Tuesday, January 21, 2014


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An ace on the wane
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Where we’ve been (with a not-so-brief aside about CIMA)

Dragon Gate in 2013 lacked the same strong through-line that had marked both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the main story was the feud between Junction Three and Blood Warriors. While stable warfare is one of the bedrocks of Toryumon/Dragon Gate, this was the first time that the entire roster was thrown into one of two groups, and a singular feud ran up and down the card. This paid dividends both creatively and in terms of match quality. It was a return to form for the organization after an extended period of artistic aimlessness and organizational controversy. At the top of the card, veteran ace Masaaki Mochizuki had a very productive Open the Dream Gate title run, stabilizing a belt that had passed through the hands of the new generation stars (Shingo Takagi, Naruki Doi, YAMATO, and Masato Yoshino) with varying degrees, but overall very little, success.

2012 was all about CIMA’s final title run. When writing about Dragon Gate, CIMA is inextricable. From the day the company landed in Japan as Toryumon, he was one of the aces. By the time Dragon Gate was launched in 2005, he was the ace, and many of the issues the company had pre-2011 stemmed from their first attempt to find the next generation hero. At the time, no one could replace CIMA.

After winning the Dream Gate from Mochizuki at the end of 2011, CIMA declared he would defend the title every month. Thus, 2012 became the story of his final act as ace. The match quality of CIMA’s defenses varied wildly (big match CIMA can be very hit-or-miss depending on the opponent), but no one could have accused him of holding back anything in the ring. The year of 2012 made it clear why the promotion had so much trouble trying to replace him: Whatever shortcomings he may have as an in-ring technician are rendered completely and utterly meaningless by the fact that, well, he is CIMA. He is a professional wrestler, in 24-point, bold typeface and all that connotes.

The Internet (which I understand is not a monolithic entity, but you know what I mean when I write “the Internet”) often associates puroresu with Toshiaki Kawada stoically kicking a dude in the face and then giving a post-match interview that Dean Rasmussen once compared to some sort of county commissioner discussing the leaf collection schedule (Or something like that, the DVDVR archive is sadly MIA at the moment). The soundtrack that runs through your head while watching puro is supposed to evoke Ennio Morricone.

That doesn’t happen with CIMA.

Toryumon/Dragon Gate has always been a DIY, garage rock alternative to All Japan, New Japan, and NOAH, and it has always succeeded wildly in that respect. Thus the best (and hey, probably the worst) CIMA matches evoke the sounds of Ziggy-Stardust-era Bowie fronting Descendents. This is partially why the Japanese fight press has never taken the promotion particularly seriously, despite it being by far the most successful indy, and why those of us that love the promotion don’t really care about the Japanese fight press.

Lest this turn into an essay on CIMA (and that is likely coming down the line), let’s continue with our retrospective. The second half of 2012 was about CIMA besting each of the potential next generation aces. This caused some consternation on, well, “the Internet.” CIMA has been ‘the guy’ for so long, that familiarity has long since begun to breed discontent. CIMA beat Akira Tozawa, YAMATO, Doi, Yoshino, and then Takagi and BxB Hulk in a three-way match, across his July to December defenses. The first and last defenses were the only ones that really even had a modicum of drama going into the matches. Everything else was all a bit perfunctory. Still, there was something beautiful about these matches.

Mind you, if Triple H or John Cena had defeated Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Alberto del Rio, Ryback, and then Sheamus and Antonio Cesaro, my reaction would probably be a bit different (assuming I still really cared about WWE of course). But with Trips and Cena, it’s always seemed like their superstardom was an example of an amateur screenwriter telling rather than showing. Both their characters have too often tended towards bad wrestling fan fiction, Mary Sues in the writer’s room. With CIMA, it was always clear that he was the ace of the promotion. His title defenses, from the CIMA Royale setup, to the pre-match hype, to the matches themselves were a template in how to be the Open the Dream Gate champion. They became a series of lessons for that next generation, a syllabus to eventually make their own. The end results weren’t about burying up-and-comers at the expense of an aging ace-- it was clear soon into the title reign that this was going to be it for CIMA-- but rather a final expression of what a Dragon Gate ace should be.

This would become clearer in 2013, but it was perhaps the only thing that did so for Dragon Gate. The first part of the year was marked by a continuation of the monthly Dream Gate defenses. CIMA would actually beat Yoshino and Tozawa a second time, before finally dropping the belt to Shingo Takagi at the July Kobe World Hall show (Dragon Gate’s Wrestlemania equivalent). This was a bit of a make-good win, as CIMA was likely going to drop the title to Takagi at World during his previous reign in 2008, but was injured and forced to vacate the belt before their match. Takagi would go on to lose his first defense to YAMATO, who had turned on him shortly before World, the final nail of the coffin in their unsuccessful Akatsuki stable. YAMATO would only make one successful defense himself, a match of the year candidate against Ryo Saito, before dropping the belt to Masato Yoshino, who would defend it to the end of the year, including a defense against Naruki Doi, who like with YAMATO and Takagi, had recently turned on Yoshino, ending their World-1 International group. Meanwhile, BxB Hulk booted Akira Tozawa from Mad Blankey, the main heel stable, making room for YAMATO and Doi to join up, while their respective rivals all formed Monster Express in response

I suppose then you could call 2013 a world-building year. With CIMA taking on a much-diminished role by the Fall, and Mochizuki comfortably settled in his own corner office, the next generation of Dragon Gate spent 2013 moving into their roles for the next chapter of the story. The YAMATO heel turn was a long time in coming as his look and ring style fit better there. BxB Hulk is also a much better heel than babyface, though that is the faintest of praise. And while Doi can function in either alignment, breaking up his Manzai tag team with Yoshino was going to be necessary for them to be taken seriously as main event players again, and in fact had just that effect. The Tozawa babyface turn was coming for perhaps even longer than the YAMATO heel turn, and while for years his popularity in Japan lagged in relation to his popularity among American Indy fans, he seems well-positioned to have a big 2014 as a babyface. As for Takagi? Well, he’s equally unremarkable in either role, so…yeah.

The other major piece of world-building in 2013 was the debut of the Millennials stable. Comprised of wrestlers born after 1990 (aaaaaaannnnnnnnd I feel old), the stable appeared to be an attempt to recapture the success of Toryumon’s Italian Connection group, all the way down to the red, white, and green color scheme and the mostly perfunctory nod to a lucha libre influence. Despite having the same grand, interloping designs of the Italian Connection, the group lacks a Milano Collection AT or a Masato Yoshino to lead them. I think T-Hawk/Mr. Pii Pii Tomokomai Penguin/“Naoki Tanizaki”/Tomahawk TT/Takayu Onodera (yes, we’ll cover all that in a moment) is still a star in the making, but he’s not ready to lead a group, and so far the audience takes his cohorts Eita and U-T even less seriously. Despite their initial success in capturing each of the tag belts, both their results and their rhetoric have been scaled back on recent shows. They’ve received the support of CIMA in their battle with their generational foes Ryotsu Shimizu and Kotoka, but that feels like a far cry from their early declarations that they would destroy the old generation of Dragon Gate, and more like an attempt to salvage the stable through an association with CIMA.

So going into 2014 we know that Dragon Gate is going to look very different from its last few years, but I am less sure that 2013 provided many hints into what the final outcome will look like.

The requisite awards

Match of the Year: Nombre contra Destierro: "Naoki Tanizaki" vs. Mr. Quu Quu Toyonaka Dolphin (1/27/13- Kobe Sambo Hall)

I covered Dragon Gate’s recent highlights in rather broad strokes in the last section, and some very fun undercard stuff had to get cut for space (hmm, you seem a bit incredulous). Underneath the CIMA stuff in 2012 was the very entertaining Naoki Tanizaki vs. "Naoki Tanizaki" feud.

Okay bear with me, this might take a while.

In early 2012, Naoki Tanizaki (from here on referred to as Naoki Tanizaki) was one-third of the Open the Triangle Gate champions with Naruki Doi and Kzy as Team Doi Darts. After suffering a shoulder injury, instead of vacating the belts, Blood Warriors replaced him with Tomahawk TT. Of course, being Dragon Gate, the entire stable pretended that he was in fact Naoki Tanizaki. TT ditched the facepaint, got a Tanizakish haircut, and went as far to sharpie on Tanizaki's shoulder tattoo (which would inevitably sweat off during the match). TT even (from here on referred to as "Naoki Tanizaki") wrestled like Tanizaki, using all his signature knee-based offense. Everyone acted like this was totally normal, and to be fair "Tanizaki" was a pretty convincing, uh, Tanizaki (as long as you ignore the whole being fatter thing). In fact when the real Naoki Tanizaki returned, everyone else declared him an impostor and ran him off, though eventually the Jimmys were convinced and took him in. Naoki Tanizaki was determined to reclaim his name and challenged "Naoki Tanisaki" to a name vs. name match as part of a Triangle Gate challenge, which he would lose. As part of the stipulation, "Naoki Tanizaki" got to rename Naoki Tanizaki, and he chose...Mr Quu Quu Toyonaka Dolphin.

Um, I'll let Jae from iheartDG.com explain:
"Tanisaki said that the win proved once and for all who the true Naoki was. He taunted Tanizaki, who was naturally upset & crying. Tanizaki accepted the loss, and was fine with continuing on as Jimmy Tanizaki. However, the win gave Tanisaki the right to pick his new ring name. He wasn't going to let him off that easy. Tanizaki and his crying reminds him of a dolphin. Then, he thought of the sound a dolphin makes when it cries. It sounds like kyu kyu. Tanizaki is from Toyonaka. So therefore, the name he chose for him is....Mister Kyu Kyu Toyonaka Dolphin. Really."
(By the way, the above two paragraphs are probably a good litmus test for how we will get along. There is nothing in them that is not pure, undistilled awesome.)

"Naoki Tanizaki" and Mr. Quu Quu would continue to feud for the rest of the year, finally culminating in this match. The stipulations were simple, if Mr. Quu Quu wins, he gets his name back and gets to rename "Naoki Tanizaki." If he loses, he is banished from Dragon Gate.

I will confess, so much has happened in Dragon Gate since this match that it feels like it took place in 2011, not 2013. But for me it harkens back to the days of wild blowoff matches in Toryumon. There's loads of outside interference, a false finish, a restart, and a wildly hot crowd in Dragon Gate's home arena. It wouldn't feel out of place next to SUWA vs. Dragon Kid, mask vs. hair or Dragon Kid vs. Darkness Dragon, mask vs. mask. Granted, neither of those matches have aged particularly gracefully, but I have a soft spot for that kind of storytelling. Tanizaki vs. Tanizaki is a better "match" than either of those, but this isn't really about workrate calculus either. This is about Tanizaki finally emerging victorious and unfurling a large scroll naming TT "Mr Pii Pii Tomokomai Penguin," because he is from Tomokomai and looks like a penguin, while Genki Horiguchi, mimics walking around like a penguin in the ring. That is why Dragon Gate makes me smile year after year.

(N.B. the entire match is available as part of Infinity 285 at openthedragongate.com)


Sure this could be CIMA, but he really has scaled back is role a lot since dropping the title in July and would have been a near-unanimous pick in 2012. I didn't mention it above, but YAMATO is the next generation figure probably best-suited to taking up the mantle of ace. I think Dragon Gate may transition back to a multiple ace system as in the early days of Toryumon with CIMA/Magnum TOKYO/Mochizuki/Milano Collection AT, but for me 2013 established YAMATO as the best single candidate. Part of this is he didn't really get as long a look (read: exposed) as Yoshino, Doi, or even Takagi have gotten in the past, but mostly it's due to him coming the closest to capturing what made CIMA such an outlier. If CIMA is glam rock Bowie with a punk edge, heel YAMATO is the psychotic, thrill-killing glam rock band from Sion Sono's Suicide Circle. Clearly, YAMATO's charisma is not the same as CIMA's, but it's more a difference of kind, rather than degree.

And as for his 2013, well it was pretty great top to bottom. He kicked off the year with the Akatsuki/Windows MG feud having outstanding matches with both Keni'chiro Arai and Kness, before turning on Takagi and winning the title in the late Summer. It's actually a shame that YAMATO didn't get a longer title reign. I think they could have done a lot with the angle of his using liberal outside interference to win. Toryumon was notorious for having all manners of cheating in pretty much every match, eventually passing by ludicrous and straight to surreal, but since the Dragon Gate split, the Open the Dream Gate title has always been contested more or less on the up-and-up. The tension around having Mad Blankey interference secure defense after defense could have been a really hot storyline, especially given YAMATO's rather deluded heel character. I suppose Dragon Gate just isn't really built for a long reign by that kind of heel champ, but we did get a MOTY candidate in his defense against Ryo Saito in September. Add that to his usually strong tag work, the hot early year feud with Windows, and his awesome cooking segment on Prime Zone, it's an easy MVP year.

Ones to watch in 2014

T-Hawk/Mr. Quu Quu Tanizaki Naoki Toyonaka Dolphin

The stars of my Match of the Year both scuffled through the rest of 2013. Mr. Pii Pii lost a lot of the momentum he had built up since the beginning of 2012 with his Mexico excursion during the middle of the year. And since coming back as T-Hawk, the leader of the Millennials, he has struggled to regain his form. The ‘strong lucha’ style of the stable doesn’t help matters, as T-Hawk is more suited to be a bulked-up junior heavyweight type. Still, the company seems fairly invested in the stable, at least for now, and he acquitted himself well in his first Dream Gate shot against Masato Yoshino in November. He's also still only 23, and 2014 will hopefully be another step forward for a wrestler I have pegged as a potential future ace.

Naoki Tanizaki (we’ll continue with this for brevity’s sake) is in a similar boat. He’s much more experienced than T-Hawk, having debuted with the Toryumon X class over a decade ago, but he’s had a spotty career marked by sabbaticals and injury absences. His feud over the Naoki Tanizaki name with T-Hawk was a high point of 2012, and he became a fan favorite under the “Mr. Quu Quu” moniker. Unfortunately, like the rest of the Jimmys stable, he stagnated in 2013. Tanizaki lost his Open the Brave Gate (Dragon Gate's second tier singles title) challenge against Dragon Kid shortly before reclaiming his name, and his team/feud with Jimmy Kagetora that took up the balance of the year never really came to much. He’s never going to be a top-of-the-card force, but I’m hoping for a return to form and some more interesting storylines for Mr. Quu Quu in 2014.

Akira Tozawa

Is this the year Tozawa finally wins the Dream Gate? It’s always difficult to predict what Dragon Gate will do with their top title. I didn’t see the fifteen defense reign for CIMA coming, or the relative chaos around the belt in its wake. Going back even further, they made a real hash out of the title reigns of Ryo Saito and Susumu Yokosuka, who they were ostensibly trying to elevate to the top of the card when the Dragon Gate split first occurred. Tozawa had historically been more popular on this side of the Pacific, due to his long American excursion and regular appearances on DGUSA cards, but he has been a bona fide main event player since his Dream Gate shot at the 2012 Kobe World Hall show. Unfortunately, being a bona fide main event player in Dragon Gate is not necessarily the same thing as actually being in the top storylines, and Tozawa spent a lot of the past 18 months stuck in an endless loop of semi-mains with Shingo Takagi, YAMATO, and BxB Hulk, even after they all turned on each other. It’s easy to forget that there was some genuine doubt as to the outcome of Tozawa’s title shot in Kobe, as he was an afterthought for much of the next year. A babyface turn and the formation of the Monster Express stable has rejuvenated Tozawa some, and only Yamato can really match his combination of in-ring charisma and technique among the current generation of Dragon Gate stars. He may have to wait until his stablemate Yoshino drops the title (or not, never stopped DG before), but 2014 might finally be the year that Tozawa puts a final stamp on his ascent to company ace. Until then, expect him to continue to be the best thing on every DGUSA show.


I alluded to this when writing about Mr. Quu Quu, but the Jimmys are in a bit of a rut. Their white-hot feud with Team Veteran was my personal favorite angle of 2012, but they were kind of aimless in 2013, and all their goofy underdog charisma has started to go from charming to grating. The problem is there isn’t an easy solution here. Two years is a very long run for a stable by Dragon Gate standards, especially considering the current membership hasn’t changed a lick since July 2012. Their only real logical feud is with Team Veteran, and they lack that guy at the top that could break off and form his own group. So if you do see a Jimmys break-up in 2014 (and I think you do, although they still seem pretty popular and move a lot of merch), you are stuck distributing them among the remaining stables. A few could migrate to Team Veteran, I suppose one or two could turn (maybe Kagetora and Quu Quu, though they aren’t great heels) and join Mad Blankey. A better option might be a more system-wide shakeup of the current alignments, maybe a return to two large groups feuding up and down the card, a la the very successful Junction Three/Blood Warriors feud in 2011. But whatever happens with Dragon Gate’s alignments in 2014, it’s likely that the Jimmys will be at the center of it.

And finally, an introduction

Hi there all, my name is Jeffrey Paternostro and I will be covering Dragon Gate and Dragon Gate USA for The Wrestling Blog. I’ve been watching Toryumon/Dragon Gate since 2000, or, if you prefer, back when you still had to buy fifth-generation VHS copies in those plain blue sleeves. If you have any other Dragon-System-related topics you’d like me to cover, feel free to contact me on twitter via @jeffpaternostro. You can follow me too of course, but I should warn you that it’s mostly baseball prospect and English Championship football blathering over in those parts. But for now my goal is to preview and review any live Korakuen shows or PPVs that are available in the United States, and of course keep you abreast of the goings-on in Dragon Gate USA. As we move forward I will move further back into the history of Dragon Gate and Toryumon with more feature-type stuff as well.