There’s something captivating about burgeoning potential.  Whether it’s perusing the menu at a new restaurant, going home with a booster pack of Magic: The Gathering in your pocket or waiting for that final goal on your betting slip, sometimes it’s wonderful to live in that moment between potentiality and actuality.

Of course, the same applies to wrestlers.  I worry, for many, that this has been lost.  Like with many aspects of wrestling, the WWE has stolen the word “developmental.”  The term has ruptured its meaning, becoming an area in which to exist instead of a process to experience.  “Development” has lost all of its movement in that company, and has become mired in stagnancy. In fact, development has become still in almost every sense.  They wrestle in one state of one country, they wrestle the same melodramatic style, they deliver the same promos and they fade into the background.  The viewer’s mind slows along with it, with many of us forgetting particular wrestlers even exist once they disappear into the swampy Florida fog.

The UK scene used to be a bubbling pot of excitement, with wrestlers developing their craft in front of thirty people before scratching their way to improvements and bigger crowds.  That has now been stolen, as a hint of promise means a premature ejaculation of a major contract and stunted development.

There are, however, places where development is still vibrant.  The Young Lion system.   The top of the card main events of New Japan may be the true spectacle, but the burgeoning potential of the black-trunked, shaven-headed Young Lions can invite just as much thought.  The overarching, smothering control of the Florida system is an embarrassing thought in this field.   There’s constant movement, where wrestlers add more and more moves to their repertoire, risking their dignity in front of a live crowd on a nightly basis.  They are then launched to the other side of the Earth to learn to portray a character and find themselves on excursion.  The process often feels slow, but on reflection is always a 200 mile-per-hour blink.  

It’s the excursion that I find the most fascinating.  I often wonder how these young stars feel on the plane.  What are they excited about?  What are they afraid of?  When Shota Umino flew to the UK, was he watching Dynamite Kid matches and dreaming of Wigan?

It’s the romanticism that is captivating; it’s the concept of a young man heading to a new territory to perfect his craft.  I don’t know what Shota thought of on that long journey, in the same way I don’t know how Johnny Gargano felt after his first promo class, but the streaming era has brought us something we’ve never had before.  Everything.  Every match.  How has Shota changed on his excursion?

Pre-Excursion

The defining story of Umino’s Young Lion career was his relationship with Jon Moxley.  For many, their story was a fun diversion and an interesting tag partner for the former WWE star on his own personal redemption tour.  I loved that aspect of the story too, but the power imbalance was often only cursory.  Their stories, while driving different roads, had the same destination.

Moxley was always better than his surroundings.  He was always better than the cartoon hot-dog stand tom-foolery that he was doing in New York.  He was the epitome of that potentiality never quite becoming actuality.  That fact is often lost, because his actuality was so high.  He was a former world champion and one of the biggest stars in the company.  Unfortunately for Mox, his potentiality was to become one of the biggest wrestlers in the world.

While Umino might not have the weight of indie and mainstream experience behind him, it’s the level of potentiality that linked them together.  Watch the way he enters the ring for his US title shot.  He’s hitting the beats, but he’s dripping in the intangible.  He runs to the ring, stretches on the ropes and screams when his name is announced just like every Young Lion but there’s a difference.  He moves with the one intangible that defines all of the greatest wrestlers: star power.  It’s almost impossible to describe, but applies to all of the truly transcendental wrestlers.  Is Minoru Suzuki brilliant because his piledrivers are perfect?  Is Tanahashi so well-loved because he has a nice cloverleaf?  Is it Okada’s dropkick that made him famous?  It’s the way they operate as a vacuum that makes them so captivating.  Our eyes are drawn to the way they move an eyebrow, or the way they reach for a rope.  Umino, perhaps subconsciously, understands this subtle yet colossal difference.  He was a Young Lion in black trunks wrestling in a match that was designed to give Moxley a cool way to announce his entry into the G1, whilst concurrently filling that space to the point of overflowing.  He fit.

It helps that the subsequent story took a path so often undervalued in wrestling: an actual relationship.  Perhaps it was a latent recognition that, despite all of their differences, it was their potential to be worldwide stars that gave them common ground, but their relationship was never forced.  It was real; a lego brick waiting for us to connect.

After tagging with Moxley, Shota’s road took him to the Young Lion Cup League.  It all came down to the final match, with the winner of Umino and Karl Fredericks taking the prize.  As great as Fredericks is, the aura of Umino is the most captivating thing about this match.  It’s the little things, like the slight delayed step on the entrance ramp or the post-boot stalk in his control period.  He demonstrates something beyond understanding; it’s an inherent ability.

If true developmental is resistance to stagnancy, this was perfectly encapsulated by Umino crawling towards Fredericks and his freshly engraved cup at the end of this match.  

Shota Umino

Off To Rev Pro

Like the Moxley/Shota relationship, I always feel like there’s a layer of analysis missing from talk about Rev Pro.  For a long time, they were seen as the stuffier brother of Progress.  They weren’t as cool, the after-parties weren’t as popular and the clientele was a little less insecure.  What is often forgotten is that they went beyond the often dismissive label of “UK super indie.”  Yes, their relationship with New Japan is incredibly important, but Andy Quildan is a proper booker.  He uses the stars of New Japan as a resource.  Booking them isn’t the destination, it’s the start of a very exciting journey.  As with Oka, giving Shota to Quildan was a smart choice.

Umino didn’t miss a step. His debut at the Cockpit against Carlos Romo was a declaration.  The Cockpit, for the uninitiated, is a small boxing venue that seats a few hundred fans.  Only the most dedicated RevPro fans go, but for many wrestlers this is more imposing than a night at the bigger York Hall.  The venue isn’t as much intimate as it is close.  The fans are there, scrutinizing.  A laugh or a mocking shout doesn’t fade away into the ether.  It goes straight to your ears.

Carlos Romo was arguably the Umino of Europe; he was our hot prospect.  Of course, Umino held his own. He was convincing in his control periods and reliable during Romo’s.  Watching the match, however, made me wonder about Umino’s curriculum.  Developmental, as we talked about before, has been hijacked.  It’s associated with learning to take bumps and picking up new moves.  This didn’t seem to be part of Umino’s diet.  What stood out was a development of his movements.  He stretched his legs like Kento Miyahara, and bounced as he entered the ring like Hiroshi Tanahashi.  I wasn’t impressed by his arm bars, I was impressed by his determined-yet-broken stoicism when Romo laid in the strikes.

Umino’s selling was unbelievable.  His perfectly timed comeback, his misty-eyed stares and his sudden bursts of energy demonstrated an understanding of craft and storytelling to a level that many wrestlers never achieve.  The rematch a few months later, didn’t quite hit the same heights, but development and improvement is rarely a straight line.  

Of course, there was an element of wrestling to his opponent.  He was able to build a whirlwind of a match with the red hot (at the time) Michael Oku, which led to an interesting tag combination. Unfortunately, he struggled with the one-note style of Hikuleo, resorting to brawling in the crowd and winning with a sloppy pin combination against the bigger man.  However, there’s always a positive with Umino, and the children chanting his name spoke to his inherent star power.

It’s perhaps unfair to criticize him for dropping the ball slightly against the likes of Hikuleo, especially when the next show dropped him in a tag team match against Robbie X and Ricky Knight Jr.  For those unfamiliar with Rev Pro, Robbie and Ricky are perhaps British wrestling’s best-kept secrets.  Robbie X is a chubby bloke who wouldn’t look out of place on a builder’s yard, but he can wrestle like a bolt of lightning with an extra sprinkling of violence.  RKJ, from the famed Knight family, is a bruiser.  He’s a thug that looks like he would steal a charity box and rob your moped.  Unfortunately, the match was good rather than great.  Like Oka before him, Umino reached a stall in his excursion where that developmental motion seemed to have stopped.  With his tag work this was often literal, spending the meaty part of the matches practicing his selling on the outside.  While his work wasn’t stale by any stretch, it wasn’t fresh.  If this was the first match of his I’d have seen, I’d have been impressed.  However, he was ten matches deep into his excursion and I needed to see something new.  I understand wrestling-by-numbers with Hikuleo, but this felt like a missed opportunity.

As Umino worked his way up the card, we started to see this stall become more and more apparent.  His main event against Mark Haskins was fine, with a few new suplexes delivered clumsily.  There were brilliant bursts of energy against Robbie X in Southampton, but, again, it felt like a missed opportunity against such a dynamic wrestler.  It was a good match, with a captivating story, but it struggled to find the level it should have.

Umino’s biggest match came at Risky Business, with a main event against the big import, Jay Lethal.  This was the first match that I felt Shota truly rose to the occasion.  There was a beautiful irony to the match.  The experienced Lethal should have been giving the rub to the younger star, but it was Umino’s great aura that gave the tired Lethal flashback to his old credibility.  The match plodded at times, but it was never due to Umino.  He legitimized Lethal’s leg work and made a Sheffield bar feel like an arena.

What’s Next?

Umino is a captivating person.  He has a swagger that few wrestlers have, but he’s also defined by a strange inversion.  Most wrestlers go on excursions to learn the wider craft—to work crowds and tell wrestling stories—but this all comes so easily to Umino. He is head and shoulders above wrestlers with twice his experience.  What Umino needs is that one match.  Whether he can have that in RevPro where the temporary nature of his position defines his booking limits, remains to be seen.  What is clear, however, is that he is on a path to have these matches eventually.  He’s a series of moving puzzle pieces that aren’t quite connecting, but it’s never frustrating.  I can watch Umino with confidence because I know that one day soon those puzzle pieces will come together.  

He has returned to RevPro as they come out of their COVID-19 slumber, and I hope it is with a renewed enthusiasm for his journey to the top.

It’s not a coincidence that Umino often comes to the ring last.  It’s not a coincidence that he is learning to kick out at 2.99 in main events.  It’s not a coincidence that he is learning to wrestle like he’s at the Tokyo Dome.  He’s isn’t on an excursion to learn how to be a wrestler.  He’s on an excursion to learn how to be a star.