A friend of mine has a young son. He’s very much a typical eight-year-old boy. He loves Pokemon, is permanently attached to a 3DS and would never tolerate carrots sticks with his Happy Meal. He’s polite, kind and would never purposefully offend anyone.

That’s why it was especially hurtful when he asked, in earnest, what it was like to have “TV without a choice.”  The idea that we, geriatric 30-somethings, had to sit and watch what we were told was incomprehensible. He saw what I perceive as regular television in the same way I perceive my great grandfather playing with a hoop and a stick.

Perhaps that’s why modern wrestling is often so overwhelming. I remember standing in newsagents reading PWIs and imagining what it would be like to be able to watch ECW. Now, in 2020, I have every ECW show ever filmed available at the press of a button and a documentary podcast to help me navigate it all. Those rumors of unearthly Mitsuharu Misawa matches?  I’ve got them all. I’ve got everything and I’ve got it right now.

I don’t have to worry about “TV without a choice” and I can now indulge in ridiculous deep-dives into the most obscure things. One of those is the progress of Tomoyuki Oka. Most people might be rewatching classics or rediscovering old favorites, but I’ve found it incredibly rewarding to go on a journey with a star prospect.

From Shinjuku Face To Korakuen

When whispers of Oka first started to circulate, it was with a rare reverence. He was signed years before he was able to start training because Takaaki Kidani and Yuji Nagata fell so deeply in love with his shoot credentials. He was one of the best amateur wrestlers in Japan, and for a short time, he was that lovely secret bundle of potential that puro nerds love.

He was finally revealed at the first Lion’s Gate Project show at Shinjuku Face – the thinking man’s Korakuen Hall. There was a very understated, almost juxtaposed pomp to his debut. He was wrestling in the grimiest venue, jerking the curtains of a C-Show, but there was enough to differentiate what was occurring as a special event. He was introduced by Nagata, mumbling into the mic like a drunken wedding DJ. He wasn’t wrestling in a match, but a bizarre exhibition where the audience was meant to be satisfied with a few holds. His head may have been shaved, but his singlet was an attempt at legitimization and differentiation. He was being presented outside of kayfabe so the wrestling nerd could scratch their chin and analyze the potential of this rumor.

Of course, all of these things applied to his opponent in the exhibition – Katsuya Kitamura. He was wearing the same singlet, but the similarities went beyond their outfits. They were both former amateur wrestling revelations, with similar records of success. In the match, they were both similarly out of breath, similarly exasperated by Nagata’s late hold-breaks and similarly average. Shoot achievements, while useful for building legitimacy, mean nothing and there was a worry that the mythical Oka wasn’t quite what was promised.

It was in their second meeting, under the same sheltered conditions, that the differences between the two started to appear. From similar beginnings came very different progression. It was not in Oka’s favor. Kitamura seemed to have realized what it means to be a pro-wrestler. He was by no means ready to wrestle at a proper show, but he moved with a bounce. Kitamura radiated the personality of a man who once claimed to have taken steroids “by accident” after being ruled out of the Olympic wrestling team for doping. Personally, I’ve never accidentally taken any controlled substances, but I’d enjoy a conversation with someone who has.

In a world where Oka seemed tipped to dominate, he was already overshadowed slightly in his preliminary outings. He may have been wearing the red singlet – statistically a representation of aggression, dominance and victory – but it was the ridiculousness of Kitamura that led the conversation.

All roads lead to Korakuen, and Oka made his full debut in Korakuen Hall at the end of January 2017. It was only a “Road To” show, but Korakuen Hall always seems to force a different mindset when watching. Most of the tickets sell directly to the members of the fan club, and it feels like a true wrestling crowd. They appreciate the skill of the performers, and pockets of them develop strong affinities for the Young Lions learning their craft before their eyes.

The crowd certainly understood the slight modulations in setting that made Oka feel special. He wasn’t debuting in a six-man, lost in a sea of black trunks. He got a singles match against Yuji Nagata.

There was an interest buzzing around Korakuen that seemed missing from other Young Lion debuts, but what made it interesting to me was that it completely inverted why I was supposed to care about Oka. I expected to see a grappler, but what I saw was a dork. He had an odd shape, like a barrel with spaghetti glued to the side. His offense was punctuated with huge stomps that felt barely controlled in the most glorious of ways. He runs around the ring with the flounder of a forced flight around the fields at school.

It was like he was a teenager that hadn’t yet realized just how big and strong he was.

The Young Lion Years

The majority of his time as a Young Lion was the same old song we, in our overexposed arrogance, have been accustomed to. It was an endless llist of singles defeats against more experienced wrestlers and losses in tag team matches to aid the larger story being told. There are, however, a few points of interest.

The first interesting point is the relationship he has with Kitamura. In tags, they drift together and apart – there’s no Finlay/White level rivalry here –  but when they face each other in a singles match, the result was inevitable. Five singles matches end with a ten-minute time limit draw, suggesting that perhaps New Japan themselves were having the same crisis of faith that I had back in Shinjuku Face. The intricacies of New Japan’s booking strategies started to become clear. They like the handsome young man. They want the crossover appeal that a gorgeous hunk of meat like Jay White and Okada bring. Oka’s movements are strange, like Frankenstein’s monster learning to manipulate his great strength. While I find that compelling, it needs an extra sprinkle of interest to make it headline-worthy. Kitamura, on the other hand, is a behemoth. The tidal wave of tan trickling down his torso creates such hypnotic smears that he’s impossible not to admire.

The Young Lion Cup seems like a great place to differentiate that crop of Young Lions. In a company where wins and losses are relevant, who performed well in the cup would appear to be a great indication of who the company is getting behind. But, like with all things New Japan, it isn’t that simple.

The final result is stark. Oka came in clear third by any metric. He was beaten twice – by Kitamura and Kawato – and both of those men finished first and second respectively. Both defeats are interesting matches.

Firstly, Kawato manages to beat Oka at his own game. Both wrestlers have developed a characteristic clumsiness. They have developed the kind of charm that being a bit odd can bring. Juxtaposing realistic imperfections in a roster of matinee idols is refreshing and captivating. Ishii is the prime example of this – he’s not the best wrestler (in the kayfabe sense) and the troll of a man certainly isn’t the best looking. But, I’m not the best at anything I do and I’m certainly not the best looking wrestling critic in England. He speaks to me in a way that the ethereal Tanahashi never can. In this particular battle of the weirdos, Kawato is the clear winner. The crowd are firmly behind him, especially the high-pitched teenage shriek that is so important to New Japan’s bottom line. Of course, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for Oka on the roster, but it does mean that he might not be the immense babyface they may have hoped.

The defeat is positioned as an upset – Oka momentarily outsmarted by the much smaller wrestler. Kawato was another wrestler who he was just unable to defeat – their two previous meetings ending in a draw. I love the image that came after, with Oka’s devastation mocked with a smarmy tap of the head from Kawato. It was a clear indication of what Oka lacks, and characters are driven by their weaknesses. Oka needed to smarten up.

Oka enters the final match of the final night of the tournament in a difficult position. If he defeats Kitamura, he forces a three way tie that would need a degree in mathematics to explain all the possible outcomes. I haven’t worked it out because it’s almost irrelevant. As much as we, as fans, make a big deal of ‘mathematically alive’ during these tournaments as we froth from our nerdy, excited mouths, they rarely matter in reality. Audiences need simple stories, and three-way ties just don’t fit into that.

The match was poetically placed in Shinjuku Face, and it perfectly highlighted how far these two wrestlers have come since the awkward cuddling of their debut. Kitamura had mastered the pose and the bounce, but Oka had learnt some lessons too. His determination seemed genuine, his focus seemed driven and he behaved like a genuine pro wrestler. The crowd reacted with huge chants of his name. Suddenly, Oka seems to have cracked that perfect imperfection that Kawato mastered so much earlier. He was sympathetic, flawed and real. Kitamura may flex when the referee checks him for foreign objects, but that’s good for a laugh that disappears into time. The emotion of a competitor battling up an almost impossible mountain is much more compelling.

An early strike exchange put Oka a step behind. The rattle from his chops just didn’t shake the walls, but Kitamura’s sounded like an earthquake. Oka took each and every one and asked for me. He was being beaten in body, but not in spirit. A mocking double lift on a body slam resonated so much more because of the way these men built their characters.

It was the shiny muscular mound of Kitamura that won the tournament, and I remember thinking that was the right choice at the time. I enjoyed Kitamura’s ridiculousness and his Goldberg cosplay. I don’t remember thinking anything about Oka. I took this loss as proof that he was destined to be the Goto of the new generation. A respectable career, but hardly the blazing trail that many expected back at the start. Kitamura would set off on the seven-match series and look shiny and tanned in the spotlight that it would bring. But what about Oka?

I shouldn’t have dismissed him so easily. Oka already had his seven-match series. In fact, he’d had quite a bit more than that. He’d had forty-five singles matches as a Young Lion. Kitamura?  Twenty-two. Oka wrestled double the amount of singles matches of his rival. It isn’t just the amount that stands out, but the opponents too. Oka consistently battled the likes of Kojima, Nakanishi and Nagata. In retrospect, it might not seem like a mega push but it’s definitely a slow bubble. It was a genuine training. Context is important, and Kitamura being older and arguably more unreliable meant he was the right choice to win the cup at the time.

Off On Excursion

The excursion is such a wonderful idea in its simplicity and effectiveness. Young wrestlers spend months of being stripped to nothing but a shaved head and black trunks, wrestling with nothing but a few simple moves. They learn where to put their feet, when to start a crescendo and how to tell a story with nothing but wrestling moves. Then, it’s off to a partner promotion to learn to wrestle in character. It’s a chance for insular reflection; a way for young wrestlers to explore movesets, characters and ethos in a low stakes environment.

Oka got on the plane to the UK and aligned himself with Rev Pro. His debut was at the Strong Style Evolved event – two shows over a weekend in Milton Keynes and Manchester. He was billed as the ethereal Question Mark. I was at the second show in Manchester and remember Oka’s entrance vividly.

I didn’t know who he was.

I spoke to my non-fan friend who was gracious enough to accompany me, and expressed my confusion. A stranger in front of me took it upon himself to do the shocked sneer that British fans do so well as he turned to tell me it was “obviously Oka.”

Except, I maintain that it wasn’t “obviously Oka.”  He’d taken on “The Dominator” Great O-Kharn gimmick, essentially a Mongolian warrior.

The gimmick itself is valid, but it wasn’t presented in the subtle way that it needed to be successful. It didn’t use aesthetics and attitude to hint at something familiar. For example, Goto’s look and attitude references the samurai warrior. It tells us so much about Goto, but doesn’t hit us in the face.

The Great O-Kharn was a pantomime baddie with a napkin over his face. He moved his arms like a teenage drama student in their first mime class. He stumbled around like he had watered down his parent’s vodka and taken to the streets in that first drunken high we all experienced as teenagers. To be less poetic, it was fucking weird. Where was the confused, determined monster that lost the Young Lion Cup?

The character that O-Kharn displayed in these early matches was the story equivalent of the Boston crab. It was handshake betrayals, rakes to the eyes and maniacal facial expressions. While the excursion is clearly the place to experiment, this felt like a downgrade from the basic Young Lion character Oka had started to truly understand.

RevPro did the only thing they could with a man who calls himself The Dominator and pushed him to the moon. He spent the rest of 2018 collecting victory after victory, but there was always something missing. It seems unfair to pick holes in someone who was in such an early stage of their career, but the gimmick was so bad it was almost offensive. It was wacky, and wacky is very difficult to do in professional wrestling. For every Hiromu, there are ten Lucky Kids. The gimmick infested the work, and the prestige of a win against a veteran such as Martin Kirby was lost in the sluggish pace of the offense. The year was 2018, and Mongolian chops just didn’t cut it. Technically, it was fine. His feet always seemed to be in the right place eventually, but his heart never was.

The Dominator needed someone to show him how to harness the gimmick, and develop the soul that he so desperately needed. Nagata may have helped him control his wild limbs, but he needed a mentor with equal, yet very different genius.

That man was perhaps one of the most underrated characters in wrestling. Lord Gideon Gray, in the late 2010s, built up a body of work in RevPro that should have put him in contention for “Best On Interviews.”  He is the Rik Mayall of professional wrestling, maniacally screaming his way around a promo with unheard-of condescension for his audience. He starts off at an unbelievable volume, and lets his words crescendo until his eyes are separated from their sockets and his bald head is a deep, breathless maroon. His cheap, off the rack Marks and Spencer suits contradict his self-awarded aristocratic title. He’s captivating, but more importantly, has the Midas touch. If anyone could turn Great O-Kharn into gold, it was Lord Gideon Grey.

O-Kharn joined Gideon’s Legion of Lords in September 2018 and the victories continued.   The work improved slightly – he developed an actual finisher instead of a weak Mongolian chop – but it was the change of setting that heralded the improvement. The gimmick made sense now it was linked to Grey. It didn’t jar with expectations like it did when I expected serious, New Japan dojo graduate Oka. He may have debuted a few months earlier, but it was in the pairing with Grey that the excursion really started.

Unfortunately, Grey couldn’t really improve the quality of his work. The character still wasn’t good, but it was improving. The in-ring work was stagnant. He wrestled the same match with the diminutive Kurtis Chapman as he did with the monstrous Mark Davis. It’s harsh to judge a wrestler on excursion in terms of star ratings, but he showed a constant aversion to taking any risks. He didn’t seem to embrace the opportunity of wrestling a wide variety of opponents, and instead opted for the same match structure every time.

Luckily, we had Lord Gideon Grey to save the day once again. He flounced to the ring at Global Wars – a New Japan/Rev Pro crossover event – and spun his way into the ring wearing a suit that didn’t quite match his waistcoat and shoes. He was a perfect manifestation of that awful upper-middle class of Britishness. He reminded me of the kids at Games Workshop, their teeth barely able to fit inside their heads, who could buy all the cool figures I could only dream of. Cagematch could tell me that Great O-Kharn was undefeated, but it was Gideon Grey screaming it over and over that made me really believe it. He was kicking Rishi Ghosh out of the Legion, and O-Kharn was taking his place.

The match at Global Wars was the first time since the Young Lion Cup that my interest in Oka’s win/loss record went beyond mere curiosity. I wanted Rishi Ghosh to win, as I felt his pain at being usurped by the shiny new toy of O-Kharn. The pairing of O-Kharn and Grey was as hateable as it was captivating.

The wins kept coming, and so did Gideon Grey’s manic screams of “undefeated” and as with any serious promotion this meant title opportunities. Before that, however, was probably the biggest test of his career so far. He was booked on the New Beginning in USA shows in singles matches against Tracer X and Harlem Bravado.

There would be no Gideon Grey here and I’m not sure it would have worked with an American audience anyway. Gideon Grey’s persona is so deeply embedded in a very particular British curiosity that the subtleties may have been lost. Also, O-Kharn had done the majority of his wrestling in venues like the Cockpit, which in many ways is more Korakuen than Korakuen. It’s the nerdiest of venues, filled with a small yet intensely passionate crowd. These shows were bigger, and while Grey got O-Kharn over in York Hall, The Dominator was on his own here.

As always, O-Kharn’s failure to take risks took prominence. He had the same match that he’d been having for months. Without the safety net of the Ghosh feud and his mouthpiece Grey, he sought solace in the same old match structure and the same old offense. I don’t think these shows were significant for many fans other than those in attendance, but it felt like another example of O-Kharn’s nervousness and uncertainty holding him back.

The gimmick, while improving, still wasn’t working on the level it needed to. Oka was at his most captivating after his losses in the Young Lion Cup. Ironically, he was at his best when he was dominated, not the Dominator. He was able to portray that attempted climb up the impossible mountain with mastery that contradicted his lack of experience, but in RevPro he was positioned as the mountain. He couldn’t quite do it, and he certainly couldn’t do it stumbling to the ring like he was drunk on cheap cider with a napkin over his face.

After a few months hiatus, it was time for Great O-Kharn to battle for tag team gold. His partner, however, was not the insidious Grey but the just-as-underrated Rampage Brown. A British mainstay, the humongous Yorkshireman never quite elevated himself beyond Progress upper-midcard but he’s a stunning talent. He has a size and power that is often missing from independent wrestling, and if anyone could teach the Dominator to actually dominate it was Rampage Brown.

The Mongolian chops were still there, but it was another example of how adjusting positioning slightly can be so effective. O-Kharn’s hair and beard were wild, and pairing him with the horrendous unstoppable brutality of Rampage Brown started to work. Add the charismatic Sha Samuels at ringside, and suddenly there was a stable of very different wrestlers that seemed to work perfectly. Rather than having O-Kharn as the focus, he could stand with three established characters whose qualities he needed to learn. He needed the power of Rampage and the charisma of Sha and Grey. They won the tag team titles in Southampton in a match that, while not impressive from a star ratings perspective, was finally dominant. The pauses in O-Kharn’s work didn’t seem to last forever, and it felt like the work was coming much more naturally to him than it ever had before.

This was compounded at the next York Hall show, where the Rev Pro champions beat the Southside champions to unify the titles. The napkin was gone, and O-Kharn walked to the ring like he was going to murder his opponents. He wasn’t prancing, miming or moonwalking. He was exuding the terrifying arrogance of a man that is convinced he could batter anyone in the room. While waiting for his opponents, he leaned on the ropes like a man who didn’t even need to bother warming up. It finally felt like the days of him falling back into the same old matches with the same old movements were behind him. He had really started to understand what being the Dominator was about. It wasn’t about some performative dance, it was about needing nothing more than a cape and a scowl.

The winning streak continued, but there’s an elephant in the room that I’ve been avoiding. O-Kharn has been able to embrace the gimmick that initially seemed like it would never fit. The silliness has gone, and he walks to the ring with a conviction that seemed impossible back at Strong Style Evolved.

The elephant?  His work isn’t very good. He’s still clumsy and plodding. The cogs in his mind are almost audible as he processes where he puts his feet. He’s clearly improved, but it has been baby steps. Like so many independent level wrestlers, he wrestles like a comic book – moving from one frame to the next – when he should be wrestling like a movie.

In many ways, 2020 should have been his year to find that final yet incredibly immense missing piece. Oka’s inspirational character improvements on his excursion have been incredibly impressive but he’ll be swallowed up in New Japan. It’s impossible to put time scales on anything with coronavirus, but with Shota Umino now in RevPro on his own excursion, I would expect that his call-up can’t be far away.  My expectations for him before the excursion would have been Goto level gatekeeper, which is a fantastic position that most wrestlers would be happy with. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen anything that would make me think he’s anywhere near capable of the five-star matches Goto has. It’s an intimidating comparison, but that’s the company he will be in when he returns.

I’ll be watching Oka very closely when wrestling gets going again, and I’m enjoying the see-sawing conflict that he brings. He can convince you he’s turned a corner on one show and be right back to square one the next. It’s an almost literal demonstration of what progress in real life looks like. It’s not a straight line with constant improvements, but a wavy, messy squiggle. I just hope it’s all trending upwards for him.