Take a moment. Think where you were in July 2004. It’s hard to think about an exact day, but for this exercise, let’s think about July 4, 2004
The top song in America was American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino’s “I Believe.” John Kerry was two days away from naming John Edwards as his Vice Presidential nominee in the impending election. The Athens Olympics were a month away.
I had just turned 18. Summer after I graduated high school. Was working for a bank. They had me scan documents and help out on repossession jobs, which was a wild thing to have someone who just turned 18 do in retrospect. My wrestling purview was mostly WWE, and whatever local shindie bought TV time on our UPN station. I knew of other forms of wrestling, but it’s not like Dallas-Fort Worth had been a wrestling hotbed after the fall of the Von Erich family.
Still thinking about July 4, 2004?
That was the last time Ultimo Dragon stepped into the Toryumon ring before it became Dragon Gate and he departed with his trademarks. Faced Natsuhiko Nakajima at what was called Toryumon’s 6th Anniversario.
On July 21, fifteen years, two weeks and three days after that match with Nakajima, the founder of the Dragon System will make his return to Kobe World Kinen Hall.
I’m trying to avoid being hyperbolic about Ultimo Dragon’s return, but simply put, it’s the most shocking event in the history of the company. If you asked me at the end of 2018 if I thought that the founder of Toryumon and spiritual grandfather of Dragon Gate would make an appearance in his students’ promotion, I’d think that you had a really bad, or really good, experience on ayahuasca. The relations between Ultimo and his students were frigid at best, and the only time that the groups would cross over were random third party’s shows. No Ultimo in Dragon Gate, and no Dragon Gate in Toryumon Mexico (after the split, Ultimo’s Toryumon-based work would mostly be in Mexico, primarily out of Naucalpan).
So what was the impetus for this rather acrimonious split? It came down to a couple of key issues the Toryumon students had with Ultimo, primarily, booking and business-related matters.
As the promoter of the Toryumon era of the Dragon System, Ultimo was mostly absent from day-to-day decisions. Having a gym in one hemisphere and running shows for it, and then having a promotion in the other in 1998 meant that it was hard to keep your finger on the pulse. Takashi Okumura and Toru Kido, who would become presidents in Dragon Gate, were running day-to-day things in Toryumon whenever Ultimo was in Mexico. And the difference of show quality from when Ultimo was around to when he wasn’t was stark.
When Ultimo was in Mexico, the shows were solid. Sure, not everything landed, but you could point to your Dragon Kid vs Darkness Dragon Mascara contra Mascara matches and say “I see how this evolved into what have today in Dragon Gate.” Most of your best matches from that era of the system came from that time.
Things weren’t so great when Ultimo was around.
The shows quickly became about him. Top stars would get squashed by Ultimo, who was training for his return to wrestling and the WWE. Toryumon would usually have very little gaijin on their shows and would only show up for big shows as a bonus or a bit (specifically Disco Inferno and Latin Lover teaming with Magnum Tokyo against the Italian Connection at 2002’s Absolutamente show). However, with principal Ultimo being around meant his friends were around. I’ve heard nothing but nice things about King Ali Baba, but in Toryumon he was dreadful. Along with this, there weren’t many epics with Ultimo Dragon having the pencil, but if you love five to ten-minute squash matches, you got to see a ton.
Being charitable, it would seem that Ultimo didn’t understand his audience, otherwise, it would appear that he was jealous of his students being the draw of the promotion, and he went on an ego trip. The fans weren’t there for him. With how Toryumon Japan marketed their stars, it was more likely that the fans never heard of him before the promotion started.
The business reasons for the split are a bit more complicated and will take you needing to put yourself in, say, CIMA or Magnum Tokyo’s shoes. You have been wrestling for about six or seven years. You are a star and leading figure in this new promotion. In the five years since it had its debut, you’ve done shows regularly in front of 1,000+ fans. A couple of times a year, you do a show in front of over five thousand. By any modern measure, you are the cornerstones of this thriving company.
At the same time, you are wrestling an incredibly tough schedule. In 2003 alone, your promotion has 179 main brand shows (not the offshoots or new students shows). In comparison, the then industry leader, Pro Wrestling NOAH, ran 113 shows that year. That’s on top of what other appearances you’ve might have made in other promotions. It’s rough. Lots of long bus rides, too many wrestlers sharing hotel rooms.
And after these long tours, you are taken back to Kobe and put into the dojo barracks with very little money in your pocket.
You look over at your trainer, the head of this promotion. You know these shows are making a good amount of money. He’s taking the profits of these shows, these shows that you are on and he often isn’t. The money’s going into his wrestling school in Mexico. That school isn’t making money, you think, I know that because I had to save up a ton to go there. The school can’t even afford to feed its students, but the money is going there.
So that was the scenario for the Toryumon Japan and Toryumon 2000 Project students, and that’s why they knew they had to do their own thing.
In late 2003, seeds were beginning to be planted. Magnum Tokyo and Takashi Okamura started meeting with potential investors and sponsors. Tokyo ended up taking most of early 2004 off in a pseudo “losing his smile” moment, when in reality, he was laying the groundwork for what would come. Conspicuously, newer wrestler Naoki Tanizaki had a surfer gimmick, and on his surfboard was a sticker for what ended up to be the logo for Dragon Gate. Dragon Gate is the literal English translation for Toryumon. It was posed as a name for a new merchandise line, but I’ve always been of the opinion it was establishing the name and logo ahead of the split.
Through the rushed debut (and failure for that matter) of Toryumon X, you can think that Ultimo caught wind of this. Needing some foothold after the rest of the roster would split, Ultimo brought over his third class of students. Unlike the incredibly successful original Toryumon Japan class and the unique draw of the llave-based Toryumon 2000 Project, the “Lucha Libre Clasica” Toryumon X students were dead in the water, no fault of their own. Their planned ace retired, and their new ace, Taiji Ishimori, was saddled with a bad teen idol gimmick that fans laughed at each time he sang “Keep On Journey!” The most popular act in the offshoot was Los Salseros Japoneses, a heel group of salsa musicians.
Toryumon X lasted for five shows, dying an ignoble death post-Ultimo split. Most of the younger wrestlers landed in Michinoku Pro and many wrestle to this day. Ishimori, of course, managed to pave his own way to become an ace in his own right. The only two TX students who landed in Dragon Gate long term were Naoki Tanizaki, who was assimilated on the Toryumon Japan roster before Toryumon X landed, and Kagetora, who was SUWAcito in Mini Crazy MAX (see Ultimo was really grasping for straws) and joined the DG roster in his own right in 2008.
Let’s revisit July 2004.
After the show in Kobe, a press conference was announced for the next day. There amidst tears from the participants, the assorted students of Ultimo Dragon announced that they graduated from Toryumon and were creating a new promotion called Dragon Gate. CIMA vacated the Ultimo Dragon Gym championship and would become the first Open the Dream Gate champion by virtue of being the last holder of the UDG title. The president of Dragon Gate, of course, was Takashi Okamura, Ultimo’s number two man in Toryumon.
After the failure of Toryumon X, Ultimo Dragon was involved with another branch of the Dragon System. Starting in 2005 and lasting until 2006, when it closed after the owners had a scandal of their own, dragondoor project (d2p) consisted of TX students, members of Aagan Issou who left Dragon Gate at the end of 2004, Ultimo and a collection of his luchador friends, Kota Ibushi and weirdly enough, Toshiaki Kawada. Post d2p, Ultimo returned to Mexico and kept the Toryumon Mexico Gym alive with his last class of students, UD06. The most notable UD06 student, of course, was Kazuchika Okada.
Ultimo Dragon transferred Okada’s contract to New Japan in 2007. The last time I heard, Toryumon Mexico closed in the early 2010s. Now Ultimo Dragon’s sole Mexican appearances are occasional shows and his yearly Dragonmania show in Arena Mexico. In recent years, Ultimo has made All Japan Pro Wrestling his home while remaining a freelance wrestler.
On the last Tokyo Korakuen Hall show of 2018, Dragon Gate announced they’d be celebrating the 20th anniversary year of the Dragon System with a series of monthly matches. The company would be invited departed members of the promotional family back for special matches. The first one was Masaaki Mochizuki’s 25th Anniversary Match with Shuji Kondo, now based out of Wrestle-1. Through this series, we got to see a lot of beloved figures back in Dragon Gate once more.
As well, Masato Yoshino had a wish. It was the Dragon System’s 20th Anniversary and he wanted to bring his maestro, Ultimo Dragon, into the Dragon Gate ring. Month after month, he’d make this plea. In May, he somewhat heard an answer. Toru Owashi, who appeared as a member of Aagan Issou in that month’s Anniversary Series match, came out to the ring dressed as Ultimo. He said that Ultimo had heard Yoshino’s call, but wanted to know if this was just a selfish request of Yoshino’s, or the desire of the entire roster. The entire roster hit the ring and made it known that Dragon Gate wanted Ultimo Dragon. Owashi said the answer would come next month.
In June, Yoshino addressed Korakuen once again. Then the lights when out. Seperados played. When the lights came up, for the first time in almost fifteen years, Ultimo Dragon was in the ring with his students.
The conversation and reception was awkward, but how couldn’t it be? It’s been fifteen years. A lot of things happened to lead to the split, and a lot of things happened since. The teenagers and young adults who entered Ultimo Dragon’s gym now lead the second biggest promotion in Japan. Life happened. But at the end of the conversation with Yoshino, Naruki Doi, and YAMATO, Ultimo agreed to appear at Kobe World Kinen Hall for the 20th Kobe World Pro Wrestling Festival on July 21st.
It’ll be fifteen years, two weeks, and three days since the last time he was in a main branch Dragon System match. Him teaming with his protege Dragon Kid, and the man whose dream it was to bring back his teacher, Masato Yoshino, against the former Aagan Issou trio of Masaaki Mochizuki, Shuji Kondo, and Takuya Sugawara.