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A look back at the 2019 AJPW Champion Carnival

All Japan Pro Wrestling closed out their annual Champion Carnival round robin tournament on April 29th, wrapping an 18-day tour that pitted 18 of their best talents, divided into two blocks, against each other, racing for points and a shot at the prestigious Triple Crown Championship, currently held by Kento Miyahara, a 30-year-old unsung genius of wrestling.

2018’s tourney gathered the attention of many when All Japan brought in Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Naomichi Marufuji, who would go on to win the Carnival; and then-Dragon Gate wrestler Shingo Takagi. Both would help expose the high level of talent in the promotion to new fans of Japanese wrestling or All Japan’s lapsed fans that had been away since the talent exodus or inception of NOAH.

I had previous experience following the G1 Climax, the Best of the Super Juniors and even TNA’s World Title series, and this year, I embarked on watching my first CC tournament. I have been checking in and out of All Japan for about two years, never following a full tour, so I came in with a clean slate, not knowing much of how they planned out their tours, nor being fully familiar with the roster.

The Format: Positives and Negatives

My first impression of AJPW was how they seemed to keep the work inside the ring to the most basic use of psychology and wrestling moves, yet enhance everything with intensity, selling, and playing to the crowd. It’s like people say, “the little things”, but when you see for the first time how a young wrestler like Yusuke Okada fiercely applies a Boston Crab, you will not stop questioning when a top wrestler submits to a move that we have been conditioned to see as a rest hold. Another example: you do not question the 49-year-old Takao Omori’s offense.

The tournament was not different from other round robin tournaments in Japan. They start with strong shows in Tokyo and as they start touring the country, you have ups and downs because eventually the talent at the bottom of the totem pole must face each other. Furthermore, the points game was slightly more straightforward with having a couple of guys that all will go to the block finals. Thus, many matches lacked story and were just there for points.

In a way, the straight forwardness of stacking up points was a detriment as there weren't many stories going on along with the tournament. I can pretend that Jake Lee and Nomura are fighting to show that they are the future, or that Aoki and Suwama are fighting to show that they still belong, but at the end of the day, I got nothing due to the lack of promos, commentary, or build to any match in particular. I recall that only one show had post-fight promos and even then, they were basic promos with a “You’re good, but I was better” formula to all of them.I don’t fully blame AJPW. For all I know, I was the one that completely failed to find such stories.

Point stacking became predictable once I start analyzing the numbers and looking at the future cards. I'm not saying predictability is a bad thing, but without stories and the uncertainty of points, I ended up watching the shows for the pure enjoyment of wrestling and in-ring performance, and so my interest in some wrestlers went up or down.

Another thing I noticed, which worked well sometimes and not on other occasions, was how tag matches were booked for the wrestlers who had days off. For anyone familiar with the G1 Climax, every time a wrestler has a day off from the tournament, they have a tag match that builds up their upcoming match. However, All Japan doesn’t follow a block per day program. They mix it up, so it’s not as simple to build such matches, nor do they try sometimes as we saw with some matches where tomorrow’s match pairing were a tag team today. It’s not really a detriment to not have those previews, but I do think it adds something to the match if there is a little bit of teasing.

That being said, the Champion Carnival does have many positives. The in-ring work was quite enjoyable with at least one or two strong matches per show. The undercard was mostly the same, but always managed to entertain me with a really strong group of up and comers mixing it up with talented veterans. Most shows ran around two hours with an intermission in the middle, so it became a pleasant and easy to watch routine every morning for me. Not a day went on where I felt I had wasted my time as there was always a lasting impression by someone. As usual with these tournaments, we always end up underestimating the blocks that look weak on paper.

As the tournament went on, I also started to find my favorite wrestlers. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the names, some who I never thought I would care for (hint: former WWE wrestlers). To a point, I was also brought down from the clouds on some who I had high hopes on. 

Block A Participants

Kento Miyahara

He is the All Japan "Ace". There isn’t much to say about Miyahara other than his performance throughout the tournament was at a high level. He was constantly bringing out the best of his opponents, working hard during his off days, and straight up carrying this promotion. I expected Kento to have a strong run in his block, but with him being the champion, I surely did not expect for him to win at the end with the idea he could have set up several contenders that way. It speaks loudly that he went in and won the whole thing.

As mentioned, his losses came to Ishikawa, Zeus, and yes, Valletta, two men that are credible contenders, the former already being given his title shot as of this writing. I don’t expect Valletta to get his shot, especially with the idea of having a dirty tactics match in the main event, so it would have been nice for someone else to get the rub.

Match Recommendations:

- Zeus (4/9)

- Shuji Ishikawa (4/14)

- Ryoji Sai (4/24)

- Yuji Okabayashi (4/25)

Zeus

If Miyahara was the tournament MVP, Zeus, a jacked-up younger Tomohiro Ishii, was the best worker of the tournament. This man’s intensity in the ring has no equal in All Japan; if he was lacking, he would simply hide it with the sound of his knife edge chops. Throughout the tournament, Kento would take you on a trip with his matches. Meanwhile, Zeus was a straight destruction derby at 60 mph, and just like that, he became one of my highlights every time his name popped up on the tournament’s card.

Much to my disappointment, Zeus had four losses, leaving him out of contention at the end. But, the wins and losses were the perfect balance to keep him strong. He lost against top guys like Okabayashi and Ishikawa, and sure, he lost to Yuma and Sai, but he defeated Miyahara to make up for that. His performances alone should get him a title shot or I’ll riot.

Match Recommendations:

- Kento Miyahara (4/9)

- Dylan James (4/13)

- Ryoji Sai (4/14)

- Shuji Ishikawa (4/25)

Shuji Ishikawa

At 43 years old, Ishikawa was the oldest man in the tournament. He is the current AJPW Tag Team Champion along with Suwama, also the only two men that have won the Champion Carnival in the past that competed this year. He is a former Triple Crown Champion, and ever since announcing he had signed exclusively with AJPW, we have been counting the days until he recaptures that championship. If anything else, it made him a top contender to win the 2019 Champion Carnival.

Ishikawa’s win/loss record was quite similar to Miyahara in that he lost against the other top guys in the block, and one time limit draw with Sai numerically cost him the block. In addition, he defeated Kento, earning him a title shot. If not for the loss against Valletta, I’d say he had the strongest record in the tournament.

My one complaint was the hint he dropped right before the tournament began about revealing a new finishing move he had been working with his DDT friend, Kota Ibushi. Granted we saw him do Kamigoye, but it was nothing that lived up to the tease.

Match Recommendations:

- Yuji Okabayashi (4/4) 

- Kento Miyahara (4/14)

- Zeus (4/25)

Dylan James

Dylan James is a name I didn’t know much about coming in to the Carnival. I had heard his name around Zero1, but that was about it. My first impression was that he is built like a bull and can go. He could still work with his performance side of matches as his facial expressions and selling have to get beat out of him. If he were to improve that area, he could explode as a big star outside of Japan.

James’ tournament was strong with losses coming against Zeus, Miyahara, and the points spoiler of the block finals, Atsushi Aoki. The match that ended up making the most noise for him was his 30 minute time limit draw with Yuji Okabayashi. It was a match so stiff and in a style that would make no rational sense to go 30 minutes. Yet, they did and paid the toll, especially James who sported a black eye for the rest of the tournament. Dylan’s gimmick and style is that of a heel, but because of that performance, fans saw him as a total babyface as the tournament came to an end.

Match Recommendations:

- Kento Miyahara (4/11)

- Zeus (4/13)

- Yuji Okabayashi (4/20)

Yuji Okabayashi

Representing Big Japan Wrestling, Okabayashi is not unfamiliar to All Japan as of late, but now we had a chance to see him mix it up with a wider range of wrestlers. Okabayashi’s style is that of a strong style brawler, a super hoss whose chops are on par with Zeus or WALTER. He came in as one of the top contenders of his block given the reception he received after his AJPW Tag Team Championship run with Daisuke Sekimoto.

Okabayashi had his epic time limit draw with Dylan James, arguably the best, or most newsworthy, match of the tournament. He also had three losses including a strong one against Miyahara that no one would think ill of. However, the others were to Sai and Valletta, the latter once again playing spoiler to the top guys. Similar to Zeus, his performance throughout the tournament should give him the opening to return and make big challenges in the future.

Match Recommendations:

- Shuji Ishikawa (4/4) 

- Dylan James (4/20)

- Kento Miyahara (4/25)

Atsushi Aoki

Aoki was an interesting story as he wasn’t planned for the Carnival, but came in as a late replacement for the injured Kengo Mashino. He also was the smallest man in the tournament at 5'7". He wasn’t the oldest man, but is up there with Suwama and Ishikawa. He was someone that there was no point in getting invested in, but boy, was I wrong as he ended being one of my favorite wrestlers.

Aoki was the one technician from Block A and positioned in the ‘Hoss Block’, giving him a good number of interesting match-ups. His role in the tournament was that of spoiler to Dylan James, and one of the guys that adjusted points in the block with wins ove Yuma, Valletta, and Sai who needed to be kept under the top contenders. Aoki closed the tournament earning a Junior Heavyweight title shot against Koji Iwamoto.

Match Recommendations:

- Kento Miyahara (4/4)

- Yuma Aoyagi (4/16)

Ryoji Sai

Sai is a 19 year old veteran that has mostly worked for Zero1, and after being inactive for some time after a run with NOAH, he started working with AJPW a couple of years ago. He is a great technician, a strong striker, and a unique character that still feels like an outsider. Sai was not positioned as a contender, but was there to give everyone a good match.

His tournament was interesting as he wasn’t working the filler tag matches and his matches were not being talked about much. He was a guy that I kept forgetting was in it until I saw him come out for a touney match. His role was being the spoiler of the top guys as he managed to get wins over Okabayashi, Zeus, Valletta, and a great time limit draw with Ishikawa. He is a guy that given the performance, I would want to see booked more often and turned into a good contender to bring the younger Jake Lee, Nomura, and Yuma up to their next level.

Match Recommendations:

- Shuji Ishikawa (4/7)

- Zeus (4/14)

- Ryoji Sai (4/24)

Yuma Aoyagi

Everyone likes to talk about Kento, Lee, and Nomura as the future of AJPW, but they fail to consider what Yuma brings to the table. He is only 23 and is already becoming a fan favorite with his charisma and flashy wrestling style. He was not a contender to win the whole thing, especially in his block, but with his quick rise, we were not wrong to believe that he was out there to raise his stock.

Aoyagi’s performance was good with his biggest win over Zeus, but he ended up falling to the top four men of the block. The best thing I saw of Yuma were his tag matches along with Yoshitatsu, becoming credible contenders to chase the tag team titles as they go on. Yuma was a guy that played best when he faced guys like Miyahara or Aoki where he wasn’t the babyface in peril.

Recommended Matches:

- Shuji Ishikawa (4/13)

- Atsushi Aoki (4/16)

- Kento Miyahara (4/17)

Gianni Valletta

Born in Malta, Valletta had to move to the United Kingdom to become a wrestler and ever since, he had only been a top wrestler in British Empire Wrestling. He came to AJPW last year and had a bad Real World Tag League tournament along with TAJIRI. His gimmick is yet another copy of Bruiser Brody, and if you know Joe Doering, you know that AJPW still loves those gimmicks which is the only reason I can think that Akiyama kept him close.

Valletta’s matches were all about brawling and cheating, and so, he was the foil to the top contenders as they could lose to low blows and chain shots and stay strong. He had wins over Kento, Ishikawa, and Okabayashi. Valletta was arguably the weakest wrestler of the tournament with the worst matches.

Match Recommendations:

- Atsushi Aoki (4/23) 

Block B Participants:

Naoya Nomura

Nomura debuted in 2014 and has had all his career in All Japan. He is already a former tag team champion with Jake Lee, who is becoming his biggest rival. In addition, he captured the All Asian Tag Team Championships with Yuma Aoyagi. Nomura is the third man that people talk about when there is discussion about the All Japan future. Nomura recently had a great title shot against Kento Miyahara, which positioned him as a top contender to win his block in order to build to another match with Kento, where he could either defeated Kento in a non-title match, or at least come closer and keep building to finally defeating him.

Nomura’s tournament started really strong with wins over Adonis, Suwama, Jake Lee, and Yoshida, three of those within the first four shows. Then, his tournament was somewhat quiet until the finals when he defeated Suwama to advance to the tiebreaker against Jake Lee.

Match Recommendations:

- Jake Lee (4/4)

- Suwama (4/28)

- Jake Lee (4/28)

Yoshitatsu

This is the same Yoshi Tatsu from WWE and NJPW, the same that broke his neck taking a Styles Clash. He has to be the man that I came in with the least expectations for, yet he exceeded those expectations the most. He wasn’t the best in his block by any means. He still lacks charisma and his wrestling is not top notch, but there is no denying he is far better than what I had ever seen of him. His Yoshitatsu Fantasy finisher, an STO transitioned into a Koji Clutch, was one of my favorite moves of the entire tournament.

His tournament performance had his ups and downs. He meshed well with some and not so much with others. He seemed to be getting placed on the top of the block for a while, but at the end, he just ended up in the middle. His biggest wins were against Joe Doering and Suwama. Similar to Yuma Aoyagi, the thing that I saw most promise in was his tag team work with Yuma and the prospect of them chasing the tag team titles.

Match Recommendations:

- Joe Doering (4/7) 

- Jake Lee (4/11) 

- Naoya Nomura (4/15)

Suwama

From the veterans, Suwama was the one top contender in Block B. He is the AJPW Tag Team Champion with Shuji Ishikara and a past Champion Carnival winner. Aside from Doering, Suwama was the one other big hoss in the block, but contrary to logic, he actually worked most of his matches as the babyface underdog coming back from being beat up. (I wasn’t a big fan of Suwama playing that role as it exposed him as looking old and gassed out.)

Suwama’s tournament was strong as expected with losses against Nomura, Yoshitatsu, Adonis, and Redman. He put over Nomura in the block finals and had losses to point spoilers along the way.

Match Recommendations:

- Joel Redman (4/20)

- Jake Lee (4/21)

Jake Lee

This kid is a prodigy and I hate him for it. I see him as the antithesis of Kento Miyahara. He is everything character-wise that Kento isn’t. He is the top of the class student that takes school and himself way too seriously, while Kento is the raw talent that doesn’t need to study to get better grades which eats away at Lee from the inside. All Japan has a pair of young wrestlers that are perfect compliments of each other and which can become a classic rivalry.

Jake ended up winning his block in a tiebreaker with Nomura, so we can say he had a good tournament. His losses came to Hashimoto, Suwama, and Nomura who ended up getting his win back. Jake would lose the tournament finals against Miyahara, but in a way that elevated him. That should push him into a darker side until he defeats Kento and captures the Triple Crown. Lee’s matches were, for the most part, enjoyable and worth checking out.

Match Recommendations:

- Naoya Nomura (4/4)

- Yoshitatsu (4/11)

- Naoya Nomura (4/28)

Sam Adonis

Adonis was the guy that we all wondered why All Japan would bring in of all people. He’s not exactly a great wrestler and not exactly making a lot of noise for good reasons. Most of his recent work comes from CMLL, New Japan’s sister promotion, and so, this was a head scratcher.

Having said that, he came in, put on his working boots, and ended up being one of the most enjoyable guys in the block. His charisma oozed out and was contagious with his opponents. Guys like Yoshitatsu or Daichi, who are charisma voids, showed so much more when they faced Adonis. By the end of the tournament, fans and I were seeing Adonis as a babyface. His role in the tournament was to take pins for the benefit of others, only getting wins over Doering, Hashimoto, and Suwama.

Match Recommendations:

- Joel Redman (4/10) 

- Jake Lee (4/24) 

Joe Doering

Doering is a Canadian with over 15 years of experience. It wasn't until he went to Japan that he finally struck some luck and got over as basically the new version of Stan Hansen. Doering is a former Triple Crown Champion, and in 2016, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor which he got removed, eventually making a successful return to All Japan. From there on, he would recapture the championship for a second time, only to lose it to Miyahara a couple of months later. He was a top contender in the block, but not the most credible winner with All Japan’s current direction to make a star out of Lee and Nomura.

Doering was my biggest disappointment. He had the points, but his matches were not the all out battles I hoped to see. Him being placed in Block B meant that he was the one big guy and his big lads matches were limited to Suwama and the much smaller Yoshida. He was also a guy that played the line between babyface and heel depending on who he faced, so there was no personal investment in seeing him be either. Doering is one of those guys that i’m surprised not a lot of people have tried to bring in, aside from that terrible Moose vs. Doering match from Xplosion.

Match Recommendations:

- Yoshitatsu (4/7) 

- Joel Redman (4/24) 

- Naoya Nomura (4/10) 

Takashi Yoshida

The sole representative of Dragon Gate this year was Takashi Yoshida, formerly known as Cyber Kong. He trained for some time in the Inoki Dojo and the New Japan Dojo, but the bulk of his career had been with Dragon Gate under a mask. His style is that of a hoss, on the faster side of them, with a lot of reliance on cheating, given his size in this tournament. He was never a guy I particularly cared for in Dragon Gate, and that sentiment was the same here. I hoped to see him go all out on some fights, but I never expected him to be a block contender.

When it came to his matches, they really didn’t blow anyone’s mind as they were kinda just there. In the same way as I described Sai, Yoshida was that guy that you kept forgetting was there. He was the guy that helped adjust points in Block B with wins over Adonis, Redman, Hashimoto, and Yoshitatsu, pretty much everyone who needed to be kept in the bottom.

Match Recommendations:

- Naoya Nomura (4/6)

- Joel Redman (4/14) 

Daichi Hashimoto

Daichi Hashimoto, oldest son of the legendary Shinya Hashimoto, represented BJW. I thought he was terrible as this fruit fell far from the tree when it came to this tournament. I saw a kid who wanted to be his father, wanted to be a punk deathmatch wrestler, and wanted to be a strong style fighter, and failed on all accords. He had a history with Zero1, IGF, and BJW, and has his basics down, but you can tell he is lacking a developmental system or an overseas tour for him to really find himself and figure out who he is in wrestling.

I wasn’t a fan of his tournament. He defeated Jake Lee, Nomura, Redman, and Yoshitatsu, and I really only agreed on one of those wins. His matches were just not good and lacked story or intensity, no matter how much he screamed and shouted. His strikes and selling were subpar. Bless his heart, but I think he peaked with his 2011 WON Rookie of the Year Award.

Match Recommendations:

- Jake Lee (4/7)

Joel Redman

Formerly known as Oliver Grey, Redman is notable for being the first ever NXT Tag Team Champion along with Neville. He had been working with RevPro and other British indies since his release, and so, in a way, he was an odd addition to the tournament. He is also arguably smaller than most, but his wrestling style made up for it. I’d venture to say that he was the crisper and most fluid wrestler of the tournament. He was the technician of his group, and played quite well with everyone he faced. He was a clear-cut babyface, someone Ring of Honor would have made champion in 2007, always pushing for sportsmanship and respect.

I’d say that Redman had a great tournament, considering what he was given. His wrestling style shone out of its uniqueness in the block, and pretty much the whole company, and this is a crowd that appreciates a clean cut wrestler, working holds, and clean breaks. Redman had wins over Suwama and Nomura, two of the top contenders, plus Sam Adonis. I can’t say if his performance warrants him being brought back to All Japan, but the rest of the top companies around the world should give him a look.

Match Recommendations:

- Naoya Nomura (4/13)

- Suwama (4/20)