2017 has been a hell of a year for wrestling in a number of ways, most encouragingly when it comes to the younger talent that is breaking through. This is certainly the case in Japan, where every promotion seems to have at least a handful of extremely promising stars on their undercards who are likely to be the headlining stars (if all goes to plan) for years to come. New Japan have taken steps on their end over the last year and a half with the Lion’s Gate Project, smaller shows broadcast on New Japan World that are dedicated to their younger wrestlers, either wrestling each other or wrestling veterans who will help them get better at the whole pro wrestling thing. A noble goal for sure!

1. Ren Narito vs. Shota Umino

This was Narito’s debut, making him the latest in New Japan’s latest crop of rookies, of which Shota is also a part of. This put Shota in the bizarre position of being the grizzled veteran thanks to his three months of additional in ring experience. Whereas Narito’s weak boy muscles would not help him against a deadly Boston crab, Shota could – in theory – escape at least one a year. This was your usual young lion match, basic both in terms of the structure and the moves themselves, and it was actually pretty decent with those restraints in mind. These are never the flashiest matches in the world and will never be the highlights of cards (unless something goes drastically wrong) but it’s always interesting to watch wrestlers at the beginning of their careers working around their limitations and having decent matches using only their fundamentals. Seeing the hierarchy among the rookies is also fascinating, as each match between wrestlers at a similar level can have a completely different dynamic. Both wrestlers showed fire throughout this and the crowd really got into it by the end, which came when Shota clamped on the crab only for the 10 minute time limit to expire, resulting in a draw. Post-match both guys shoved each other because they’re just so bloody full of fighting spirit. **1/2

2. Tetsuhiro Yagi vs. Taka Michinoku

Yagi is another of the New Japan young lions and debuted in May, putting him right in between Narito and Shota from the previous match experience-wise. Taka is one of the best people in the world for a young wrestler to go against because not only does he bring decades of experience to the table (both in the ring and as a trainer himself), he’s an immensely selfless wrestler. It doesn’t really matter that Taka has been wrestling nearly as long as Yagi has been alive, he’s prepared to go back and forth with him in a competitive match. Taka is also a natural heel which really helps when facing a rookie at this early stage in their career as it got Yagi a lot of support and helped to bring out a bit more of his personality. Taka won at the end with the Just Facelock, no big surprise there, but Yagi did a really good job. **

3. Manabu Nakanishi & Katsuya Kitamura vs. Dinosaur Takuma & Hiroyoshi Tenzan

Kind of a weird dad/son dynamic to both of these tag teams, although there’s definitely some Splice-style nonsense going on with Tenzan and Takuma. Kitamura, if you haven’t seen him already, is technically a young lion but he’s so big and jacked that he shouldn’t have too many problems advancing beyond that stage. He’s filling that giant muscleboy gap left in Manabu Nakanishi’s life since Strongman Jon Anderson stopped wrestling in New Japan but he could also very well be the giant adult son of The Bodyguard so he has a hell of a lot going for him. Takuma really stood out in this, as he does in most matches, just because he looks so absurd (like John Hammond tried some of his wacky dinoscience on Maximo), but he’s actually a decent wrestler beyond that. Tenzan dropped Kitamiya with the Anaconda Buster into the Anaconda Vice for the submission win. A decent if unremarkable match, more of a casual stroll for the veterans but some good stuff from the rookies. **1/2

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4. Hirai Kawato vs. Dick Togo

Oh man. Kawato is one of the more experienced wrestlers among the current rookies, having been wrestling for over a year, and it shows because he wrestles with quite the spring in his step. His comebacks are explosive and he had to make a lot of them here because Togo beat him up for the most part. Togo is capable of being one of the very best villains in the business and he tapped into that particular skillset against the rookie, making for a pretty fun contest on the whole. The scariest moment of the match came when Togo attempted his stalling slingshot senton bomb, only for the stalling to go a bit too long, causing Togo to nearly fall on his head. Gravity delivers a mean piledriver if you allow it to. Kawato definitely got an extra beating for that mishap, for no other reason than he was the closest person to Dick Togo at the time. Togo ripped Kawato’s head off with a lariat and pinned him with the time-tested combo of pedigree followed by back senton. Kawato reminds me a lot of Sho Tanaka and Yohei Komatsu in that, even at this very early stage in his career, he’s incredibly exciting and seems to be getting better and better. Give him a year and who knows how good he’ll be but the signs are really positive at this point. ***

5. Tomoyuki Oka vs. Satoshi Kojima

Oka is one of the more highly rated young lions, partly because of his in ring talent but also because of his love of anime, particularly Bushiroad brand anime. He comes across as a bit of a quirky dude outside of the ring and I suppose his main challenge is translating that into a wrestling gimmick because at the moment he just looks like a plain bald dude, kind of a Tatsuhito Takaiwa clone (and cloning him seems like the biggest waste of good tech). Oka’s credibility was helped by this match in which he actually went back and forth with Kojima. He scored nearfalls, survived some of Kojima’s biggest attacks and was able to block a number of others until Kojima put him away with the lariat. Kojima was in a slightly more surly mood than usual here, as I think all of the great New Japan dads should be on these shows, and that was a nice change of pace for him, but Oka is improving a lot  and he was able to show a lot of those skills here. ***

6. Yoshi-Hashi vs. Koji Iwamoto

Iwamoto is a very highly rated junior heavyweight from All Japan best known for his awesome judo throws. He’s been really impressive every time I’ve seen him in over the last year. This was a nice change of pace from the “rookie vs. veteran” scenarios, instead resembling more of a conventional match between two established wrestlers for their respective promotions. Koji pelted Yoshi with a number of his biggest and best moves towards the end, including a hip toss into a knee strike, a hangman’s neckbreaker and his signature judo throw before locking in a side choke but it was Yoshi who picked up the win with the butterfly lock. This was the longest match of the show so far, going over 12 minutes, but both guys are capable of enough interesting stuff that it seemed to fly by at a brisk pace. ***1/4

7. Yuji Nagata vs. Go Asakawa

Nagata was originally scheduled to wrestle Ayato Yoshida but a fractured jaw lead to Asakawa, Yoshida’s K-Dojo colleague, stepping up to the main event challenge instead. And step up he did! This was my first time seeing him and he made a really good impression, working probably the flashiest style of anyone else on the card (including the show’s first dive to the floor!) in addition to taking a fair beating himself as Nagata slipped seamlessly into “discipline” mode. Asakawa throwing in an exploder suplex probably didn’t help him too much though, he definitely earned a bit of an ass kicking for that disrespectful behaviour. Asakawa attempted to slap the piss out of Nagata but all that lead to was Nagata breaking his arm, suplexing him, kicking him in the face and, most importantly, also rendering him pissless with his own slaps. Shortly thereafter Nagata finished the match with the bridging back suplex. A very strong showing from Asakawa who hopefully has earned himself a return on future Lion’s Gate Project shows! ***1/4

Overall this was a very solid show. It wasn’t spectacular and there’s nothing on here you should drop everything to watch, but that’s also not the purpose of these shows. There’s two purposes of these shows. The most important one is to put a spotlight on the younger New Japan wrestlers, giving them a chance to wrestle in front of a lively crowd in singles matches with far more experienced wrestlers who’ll actually be able to teach them things. In many cases that can result in some ugly matches (I’ve seen enough wrestling school student shows to know that) but the standard of the young lions nowadays is such that the matches are actually very encouraging because there’s some real talent coming out of that dojo. Yuji Nagata asked the crowd after the show if they would like to see the return of the Young Lion Cup, New Japan’s young lions round robin tournament, and if it wasn’t obvious by now that this is the time for it the crowd reaction said it all. They should strike while the iron’s hot and get that tournament going as soon as possible.

The other function of these shows was shown in the final two matches, where younger/less established wrestlers from outside promotions participated against well known New Japan names. I’ve always liked it when promotions, regardless of size, have worked together, especially at the lower level, because it adds a bit of variety to shows that might otherwise be seen as skippable. And if it makes people aware of just how much talent there is all over Japan that’s probably a good thing in my opinion. Lion’s Gate Project 7 achieved both of these targets and you can’t ask for much more.

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