The Dragon System has existed for twenty years. Starting with Toryumon’s landing in Japan in January 31, 1999, splitting into Dragon Gate and the various Ultimo Dragon-related projects in July 2004, and beyond, we are far past the days of Dragon Gate being a bunch of fresh-faced rookies with a chip on their shoulder.
Ultimo Dragon’s first class of students like CIMA, Don Fujii, and Dragon Kid are now industry veterans and the classes that followed them that feature names like Shingo Takagi, BxB Hulk, and Taiji Ishimori have all reached incredible heights in this industry.
Despite launching in 1999, Toryumon didn’t have a main singles title that belonged to their company until 2003 with the formation of the Ultimo Dragon Gym Championship in April of that year. CIMA became the first champion, defeating Genki Horiguchi to secure the first reign as UDG Champion.
In 2004, when most of the promotion cut ties with Ultimo Dragon to form Dragon Gate, the UDG Championship was transformed into the Open the Dream Gate Championship, which has remained the top prize in Dragon Gate ever since. There were four separate reigns for the UDG belt in its year-long existence. Fifteen years into the Dream Gate lineage, there have been 28 title reigns and 14 unique champions.
On July 21, 2019, Ben-K is going to step into the squared circle against the 28th Dream Gate Champion, PAC. Ben-K has never won the belt. He’s failed twice, both valiant efforts, but he’s never been this ready for the challenge. A victory in March 2018 against Masaaki Mochizuki would’ve come as a shock to the system. Ben-K has been destined for greatness since he walked into the company, but March wasn’t the right time to crown him as the next ace. In November, when he tangled with Masato Yoshino over the same belt, there was a 40/60 feel to the match. Ben-K could’ve won, it still would’ve been surprising, but I would’ve been able to digest it fully.
Eight months later, he’s gone on a tear, defeating YAMATO, Kzy, and Eita in singles match en route to an undefeated King of Gate 2019. He’s PAC’s most credible threat yet. To understand what’s at stake in their Dream Gate bout, however, we need to grasp the ace reigns that have come before Ben-K.
An “ace reign”, as we’ll refer to them in this piece, means that the Dream Gate/UDG Champion must have held the title for at least six months (with one exception) and have created some sort of historical impact on the promotion. This means that despite its length, reigns like Susumu Yokoksuka’s 2006, Masato Yoshino’s 2010, and Masaaki Mochizuki’s 2017 will be absent.
CIMA: UDG Champion/Open the Dream Gate Champion
(July 4, 2004-December 16, 2004)
CIMA’s 2004 reign that doubled as the last UDG reign and the first Dream Gate reign falls just short of six months, but without this reign, there’s no point in discussing any of this. CIMA closed out the final Toryumon show, the 5th Anniversary Show from Kobe World Hall, by defeating Shuji Kondo to claim the title that had been previously vacated by SUWA.
CIMA was awarded the first Dream Gate belt after the promotion split away from Ultimo. CIMA would go onto defeat Susumu Yokosuka just shy of the half-hour mark in September before falling to Masaaki Mochizuki in December. This reign lacks high-caliber matches. I have all three of his matches, the win vs. Kondo, the defense vs. Yokosuka, and the defeat vs. Mochizuki floating around the four-star range. This is, however, the reign that started a 15 year run of Dream Gate excellence and had CIMA not been able to flawlessly transition the titles, we may not be in the position we are today.
Naruki Doi: Open the Dream Gate Champion
(December 28, 2010-March 22, 2010)
At the time, the longest and most successful run with the gold. Doi Bakatare’d his way into 449 days as champion with eight successful defenses. Doi was not the first of his generation to hold the title. Doi was the first of the T2P class to reach the top of Dragon Gate, and of what would later become The Big 6 (Shingo Takagi, Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi, BxB Hulk, Akira Tozawa, & YAMATO), Doi trailed only Takagi in reaching the top of the mountain.
Doi’s reign is still among the most divisive in the company’s history. I personally have no use for such “epics” as Naruki Doi vs. Taku Iwasa or Naruki Doi vs. Akebono, which headlined Dead or Alive 2009, but if you choose to partake in such questionable activities, more power to you. Doi’s biggest defense was a title unification match at Kobe World 2009 in which he pinned then-Open the Brave Gate Champion, CIMA, in a match that brought out the worst tendencies in both men.
Doi’s Dream Gate run feels akin to that of a Madden cover curse. Doi was rolling in 2008. His success in Ring of Honor had brought him international acclaim and his talents looked like they would lead to a prosperous run atop the card. It was all for not, however. Doi struggled in the ring and at the box office. His long reign would be his only one. He was defeated by YAMATO in the spring of 2010, ending the second true ace reign in Dragon Gate history.
Masaaki Mochizuki: Open the Dream Gate Champion
(April 14, 2011-December 25, 2011)
Masaaki Mochizuki spent his 2011 Christmas eating a Meteora at the hands of CIMA. For him, a rotten ending to what had otherwise been a tremendous year. Mochizuki’s reign feels historically significant for a handful of reasons, but this reign also checks the box that both CIMA and Doi had failed to complete earlier: this is one of the greatest in-ring championship reigns in the history of professional wrestling.
I toyed with the idea of using Mochizuki’s 2005 reign, an eleven-month, four defense reign that was highlighted by an epic vs. Ryo Saito in February of that year. However, Mochizuki’s work was spread out too much in that reign. Eleven months and only four defenses is inefficient. It was in the summer of 2011 when we saw Masaaki Mochizuki truly take shape as a champion. Dragon Gate, which has always been supported by multiple units, some heel, some face, and some in-between, had become locked in a two faction warfare between Blood Warriors, the heels, and Junction III, the babyfaces.
His defense in May over YAMATO, which I rank as one of the greatest Dream Gate matches ever, created the spark that formed J3. Now dawned in green tights, Mochizuki outlasted Yasushi Kanda in June, BxB Hulk in July, and Cyber Kong in August, giving all three men arguably the best matches of their careers. September was more of a table-setter month for Mochizuki. He continued the charge in October with a classic against Akira Tozawa before surviving against Ryo Saito in November. It was CIMA, in a match that had been built up that entire year, who was finally able to take the belt from around the waist of Mochizuki.
Masaaki Mochizuki’s 2011 reign is a mirror image of what the best-case scenario for Ben-K could be. Ben-K is going to have a slog of grimy, grungy heel challengers coming his way if he wins the title from PAC. He’s going to have to go through Big R Shimizu, Takashi Yoshida (Cyber Kong), and Eita. At the same time, much like Mochizuki, Ben-K now finds himself leading the start of a new unit alongside Shun Skywalker. Ben-K could have an opportunity to put the company on his back, just like Mochizuki did, and along the way, etch his name in the history books.
CIMA: Open the Dream Gate Champion
(December 25, 2011-July 21, 2013)
574 days, fifteen defenses. CIMA’s work as Open the Dream Gate Champion rivals Kazuchika Okada’s 720-day IWGP Heavyweight Champion reign or CM Punk’s 434 days as WWE World Heavyweight Champion. What CIMA did during this reign, both in terms of the list of wrestlers he was able to defeat, and what he was able to do as the leader of the second biggest promotion in Japan, was simply incredible.
I see no scenario in which an upcoming Ben-K reign would echo this CIMA run. Ben-K isn’t going to defeat 15 challengers, although I welcome the idea of a Ben-K vs. K-Ness Dream Gate match, as the K-Ness challenge was one of the highlights of the CIMA reign. This is simply The Dream Gate Run. I don’t expect anything to ever top this in length. It ended symbolically with Shingo Takagi, the first student of the Dragon Gate dojo, defeating CIMA, the first prized pupil of the Dragon System, in the middle of the ring at their biggest show of the year. Since being pinned, CIMA has not held a singles title in any promotion. This was his peak. He gave everything he had into this reign. Historically, it is as big as it gets for the Dream Gate.
Shingo Takagi: Open the Dream Gate Champion
(August 16, 2015-February 14, 2016, March 6, 2016-July 24, 2016)
Takagi’s arc as an ace champion is bizarre. Many expected he would pick up right where CIMA and Masaaki Mochizuki left off. Instead, after defeating the man that successfully defended the belt fifteen times in a row, Takagi dropped the belt in his first defense in August of 2013 against YAMATO. That remains one of my favorite booking decisions in the history of the company.
Takagi would have to wait two years before regaining control of the company’s top prize, but this time he won it as a dastardly heel instead of a fighting babyface. He turned his back on Monster Express, a group that included his friends Masato Yoshino, Uhaa Nation, and Akira Tozawa, for a heel unit composed of misfits like Cyber Kong and Eita.
Takagi took on the role of a gym class bully for this run. Had it not been for a Susumu Yokosuka miracle victory in February, Takagi’s run would’ve lasted eleven months with five total defenses. Instead, the history books show him with one reign at six months with four defenses, including one of the greatest matches to take place, ever, against Masaaki Mochizuki, and another reign at four months with one defense before losing to YAMATO at Kobe World 2016.
Ben-K is not in a position to have a similar run to Takagi. Down the road, I think this will be the best comp for what Ben-K is capable of, but he needs his shining babyface run before he can become the alpha of the roster.
In terms of quality, however, I pray to the Lord above that Ben-K can have matches like Takagi. Takagi ran through Don Fujii, Masaaki Mochizuki, and CIMA in matches that are all, at worst, hovering around the ****1/2 range.
YAMATO: Open the Dream Gate Champion
(July 24, 2016-September 18, 2017)
My biggest fear is that Ben-K’s possible Dream Gate runs ends up like this dreaded YAMATO title reign. YAMATO was built up with all the momentum in the world. Similar to Ben-K, his heel unit turned on him at Dead or Alive, and YAMATO began a babyface run that felt perfect. He was hitting all the right notes and Shingo Takagi was the perfect opponent for him to dethrone, much like PAC is for Ben-K. Everything leading up to the title reign worked.
Then we had 14 months of YAMATO being uninterested, uninspired, and meandering around the top of the card. His reign faced hurdles of the Summer Adventure Tag League, Akira Tozawa’s farewell, and a lack of strong, heel challengers. The first five months were unorganized and the next seven were flat out boring.
I worry that Ben-K could possibly follow suit. Other than a match with Eita that will surely come sooner rather than later, there are no dedicated heels that I have any interest in Ben-K wrestling. The Yoshida defense will surely happen and I’m sure it’ll be fine, but that match is played out. Outside of R.E.D., you’d need to rely on a tweener turning heel to give Ben-K a run for his money. Kzy seems like a likely candidate, but I’m not sure that’s going to light the world on fire.
I simply hope Dragon Gate has learned from their mistakes with this reign. Ben-K has too much potential as the figurehead of Japan’s second strongest wrestling company to fall victim to these circumstances.
PAC: Open the Dream Gate Champion
(December 4, 2018-present)
Finally, there’s PAC. He has gone unpinned since September 24, 2017, and while I have enjoyed nearly every second of this unbeaten streak, it is time PAC lays on his back for three seconds in order to crown Ben-K as the new Open the Dream Gate Champion. PAC has accomplished so much in such a short time. He reinvigorated Western interest in the product, produced some of the greatest character work this company has ever seen, as has had three phenomenal matches with Kzy, Shun Skywalker, and Dragon Kid. PAC’s reign, whether it ends at Kobe World, or for some reason, a later date, is already a win.
He embodied the ace spirit the same way that CIMA and Mochizuki did in 2011 and that Takagi did in 2015. When PAC is present, the entire company feels like it revolves around him. Once he got past Kzy in February, I knew there was no stopping PAC until Kobe World. Luckily the rumored main event of PAC vs. Eita turned out to be false. Instead, it’s PAC, the driven champion who has steamrolled everyone vs. Ben-K, the prodigy who is looking to continue his path of destruction.
Ultimately, my word only means so much. I think Dragon Gate has the potential to make a generational superstar with this match, and if everything goes according to plan, I think Ben-K has the talent to live up to those expectations.
I leave you with the words of Mike Sydal, who spent time in Dragon Gate in both 2013 and 2015. Sydal spent time in the dojo during both of his tours, training with the likes of El Lindaman, Big R Shimizu, and Flamita, just to name a few. Sydal spent time in the dojo with Ben-K during his stay in 2015, and when I asked him how he felt about the incoming Dream Gate challenger, he had this to say:
“He stood out in training because he learned fast. I think he started getting matches before a lot of the other trainees that had been there longer…Plus the dude had a killer physique. If I ever had to make a bet on which of the green boys would be the face of the company some day, I would have bet on Ben-K.”
Ben-K is destined to be a superstar and if Dragon Gate plays their cards right, on July 21, 2019, they will have crowned yet another ace of the Dragon System.