In Japanese pro wrestling, one of the most harrowing things a company endures is a generation shift. The stars that built your promotion grow old, take a step back, or retire, and the promotion’s existence often is at stake. Dating back to the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance that fell apart with the death of its owner/biggest star Rikiodozan, it is an incredibly stressful and dangerous time when companies move from their first generation of stars to who they hope will lead the company into future decades. It wasn’t just the way back when that promotions would fail in the generational shift: NOAH never had any of their trueborns be accepted to the level to carry the baton from Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and others. All Japan is a shell of itself, only truly making one star in over a decade in Kento Miyahara.
Now Dragongate is facing this difficult transition ahead of them, and it’s the story of this year’s Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival.
Dragongate is a peculiar promotion both in how it was developed in its time, and with how they draw fans. The initial appeal of Toryumon was younger attractive men that were smaller than the stars of the 90s and it targeted specifically younger women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. It was idol-style wrestling after AJW and the Crush Girls and before New Japan’s outreach towards women and the idol-style Joshi promotions of today. This gave Toryumon and later Dragon Gate more of a runway for their stars than NOAH faced as wrestlers like Dragon Kid, CIMA or Ryo Saito debuted in their early twenties and had long careers in their prime.
It’s now 2020, the system is in year 21 of its existence, and now those men have fewer days in front of them in the ring than they have behind them.
Masato Yoshino, the most popular man in the promotion for most of the last decade, has an imminent retirement ahead of him that only hasn’t happened yet because of COVID-19 granting him a four-month break to heal up his shredded neck and back.
It’s incredibly likely that Kobe Pro-Wrestling Festival 2025 will look drastically different from the card Dragongate will offer on Sunday. It will look like a completely different promotion by 2030.
This has been an issue hanging over DG’s head over the last few years. Some of the companies’ fans talk about it openly, I know I’ve written about it a bunch. Dragongate needed to have the next guys ready and their fans to be engaged with them so when the original Toryumon guys hung it up, they could shoulder the load.
This transition is something that has been ongoing as a “soft” switch over the last few years. In 2011-2013, the company had two incredibly long (for them) reigns up top with two of the biggest stars of their first era, CIMA and Masaaki Mochizuki. They would defend the Open the Dream Gate at nearly every big show against mostly members of a group colloquially called the Big Six, Yoshino, Naruki Doi, Shingo Takagi, BxB Hulk, Akira Tozawa & YAMATO. Four of these guys already had Dream Gate reigns before this time frame in 2008-2010, but the company noticed that attendance would drop for big shows if the card wasn’t loaded with them on top. So for CIMA and Mochizuki’s reign, they would have the Big Six either challenge them, or be all over the card in other ways. It became obvious what the company was doing: Dragon Gate was signaling to their fans “Hey! These guys aren’t on top yet, but they will be soon, so we hope you’re okay with it.” Since Shingo Takagi won the Dream Gate from CIMA at Kobe World 2013, there has only been ten months over the last seven years that someone older than the Big Six held the Dream Gate.
It’s not just the original era of the Dragon System coming to a close, the Big Six’s era is almost over. Yoshino will retire before Kobe World 2021. Takagi and Tozawa left the promotion and are unlikely to ever come back. Hulk’s body never recovered from the damage accumulated during his Dream Gate reign in 2014-2015. Doi and YAMATO will still be around, but they are either 40 (Doi) or staring down the barrel at it (YAMATO turns 40 in 2021).
So how does a company that’s in as precarious of a situation as one can solve this? How can Dragongate be ready to hand off the keys of the sports car to the next generation and let them take this wheel? You create the best dojo system in the world that brings you some of the most dynamic wrestlers in Japan under the age of 30, of course.
Kobe Pro-Wrestling Festival 2020 will be headlined by Eita (29) making his second defense of the Open the Dream Gate championship against a returning Shun Skywalker (24). This will be the second-youngest Kobe World main event of all-time, the youngest being 2008 with BxB Hulk (28 at 2008’s show) and Shingo Takagi (23). Like 2008, this will be both Eita and Shun’s first-ever Kobe World main event. It’s not just doing a young, untested Kobe World main event, each of the title matches has a significant youth element.
The semi main event is a 3-way Open the Triangle Gate match in which one of the champions is SB KENTo, formerly Kento Kobune, who debuted last December and only 20. The oldest member of the Dragongate Generation Triangle Gate challenge team is Ben-K at 29. The Twin Gate’s Dragongate Generation challenge team has Kota Minoura, who recently turned 22. The Brave Gate rivalry of Keisuke Okuda (29) versus Kaito Ishida (24) opens the show and is the worldwide feud of the year. Away from the title scene, one of the biggest matches on the show is the clash between Dragon Dia (22) and Dia Inferno (not confirmed, but most likely the wrestler portraying him is 26).
Most of the veterans and consistent stars in the promotion are removed from the title scene. The only members of the Big Six in a title match are Hulk and YAMATO in the Twin Gate. Yoshino, and Doi are in a trios match with a returning Toru Owashi. Dragon System legends like Masaaki Mochizuki, Susumu Yokosuka and Ultimo Dragon are in another match surrounded by veterans. The most prominent company legend will be Dragon Kid, and he’s in the Triangle Gate match with eight other people.
This is all a payoff for how Dragongate views training and how they handle rookies. With the exception of Joshi, which operates on an entirely different time frame for its wrestlers than the rest of the wrestling world, no one in major wrestling is willing to go this hard on a youth movement. Part of that is how Dragongate trains and prepares their rookies.
There’s really not a sense of “Young Lions” on modern DG cards. Some of this is a symptom of the times, absolutely, but the majority of this is the training of the young generation of Dragongate and the faith the company has in its youngsters. For the current generation of the young generation (I’m going to delineate this with everything past May 2018 for obvious reasons), a lot of the trappings of the past have been gone. It’s very rare for a rookie to debut without a gimmick or in the black shorts that DG would have in the past. They will have that black shorts phase, but it would mostly be either on non-televised house shows, or the monthly NEX shows that occur in the small Kobe Lapis Hall before PRIME ZONE tapings. Some of this has hurt development in 2020 with DG not running these shows and really not wanting to have three and a half-hour televised shows, but the framework gets the rookies a lot more ring time in a competitive environment against contemporaries versus the standard “Young Lion” matches. And then, when the kids debut, they recently have been instant stars.
Strong Machine J debuted in April 2019 and set a record for the quickest to a title win by winning the Triangle Gate at Kobe World 2019. Dragon Dia was the inheritor of the Dragon legacy and other than injuries/illness he’s had since debuting in 2018 has been treated as the third generation Dragon one would expect: The major storyline for him in 2020 was getting the Triangle Gate and having everyone’s number, winning countless falls with the Repitlianrana, until RED figured him out and debuted their secret weapon Dia Inferno.
What we’ve called the “Class of 2020” has had to adapt to the times we lived in. Both Taketo Kamei and SB KENTo debuted on a rare televised Nagoya show (SBK’s hometown) on December 22 of last year. This was after appearing on NEX shows most of 2019 along with their later debuting compatriots Sora Fujikawa & Madoka Kikuta, who had their debut delayed into the empty Lapis Hall era of this spring. Since making the return to live crowds, the Class of 2020 has been put in prominent positions on all televised shows. Dragongate has gone back to their well of “have the kids get the crap kicked out of them for fifteen minutes by veterans,” and it’s been such a successful routine that they had to remind fans of COVID era provisions and not to scream out for the kids after one such match this fall.
There’s no better example of how Dragongate put such care in how they prepare and present their young generation of wrestlers than how they’ve spent the last few years with Shun Skywalker.
I could start all the way back at the beginning with Shun Skywalker, but it’s really worth talking about how Shun Skywalker has been handled since 2018. In August of 2018, Shun and his contemporaries Hyo Watanabe (now H*Y*O) and Yuki Yoshioka formed Mochizuki Dojo with the iron man of wrestling, Masaaki Mochizuki. The goal in the Dojo was Mochizuki to mentor the youngest members of the roster and lead them in their early career. Shun Skywalker was immediately positioned as the young star of Mochizuki Dojo. He teamed with Mocchy in All Japan’s Junior Battle of Glory and to challenge for the Twin Gate at Dangerous Gate 2018. For Gate of Destiny 2018, the two would team with Yoshioka for a Triangle Gate challenge.
As 2018 turned into 2019, the entire younger generation of DG was at odds so they decided to have the Rookie Ranking Tournament to decide who was the best young wrestler in the company. Through beating Yoshioka, Dia, and Kaito Ishida, Shun Skywalker ran through the competition and cemented himself as the top young star in the promotion. This wasn’t it for Shun, as he challenged Ben-K to a singles match immediately after winning the tournament. Ben-K, a classmate of Shun, far outpaced the rest of his generation with already being a Triangle Gate and Twin Gate champion and was above the tournament. Shun Skywalker would win this match and proved that he was at Ben’s level. With this swell of momentum, Skywalker challenged the Open the Dream Gate champion PAC at Champion Gate 2019. He came up empty in this first Dream Key attempt, but he was able to prove that he was able to perform at the main event’s level.
After this, Shun Skywalker was the Mochizuki Dojo participant in 2019’s Dead or Alive Cage Risk match. For 2019 the risks dealt with units, as the loser would have to eject someone from their unit, and everyone who escaped had the right to kick someone out of their unit if they desired. Shun escaped from the cage, but decided to expel himself from Mochizuki Dojo as he wanted to prove that he was ready to prove his talent. For his first solo King of Gate (he was the rookie rep in 2018), Shun Skywalker defeated his former mentor Mochizuki, however he finished 2nd in his block and didn’t advance. While this was happening, Ben-K was a lone wolf as well and ran through King of Gate 2019 winning it without a single loss.
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Kobe World 2019 had Shun Skywalker lose to Kzy in a standout performance in a special singles match. Ben-K won the Dream Gate from PAC (PAC’s first loss in almost two years), and afterwards the two decided to team. The team wasn’t very successful, Shun Skywalker always took the fall in their losses, and Shun watched from the sidelines as his classmate was dominating in the main event. Skywalker’s winless streak in solo matches extended through the fall as he lost to Susumu Yokosuka at Dangerous Gate, lost in under five minutes to Masato Yoshino at a Korakuen, and a draw with Big R Shimizu at another. Frustration boiled over as he then challenged Ben-K to a second singles match in December, which he lost yet again. Boiling over in frustration, Shun declared he was travelling to Mexico and that DG would see him when they saw him.
Shun’s excursion lasted from late December until late September. He based his excursion around the Lucha indie promotions IWRG and DTU, who both have historical links to the Dragon System. It was likely that Shun Skywalker would travel to the states during the excursion, and he probably would have been heavily featured in Dragongate’s relationship with MLW. The coronavirus put a stop to that, so he stayed in Mexico. More often than not, Shun Skywalker would be the best person on these indie shows, and he was out of sight, out of mind to DG.
Shun Skywalker made his return to Dragongate on November 3 after the main event at Gate of Destiny. After Eita cheated to retain against Kzy, both RED and the Dragongate Generation brawled around ringside in the aftermath. Suddenly the lights went out, and when some of them came up there was a mysterious person on the ramp. When the lights finally came up, Shun Skywalker was in the ring and the Osaka crowd gave their biggest shocked cheer during this “clap only” crowd era. He easily cleared out the ring, picked up the microphone, and said that Eita wasn’t looking at his next challenger, but instead the next Dream Gate champion. The match was quickly set for the main event of the Kobe Pro-Wrestling Festival.
I’ve written about Eita’s Dream Gate reign in the preview, but this title run accomplished what it set out to do: give Eita the foundation of winning a King of Gate, and forever being known now as a former Open the Dream Gate champion. He’s a guy now, and not just the scummy leader of a heel unit. Eita’s not the person to be leading the charge to Dragongate’s next era, but he will definitely be a part of it.
All this preparation pays off at Kobe World. Dragongate will attempt to continue their transition to their second-generation stars. Time can only tell if this transition will take. Dragongate has historically had issues with getting their fans to accept and buy tickets for their younger stars. The Hulk/Shingo 2008 Kobe World I talked about earlier was the first Kinen World Hall show to not increase their attendance from the year prior. T-Hawk was put into two Kobe World main events and positioned as their next big star, but the crowd never took to him. It’s somewhat easier this year with COVID restrictions, but this is a huge test for Eita and Shun Skywalker getting placed into the main event.
Now it’s time to see how the careful training, booking, and presentation of the young generation pays off. Each show is now another show closer to the transition from the stars that built this promotion to the stars who will lead the promotion after the older wrestlers retire. People who weren’t even alive when Ultimo Dragon Gym opened are now the stars of the next era. Shun Skywalker’s career-long story adds a new chapter in Kinen World Hall and we will see the future of Dragongate on display in their biggest show of the year.