In the spring of 2001, in an effort to prove who the best singles wrestler was in a promotion largely ruled by trios matches, Toryumon began hosting what would become the annual El Numero Uno tournament.

For 20 years now, with the exception of 2009, Toryumon and later Dragongate has provided a tournament for wrestlers to prove that in a landscape dominated by units, factions, and alliances, that they are the best at fighting alone. The format of the tournament has changed drastically throughout the years, starting as a three-block tournament with block winners advancing to the semi-finals along with a loser revival battle royal to anoint the fourth semi-finalist. At times, the tournament has been a single-elimination battle that spans across an entire month. Other times, it’s been block-play reminiscent of the modern G1 Climax format.

Whatever format the tournament has fostered has been irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Winning King of Gate signifies a great deal of dominance. Throughout the 19 different times this tournament has been held, only Masaaki Mochizuki and Masato Yoshino have taken home the top prize multiple times. Mochizuki won the inaugural El Numero Uno tournament, then five years later won the second-annual King of Gate. Yoshino found success much later in his career, but racked up King of Gate honors in both 2015 and 2018. Of the 17 unique champions, all but 4 winners have failed to capture the top singles belt in the promotion at some point in their career. Dragon Kid (El Numero Uno 2004), Gamma (King of Gate 2007), Genki Horiguchi (King of Gate 2012), and T-Hawk (King of Gate 2017) never parlayed their success in singles competition into something greater.

2003’s El Numero Uno was built to crown the first Ultimo Dragon Gym Champion. On April 22, 2003, the final night of the tournament in what could possibly be the single greatest Toryumon show in history, CIMA outlasted Genki Horiguchi and the power of the Backslide From Heaven to become UDG Champion. The idea of winning the tournament and then challenging for the top singles prize was not fully in place until the Dragongate split in 2004 and the King of Gate tournament that followed at the end of 2005. Ryo Saito capped off his incredible 2005 by winning the tournament and then began 2006 by defeating Magnitude Kishiwada for the Open the Dream Gate belt. Both Masaaki Mochizuki and Gamma would fail in their Dream Gate challenges the following year.

Naruki Doi’s 2008 King of Gate win established him as a singles star and he would ride that momentum into ending Shingo Takagi’s first reign as Dream Gate Champion. When tournament action resumed in 2010, Takagi was crowned King of Gate, but fell to his then-stablemate in YAMATO when he attempted to recapture the gold. BxB Hulk, Genki Horiguchi, Ricochet, and Jimmy Susumu would all fail in their post-KOG Dream Gate challenges, cementing a seven-year gap between true dominance in Dragongate as Masato Yoshino was finally able to win King of Gate and then win the Open the Dream Gate belt in 2015. YAMATO would do the same a year later, then Yoshino would do it again in 2018.

This began the modern precedent for King of Gate winners, as after Yoshino’s tournament win and championship victory in 2018, Ben-K would go undefeated in the tournament en route to defeating PAC at Kobe World 2019. Then, last year, after King of Gate was held entirely in an empty-arena setting due to COVID-19, Eita defeated Naruki Doi in the finals, then defeated him once more at Memorial Gate 2020 to win the Dream Gate belt.

Counting CIMA’s 2003 victory as it also secured him the UDG Championship, 8 tournament winners have gone on to win the top singles prize in their next challenge. Of the 17 unique tournament winners, 47% of them have established utter dominance within the Dragon System by winning the tournament and then the title.

2021’s King of Gate field is possibly the most wide-open in the history of the tournament. Reverting back to the original El Numero Uno format, this year’s tournament saw Kota Minoura come out of the A Block, SB KENTo win the B Block, YAMATO secure the victory in the C Block, and Kzy, a participant in the B Block, win the revival battle royal. This leads us to Thursday, June 3, for the semi-finals and finals inside Korakuen Hall.

YAMATO, 2016’s winner, will square off against Kota Minoura in the first semi-finals match. On paper, YAMATO is the obvious favorite. He’s still the ace of Dragongate, a four-time Dream Gate Champion, and has been itching to get back to the top step of Dragongate after a five-year excursion atop the Open the Twin Gate scene. YAMATO has the experience edge, clearly. Minoura was only 8 years old when YAMATO debuted in Dragongate and Minoura made his Dragongate debut after YAMATO’s fourth Dream Gate reign had ended.

Even with this year’s stacked field, YAMATO was the favorite heading into the tournament, but Minoura cannot be taken lightly.

He debuted in July 2018 and one month later had already established signature gear and a clear hierarchy over other members of the roster. He’s been a consummate professional since his entry into the company, quickly earning the respect of Masaaki Mochizuki and Mochizuki Dojo before becoming a pivotal player in the Dragongate Generation and then Masquerade.

Minoura finds himself on an island, generationally, similar to what Ryo Saito went through as the bridge between the original Toryumon Class and the Toryumon 2000 Project. Saito rose through the ranks without allies in the original class like CIMA or Don Fujii, then became an immediate target for the prized pupil of T2P in Milano Collection AT. While Minorua hasn’t been maliciously targeted by any particular generation, he does represent a bridge of sorts in the modern Dragon System. He wasn’t a part of the infamous 12/1/16 match that foreshadowed the success of Ben-K, HYO, current Open the Dream Gate Champion Shun Skywalker, and Yuki Yoshioka, but also has no affiliation with the insurgence of 2020 rookies in SB KENTo, Funky Jacky Kamei, HipHop Kikuta, and Sora Fujikawa. Minoura’s closest dojo allegiances belong to Oji Shiiba, who is no longer in Dragongate, and Dragon Dia, whom he now teams with in Masquerade.

Despite his lack of generational peers, Minorua has steadily risen up the card, finally becoming an undeniable force when Dragongate returned to action with fans after a four-month break in the spring and summer of 2020.

In his first match back in front of fans, he went to a 15-minute time limit draw with Big R Shimizu in a spot originally reserved for Yosuke Santa Maria, who pulled out because of a shoulder injury. The next night, he came to the same result against Susumu Yokosuka. Minoura, aligned with the Dragongate Generation but alone in the ring, held his own against two of the company’s toughest wrestlers.

Those matches provided the springboard Minoura needed. He pinned BxB Hulk in Osaka on July 12, which gave him the chance to challenge Hulk and Kazma Sakamoto for the belts at Memorial Gate. Alongside Jason Lee, Minoura captured his first taste of gold in Dragongate. Before any had had a chance to process his momentum, he had rapidly ascended up the card and won a title.

Tokyo Sports recently caught up with Minoura to ask him about possibly becoming the youngest King of Gate winner ever. He’s proven to be a worthwhile commodity since his first match. In his first King of Gate tournament, he has a chance to upset YAMATO and challenge for the top prize in the promotion. Despite the illnesses that plagued Ben-K and Naruki Doi, Minoura’s success should not come as a surprise. I noted on Open the Voice Gate that outside of Naruki Doi, Minoura had the best odds of winning the block and that Minoura outlasting even Doi wouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.

His biggest hurdle to climb outside of YAMATO’s experience edge will be history. In his second pro match, he wrestled and lost to YAMATO (match begins at 37:50). In the three years since that encounter, Minoura has grown past the standard, plain black tights and into a lively, colorful master of technique that is capable of challenging for Dragongate’s top prize.

On the other side of things, Kzy squares off against SB KENTo. They currently sit at 1-1 all-time in singles matches with Kzy winning a singles match in February 2020, back when SBK was simply known as Kento Kobune, and SBK getting his revenge over a year later to win the B Block on May 30.

Kzy was a non-entity in his first King of Gate in 2012. Still wearing a jumpsuit with out-of-control hair at the time, he lost to Eita, who was still going by Eita Kobayashi at the time, in a non-televised match that bounced him from the tournament due to the single-elimination format.

In the four years before his next appearance in the tournament, Kzy began turning his career around. He changed his look, lost weight, adapted his in-ring approach, and became a pesky combatant in the BxB Hulk-led Dia. Hearts unit. When he returned to the fray in 2016, this time with King of Gate in a G1-like block-style, Kzy fell one point short of advancing to the semi-finals. YAMATO, the eventual tournament winner, came out of his block with 6 points. Had it not been for a humiliating time limit draw with Punch Tominaga or a loss to Jimmy Kanda in his final tournament match, Kzy would’ve been in the mix on the final night.

Those losses are largely irrelevant in Kzy’s big picture, however. He scored one victory in the tournament that, at the time, registered as the biggest win of his career. In front of his hometown fans in Hokkaido, Kzy pinned Shingo Takagi, clean, in the midst of one of Takagi’s best and most dominant runs ever. Kzy became an unbearable thorn in the side of Takagi until he bounced to New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2018.

A year after his upset win over Takagi, Kzy was once again close to making it to the semi-finals, but once again fell short in his block to the eventual tournament winner, who in this case was T-Hawk. 2018 was a step back for Kzy, who had just begun fronting Natural Vibes. He lost to YAMATO in Korakuen Hall on the opening night of the tournament and then went to a time limit draw with Ben-K, a man who he had beaten in tournament play the prior year.

In 2019, Kzy finally got over the hump. He defeated Kazma Sakamoto in an A Block tiebreaker to win his block, but that prize led him straight into the hands of Ben-K, who enacted more revenge on Kzy, destroying him in the midst of his undefeated tournament run. It was back to the drawing board for Kzy.

2020, this time in the empty arena, offered no love to Kzy. He lost to YAMATO in the second round of the tournament, putting their all-time singles match series at 5-0 in favor of YAMATO, with the three most recent wins coming in King of Gate.

I initially loathed the idea of Natural Vibes reforming at the start of 2021, but it has been the best thing to happen to Kzy’s career. Booting Punch Tominaga and Brother YASSHI in favor of U-T and Funky Jacky Kamei has been a godsend. Natural Vibes is perhaps the most complete unit in wrestling right now and it has provided Kzy with a fresh take on life. He is my pick to win King of Gate this year and if he does so, I think he’ll knock off Shun Skywalker at Kobe World at the end of July.

The issue for Kzy is that he’s going to have to get through SB KENTo in the semi-finals. SBK, the uncrowned Rookie of the Year in 2020, had zero King of Gate experience prior to this year. He debuted at the end of 2019 and by the time King of Gate 2020 had rolled around, he had become the most buzzworthy prospect in wrestling. He, alongside the rest of the class of 2020, stole the show as King of Gate wound down last year.

I thought Dragongate would hold off on putting SBK in this position so soon, but that goes against everything else they’ve done with him so far. He turned heel, won a title, disbanded a unit, and then got his head shaved in one of Dragongate’s marquee matches all within a year. He turned 21 in February of this year. He’s a prodigy. A phoenix. A future ace. I said when he debuted that he was the next YAMATO. I didn’t realize how soon he’d have a chance to put that theory to the test.

SBK winning the tournament would be a gutsy call, but it would not shock me. SBK has bucked every trend thus far in his career, so why should King of Gate be any different? He could roll through Kzy and then take down either YAMATO or Kota Minoura and it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest.

The semi-finals and finals of King of Gate 2021 showcase the absurd depth that Dragongate has built over the last handful of years. All four men in the semi-finals have a credible, realistic chance at winning the tournament and possibly winning the Open the Dream Gate Championship, while heavy-hitters like Susumu Yokosuka, Eita, Kaito Ishida, and Shun Skywalker all failed to make it out of their blocks.

Dragongate will conclude their King of Gate tournament live on the Dragongate Network on June 3 at 18:30 JST (5:30 EST). Live English commentary will be provided for the event.

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