Almost two years ago, I wrote about Dragon Gate’s elevation of T-Hawk and how it compared to their previous failed ace pushes through the history of the Dragon System. Less than a year after that, T-Hawk was out of Dragon Gate and joined CIMA in Shanghai as one of the key cogs in the organization that would be known today as Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. It took T-Hawk leaving the promotion that spent so much time preparing him and their fans for his run for T-Hawk to actualize upon the potential he had since his debut as he’s found success as the Wrestle-1 champion, and debuts in PWG and AEW.

It’s been two years, and Dragon Gate finds itself on the road to the biggest show in their history, the 2019 Kobe World Pro Wrestling Festival which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the overall Dragon System. On top of that, Dragon Gate finds itself attempting yet another elevation of a would be ace, in Ben-K.

Before getting into Ben-K and his impending Open the Dream Gate title challenge against PAC, it’s worth looking at Dragon Gate as an overview. The day after Dead or Alive 2018, CIMA, T-Hawk, El Lindaman and Takehiro Yamamura announced their departure from the promotion. Dragon Gate, and people within the company, have refused to call this an actual split, deciding instead to promote their party line that it’s now two related companies, with one promoting natively (for a lack of confusion, I’m going to refer to it as Dragon Gate. In reality, both of these groups have Dragon Gate in their name), and another that’s supposed to be the international booking office for those who work for OWE. Since then, Dragon Gate has run semi-annual shows in Hong Kong, and OWE has completed tours of Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, with a tour of Canada and participation in WxW in their future. OWE talent will have appeared on shows for Dragon Gate competitors in Wrestle-1, DDT and Big Japan, to further drive home this point. The only OWE appearance in Dragon Gate since this split was Lindaman and Yamamura wrestling a perfunctory five-minute exhibition match to celebrate Yamamura’s then return from what should have been (and now almost two years later seems like it was) a career-ending spinal injury. The match itself had an awkward vibe, just like the previous sentence describing the situation. 

Surrounded by this Stronghearts clumsiness, PAC made his return to the company after nearly six years in WWE. Within two months of his return, PAC became the second ever non-native Open the Dream Gate winner, defeating Masato Yoshino. Outside of that seismic event, Dragon Gate’s 2018 was mostly righting the ship that took on a lot of water with the split. They managed to get one last big Kobe World main event out of Shingo Takagi, before he also left the promotion to join New Japan. They started an elevation of the youngest members of the roster. This took someone like U-T, a perennial loss post and with a near-permanent spot on the injury list, and put him in the spot where he could have multiple title challenges in 2019 and challenges that weren’t just filler ones. These challenges by U-T and Shun Skywalker weren’t perfunctory, they had real stakes. It made it obvious that after years of ignoring it, Dragon Gate was preparing for their future, and the biggest part of their future would be Ben-K.

Ben-K’s road began under his real name Futa Nakamura. Having wrestled both in high school and in college, he entered the dojo at an older age than most other prospects, but his quick advancement in their strenuous system negated that. He had his first exhibition match in December 2015 and finally stuck on the roster in April of 2016. Nakamura had the typical “rookie” experience for most of 2016. He was a part of a cohort with Shun (now Shun Skywalker) and Hyo Watanabe. Futa had his first step up as a participant of the Summer Adventure Tag League, where he was to team with Masaaki Mochizuki, but he made it only a few matches before suffering a concussion that had him on the sidelines before he rejoined the Class of 2016 in the undercard

The night where things started to change, and where Dragon Gate made people notice who he was, was the November 10th Korakuen. On this show, the former W2N grouping of Hyo & Shun Watanabe along with Nakamura announced their gimmicks, and names, going forward. Hyo kept his name but wanted to be more identified with leopards, and Hyo in kanji translates to leopard. Shun dropped his last name, put on a mask, and decided to be known as Shun Skywalker. Nakamura took a different path. He completely cast aside his birth name and wanted to be known as Ben-K, a play on the apocryphal character Benkei. 

A 12th-century monk, Benkei is most known in Japanese folklore as someone with great strength and loyalty. Benkei was a massive warrior, Benkei carried seven different weapons and tried to take a thousand swords from warriors whom he deemed didn’t deserve them. Benkei got to 999 swords. He lost a single battle to warlord Minamoto no Yoshitune, and devoted himself in Yoshitune’s service. After a rebellion went against the pair, Yoshitune withdrew to a castle to commit suicide, where Benkei stood guard. The story goes that 300 soldiers were killed by Benkei, before realizing that they’d all die in single combat to such a warrior. So they riddled his body with arrows. When they emptied their quivers, they went to see him and noticed that he was with such power and loyalty that somehow he was shot innumerable times with arrows, but died standing upright.

This is a powerful story, and one that’s been told countless times since the events happened in the Heian period of Japan. Naming Nakamura Ben-K was an indication that he was going to mean something. It might not have been immediate, but down the line, the man who took on the name of one of Japan’s greatest legends would be a star in Dragon Gate. 

Also on this night in late 2016, the entire rookie class decided to attack the veterans, including CIMA and Mochizuki. They set up a match for the first Korakuen Hall show of December, on 12/1: CIMA, Mochizuki, Don Fujii, Gamma, and Dragon Kid, the oldest men standing in the Dragon System, against the young upstarts, Ben-K, Shun Skywalker, Hyo Watanabe, Yuki Yoshioka, and Katsumi Takeshima, in what would be Takeshima’s debut match for the promotion.

I’m writing this in July of 2019, and I don’t think there has been a match as important in Dragon System over the last five years as this match. Sure Kzy’s Dream Gate challenges elevated the career loss post from being just another guy into A Guy. PAC’s return to Dragon Gate and his winning the Dream Gate in late 2018 was a big moment. This ten man tag though setup the future of the promotion. Less than years later, CIMA would leave. Fujii and Gamma have disappeared (wink wink nudge nudge). Dragon Kid has been featured at the top of the card, but it’s clear that his greatest years behind him. Masaaki Mochizuki has had an interesting few years: an invigorating Dream Gate run and now leads a unit that’s not supposed to be a unit but in all intents and purposes is ai t unit that has featured Skywalker, Watanabe and Yoshioka in it.

The story of this match was these veterans were not going to let the rookies join the main ranks without a beating. For sixteen minutes and forty-eight seconds, they beat the living hell out of the class of 2016. They took them around ringside and brawled in a vicious fashion that is not often seen in Dragon Gate. CIMA, the inscrutable wrestler he can be at times, attacked the kids—and they were really kids, I mean, Ben-K was 25 then and was the oldest by several years—with a level of viciousness that the debuting Takeshima wasn’t really able to come back from his injuries from this match. After this “initiation,” Mochizuki clocked Watanabe with a spinning back kick for the win. The win was never in doubt. At the time, the veterans had combined over a century of ring time; The Class of 2016 combined might have had three. 

After this mauling, all anyone could talk about was Ben-K. Here’s a quote from Case Lowe’s review of that show about him:

Then, last but not least, there was Ben-K. I don’t think he’s comparable to Matt Riddle just yet, as Riddle has had many more months under his belt. That being said, I’ve never been as excited about a rookie. He’s every bit as good as Jun Akiyama was in 1992 or Shingo Takagi in 2004. This kid, a 25 year old, stood toe-to-toe with Masaaki Mochizuki in the middle of Korakuen Hall. The GUTS, the HEART, the INTENSITY – Ben-K will be a superstar. He’s the next Shingo, and quite honestly, possible the next coming of CIMA. This is a special talent.”

After this match, the Class of 2016’s fortunes diverged. Skywalker, Watanabe, and Yoshioka mostly stuck to the openers and undercards. It would be until the spring of 2018 where they would have their eventual elevations. Takashima, who already spent a long time in the dojo due to health problems, never really stuck around. Maybe it was that his body couldn’t take the kind of attack that the veterans dished out. He washed out of the system by 2018. Ben-K was different. He’s always been different. The remainder of 2016 and into 2017 he would team with Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi, Kotoka, and Big R Shimizu in what eventually became MaxiMuM. 

I’m going to choose to fast forward for a bit.

Ben-K’s 2017, in a word, was “protected.” He won his first title, the Open the Triangle Gate, less than a year into his permanent placement on the roster. He rarely ate falls. In tag matches, they kept his time minimal, but impactful. Ben-K would get a hot tag, completely use his gas tank, hit some fantastic moves, and that would be it. Maybe three to five minutes in most matches. His rookie King of Gate performance would have him finish at 2 points, but outside of his first match against T-Hawk, he didn’t have a match over ten minutes. It is hard to blame Dragon Gate in retrospect: under Dragon Gate’s constantly touring model, he was under 250 matches by the end of 2017.

2018, the year that ended up being Dragon Gate’s most turbulent year since the Ultimo Dragon split, was the year of tests for Ben-K. It was time to figure out what they really had with him. Was he going to be another Ryo Saito, someone that could be an upper midcarder at times? Or could he become the person that the company could be placed on their shoulders? 

Ben-K’s 2018 started with a startling win on then Dream Gate champion Mochizuki in February in Hakata. On the night where he finally got an individual theme, he ran through the elder statesman of the promotion in less than three minutes. This got him his first Dream Key, and title shot, at Champion Gate in Osaka. Champion Gate was the right time to test him out. It’s a two day event which is the first time of the year that all the titles are on the line. Champion Gate’s not as important as the bigger five shows in Dragon Gate’s year, but it’s clearly when the promotion shifts from first gear into second.

In Ben-K’s first test, he succeeded. He held his end of a bargain with one of the best in-ring performers in Dragon System history for over twenty minutes. If he stank up the joint, Dragon Gate would have quickly jumped off of Ben-K, much like they did so many times before with a young star. Notably, it took a referee stoppage for Mochizuki to retain; the champion couldn’t pin Ben-K.

The second test for him was a successful Twin Gate reign. You can hide someone on a Triangle Gate team. You’ve got mostly six-man matches. Just have them only in the match for spurts and then the final stretch. Wrestlers can’t disappear in Dragon Gate’s tag matches. When at its best, there is an unrelenting pace. All four are in a dance until the bell rings. If one wrestler can’t keep up, it’s obvious. You can’t hide in a Twin Gate match.

Ben-K formed a team with his fellow beefy boy Big R Shimizu in MaxiMuM. The pair, later called Big Ben, had a unique style where the two were a runaway locomotive tearing through their opponents. Their first run with the Twin Gate was a short one; they beat the departing T-Hawk and Eita at DEAD OR ALIVE 2018 and lost the belts to YAMATO and BxB Hulk at Kobe World two months later. Their loss was the best match at Kobe World, and a lot of that was on Ben-K. Another test aced.

The last test for Ben-K in 2018 was his heel turn. For months, MaxiMuM was struggling after the miscommunication between Shimizu and DoiYoshi and Shimizu eventually turned. Later Ben-K was a sudden turn which led to the heel ANTIAS becoming R.E.D. Ben-K was always liked as a face. The crowd reacted to his big moments even though he wasn’t much for being a talker. Working rudo would be a different situation. Ben-K stopped talking, and more focused on a grinding destructive force in contrast to his burst strength. They gave him an opportunity against Masato Yoshino, who won the Dream Gate from Mochizuki. A second Dream Key in the same calendar year just doesn’t happen in Dragon Gate, but the company wanted to see what would happen in a big show main event for him. Another success in his defeat. It was probably my favorite match of Yoshino’s underwhelming fourth title reign before the title switch to PAC. A second, and longer, Twin Gate reign as Big Ben, and then they knew it as the calendar turned to 2019.

Dragon Gate had their guy.

Now, it’s somewhat a trope in the company in how they liked to setting up their Dream Gate matches at Kobe World over the past few years. Starting with BxB Hulk in 2014, it’s a big turn during the DEAD OR ALIVE cage match, then usually either a win in the King of Gate tournament, or a good performance in it, setting up the Kobe World main event. This has been both the case for Hulk in 2014 and for YAMATO in 2016. Get turned on, find a group of allies, win King of Gate, win at Kobe World. 

This year they had Big Ben lose the Twin Gate at Dragon Gate’s debut show at Acros Fukuoka as Shimizu and Eita were squabbling and Eita cost them the belts. All indications were that at the 2019 DEAD OR ALIVE, somehow Shimizu would eject Eita, as were the terms of the match. (Sidenote: these cage matches are usually really complicated, this year it was that the loser of the match had to eject someone from their unit, everyone else had to option to eject someone or not). Shimizu lost the cage match, and the big swerve was that him and Eita were playing Ben-K for a fool all along and he was getting booted from R.E.D. 

Standing alone in the cage in Nagoya, Ben-K picked up a microphone for the first time in months. With simple words, he wanted to prove his worth and wanted them to believe in him. Don’t just cheer for him just because they should cheer for him, cheer for him for the destruction he was going to wage on R.E.D. Cheer for him because they believe in his spirit and heart. 

Ben-K’s warpath was swift and severe. The first night of King of Gate in Korakuen Hall, he choked out YAMATO, one of the men who took the Twin Gate from him. Ben-K proceeded to sweep his block in the group stage of the tournament. The next Korakuen, the semifinals of the tournament, had him face Kzy. In this incredible match (arguably one of the best matches in the world this year), Ben-K bent Kzy into a knot with a spear that sent him into the finals. A finals against R.E.D. leader Eita.

During the tournament, Ben-K was constantly facing off against his former unit in non-tournament matches. When PAC was on tour, the two would tease the clash that was soon to come. Never having a long section of a match, just butting heads. Dragon Gate knew what was on the horizon and they just wanted to give the fans a taste.

The King of Gate Finals. Acros Fukuoka on June 8th. Ben-K came face to face with Eita. This match was different than the rest of Ben-K’s tournament. This match told a story. Eita had R.E.D. around the ring, and constantly took advantage of the situation against the former member. Chair attacks on the outside. A train of attacks in the corner. Until a moment when Ben-K was able to capitalize on a mistake and eliminate R.E.D. from the match. The Triangle Gate flunkeys sent down. His former Twin Gate Partner, Shimizu, removed from the situation. Just him and Eita and after another spear, he did it. The first ever perfect tournament in King of Gate history. 

Right after the match, he challenged the one R.E.D. member who was conspicuous by their absence, PAC, for the main event at Kobe World. The 20th Anniversary. The 3-year journey is over. 

After years of attempting to anoint their next ace, they finally seem to have someone that the crowd is behind. The looming specters of failed pushes for T-Hawk, Shingo, and Milano are now just that, ghosts of the past. Reminders of a company that doesn’t really exist in this form anymore. A bygone era that was haunted by what could have been.

And on July 21st, Ben-K can slam the door to that era shut for good.