I can’t tell you where precisely El Hijo del Pantera was born, or how he grew up, or even what his true name is. Such things are still kept secret for masked wrestlers in Mexico. I can tell you about the name he bears, that of veteran luchador Pantera, who in addition to his prominent runs in CMLL and IWRG was also a part of the WWF’s ill-begotten light heavyweight division and a King of Trios winner.  I can’t tell you the weight that kind of mask has on a young man just starting his wrestling journey. But I can tell you that, at some point, El Hijo del Pantera ended up in Japan, and began to leave his own mark as part of another ill-fated endeavor, Keiji Muto’s Wrestle-1 promotion.

Visually, El Hijo del Pantera is an unassuming wrestler. He wears a shirt during his matches and is notably heavyset. He doesn’t have the obvious athletic grace of Ryu Lee or other luchadors who have become stars in Japan. But what he does have is power and intensity. El Hijo del Pantera’s matches are a gradual escalation of tension and danger. This is a man who seems willing to kill his opponents, or himself, in pursuit of victory – but, you know, in an endearing way.

El Hijo del Pantera first appeared in a Japanese ring in 2012, as part of the Wrestling New Classic promotion. Since then, Japan has been the focus of his career, save for a two-year break in 2016 and 2017. Most of those matches were for Wrestle-1, with a few spots in smaller promotions and one-off shows. In 2013 he had his only apuestas match in Korakuen Hall, defending his mask and taking the hair of MAZADA. In 2018 (check), he challenged W-1 Cruiserweight Champion Yusuke Kodama for the title but came up short. And this seemed to be largely the role he would play: the occasional bit of international flavor in a promotion that mostly didn’t have the money to bring in foreigners. And then came 2019, a year in which Pantera soared to heights no one expected in a promotion desperately trying to stay above water.

Challenger

The story begins in the 2019 edition of Cruiser Fes, Wrestle-1’s annual single-elimination tournament for its lighter wrestlers (with only the one monthly TV slot, round-robin tournaments are tough to pull off.) Pantera defeated MAZADA in the first round and then took on El Lindaman, internationally-famous wrestling gremlin and part of the invading Stronghearts army.

Watching the match, it immediately becomes evident that El Hijo del Pantera has a strong connection with the Japanese fans. They almost immediately erupt into a chant of “PANTERA”, at deafening volume for the tiny Shinkiba 1rst Ring. Pantera rewards their support with some novel offense, pulling out a sweet reverse surfboard and mixing up the usual tope spot by hurtling his body over the unfortunately-placed referee. It’s a mildly insane match, one that concludes with Pantera standing victorious after kicking his opponent in the balls. (It’s okay, Lindaman tried to do it to him first.) This is already a big win for Pantera, over a wrestler who had and would continue to appear in the rings of much larger promotions, and one that vaulted him ahead of Wrestle-1’s home-grown junior babyfaces like Andy Wu, Jun Tonsho and Alejandro.

In the final, Pantera comes up against another Stronghearts member, Seiki Yoshioka. But while Lindaman is an invader, having hatched in the Dragon Gate system and left to join CIMA’s marauding band, Yoshioka is something worse: a turncoat, having betrayed Wrestle-1 and joined those who besieged it. Against the traitor, the Japanese fans find an unlikely hero in the masked Mexican. The match that follows is one that no one was expecting.

Yoshioka begins the match with some classic sleazy heeling, tearing at Pantera’s mask. Then Yoshioka falls to the outside, and Pantera takes advantage with a senton to his prone foe. It’s a dangerous-looking move, perhaps more dangerous than either man realized. When Seiki gets back up, the crowd gasps: his nose is obviously broken, blood flowing everywhere. Yoshioka looks pissed off, frightening, and more than a little cool as his bloodstains his opponent’s white mask. The blood is surely an accident, but it creates an indelible image, one that Wrestle-1 will use again and again in promotional videos as Pantera and Yoshioka’s fortunes both continue to rise.

The match now escalated, Yoshioka returns with an increasing desperation to finish it. The two wrestlers trade poison ranas and destroyers, embodying the escalation of big moves that defines this era of junior heavyweight wrestling. Pantera kicks out of one move after another. Finally, Yoshioka hits him with a Made in Japan, again aligning himself with outside powers, and another one of his signature Crush Drivers, and he’s able to get the victory, but at a tremendous cost.

Yoshioka’s broken nose takes him out of action, and as the tournament runner-up, Pantera receives the title shot at Wrestle Wars, one of Wrestle-1’s two biggest annual events. He lost the battle, but thanks to his willingness to escalate the in-ring action in a direction no one was anticipating, he came out ahead in the war of attrition.

In his title challenge, Pantera comes up against Yusuke Kodama, the same man he had been unsuccessful against a year prior. Kodama is part of Enfants Terrible, the faction which had been the black hats in Wrestle-1 prior to the Stronghearts invasion and is now more cast in the role of antiheroes. Here, however, Kodama is right back to being the heel, smirking as he works over the plucky luchador. Yusuke is actually the first to take to the air with a tope, attempting to outmatch Pantera in his specialty. But the challenger proves to be more than a one-dimensional flyer, using some mat wrestling before an exchange of strikes that leads to a counter over-the-shoulder piledriver. Pantera shows the audience that he’s more than a foreigner bringing in a new style – he’s also a Japanese wrestler who’s adapted to his surroundings.

But none of this is enough to put away Kodama. Finally, Pantera goes up to high flying, attempting a tumbling senton off the top rope. Kodama scrambles out of the way, and the hero crashes and burns. Yusuke eventually wins with a frog splash. Pantera lies on the canvas for a good while, twitching uncomfortably. The beast had been slain – and his adopted fans may have wondered if he would ever rise again.

For the next six months, Pantera spends his time mostly in undercard tags. He challenges unsuccessfully for the Wrestle-1 tag titles, the championship of a distaff division made mostly up of temporary alliances between heavyweights and juniors. In the meantime, Kodama loses the title to a recovered Yoshioka, but his title reign is quickly ended after a shock victory by Andy Wu. In August, Pantera wins a three-way match to once again put himself in the number one contender’s position. He challenges Wu at Pro Wrestling Love, the other big yearly Yokohama Bunka show. Once again, the outsider is tasked with representing the junior division on the promotion’s biggest occasion – and this time, he vows not to come up short.

Going into the match, one might have expected a different dynamic to Pantera’s matches against the villainous Yoshioka and Kodama. This would be a battle between masked babyfaces – one a direct descendant of lucha libre tradition, another clearly inspired by it. Wu was even Pantera’s second for his title challenge six months prior. Early on, Pantera goes for a lucha-style handspring off the ropes, but Wu cuts him off with a dropkick, showing that he’s done his research. When the luchador retreats to the floor, Wu catches him out there with a DDT and gestures to the ring. The message is clear: the new champion is willing to escalate things just as much as Pantera was.

From there, a curious thing seems to happen. As Pantera clutches his jammed neck, Andy Wu starts acting a lot like the dirtbag champions who have come before him. He tosses the referee aside to continue attacking the neck, and drives the luchador’s masked head into the turnbuckle. The bulk of the crowd cheers and chants go to Pantera. He attempts to rally, but the neck is still obviously bothering him. When he goes for power moves like a spinebuster, there’s an obvious strain to it. Wu uses a headscissors, and for a moment the fans buy into this ordinary hold being the potential end.

The final stretch of the match is the kind of escalation in big moves which Pantera had become such an expert in. He hits a sunset flip powerbomb to the floor, one whose slowness actually makes it look more brutal, and the suicide senton that broke Yoshioka’s nose. Wu responds in kind, with a rana and a Spansih fly both off the top rope. When he goes for his high-risk moves, Andy Wu tries to rally the crowd, but they seem reluctant, still emotionally committed to the Mexican. Pantera responds with grit, and a series of high-impact maneuvers. Finally, he gets the win with a Styles Clash, still one of the most feared moves in Japan.

As his music plays, Pantera lays his belt on the ground, and bows to the audience, symbolically dedicating his victory to them. The nomad, the outsider turned favorite, has now become champion.

Champion

Later that night at Pro Wrestling Love, Daiki Inaba wins the W-1 Heavyweight Title, finally ending the reign of Stronghearts’ T-Hawk. Inaba is positioned to become a new fan favorite, perhaps a new ace – but he sustains an injury in the match, and is out until the end of the year. This makes Pantera functionally the top singles champion in Wrestle-1. On the promotion’s tape-delayed GAORA TV broadcast, the junior title matches are now longer, shown in full, complete with ring entrances. There’s an added weight to the title matches, rooted in the sense of danger that Pantera brings.

The luchador’s first two title defenses follow a similar pattern. In September, just three weeks after winning the belt, he defends against Jun Tonsho, a clean-cut up-and-comer who earned the affection of the W-1 audience after being saddled with the name “Jun Tondokoro” by CIMA. His second defense, a month later, came against MAZADA, the same man whose hair he took years earlier. It is perhaps the most heavyset junior title match I’ve ever seen.

Both challengers were typically fan favorites, but like Andy Wu before them, they behave in an unusually villainous manner. Tonsho dropkicks Pantera as his back is turned during his entrance, and tears at his mask, the classic signal of disrespect to a luchador. MAZADA suckers him in with the classic heel handshake-turned-boot-to-the-gut and later attempts to pin him with one finger. Neither man, no matter how popular under normal circumstances, has any chance of being the fan-favorite against the luchador, so they feel free to let their more villainous side out.

In both matches, Pantera responds to these dirty tactics by escalating his moves, employing daring high-flying like a senton off the ring steps against Tonsho or a picture-perfect moonsault off the apron against MAZADA. He’s able to finish off Tonsho with a Styles Clash off the bottom rope, an elevated version of the maneuver that won him the title. This doesn’t work against MAZADA, so he’s forced to add a top-rope moonsault. Rather than having a single reliable finisher, Pantera is forced into constantly elevating things, going to greater and greater lengths to win and later hold onto his title.

At the November Korakuen Hall, there’s a special showcase for the Pantera family. El Hijo del Pantera teams with the original Pantera and Pantera Jr – his father and brother, at least if names are to be believed. They’re also accompanied by two kids wearing Pantera masks, possibly other family members. It’s a symbolic recognition of El Hijo’s accomplishments in Japan. As the champion, he is finally able to bring his family over, and show them what he has built on the other side of the Pacific. Pantera Sr. gets the win, and the celebration feels like it can go all night.




The End of the Road

But in wrestling, as in life, a story with a happy ending is only one that cuts out early. The family reunion is interrupted by Seiki Yoshioka, who challenges El Hijo by ripping off his mask in front of his family. El Hijo del Pantera now finds himself forced to defend against the man he had scarred, but never beaten, with his family’s honor on the line.

El Hijo del Pantera’s defense against Yoshioka takes place on Wrestle-1’s final show of the year, a day after Christmas. From the opening bell, it stands out as stiffer and more intense than his previous defenses. Pantera invites Yoshioka to kick him in the back, a sign of fighting spirit recognized all across Japan and beyond. They threaten some truly insane moves – a Styles Clash on the apron, a piledriver to the floor – but, in a rare show of restraint, don’t hit them.

Although Yoshioka is the most characteristically heelish opponent Pantera has had as part of the title reign, he doesn’t tear at the mask or bully his opponent in the way others do. It’s actually Pantera who starts heading down that road, choking out Yoshioka with his belt. Seiki also takes something out of his opponent’s playbook, with a silky quebrada to the outside.

Towards the end, Pantera tries his usual escalation of finishers, but nothing seems to get the job done. There’s a desperation in his motions, one felt by the audience. Yoshioka begins taking control with his own series of big moves: a poison rana, a Made in Japan that only gets 1. Finally comes the Crush Driver, the move that finished Pantera off. It visually resembles the Styles Clash that Pantera has been using as a finisher, another mark of the cruel symmetry of their rivalry. The referee’s hand drops once, twice, and the fatal third time. The miracle run is over.

A few months later, Wrestle-1 announces it will be suspending operations – not temporarily but indefinitely. Pantera’s home away from home, the place where a chubby Mexican could come and be a champion, is gone. He wrestles on their final show, first in a six-man tag where he, Wu and Tonsho are victorious over a Stronghearts team that includes CIMA and his nemesis Yoshioka, and then in a battle royale, the final ever W-1 match. He is the only foreigner to do so.

El Hijo del Pantera has since announced he will be returning to Mexico. Once things return to normal, he will most likely be wrestling in IWRG alongside his family. Whether his ultimate destination is there, back in Japan, or elsewhere, his unlikely, frenetic and hard-fought 2019 will echo in Korakuen Hall and the Yokohama Bunka for a long time.