It’s easy to lose sight of consistency and tenure in a division like New Japan’s Jr. division.
It is a division of violent insanity, aerial spectacle, and technical mastery being displayed by some of the greatest wrestlers in the world at any given time. It’s easy to watch this and focus on what is going on at the top of the card in New Japan. It’s easy to focus on the Will Ospreays of the world or the Hiromu Takahashis because they’re dynamic performers who get lots of hype for their in-ring contributions and yet, soon enough they’ll be moving to Heavyweight and leave the Jr. division behind. Make no mistake, these two are absolutely worthy of the attention they receive, but I maintain my initial point that there is something to be said for consistency.
Rocky Romero has had a long career and has provided plenty of quality matches and moments to the New Japan brand. On top of these in-ring contributions which are more obvious, Rocky has done a tremendous job paying it forward with his contributions to the company out of the ring, and by helping to bring in the next generation of talent. As a commentator, talent liaison, trainer, manager, and in-ring performer with credibility to the Japanese audience Rocky is one of the most valuable talents New Japan has on their roster.
This article will attempt to highlight Rocky’s career in New Japan and outline the scope of his contributions to the greatest wrestling promotion on Earth in one of its flagship divisions.
The Black Tiger is an important character in Japanese wrestling lore and it has at various times in history been used as the ultimate antithesis to Tiger Mask and other junior babyfaces.
The role has been played by genuine legends such as Mark Rocco, Eddie Guerrero, Dr. Wagoner Jr, and in 2005 the role was filled by a 22-year old Rocky Romero. It’s quite difficult to find matches from this time frame legally, and even illegally it’s a bit of a struggle but there were several matches of note from this period. The first one worth noting is Rocky’s first title win which took place at NJPW Toukon Souzou New Chapter on October 8, 2005. Rocky was still a spry 22 years old when he defeated Tiger Mask IV with a tombstone piledriver in a match that received positive reviews from Dave Meltzer and other sources. This would be the beginning of a rivalry that spanned nearly four years, and a title reign that would last about four months until his next match with Tiger Mask IV.
This match served as a framework for the continuation of their feud long-term. Rocky wrestled several more matches as Black Tiger, brushing elbows with some of the greatest junior heavyweights to ever lace boots and he never really felt out of place among them. He even participated in the 2006 Best of the Super Juniors tournament, scoring four points and a defeat over future IWGP Intercontinental champion Hirooki Goto in the process. Rocky would continue to play this character off and on in the coming years before a riveting culmination to his feud with Tiger Mask IV would see an end to his time as the Black Tiger.
On April 5, 2009, Rocky Romero wrestled as Black Tiger for the last time in a mask vs title match with Tiger Mask IV. The difference between this match and their previous matches is pretty drastic in my opinion, and it was easily my favorite of the bunch. Rocky wrestled a clean match where he was able to showcase newfound crispness to his already solid work. His kicks were better, the pace of the match itself much faster than the ones that occurred four years prior, and by the end of the match, the crowd was invested!
When Romero took his mask off, it began a new portion of his career. It was the time of the Jr. Tag Ace, Rocky Romero.
Rocky Romero: Jr. Tag Ace
Rocky Romero has won the Jr. Tag title no fewer than 48 times. His Wikipedia page may say eight times, but there was a time in history where he and those belts were inseparable. Rocky has been involved in some of the greatest Jr. tag feuds in New Japan history, with a plethora of different tag partners and opponents. Rocky has won the Jr. tag belts with three different partners and did so at least twice with all three teams. This on its own is an interesting accolade worthy of praise, but what I find to be the most interesting about it is how unique each team truly was. No one would ever confuse the Forever Hooligans with No Remorse Corps, nor either of those two teams with Roppongi Vice and yet in all three instances the glue keeping those teams together was none other than one Rocky Romero.
Starting from the beginning, Rocky formed the No Remorse Corps with Davey Richards and their feud with Apollo 55 is genuinely a delight to watch. No Remorse Corps fit their namesake to a T, they were a no-nonsense tag team looking to beat the shit out of you with stiff violent offense and an extremely quick pace that only the best Jrs. could hope to keep up with. It’s genuinely hard to stand out in the Jr. division where parity and variety are some of its trademarks, but Rocky and Davey found a way to do it in spite of the odds. If you get the chance and are new to NJPW and to Rocky himself, I encourage you to go back and watch any of their matches with Apollo 55. I personally recommend the Destruction match from 2011 where No Remorse Corps won the belts, call it a bit of bias if you’d like but that match is great and you should seek it out if you’ve never seen it before.
I’m not even going to bother prefacing this before telling you that the Forever Hooligans fucking own. If you don’t like the Forever Hooligans tag team we will never see eye to eye on anything, because they are my favorite Jr. tag team by a pretty wide margin. Alex Koslov and Rocky Romero embodied the Japanese Jr. style with high octane offense, lots of speed, and fantastic coordination all in one package. It’s very hard to pin down a trademark feud for this tag team as their work with the Young Bucks, the Time Splitters, and even ReDragon all stand out as top quality stuff that has aged like wine. For most tag teams, I would always recommend a trademark feud as I did above with the No Remorse Corps. For Forever Hooligans? Pick a match with any of the teams mentioned above and let your mind get blown.
Roppongi Vice is Rocky’s most successful team in terms of title wins and probably served as an introduction to him for most modern New Japan viewers. If you were introduced to Rocky Romero through the Jr. tag feud between Roppongi Vice and the Young Bucks, you probably already realize that this tag team was great. It’s interesting when watching this tag team that you can begin to notice Rocky subtly taking a backseat to Trent and the Young Bucks. Rocky was doing his best to put over the younger guys beneath him while working a completely different style than he did while being a part of the Forever Hooligans or the No Remorse Corps, and this unselfishness helped to kickstart a fairly successful singles run for Trent Baretta once the tag team broke up, and also helped to propel the Young Bucks into the conversation as one of the best Jr. tag teams New Japan had seen in a while.
Best of the Super Juniors 2019
Rocky’s fingerprints are all over the Jr. tag division.
The variety of styles and roles he filled during this decade-long period of time is truly something to take note of and to appreciate. This body of work on its own would be sufficient to mark him as one of the most accomplished junior heavyweights of all time, and I’ve only briefly touched on his singles work so far. When Rocky Romero participated in the BOSJ last year, he shocked everyone with just how good he still was 14 years after his first time winning the IWGP Jr. Championship belt. Even I found myself floored by the fact that Rocky Romero was able to keep up with younger mainstays of the Jr. Division like Will Ospreay, and what he did for El Phantasmo I think is beyond words.
Rocky Romero says his best finish to a match was when he defeated El Phantasmo in the B Block of Best of Super Juniors 26, 24th May 2019.
~https://t.co/lPaS8H4tK2#njpw #njpwworld #njpwtogether@azucarRoc @elpwrestling
(This was one of the best matches of 2019, watch it!!) pic.twitter.com/xNADkUIGO9
— Ciaràn (@CiaranRH) April 7, 2020
Rocky Romero is more responsible for getting El Phantasmo over than pretty much anyone else on the roster. If you haven’t watched their match from BOSJ last year I want you to open another tab and go watch that match. Rocky’s performance in this match as the scrappy underdog babyface is phenomenal stuff. Even from the beginning of the match, the story was told to perfection.
When Rocky gets his offense going, the crowd is behind him, practically willing him to victory if they can manage it and when ELP cuts that offense off and counters with his own? There is hope, there are cheers for Rocky and immediate reactions when he finally gets his offense off. There is a point in the match where when watching you feel as though the crowd is pushing Rocky on, the finishing stretch, in particular, has a molten Korakuen Crowd cheering on a surging Rocky and when El Phantasmo finally taps the eruption is amazing.
Some people might argue that Rocky putting up a fight and El Phantasmo winning in the end would’ve done more to get him over, but Rocky attached El Phantasmo to a positive moment that he can never be removed from. The fans in Korakuen Hall that night will never forget cheering their hearts out for the old plucky veteran they’d watched grow in front of their eyes. They’ll never forget the hope they had in willing him to victory, and they’ll never forget the catharsis at the end of the night when their cheers and hopes were answered. On top of all that, they will never forget who that match was against, and that is what Rocky did for El Phantasmo on that night. He helped transform what could have been a forgettable get the bad guy over match into something special, and it is moments like this that make Rocky one of my favorite wrestlers to watch. He’s a guy who can tell a compelling story and create a fantastic moment, and yet when he needs to turn the brain off and fly as he did in his match with Will Ospreay? He can keep up with the best of them.
Company Man Rocky
Most wrestlers would be content to rest on their laurels, but Rocky being one of the most unselfish performers in wrestling has continued to pay it forward. Rocky currently manages the best Jr. Tag team in Japan today in Roppongi 3k while also serving as a trainer at the LA Dojo.
If you watch NJPW Strong, you can even see him beginning to form unique relationships with some of the young wrestlers such as Adrien Quest, Karl Fredericks, and Danny Limelight. Rocky works on commentary, he does bomb-ass entrance tracks, and he’s now working on the next generation of stars for New Japan.
Accolades aside, Rocky is an important and irreplaceable part of the New Japan roster and canon. He has spent the vast majority of his career underrated and underappreciated at large, and perhaps as fans, it’s time we take note and make sure that the man gets his flowers.