He’s finally won King of Gate on his third finals appearance. He’s about to headline his second Kobe World. He’s won both an one night 6-man tournament and held the Triangle Gate this year. He hasn’t dropped a fall outside of singles matches since Final Gate. He’s only 27 years old and should be entering his peak.
So why does it feel like that Dragon Gate has been futilely shoving T-Hawk down viewers throats?
Since he left his trainee phase, it’s clear that Dragon Gate has had high aspirations for the man that would become T-Hawk. He’s the latest in a company that has tried to position people as their next ace, but the wrestler never achieves their proposed station when Dragon Gate wants them. So is this the guy who is going to break the trend, or will T-Hawk be just another in a series of wrestlers that don’t achieve acedom?
The ace in Dragon Gate, and its predecessor Toryumon Japan, is an unique role that differs from the traditional ace in New Japan, All Japan or Pro Wrestling NOAH. Dating back to Toryumon Japan, the company has been more willing to place multiple wrestlers in the “S Tier” position, mainly CIMA, Masaaki Mochizuki and Magnum TOKYO during the Crazy Max vs M2K vs Sekigun days.
Since 2013, Dragon Gate operated with the idea with the Big Six on top, where the larger cards would be dominated by combinations of Shingo Takagi, BXB Hulk, Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi, YAMATO, and Akira Tozawa, before his departure last fall. The constant in Dragon System, have been CIMA and Mochizuki. Whenever someone underachieved or didn’t draw well, they held CIMA or Mochizuki as the trump card and their ability to stabilize the company as triage for a failed push.
The most remarkable failed ace run was Milano Collection AT before his departure in 2006.
Paradise Lock from Milano Collection A.T! #DragonGate pic.twitter.com/Mi2wZCFWNS
— LARIATOOOO!!! (@MrLARIATO) April 21, 2017
Positioned as the top student of the Toryumon 2000 Project, Milano had all the skills and the looks needed to be a cornerstone of the promotion. The problem was, Milano was never treated like the future ace he should have been. Instead of being the one protected in multi-man matches, the company would avoid having Yoshino take the fall. The remaining members of Italian Connection, led by Milano, were treated more like jokes than the top unit after half of the unit left to later form Aagan Iisou. Even after becoming the inaugural Open the Triangle Gate champions (and having an entire tour called “the Italian Revolution Tour”), Milano Collection AT never achieved the peak that seemed to be his destiny. Milano would leave Dragon Gate in early 2005, soon after Iisou’s departure.
Ironically enough, the next failed ace was the person who Milano had his last significant match against in 2005, Ryo Saito.
Ryo Saito launches Makoto Oishi up and brings him back down with a German suplex! #dragongate pic.twitter.com/aSSyn2yX6n
— Dan (@GolazoDan) May 18, 2017
2005 as a year was devoted to elevating the man who was the bridge between the Toryumon Japan generation and T2P. It began with him getting a rare direct win over CIMA, and beating Milano in a Dream Key match after years of consistently dropping falls to him. SaiRyo would fail in that first Open the Dream Gate challenge, but that would have just be a stumbling lock as he’d later become 2005’s King of Gate and the new leader of Do’Fixer. This concluded with him finally becoming Open the Dream Gate champion in February of 2006.
So this sounds like the perfect way to build up a guy, right? He gets the win versus the face of the promotion at the beginning of the year, follows that up with beating his career rival, overcomes a stumbling block and finally capitalizes on winning the big tournament in getting the big belt. Except the crowd didn’t buy it. Right as Saito won the title, he started dropping falls he had no right as champion to drop. Dragon Gate scrubbed the push and Ryo Saito became the first Open the Dream Gate champion to have zero successful defenses. Saito’s career hasn’t been the same since, his highest station has been a filler Dream Gate challenger and a secondary leader of the Jimmyz.
After a few years of stability that grew into stagnancy at the top of the card, Dragon Gate decided it was time to start elevating their younger wrestlers.
By 2008, DG had two promotable groups of wrestlers: the remaining T2P members (Masato Yoshino and Naruki Doi), whom were both 28, and the first generation of DG trueborns (Shingo Takagi and BXB Hulk). The ones they chose to elevate were Doi, the would-be top face of T2P before injury delays, and Takagi, the first product of the DG era whom was seen as CIMA’s protege in the first few years of Dragon Gate.
DG’s initial attempt with Shingo Takagi kicked off in earnest with the beginning of the BXB Hulk feud in 2008.
Shingo Takagi hits the dragon screw followed by the shining wizard and Keiji Muto isn't happy about it. #dragongate pic.twitter.com/pTEXt0dZj6
— Roy (@narukiroy) June 3, 2017
It’s rare that Dragon Gate elevates a heel into the ace role, but putting him in charge of New Hazard and later Real Hazard was signalling that it was all systems go for Shingo. The lead up to Kobe World 2008 had Hulk and Takagi wrestle to an one hour draw for a Dream Key and main event match against CIMA, also a rarity for the promotion. The original plan was for a three way match where it was likely that Shingo would have gotten the win over his senior. However, CIMA suffered a severe neck injury that would have him out until February 2009, so he vacated the belt and the Kobe World main event was changed to a decision match between Takagi and Hulk, which Takagi won. Shingo Takagi was the first pure heel to win the main event of Kobe World in the DG era.
Already on the outs with Real Hazard, Takagi quickly turned face and soon joined the super face unit Typhoon. This sort of unit flip-flopping (Shingo was apart of three units in less than five months) along with Takagi’s true tweener nature led to underwhelming crowd responses and attendance during his reign, which led to him dropping the belt to Doi at Final Gate 2008. Dragon Gate, more so than any other modern company, is a babyface-led promotion. It’s been positioned like this since 1998, the noble home army or unit tries to vanquish the rudos, from Crazy Max to M2K to Muscle Outlaw’z to VerserK. Suddenly having a tweener champion didn’t take, and going from the face of your promotion to an unproven wrestler made it worse.
Between this and the Cora scandal, it took seven years for Shingo Takagi to truly recover from this failed push. Dragon Gate put him in now the uncomfortable role of a babyface until he turned on Monster Express in August of 2015. Arguably, he became the most successful heel champion of the Dragon Gate era before the run ran out of steam in March 2016, and the company did a quick title change to give it enough juice until Takagi finally dropped the title at the last Kobe World to YAMATO.
One failed ace run led to another with Naruki Doi in 2008-10.
Stomp/Cannonball from Naruki Doi!#dragongate pic.twitter.com/Y9LOlh0EO0
— Roy (@narukiroy) April 28, 2017
The big difference between the then-longest reign in Dream Gate history and Milano, SaiRyo and Takagi was the wrestler was the problem, rather than the company. It’s not that Doi wasn’t ready for the long run in 2008-10, his in ring work was fine. World-1 Naruki Doi didn’t have the sort of charisma needed for that long of a championship run. The crowd simply didn’t care, and the end of show speeches were marked by silence. Matches against outsiders, like Koji Kanemoto and Akebono, and career midcarders like Taku Iwasa didn’t help.
Dropping the belt to YAMATO, and his later turn when Masato Yoshino won it, helped Doi. The anger and frustration gave Doi the edge needed when he formed Team Doi, which turned into Blood Warriors. Naruki Doi went from a man who was middling on the microphone, to the most hated guy in the company by 2014 when he was the primary talker for Mad Blankey. His most recent face turn last year was one of the best received in company history. Naruki Doi is now the most popular man in Dragon Gate.
And that brings us to King of Gate 2017, what should have been Doi’s coronation as The Guy after a couple of near misses. Naruki Doi vs T-Hawk in the King of Gate finals. The result should be pretty obvious, right? Naruki Doi wins and he goes to Kobe Kinen Hall for his formal crowning and second Open the Dream Gate champion.
Except T-Hawk won, to the silence of the Hakata Star Lanes crowd.
It’s been heading this way for years. T-Hawk, as the imposter Naoki Tanisaki, won the Triangle Gate, Twin Gate and the Summer Adventure Tag League before going on excursion. He was already talented then, fairly popular for a young wrestler in Dragon Gate. Imposter Naoki was the first relatively immediate “hit” from the Dragon Gate school after the very slow start to Akira Tozawa’s career and the bone-dry DG NEX era. Already positioned as the number three in the weak first generation Mad Blankey, Dragon Gate knew had something in him, and they sent him on excursion to Mexico along with Eita and U-T in 2013.
Upon return, maybe Dragon Gate would capitalize on a guy’s popularity, unlike Milano Collection AT. Maybe the crowd would respond to him, so they wouldn’t get the title off him immediately, unlike Ryo Saito, or they wouldn’t treat the title like a ball in chain, forever weighing him down, unlike Naruki Doi. Maybe it wouldn’t be too soon for him, unlike Shingo Takagi.
T-Hawk returned in August of 2013, forming Millennials with Eita and U-T. The crowd didn’t know how to treat this unit of lucha libre inspired youngsters, as they weren’t the faces like the Jimmyz or soon-to-be-formed Monster Express. And they weren’t the clear heels like Mad Blankey. The group was clearly positioned well by Dragon Gate, winning immediately the Summer Adventure Tag League and the Twin and Triangle Gates. The crowd, however, did not take this a notice to get behind the Millennials and T-Hawk. The initial tweener designation hurt the Millennials. The audience, notorious for being selective on who they cheer and who are their “guys,” didn’t latch on to them. Even when they because true faces in 2015, the crowd was more apt to cheer for Mad Blankey over them.
The dissolution of Millennials prompted T-Hawk to join a depleted Monster Express in the fall of 2015, after an awkward lone wolf period that had him briefly teaming with Shingo of all people. The hopes were that the ultra babyface response Akira Tozawa and Masato Yoshino got would rub off on T-Hawk and perhaps give him a bit of charisma. Instead, T-Hawk’s stint in Monster Express resulted in one of the most invisible Triangle Gate reigns in Dragon Gate history and he struggled to fit in. Character-wise, he was overshadowed by his Twin Gate partner Big R Shimizu, who joined MX AFTER T-Hawk. None of the second-hand charisma or crowd response rubbed off on T-Hawk.
So in 2016, they decided to turn him full heel and he became the number two in VerserK. Maybe the heel turn that was so needed for Takagi and Doi was also needed for him. But unlike the selfish bully Shingo became, or the cocky obnoxious provocateur Doi, T-Hawk’s character as a rudo hasn’t come across. The closest to anything anyone can describe VerserK T-Hawk as is a second semester senior in high school who has already got into college and doesn’t care about anything. He’s been just there in a heel unit so dominated by one man’s personality that he hasn’t been able to grow one himself.
During this period, T-Hawk has seen so much success, rivaling Takagi as the most pushed person at their age. Countless Twin Gate and Triangle Gate championship reigns. He had an “alright” Kobe World main event in 2014, where it was pretty clear no one thought he was going to win and he was bolstered by the popularity of then champion Masato Yoshino. Finally winning King of Gate on his third finals appearance.
【T-Hawk選手 #KingOfGate2017 優勝 独占一夜明けインタビューUP！】
●https://t.co/ziDvRHBhna #T_Hawk #VERSERK#DragonGate #ProWrestling pic.twitter.com/SuXrYNopK5
— 中澤矢束 (@yatsukanakazawa) June 12, 2017
Winning it, to absolute silence. The few T-Hawk calls during the semifinals and finals going away in an instance as the reality of the situation set in at Hakata Star Lanes.
The crowd still doesn’t care for his accomplishments. His Millennial counterpart Eita is now one of the most popular people on the roster after years in the dog house with a Brave Gate reign and a Summer Adventure Tag League victory. Takehiro Yamamura, someone three classes his junior, has become more of a guy this year by his gutsy performances and huge upset over CIMA in King of Gate. Ben-K, someone with less than a full year in the ring, has gotten more over than T-Hawk has since his return from Mexico.
All of that leads us to July 23rd, the 18th Kobe Kinen World Hall show with T-Hawk challenging YAMATO for the Open the Dream Gate championship. Maybe this is another stumbling block for him, a second main event loss that can provide him for more motivation and character. Make him someone that the crowd can identify with and get behind. He could be like BXB Hulk, who took three opportunities to finally win the big one on the big stage with the crowd finally behind him.
Or, like many before him, T-Hawk can become another failed ace where Dragon Gate fans count down the days until someone takes the throne away from him.