Being the “first” of anything is a bit of a challenge for both expectations and performance. For Ryota Nakatsu, the first graduate of DNA (DDT’s developmental brand), the challenge is now breathing new life into his post-graduate wrestling career. Since graduating from DNA in December 2015, the 25-year-old Nakatsu has been mostly floating between DDT and BASARA. Aside from a KO-D Tag Title match back in January against Happy Motel and a more recent match in ZERO1 for the NWA International Light Tag Titles, he hasn’t had many high profile matches…or, for that matter, many high quality matches since early in the year.

There’s no denying Nakatsu has the talent to make a bigger name for himself in Japan. He has the MMA background that’s almost become a prerequisite for young Japanese wrestlers these days. From his groundwork, his strikes, and his in-ring presence, Nakatsu’s toolbox is well-stocked…but there’s something missing. Maybe it’s the fire a bottle rocket like Takuya Nomura shows. When matched up against some of the visiting veterans to DNA, a common sticking point of his matches has been his opponents encouraging him to “bring it” – to not hold back the intensity.

Perhaps, too, it’s a lack of identity. He wears the “quasi-shooter” shoes rather complacently but without the charisma and personality to generate a crowd following, he could easily find himself lost in the big indie shuffle.  So is Ryota Nakatsu destined to be a solid “B” player in the post-graduate purgatory? To help find the answer, I went back and followed Nakatsu’s breadcrumb trail through DNA and beyond.

Ryota Nakatsu vs. Kazusada Higuchi
(DNA, 2/5/15)

This is the first time these two met in singles competition and while it isn’t as good as their match from DNA8, it’s still a solid representation of Nakatsu’s skills, especially when paired against the physically superior Higuchi. Higuchi uses his power to break out of a lot of Nakatsu’s submission attempts but Nakatsu is dedicated to working that arm and does so with a combination of strikes and stretches. Nakatsu uses his kicks to not only wear down Higuchi but to maintain a secure distance.  Higuchi isn’t the most crisp here but he effectively throws his weight around. There’s a great moment where Nakatsu is slapping away at Higuchi and Higuchi just chops the shit out of him – though, to be fair, Nakatsu gets a little bit of revenge with some nice little face slaps. Near the end of the match, Nakatsu does a good job of evading a lot of Higuchi’s attacks, the crowd cheering him on as he fights for a cross armbreaker, again showing that dedication and maintaining control as Higuchi tries to power out. Eventually, Higuchi fights out with a sitout powerbomb and finishes Nakatsu off with the Todorokiten.

Ryota Nakatsu vs. Atsushi Aoki
(DNA, 5/1/15)

Uh oh. Dueling armwork. Aoki’s bread and butter. But in order to get the one-up on the 10+ year vet, Nakatsu flashes his atypical, aggressive side, kicking at Aoki when he tries to take control on the mat and letting loose on the attack in the corner. Aoki returns the favor with some of his own violent armwork, and the two go back-and-forth for the duration of the match. Aoki isn’t always the best at selling the damage inflicted but his counters are smooth enough to please the eye and he ends up tapping Nakatsu with the armbar.

Ryota Nakatsu vs. Kengo Mashimo
(DNA, 7/1/15)

Nakatsu could learn a thing or two from Mashimo when it comes to destructive limbwork. Mashimo is methodical when it comes to working a limb, managing to keep the work relevant throughout the match. Here, he focuses on the leg after a fun opening exchange between the two. I love his quick snap kicks to the leg. Nakatsu trades strikes with Mashimo but it’s obvious he’s holding back. His counterwork, however, is great here. He catches a stray kick and takes Mashimo down with an armbar and after a German suplex, he transitions seamlessly into the armbreaker. Although he ends up tapping to Mashimo, it felt like Mashimo was teaching him an important lesson – don’t let up.

Ryota Nakatsu vs. Isami Kodaka
(DNA, 12/11/15)

It’s graduation time for Nakatsu and who better to bestow you the diploma than the king of indy sleaze, Isami Kodaka. Kodaka’s got his wrestling boots on for this match (not the blood-spattered deathmatch shoes) and while the match itself never really clicks up to the top gear, everything is executed well and follows a fairly simple narrative. One of the things Nakatsu excels at is conveying a sense of struggle, which he does so well when fighting for an armbar or a German suplex. But again, it takes some encouragement from Kodaka early on for Nakatsu to throw some hard kicks. He would later take that encouragement to heart and try to KO Kodaka with a high kick to the head. He paintbrushes Kodaka with some slaps with further prodding but Isami stops him dead in his tracks with a thrust kick to the jaw. Nakatsu’s last gasp offensive effort goes unanswered and Kodaka ends the match with the Isami-ashi Zan. This was probably Nakatsu’s best match in DNA but it still felt incomplete. What happens next?

Ryota Nakatsu vs. Ikuto Hidaka
(BASARA, 1/21/16)

It isn’t an incredibly far leap from DNA to BASARA, and we get another similarly themed veteran match-up against Ikuto Hidaka. Even though I consider this Nakatsu’s best performance to date, he’s still reserved in the early goings, with Hidaka asking him to turn it up a notch. His selling seems to be his strong point, and he does so beautifully for Hidaka, at one point clinging to Hidaka’s leg to prevent the Shawn Capture. Nakatsu does his usual arm schtick and executes a nice roll-through wakigatame. There’s a really great spot where Ryota goes to block a kick and Hidaka straight-up punches him in the face. The finishing run is spirited and believable, and although Hidaka won the match, I felt Nakatsu came away looking like a legitimate threat as DNA’s first graduate.

Nakatsu’s still young and still has some room to grow now that he’s venturing a little further outside of the DNA/DDT/BASARA realm. He has plenty of talent to become an Ikuto Hidaka-type junior heavyweight, and If he can only instill some more confidence into his performances, I think he could be a bigger name in the independents, maybe even finding his way over to All Japan at some point to help flesh out their juniors division. At this point, the only person holding Ryota Nakatsu back is himself.