NJPW Young Lion Cup 2017

Six competitors, each of them a product of New Japan’s dojo, in a round-robin tournament which took place over the course of five events in three months. Here’s how it went down…

Two points for a win, one for a draw, fifteen-minute time limit. As of the start of the tournament here were the stats for each competitor:

  • Ren Narita – 19 years old, debuted on 4 July 2017, 182cm, 83kg
  • Hirai Kawato – 20 years old, debuted on 3 January 2016, 176cm, 80kg
  • Shota Umino – 20 years old, debuted on 13 April 2017, 183cm, 93kg
  • Tetsuhiro Yagi – 25 years old, debuted on 9 May 2017, 180cm, 88kg
  • Tomoyuki Oka – 26 years old, debuted 3 January 2017, 185cm, 115kg
  • Katsuya Kitamura – 32 years old, debuted 13 March 2017, 182cm, 115kg

Round One

Lion’s Gate 8, October 12th, 19:00 from Shinjuku FACE

Ren Narita vs. Hirai Kawato

The more experienced Kawato took control with some aggressive elbow strikes, then scored a back body drop and a pair of kicks before locking in the camel clutch. Narita reached the ropes, escaped a scoop slam to hit a dropkick and followed with a cravat chinlock before hitting a diving leg drop from the middle-rope. He stayed on top until Kawato landed a counter-dropkick, then found himself locked in a Boston Crab until a desperate lunge forced the break. Springboard dropkick from Kawato! Two-count only. Corkscrew roundhouse from Kawato! One, two, three.

Tetsuhiro Yagi vs. Katsuya Kitamura

Yagi fared surprisingly well against the muscular Kitamura early on, brushing off a shoulder block to land a dropkick. A rolling neck snap was followed by a triangle choke and Yagi blocked Kitamura’s lift attempt by switching to a cross armbreaker. Kitamura powered out of that one, but Yagi stayed on top with elbow strikes in the corner and a scoop slam, much to the delight of the crowd. The Boston Crab was applied, with Yagi dragging Kitamura to the centre of the ring before transitioning to a Muta Lock! Kitamura broke free and made the ropes, then the two traded elbows until Kitamura nailed a knife edge chop. Several chops more in the corner were followed by a back elbow. Spear! Kitamura with a Jackhammer for the win!

Shota Umino vs. Tomoyuki Oka

Again, the less experienced man, in this case Umino, was the more aggressive initially. He grounded Oka and applied an ankle hold and leg scissors until Oka dragged himself to the ropes. Umino threw elbows then slapped Oka, so Oka picked him up and spinebuster’d him to the mat. Straitjacket chinlock applied, then a necklock and into a half hatch suplex for two. Oklahoma Slam then a camel clutch, but Umino escaped and scored a missile dropkick from the middle-rope. Running forearm for two, then a briefly applied single-leg Crab and a counter-dropkick. Scoop slam and a diving back elbow from the middle-rope! Two-count only. Another scoop slam looked messy, but got a two-count anyway, then Umino applied a full Boston Crab. Oka reached the ropes and hit a belly-to-belly and scoop slam before applying the Boston Crab himself. Deadlift belly-to-belly! One, two, no. Boston Crab cinched in once again and this time Umino was forced to tap.

  • 2 points – Kawato, Kitamura, Oka
  • 0 points – Narita, Umino, Yagi

Round Two

Lion’s Gate 9, November 16th, 19:00 from Shinjuku FACE

Ren Narita vs. Tomoyuki Oka

The heavier and more senior Oka got the better of the opening mat work, using his strength to drag  Narita into a couple of pinning predicaments. Narita’s double-leg takedown was blocked and Oka took control once more, but Narita escaped and finally floored Oka with a running dropkick. He went to Oka’s leg, using a kneebar and modified STF, then landed a second-rope leg drop onto the leg! He stomped at Oka’s head to which the angered Oka and Narita received a spinebuster in reply. Despite elbow strikes, Narita blocked Oka’s belly-to-belly to hit his own! Two-count only. Boston Crab locked in and Oka fought hard to reach the ropes, then floored Narita with a shoulder block. Mounted elbow strikes and a scoop slam for two, then the camel clutch was locked in until Narita desperately lunged for the ropes. The same was the case with the Boston Crab, but then Oka hit the overhead belly-to-belly. One, two, no! Another Boston Crab and this time Oka was forced to tap. Good match!

Shota Umino vs. Katsuya Kitamura

Umino scored a couple of open-handed chops then pummelled Kitamura in the corner, ignoring calls from the referee (his father!) for a break. He failed with shoulder blocks, so went with a low dropkick and applied a kneebar until Kitamura got the rope-break. Back to the leg, again forcing a rope-break. Kitamura hit back with some huge chops, flooring Umino, but Umino blocked a charge and scored a middle-rope missile dropkick. He managed to knock Kitamura down with a shoulder block and landed a running dropkick and scoop slam. Diving back elbow from the top-rope! Two-count only. Kitamura nailed a spear then, but Umino leapfrogged the second and landed a huge German suplex! Neckbreaker for another two-count. Boston Crab locked in, but Kitamura made the ropes and a big chop and the spear earned the big man a near-fall. Jackhammer for the win! Umino looked good here, I thought.

Tetsuhiro Yagi vs. Hirai Kawato

Both guys came out firing with elbows, with Yagi even pushing the referee to the mat in anger, but Kawato put himself in control with an armbar and headscissors, both of which had Yagi scrambling to the ropes. Yagi missed an initial dropkick attempt, but brushed off Kawato’s kicks to floor him with a second. Big hip toss out of the corner for two, then the single-leg crab was applied. Kawato reached the ropes and countered to an inside cradle for two, then hit a dropkick of his own before returning to the armbar. Springboard dropkick! Two-count only. Corkscrew roundhouse for the win. That got sloppy and kind of fell apart at the end. Oh well.

  • 4 points – Kawato, Kitamura, Oka
  • 0 points – Narita, Umino, Yagi

Round Three

Road to Tokyo Dome, December 17th, 18:30 from Korakuen Hall

Tetsuhiro Yagi vs. Shota Umino

Yagi’s slap and shoulder block earned an early two-count, then he targeted Umino’s left leg, which was taped around the knee. Umino tried to fight back with slaps, but was shut down, and Yagi tested the referee’s patience by using the ropes for leverage. He applied a knee bar followed by a reverse Indian Deathlock, both of which had Umino stretching for the ropes, but charged straight into a dropkick to cede control. A pair of limping corner elbows and a running forearm earned Umino a two-count, then Yagi himself fired back with a dropkick. Hip toss, back body drop, two-count. Yagi locked in a single-leg crab, but Umino escaped and hit a middle-rope dropkick followed by a neckbreaker for two. Scoop slam and a diving back elbow! Two-count only. Umino locked in a Boston Crab and dragged Yagi back to the middle of the ring, forcing the tap-out! Good little match.

Ren Narita vs. Katsuya Kitamura

Narita attacked immediately with a dropkick and elbows, but the much larger Kitamura pushed him off before standing firm on shoulder block attempts. Belly-to-belly from Narita outta nowhere! Boston Crab locked in, but Kitamura reached the ropes then flattened Narita with a pair of chops. Shoulder block for two and the same for a big scoop slam. Now it was Kitamura’s turn to use a Boston Crab, from which Narita scrambles to the ropes, then the delayed Jackhammer connected for the win.

Tomoyuki Oka vs. Hirai Kawato

Oka is slowly but surely getting in decent shape. Anyway, Kawato quickly took the advantage by focusing on Oka’s left leg, drawing a couple of rope-breaks, then Oka hit back with European uppercuts and a scoop slam before applying a Deathlocked Camel Clutch. Kawato regained the advantage with a dropkick and leaping forearm, then a single-leg crab was followed by kicks and a slap. Belly-to-belly from Oka! A gutwrench suplex got two, then Oka planted Kawato with a spinebuster. He went to apply a Boston Crab, but Kawato countered into a victory roll for the three-count! This ended before it had a chance to properly pick up, but the surprise pinfall was just that.

  • 6 points – Kitamura, Kawato
  • 4 points – Oka
  • 2 points – Umino
  • 0 points – Narita, Yagi

Round Four

Road to Tokyo Dome, December 18th, 18:30 from Korakuen Hall

Ren Narita vs. Shota Umino

Narita initially got the better of an elbow exchange, then Umino fired back with slaps, only for Narita to shut him down by targeting his taped left knee. Umino powered out with more slaps and elbows, but Narita cut him off again with a dropkick, then a hip toss and back body drop got two. Belly-to-belly for another two-count and Narita locked in a Boston Crab, from which Umino scrambled to the ropes. Narita charged straight into a dropkick, which Umino followed with another from the middle-rope, then slammed Narita and scored the diving back elbow for a near-fall! Boston Crab locked in and Narita tapped!

Tomoyuki Oka vs. Tetsuhiro Yagi

Yagi’s head was entirely shorn as a result of running into Minoru Suzuki and his clippers at the December 17th show. It’s actually a good look for him and makes him stand out. Oka wrenched a headlock, but Yagi slammed him down to escape and began working the leg. Nicely done. Aggressive stomping and a deathlock kept Oka grounded, then Yagi slapped Oka on the head and got a back elbow in reply. Yagi ducked a charge, however, and scored a dropkick and scoop slam for two, then applied a Boston Crab. After reaching the ropes, Oka fired up with a strike combo and a pair of slams for two and a nice gutwrench suplex earned the same. Boston Crab from Oka and Yagi tapped immediately.

Katsuya Kitamura vs. Hirai Kawato

Kitamura overpowered Kawato early on, scoring a shoulder block, hip toss, scoop slam and a gutwrench suplex for two, then clubbed his much smaller opponent to the mat. Kawato replied with dropkick and followed that with a nice springboard dropkick for two. He locked in a cross armbar and transitioned into a gogoplata, but Kitamura picked him up and powerbombed him down. Kawato succeeded in countering a suplex to a school boy for two, but Kitamura blocked the small package and deadlifted him into the Jackhammer! One, two, three. Short but sweet – this had a great sense of urgency and will to win from both men.

  • 8 points – Kitamura
  • 6 points – Kawato, Oka
  • 4 points – Umino
  • 0 points – Narita, Yagi

Round Five

Lion’s Gate 10, December 21st, 19:00 from Shinjuku FACE

Ren Narita vs. Tetsuhiro Yagi

Both men threw elbows to start, then Yagi floored his opponent with a shoulder block. Chops backed Narita into the corner, but he fought back, only to be cut off and slammed for a two-count. Yagi continued the punishment with some open-handed chops, but Narita charged at him with dropkick to turn the tide. Chops and elbows from Narita now and the hip toss earned two. Boston Crab applied in the middle of the ring, but Yagi stretched for the rope-break then countered a charge with a hard dropkick to stop the rot. He attacked Narita’s left leg and kneebar’d it until a rope-break, then scoop slammed him and applied a Boston Crab of his own. Yagi dragged Narita back to the middle of the ring and applied the Muta Lock then transitioned into a rear chinlock version, but still Narita made the ropes. More chops from Yagi and a headbutt from Narita! Huge slap followed by a belly-to-belly! Two-count only. They traded slaps, with Yagi’s earning a two-count, then he countered into a small package for another near-fall. Narita slapped Yagi down and applied the Boston Crab once more, but he quickly reached the ropes, then both guys scrambled for pinfalls, but the bell rang to signal a 15-minute draw. Great effort here, with both men desperate to put some points on the board.

Shota Umino vs. Hirai Kawato

The bigger Umino scored a shoulder block, but Kawato quickly landed a hip toss and got to work on Umino’s taped left leg. Umino powered out, however, and the pair exchanged slaps before Kawato hit a back body drop and applied the single-leg crab. After the rope-break, Kawato landed a nice chest kick, but again Umino used power to nail a scoop slam and followed with a diving back elbow from the top-rope! Boston Crab locked in, but Kawato scrambled for the ropes and countered a charge with a dropkick for two. Kawato used a Boston Crab of his own, then a flying forearm and the springboard dropkick for a near-fall, then finally got the win with the corkscrew roundhouse.

Katsuya Kitamura vs. Tomoyuki Oka

They quickly got down to trading elbows followed by knife edge chops, much to the crowd’s delight.  One of Kitamura’s flattened Oka for a two-count, then neither man would shift after several attempted shoulder blocks. Finally, Oka unbalanced Kitamura long enough to send him to the mat. Knee lifts and a chest kick(!) kept Oka on top and mounted elbows got two. Big scoop slam, also for two. A deathlocked rear chinlock kept Kitamura grounded, but he eventually made the ropes. They fought over a gutwrench suplex, a battle won by Kitamura, who followed with more signature chops. He pushed the referee to the floor before nailing a shoulder block, only for Oka to counter the spear with a dropkick! Flying forearm – two-count only. Belly-to-belly! One, two, no. Kitamura managed a desperation suplex and capitalised with a spear! One, two, no! Jackhammer! One, two, three! A strong and very heated final tournament match.

Katsuya Kitamura is the winner of the 2017 Young Lion Cup!

Kitamura was given an impressive trophy and posed for the photographers with a “Big K” banner. 

Final Standings

  • 10 points – Kitamura (5-0)
  • 8 points – Kawato (4-1)
  • 6 points – Oka (3-2)
  • 4 points – Umino (2-3)
  • 1 point – Narita, Yagi (0-4-1)

At the start of the tournament, Kawato looked significantly better than the other three lads of a similar size. Yet, over the course of three months, Umino, Narito and Yagi have all improved to the point where there is very little between them. Kawato has the natural fire, though, and it feels like he’s ready for excursion. As I mentioned, Oka is looking in better shape all the time and continues to be very solid in-ring. He doesn’t stand out physically, but I can see a spot for him in a throwback tough guy role. The winner, Kitamura, is the biggest, eldest and most outrageously tanned of the group, so it’s not entirely a surprise to see him go 5-0. He played his role well here, although the World Tag League demonstrated that his ringwork is a work in progress. He does, however, have a presence and stands out even on the company’s main roster.

With this group, as well as Henare and Leo Tonga, the company has a promising future. And while there was nothing here of outstanding quality (the very best stuff was around the ***1/4 mark), the reliance on the fundamentals of pro wrestling over spectacular moves makes for refreshing viewing and I find watching the development of homegrown talent to be reward enough. 

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