer a very good player. Good veteran players are described as good players; bad and/or declining veteran players are given the (dreaded) veteran presence label. Their value isn’t on the field; at best their value lies in some intangible and hard-to-define role as a teacher or mentor.
I would stop short of saying sticking Taka with the label of a guy whose value is tied up in providing a strong veteran presence in the New Japan juniors division but he is probably pretty close. The good news for him is that being a strong veteran performer means more in wrestling than it does in baseball because of the cooperative nature. Taka is clearing a wrestler well past his prime. He is not someone you are going to build a team/division around. What he can do is help younger, less-experienced, or less-talented wrestlers get through matches without as much as breaking a sweat. He did that throughout this tournament.
This match is a fine example of that. This is a small (albeit a TV) show on the relatively unimportant second day of the tournament. Ricochet is likely going far in the tournament. Taka is not. This match doesn’t need to be special, it just needs to be enjoyable. Taka works in some comedy spots and heels it up throughout the match. He bumps for Ricochet’s offense at the appropriate times and sprinkles in a few cursory near falls. It is the sort of nice, solid performance you would expect from a veteran like Taka. He has been in his fair share of round robin tournaments and knows just how to handle an inconsequential, small show, second day tournament bout.
(05/31) Kushida vs. Mascara Dorada
Kushida and Mascara Dorada take a decidedly different path in their Day #2 match than Taka and Ricochet and for good reason. The Ricochet match was all about having a solid match and putting Ricochet over on his path to the finals. This match was about continuing Kushida on his march to the finals while at the same time showcasing Dorada in a win. Even if they were so inclined, Kushida and Mascara Dorada can’t really work the ho-hum style that Taka utilized in his Day #2 bout. With the dual goals of giving Dorada a win and making Kushida look strong, it needed to be a little bit more than run-of-the-mill.
To that end, they laid out an effective match. They begin with some fast paced standoff sequences. Dorada takes a big time bump to the floor off of a monkey flip. Both hit dives with Dorada pulling out the step up running tope con hilo. Kushida controls the bulk of the match in a way that helps protect him from the loss without it looking like Dorada simply got lucky to eek one out. Along those same lines, Kushida racks up some near falls before falling victim to a well-executed (in addition to great looking) springboard, arm drag pinning combination deal from Dorada. The ending and the match in general was a well done example of a round robin tournament match where a finalist losses to a non-contender and neither guy is hurt by the result.
(05/31) El Desperado vs. Alex Shelley
The booking of El Desperado in New Japan this year continues to be head-scratching. The guitar-playing masked man debuts at the Tokyo Dome in January and jumps head-first into a heated issue with junior champion Kota Ibushi. He has an immediate falling out with Jushin Liger the next day. After rather clearly being presented as a heel, he does an about face in February when he and Ibushi make nice following their title bout. He then gets into it again with Liger in March and the two go as far as to discuss a possible mask vs. mask match. Since then he has sort of been lost in the shuffle with his role as a face or heel poorly defined. He seemed like a guy they had plans for and now . . . nothing.
In the ring, I am a fan of Desperado but not necessarily a huge one. His offense is a bit rough around the edges. He flies into the front row of the audience with reckless abandon on his tope con hilo as if he is still on excursion in Mexico. His two finishers – a vertebreaker and some sort of over the shoulder suplex deal – both have an out of control, high impact look to them that is unique in amongst the New Japan junior division. Whenever he decides to embrace his inner rudo, he is pretty entertaining. I am just not sure I have seen him if a really good singles match.
This match doesn’t change that, although it is perfectly fine. I have more to say about Alex Shelley later but he is solid in this match which is really the best way to describe most of his performances today. He has his routine and pulls it out fine, but I would imagine most people aren’t going out of their way to watch Alex Shelley matches in 2014.
(06/03) Kenny Omega vs. El Desperado
This was your big brawling/”jump off of things” style match for the tournament. It is not my favorite style particularly because it is one that is so easily and often abused. For some fliers taking the match outside is simply an invitation to jump from high places with at the expense of any sort of flow. Often times, the stuff that is done for spectacle isn’t even that spectacular. That kind of match can be done to strong effect (see Volador Jr. vs. Mascara Dorada from this year’s Fantasticamania tour) but it fails more often that not.
Desperado and Omega keep it relatively dialed-in here. They brawl a bit aimlessly through the stands but the jumping-off-of-things spots they at least attempt to build to. Desperado teases a pile driver while perched on a ledge that Omega reverses into a backdrop that Desperado (and the guy assigned to catch him) take a wild spill on. Omega then hits a moonsault from said ledge as well. If jumping off of elevated surfaces outside the ring can be classified as basic, than this was basic ledge jumping.
Back in the ring Desperado did a nice sunset flip power bomb for a near fall. A vertebreaker also gets a near fall, which is a bit much even if the intent (to keep Omega strong against a directionless Desperado) was noble. Desperado finishes it immediately afterwards with a power bomb. This was a fun match that was different from a lot of the other matches in the tournament but still probably middle of the pack from a quality standpoint.
(06/03) Ricochet vs. Jushin “Thunder” Liger
Liger was very over the entire tournament. That’s not surprising. Liger is always over but particularly in a tournament like this where he is going to be the sentimental favorite every year until he retires. What is maybe a tad more surprising is that Ricochet was one of the more over wrestlers in the tournament from the start. The crowd treats both like big stars which gave this mid-tournament match a little extra oomph.
The match itself was solid. It is fun watching younger junior heavyweights and/or high fliers work Liger these days because they have to tone it down a bit to work with him. For most guys toning it down is a good thing and Liger is as good as anyone at piecing together a fun, relatively simple ten minute match. Ricochet looks good doing basic mat work these days are sprinkles in some high spots nicely. The end comes with Liger hitting a Thesz press and picking up the surprising pin. I liked the finish in the sense that it kept Ricochet strong but did not necessarily come off as a total fluke.
(06/06) Kenny Omega vs. Taichi
You watch enough Japanese round robin wrestling tournaments and you begin to realize why the round robin format is not more popular in US pro wrestling. There are more or less two options for booking these things. The first is to book according to the usual hierarchy and have the pushed guys win most of their matches and the lower card guys lose most of theirs. The problem with that is it leaves you with a couple of shows on the tail end where one-half or more of the tournaments are overall meaningless. The second option – which avoids that issue – is to book the entire thing evenly so the tournament enters its final days totally up for grabs. The problem there of course is that necessitates some guys going over opponents they would never defeat under in a non-tournament setting. I think most US promotions would rather just avoid the headaches involved and just book a single elimination tournament.
Jado and Gedo tend to go with the even-steven approach which was fully on display on the final round robin day of the BOSJ 2014. Taichi and Omega – along with the other six members of Block B – all came into the final day with 6 points. The block was completely up for grabs after five days of down the middle booking. Omega seemed likely win here. Taichi had six points only because everyone in Block B had six points. Omega would win and either advance or be the unfortunate victim of a three way tiebreaker. At least that seemed to be the case. Somewhat inexplicably, Omega lost this (not very good) match to end his tournament with 6 points while the un-pushed (although NJPW native) Taichi got to 8 points.
Taichi’s win would not have mattered had the rest of the tournament played out as anticipated but unfortunately that is not always what happens . . .
(06/06) Alex Shelley vs. Tiger Mask
Like the Omega vs. Taichi match that immediately proceeded this one, it seems easy to call on paper. Tiger Mask appeared to be a wrestler that had six points simply as a way of maintaining suspense of the tournament outcome up until the final day. Shelley would win and likely advance to the semi-finals. Unlike Omega vs. Taichi, the expected outcome occurred. Shelley won a three minute match that never got going (and ended abruptly) to head to the finals. The unexpected occurred after (or rather at the end) of the match.
The match and finish were rushed because Shelley suffered an arm injury early on in the match. His win sent him to the semi-finals but the injury kept him out of it. With Shelley sidelined, the second spot in Group B wound up going to Taichi who had unexpectedly defeated Omega minutes earlier. The second guessers postulated that NJPW probably regretted putting Taichi over Omega since a Taichi vs. Kushida match on paper was less appealing than an Omega vs. Kushida match in the eyes of many. Such are the perils of running a closely contested round robin pro wrestling tournament.
(06/06) Kushida vs. Jushin “Thunder” Liger
I already waxed poetically about the continuing greatness of Jushin “Thunder” Liger already once this year, so I’ll spare you the encore. What does need to be noted is in a tournament with some solid wrestlers many of whom were looking get noticed, it was the 49-year old Liger who – alongside Kushida – produced the best round robin match of the entire tournament.
Liger was statistically eliminated at this point which perhaps explains the grumpy mood he was in for this match. Liger as legend and underdog is great just as it was in his ROH NYC match versus Adam Cole. Liger as legend and ass kicker is also great just as it was here. The takeaway being that Liger is pretty great in any context.
As mentioned, he is no mood to mess around here and goes right after Kushida’s leg. The New Japan juniors style that Liger helped cultivate has never been big on building an entire match around limb work. There is often some mat work and/or limb work at the beginning of a match that is subsequently cast aside later in the match. You would never know that however from watching Liger masterfully destroy Kushida’s leg for much of this contest. He is unrelenting and creative with his attack, filling up the body of the contest with all sorts of leg-focused attacks. Later, Kushida makes his comeback by targeting the arm and we are reminded that Liger is as great at selling a body part as he is at working one over. The limb work is somewhat tossed aside for the end as per usual with this style but the stretch run was very fun and not overdone.
Kushida picks up the big to advance to the semi-finals. Liger put him over past match. Like I alluded to with the Cole match, for a guy who has been exiled to opening matches for several years now when Liger loses it still feels important. This was a great way – both in terms of match quality and momentum – to send Kushida into the finals.
(06/06) BUSHI vs. Ricochet
If there was a wrestler during the 24th Best of Super Juniors tournament whose stock went up as a result of his tournament performance, it was BUSHI. The former All Japan wrestler hasn’t received much of a spotlight in New Japan’s junior division so perhaps this was simply a case of him getting a chance to shine. In any event, he was very over at most of the stops on the tour (particularly at Korakuen Hall) and turned in solid performance after solid performance.
This match was essentially a play-in match with the winner advancing onto the semi-finals. As solid as BUSHI looked over the prior week the match was clearly Ricochet’s to win, although they did manage to reel off of a few believable near falls in the late going. Ricochet pulled out his normal spots and like BUSHI, was surprisingly over the entire tournament. This qualifies as a small surprise given that Ricochet only had one prior period of exposure to New Japan fans (last year’s BOSJ) and one never quite knows how a wrestler from a smaller promotion (Dragon Gate in this case) is going to be viewed when moving on up.
Ricochet and BUSHI had a good match that was a fitting capper for the round robin portion of the tournament. Ricochet as predicted got the win, leaving the semi-finals as Tahichi (substitute for the injured Alex Shelley) versus Kushida and Ricochet vs. Taguchi.
(06/08) Semi-Final: Taichi (Block B Runner Up) vs. Kushida (Block A Winner)
Remember the theory that New Japan might regret the decision to put Taichi over Kenny Omega in light of Alex Shelley’s injury knocking him out of the semi-finals? Forget that – this match not only turned out fine but was a fun change of pace from the rest of the tournament that helped solidly position Kushida as an underdog in the finals.
Taichi and his tag partner/second Taka cheated liberally throughout the match to strong effect. Those who believe New Japan fans do not want to see interference in important matches have another example to the contrary. The fans reacted to the interference appropriately and loudly. When Kushida fought back or when his injured Time Splitter partner Alex Shelley evened the odds, the crowd voiced their pleasure.
Most of all, it felt like Kushida was fighting against real odds here in a way that couldn’t have been captured in a straight-laced affair. The interference and the way the match was worked added a feeling that Kushida earned an important victory going into the finals. Give that the rest of the year Taichi is essentially a low carder on the NJPW totem pole, I doubt that would have worked without the interference.
It should also be mentioned that Shelley was great here valiantly attempting to help his partner despite his own injury. It was a real baby face move. Not only did he put his own well-being aside to help his partner, he showed no outward signs of bitterness over being denied his hard earned spot in the semi-finals. The crowd picked up that too and reacted accordingly. The booking of this tournament from the first day (when both Shelley and Kushida defeated the Young Bucks in singles matches) indicated that the Time Splitters were going to exit the tournament with a junior tag title match and this semi-final continued building momentum towards that destination point.
(06/08) Semi-Final: Ricochet (Block A Runner Up) vs. Ryusuke Taguchi (Block B Winner)
In contrast to Kushida’s unfair and therefore uphill fight in the semi-finals, Ricochet had a relatively easy path to the finals. He took only six minutes to defeat Taguchi and despite some requisite near falls, his spot in the finals never felt in any danger. The match was okay but completely unremarkable. The goal appeared to be to put Ricochet over strongly going into the finals perhaps because he was an outsider and there was a question as to how the crowd would buy him wrestling in the finals. Those fears – if they existed – were assuaged right away though as the Tokyo crowd received Ricochet warmly from the moment he came out.
Taguchi suffers from the same problem as several wrestlers on the New Japan roster in that he isn’t going anywhere and as a pro wrestler that is the worst spot to be in. It is a problem that is not unique to New Japan. Most of the bigger promotions around the world simply have too many wrestlers on the roster who they continue to use even while not being pushed for long periods of time. Taguchi – and many others like him around the world – are simply a victim of circumstance.
(06/08) Final: Ricochet vs. Kushida
2014 just might be Ricochet’s year.
His improvement in the ring over the past year and a half has been well-documented here and elsewhere. He has made the difficult part of transitioning from incredible spot guy to well-rounded wrestler. He is still lacking some polish but generally speaking, that should be the easy part. Ricochet worked this finals like an extremely competent and confident wrestler. In no way did he look out of place working a slower build that involved mat work and exchanging holds. He went toe-to-toe with Kushida in that regard. Perhaps just as important, he peppered in his high spots expertly and was able to bring the crowd up and down at the right moments. His use of kicks to transition and fill time has been a big part in his development and he used them very well in the finals. It would be hyperbole to suggest he wrestled a perfect match here (then again, who does?) and there were obvious spots where the previously mentioned lack of polish showed up. At the end of the day, he looked like a wrestler more than deserving of winning the tournament and one that is on the cusp of bigger things.
Having said all of that, Kushida might have been the star of the match and tournament. Throughout the entire week and this match in particular, Kushida has shown a strong ability to connect with the crowd. Interestingly enough, this was a pro Ricochet crowd to start but Kushida had them into all of his near falls by the end. He is great at working from underneath, has a strong presence, and his stylistic mixture of high flying with submissions/mat work is just what a junior heavyweight wrestler should be. This match had some of the better near falls and near fall reactions of any New Japan match in 2014. Kushida was a huge part of the reason why with the way he teased moves and paid them off in the latter stages of the match.
Back to Ricochet, in addition to the leaps forward he has taken in the ring he is also amongst the most pushed widely pushed “independent” wrestlers in the world this year. Prior to winning the BOSJ tournament, Ricochet became the first foreign born wrestler to hold the Open the Dream Gate Championship. He has been booked often in the UK during 2014 in featured positions on cards. With this tournament win he became the 4th foreign born winner of the BOSJ tournament and is likely on his way to winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Even with being turned down by the WWE this year for allegedly dubious reasons, 2014 is looking like Ricochet’s year.
Must Watch: (06/08) Finals: Ricochet vs. Kushida
Watch It: (06/06) Kushida vs. Jushin Liger
Worthwhile: (05/30) Mascara Dorada vs. Taka Michinoku; (05/30) Rocky Romero vs. Tiger Mas IV; (05/31) Kushida vs. Mascara Dorada; (06/04) Kenny Omega vs. El Desperado; (06/04) Jushin Liger vs. Ricochet; (06/06) BUSHI vs. Ricochet; (06/08) Taichi vs. Kushida
Common: Everything else from 5/30, 5/31, 6/4, 6/6, and 6/8 (haven’t seen the other shows yet)