In my last piece in the lead up to Dragon Gate’s 20th Kobe World Pro Wrestling Festival, I wanted to take a more macro look at the first full year of the Dragon Gate Entertainment era. So it’s a good time to take a step back and assess what the number two promotion in Japan has done over the last year, especially after the weirdness and period of transition that happened between the split and last year’s Kobe World show. There are three facets of the last year that I think are worth discussing being the promotion’s youth movement, how Dragon Gate is celebrating their 20th anniversary, and their new approach to western audiences.
Since about the time when CIMA suffered a terrible neck injury in 2008, Dragon Gate has tried to elevate their trueborns (people solely from Dragon Gate’s dojo) to prepare for the inevitable changing of the guard. Some of these were immediately effective to a certain extent (Shingo becoming a top line player, Ben-K’s three year elevation), but more often, there were significant issues with the wrestler they’d choose to push (SaiRyo’s disastrous Dream Gate run, the overall Millennials run, Antias).
Now I can’t definitively point my finger at who was responsible for these botched pushes as there were multiple parties at fault, the wrestlers receiving the push included. It is remarkable however, that over the last twelve months Dragon Gate has had the most success they’ve seen since T2P in how they’ve pushed their youngsters. Where I’d worry in 2016 or 2017 about the future of the promotion, now I feel some confidence in that Dragon Gate will be in good hands when the original generation of wrestlers retire.
There always was a push to get this generation ready to move up the card. Dragon Gate tried and tried again to get the crowds behind their younger wrestlers, but it finally clicked in 2018. The first moment of this happening was the formation of Mochizuki Dojo. In August, members of the class of 2016 decided they needed extra guidance. With the exception of Ben-K, their growth was troubling, so Shun Skywalker, Hyo Watanabe and Yuki Yoshioka knew they needed some sort of change. Luckily, this was soon after Masaaki Mochizuki lost his Open the Dream Gate title, and he wanted a new challenge and for that challenge to be training the next generation. So Mochizuki tabbed Shun to join him in All Japan’s Jr. Tag Battle of Glory. This spurred the trio to ask him to create a unit with them with the explicit intent of preparing for their future. Mocchy refused but said he’d reconsider if they beat him in a handicap match on August 7th, which they did. This led to the formation of Mochizuki Dojo, not a unit (Narrator Voice: It was a unit), where people could come and go as they pleased.
This was the flash point for the ongoing elevation of the young generation. Later that fall, 2018 debutee Kota Minoura joined the dojo. In the last months of the year, the youngest members of MaxiMuM and Tribe Vanguard, Kaito Ishida and U-T started to get into it and the generational gravitational pull had everyone of this era at each other’s throats. This spurred GM Yagi to announce a Young Generation Ranking Tournament in the new year to definitively determine which young wrestler was at the head of the class, and their pecking order.
Dragon Gate is a company with ebbs and flows, and perhaps the deepest ebb of the year is January through February. The company usually has a throw away trios tournament to give some heat to the promotion and a Dream Gate defense to bide time. This year that wasn’t the case with perhaps the best Dream Gate match in years with Kzy challenging PAC and the Ranking Tournament. At the end of it, Shun Skywalker became the top person in his generation, and the entire generation benefited from the competition. Everyone involved in the tournament has had solid title challenges with the exception of rookie Dragon Dia, who has been on and off of cards due to sickness. Even the most recent debut, Strong Machine J, has a title match at Kobe World!
It feels like that they haven’t just solved their top of the card problem, with Ben-K, but people who might slot all over the cards. Now, it might still be difficult when the first term Toryumon guys take their steps back, but the Young Generation is getting more of a response now than the Millennials Generation ever got from the crowd. Time will tell how this pays off, but it feels like after years of trying Dragon Gate finally found a way to elevate their youngsters.
After focusing a bit on the young generation, it’s also worth talking about how Dragon Gate embraced their past. It is their 20th anniversary afterall. On the last Korakuen Hall show of 2018, the company announced that there would be a series of special matches each month to celebrate this milestone and the first match would be in January to celebrate Mochizuki’s 25th anniversary with him versus former Aagan Issou member and Wrestle-1 don Shuji Kondo.
This continued through the beginning of the year, mostly focusing on T2P/Aagan Issou wrestlers. There was a Florida Brothers reunion for those of us who missed the Dragon System’s premiere comedy duo. A look back at the Ryo Saito/Anthony W Mori/Takuya Sugawara relationship. And of course, the return of the principal of the Dragon System, Ultimo Dragon.
This was not only a smart acknowledgment of their past, it was a good way to solidify their Tokyo shows. Dragon Gate, unlike most other Japanese promotions with notable exceptions, is a Kansai based company. Their home is in Kobe, and outside of their 13 Korakuens and yearly Ota show they don’t focus their attention Kantō. It is also the area that was most affected by last year’s departures as it ended their multi-year Korakuen sellout streak and required them to blow off one of their biggest potential feuds for Dangerous Gate in Masato Yoshino vs Naruki Doi.
So Dragon Gate figured out that they could celebrate their past and help out modern business. Korakuen numbers are now back to approximately where they were pre-split, and the company feels like it has real life in Tokyo. And if anything, it’s been justification to give extend the olive branch to Ultimo. Ask anyone, literally anyone, keyed into Dragon Gate what they expected would happen this year, and “Ultimo Dragon returning to celebrate the 20th anniversary” would have been last on their list. Now, I don’t know how much of a shelf life these legacy spots will have, but if your company against all odds makes it 20 years, you sure have the right to celebrate it.
Lastly, Dragon Gate decided to reenter the consciousness of the western wrestling world this year. I will admit, sometimes it is hard to devote a lot of time, effort and heart to a promotion that just simply wasn’t going to focus on the west. First the very difficult niconico service and now a complicated DG Network, the company made it difficult for a non-native fan to support them. Things started to change pre-split, and the company is making their most genuine attempt for western fans since their first incursion into the west. In order to evaluate what they are doing now, we need a bit of backstory.
After the dissolution of Dragon Gate USA and Dragon Gate UK, the company turned completely inward. From 2006 until 2014, Dragon Gate opened itself up for opportunities in the west. First was participating with Ring of Honor in those historic Wrestlemania weekends. When that relationship went south, Dragon Gate had bigger aims to promote their own shows. The story of DGUSA really deserves its own piece, but ultimately the DG side and Gabe Sapolsky, the booker of DGUSA, were apart in what they wanted the promotion to be and it died an ignoble death in 2014. From that moment, Dragon Gate returned to a period of isolation that ended recently.
The reemergence started with a run of appearances in the UK’s Fight Club Pro in 2017 with CIMA, Masaaki Mochizuki, and Eita making appearances. Meanwhile, as Hong Kong native Jason Lee made his way onto the roster that, the company began to promote shows in Hong Kong in 2018. There was an attempt to support WrestleCon this year in New York, with it becoming the first major US landing spot in five years (I’m excluding Tozawa and Shingo’s PWG excursions because of the extenuating circumstances of those). Sadly, the difficulty in getting visas for the United States under this administration struck again.
Perhaps the most bold excursion in the west will be occurring this weekend with adding English commentary to Kobe World. Having a veteran play-by-play voice in Rich Bocchini and someone familiar with the promotion in DGUSA alum Larry Dallas should lower the notoriously difficult barrier of entry that Dragon Gate has for fans that don’t speak Japanese. There’s been no declared commitment past Sunday, but this is as genuine of an attempt to reach western fans as anything Dragon Gate has done before. I assume that afterwards, the company and its network GAORA will assess how commentary goes/how subscriptions go and evaluate if it’s viable to pursue English commentary further.
Dragon Gate is in a much different place this year versus last. There was a lot of uncertainty in the promotion with a new president and without Stronghearts. The company rose to the challenge, and arguably, has a brighter future ahead of it. I think a couple of years down the line we will look back at 2018 and 2019 and see it as the transformational year for the promotion. There were unique challenges of losing so many stars, being a part of a new company, and the budding monolith promotion in their home territory. Dragon Gate rose to the challenge. They positioned themselves for the future better than I expected. By honoring their past, they kept alive the important touchstones of their rich history, and used those touchstones to bolster their present. They’re making their second major attempt to cross over to other countries, learning from what went wrong with DGUSA, and using that to adapt to a competitive playing field in 2019. There’s been no more interesting time to be a Dragon Gate fan, and it’s all coming to a head on July 21st with the potential crowning of their ace of the next generation, Ben-K.