Success isn’t something new to Shingo Takagi.
The Yamanashi native grew up a wrestling fan, heavily inspired by the sheer force and brutality that rebel promotion Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling and their figurehead, Atsushi Onita, regularly displayed. However, by the time Takagi decided to enter the business in the early 2000s, the renegade ways of FMW had died off. Takagi had seen the fiery deathmatches of FMW and had let that kickstart a fiery passion for dominance, but he would have to do it elsewhere.
Despite being a mountain of muscle mass, Takagi was undersized, even as a junior, for the given landscape of puroresu at the time. His size would’ve hindered him in most promotions, but Takagi elected to take his talents to Dragon Gate, a promotion built off the backs of high-flyers, lucha-grapplers, and other misfits that were deemed too “off” in one way or another by the puro conglomerates.
When exactly Takagi started training remains fuzzy as there have always been rumors that CIMA and Magnum TOKYO secretly trained him during the dying days of Toryumon so that he could be ushered into Dragon Gate as their first dojo trainee. Sure enough, backed by the DG Dojo and Animal Hamaguchi’s gym, Takagi made his in-ring debut on October 3, 2004, as a member of the Crazy MAX unit. Yes, even during match one of his career, Takagi was aligned with a unit, and not just any unit, but Crazy MAX, a group that represented the face of the Dragon System for half a decade. This would be like if EVIL had bypassed his introductory young lion phase as Takaaki Watanabe and had immediately come into the company as EVIL. Such a rapid introduction and the success that was found shortly after earmarked Takagi as a force to be reckoned with.
Giving Takagi big opportunities paid off for the promotion quickly. In the early months of 2005, Takagi secured his first title victory with CIMA and Naruki Doi, becoming one-third of the Open the Triangle Gate Champions. That reign was all too short, but that didn’t stop Takagi from winning Wrestling Observer Newsletter Rookie of the Year award in 2005. In later years, Takagi would finish in the top 10 multiple times for Most Outstanding Wrestler in the WON Awards and even grabbed the Technique Award in 2008, given out by Tokyo Sports.
That same year, Takagi captured Dragon Gate’s top prize, the Open the Dream Gate Championship, for the first time. His first reign as Dream Gate Champion can be looked at as a box office flop, but one can argue he should’ve never been in that position, and had CIMA not injured his neck, the situation would’ve played out very differently. When he captured the belt for a second time in the summer of 2013, effectively ending CIMA’s 18 month, 15 defense reign, the powers that be called for Shingo to lose the belt in his first defense on a flash pin. This was their prized pupil, and nothing he could’ve done would match up against CIMA’s legendary reign. It wouldn’t be until 2015 when we finally saw Takagi run atop the card, unchained and unrestricted. He took down Dragon Gate legends one by one, with no remorse, no care, and no forgiveness.
The problem is, by the time that hot stretch for Takagi ended in July 2016, he was too powerful for his own good. Dragon Gate booking has been built off of the idea that nearly anyone can be on any position on the card, and it won’t’ demean, embarrass, or demote them. After long title reigns in the past, the champions would slide down the card, get some heat taken off of them, and then cycle back up when they were ready for a new program. Dragon Gate couldn’t do that with Takagi. He was too strong to work openers, and when they tried to book him and Ryo Saito in a comedy feud, it was so bad that it legitimately made me want to stop reviewing Dragon Gate.
So as much as it pained me to see Takagi exit the company in the fall of 2018 and head for New Japan, it was a necessary move. He and Dragon Gate simply were on different paths, and Takagi’s dominance clouded over the rest of the card. Luckily, the transition to New Japan has worked out alright for him.
Before falling in defeat to Will Ospreay during the 26th annual Best of the Super Juniors final, Takagi had gone 96 matches in a row without dropping a fall. Any time Takagi was on the losing end of the stick, it wasn’t because of his effort. To put that streak into comparison, Kazuchika Okada went only 51 matches without being pinned during his return from excursion in 2012 as his streak lasted from January 4, 2012, until June 12, 2012, when Hiroshi Tanahashi won back the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in one of New Japan’s first modern-day epics. More recently, PAC, who ousted Takagi from Dragon Gate and replaced him as leader of the top heel unit upon his return, has now gone 91 matches in a row without being pinned or submitted as of when this article was published. PAC will probably end up surpassing Takagi’s streak thanks to picking up victory’s on Dragon Gate’s house show loop, but Takagi remaining so dominant in one company, especially through the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, feels more impressive than PAC’s run of countouts, DQ’s, and scattered success throughout European independent promotions.
The Dragon now finds himself in an interesting position in New Japan. He no longer has an undefeated streak to strike fear into his opponents before the bell even rings, and the return of Los Ingobernables de Japon’s other junior, Hiromu Takahashi, is imminent. Much like the end of his run in Dragon Gate, Takagi has become too big to cycle back down to the bottom of the card. His potential seems too big to continue teaming with BUSHI for an extended period of time, but to my knowledge, Takagi is still working as a freelance talent in New Japan. Perhaps Takagi will fall into the same waiting pattern that Katsuyori Shibata and his LiJ stablemate SANADA did, as New Japan has shown they are wary of pushing wrestlers that do not have written contracts with the promotion, and in today’s constantly shifting landscape, who could blame them?
Ultimately, there will be a time in which Takagi and the powers that be in New Japan will come to a fork in the road: will Takagi become a headlining junior star the same way that KUSHIDA and Takahashi have in which Takagi will headline the lesser of the Destruction shows and a large chunk of the stops during the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, or will he leverage his credibility as a former ace of Dragon Gate and his size as a power junior into a heavyweight role?
Takagi is listed on the NJPW roster page as 178cm (5’10”), the same height as another one of his LiJ counterparts, EVIL, who has had no issues giving off a heavyweight aura since returning from excursion. Kota Ibushi, who only stands a few inches taller than Takagi, moved up to heavyweight in October 2014 after spending half a decade as one of the promotion’s junior stars. Ibushi began his career as one of DDT’s blue chippers, gained a global following by doing US indies like Ring of Honor and Chikara, and then flipped his way into New Japan and despite coming and going at times, has always been a protected act. Takagi followed a similar path with Dragon Gate, Ring of Honor, and Full Impact Pro before departing for a different puroresu pasture. Luckily for all parties involved, I don’t see the Takagi Wrestling Institute becoming a project anytime soon. I think he’s in New Japan for good, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts racking up titles.
Ryogoku was treated to an instant classic between Takagi and Will Ospreay on June 5. While fans who were unaware of Takagi’s work prior to his NJPW debut might see this match as his coming out party, I know this is nothing new for The Dragon. This will almost certainly be the first Takagi match Dave Meltzer has given five stars (although praising it wildly, Meltzer never officially gave Takagi vs. Masaaki Mochizuki a star rating in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter), but for someone like myself who was watched more Takagi than just about anyone, this now goes down in my notebook as the fourth Shingo Takagi five star match in his career, following his bout vs. Masaaki Mochizuki on 11/1/15, which I have heralded as one of the 10 greatest matches ever, his final match with Susumu Yokosuka in Dragon Gate: UK on 10/22/11, which concluded the greatest series of matches that no one has ever seen, and his epic with Bryan Danielson at the DGUSA First Anniversary Show.
Friend of the site, Alan Counihan, who is one of the few humans who I can safely say has consumed more Shingo Takagi content than me, echoes my thoughts on those matches being five star classics, but also adds his hair vs. hair match with BxB Hulk from 7/11/10 and his six-man epic with CIMA and Susumu Yokosuka vs. Dragon Kid, Ryo Saito, & Masaaki Mochizuki to Takagi’s five star list. Counihan has literally hundreds of Takagi recommendations here.
When niche forum Pro Wrestling Only conducted a poll in an effort to find the greatest wrestler ever in the spring of 2016, I confidently voted Takagi as the twenty-first best wrestler of all-time. On my ballot, that put him ahead of the likes of Shawn Michaels, Eddie Guerrero, and even fellow Yamanashi-born wrestler, Jumbo Tsuruta. As you can see from the results of the poll, however, the rest of the voters did not feel the same way as wrestlers like Jimmy Snuka and Big Show surpassed him. I do find it remarkable that despite only six people voting for him, he finished with more points than a handful of wrestlers that had twice the amount of voters. It was very clear that in that bubble, a wrestler that came through the Dragon System like Takagi would not be favored to territorial wrestlers and lucha libre superstars, but those that did know Takagi’s resume respected it, and the voting shows that.
So why does any of this matter? My ranking of Takagi historically probably doesn’t mold the way that you viewed his Super Juniors run, but I think it helps explain just how important Takagi could become to New Japan’s future. This is no different than Manny Rameriez jumping ship to the Boston Red Sox and leaving Cleveland in the dust. Rameriez was an all-star in Cleveland who led the league in slugging on back-to-back occasions, but Rameriez went from chasing all-star votes and Silver Slugger Awards in Cleveland to chasing MVP votes and World Series rings in Boston. Takagi has always had the talent, but he was playing ball in a smaller market. In the current landscape, there is no bigger market than New Japan, and helping put 7,000+ in Sumo Hall shows Takagi came ready to play.
New Japan struck gold with Okada in 2012 and began to develop three guaranteed draws in Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Shinsuke Nakamura. After careful and deliberate booking, New Japan was able to add AJ Styles and Kota Ibushi to the list of dynamite draws, leading many to believe that they’d bring in the last half of the decade with a five-headed, money-drawing monster. Nakamura and Styles split and Ibushi wandered off into no man’s land, but New Japan was able to fill the void with Kenny Omega and a tranquillo Tetsuya Naito. When Kenny Omega left the fold, Jay White was right there to pick up where he left off. Now Okada, Tanahashi, White, Naito, and Ibushi are all up to bat and knocking everything out of the park while Will Ospreay, SANADA, and Zack Sabre Jr all wait patiently for their name to be called.
Yet even after defeat, my eyes are still on Shingo Takagi as New Japan’s next big thing.
He’s not simply a cog in the machine, Takagi has a chance to become the machine. He has the respect of blood-thirsty deathmatch fans, awe-stricken Dragon Gate fans, and now the mainstream appeal with New Japan. The best part is, Takagi has done things his way. He is the same cult icon that he was in Dragon Gate, he simply traded in his red-trimmed singlet for a studded weightlifting belt. Watching Takagi in New Japan has been a revelation. He’s worked with the same ferocity, intensity, and break-neck pace that he did in Dragon Gate and it’s now connecting on a much larger scale. As a fan of Dragon Gate, it warms my heart, and as a consumer of wrestling, it keeps my spreadsheets nice and full.
In 2016 when I voted Takagi as the twenty-first greatest wrestler of all-time, he was still on his fourth Open the Dream Gate run. He had yet to enter his second Battle of Los Angeles, he hadn’t tried his hand in All Japan Pro Wrestling, and he hadn’t gone undefeated in the Best of the Super Juniors. In the last three years, Takagi has as strong of a resume as any other wrestler in the world.
Shingo Takagi isn’t just good and this isn’t just a hot stretch. Shingo Takagi is as good as almost anyone to ever step into the ring, and we are witnessing a generational performer every time he steps foot inside the squared circle. If you aren’t on board with The Dragon now, you probably never will be. I can’t change your tastes, but I hope you know you are missing out on one of the greatest talents that this business has ever seen.