The CyberFight Festival, held on June 6, was a unique event that featured wrestlers from DDT, Pro Wrestling NOAH, Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling, and Ganbare Pro – all promotions that are owned by the CyberAgent media conglomerate. The event was meant to mark the start of a new era, where CyberAgent’s wrestling promotions could take on those of its rival BushiRoad, New Japan Pro Wrestling and Wonder Ring Stardom. But strangely, the top matches on this supercard were more reminiscent of puroresu’s past than its present.

The two last matches on the card were title matches from the biggest promotions under the umbrella, DDT and NOAH. Both matches featured a champion in his 50s who had become iconic wrestling figures in the 1990s – AJPW and NOAH legend Jun Akiyama defending DDT’s KO-D Championship and NJPW and WCW star Keiji Mutoh holding NOAH’s Glory Honored Crown. Both also featured challengers in their 40s who had carried their respective companies through a turbulent 2010s in HARASHIMA for DDT and Naomichi Marufuji for NOAH.

It’s not coincidental that Mutoh and Akiyama’s title reigns have coincided. The two won their belts days apart in February, and have been featured together as part of CyberAgent press conferences and photoshoots. Both brands are managed by DDT founder Sanshiro Takagi. The use of two older champions at the same time provided a marketing hook to help draw attention to both brands and potentially bring in more traditional puro fans.

Mutoh and Akiyama are not alone in their promotions. A year before Akiyama became champion, Masato Tanaka became KO-D champion in similar fashion. Tanaka had a dominant run with great matches against young stars like Mao and Konosuke Takeshita before losing the belt to Tetsuya Endo at Peter Pan, DDT’s signature event. In NOAH, other veterans like Kazuyuki Fujita, Takashi Sugiura and Kazushi Sakuraba have been positioned high on the card, with Fujita and Sugiura both having recent runs with NOAH’s National title.

The question becomes: what does the ascendence of older wrestlers to the top of relatively young promotions mean?

Wrestling fans have long reviled aging stars who hold on past their prime. WCW’s downfall is often attributed in part to keeping middle-aged wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Roddy Piper in the main event, and those wrestlers were much younger then than Akiyama and Mutoh are now. The conventional wisdom would be to do what New Japan Pro Wrestling does and gradually work wrestlers down the card once they’re on the wrong side of 40.

But nostalgia is a powerful drug, and seemingly ever more so. American wrestling has long been in thrall to its heyday in the 1980s and 90s, and it continues to this day with WWE featuring names like Goldberg, Edge and until recently the Undertaker in major match-ups. Even alternative promotions like AEW and Impact are still chock full of stars and concepts from prior decades. I started following wrestling in 2006, when the big WWE storylines were the DX reunion and the revival of ECW, and 15 years later it’s still full of references to before my time. Of course, culture more broadly is increasingly dominated by reboots, revival and retro aesthetics. In an age of splintering audiences, something familiar is often the best commercial bet.

It would be silly to expect that Japanese wrestling would be immune to these nostalgic tendencies. But I think there’s something other than pure nostalgia going on here. Unlike American wrestling, puro has always allowed its athletes to grow old. When DX battled the Brothers of Destruction at a Saudi show in 2019, an exercise in nostalgia for an audience of one, all four men did their best to look and behave as they did in the 1990s as much as possible. By contrast, Japanese wrestlers transform into surly veterans, typically unable to defeat younger stars but perfectly able to give a beating to anyone who disrespects them. The white-haired, pudgy GHC champion Keiji Mutoh is visibly not the same man as the lusciously-maned athlete who went toe to toe with Ryo Chonan decades earlier, and he doesn’t try to be.

Of the two, Akiyama’s run has to be considered more successful. The former AJPW and NOAH star had consigned himself to comedy multi-man tags in AJPW, but seems to have found new life in DDT. Akiyama won the belt from Tetsuya Endo in a memorable match, and defended it against Kazusada Higuchi in a brutal slugfest that’s one of my favorite matches so far this year.

The biggest triumph of his reign, however, was against DDT comedy kingpin and walking gay joke Danshoku Dieno. Dieno is typically engaged in shenanigans lower on down the card, and hadn’t been presented as a serious contender since losing the belt in 2018. Against Akiyama, however, Dieno became a compelling figure, fighting desperately for his vision of wrestling against the more-respected interloper. At times I legitimately bought on nearfalls, despite how obvious it seemed at first that Akiyama was winning. Ultimately, the two men, both of whom were well past their athletic primes, put on a compelling wrestling match while still incorporating the humor that makes DDT what it is.

Jun Akiyama is no longer as athletic as he was in his 1990s and 2000s, but he makes up for it with a veteran’s understanding of how to pace a match and make his opponent look good. He’s still capable of going hard physically as well. Akiyama also hasn’t been the egoistic veteran looking to put himself over as much as possible, dropping multiple falls to DDT’s bumper crop of young talent such as Endo and Shunma Katsumata.

The reception to Mutoh’s run as GHC Heavyweight Champion has been more mixed. After years of obscurity, NOAH began to regain popularity amidst wrestling diehards in 2020. This was largely due to Go Shiozaki’s championship run, which saw everything from a thirty-minute staring contest against Kazuyuki Fujita to an epic sixty-minute draw against Kenoh to a slugfest against Katsuhiko Nakajima. With NJPW’s main title dominated by interference and dirty finishes, many turned to NOAH as a bastion of pure wrestling. Many assumed that the end of Shiozaki’s epic reign would come at the hands of one of the stars who would help carry NOAH into a new decade. Instead, the one to end his historic run was Mutoh.

Some fans came to appreciate Mutoh’s slower style, while others saw it as the height of old, powerful wrestlers putting themselves over younger stars. Like Akiyama, Mutoh used match structure and veteran know-how to make up for a loss in athleticism, but there is only so far that this trade-off can go. Mutoh’s title defenses were filled with mat grappling, a few genuinely impressive bumps, and a lot of what could uncharitably be called rest holds. They were good for a man of his age, but “good for a man of his age” is still a step down from the match of the year contenders that defined Shiozaki’s reign.

At CyberFight Festival, Akiyama and HARASHIMA came out in the co-main event spot, following a hellacious title match by Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling’s Miyu Yamashita and Yuka Sakazuki. (Unlike its two brother promotions, TJPW kept its title on young stars – there was no Aja Kong coming in for one last title run.) It was a good match, one that featured a clash of styles between Akiyama’s classic King’s Road and HARASHIMA’s indie-influenced junior style. In the end, Akiyama stood victorious, making a third title defense. At the end of the show, he appeared in a big group photo at the front of the stage, with legendary blow-up doll wrestler Yoshihiko wrapped around his neck. He had conquered DDT, both its humorous and serious elements.

Mutoh’s main event match against Marufuji was structured somewhat oddly. The champion dominated the opening of the encounter, working over the challenger’s leg as he cried out in agony. Indeed, almost all of the match’s length was controlled by Mutoh. The champion blasted Marufuji with his signature shining wizard several times, but the challenger kept kicking out. Finally, Mutoh hit the moonsault that had made him famous decades ago, a move that he had sworn not to do again because of the damage to his knees. The pained expression on his face immediately showed why the move was no longer part of Mutoh’s regular repertoire.

This desperation move was followed by a few short minutes of kicks and knees from Marufuji. The NOAH veteran pinned the champion to the shock of the assembled crowd inside Saitama Super Arena. The reign of Mutoh was over, and Marufuji was once again GHC Heavyweight Champion. In the end, Mutoh’s win streak had come not at the hands of one of NOAH’s young stars but to the seemingly over-the-hill Marufuji.

If the idea was that Mutoh and Akiyama would put over a new generation of wrestlers, the results are decidedly mixed. Mutoh has largely teamed with other veterans as part of his M’s Alliance faction, and lost the title to a man in his 40s. Akiyama has been involved with more young wrestlers – his faction, Junretsu, contains the recently-debuted Hideki Okatani and the rising Yusuke Okada, and it seems likely he will lose the title at the upcoming Peter Pan event, probably to 26-year-old phenom Konosuke Takeshita.

But, as with Tanaka, one wonders if having a veteran lose to one man is really worth him defeating the entire roster on the way there. Akiyama and Mutoh are both under contracts to CyberFight, and their runs could still end in a string of star-making defeats. (Mutoh has recently returned under his Great Muta persona to feud with young heel Kenoh.) But given Mutoh’s history of not losing often, skepticism is likely deserved.

Even when older stars do the right thing and lose to the next generation, it can still create the impression so common in US wrestling that what happened in the 1990s was so much more interesting and important than what happened today. The classic example of this would be HHH, who “passed the torch” to Cena and Batista in the mid-2000s and was still in a position a decade later to “pass the torch” to Roman Reigns in another WrestleMania main event. Or, to return to our case, Mutoh losing to Tanahashi to cement him as the new ace in 2009 (while still going over names like Goto and Naito and hurting their momentum), and still being a world champion in 2021. Even putting a young star over can be an egoistic act that works to add to a wrestler’s sense of importance.

Perhaps it’s better to see the return of old stars as an end in itself, a special attraction instead of an instrument to get another generation over. After all, Akiyama and Tanaka’s matches as KO-D champion were every bit as entertaining as those of younger champions like Endo and Takeshita. The pleasure of nostalgia is not an entirely guilty one. And with advances in sport sciences and nutrition helping some competitive athletes remain elite into their late 30s, perhaps we need to start seeing wrestlers’ primes as being able to stretch into their 40s and 50s.

CyberAgent’s choice of two wrestlers in their 50s as champions at the same time was an attention-grabbing move, and one that seemed to fly in the face of decades of conventional wisdom (at least among fans, if not promoters.)

In the end, it’s been something of a mixed bag, with Akiyama’s reign in DDT being higher-quality and less divisive than Mutoh’s in NOAH. In terms of business and building new stars, it will probably take years to tell if putting Akiyama and Mutoh on top was a smart move. But if nothing else, there will always be a memorable time when, in the midst of a pandemic, old men dominated a significant portion of the Japanese wrestling scene.