In the aftermath of Dragon Gate’s Septemer 6th Korakuen Hall show where Ben-K turned on MaxiMum to join the heel unit currently known as Antias (pending a rebrand on Dragon Gate’s annual big Tokyo show on September 17th), Shingo Takagi announced that he will be graduating from company after their October 7th show at Hakata Star Lanes and will become a freelancer.

This is the least surprising Dragon Gate news in a year where the company weathered its largest defection of talent since Aagan Issou to end 2004. The writing has been on the wall for years now and was confirmed in a press release on the company’s official blog:

Over the last several years, Shingo has wanted a more open schedule and the ability to wrestle more both internationally and for other promotions inside Japan. This is not a sudden development. He’s been a regular guest for Big Japan over the last few years, had his big excursion to Ring of Honor in 2006, won the 16 Carat Gold in 2009, was in this year’s Champions Carnival, and is booked for Battle of Los Angeles next week.

A rough translation of the press conference with him and Dragon Gate Entertainment President Toku Kido is that Takagi has wanted this for the last couple of years. The way the company was structured before the Oriental Wrestling Entertainment/DGE split made it difficult for him to pursue this path. As Dragon Gate Entertainment is a different company than its predecessor, he was able to choose this path now. There are chances that he will appear in a Dragon Gate ring in the future and that he’s excited for his next adventure.

It is remarkable that Takagi will have his last match as a Dragon Gate roster member at Hakata Star Lanes. Shingo’s debut as the first graduate of the Dragon Gate dojo came at the same venue on October 3rd 2004, which will put him just over 14 years with the company when he departs. Takagi’s early career was closely linked to CIMA, as he was presented both as CIMA’s junior and the last member to join Crazy Max before its dissolution in November 2004. His connection to CIMA continued throughout their careers in the company. They would be charter members of Blood Generation before Takagi left and created New Hazard. Creating New Hazard with him would be Shingo’s great generational rival, BxB Hulk.

During time in Blood Generation, Shingo made a name for himself internationally. He spent most of late 2006 and early 2007 on excursion both in Ring of Honor and Full Impact Pro, which had a relationship with Dragon Gate at that time. In his time in the states, he won the ROH World Tag Team titles with Blood Generation unit-mate Naruki Doi and participated in the 2007 Battle of Los Angeles.

2008 was the year that was supposed to be his launching pad as the next generation ace of Dragon Gate. He turned on BxB Hulk in to start their decade long rivalry and formed Real Hazard. The two would have an hour draw in a Dream Key match which would have led them to have a three-way Open the Dream Gate title match with CIMA at 2008’s Kobe World Pro Wrestling Festival. However, CIMA suffered a traumatic neck injury and it forced Dragon Gate’s hand. The main event of Kobe World turned into a decision match between Hulk and Takagi, where Takagi won the first of his four Open the Dream Gate title champions.

It’s probably here where we should talk about Takagi’s relationship with Dragon Gate, their fans, and his depiction towards native fans. Unlike Hulk, who was very much in the mold of wrestlers that fans were drawn towards, Shingo was square block in a round hole. In July 2008, Shingo Takagi was the first heel Dream Gate winner at Kobe World. Dragon Gate was already turning him face (and he’d complete the turn post-match), but they were forced to expedite the turn and elevation with CIMA’s injury and he joined Typhoon. It didn’t really take. He wasn’t ready for this role, wasn’t a natural babyface, and the fans weren’t behind him.

Compounding this complicated relationship with Dragon Gate fans was 2009’s Kora Scandal. A pet monkey, previously owned by CIMA but left at the DG compound in Kobe was found abused after several posts were made on a roster member’s blog. Although the exact particulars of this incident have never come to light, Shingo Takagi was directly implicated in the scandal. Shingo already had lost the Dream Gate to Naruki Doi before this. As punishment Takagi shaved his head and had his salary docked, but his reputation stood tarnished. It’s never been directly stated that this had an impact on his standing in the company, Takagi’s career reached its nadir in the years after. The immediate fan reaction towards Shingo was negative and has had some lingering effects even though the fandom has rolled over since that incident. He was never going to be a super face, and his remaining tenure as one until 2015 felt awkward and stilted.

Takagi’s most successful time on Dragon Gate’s roster was during his third Open the Dream Gate championship reign. Freshly turned heel and now leading the new heel stable VerserK, Shingo Takagi evolved into a high school bully-like character. After years of “cool” heels in Mad Blankey, Dragon Gate fans had a person they could truly boo. Coincidentally, this was one of his strongest times in the ring, with Match of the Year contender matches with CIMA, Masaaki Mochizuki, and a series of matches with Susumu Yokosuka. He’d drop and win back the title from Yokosuka, and finally end this stretch as Dragon Gate’s top dog at Kobe World 2016 as he lost the belt for good to his former ally YAMATO.

Shingo Takagi fell back into the background since 2015-6. He became this looming spectre over the rest of the promotion. It felt strange that someone who was that dominant and controlling of the landscape was suddenly not the focus. If I was to speculate if there was a time where he started thinking about going freelance, it was around here. One of his best friends in the promotion, Akira Tozawa, graduated. He developed friendships with Daisuke Sekimoto and Yuji Okabayashi. Started to do outside tournaments. Tried to give up VeserK/Antias leadership to younger generation members Eita, T-Hawk and El Lindaman earlier this year. That outright failed (and T-Hawk and Lindaman left), so he took over Antias. Much like his character, this has been an aimless heel unit and will be rebranded after he leaves the promotion.

Shingo’s future looks bright as he becomes a freelancer: he already has a relationship with All Japan and Big Japan and is demand in the United States. As a former WXW 16 Carat Gold winner, there is an appeal for him to go to Europe as well. The obvious screams on social media for him to hop over to New Japan or join WWE are mistakes for Shingo Takagi in the near term. He instantly becomes one of the biggest unaffiliated names on Japanese wrestling scene, and with a style that can compliment most promotions, I expect him to exploit it.

At his press conference, he was asked about CIMA’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. I do not have a direct translation of his response, but it seems like he acknowledged the influence of OWE in his decision to go freelance. I’m purely speculating, but I believe this is more about how the split resulted in the new company and that allowed him to leave. I don’t expect him to join Strong Hearts or appear in Shanghai, at least in the short term.

Dragon Gate’s 2018 might have supplanted 2009 as it’s annus horribilis. The retirement of their founder, the departure of the man who built the company on his back along with the three young men who would have led the company into the future, and now, the standard bearer of the current generation. I think there are four ways to look at Shingo Takagi’s decision to go freelance for Dragon Gate: its result on their business, how it looks optically, how it affects the company in the ring, and where it leaves them at a character standpoint.

Losing CIMA in May had a direct relationship to poor attendances in Tokyo and at Kobe World. The company had one of its worst drawing shows in Kobe, even if they claim it had its most profitable show. A natural question would be “would this be another giant loss for the company?” Answering this question requires us to consider the Dragon Gate fanbase. As I mentioned earlier, Shingo Takagi was never the most popular man in the promotion. If I were to rank him amongst his “Big Six” contemporaries, I would place him below Tozawa and only above BxB Hulk as someone bringing in fans. That’s not to say that there won’t be some impact felt at the ticket window as Shingo definitely had his Dragon Gate fans, but I don’t think we will really be able to evaluate it with day-to-day shows. It’s going to take a look at Dragon Gate’s “hot season” of big shows in October through December to see if leaving hurts attendance and their business.

There is no way to spin how Shingo going freelance looks as a portend for Dragon Gate. I think it is too early to say the company is in free fall like All Japan in 2000 or NOAH earlier this decade. It’s a very troubling sign that all these people have left Dragon Gate over the period of a summer. DG has struggled to have a next generation star in a country where nearly every other company has theirs’. Lower level freelancers like KAI have regularly shown up on Korakuens and that’s not a badge of honor for Dragon Gate. Kido, Masato Yoshino, and the others have to stabilize the company and pull off an excellent end of 2018 or things will look worse.

The biggest loss for the company will be not having Shingo Takagi as an in-ring wrestler. Many of the best singles matches in the company’s history have had Shingo in it. Arguably, the best singles match of CIMA’s career came with Shingo at Final Gate 2015. As a power junior in a company that is 95% sprint-style, he stuck out. Even people who disliked Shingo as a person have remarked “I hate him so much, but that match ruled.” There won’t be another Shingo Takagi in Dragon Gate, and we are lesser for that.

Takagi’s most recent character in Dragon Gate was unique. In a company where they emphasize the likeability and relationships of wrestlers, Shingo Takagi was “Mr. Selfish.” Demanding, brash, uncompromising, Shingo was a true heel. A bully who was tired of friendship clubs and people getting title shots that they didn’t deserve. It resonated with the audience as a trope that they could have encountered in everyday life. It’s going to take the new top heels, Eita, Big R Shimizu, and Ben-K to do something special to fill this void.

I’m just hesitant to think anyone can replace Shingo Takagi in Dragon Gate, and in a year of departure after departure, it will take something miraculous to turn around DG’s terrible 2018.