The show opened with a slick montage of each competitor in this year’s New Japan Cup USA along with a few shots of the new Strong Openweight championship belt, which is what the winner of the 2021 USA cup will take home with them.
New Japan Cup USA Round 1: Lio Rush defeated Clark Connors
Really good opening match that was almost exactly ten minutes long. Rush offered Connors his hand before the bout, but Connors shoved it aside. Once the match was under way, action stayed close to the mat with each trying to out-grapple each other. On commentary, Kevin Kelly talked about Rush’s legitimate amateur background in his school days, competing not just in the D.C. area, where he’s from, but all over the United States. Kelly even described him as an “Olympic hopeful” before deciding to go into pro wrestling at a young age.
These two are actually good opponents for each other in that they’re roughly the same height, plus they’re equally athletic, just in different ways. Rush is faster, Connors is stronger, but here they seemed to have met in the middle. Connors laid Rush out a few times with hard shoulder blocks as Rush was bouncing off the ropes.
Rush used a rope-assisted frankensteiner minutes later, slowing down Connors’ attack in the process. He later laid in hard low kicks to Connors’ chest and Connors ate them for lunch; he expressed no serious damage. Rush used a jumping axe-kick to put the kibosh on any hint of a Connors’ comeback. That didn’t last long, though, because Connors eventually did make a comeback, smashing Rush with a pounce coming off the ropes. He then launched Rush with a front suplex for a two-count. Rush used a low-angle spin kick later, then landed an Asai moonsault to Connors on the floor.
Connors went for a spear but Rush kicked him in the head for his effort. Connors did eventually nail Rush with the spear, though, and when he did, he held onto his grip and immediately flipped Rush over into a Boston Crab submission. Rush escaped, but he found himself in the Crab once again after attempting a headscissors to Connors while Connors stood on the apron. Connors turned this into a modified Lion Tamer with his foot square on Rush’s head, which was entangled in the ropes. Brutal-looking stretch.
It wasn’t enough, though, as the Lion’s Break Crown winner fell to Rush moments later after Rush landed a low-angle springboard cutter to put Connors away. Between his recent work on Strong and his debut with Bloodsport last night, Rush has grown on me more than any wrestler as of late. Connors continues to be excellent, it was cool to see him mix it up with such a different style of wrestler. It worked.
New Japan Cup USA Round 1: “Filthy” Tom Lawlor defeated Ren Narita via ref stoppage
Lawlor brought out his Karl Gotch-style Indian club and gave it a few whirls inside the ring before the match.
Speaking of Bloodsport, this felt just like a match you would see on a Bloodsport card. Lawlor did the “he pulled my hair!” gesture early on. I love how the guy with the most fight experience and training also goes out of his way to lean into pro wrestling’s tropes.
Mid-way through the match, Lawlor tried a front kick but Narita caught it and took Lawlor to the mat. Lawlor had answers for most of what Narita went for on the ground.
After five minutes had passed, both were back on their feet when Lawlor tagged Narita with a hard low kick that connected with Narita’s thigh. Narita immediately grabbed his leg and walked himself back into the blue corner. “Filthy” Tom smelled blood and went on the attack, lighting Narita up with a few more of the same low kicks, plus chops and elbows.
Lawlor put Narita down hard with an exploder suplex. Narita sold this like he was borderline KO’d. Narita eventually shook it off and mounted as much of a comeback as he could against Lawlor, matching him hold for hold in quick exchanges on the mat. Narita was able to lock in his Narita Special, a modified Texas cloverhold, but Lawlor shut that down quickly and turned it into a figure-four leglock. Narita slapped Lawlor hard across the face. Lawlor screamed “Again!” at Narita a few times. One nice touch Lawlor added here was when Narita would turn his head and sell Lawlor’s figure-four, that’s when Lawlor would slightly sell the slaps Narita just threw. It’s an easy and smart way of showing how one can no-sell a hard slap in the face but show that it still does hurt.
Narita held on and was eventually able to break the figure four by reaching the bottom rope. He fired up again on his feet, first throwing him over his head with a knuckle-lock suplex, then held his grip and launched Lawlor again with a front suplex for two. He landed a spinning heel kick. Lawlor tried a few seoinage type throws but Narita was able to counter one of them and turn it into a sleeperhold from behind. Lawlor reversed that and threw one on of his own. He then let go, leaving Narita upright and dazed before Lawlor clobbered him with a penalty kick. He went back to the sleeperhold, and this time, Narita looked to be out cold. He was also bleeding from his nose or mouth quite a lot at this point, too. The referee called the match and Lawlor won via TKO and will advance to the next round of the New Japan Cup USA. He yelled at the ref to raise his hand in victory, then jaw-jacked with Kevin Kelly and Alex Koslov on commentary before exiting.
This was really good, but what’s really interesting is how both Lawlor and Narita came off stronger after the match.
New Japan Cup USA Round 1: Hikuleo defeated Fred Rosser
Great revenge- brawl that had a lot of energy from the get-go. These two have a history together on the show: Back in February, “Mr. No Days Off” beat Hikuleo on an episode of Strong. Hikuleo obviously hadn’t forgotten about it, because the giant ran at Rosser and took him out with a big boot before the bell had even rung. Rosser’s music was still playing as he walked to the other side of the ring, selling the boot like it may have taken a tooth out of his mouth. He and Hikuleo got back into it next and, really, it looked more like a hockey fight than a wrestling match. I mean that as a good thing. These two just tore into each other. It was full-on brawl. Rosser used a headbutt. Hikuleo threw Rosser over the barrier and Rosser looked to do a full flip dive over the rail. Hikuleo blasted Rosser with a chop near the blue corner post, then gave him Snake Eyes across the guard rail. The match technically hadn’t even started yet. Hikuleo did the “headbanger choke,” where he, just like his father, Haku, wrapped his hand around Rosser’s throat and started headbanging like a maniac. Awesome.
Hikuleo finally rolled Rosser in the ring but also tried to pin him, not realizing the match hadn’t officially begun yet. The referee appropriately asked “What are you doing?!” and tried bringing some semblance of order to the bedlam. The match finally got underway, and as soon as the bell rang, he ran at Rosser in the corner, then used a running power slam for two. He was pretty relentless in punishing Rosser. Hikuleo also has a WALTER-esque front chop that echoes throughout the venue they recorded in. Hikuleo went to choke Rosser some more, but Rosser grabbed Hikuleo’s long hair and yanked on it, sort of a tit-for-tat strategy on his part. Since Hikuleo dished out an inordinate amount of punishment, it felt fair that Rosser could use a few dirty tactics and allow himself to catch up, so to speak. The strategy paid off for Rosser, who bought himself enough time to lure Hikuleo to the floor and get a few licks of his own in. He was able to lift and drop Hikuleo on the apron with a falling back suplex. Back in the ring, he threw a few blatant closed fists to Hikuleo on the ground. He threw a few hard double chops and elbows, but Hikuleo was able to powerslam his way out of Rosser’s control, then pinned him after a sitdown death valley bomb, or ‘Whiplash’ as Lash LeRoux used to call it. Hikuleo advances to the semi-finals of the Cup. Backstage after the match, Hikuleo claimed he won the match “fair and square” in spite of Rosser pulling his hair.
New Japan Cup USA Round 1: Brody King defeated Chris Dickinson
Thumbs Up Dickinson went for a single-leg takedown early but couldn’t bring him down. King muscled out of the neutral corner and landed on him with a hard senton for a two-count. Dickinson locked in a single-leg crab with serious torque before letting go and stomping King’s knee over and over. “Dirty Daddy” then applied a figure four leglock after working the same leg over even more. The stories Dickinson has told on Strong are so clear but also logical; King is bigger, therefore Dickinson must do whatever he can to chop King’s legs out from under him. Dickinson stuck with the gameplan for much of this. Unsatisfied, Dickinson pushed King into the corner and tagged him with a hard kick to the chest. King ate it. Dickinson then went back to Plan A and used a dragon screw leg whip to neutralize King. King mounted a power-comeback, nailing King with a Steinerline in the corner that he followed with a running cannonball and piledriver, but just for two. Dickinson responded with a jumping, swinging DDT, then locked King into an STF until King grabbed the ropes for a break. Dickinson used a deadlift German suplex on the larger King for another two-count. They traded chops in the middle of the ring next. The ring announcer made the ten-minute call and these two were still slapping the sh*t out of each other. Dickinson started laughing maniacally. He went for a step-up enzuigiri kick but King ducked, then deadlifted Dickinson with a German suplex of his own. King went to lariat Dickinson but he ducked; Dickinson landed the aforementioned enzuigiri kick, but King then threw the lariat he’d originally planned to throw, decapitating Dickinson, then pinning him to win the match and advance to the semi-finals. Maybe Dickinson joined up with King in ROH recently because he forgot they had a match on NJPW Strong. I’d believe it after that lariat.
There’s a lot of great pro wrestling to watch this week, but we really must include the latest episode of Strong. On tonight’s show, we got four great matches that were all different in tone and style, and all top quality. It was a slightly above-average episode of a series that’s close to batting 1000; interpret that as you will.
Next week’s episode features two semi-final matches, with Hikuleo vs. “Filthy” Tom Lawlor and Brody King vs. Lio Rush, respectively, plus an eight-man tag team match, with no wrestlers announced as of yet.