Go ahead, be disappointed. Confront your disillusionment.

Kota Ibushi vs. Hiromu Takahashi is, without a doubt, a dream match, one that confronts the limits of our imagination on what a wresting match could be. It was assuredly too exceptional for an Anniversary show, but there was a charm in that. A frivolous Anniversary show context could have inspired something remarkable. That was the plan, and without question those anticipating it feel bereft in its disintegration.

Kota Ibushi vs. El Desperado does not inspire such grandiose sensibilities. For many in the West, the concept of El Desperado as a wrestler sufficiently popular enough to headline a show like this is peculiar (and if he is not there yet, he is very close). Many observers in the West have not yet adjusted to this.

And yet, the Kota Ibushi vs. El Desperado pairing has several distinct advantages that make it a more thoroughly more interesting encounter than Ibushi-Takahashi: a depth of historical weight, character similarities, philosophical conflicts, and dual redemption stories. That matters a bit more than a series of impromptu, chaotically baffling backstage manzai routines three weeks ago.

Desperado-Ibushi stretches back seven years, back to February 11, 2014, when El Desperado challenged Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. And now, as we begin the process of recuperating from the torrent of cataclysms that have disoriented the world, El Desperado once again challenges Kota Ibushi, this time for the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental Championships at Budokan Hall.

In fact, history will chronicle Desperado as the last person to ever challenge for either of those titles. When this match concludes, so will 33 years of history for the IWGP Heavy and nearly ten years of Intercontinental Championship history. It was an incredible string of excruciating disasters, unintended circumstances, and unavoidable exigencies that led us to this improbable final chapter of one of the most celebrated lineages in wrestling lore.

A few years ago, the idea that either of these competitors would inhabit this position would have seemed incredulous. And that, ultimately, is why this match is so compelling. Beyond the history and the backstory they share, they both overcame laborious obstacles to reach the pinnacle of their divisions. Perhaps that is why, despite such wildly contrasting dispositions, they really aren’t that much different.

Two Popular Itinerant Fujoshi-positive Weirdos

Kota Ibushi and El Desperado certainly comport themselves differently, but there are numerous substantive similarities between the two. One of the most striking is the journeys both took to arrive at this March 4 date as the respective champions of their division. Both, for instance, took a grueling amount of time to take the top spot of their divisions.

As noted, El Desperado took nearly seven years after his unsuccessful challenge of Ibushi on February 11, 2014, to finally win the Junior belt. Ibushi, though one of the most decorated wrestlers of his stature, endured a similarly lengthy gap; it was nearly six years between his challenge of A.J. Styles on April 5, 2015, and his ultimate triumph on Jan 4, 2021.

As if it wasn’t laborious enough to traverse such an extended path, both Ibushi and Desperado also saw that path severed at points, though for different reasons. Lost in the shuffle of NJPW booking and burnt out after years of pulling double duty as a main feature in New Japan and the ace of DDT, Ibushi famously detached himself from the corporeal wrestling landscape in 2016. Ibushi’s exile was a personal choice, and a memorable one, most notably anchoring the WWE’s last worthwhile enterprise, the Cruiserweight Classic.

Unfortunately, Desperado’s exile was involuntary and, although it was roughly the same length, did not provide many memorable nor significant moments. Being shipped off to NOAH as part of the Suzuki-gun invasion, he was part of a major storyline, but NOAH was a starkly hollow organization at the time. Desperado won the GHC Junior Tag Team Championships with Taka Michinoku, his first title as El Desperado, but injuries and general public disinterest hindered any chance of meaningful progress being made.

Finally, to be frank, both have been major benefactors of the failsafe device of modern Japanese pop culture storytelling: fujoshi bait. Their initial interactions in 2014 could very realistically be labeled a courtship. That was par for the course for Ibushi by 2014, and a portent of things to come for Desperado.

Ibushi’s tag team with Kenny Omega blithely exploited this aspect of fandom, and certainly had a willing and open-mindedly prescient platform in DDT. Of course, when the Golden Lovers formally reunited in New Japan on January 5, 2018, it began with the kind of pop you do not often hear in wrestling. It was a fujoshi pop, the pop of a fanbase spasmodic in delight by skin contact between such tight-bodied ikemen.

Desperado’s take on this method of storytelling has been significantly more sinister. Concurrent with this 2018 Golden Lovers period, El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi were setting segments of the internet ablaze with their dementedly sadistic interactions, imbued with erotic overtones that didn’t even bother flirting with the subtextual. Their smoldering, tautly cavalier palaver was replete with confabulation on their love for each other, beyond just the notion that they were simply addicted to the concept of administering violence to the other one. Either way, that mid-2018 program was remarkably potent, losing none of its saturated intensity when the two resumed the rivalry in late 2020.

But there are deeper character similarities between the two, namely in two areas: sincerity and dedication to hard work. In both, they share fundamental similarities (and particular differences of application), with one outshining the other. For sincerity, Kota Ibushi is the embodiment of this principle, a purely sincere dignifier; Desperado is an impurely sincere disruptor. In hard work, El Desperado is the archetype “genius of hard work,” overcoming limitations through astounding assiduousness and a large amount of fearless audacity; Kota Ibushi has no limitations, and yet still trains harder than anyone, to the point of escaping the limitations of time.

By examining these facets of their characters, we hope to provide some insight into the upcoming title match at the Anniversary show. Hopefully, that insight coverts to interest, or at least an appreciation for these two spectacular professional wrestlers. Not only do they deserve to be in this position, but their match-up itself is worthy of the position itself.

First, let’s survey the historical connections between the two.

History Recurring

Although it’s human nature to forcibly perceive order, there really was some beautiful symmetry in El Desperado’s confrontation of Kota Ibushi at the end of Castle Attack. It was El Desperado’s first public action as champion. It is not outlandish or vacantly poetic to suggest that a new El Desperado confronted Kota Ibushi that night, the culmination of years of effort and persistent development.

El Desperado began on January 4, 2014, literally. Returning from excursion in Mexico as some sort of demure personification of that culture, Desperado introduced himself to the New Japan audience by intruding upon the celebration of Kota Ibushi’s Junior Heavyweight Championship victory over Prince Devitt. Thus, Kota Ibushi is the one and only wrestler to have 100% engagement with the El Desperado character. The character essentially begins with him.

Despy was an exercise in contradiction from his very inception. For his Wrestle Kingdom emergence, he was clad in white, yet he presented Ibushi with a bouquet of black roses. He had the mannerisms of a mariachi gentleman, yet he also essentially forced the roses upon the confounded Ibushi. This carried over into his ringwork and his relationship with Ibushi. As shown in the pre-match VTR for their February 11 match,

Desperado’s presentation was just slightly askew. That is conveyed in the babyface-rivals dynamic between the two. Viewers familiar with the polished product Despy presents today, rife with captivating legwork, maniacally vocalized selling, and seamless transitions, would find 2014 El Desperado largely familiar but slightly perplexing. There were no shortage of impactful moves in his arsenal, but little adeptness for the sinews of a match.

The match itself was an exciting but superficial thirteen-and-a-half minute contest. It was devoid of anything resembling a story; it was simply a series of back-and-forth action. It was an economical match. While Despy was getting reactions, and the crowd loved his entrance, something felt missing. It didn’t feel like a championship act. In direct comparison to Ibushi, Desperado appeared decidedly minor.

This was only exacerbated by a Junior Tag Team title run. It resulted in an excellent Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship challenge to the Young Bucks on April 6, 2014, but one where Despy was significantly outshined. He could not compete with the effortlessly spectacular Ibushi or the demonstratively charismatic Bucks. El Desperado was an adequate character, and thus started to get lost in the shuffle.

Key throughout these matches was a friendly uneasiness. Mishaps and misunderstanding developed, which gradually developed into a clash of philosophies by the summer of 2014. It was in the lead-up to Kizuna Road, and a match with current 5-Star Despy Stan General Alex Shelley, where Despy began to display the underhanded side of his tactics more egregiously, as Joe Lanza noted in his review of the June 29, 2014 iPPV,  His teammates, including Ibushi and Tetsuya Naito, were not supportive of these methods.

The turn came several days later. After his loss to Shelley, Desperado attacked Shelley’s injured shoulder after the match, joined by Taka Michinoku in a startling development. Any doubts about Despy’s allegiances were discarded shortly thereafter. After the main event, in which KUSHIDA ended Ibushi’s reign, Despy and Taka returned to attack the newly crowned KUSHIDA.

The key point here: they did not attack Ibushi. Which is probably for the best, as Ibushi was concussed as fuck in the match and would miss the G1 Climax that year as a result.

From there, the relationship between these two lay essentially dormant until February 28, 2020. They would lock up a few years later, when Desperado supported Zack Sabre Jr. on night 2 of the 2017 G1 Climax, ahead of Sabre and Ibushi’s league match the next night.  They never even touched. Things laid still for a few more years, until El Desperado supported Dangerous Tekkers in a string of matches against Golden Ace in summer 2020. Again, there was minimal interaction.

And so, we arrive at the 49th Anniversary even at the Budokan with a pairing that stretches back years, yet is extremely fresh. And what is really intriguing about the juxtaposition of these two is their comparable foundational mechanisms. They are both intensely sincere wrestlers that work exceptionally hard.

Let’s scrutinize these characteristics, the components that will be demonstrated on March 4.

Pure vs. Impure Sincerity

Because the work “sincere” itself has a pure connotation, we need to treat the word austerely: in this case, we will define “sincere” as exemplary genuineness, a steadfast belief in one’s own actions and motivations. The sincerity of these two men is probably their most vital and central idiosyncrasy. They both share a deep conviction in their sensibilities. If anything, Kota Ibushi and El Desperado are inherently and immensely sincere in their actions, motivations, and philosophies. Even if the results of their resolve looks notably different,

Kota Ibushi is pure sincerity. He values goodness, beneficial order, and, particularly, harmonious progress. He strives to uphold the inherent nobleness he prescribes to wrestling, to preserve the dignity of the endeavor. His matches are clean, even if bordering a callous viciousness at times. As champion, Ibushi’s angles are aridly simplistic. Much of his build to both defenses, against SANADA and then Naito, centered around him literally arranging the belts for his opponents to gaze upon. That’s it, just an incredible display of amiable sincerity.

And that, ultimately is what Kota Ibushi is: a dignifier. As I noted in an article several lifetimes ago, Kota Ibushi is a philosopher-king. It is his sincerity that he also embodies Plato’s concept of a just soul. Ibushi is driven by an insatiable urge to advance professional wrestling for a commonweal that, as we’ve seen in recent days, is not always openly accepted.

And yet, even here we see an embodiment of Ibushi’s pure sincerity: his desire to “rescue” the Intercontinental championship. Ibushi desired unification because the dual championship concept not only vitiated the Intercontinental championship, it essentially eradicated it. The Intercontinental Championship was a parasitic growth attached to the IWGP Heavyweight championship. As a devout disciple of Shinsuke Nakamura, this was odious and anathema to Ibushi. He had to merge the titles to dignify the one he chased with the most zeal.

Through his impure sincerity, El Desperado is a disruptor. He disrupts the orderly manner of a match and his opponent’s rhythm and sense of ethics. He flagrantly agitates the personification of structure in professional wrestling, the referee. And yet, he exhibits absolute conviction in his actions. His resoluteness is equally strong as Ibushi’s, just exceedingly amoral. He is dedicated to congruence and harmony, in order that he can disrupt the situation in his favor. Or simply so he can fuck with people.

Despy gleefully exploits and shirks the rules no matter which side his opponent is on. When he was matched across from the incorrigible Gedo in the IWGP Junior heavyweight tag team championship tournament this fall, the two essentially had an eye-raking contest. Despy stomps on feet, pokes eyes, and fervently hits below the belt. The best is when he has an opponent caught in a leghold, his figure four type stretch. When the referee calls for the break, Desperado pretends that he cannot remember how to break the hold, as the referee pulls him off, he pretends to trip and drops a knee on the prone leg.

All of this is purposefully superfluous action. Desperado doesn’t have to make such a show of his cheating, or even give the pretext that he is trying to follow the guidelines of a match. He does it because he is engrossed with delight in abusing the system. He revels in this sort of corrosion, and takes immersive delectation if he can cause suffering to his opponents. An El Desperado match almost always begins with schadenfreude and Desperado’s resultant cachinnation. He luxuriates in it. Desperado’s commitment to perfidious behavior is almost admirable. In Platonic terms, if Ibushi is the just aristocratic soul, Despy is the corrupted timocratic soul.

And that is why this is so interesting. It is this clash of firmly held belief systems that will clash n March 4. The pure vs. impure sincerity thing probably sounds like simple heel-face dynamics… but it is through his conviction and unyielding perspective that El Desperado has developed into a fiercely popular wrestler. Kota Ibushi’s sincerity is easy and natural to cheer. But at a certain point, and probably aide by the innocuousness of Desperado’s cheating, fans started to respect Desperado’s conviction, sincerity to cause, and skill. His hard work paid off.

Geniuses of Hard Work

This is directly stolen from the terminology of shounen manga. All story-telling mediums can be interchangeably compared but wrestling and manga seem to have a particular robust commonality. The Fiend makes a lot of sense if you imagine it as a vacant corporate attempt at replicating Junji Ito.

The idea of the genius of hard work is particularly appropriate here, because Ibushi and Desperado embody both strains found particularly often in sports manga. First, there is the earnest protagonist archetype: energetically fervent (either big-heartedly or as a hothead), and genuinely committed to the sport but, unfortunately, innately guileless in some way. They are defined by the assiduousness with which they study and practice. The protagonist, and the plot, is drawn in and ameliorated by the second type: the naturally gifted ace (often a longtime captain or some kind of aloof, free-spirited genius), with whom they form an unimpeachable bond.

It’s pretty clear which of these two categories our subjects fit: El Desperado is the persistent protagonist and Kota Ibushi is the nonchalant ace. Of course, it deviates due to the severing of the Desperado-Ibushi relationship; Despy flourished under the guidance of Suzuki, who is more akin to the delinquent yankii gang leader. This situation ended up being some kind of amalgam of All Out!!, Kuroke no Basuke, and Eyeshield21.

El Desperado is the traditional genius of hard work. Despy’s work ethic, perseverance, and intransigent dedication to training is impressive enough for his peers to note. Kevin Kelly has explicitly referenced Desperado as a “first guy in, last guy out” wrestler years back. Tama Tonga acknowledged Despy’s hard work when mentioning Desy’s title win on the Tama’s Island podcast. Alex Shelley made sure to emphatically note Despy’s assiduousness on Twitter when Despy finally won the Junior Heavyweight title.

No more is this evident in the equally brutal training regiment he has adopted: getting the fucking bejesus beaten out of him by Minoru Suzuki. Every day Desperado gets his ass beaten by one of wrestler’s most viciously barbarous participants, his leg tenderized, his limbs assuredly torqued, and anything else left over battered. This is documented, not just on video but also multiple times by Gabriel Kidd. Here is one example:

Suzuki was sparring with El Desperado and just kept hitting him in the leg and Desperado kept shaking it off and Suzuki just carried on kicking him in his legs to a point where he couldn’t stand up because Suzuki was going hard on him… Then, when when Desperado’s leg was okay again, he showed me actual holds and techniques and stuff that I still remember to this day. It would be a nice full circle moment to be in the ring with Minoru Suzuki, but we’ll see if that happens!

Why endure this? Because, when he faced Kota Ibushi back in 2014, he was deficient. In fact, that was Ibushi’s response to Despy’s challenge: that Ibushi remembers the encounter, particularly how badly Desperado sucked. Despy ardently agreed. Years of weathering this torrent of damage has yielded the results we saw in the last week of February 2021.

There’s often a scene in manga like these, though, where the protagonist notices something about the ace character. The protagonist focuses their attention, almost involuntarily, on something critical that no one else perceives… scuffs on particular parts of their shoes, callouses on their fingers, a scar of some kind. Something that makes it explicitly clear to the main character, and the main character alone, that the natural, effortless genius is actually working harder than anyone else.

We know that Ibushi has his own secret gym. We’ve all seen the pictures, we’ve all seen the videos with Kenny Omega… this is common knowledge, though it’s pretty wild to  It is the seat of the Ibushi Pro Wrestling Research Institute, and where Ibushi tosses around that blob-doll and ruminates on time, metaphysics, and wrestling. As someone who identifies as self-taught, Ibushi spent innumerable hours refining his vision of professional wrestling. Ibushi without question has dedicated himself to training as much as any wrestler; he makes it look effortless because he has nonpareil natural ability. The arduous labor he devotes himself to is the critical element that has left him atop the apex of professional wrestling, a generational talent and performer.

How else could Ibushi master so many different styles? He is a multi-time Wrestling Observer Award winner for Best Flyer, and yet he also contains some of the most precise and accelerated striking in the business. How else could he have evolved from an uninhibitedly athletic dynamo to the measured, balance performer he is today. Despy is not the only one that had to work absurd lengths to reinvent himself; the Kota Ibushi of 2014 would not have been capable of delivering the nine-part genre exercise of the 2020 Kota Ibushi’s G1 Climax. It’s happened so dexterously that you barely realize it.

On March 4 at Budokan Hall, all of this over-intellectualization of this populist medium will conflate. Kota Ibushi and El Desperado are both different wrestlers than they were in 2014, having reaped significant enhancements through their unwavering sincerity and tremendous literal effort. As late as Mid-February 2021, it was likely that these two would never face each other in singles competition again. El Desperado can clearly represent the changes he has accomplished in himself. When watching, take note of what the fundamentals that cultivated that change share with the fundamentals of the champion across the ring.