To tell this story, we are going to have to go back a little bit. Not a lot, but in order to talk about the best feud in the world for the year 2020, we need to talk about how Dragongate ended their 2019.

Kaito Ishida

Kaito Ishida won the Open the Brave Gate Championship in his hometown of Osaka at Gate of Destiny 2019 on November 4, 2019. It’s his first title victory, but it took him almost four years exactly to finally claim a championship. It took Ishida his eighth title shot, while watching wrestlers of his generation, and later, already find title success. Other than an extended break due to a neck injury, Kaito Ishida became a wrestler that Dragongate could count on: the saying goes that “you always need ditch diggers,” and Ishida was a really good ditch digger. 

Meanwhile, the leader of R.E.D—Eita—spent the fall teasing two new members of the heel group by having people in redwork suits at ringside, and a green or red demon mask. This was to shake up the roster, and to provide R.E.D. much needed enforcement after Ben-K’s face turn and the end of PAC’s most recent tenure in the company. On December 4, 2019, Kaito Ishida revealed that he was the green masked demon, citing that he was tired of his former teammates Masato Yoshino and Naruki Doi having Ultimo Dragon around to face R.E.D.

Since turning heel and becoming Brave Gate champion, Kaito Ishida was a revelation. As a face, Ishida was solid but nondescript. A perfect young guy to attach to DoiYoshi and not overshadow them and take falls in bigger matches. As a heel, Ishida is something else. He takes more after Eita than other members of R.E.D, and is constantly scheming and taking glee in tormenting the rest of the roster. As a joke, I’ve often described him as a serial killer, because right now Kaito Ishida the wrestler is someone that I’d not be surprised if he had some bodies buried somewhere. As a champion, the character change and confidence Ishida carries himself with has taken him to the next level. 

Whenever this Brave reign comes to a close, Ishida’s tenure will be up there with PAC’s & Flamita’s first reign as one of the best in the title’s history. 

Keisuke Okuda

Keisuke Okuda joined Dragongate in May of 2019 after spending the first nine years of his career as an independent most notably in IGF & DDT along with time spent as a kickboxer. A teenage friend of Ben-K, Okuda quickly gelled as a member of the roster, and was extended an invite and joined Mochizuki Dojo after two months within the company. With Mochizuki Dojo, Keisuke Okuda has been a great addition to the roster and the role well until the unit was dissolved (even though Mocchy claimed Dojo wasn’t an unit, it was treated as one through its lifespan) and joined his best friend in the Dragongate Generation in 2020.

The Feud Begins

As early 2020 went along in the Three-Way Generation War, Ishida and Okuda constantly found themselves coming to blows. It wasn’t just cross-unit attacks in the early going. Okuda was out for blood, and Ishida was more than willing to mix it up with the former kickboxer. After Kaito Ishida’s second defense of the Brave Gate against Genki Horiguchi at Champion Gate on February 29, their sights were solely set on each other and the only conclusion would be an all-out war.

As COVID-19 has touched every facet of life in 2020, Dragongate also had to adapt to these circumstances. The last shows that were held with full crowds and before a quarantine were the Champion Gate events. Dragongate would close their doors for three weeks before having a set of empty arena shows at their hometown Kobe Sambo Hall venue, the first being on March 22. In some ways, Dragongate innovated what wrestling shows could be in this era. No fans, of course, but for an audience Dragongate had the Toryumon and Dragongate Generation units act as fans along with the unaligned wrestlers.

That set the stage for something normal that feels remarkable in hindsight.

During the main event of the first empty Sambo Hall show the R.E.D. team of Ishida, Eita and Big R Shimizu faced off against the DG-gun team of Kzy, Dragon Dia, and Yosuke Santa Maria. As Case Lowe talked about in his review, the whole show was building to some brawl and it erupted because Keisuke Okuda, at ringside, pulled out Kaito Ishida and the two exploded over the empty hall.

Dragongate came back to an empty Sambo Hall on April 4 and they put Okuda and Ishida on opposite sides of the semi-main event. As expected, this match between RED and DG-gun broke down. People were brawling all over the arena and Ishida and Okuda started throwing barricades around. The match was declared a no contest, which no big surprise there, but this feud already found ways to bend itself to the circumstances of the era.

If no fans are around, the whole venue becomes a playground. If Okuda wanted to sling Ishida into the wall, he could. If they wanted to pick up and throw barricades, have at it. A lot of promotions during their empty arena period used the environment as a constraint. Too much silence, and stalling, and not adapting. Dragongate initially didn’t. They found a way that Okuda and Ishida could thrive. 

Things would become even more constrained for the wrestling industry and Dragongate as we moved into May and June. Dragongate did not just go behind closed doors, like they were in Kobe Sambo Hall, but instead, they went entirely to a pretaped model in their tiny Lapis Hall venue. Over May and June, they’d release matches weekly in the very restricted confines of this venue that usually held sixty or seventy fans without seats. Through these months, DG would hold their King of Gate tournament, the biggest tournament of their year, and a “tour” of shows the next month.

The King of Gate tournament has had a flexible format over the years. Dating back to Toryumon’s El Numero Uno, they would have a standard league round robin and then knockouts. When Toryumon became Dragon Gate, they moved initially into a pure knockout format for King of Gate. In time that changed to a four-block league then knockouts. For 2020, King of Gate would be a 24 wrestler single-elimination knockout tournament where a battle royal would decide a fourth semifinalist amongst eliminated wrestlers.

As fate would have it, Keisuke Okuda and Kaito Ishida were placed in the same bracket for King of Gate. After Okuda dispatched BXB Hulk and Ishida defeated his former partner Jason Lee, these two men would have their first singles matchup in the tournament’s second round. The true war has begun.

In one of the shortest matches of the tournament the two exploded into each other, but Kaito Ishida was the victor via count out. The opportunist was able to draw Okuda outside and slid back into the ring at 18. The match only went six minutes but it was a feast of elbows, knees and tight striking. They adapted their brawling formula to the smaller environment perfectly. Six minutes was the right amount of time for empty arena wrestling that wouldn’t have a clean finish. No stalling. No drawing things out. The two just fought. 

Undeterred from this setback, Keisuke Okuda would challenge Ishida for the Brave Gate for the Rainbow Gate tour. There was no good conclusion to this feud, it would have to rage on again and Okuda would try to not only defeat his rival definitively, but he’d take the title belt. The same title belt that Kaito Ishida took his entire career to get.

The June 21 release of Rainbow Gate matches featured the Open the Brave Gate match between the two. Given more of a showcase as the main event of the release, Keisuke Okuda and Kaito Ishida went nearly a quarter-hour until Ishida made his third successful defense of the Brave Gate after countless interference from R.E.D.

The serial killer always had these tricks up his sleeve. Ishida was rent-free in Okuda’s head and through typical Dragongate heel shenanigans, he put away his rival. For now, Ishida vanquished his rival and Okuda couldn’t overcome the deck that Kaito Ishida had stacked up against him. That’s not the conclusion of this feud, however, as in July Dragongate would return to touring and the feud of the year would take a different complexion.

The first set of shows for Dragongate’s return to crowds were the Hopeful Gate shows in Kyoto on July 4th and 5th. Ishida and Okuda would be opposite sides of a tag team match on the 4th where miscommunication between Keisuke Okuda and Jason Lee allowed the R.E.D. win. The next night the feud turned over on itself as Okuda would have a singles match with Toryumon Generation member Genki Horiguchi.

As this singles match got underway, Kaito Ishida crept his way ringside. This clearly threw Okuda off his game, and Genki Horiguchi was able to capitalize with his Backslide from Heaven. Ishida saw this happen, and hopped onto the apron to distract the ref and then Horiguchi and Okuda took advantage to win the match. Kaito Ishida was clearly recruiting Okuda. The rivalry turned into an obsession and he wanted Okuda to abandon Ben-K and join R.E.D. 

In doing this, Kaito Ishida made the angriest man in Dragongate, Keisuke Okuda, lose his mind.

Over the summer and fall, their paths diverged a bit.

As a champion with a return to touring, Ishida defended the Brave Gate against Yosuke Santa Maria at Dangerous Gate on September 21. It was full steam ahead for The Kick Boy. Things were a lot more harried and confused for Okuda. He was fully breaking. He had no interest in celebrating or being friendly with his Dragongate Generation teammates. After each match, win or lose, Okuda would rip and throw off his MMA gloves and storm to the back. If there was any miscommunications, he would snap. Even Ben-K, his best friend, caught the brunt of this as Okuda would start shoving and trying to fight with him.

It didn’t make things easier for their relationship when a new Demon Mask appeared this fall. It was yellow and everyone in the promotion thought it was Keisuke Okuda. Even Ben-K thought it was his best friend. There were times that DG-gun and R.E.D. were at ringside, but Okuda was nowhere to be seen and Yellow Demon Mask was slinking around. After a few weeks of this, Kaito Ishida stated that Yellow Demon Mask would be revealed on October 7 in Korakuen. It just so happened that the main event for that show would be the Dragongate Generation team of Ben-K, Kzy, YAMATO & Kota Minoura would be up against R.E.D.’s Kaito Ishida, Eita, BXB Hulk & KAI. 

The weeks of speculation came to a head in the final moments of this eight-man tag. Yellow Demon Mask jumped into the ring and unmasked. It was Keisuke Okuda all along. Usually this would be a situation of one the big Dragongate bait-and-switches. They’d get everyone thinking that a Dr Muscle or Demon Mask is one person, and then it’s revealed to be someone else all the while. This time everyone was right. Keisuke Okuda was Yellow Demon Mask.

It wasn’t a double agent situation this time. It was a triple agent. Keisuke Okuda was feigning that he was having a breakdown and losing it against his teammates. He would deny that Ishida was drafting him into R.E.D. to be Yellow Mask Demon. Except he was the masked character, and it was all a ploy to turn Kaito Ishida’s machinations against him. For months of 2020, Ishida had Okuda’s number and was one step ahead of Mr. Danger Zone. 

It was the meathead hypebeast always angry MMA fighter who pulled the fast one on the mastermind serial killer.

After Korakuen the conclusion to the feud of 2020 was set. It’s at The Gate of Destiny on November 3. The same building where Ishida won the Brave Gate last year. All the twists and bumps in the road lead us back to Osaka. 

The Best Feud of 2020

So why is this feud the best feud in 2020?

Put simply, no promotion has adapted to the troubles of 2020 and COVID-19 like Dragongate, and no feud understood the changing environment as much as Ishida vs Okuda. It’d be easy to just stay the course and run wrestling the way it’s always been run right now. Nearly every promotion in the world is grasping for that sense of normalcy, and it’s through this flailing that wrestling has become even more of a reminder of the bad year in which we are living.

Dragongate acknowledged the times, was flexible, and stayed true to a course that created one of my favorite feuds of recent memories. You couldn’t have an all out arena brawl if six hundred people were in Kobe Sambo Hall. Elbows and kicks don’t land with a sickening thud in an empty big arena. Raw displays of emotion can’t work if people aren’t invested. Kaito Ishida and Keisuke Okuda took people on a ride throughout 2020 and it ends back where it started at Edion Arena Osaka.

No one else in the world can put together a feud like this, and that’s why it’s the prohibitive best feud in the world for 2020.

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