The last time I wrote about Shingo Takagi, he was hours removed from a soul-crushing loss against Will Ospreay in the finals of the 2019 Best of the Super Juniors tournament. I waxed poetically about his career in Dragongate, his remarkable, albeit brief run at the time in New Japan, and the potential that Takagi still possessed. 

Despite throwing all sorts of praise at the four-time Open the Dream Gate Champion and current IWGP World Champion, I severely underestimated just how good Shingo Takagi is. 

The Super Juniors final was a remarkable encounter. It was, for many, the best match that had ever seen from the Dragongate import. It was a rare dream match that lived up to and arguably surpassed the monumental expectations that had been placed. The feud between Ospreay and Takagi is now that of a generational battle, one that will hopefully dominate the main event scene in New Japan for years to come. 

Takagi entered the summer of 2019 with something to prove. It was a new position for him to be in. Outside of his lame-duck US excursion in the mid-2000s, he has always been an alpha dog hovering near the top of his promotion. He had never had to fight for validation as he had against New Japan’s heavyweights. He challenged, then successfully defeated Satoshi Kojima at that year’s Dominion event, briefly positioning Takagi’s status as a deadly openweight that could hang with New Japan’s hardest-hitting heavyweights. The company seemed hesitant in declaring him a full-blown heavyweight, however, given that he doesn’t quite stand at 6’0”. 

The idea that Takagi could hang with heavyweights was never in question. He not only thrived in All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Champion Carnival the year prior, but anyone with a clue had figured out that Takagi was simply one of the best and most adaptable wrestlers on the planet and had been since he debuted in late 2004. He had never had any issues battling Dragongate’s heavyweight artillery between YAMATO, Masaaki Mochizuki, or Don Fujii, but Dragongate’s booking patterns often favored Takagi, a homegrown talent who has the distinct honor of being their first dojo graduate. Dragongate was Shingo’s home and the booking reflected that. 

New Japan was a different ballgame.

Takagi was an outsider. His debut was largely due to Hiromu Takahashi being put on the shelf with a neck injury and Los Ingobernables de Japon needing a second junior. Takahashi was a bonafide star and he had never come close to becoming a viable heavyweight. Takahashi was a product of New Japan, someone that had clearly spent time and money investing in, and yet he felt like he had a ceiling. 

After Takagi’s first loss to Ospreay, I wrote, “Ultimately, there will be a time in which Takagi and the powers that be in New Japan will come to a fork in the road: will Takagi become a headlining junior star the same way that KUSHIDA and Takahashi have in which Takagi will headline the lesser of the Destruction shows and a large chunk of the stops during the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, or will he leverage his credibility as a former ace of Dragongate and his size as a power junior into a heavyweight role?”

Any doubts the promotion had about Takagi’s heavyweight credibility were destroyed after the 2019 G1 Climax. The outsider amassed 8 points and rattled off a handful of matches that could have won Match of the Tournament honors from any credible pundit. Takagi closed out the tournament with a sickening four-match stretch, producing banger-after-banger-after-banger-after-banger with Jeff Cobb, Tetsuya Naito, Tomohiro Ishii, and Hirooki Goto, respectively. It was an all-time G1 run. Performances like Takagi’s are why the G1 continues to be wrestling’s most prestigious tournament, 30 years after its inception. 

The Ishii match, in particular, shed light on what I thought Takagi’s future would be. They wrestled in Yokohama, 31 years to the day after Antonio Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami wrestled to an hour-long draw in a mind-blowing technical classic in the same city. Ishii and Takagi didn’t trade holds like Inoki and Fujinami did; they simply beat each other’s brains in. The heart, intensity, and determination that inspired Inoki and Fujinami to press on lived within Ishii and Takagi that night. 

With Ishii nearing his 45th birthday at the time of that match, I began thinking that Takagi would slip into his role as New Japan’s proverbial bridesmaid. He was always going to outwork everyone, he was always going to have the best matches, but he was never going to be properly rewarded for it. 

Ishii was a disciple of Riki Choshu for years before finding his footing in New Japan. Takagi, not only a Dragongate Dojo graduate, but an alumni of Animal Hamaguchi’s dojo as well. These weren’t New Japan guys. Their hard-hitting, aggressive style was in direct contrast to the prettiness of New Japan’s heavyweight title scene. They weren’t meant to be champions. 

Just as I suspected, Takagi followed in Ishii’s footsteps, securing the NEVER Openweight Championship in early 2020, then defending it successfully against Ishii in a match right before New Japan’s initial COVID shutdown. 

Had Takagi’s New Japan career peaked with the NEVER Openweight Title, I would’ve called it a win. Takagi’s brief reign as NEVER champion harkened back to the original idea of the title, one that had been washed away over time. Takagi made a point of having juniors step up to the plate and challenge him. SHO and El Desperado did all they could, but it wasn’t enough. Takagi powered right past them before being halted by Minoru Suzuki. 

The night Suzuki defeated Takagi was the night that I threw my hands up at New Japan. Not because Takagi lost the NEVER belt, although that certainly didn’t help matters, but because New Japan had established that their post-hiatus ideologies were not for me. The promotion had turned into utter shit. The EVIL-Naito series was an embarrassment. Only peak Inokiism nonsense will save it from being the worst New Japan main event program in the company’s history. The King of Pro Wrestling Title debuted the same night, another embarrassment of an idea. Even the previously reliable combination of Hiromu Takahashi and Taiji Ishimori failed to light my world on fire. 

New Japan had jumped the shark and then turned around to jump it again. 

The wretchedness that plagued New Japan’s summer output, unfortunately, seeped into the B Block of the 2020 G1 Climax. The usual suspects, the worst offenders of New Japan’s worst tropes, were all paired together in a block that was largely unwatchable. Luckily, Takagi escaped that mess and found himself in the opposing block with a number of fresh, first-time matchups against New Japan’s top dogs in Kazuchika Okada and Kota Ibushi, as well as a long-awaited rematch against Will Ospreay. 

The Ibushi and Ospreay matches were superb. They followed a formula that Takagi has had success in for his entire career. Takagi treated his smaller opponents like dorks in gym class. Takagi was an unforgiving bully, running over both men in preparation for his match against Okada. 

Whether his fortunes within New Japan were altered by his performance on October 10, 2020, is unknown, but for me, someone who has followed Takagi’s as closely as anyone has, I know that I came away from that match thinking differently about Takagi than I ever had before. Words fail me when I try to explain how good Takagi was in this match. 

I often talk about how the Dragongate roster, in terms of in-ring ability, promos, and charisma, are the most talented roster in wrestling. No one can do what they do. I firmly believe this. Whether it’s been Akira Tozawa in PWG, PAC in AEW, or Shingo’s first two years in New Japan, Dragongate wrestlers have always broken out of the pack and produced undeniable greatness outside of their own bubble. Still, to see Takagi, a Dragongate trueborn, go nose-to-nose with Kazuchika Okada (a student of Ultimo Dragon, but all things considered, a product of New Japan) and to be seen on Okada’s level was a sight to behold. Even more impressive, Takagi looked like he belonged on Okada’s level. 

When both men eventually call it quits, their resume of great matches will be sickeningly long. They both spent the 2010’s producing great matches at a rapid pace, producing classics that have been long-forgotten in an era with a premium surplus of content. 

The first Okada vs. Takagi match will not fall victim to such treatment. 

Nothing was guaranteed in the fallout to Okada vs. Takagi. In reality, the match was no different than what Takagi had been doing for his entire career, he had just finally found an opponent on his level. Okada’s star power and charisma was the perfect foil for the brute force of Shingo Takagi. The violence echoed Takagi’s prior biggest rival, BxB Hulk, who, at the time of their rivalry, was every bit as pretty as Kazuchika Okada. 

When they resumed battle in March 2021, Takagi found weaknesses in Okada’s game that he was unable to snuff out in their first encounter. The beauty of their New Japan Cup match is that Okada got the shit kicked out of him in a way that he never has before. One could argue that the infamous Katsuyori Shibata match is the biggest beating that Okada has ever taken, but Okada ultimately fought back and won that match. Okada’s body had been through hell in the four-year interim between Shibata and the second Takagi match. He had no answers for The Dragon. Nothing. Takagi beat him, evening their series while pulling away as the most outstanding wrestler of 2021. 

Despite being surrounded by a cesspool of worn-out wrestlers, bankrupt ideas, and an inescapable lethargy that hangs over the promotion’s head without fail, Shingo Takagi has racked up an inordinate amount of great matches in the first half of 2021. Any wrestler would dream of having a match as good as he did against Jeff Cobb at the Tokyo Dome on January 5, but then Takagi followed that up with the Hiroshi Tanahashi match at the end of the month that was somehow better than that. He then racked up great matches with Okada, Goto, and KENTA, before a thrilling encounter with Will Ospreay in the finals of the New Japan Cup. His subsequent IWGP World Championship match against Ospreay was nothing to sneeze at, either. 

The incredible thing about Takagi’s victory against Okada to capture the IWGP World Championship is that Okada is not his “final boss”. His sights are still set on Will Ospreay. Shingo Takagi defeated Kazuchika Okada for the world title in a match that put him up 2-1 all-time in their singles match series and the end goal isn’t to have Okada enact revenge. Takagi just placed himself atop the food chain. Okada was just a roadblock that Takagi easily hurdled. 

My patience is thin with New Japan. I straight up do not like this promotion at times. I think they have become a parody of themselves ever since they unified the titles on January 5, 2020. There’s a part of me that wants to be grumpy and complain that they’ve hindered Takagi’s legacy by handing him a new belt, one with a sketchy lineage, instead of having him win the old IWGP belt that was held by the likes of Tatsumi Fujinami, Shinya Hashimoto, and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Around the waist of any other man and the IWGP World Championship would be nothing more than a prop. Around the waist of Takagi, it is a symbol that there is still life in New Japan. 

His victory over Okada also validates 20 years of Dragon System excellence in the eyes of mainstream puroresu press and fans. Since their inception, they have struggled to gain rightful praise outside of a rare magazine cover or a Super J Cup participant. Takagi, now standing atop the most popular promotion in Japan, puts an undeniable seal of greatness on Ultimo Dragon’s initial vision. 

Takagi entered Dragongate as a blue-chip prospect and quickly rose through the ranks. He became an ROH Tag Team Champion during his brief time with the promotion. He was the MVP of Dragon Gate USA when they were able to bring him in. He’s put forth classic efforts for lesser promotions like Diamond Ring and Zero-One. When All Japan and Big Japan came calling, he thrived in those environments. Inside of Dragongate, he’s one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the history of the promotion. Since he graduated from the promotion, he’s easily become the greatest success story outside of the promotion. I never would’ve imagined his success would be this great.

Shingo Takagi, as of June 7, 2021, should be considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. By the time his career eventually ends (remember, this man is not yet 40), we could very easily be looking at the single greatest pro wrestler to ever exist. Right now, all that we know for sure is that Takagi is guiding a barrage of burning shit back to the promised land. 

The Dragongate import personifies the very foundation that New Japan Pro Wrestling was built on.