This is the first edition of a multi-part series about Japanese pro-wrestling’s up-and-coming talent. To start the series, I wanted to take a deeper look into how New Japan Pro Wrestling has handled the development of recent young lions. Before we get into the current crop of rising stars, I’d like to define three stages of development.
- Pre-excursion: Black trunks, black boots, Boston crabs. This is the initial in-ring phase of a wrestler’s career in New Japan.
- Excursion: In most cases, New Japan wrestlers leave the company for a while to develop a more global perspective on their craft. Recently, NJPW has been sending most guys to CMLL or ROH.
- Return: In recent years, New Japan has taken a more drastic approach to re-introducing wrestlers. Recent returning young lions have received new gimmicks and ring names.
Now, let’s take a look at the careers of seven recent young lions. I’ve included graduates El Desperado and EVIL to make points about the other guys:
A look at how New Japan has handled the progression of recent young lions. Can we bring back Kamaitachi already? pic.twitter.com/VRNd6g4izH
— JoJo (@jojo_runs) August 3, 2016
KAMAITACHI (Hiromu Takahashi)
I respect the slow build. I appreciate recent opportunities given to BUSHI and Taguchi. But, bring back Kamaitachi already! Desperado’s CMLL excursion was about 150 matches long. Kamaitachi’s atypical excursion spans four years, 200+ matches and three countries! I don’t mean to downplay the valuable experience that Kamaitachi is getting; he’s already ahead of Desperado.
Kamaitachi’s creativity and charisma have quickly propelled him to become one of the world’s best. He developed a great style over the series of matches with Dragon Lee; using spots to tell a story over their series. On one hand, New Japan is taking a very risky approach to Kamaitachi’s development given his demanding in-ring style. He takes big bumps in every match; working smaller shows than he would in Japan. On the other hand, they are investing more time into the development of one of their future stars.
If he can stay healthy, Kamaitachi will soon be one of the top junior heavyweights in the company. I expect him to keep his current gimmick when he returns. He has proven himself to be a good heel. Based on his performance and reaction during Fantasticamania 2016, Kamaitachi showed that he has star potential as a babyface as well.
Among this group, EVIL contributes most to the current New Japan product, yet he has comparable experience to Komatsu and Tanaka. I can personally say that I did not expect EVIL to develop so quickly. Neither he nor ROH got much out of his sparse excursion (about 50 matches).
My expectations for ShoHei are much higher.
SHO TANAKA AND YOHEI KOMATSU
Compared to other native Young Lions, Tanaka and Komatsu had much higher quality pre-excursion matches. In fact, Tanaka and Komatsu evolved into a different role for much of their late pre-excursion run. They produced at a level far beyond young lion expectations and became one of the best opening match acts in wrestling. This can partially be attributed to the fact that they had more than 250 pre-excursion matches. However, ShoHei deserve credit for their exceptional in-ring skills and star potential. Komatsu is a smooth wrestler who used a much more mature moves than most young lions. On offense, Tanaka created unique spots using his amateaur background and strength. On defense, he learned how to get the most of the submissions to engage the crowd.
At first, I didn’t think Fujin (Komatsu) and Raijin (Sho Tanaka) would last as gimmicks. Being Japanese somewhat pigeonholes them in CMLL, but they are starting to develop into characters with potential. I’m hoping that Gedo will get over his obsession with importing junior tag teams. Komatsu and Tanaka would be my pick to lead that division when they return. In the long term, I think they will both become top singles competitors in the junior division: Tanaka as a babyface, while Komatsu might be a better heel.
Jay WHITE AND David FINLAY
NJPW fans should appreciate that White and Finlay were there to pick up where Tanaka and Komatsu left off. This duo displayed a similar level of unprecedented in-ring skill and star potential. Their work told a different story, however. Komatsu was presented as just slightly ahead of Tanaka, Jay dominated Finlay in victories. Regardless of win-loss record, these four guys are special in-ring talents.
ROH is definitely handling White and Kamaitachi differently than EVIL. ROH books them regularly and gives them angles. I’m also excited to see that Jay is returning to the UK to get some more experience and exposure.
I’m not sure if David will follow Jay to ROH, but I expect him to start his excursion at the end of the year. I think his pre-excursion phase will be stretched out like Tanaka and Komatsu. New Japan has gotten used to having great workers in opening matches. As you’ll see in my next article in this series, there is a big drop-off coming.
The future is a little less clear for White and Finlay. Throughout his time in NJPW, David has been presented as a junior heavyweight. I spoke briefly with Jay back in May at LION’S GATE 2. He mentioned that he hopes to graduate to the heavyweight division in the near future. Both guys have high ceilings and main event potential in NJPW. However, given their connections to WWE, I wouldn’t be surprised if both guys are at Full Sail by 2018.