JULY 4, 2020
KBS HALL – KYOTO, JAPAN
Watch: Dragon Gate Network
For the first time since the conclusion of Champion Gate weekend on February 29 and March 1, Dragongate returns to a scenario that we all took for granted for far too long. Under social distancing and COVID-19 guidelines, the company led a cavalry into Kyoto for a double shot in KBS Hall with fans. This show is the first of five dates DG has lined up this month for shows that will air with fans.
The DG guidelines can be found here.
We’ll obviously find out in a few weeks if their attempt to run shows with fans turned out to be a bad idea, but as of July 2, the Kyoto prefecture had only reported a total of 386 cases, give or take a few. The presentation of the show felt largely normal. There was about a chair’s length of distance between each patron and there appeared to be less rows of chairs than usual, but that is pure speculation on my behalf. For now, it appears DG made the necessary changes to welcome fans back to shows without altering the visual perception of the promotion too much. This was business as usual for DG, with the biggest changes being that everyone in the crowd was wearing a mask, there were no crowd calls, and no intermission. The lack of crowd calls is the most noticeable change, but it is a small sacrifice to pay in the current landscape.
KAGETORA DEF. HO HO LUN
It’s somewhat of a sick prank that DG decided to run a show with fans for the first time in months and the first guy out of the entryway is Ho Ho Lun. I just couldn’t, with a clear conscience, make that decision, but more power to them. Lun, for as awkward and clumsy as he was in the Cruiserweight Classic four years ago, has been proof that the Dragongate System is arguably the most successful wrestling system in the world. He’s not a superstar, nor will he ever be, but Ho Ho Lun’s improvements have been dramatic since he began touring with the promotion last November.
This match was the “dark match” on the card, so it offered largely nothing other than the first experience we had of what crowds sound like in a COVID-plagued universe. The lack of vocal reactions from the crowd gave the matches a PGA Tour-style vibe. The in-between is largely silent with big moves resulting in engaged, albeit subdued applause. Kagetora put Lun away, as expected, after a series of rollups. **1/2
KZY, BEN-K, & STRONG MACHINE J DEF. DRAGON KID, RYO SAITO, & ULTIMO DRAGON
Opening Match Ultimo is far more comforting than him being positioned at the top of the card. There’s no pressure for him to deliver in this spot, and given the fact that here he was positioned against workhorses in Ben-K and Kzy, it was a relatively simple night for the legend. The heavy lifting on the Toryumon side was done by Dragon Kid, who was unapologetically tossed around by the former Open the Dream Gate Champion, Ben-K, who is now clocking in around 253 lbs (115kg) after spending all of quarantine in the dojo.
When Dragon Kid wasn’t being thrown like a frisbee from end-to-end, he was on the receiving side of strikes thrown by Kzy, who continues to have some of the highest output among roster members. His moments in the match were the most exciting, save for a SaiRyo Rocket that was interrupted by a Ben-K spear. Strong Machine J lacked the spark his two partners provided and had a messy error when Ultimo Dragon attempted to Dragon Screw him. J’s faults for all for not as his side still managed to pick up the win thanks to a Running Uppercut on Saito. ***1/4
BXB HULK & DIAMANTE DEF. DRAGON DIA & PUNCH TOMINAGA
Optically, it is such a poor decision to put Punch Tominaga on the same team as Dragon Dia. When Dia tagged into this match, his first sequence of moves looked so major league and top-notch. Diamante has had his ups and downs during his time in the company, but he has found his calling as a base for both Dragon Kid and Dragon Dia. He gave Dia a platform to do whatever he wanted to do and the match was better for it as a result. Tominaga, on the other hand, who spent most of this match attempting (and failing) to connect with headbutts to BxB Hulk, is not exactly the house of fire that his partner is. I think I like Tominaga more than most, thus I will defend him by simply saying that it’s unfair and not nice to have him team with Dragongate’s fastest rising prospect.
The R.E.D. team merely existed outside of Diamante basing well. They were present enough to capture the win after Tominaga ate Diamante’s Vuelta Finale. **3/4
BIG R SHIMIZU VS. KOTA MINOURA
This match was supposed to be Shimizu squaring off against Yosuke Santa Maria in a first time ever singles match, but Maria suffered a minor shoulder injury while training and as a result, had to sit out tonight. Her spot was given to Kota Minoura, someone who had taken a number of losses to Big R Shimizu early in his career, although he did defeat the big man during a PRIME ZONE taping in December.
Minoura debuted new gear, ditching the long black tights for white and gold trunks that are similar to what newcomer Kento Kobune has worn. The new gear shows off Minoura’s physique well. He looks far more muscular and comes across far more menacing, but I do feel like he’s lost a touch of his originality now that he’s pivoted to new gear. He debuted in the all black trunks in 2018, but quickly gained enough steam to warrant getting his own personal gear. I’m not a fan of him, specifically, moving to a new look.
He and Shimizu wrestled to a 15-minute time limit draw in a match that was largely uninspiring for the first ten minutes, then brought enough fire and passion to make up for it in the final five. If there is an individual highlight in this bout, it’s Minoura bouncing up after a big Shimizu lariat to hit a Bridging German Suplex on the big man for a near-three count. That sequence looked great. The two ran out of time right as Minoura was starting to put together a string of moves that looked deadly enough to put Shimizu away. Minoura slapped the canvas out of frustration as the bell rang.
He gets a singles match against Susumu Yokosuka on the following show which gives him another platform to prove himself. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Shimizu and Minoura in the ring together. ***1/4
KAI & YAMATO DEF. MASAAKI MOCHIZUKI & SUSUMU YOKOSUKA
This match was purely fan service as there’s no canonical reason for Mochizuki to be teaming with Susumu given the current unit landscape. It’s the first team they’ve teamed together in a straight 2-on-2 tag since January 2018 when they were in the ring against Kzy and YAMATO, who squared off against them here as well.
This match was full of KAI doing and then acknowledging Great Muta tribute spots, which could be because Mochizuki is currently teaming with Muta in NOAH, or it could be because KAI is a lovable dork. I’m really not sure which it is. What I do know is that this match was another five-to-ten minutes away from being something great. Right as the gears were turning and YAMATO, in particular, was beginning to fire on all cylinders against his opponents, he caught the fifty-year-old with the Frankensteiner of the Almighty for the victory.
YAMATO’s empty arena work was so strong that it caused me to reevaluate my feelings on the wrestler. He was as good as anyone on this planet for the first half of this most recent decade, but I found everything after his climactic Dream Gate win in 2016 to be underwhelming. He became the undoubted face of the company, and yet I felt like he was coasting more often than not. He was the MVP of empty arena King of Gate, however, and his subsequent performances in Lapis Hall, which have been broken down on the Open the Voice Gate podcast, have been full of the energy and effort that I largely missed from him for a number of years. Did he and Mochizuki spend too much time intertwined in a figure leg lock in this match? Probably. But by the end of the match, when he began running around the ring with the poise of a true ace, it didn’t matter, because I was reminded of just how talented of a wrestler the man is. ***1/2
KAITO ISHIDA & KAZMA SAKAMOTO DEF. JASON LEE & KEISUKE OKUDA
There has been no better feud in wrestling this year than Kaito Ishida and Keisuke Okuda. The two have wanted to kill each other since the start of the year and while we’ve seen glimpses of what they’re capable of doing, first with a brawl around an empty Kobe Sambo Hall on March 22, a footnote match in their lengthy chapter on May 23, and then finally an empty arena showcase for Ishida’s Open the Brave Gate title on June 21, they have yet to have their landmark match in front of an audience that they deserve to have.
This, however, was not their peak. Okuda felt like a racehorse that never got out of the gate. He was largely neutralized, if not immobilized, by the R.E.D. combination. Jason Lee took the brunt of the beating from the R.E.D. side, and eventually got caught in friendly fire by way of Okuda’s errant roundhouse kick, which led to the Hong Kong native getting rolled up for the three. Dragongate seemingly lost months of plans due to COVID cancelling shows, but they have maintained a vision in regards to the Okuda vs. Ishida feud throughout all of this. It’s been great to see and I look forward to an eventual blowoff. This match is worth watching for the sake of their feud, but it remains a low point in their output thus far. ***
SHUJI KONDO, MASATO YOSHINO, & NARUKI DOI DEF. HYO, EITA, & TAKASHI YOSHIDA
As expected, “X” turned out to be Shuji Kondo, who had remained absent from the wrestling landscape since the closure of Wrestle-1 in April. Kondo’s reemergence to the company and subsequent announcement that he’ll be a regular player in the scene marks yet another major footnote in the constantly changing Dragongate culture. Kondo, the leader of the dominant heel unit Aagon Iisou, was let go from the company on New Year’s Eve 2004, along with the rest of his stablemates, most notably “brother” YASSHI and Takuya Sugawara, the latter of which returned to the company in 2016, while the former resided in the promotion for the entirety of 2010 before leaving once again.
Kondo was the first man to return as a part of Dragongate’s 20th Anniversary Commemorative Match Series in January 2019. His return was presumed to be the high point of the series until Ultimo Dragon’s return was teased, then later delivered in a match that Kondo was a part of at last year’s Kobe World. Before his singles match against Mochizuki last January, Kondo had remained entirely distant from the Dragon Gate roster. He found steady work in All Japan Pro Wrestling until he jumped ship to Wrestle-1 in 2013 and took part in both dragondoor and El Dorado, two Dragon System offshoots. Prior to his return to his true home promotion, however, he had only bumped into Dragongate wrestlers twice, once on GAORA 20th Anniversary Show in 2011 where he and Naruki Doi peppered each other with slaps to a nearly uncomfortable degree, and then once more in late 2018 at a J-Stage show, when Aagon Iisou squared off against Shingo Takagi-led ANTIAS stable, but by that point, DG had begun a massive cultural shift within the promotion.
Kondo’s return home marks yet another event that felt entirely out of the realm of possibility prior to May 2018. It could be due to President Kido’s new direction, a mix of personalities backstage leaving the company, time proving to heal all wounds, or a combination of the three, but the fact that Kondo will now reside in Dragongate should not be taken lightly. He was a major player in Toryumon and for numerous reasons, the Dragongate community did not get to see him wrestle during his prime years.
His role will either be fighting alongside the Toryumon Generation as he did in this match, or as many have predicted, his eventual turn to fight against them as a member of R.E.D. Whatever it is, I’m thrilled to see him back in the company, even if he’s a step slower than he used to be as he approaches age 43. This match was not on the same level that his tag match in February was at, but his interactions with Takashi Yoshida certainly piqued my interest. Kondo still has gas left in the tank. He proved it here by wiping HYO’s head off with a King Kong Lariat. It’s not the best match Kondo has had since he resurfaced with the promotion, but the fact that this match marks his first time as an official roster member, to me, files it under essential viewing. ***1/2
Hopeful Gate lived up to its name. This show made me hopeful about the future. Dragongate is now leading the charge in welcoming fans back to arenas under a safe and monitored environment, and while this show failed to reach the highs that so many Dragongate shows do, it was so comforting being able to sit back and immerse myself in a world where fans are attending professional wrestling shows. An easy, breezy watch, and one that I would encourage everyone to seek out on the Dragongate Network.