It’s March 23 and Toru Sugiura, the reigning King of FREEDOM champion, is having a tough day at the office.

His opponent is Takayuki Ueki, an angry-looking man with a mohawk, black jeans, combat boots, and an affinity for head trauma. Ueki is part of a frightening group of men named E.R.E. (Empire Ruler Ends, don’t ask me), led by Masashi Takeda and intent on giving Sugiura a hard time. In February, after he defeated Ueki’s partner Toshiyuki Sakuda, crew members had to rush the ring and bandage Sugiura’s head to slow the cascades of blood flow.

On this night, Sugiura’s skull will alternate colliding with Ueki’s or one of Ueki concrete cinder blocks for twenty-five minutes. Slumped over the ropes, over 500 days into a title reign that regularly puts him in the path of men like Takayuki Ueki, and looking out into the half-empty bleachers of a COVID-era Korakuen Hall, it’s easy to imagine Toru Sugiura wondering to himself, “Why would anyone choose to do this?” 

FROM KAZMA TO KOBASHI

For years there’d been signs that Sugiura was destined for the top spot in Pro Wrestling FREEDOMS. After being paired with the veteran Mammoth Sasaki, he held tag team gold for what, at the time, was a record-setting 427 days. In a rare feud of his own, Sugiura would spend 2017 being bullied around by Kazma Sakamoto, never quite able to gain the upper hand without Mammoth Sasaki’s help. Still, Sugiura’s knack for taking a beating went a long way in endearing him to the FREEDOMS faithful. It wasn’t uncommon for crowds that had golf-clapped his introduction to frantically cry his name out down the closing stretch. There was just something about the overeager pup with a sizeable paunch and a cartoonishly expressive face who’d engage with an audience of 150 like they were a sold-out Sumo Hall. 

He and Mammoth quietly dropped those titles in an untelevised bout, far in the backdrop of Masashi Takeda’s historic 2018. Takeda was simultaneously holding both of Japan’s premiere deathmatch belts: the Big Japan and King of FREEDOM titles. 

Sugiura would continue to set himself apart, acting as a sort of non-deathmatch ambassador for the company. He’d appeared for New Japan’s Lion’s Gate Project to face off with YOSHI-HASHI; when visitors like Shinjiro Otani, Go Shiozaki or Tsuyoshi Kikuchi came around, they’d meet him in the ring; and all the while he was never far from head honcho Takashi Sasaki’s side. His efforts were slowly but surely garnering him new fans and, as it turns out, one of them was Kenta Kobashi. 

In June of 2018, Sugiura was invited to be in the main event of Fortune Dream 5, the fifth edition of Kobashi’s annual produce show. It would be his first-ever headlining slot at Korakuen Hall. He was paired with Big Japan’s Takuya Nomura against (then) K-DOJO’s Ayato Yoshida and Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Kaito Kiyomiya. All four had been pegged by Kobashi as future champions. In the pre-match promos Sugiura, alongside the quiet and mild-mannered Nomura, was a ball of fire. He practically refused to relinquish the microphone, exhibiting an admirably Scrappy-Doo-ish energy in stark contrast to Takuya Nomura’s subdued Droopy. 

The match is bloated at around 25 minutes but all four men, each about to take tremendous strides in their respective careers, account well for themselves. What stands out most is an extended closing stretch that pits Sugiura, the oldest man in the match, against Kiyomiya, then 21 years old. It’s the same Kaito Kiyomiya that would soon capture the GHC Heavyweight Title hold it for over one year. The same Kaito Kiyomiya that’s overachieved on each progressively larger stage ever since. Never for one moment does Sugiura look out of his depth. If there is a gap in technical ability, Sugiura closes it with boundless charisma. Kiyomiya is a respectful guest in an icon’s home, Sugiura is digging around the fridge. It’s only a matter of time before Kiyomiya finishes Sugiura with a Tiger Suplex. 

COURTING DEATH

By the time 2019 rolled around, Sugiura didn’t appear any closer to fulfilling Kobashi’s championship prophecy. It seems there isn’t much upward mobility in battling the Kamui’s and Chikara’s of the world. In FREEDOMS, the path to main event glory runs directly through a bundle of light tubes. The upper end of the card was reserved for names like Violento Jack and Kenji Fukimoto, folks that look like they just got off work at the Universal Studios Classic Monsters Revue. If he wanted gold, he’d have to bleed for it.

In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure what Sugiura’s deathmatch experience had been prior. There was already a suspicious amount of scarring on his chest, and his Japanese Wikipedia page mentions a 2012 tournament. In Jun Kasai’s autobiography (as translated by Bahu) he writes that Sugiura had attempted a few deathmatches in 2013, but “could not handle it and ran away like an ass.” Either way, in March he’d take a decisive step into the deathmatch fold at FREEDOMS’ “The Gekokujo 2019,” and who better to greet him than Masashi Takeda? 

Takeda, to many, is the pinnacle of this corner of the sport; a world-class ring technician who’d be held in high esteem with or without the accouterment of deathmatch wrestling. Sugiura, aware of the gravity of this opportunity, emerges from the curtain with first-day-at-a-new-school energy. He steps up onto a bleacher to gesture to the crowd and immediately loses his balance, falling into a fan’s lap. That same nervous energy manifests later in his horrified expression while Takeda forcefeeds him a light tube and carves at his face with the broken shards. That terror might have been genuine. 

As quickly as Takeda can think up a new sadistic form of offense, Sugiura eagerly hurtles himself into it. By the time he fearlessly runs up the rungs of a ladder, draped precariously over the ring ropes, to launch himself onto Takeda at ringside, it’s eerily symbolic of the equally haphazard ascent his career’s just taken in a single night. He lost to Takeda that night in what, to that point, was unequivocally the best match of his career. He’d arrived, and the slew of high-profile deathmatches that followed only served as evidence. 

Toru Sugiura stands apart in the deathmatch wrestling world like an unassuming party guest who doesn’t know he’s entered a Russian Roulette den. While his most decorated peers – scarred head-to-toe, dressed like a tornado hit an army surplus – evoke an air of gritty masochism, Sugiura seems driven by an unbridled and innocent joy. We’ve all seen those images of bloodsoaked wrestlers, whites of their teeth showing through crimson masks in a snarled grin. Sugiura’s dumb, toothy smile feels wholly pure. Something less “Hey, you guys wanna see a dead body?” and more “Who wants to hit up karaoke after this?” 

Think of Jun Kasai’s rowdy entrances, Cocobat’s “Devil” blaring from the speakers. Or the exaggerated angst of Kenji Fukumoto’s JNCO-tinged selection, “Last Resort” by Papa Roach. Toru Sugiura would walk to the ring to a Plain White T’s song. Yes, folks, the “Hey There Delilah” band. His ring entrance had all the intimidation and foreboding dread of a teen romantic comedy.  

That’s just it though. So often, the deathmatch sphere, in its inherently gritty nature, takes strides to ground the fantastical elements of pro wrestling. Toru Sugiura is not grit. He’s certainly capable of grit, but when he finally stepped into the FREEDOMS deathmatch field he injected a colorful dose of showmanship that felt emphatically “pro wrestling.” Soon, he’d hone in on a more focused moveset, centered around a crowd-pleasing arsenal of Roaring Elbows. A picturesque Tope Con Hilo (he credits his leaping ability to a background in basketball) could assuage any doubts cast by an equally picturesque dad bod. He’d no longer count on the audience’s pity; he’d keep them on puppet strings.

So, what exactly changed? Deathmatch wrestling, with all its glass and blood and stunts and skewers, is sometimes written off as a crutch for wrestlers who possess more courage than talent. But if wrestling, at its heart, is just another storytelling medium, meant to escalate at all the right moments, does all that schlock not constitute a wider palette with which to paint your picture? Sugiura masterfully leverages the grislier aspects of deathmatch to heighten suspense, to compel the viewer. Rarely, if ever, is his aim to shock. 

Admittedly, he’d hit a ceiling—I don’t imagine many of you have a favorite Toru Sugiura match from his early years. Did he lack quality opponents (as evidenced by the outstanding Fortune Dream showdown with Kiyomiya) or were there just holes in his game that only barbed wire could compensate for? One way or another, the FREEDOMS deathmatch circuit and its rogues gallery were the missing pieces of the puzzle; from this point forward Sugiura would be a must-watch commodity, and he still hasn’t let up. 

Just six months later in a tag match that September he pinned reigning champion Jun Kasai, debuting the light tube-assisted elbow smash that would become his trademark finisher. With that victory he punched a ticket to his second Korakuen Hall main event, challenging for the King of FREEDOM title at their 10th Anniversary Celebration.  

The bout with Kasai checks every box necessary for a proper torch-passing. There’s a big fight feel, both men coming out in all-white gear to make those bloodstains pop. Even Sugiura – whose gear, then, was a furry pair of jorts – managed to track down some white denim for the occasion. Kasai appears a step ahead and a tier above Sugiura for much of the match, and rightfully so. Jun Kasai had long been the ace of FREEDOMS, and to some, deathmatch at large. He was approaching 300 days of dominance in his fourth title reign. When Kasai attempts his Pearl Harbor Splash from atop a ladder, Sugiura creates an opening by defending himself with a board of knives. The resulting scramble devolves into an exchange of forearms – the pièce de résistance of Sugiura’s toolkit. When a final forearm, bolstered once more by a light tube, puts Kasai down, Korakuen Hall takes a collective gasp. Kasai himself is slow to accept what’s happened. He confers with his cornerman for the evening – Masashi Takeda – before finally handing the belt over to Sugiura, who’s all but melted into a puddle of heaving sobs. 

THE KING OF FREEDOM

Toru Sugiura now sat atop the heap in Pro Wrestling FREEDOMS, and as we’d all come to find, the position suited him well. His first defense would come at “Blood X’Mas,” a co-production with Jun Kasai and the biggest annual show on the FREEDOMS calendar. The 2019 edition would do their biggest attendance number to date. Much of that could be attributed to Kasai teaming with fellow deathmatch legend Ryuji Ito for the first time in a FREEDOMS ring. Still, it’s telling that the company would not bump their new star from the closing slot. After the tag match with Ito, Jun Kasai laid down his goggles in the center of the ring and said goodbye. Due to injuries, he’d be stepping away for an undetermined span of time. In the main event, Toru Sugiura successfully defended against Violento Jack in an instant classic. 

For his second defense in February, he’d make it rain glass shards over Yuko Miyamoto in a “Tower of Terror Fluorescent Light Tube Tower Deathmatch.” In the aftermath, a new challenger entered the ring: Takumi Tsukamoto. But that’s strange, isn’t it? Tsukamoto was only making sporadic appearances for the company. By most accounts, Tsukamoto was stepping in on short notice. The next challenger was meant to be Masashi Takeda, it seems. Unfortunately, he’d just had a knife stuck in his back. 

To be clear, I don’t mean that as a figure of speech. Nobody had betrayed Takeda or anything like that. I mean that he literally had a knife stuck in his back. 

Earlier that month, FREEDOMS played host to American independent Game Changer Wrestling for a run of shows in Tokyo. At the first of those shows, a headlining bout between Takeda and American deathmatch standout Orin Veidt ended suddenly when Takeda took a bad fall onto a board covered in knives. The resulting injuries would put him on the shelf for four months. 

With the onset of COVID-19 and both Takeda and Kasai out of action, Sugiura took the reins under truly tumultuous conditions. The pandemic would delay the match with Tsukamoto until June, where Sugiura would dispatch the challenger in a barnburner. The celebration wouldn’t last long. Only moments after Tsukamoto exited the ring, Masashi Takeda arrived in his place, flattening an exhausted Sugiura with a light tube shot to the head. He’d returned, and he wanted his shot at the title. Upon regaining his faculties Sugiura stood, wiped a glob of fresh blood from his face, and smushed it into Takeda’s.

Challenge accepted. 

HIS LAST CHANCE

In an interview with Solo Wrestling last year, Violento Jack notes some of the ways he finds Toru Sugiura different from his more bloodthirsty counterparts. The champion, he says, has brought a very different style to deathmatch wrestling. 

That July, the Toru Sugiura who walked out to face Masashi Takeda at “Tokyo Deathmatch Carnival Vol. 2” was an entirely different animal than the one who’d stumbled into the bleachers sixteen months prior. Gone were the furry jorts, replaced by a pair of sleek blue and silver shorts and a matching entrance robe. He’d finally kicked that Plain White T’s song, too. Granted, he replaced it with Mega Man music, but it was still an upgrade. Most of all, now he was prepared. 

Now it’s Sugiura that leverages a light tube in Takeda’s mouth, and shatters it with a knee to the back of the skull. He takes the remaining pieces in his hands and uses them to carve into Takeda’s forehead. This is different from the chubby fan favorite that eschewed the “amateur surgery” aspects of deathmatch in favor of an old-fashioned Roaring Elbow. This is an angry man, meeting Masashi Takeda on his own terms to finally vanquish the specter that’s seemingly hung over every major moment of his career. The two wage war with strikes that would make you wince even if they weren’t on a battlefield of broken glass; even if they didn’t have syringes hanging out of their cheeks. It’s intense and visceral to a degree that seems completely unsustainable over the duration of a world title match. 

And, well, it is. 

After twelve minutes the match is called off. Somewhere in the chaos, Takeda suffered a laceration to his arm that was bleeding too heavily for him to continue. While it’s unfortunate that a match on that sort of trajectory had to end prematurely (they’d have a proper rematch in December), it’s a serendipitously appropriate way for Sugiura to finally trump his rival: one of them having to be dragged away to keep from bleeding to death. 

In the aforementioned interview, Violento Jack observes that while competitors like Takeda and Kasai live and breathe deathmatch wrestling, Sugiura doesn’t even particularly enjoy it. He’d been in the business for years already, his daughter was born, and he had to provide for a family. It was his last chance at breaking through; he hardly had a choice. It’s lucky then, that he turned out to be one of the best in the world.

Today, Violento Jack is a member of E.R.E. Next month, he’ll be the challenger in Sugiura’s tenth defense of the King of FREEDOM title. He’ll be the third repeat challenger Sugiura will have faced, which speaks to the biggest obstacles in Toru Sugiura’s reign: the limitations of the company and the talent available to it, both exacerbated by a global health crisis. He’s running out of mountains to climb, and we’re likely approaching the closing chapters of a career-defining stretch.

Should Sugiura defeat Jack, there’ll only be one member left of E.R.E. to topple: their leader, Masashi Takeda.