Preview: New Japan’s Sakura Genesis ’17

Jesse Staab gives his thoughts and predictions for the key matchups on April 9.

The event formerly known as Invasion Attack, Sakura Genesis, looks to be an exciting Sunday morning for fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling who already have their alarms set nice and early. While opening matches featuring the likes of Tanga Toa, El Desperado, Taichi, and Yano justify hitting “Snooze” a few times, the marquee matches are absolutely mouth-watering.

Hirooki Goto ( c ) vs. Zach Sabre Jr. for the NEVER Openweight Championship

It seems like a lifetime ago that Hirooki Goto was pinning now WWE Superstar Shinsuke Nakamura, and his road since then has had its fair share of bumps. After losing in the Finals of both the New Japan Cup and the G-1 Climax in 2016, it seemed like Goto couldn’t catch a break. However, 2017 got off to a good start for Goto as he defeated Katsuyori Shibata to claim the NEVER Openweight title.

The new year has gotten off to a hot start for Zach Sabre Jr. too, as he was featured prominently in many shows over WrestleMania weekend in Orlando. Before Sabre’s match with Shibata on March 6th, I wasn’t so sure his grappling and submission-centric work would fit the hard-hitting style of NEVER matches, but thankfully I was proven wrong.

Based on that and the overall quality of these two, I’m positive they are going to have solid chemistry and put on a great match. The only possible downside here would be too much interference from Sabre’s new Suzuki-gun stablemates, so let’s hope he walks to the ring on his own.

Prediction: Considering Sabre’s popularity and NJPW’s desire to expand its English-speaking audience, don’t rule out him adding another title to his collection. In the end, though, it’s hard to think Goto will be dropping the belt this quick, so I think he overcomes some interference and manages to retain while setting up a program with Minoru Suzuki.

Hiromu Takahashi ( c ) vs. Kushida for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship

Seeing Kushida wrestle Roderick Strong at the 2300 Arena back in 2015 is what caused me to jump head first into the NJPW rabbit-hole. Two years later, he remains a wrestler I’m always excited to watch, but Hiromu Takahashi is without a doubt my favorite wrestler through the first three months of 2017.

Takahashi has the requisite speed and aerial skills of a top Jr. Heavyweight, but he combines that with brutality and recklessness that makes him the company’s brightest young star. Watching him wrestle can occasionally feel like watching a horror movie, where I watch with my hands almost covering my eyes because I want to see what happens but I’m terrified he’s going to kill himself in the process.

Takahashi and Kushida had an excellent match at Wrestle Kingdom 11, but like the rest of that card, it was overshadowed by the juggernaut that was Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega.

Don’t be surprised this time if this is the match that everyone is talking about.

Prediction: Some NJPW fans were getting a bit worried about Kushida’s place on cards after he dropped the title. For a time, it was becoming normal to see Kushida within the first one or two matches of a show. Fans worries were misplaced though. Kushida isn’t leaving the upper echelons of the Jr. Heavyweight scene in NJPW, but he isn’t winning his belt back here either.

Wrestling fans like to complain about their favorites not getting the proper push, but the fact is there are precious few spots at the top. If you want to build lasting rivalries that define eras, you need to give your top babyface’s rival time to shine, and no one is shining brighter right now than Hiromu Takahashi.

Kazuchika Okada ( c ) vs. Katsuyori Shibata for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship

The only negative to having this match so soon after the New Japan Cup is that there hasn’t been much time to build up to it. With Okada and Shibata — two of the best wrestlers in the world — about to go head to head for the IWGP Heavyweight title, I feel like I should be more excited. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really looking forward to this match. But due to that quick turnaround, it definitely feels like something is missing.

When last year’s New Japan Cup winner Tetsuya Naito took on Okada last year at this time, the two had already been embroiled in a long-running feud. This year’s iteration can definitely equal or surpass that in terms of match quality, but unfortunately, it’s hard to feel as invested going into it.

Having said all that, I’m sure by the time Shibata counters that first Rainmaker attempt, I’ll be on the edge of my seat with the rest of you.

Prediction: Will it be two years in a row that Okada drops the title to the New Japan Cup winner? I don’t think so. As much as Shibata is a fan favorite who seems especially over with the American and British audiences NJPW is eagerly courting, he’s nowhere approaching the on-fire level Naito was at this time last year.

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