FINAL GATE 2021
DECEMBER 26, 2021
FUKUOKA KOKUSAI CENTER – FUKUOKA, JAPAN
DON FUJII, KAGETORA, MASAAKI MOCHIZUKI, & YASUSHI KANDA DEF. RYU FUDA, SHOYA SATO, TAKUMI FUJIWARA, & TAKUYA HAYAKAWA
Don Fujii must’ve missed this whole “Christmas spirit” memo. The 51-year-old led the charge as Dragongate’s angriest dads brought down the hammer on two-thirds of the Dragongate FUTURE class. We saw the usual pairings of Mochizuki and Fuda, Kanda and Hayakawa, Fujiwara and his main trainer Kagerora, and Fujii and Shoya Sato, the elder statesmen of the FUTURE class with an extensive judo background. Rarely is Fujii met with a rookie who has the strength and gumption to hit Fujii as hard as he hits the youngsters, but Sato is that man. His interactions with Fujii were violent as all hell and thus tremendously entertaining.
We were given a chance to see what all of the rookies do best in this eight-man, making it the perfect introduction for those that haven’t seen these kids work yet. Fuda, per usual, traded kicks with Mochizuki. Fujiwara, who Genki Horiguchi put over on English commentary as his favorite of the new class, flew around the ring with grace and precision and even debuted a great slingshot double stomp at one point. For Hayakawa, the smallest man on the roster, he put up a great fight against Kanda and nearly scored the win with his headlock takeover flash pin. Then, there was the aforementioned Sato, who stood out from the pack with his size, power, and stoic charisma.
It was Hayakawa, the plucky underdog, who the veterans scored their victory over. Fujii put him in the HIMEI, his signature Boston Crab, and after a brief save attempt by his classmates, was kicked directly in the back of the head by Mochizuki. Fujii wrenched in the hold and Hayakawa tapped. This was an excellent start to the show.
CHURAUMI SAVER & STRONG MACHINE J DEF. PUNCH TOMINAGA & ULTRA SOKI
Following in the footsteps of Genki Horiguchi in the opener, Jason Lee joined Dragongate Jae at the commentary table for this bout.
Saver and Soki are members of the Okinawa-based Ryukyu Dragon Pro promotion that Dragongate often does business with. This was largely unspectacular outside of Jae relentlessly burying Tominaga’s hairline and Jason Lee loudly wondering why Tominaga decided to wear a headband to the ring. At one point, Jae described this match as “three masked men and a bald guy” and then suggested that Tominaga start wearing a mask. Tremendous stuff.
Saver connected with a 450 Splash on Tominaga for the win. Saver didn’t rotate all the way and landed feet-first onto Tominaga’s ribs, just like La Estrella did at the most recent Korakuen Hall show. Consider it a Christmas miracle. **1/4
DIAMANTE DEF. LA ESTRELLA
The first minute of this match saw both men spill to the floor and brawl up the entrance way, only for La Estrella to connect with a senton off the entrance ramp. I thought at that point we were going to be guaranteed a great match.
I was hoping that given how these two have been attached at the hip all year long that this would be a nutty spotfest that acted as an unofficial blowoff. Unfortunately, the match slowed down as Diamante regained control and worked the arm of Estrella for a prolonged period of time. This, in a vacuum, was wrestled like a solid TV match that let Estrella show off some of his big moves, but also demonstrated what a pro Diamante has become. This match was good, but far too economical for what I was hoping for. I wanted to see La Estrella do some Dumb Shit, but he kept things relatively tame.
Diamante won with a Vuelta Finale that felt like it came out of nowhere. Disappointing given how good these two have been in multi-man matches this year. ***
SUSUMU YOKOSUKA & U-T DEF. ISHIN IIHASHI & RIKI IIHASHI
My prediction of the Iihashi Brothers getting their first win ever on this show was not to be. Despite the fact that they once again showed how good they are for only being three months into their careers, they were no match for the dynamic duo of Yokosuka and U-T.
The brothers pushed U-T to his limit. I thought the Nagoya-native would be the perfect first defeat for the Brothers. He’s similar to Matt Sydal in AEW. He’s a respected ring general who can seemingly beat nearly anyone on the roster or lose to anyone on the roster. U-T narrowly escaped the Alcatraz submission and then got caught in the dueling Octopus Hold alongside Yokosuka, but both men were able to escape. It’s then that Yokosuka took this match over, nearly knocking Riki’s head off with a Jumbo no Kachi and then putting him away with the Yokosuka Cutter. It is only a matter of time before Ishin and Riki get in the W column. ***1/4
JASON LEE, ULTIMO DRAGON, & YOSUKE SANTA MARIA DEF. GENKI HORIGUCHI, KONOMAMA ICHIKAWA, & SHACHIHOKO BOY
Punch Tominaga joined Jae at the English commentary desk for this match. I thought maybe he was there to confront Jae for all of the smack that he’s talked about trash, but jokes on me as Punch hardly speaks English.
This was your usual Ichikawa year-end performance. Highly entertaining and unbelievably goofy. He connected with an Ina Bauer German on Maria, but the queen of Dragongate was able to kick out of the bridging pin attempt. Ichikawa attempted to follow that up with a La Magistral, but Maria countered it and pinned him. NR
SHUN SKYWALKER DEF. KOTA MINOURA
This match ended in a disqualification after Shun Skywalker ripped off his mask and tossed it into the hands of Minoura while the referee wasn’t looking. When the referee turned around and saw Minoura standing with Skywalker’s mask in-hand and Skywalker down in a prone position, he signaled for the bell.
Skywalker has officially gone off the deep end. To summarize, he interjected himself into the Dragon Dia vs. Dia Inferno feud, making what should’ve been a one-on-one mask vs. mask match a tag match with Diamante joining the fray as well. In that match, Skywalker was on the brink of defeat when he shoved Dragon Dia into the hands of Diamante, sacrificing his partner and his mask. Since then, he’s acted as if everything was fine within Masquerade despite the fact that Dia has gone AWOL and the rest of the unit has lost faith in their leader. Skywalker’s latest descent into madness, the Eddie Guerrero spot but with his mask instead of a chair, is yet another chapter in what is becoming the most compelling character work in wrestling.
It should also be noted that in the midst of this chaos, SB KENTo and HYO came down to ringside and tossed Skywalker an RED-themed chair, but the former Dream Gate Champion refused to use it.
It’s hard to slap a star rating on this one given that it acted as a prolonged angle. Before Skywalker lost his mind, the work in this match was outstanding. The two stablemates rattled off a series of counters on each man’s biggest moves that established that Minoura was on the same level as the man who held Dragongate’s top prize for most of this year. It would not shock me at all if Minoura is entering this event in 2022 with the Dream Gate belt around his waist.
Referee Yagi was taken down after embarrassingly minimal contact from Skywalker. If there was one flaw with this match, it was the way the ref bump was set up. While Yagi was down, Minoura connected with a Gang and scored the visual pin on Skywalker. This seems like something that will be very relevant as this story progresses in the new year.
By the time Yagi came to, Minoura was frozen with Skwyalker’s mask in his hand. The execution of that, and the post-match, gleeful Skywalker promo with a towel draped over his head was all terrific. This was not a great match in the traditional sense, but it was a rollercoaster of emotions that kept me enthralled the entire time. Essential viewing. ****
BIG BOSS SHIMIZU, JACKY “FUNKY” KAMEI, & KZY DEF. BXB HULK, EITA, & KAITO ISHIDA, BEN-K, DRAGON KID, & KEISUKE OKUDA
Every once in a while Dragongate throws together a meaningless three-way nine-man match and you suddenly remember that this is the best roster in the world, because when this match found its groove, it became something truly extraordinary.
All nine guys brought it in this match. Even the HIGH-END trio, a group I’ve become increasingly critical of, brought their working shoes to this dance. Dragon Kid, who was the focal point of a bloody brawl on this show last year, recklessly flew around the ring, just like he’s done for the last 20 years. It has been an odd year for both Ben-K and his best friend Keisuke Okuda, but both men closed the year out on a strong note, reminding everyone that they are the true powerhouses of this promotion. Right when Okuda started to gain momentum, he was met with a box attack from Eita and a First Flash from Hulk, a combination that sent HIGH-END packing.
The final fall between Natural Vibes and RED was some of the best wrestling I’ve seen this year. The spark plug was JFK, who was merely a guy in the opening match on last year’s Final Gate card. He killed it with all three members of RED, nearly pinning Hulk with the Jacky Knife, then nearly scoring the upset of lifetime with a Torbellino and crucifix pin on Eita, before finally stringing together a ridiculous stretch of moves with Kaito Ishida, ending with Ishida locking in an ankle lock on the Tottori-born standout. Kamei held on for just long enough to allow Shimizu to reenter the ring and launch Ishida with a Shot-Put Slam. He put away the former Brave Gate Champion with a Big Boss Press moments later.
The prior bout, Skywalker vs. Minoura, was a story-intensive match that will have major ramifications in the new year. This was mindless fun, a match that will ultimately mean nothing, and yet a match that you should go out of your way to watch. ****1/4
OPEN THE TWIN GATE CHAMPIONSHIP
HYO & SB KENTO DEF. NARUKI DOI & TAKASHI YOSHIDA (c)
DoiYoshi 2.0 fell in their first defense of the Open the Twin Gate Championships. This marks the first time that both HYO and SB KENTo have held the Twin Gate belts. According to my calculations, SBK, who now holds the Brave Gate and Twin Gate Championships, is the first duel champion in Dragongate since the three-day period in December 2013 in which T-Hawk and Eita were Twin Gate and Triangle Gate Champions with Flamita.
Minutes into this match during a sequence with Naruki Doi and SBK, SBK grabbed his knee and collapsed. He was able to roll out of the ring and remained down on the floor for an eternity, leading HYO to fend for himself for a majority of this match. At press time, we have no update on SBK’s injury, but it is clear given the structure of this match that his bad knee caused this match to drastically change course.
On the final show of 2020, Masato Yoshino was banged up in a tag match, seemingly altering whatever plans were set in place for the first quarter of 2021 on Yoshino’s road to retirement. Perhaps that injury cursed Dragongate, as nearly every big show has been plagued by a freak injury since that night in Kobe. Seconds into the youngest Dream Gate match of all-time at May’s Dead or Alive card, HipHop Kikuta injured his shoulder. His Dream Gate challenge turned out to be a debacle of epic proportions as Kikuta tapped out in under five minutes and is still on the sideline due to that injury seven months later. That same week, the King of Gate kickoff show in Korakuen Hall was cancelled due to COVID concerns. The opening night of King of Gate was moved to an empty arena setting in Kobe Lapis Hall. The matches that night went off without a hitch, but days later it was announced that Ben-K had tested positive for COVID, taking him and his night one opponent, Naruki Doi, out of the tournament. Both men had numerous big matches lined up throughout the tournament, and none of them came to be.
In September, Skywalker damaged his ankle on a house show the night before Dangerous Gate, leading to an awkward, quasi-angle in his singles match with Diamante. Tonight, it was SB KENTo who unfortunately brought down the vibe with his knee injury. When we look back on Dragongate’s 2021 a decade from now, unfortunate injuries will certainly be one of the prominent memories of this year.
SBK snuck back in the ring and walked through some light offense before bailing once more. HYO survived the Bakatare/Pineapple Bomber that DoiYoshi has found so much success with. The champions, dumbfounded by the fact that HYO kicked out, were at a loss. That gave HYO the window of opportunity he needed to rake the eyes of Yoshida and then roll him up for the win. The right guys won, but the journey to get there was excruciating. **
OPEN THE DREAM GATE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
KAI DEF. YAMATO (c)
YAMATO’s record-breaking fifth reign as Open the Dream Gate Champion has come to an end in its fourth defense by way of KAI. For KAI, he is the first freelancer to hold the Dream Gate belt and the second man not signed to Dragongate to win the promotion’s top prize, following Jushin Thunder Liger’s reign in 2007.
There are a million things that can be said about this match.
From an in-ring perspective, I thought it was the weakest of YAMATO’s defenses. It lacked the overall greatness of the Minoura match, the chaotic good of the BxB Hulk match, or the hot finishing stretch of the Ben-K match. Despite being paired at the hip for three years as tag team partners and rivals, I have never found KAI and YAMATO to have great chemistry with one another. KAI, as a bruising big man in the land of Dragongate, has always done his best work against plucky underdogs like U-T. My favorite version of YAMATO is MMA-inspired YAMATO that dips into his Pancrase background. When he controls things on the mat, I think he’s incredibly compelling. He cannot do that against KAI.
They went through the motions of having a great Dream Gate match, but I was never able to conjure up the emotional investment they were hoping to get out of me. The match started slow and escalated over a 20 minute period with both guys dropping each other onto their heads and kicking out of big moves. Outside of a clumsy superplex counter on KAI’s behalf, the work was clean, I just didn’t find it to be engaging.
Once KAI kicked out of a Galliera at 1, then another moments later at 2, I assumed that the champion would grab KAI by the head, plant him with a Ragnarok, and send the folks in Fukuoka home happy.
I was incorrect.
KAI fought back with a Firethunder Driver, which sent YAMATO crashing to the mat head first. He followed that up with a Meteo Impact, then a Meteo Impact KAI, which YAMATO stayed down for to produce one of, if not the single most shocking Dream Gate result in history.
YAMATO’s fifth reign as champion has to be looked at as a failed reign. Perhaps more blame should be put on the booking of the title reign rather than the reign itself, but nevertheless, YAMATO had become a thorn in Dragongate’s usual rosey booking patterns ever since reclaiming the top prize in August. The issue with this win, from the perspective of what to do with YAMATO, is that we’re now in a situation in which this feud must continue despite this being promoted as the blowoff (after July’s no-rope match was promoted as the blowoff) because YAMATO needs his win back. Or, we’re living in the reality that KAI won this feud, which is awkward given that the heel came out on top.
It’s disappointing that YAMATO’s Dream Gate win in August was sold as his final time with the belt, as the 40-year-old ace felt inspired by the global success of Akira Tozawa and Shingo Takagi and wanted one more run atop his company before succumbing to the new generation. His loss did not come to one of the numerous roster members under the age of 30, however. It came by way of KAI, a 38-year-old with a decade of baggage attached to his name.
That is ultimately the biggest hurdle with KAI. If you take his time in Dragongate from August 2018 to now and attach that resume to nearly any other wrestler in Japan, this run would be looked at as an undoubted success. He acclimated himself to a new house style, showed that he can work that style as a face or a heel, and has produced a handful of great matches and moments in a three-year span. Unfortunately for KAI, the stench of Wrestle-1 and his relationship with wrestling’s most destructive force of the 21st century, Keiji Mutoh, is hard to ignore (surely it will work out for Kaito Kitamiya, though). It’s really hard to think of this guy and not think of the abject failure that was Wrestle-1 and the Onita cosplay that became a meme in bubbles of western puro fandom. I have thoroughly enjoyed some of his work in Dragongate, but it’s hard to fully invest in KAI given his past.
There are positives to this win that need to be illuminated. First and foremost, KAI seems to genuinely love Dragongate. His social media presence is almost entirely devoted to plugging this promotion. When generational warfare broke out in 2020 and KAI was initially aligned with the Dragongate Generation, he was the one that seemed to care the most about defending the honor of this promotion despite being the only roster member that wasn’t produced in the DG Dojo. I also cannot stress enough how much I love the fact that KAI, in the build to this match, emphasized that in his mind, Dragongate is the best wrestling on the planet and thus the Dream Gate Champion is the best wrestler in the world. I would be far more negative on the outcome of this match if he took the Tetsuya Naito route with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and constantly devalued the title en route to winning it. Because of the way KAI has positioned himself, this belt, and this promotion, this win feels like a big deal.
YAMATO winning the championship for a fifth time made a lot of sense on August 1, but once the calendar turned over to a new day, I was left with numerous unanswered questions. Outside of his defense against Kota Minoura, which made sense but was also booked in the clumsiest and least efficient way possible, YAMATO had no natural challengers lined up for this title run. It appeared he put KAI away after their no ropes match in July, but the RED import hung around the main event scene long enough to eventually work his way into a title match.
KAI, as champion, has an ungodly amount of fresh, and for lack of a better term, interesting Dream Gate challenger possibilities. In three years in Dragongate, he’s only wrestled in 14 televised singles matches (19 total), and outside of YAMATO, any possible challenger that steps up to the plate is going to be an intriguing match.
While it is easy to “lol KAI” this situation, his title win brings much-needed freshness to a Dream Gate scene that has been nothing but a headache since YAMATO won the belt in August. Of course, there’s a chance that KAI’s reign as the top man in the promotion could be a shenanigans-induced disaster of epic proportions. Eita, PAC, and Shingo Takagi, the last three full-blown heels to hold the title, all wrestled their main event matches without the constant need of interference or gimmicks. KAI might be a different story. I have to give him the benefit of the doubt, though, because he won this match entirely on his own.
Despite the fact that I think moving the belt onto KAI is a net positive, I feel incredibly nervous about the future of Dragongate’s main event scene. I have no idea what KAI’s time atop the promotion is going to look like because Dragongate has never had a champion like KAI before. He would not have been my pick to dethrone YAMATO, but YAMATO ultimately did need to be dethroned.
Dragongate will enter 2022 with KAI as the Open the Dream Gate Champion. ***3/4
Dragongate concluded their year with a main event that will live in infamy. If we learned anything from Dragongate in 2021, it is that this promotion, in terms of talent, storytelling, and in-ring progression, always remains one step ahead.
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