Dragon Gate’s annual biggest show of the year, the Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival (known as ‘Kobe World’, or sometimes even simply ‘World’ among hardcore fans) had the look of a potential Show of the Year on paper.

Aside from some killer aesthetic matchups, the majority of the card also featured the culmination of months & months of intriguing booking, which is an underrated aspect of Dragon Gate’s product, and also exactly what you want out of your biggest show of the year. BxB Hulk was challenging his former unit mate for the Dream Gate title, Akira Tozawa was attempting to prove that he was not the weak link in his Twin Gate champion team (and also that he could solve the Millenials, who seemed to have his number at every turn leading into this show), Punch Tominaga was looking to take his first steps in establishing himself as a key player as the newest member of Mad Blankey, in fighting was still plaguing the Jimmyz, and several other plots and sub plots were converging on sold out Kobe World Hall (9600 announced, likely closer to 9000).

If there is one complaint that even the hardest of the hardcore fans would agree is valid when it comes to this promotion, it is that even with the constant shuffling of main eventers, the cards tend to get very repetitive. The Dragon Gate core roster hasn’t changed very much at all since the Toryumon split, so after years & years of the same guys battling it out, the unit shakeups were no longer producing fresh matches. With the emergence & elevation of The Millenials (T-Hawk, Eita, U-T, Yosuke Santa Maria, & Flamita), Ryotsu Shimizu, Kotoka, & Punch Tominaga, Dragon Gate arguably boasts the best group of young talent of any promotion on the planet (coin flip with CMLL in my opinion), which combined with the changing roles of veterans like CIMA, has freshened up cards and pumped some new life into a promotion that would occasionally get stale. Many of those promising young talents were on display here, most prominently in the semi-main event Twin Gate bout, where T-Hawk continued his climb to superstardom.

The show opened with the first of two pre-match bouts already in progress. Shachihoku Boy won a three way over Shimizu & Kotoka by pinning Kotoka. The final three minutes or so were shown.

0. K-ness, Super Shisa vs. U-T, Yosuke Santa Maria – Very short, very basic tag, with the Millenials bottom guys picking up a somewhat surprising win over the veteran team. Nothing to this. *

1. 15th Anniversary Special 6 Man Tag Team Match: Masaaki Mochizuki, Don Fujii, Gamma vs. Uhaa Nation, Hollywood Stalker Ichikawa, Jushin Thunder Liger – This was the easiest payday of Liger’s career. He was so invisible, that when this ended, I had totally forgotten he was even in it. Mochizuki kicked Stalker and beat him in about three seconds. Team Veteran was cool with this and heading for the exit, until Liger talked them into coming back for a “rematch”. Stalker took his usual beating from everybody, until Uhaa cleaned house, culminating with two standing moonsaults on Fujii. That was the highlight of the bout. Fujii pinned Stalker to technically win the match for a second time. This was just a match. **1/2

2. Jimmy Kanda, Jimmy Kagetora vs. Mondai Ryu, Punch Tominaga – This match barely got going before Punch went insane, tossed the ref out of the ring, and attacked everybody with a chair. Jimmyz win by DQ, but got left laying. Nothing more than a device to establish Tominaga as an unstable psycho character. NR

3. Open the Brave Gate Championship Match: Flamita vs. Dragon Kid – Flamita has had a true break out year, and was coming off of a tremendous title defense at Dead of Alive against Jimmy Susumu. This match was a completely different pace than the Susumu bout, which was a full on sprint. It was good, but it never went to the next level into great. The big “statement” spot was Flamita kicking out of the Dragonrana, which popped the crowd as they recognized this was a pretty big deal. Flamita won it with the spanish fly. The right person won. This was an elevation type win for Flamita, even more so than the Susumu bout. ***1/4

4. Open the Triangle Gate Championship Match: Naruki Doi, Cyber Kong, Kzy vs. Genki Horiguchi H.A.Gee.Mee!!, Jimmy Susumu, Mr. Quu Quu Tanizaki Naoki Toyonaka Dolphin – This was the type of match people think of when they think of Dragon Gate. Non stop from bell to bell, particularly down the stretch, so you would either love this or hate this. These matches come off much better on a show like this where there isn’t as much of it, as opposed to some DG shows where nearly every match is at the same frenetic pace. For the finish, Susumu got whacked by the yellow box, but Horiguchi cut off Mondai Ryu before he could throw the salt. Didn’t matter, as Kzy tossed the salt from a different angle, and then Doi smashed Susumu with the box a second time for good measure. Susumu then ate a Doi kick to the face and Mad Blankey retained. You can’t not like this as a pure turn off your brain spot match unless you’re nit picking. ***1/2

5. International Dream Tag Match: Masato Yoshino, Ricochet vs. CIMA, Matt Sydal – Lots of intrigue here, aside from the obvious dream match on paper. You had the return of Sydal, who to me not only improved & excelled during his first Dragon Gate run, but in my view had the best run of his entire career here. Leading up to this, Sydal had wrestled a grand total of one match since January 2012, a low profile NXT house show bout where he reportedly re-injured his foot and/or ankle, so aside from shaking off ring rust, this was a real time test for his various leg & foot injuries. Another interesting angle coming in was that a serious argument could be made that both Sydal & Ricochet were each at one point in time the top flyer in the world. Toss in the Dragon Gate icon CIMA, and the guy who just might be the best overall performer in the company today, Yoshino, and this was match was chock full of NARRATIVES. This was worked exactly how it should have been, as a showcase of four babyface stars going toe to toe, devoid of any long heat segments or hot tags. Token mat work to start by CIMA & Yoshino, designed to set up the Sydal/Ricochet double tag in showdown. Sydal got lost for a split second towards the end of the flippy stalemate spot, but hey, Ricochet isn’t exactly the easiest guy to keep up with. Sydal looked good later doing dives, and was involved in the two coolest spots in the match. The first was a dueling shooting star press spot with Sydal & Ricochet on opposite corners. The second was Ricochet slipping away from a top rope rana, and Sydal taking a really cool looking bump on the top rope when he whiffed. Overall it was obvious Sydal was a split second slower than usual, but he was hardly dragging things down on hurting the match. He looked good and did a ton of his trademark stuff. The finish saw Yoshino lock CIMA in the Sol Naciente, with CIMA fighting like hell to escape, but Ricochet hitting him with superkicks & top rope moves to wear him back down every time it looked like he might break free. That was creative. CIMA gave up. Hopefully Sydal sticks around, because there are a million fresh matches for him. ***1/2

6. Open the Twin Gate Championship Match: Akira Tozawa, Shingo Takagi vs. T-Hawk, Eita – The story coming in was Tozawa being the weak link of his team, being dominated by The Millenials at every turn. T-Hawk beat Tozawa clean & decisively in the King of Gate tournament. At the go home Korakuen Hall show, in a trios match involving both of these teams, Eita locked Tozawa in his Numero Uno (scissored/crucifix arm bar), and Shingo threw in the towel to save his stubborn partner from injury. In this match, the story was the gutsy Tozawa not backing down one bit, and it was Shingo who ended up in the Numero Uno this time, with Tozawa fighting & struggling to get away from T-Hawk to break up the hold. This was the key spot of the match, as it set up everything that happened down the stretch, and everybody was great here, with Eita & Shingo’s facial expressions, and Tozawa fighting like a mad man to save his partner. The camera angle for all of this was perfect, too. Shingo fought the rest of the match selling the arm, which played into his ability to hit lariats. After failing to land the Last Falconry all match long, Shingo finally hit one on T-Hawk, who kicked out at one. Wow. Store that away, that’s a big, big progression spot for T-Hawk. They traded chops & lariats, with T-Hawk no selling one of the lariats to put over the idea that the weakened arm of Shingo was dust. T-Hawk hit his Night Ride END Night Ride variation, but Shingo kicked out. He hit a second, and that was enough to finally put him away and win the titles. I loved the layered story telling & psychology here, and they’ve effectively gotten the Numero Uno over as a killer submission over the last few weeks. Best match of the night. ****

7. Open the Dream Gate Championship Match: YAMATO vs. BxB Hulk – In a year lacking strong Wrestler of the Year candidates, why not YAMATO? In terms of putting together a traditional world title bout match structure, YAMATO is as good as anybody, even within the non traditional world of Dragon Gate (although I think when it comes to Dream Gate bouts, Dragon Gate has an unfair reputation in this regard). Mat work early, with YAMATO dominating as expected. Hulk eventually turned the tables, which surprised YAMATO, who took a powder and used an entire 20 count to regroup. This showed that the usually flashy styled Hulk meant business, and was ready to match YAMATO’s game. YAMATO turned the tide by diving over the top and landing on a chair draped on Hulk’s knee, which was the key transition spot in the match. This was a nice call back to YAMATO using the wrench to injure Ricochet’s knee in his Dream Gate title victory, and just like that match, YAMATO spent the meat of this one working the leg with single leg crabs, figure fours, etc. to ground the flashy Hulk and take away his kicks. A key stretch later was YAMATO hitting a Gallaria, and then setting a up a top rope superplex which Hulk countered with head butts to knock YAMATO to the mat. Hulk then missed a top rope dive, and YAMATO hit a top rope splash to the knee. Later YAMATO used a buckle bomb, and hit two Gallaria’s, but Hulk survived. The closing stretch was OK, but not at the level you would expect. There was no Mad Blankey shenanigans at all, and Hulk won it clean with a Phoenix Splash to win his first Dream Gate title. Very good match. I thought Ricochet did a better job selling the leg in his match vs YAMATO than Hulk did here, and while that’s a minor gripe, to me it was also the difference in what made the YAMATO/Ricochet match a better match than this. With that said, this match was the culmination of a good long term story that saw Hulk go from forgotten member of Mad Blankey to defeating their leader for the top title. Very well done A-B-C story from a booking perspective. Post match, Doi attacked YAMATO (which surprised the rest of the unit), then made Hulk look like a complete idiot when Hulk fell for a disingenuous face promo and Doi nailed him with a belt shot. Mochizuki made the save. So it appears Doi is now the undisputed leader of a new look Mad Blankey, with Cyber Kong, Kzy, Mondai Ryu, & Punch Tominaga as his underlings. ***3/4

Good, but not great show, which in this case based on the lineup and expectations has to be considered a letdown. The top five matches were all good to very good, but none of them reached anything close to Match of the Year levels. In a vacuum, this was your typical fun, entertaining Dragon Gate show with solid matches all over the card, but I would think most people were expecting more. That’s the double edged sword of being a hot promotion with a reputation of delivering great shows, as several perfectly good New Japan shows over the last three years or so were also victims of expectations from the high bars previously set. Dragon Gate fans will like this show just fine, in fact they will probably enjoy it a lot, with all of the storyline aspects that will be lost on casuals. Casuals or people popping their head in to watch the biggest show of the year probably won’t like it as much.

What I really liked about this show was the continued elevation of people like Flamita & T-Hawk, who not only defeated veteran stars, but did so decisively while also kicking out of their best & most protected moves. Tremendous booking all around on this show, as I think the right people won nearly every match.