After a particularly thrilling match that involved Dragon Gate wrestlers in 2006, Gabe Sapolsky, who at the time was booking Ring of Honor and giving Dragon Gate their first real exposure in the United States, remarked that what these men were doing, the mix of fine-tuned character work and brilliant in-ring wrestling, was at least five years ahead of its time.
The leader of the future was a man by the name of CIMA, who has molded almost everyone that matters in pro wrestling today into what they’ve become. CIMA had an electric 2018 that unfortunately flew under the radar of even some of the most hardcore fans, made headline news when it was announced at the All Elite Wrestling rally on January 8 that he, his Strong Hearts unit, and his new home promotion, Oriental Wrestling Entertainment, had agreed to a working deal with AEW.
The rest of the rally consisted of big names like Chris Jericho, PAC, Joey Janela, and the lovely Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleaders. These names are the mainstream headline grabbers, and rightfully so. Even when Dragon Gate had its own promotion in America, CIMA and the Dragon Gate crew never had the traction in America that New Japan Pro Wrestling does today. Despite being an all-time great and now leading a stable of young, hungry, elite talent, the world may not know who exactly Strong Hearts consists of.
Strong Hearts is made up of the following:
One day I will run out of words to say about CIMA. He is a mentor, a legend, an ace, and a deserving member of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
CIMA debuted in 1997 after being trained by the legendary Ultimo Dragon in Mexico. He would spend the first few years of his career bouncing between Dragon’s Toryumon promotion and Michinoku Pro, while also having a brief cup of tea in WCW. He would ascend to great heights only a few years into his career as he finished runner-up to Jushin Thunder Liger in the 2000 Super J Cup which featured some of the greatest juniors in history like The Great Sasuke and Gran Hamada.
Under the guidance of CIMA, the Toryumon crew would split from Ultimo Dragon and form Dragon Gate in the summer of 2004. CIMA was the first to win Dragon Gate’s top prize, the Open the Dream Gate Championship, a title that he went on to win two more times throughout his career. His in-ring ability was matched by his cunning wit and sharp charisma, which has helped him remain a major player in the Japanese wrestling scene for nearly two decades now.
In 2006, CIMA was a key factor in the now infamous Blood Generation vs. Do FIXER six-man tag that Dave Meltzer gave five stars. This was a coming out party for CIMA and the Dragon Gate style that he helped foster as both the crowd in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, and the DVD viewing audience throughout the country and beyond, were not used to seeing high-flying done at such a frantic pace with such precision. CIMA helped change the game for wrestlers like Matt Sydal, Jack Evans, Johnny Gargano, Ricochet, and PAC, all of whom have credited CIMA in helping take their careers to the next level. American wrestling and the stars shining brightest now would be in different places had CIMA not taken them under his wing. He has been wrestling’s best-kept secret for over a decade now.
CIMA, as alluded to in the All Elite Wrestling press conference and rally on January 8, has plenty of history with the Young Bucks. Before they were headlining New Japan shows and winning IWGP Tag Team Championships, the Young Bucks called Dragon Gate their home promotion in Japan. CIMA and the Bucks met at a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla show in 2008 and the Japanese ace was quickly awe-stricken by the athleticism of the Jackson brothers and their jaw-dropping finishing maneuver, the More Bang for Your Buck. CIMA helped secure the Young Bucks a tour of Dragon Gate in the summer of 2008 and then again at the start of 2009.
It is during these tours, and then again during their brief runs in DGUSA, where the Bucks grew to respect CIMA and see him for what he is; a visionary of professional wrestling. The Young Bucks never make it to the great heights they’ve made it without the help of CIMA.
CIMA is the undoubted leader of Strong Hearts. He has taken this group from landmark to landmark and has dominated every step along the way. In China, Japan, Mexico, England, and the United States, CIMA has led the Strong Hearts unit to sheer dominance.
T-Hawk has gone by a lot of names in his career: Takuya Onodera, Tomahawk TT, and Mr. Pii Pii Tomakomai Penguin are some notable ones, but at the time this article is being published, the most important name T-Hawk has gone by is Champion. On January 5th, T-Hawk defeated Wrestle-1’s premier bruiser, Shotaro Ashino, for the company’s top championship.
T-Hawk’s career has been one marred in failure. After being in one of the top tag teams of the decade with his longtime Dragon Gate partner, Eita, T-Hawk failed to acclimate himself into Dragon Gate’s main event scene the way that many predicted he would. It was clear that the company was behind him and that he had the talent to succeed, but he was never able to click with the audience the way that he needed to. Many felt like he was simply missing that elusive it factor, but as soon as he fled Dragon Gate with CIMA to form Strong Hearts, we saw confidence emerge in T-Hawk that many had hoped he had within him.
T-Hawk is a beast. He got his start in Dragon Gate by finishing highly in Dragon Gate’s King of Chop tournaments. He has the raw power of someone like Hirooki Goto and is able to mix it with the speed of someone like SANADA. He’s a major league powerhouse with a newly found confidence that could make him a top threat to any promotion in Japan.
While on US excursion, T-Hawk was briefly involved in a feud against the Young Bucks for DGUSA’s tag titles. On a weekend of shows meant to show off global talent, the Bucks wrestled T-Hawk and Eita at EVOLVE 22 in a match of the weekend contender that surely garnered mutual respect between the two teams.
T-Hawk strikes me as someone that American audiences could attach themselves to rather easily. He’s a brute who walks into rooms muscles-first. He’s not afraid to fight anyone, anywhere. Now that he has a major championship around his waist, I would hate to walk in T-Hawk’s path.
Since the moment he debuted, I have predicted that he will one day be a star. I never would’ve predicted that he would have the chance to shine on an American platform, as he’s never been to America, so I am beyond excited at the idea of Lindaman coming over for All Elite Wrestling.
Lindaman came onto the scene in August 2014 as Yuga Hayashi, a stocky yet short wrestler that, despite his judo background, looked like nothing more than a child. He changed his name to El Lindaman at the start of 2015. The name was inspired by the song Linda Linda by The Blue Hearts, with Lindaman claiming that he wanted to have a bold name since his look is so basic.
Don’t let his inconspicuous look fool you. Lindaman is as charismatic as it gets. Only a few months into his career, Lindaman was able to battle anyone in Dragon Gate on the microphone, including CIMA. His age and lack of experience immediately made CIMA take note and soon, the two began a mentor/protege relationship.
Lindaman is listed at 5’3” and is not an inch taller. He has been able to channel his short stature into an advantage. Lindaman’s judo throw is one of the simplest moves in wrestling, yet it is also one of the most violent moves around. No one generates torque on such a simple move the way that Lindaman does. He’s the definition of a sleeper pick. He could make a real impact on AEW if he’s used.
Takehiro Yamamura shouldn’t be wrestling. In October 2017, he suffered a severe cervical concussion of the vertebrae in the neck. For the layman, he simply shouldn’t be wrestling. His comeback is a miracle and the wrestling world is better off with him than without him.
Yamamura made his debut in mid-2015. For the first few months of Yamamura’s career, I was unsure about him. He seemed like a steady hand, but not someone that could make a real difference. That is until early 2017 when a lethal combination of injuries forced Dragon Gate’s hand, and in one night, Takehiro Yamamura became a star. He battled to a 20-minute time limit draw against Dragon Gate’s Bam Bam Bigelow-equivalent, Big R Shimizu, and then played double-duty as CIMA hand-selected him for a tag match in the semi-main event.
Yamamura’s only flaw is that he’s injury prone. He’s proven that he can be a charismatic figure, a dynamite all-arounder, and a reliable partner in a tag team or six-man match. It’s just a matter of whether or not he can stay healthy. We saw the first glimpse of a post-neck injury Yamamura in December 2018 when he and Lindaman wrestled a five minute exhibition match. In those five minutes, I was sold on the idea of a Yamamura comeback. He returns to the ring as a full-time competitor in February and I hope that his future holds at least one AEW appearance in the future.
Gao Jingjia could transform wrestling as we know it. The Chinese standout is every bit as innovative as Dynamite Kid in 1982 or Rey Mysterio Jr in 1996. Jingjia is rough around the edges. He will have nights where his footwork is a half-step off and it will be noticeable. From the little bit that we’ve seen from Jingjia, he is working on such a level that everything has to be perfect. There is no wiggle room with him at this stage in his career.
Jingjia made a worldwide impression in a match that doubled as CIMA and T-Hawk’s last Dragon Gate match. While on paper, that is the bigger story, the in-ring action let the world know that the kids from OWE are not here to play around. They pushed the boundaries in one match and ever since then, I have been itching to get as much OWE content as I possibly can. Jingjia continued to blow me away when he transitioned from the Dragon Gate ring into the Wrestle-1 ring.
He was unfortunately sidelined with an injury in late 2018 and as of now, there is no official timetable for his return. However, when he is healthy, his mix of K-pop good looks and innovative wrestling is going to shake up the wrestling world. Do not sleep on Gao Jingjia.
While far less flashy than the aforementioned Jingjia, Strong Heart’s other OWE homegrown was able to secure one-third of the KO-D Six-Man Tag Team Titles (which belong to the Dramatic Dream Team promotion) in only his second month as a member of Strong Hearts. The first we saw of Yingnan was in September of 2018 when he stepped up to the plate and battled some of Wrestle-1’s best on one of their biggest shows of the year. He quickly found his footing within the group and was able to capture gold alongside CIMA and T-Hawk soon after.
It’s clear that the Strong Hearts veterans have some stock in Yingnan. They would’ve never put him in such important positions if they didn’t believe that he could be someone special down the line. He is more polished than Jingjia at this stage in his career, but that comes with being less flashy.
Yingnan has only been wrestling for a few months, so it should go without saying that he’s never wrestled in America. However, I firmly believe that if he is put in the right scenario, like a battle between Strong Hearts members in the form of a six-man tag, Yingnan could pick his spots and attract the right kind of eyeballs. He’s long and lean and athletic and has all the makings of being a possible star in the future, whether that be in America, Japan, or China.
Midwest indie standouts and Impact Wrestling stars Dezmond Xavier, Zachary Wentz, and Trey Miguel make up the North American portion of the Strong Hearts unit. Wentz and Xavier were the last Dragon Gate gaijin that CIMA took under his wing, and when he left the promotion in May 2018, he took Ohio’s best junior heavyweights with him.
Wentz and Xavier were a part of the initial Strong Hearts invasion in Wrestle-1. Their unique offense that has helped them gain traction in companies like AAW, PWG, and Fight Club Pro helped them stand out amongst the chaos of the invasion. In November when they returned for a second tour, they were joined by their good friend Trey Miguel.
At this time, it is presumed that the group is under a one year contract with Impact, meaning they would be locked up for another eight or nine months. If they ever get the chance to jump to All Elite Wrestling, I hope they do, because with or without Strong Hearts, these three men would be great additions to the promotion.
The last member of Strong Hearts is Seiki Yoshioka, who bounced around some of the sleazier promotions in Japan before finding a home in Wrestle-1. CIMA brought him aboard in November as Strong Heart’s secret weapon. Despite not having connections to Dragon Gate or OWE, Yoshioka fit like a glove immediately.
I have no clue where Yoshioka stands with Strong Hearts. He could be a full-time member that comes over to AEW with the rest of the crew, or he could stay in his homeland and defend the Strong Hearts banner while his unit is fighting abroad. My gut tells me it will be the latter, as Yoshioka works full time with Wrestle-1, with or without CIMA and his gang.
At the very least, this piece should shed some light on who the Strong Hearts gang is and why they matter to the AEW roster. There were bigger, flashier announcements at the inaugural AEW rally, but this announcement should not go without coverage. CIMA, for years and years, has been ahead of the curve. He does not involve himself with lame duck projects.
While Chris Jericho signing for AEW might give them the mainstream stamp of approval they need, Strong Hearts and OWE putting their name on the dotted line is the stamp of approval I needed to go all in on All Elite Wrestling.