To celebrate the upcoming WrestleMania Weekend, Voices of Wrestling contributors were encouraged to write about a past WrestleMania Weekend match.
The goal of the project was to find, discover and write about matches that resonated with our contributors for whatever reason, whether it be a great match, a memorable live experience, a personal connection or, even frustration.
Please enjoy this series and all of Voices of Wrestling’s WrestleMania Weekend coverage.
Chicago Ridge, Illinois sits southwest of the big city, approximately 40 minutes away from The Magnificent Mile and the overwhelming chaos and noise of the Windy City. Chicago Ridge began taking shape in 1893 and by the dawn of the 20th century, they found themselves largely financed thanks to their cash register and slot machine manufacturing plant. They exist as a lesser-known suburb in the shadow of America’s third-biggest market. Even in the scope of professional wrestling, Chicago Ridge doesn’t live in infamy the way Halsted Street does.
Wrestling’s history would not be the same without Chicago Ridge, however.
The town’s local recreational center, the Frontier Fieldhouse, housed the infamous Joe vs. Punk II bout in the fall of 2004. It was Ring of Honor’s third event in the market and the success of Joe vs. Punk provided the promotion with much-needed stabilization in the midwest in the midst of the promotion’s most turbulent year ever. In 2005, Chicago Ridge became a signature destination for the promotion, earning honors as the third stop on the promotion’s Third Anniversary Celebration tour, CM Punk’s farewell show, and playing host to a brutal and unruly Bryan Danielson vs. Roderick Strong match.
The stars aligned for ROH in early 2006. After testing the waters of running on the same weekend in the same market as WrestleMania in 2004, ROH put on a full-court press in 2006. Three shows in three nights, with the final two taking place a half-hour down the road from the Allstate Arena and WrestleMania 22.
On a weekend that featured a violent, bloody conclusion to hometown hero Colt Cabana’s feud with Homicide and two Bryan Danielson classics, a 56-minute epic with Roderick Strong and a generational clash that brought Lance Storm out of retirement, it was a six-man tag featuring Japanese imports that left everyone buzzing. It was a match described as being five years ahead of its time and it spurred a stylistic shift in mainstream pro wrestling that is still being felt 15 years later.
The origins of lucharesu in the United States can be traced back to 1996 and Ultimo Dragon’s arrival in WCW. Dragon was a New Japan dojo graduate who was shipped off to Mexico and UWA at the start of the 1990s because of his size. Unmasked, he found success there and back in his home country with Gran Hamada’s Universal Lucha Libre. The Ultimo Dragon persona was bestowed upon him in late 1991 by CMLL and due to his look, charisma, and breathtaking offense, the Nagoya-native quickly became a tour de force in pro wrestling.
He became a pivotal part of WCW’s cruiserweight expansion. He was already a former IWGP Jr Heavyweight Champion, UWA World Middleweight Champion, and recognized J Crown Champion by the time he stepped foot in Ted Turner’s ring.
During his three-year run in the promotion, Dragon racked up two separate reigns as both WCW Cruiserweight and Television Champion. He was a remarkable success for a masked foreigner in a crowded, heavyweight-driven American scene.
The lasting legacy of his time in Atlanta is not any of his in-ring work, however. It’s the fact that he was able to push open the door for his first class of Ultimo Dragon Gym students to work short, fiery matches in WCW. The men that would later be known as CIMA, Don Fujii, Dragon Kid, Magnum TOKYO, and SUWA all embarked on brief albeit fruitful journeys in WCW would pay off nearly a decade later.
While Dragon was racking up title wins in WCW, one of his mentors, Gran Hamada, the godfather of lucharesu, was making his presence felt on a much smaller scale in the Northeast. Barely Legal, ECW’s first pay-per-view offering, was highlighted by a Taz vs. Sabu encounter, but is best remembered for bringing a high-intensity six-man tag to the States, thanks to the Michinoku Pro roster.
After ripping through Japan in 1996, the Michinoku Pro Sekigun and Kaientai DX spilled into the ECW Arena on April 13, 1997. While their match in Boston from a few days prior is the better match, the Barely Legal six-man showed the power that a Japanese special attraction match could harbor. Hamada, backed by The Great Sasuke and uber-babyface Masato Yakushiji defeated Dick Togo, TAKA Michinoku, and Terry Boy in an unforgettable encounter.
By 1997, it was clear that this fast-paced, lucha-puroresu style could get over in front of the right American audience, they just needed the opportunity to do so.
In February 2001, Eric Bischoff noted in a Wrestling Observer Radio interview that he was planning a trip to Japan in March and hoped to meet with Ultimo Dragon about using more Toryumon talent in a revamped cruiserweight division. That obviously never happened as WCW was McMahon Property come March 23, 2001.
Court Bauer and the first incarnation of his MLW promotion tried to bring in Toryumon talents numerous times, but plans always fell through. In November 2003, Bauer wanted to bring in Toryumon X standout Taiji Ishimori alongside Anthony W. Mori and Henry Sugawara III. According to Dave Meltzer, he also wanted either SUWA or Dragon Kid against Sonjay Dutt. Bauer had even planned on using a six-sided ring, akin to what the Toryumon 2000 Project was doing. The November show was later canceled, but that didn’t stop Bauer from trying to bring lucharesu back to America.
Meltzer noted in the January 19, 2004 Wrestling Observer Newsletter that Bauer and Ultimo Dragon had been in talks and that “they even have a storyline worked out, but that wouldn’t start until March at the earliest.” The next week in the Observer, it was written that MLW would finally debut the six-sided ring on February 13 in a match that would include Sonjay Dutt in the SATs with the idea being that the ring would be called “Dragon’s Gate”. Bauer was still angling to get in three Toryumon wrestlers.
The February event also never happened. Bauer folded up shop after his January 10 event and the MLW banner would remain dormant until 2017 (in 2020, MLW and Dragongate announced a partnership that was put on hold by COVID-19).
Even TNA, still under the NWA umbrella and setting up shop out of Nashville, attempted to get Toryumon stars into the promotion for the 2004 incarnation of the World X Cup. But Toryumon, who were running the busiest schedule in Japan at the time, couldn’t send stars overseas as it would’ve interfered with El Numero Uno, the company’s top singles tournament.
With Ultimo Dragon being ousted in July of that year and Toryumon becoming Dragon Gate, the future of the promotion in America looked uncertain. Dragon was a name with credibility to American audiences. While his students and the first generation of Dragon Gate stars had proved their worth in front of Japanese crowds, they were an untested and unproven commodity Stateside.
Finally, at the end of August 2005, the Dragon Gate crew received a brief opportunity to prove their worth.
Free from their grueling schedule in Japan, CIMA, the then-ace of Dragon Gate, returned stateside with his prized pupil and the first graduate of the Dragon Gate dojo, Shingo Takagi. The two rode into a town just outside of Buffalo, New York and laid the groundwork for what was to come. They debuted on the aptly titled show “Dragon Gate Invasion”, a forgettable entry in Ring of Honor’s pristine 2005 catalog. The Colt Cabana-James Gibson main event wasn’t spectacular and the Nigel McGuinness-Samoa Joe encounter is not considered to be anywhere near either man’s peak. It was up for the Dragon Gate talent to leave a lasting impression on the New York fanbase and to some extent they did. Takagi wrestled Curry Man in a charisma-driven undercard encounter and in the semi-main event, AJ Styles fell in defeat to CIMA. Neither match lived up to the “dream match billing” and neither will go down in history as any sort of must-see matches, but as one reviewer noted, “…the fans came in cheering for AJ but, by the end of the match, they were rooting for CIMA.”
Dragon Gate’s foot was in the door.
Wanting to add an international flair to the promotion’s biggest weekend at the time, ROH booker Gabe Sapolsky phoned over to Japan once more, hoping to secure Dragon Gate talent for the final weekend in March. This time around, ROH would not have to rely on two burgeoning superstars. For Supercard of Honor weekend, Dragon Gate would provide ROH with an army of world-class wrestlers ready to make an impact on a demographic of fans starving for something new.
As a part of ROH’s Milestone Series, akin to the original Great American Bash tours under the Jim Crockett Promotions banner, the promotion ran their first-ever triple shot with Dragon Gate Challenge, Supercard of Honor, and Better Than Our Best. The first night in Detroit saw the Dragon Gate roster win a 2-1 series over ROH’s homegrown talent with Ryo Saito defeating Jimmy Yang, AJ Styles & Matt Sydal defeating Dragon Kid & Genki Horiguchi, and the Blood Generation trio of CIMA, Masato Yoshino, and Naruki Doi going over on the Generation Next team of Austin Aries, Jack Evans, and Roderick Strong.
Had the Blood Generation-Generation Next match been the peak of the weekend, ROH would’ve had to have called the Dragon Gate experiment a success. The match was received tremendously by fans in the building and a DVD review of the match added, “This is probably the best six-man tag team match in ROH history.”
Oh, how quickly things would change.
Back in their home base of Chicago Ridge for the next two shows, ROH etched their names into wrestling’s history book with help from the cavalcade of Dragon Gate talent involved.
Blood Generation vs. Do Fixer changed pro wrestling.
There is a legitimate argument to be made that the infamous Blood Generation vs. Do Fixer match isn’t even the best Blood Generation-Do Fixer match to ever exist, that this was a weaker version of the Kobe World 2005 offering with Don Fujii in place of Masato Yoshino, but history will remember this match as the one that jump-started wrestling’s athletic acceleration.
The aforementioned CIMA, Doi, and Yoshino trio lined up across the ring from Dragon Kid, Genki Horiguchi, & Ryo Saito, the top names of Dragon Gate’s babyface Do Fixer unit. Outside of CIMA, who had not only previously appeared in ROH but was also a legitimate star in the context of Japanese wrestling in 2005 and Dragon Kid, whose flashy aerial offense earned him a reputation as one of the world’s best flyers thanks to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards, the crew rolled into Chicago Ridge as relative unknowns.
For as incredible as the raw in-ring work and athleticism in this match were, it is the personalities that make this match legendary. ROH was built off of finding the best wrestlers in the world and giving them a chance to thrive, but even in this golden age of the promotion, numerous talents on the roster lacked the charisma necessary to come across as a major league wrestler. Sapolsky noted to Dave Meltzer in the April 24, 2006 Wrestling Observer Newsletter that he was trying to get as many of his wrestlers booked in Dragon Gate as possible because “all the Dragon Gate guys have the look of stars and distinct characters.”
By the end of this match, it was clear that CIMA was the ace, Masato Yoshino was the fastest man in wrestling, and Naruki Doi was much-needed muscle on the Blood Generation side. Do Fixer presented Dragon Kid as a dangerous high-flyer, Genki Horiguchi was a plucky combatant, and Ryo Saito as a steady-hand that steered the unit in the right direction. It’s not rocket science. It’s Dragon Gate.
This match would receive “the action speaks for itself” honors from the ROH commentary duo of Lenny Leonard and Dave Prazak, meaning that as the match hit the closing stretch, they stepped away from the commentary booth and let the live sound fill the space. Despite the fact that Leonard and Prazak are arguably American wrestling’s best commentary duo of the last 20 years, it’s great that they stepped away. The constant rise in excitement from the crowd needed to be heard without any noise over it.
Everything that followed the long heat segment on Genki Horiguchi was flawless. The common complaint about this match that is worth any substance is the argument over how long Horiguchi sold for before his partners made any attempt to step in, given that “no tags are necessary” in a Dragon Gate six-man. I reject that notion, given the fact that Horiguchi was beaten down entirely in the ring. Once he was able to make a hot tag, the match spilled to the floor and then never again reset into a traditional tag match. Breaking up Horiguchi’s heat segment, while heroic on paper, would’ve caused Do Fixer to look like heels.
The Do Fixer comeback led straight into a one-on-one encounter between CIMA and Saito. This portion of the match is ripped straight from the glory days of Michinoku Pro and their multi-man matches while also showing just how far this style of wrestling had advanced since Barely Legal nine years earlier.
CIMA and Saito, who spent all of 2005 jockeying for the top spot in the card, were given a huge opportunity to continue their heated rivalry. Their battle is what kicked this match into the next gear.
Down the homestretch, the question began looming as to whether or not Dragon Kid would be able to pull through and secure the win for his team. He hit an Assisted Hurricanrana from the top rope but that couldn’t secure the fall. Then he nailed Naruki Doi with the Ultra Hurricanrana but that wasn’t enough. Despite the fact that Dragon Kid was in the ring against people that were established higher on the pecking order than he was, the second generation Dragon was the one building momentum.
This turned out to be a deliberate choice by the Dragon Gate team and one that should quell any disparagement about the psychology of this bout. Sapolsky noted in that same April 24 edition of the Observer, “The part that really blew me away was that before the match, CIMA told me that this was Dragon Kid’s match. If you look at where they put Dragon Kid’s big spots and how they saved the one major kick out for him, you’ll see that the psychology is really strong. The place was chanted ‘Dragon Kid’ after the match so it is obvious that their plan worked.”
In 20 minutes and 34 seconds, Dragon Gate turned the wrestling world on its head.
— Roy 🌱 (@narukiroy) December 25, 2016
ROH’s Roderick Strong and Jack Evans had already debuted for the Japanese promotion at this time, but soon an entire fleet of North American wrestlers would work their way into Japan including Austin Aries, Matt Sydal, Kevin Steen, and Jimmy Rave.
Meltzer noted in the June 12 Observer from that year that he “couldn’t fathom give the match less than *****”. It won the WON MOTY that year, edging out stiff competition in KENTA vs. Naomichi Marufuji and two bonafide ROH classics in Bryan Danielson vs. KENTA and Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness.
Without this match, WrestleMania Weekend as we recognize it does not exist. The battlegrounds shifted back to Detroit a year later and ROH built the weekend entirely around the return of the Dragon Gate six-man. A year later in Orlando, ROH would do the same, this time pitting the same men from the 2006 encounter in the match with CIMA trading teams with the now-heel Genki Horiguchi (for my money, a match just as good as what they did in 2006).
Sapolsky was ousted as ROH booker in the fall of 2008 and around that same time period, the working relationship between Dragon Gate and ROH fell apart due to disputed financial claims. Seeing as how they had made peanut butter & jelly together before, Sapolsky and the Dragon Gate crew decided to smoosh the bread together once more to create Dragon Gate USA.
The modern indie scene which lasted until the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of EVOLVE can all be traced back to Wrestlemania Weekend 2010 when ROH ran head-to-head with Dragon Gate USA’s group of renegades. The two bickered about what shows Davey Richards, a headlining attraction for both promotions, could work, and after Richards landed with ROH, no contracted talent ever worked for ROH and DGUSA (and the greater WWNLive Family) simultaneously.
Dragon Gate USA existed entirely because of the Blood Generation-Do Fixer match from 2006. Yes, talent from the Japanese promotion had also worked in PWG and Wrestling Society X in the interim between that match and the summer of 2009 when DGUSA launched, but the original six-man gave Dragon Gate credibility in a crowded marketplace. Long after DGUSA had folded, Sapolsky still marketed his Wrestlemania Weekend shows around “the traditional six-man tag match”.
Ultimately, Sapolsky nailed it on the head when he told Dave Meltzer “that their [Dragon Gate] wrestling style was five years ahead of what was being done in the U.S.”
Five years after the initial six-man tag, Sapolsky was booking Dragon Gate USA in Atlanta with shows that featured Jon Moxley making his final indie appearances before signing with WWE, PAC, Brodie Lee, and the Ronin trio of Chuck Taylor, Johnny Gargano, and Rich Swann, all of whom outside of Moxley toured with Dragon Gate in Japan in 2011.
Dragon Gate in America never reached the same heights as it did after the Blood Generation-Do Fixer tag. Sapolsky, in an effort to copy their booking patterns, failed miserably with Faction Warfare in 2007 and failed to capture the ethos of Dragon Gate Japan throughout his time booking DGUSA. Akira Tozawa soared to amazing heights in PWG, but did so as a Dragon Gate outcast who was unwillingly shipped off to America. His run was more about shedding Dragon Gate’s skin than it was carrying the banner of his home promotion across the globe.
Just as he struggled to over 15 years ago, Court Bauer remains unable to get Dragon Gate wrestlers actually on his shows.
Even if MLW were to replicate the quality of the original six-man tag, it wouldn’t send ripples throughout wrestling the same way. Ever since this match, this style of wrestling has been aped, bastardized, and copied by promotions with less talented workers and less quality booking.
Over the last 15 years, wrestling has tried to be everything that this match was. The results have proven that this match can never be duplicated.