Wrestling is a medium unlike any other.

It’s a global tradition, but still regional at its heart. It’s a sport where the absolute best in their craft are littered worldwide in different organizations. It’s a television show that’s been going on for over 50 years in the United States alone. Wrestling’s shared history since its television debut makes it a completionist’s nightmare. No matter how long you’ve been watching wrestling or how many promotions you watch, you have a blind spot. You can’t go back to season one and watch wrestling front to back, and when a new wrestler makes their debut in your promotion of choice, they don’t get a spinoff series, so you can understand what got them here. The challenging part of catching up on a wrestler you’ve never seen before is that you’re never going to see every match they’ve had, but without context it’s hard to know what is important to their career.

The Career Playlist Project aims to give every featured wrestler their own series in the evergrowing history of wrestling. A playlist where you may not find the complete history of a wrestler, but the major moments that define them. 

We begin the series with a look at one of the best wrestlers in the world today, Will Ospreay. From Essex to an Empire.

January 4, 2019 vs. Kota Ibushi
NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 13

After defeating Taichi in a #1 contender’s match for the NEVER Openweight Title in October, Ospreay ended his 2018 on a tag team loss to the Golden Lovers on December 15. Next on his schedule was a NEVER Openweight Championship match against one-half of the Golden Lovers, Kota Ibushi. For Ospreay, this year’s Wrestle Kingdom was not only the start of a new year, but also a new phase in his career.

This would mark the first time that Ospreay had challenged for a title outside of the Junior division. Matches outside the junior division would require a new strategy from Ospreay. He had shown the capability to adapt in the later matches with KUSHIDA, but the more aggressive strike-based style would need to become the norm while he gained the size needed to match up to most heavyweights’ strength. Ospreay and Ibushi showed their athleticism, but this match came down to striking and power moves. Ospreay hit a Hidden Blade to an already concussed Ibushi and then the Stormbreaker for the win.

With a win over Ibushi and an openweight title on his shoulder, Ospreay was one step closer to the heavyweight division.

Tournament Specialist

Ospreay’s first tournament competition outside of the Juniors division came in the 2019 New Japan Cup. This was a change of pace, as he faced Bad Luck Fale and Lance Archer in the first and second rounds. These were the largest opponents Ospreay had faced in New Japan singles competition. In a surprise, Ospreay defeated Bad Luck Fale. Even more surprising was Ospreay defeating Lance Archer with the Stormbreaker, showing that Will was not only putting on mass, but strength as well.

March 20, 2019 vs. Kazuchika Okada

Ospreay couldn’t spend much time reflecting on his heavyweight success as he was in the quarterfinals with Kazuchika Okada. While Ospreay had not beaten Okada before, Okada had not faced this version of Will Ospreay. No matter how much progress Ospreay makes, every match between the two feels like older sibling Okada refusing to take his little brother seriously.

The match starts like most between stablemates do, with mat wrestling and clean breaks, but as the match progresses, Okada throws some forearms that change the tone. Ospreay hits Okada with a few hook kicks in the match, perhaps trying to emulate Naomichi Marufuji’s defeat of Okada in the G1 a few years earlier.

In his third attempt, Ospreay was once again unsuccessful against Okada, but if it weren’t for two reversals of the Stormbreaker that might not have been the case.

June 5 vs. Shingo Takagi
Best of the Super Juniors 26 Final

Despite his desire to compete in the heavyweight division, Ospreay wasn’t ready to end his time as a junior.

Entering the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, Ospreay outclassed most of his competition, winning seven of his nine block matches. Ospreay’s losses came not from a lack of skill, but from a lack of focus as he tried to convince El Phantasmo and Robbie Eagles to leave Bullet Club. In a rematch of the BoSJ finals from 2016, Ospreay defeated Ryusuke Taguchi to advance to the finals. On the other side of the bracket stood an undefeated force in the form of Shingo Takagi.

Since joining New Japan, Takagi hadn’t taken a pin in his first 97 contests, leading him to the final after going undefeated in block competition. Despite also competing in the junior tournament, Shingo also had his eyes set on the heavyweight division and was yet another matchup for Ospreay where he would have to overcome a difference in size and strength. Ospreay’s quickness and resilience was enough to take Shingo past the 30 minute mark, somewhere he hadn’t been since he joined New Japan. Shingo’s previous longest match in the tournament was only 25 minutes. Maybe Ospreay’s bouts with Okada were starting to yield results as he withstood the Pumping Bomber lariat, along with other holds that felled other juniors in the tournament.

After a flurry of finishing moves, Ospreay defeated Shingo to once again cement himself as the Best of the Super Juniors.

June 9 vs. Dragon Lee
NJPW Dominion 2019

Ospreay didn’t have much time to celebrate his BoSJ victory, as the title challenge he earned was only four days later. Ospreay had been in his position before, the tournament winner walking into Osaka with a chance to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Nearly three years after his first Dominion challenge, Ospreay looked to redeem himself. Dragon Lee focused on Ospreay’s neck after the war with Shingo, hitting Ospreay with DDTs, reverse hurricanranas, and a tope to the outside that sent Ospreay over the barricade and the commentary table.

Despite the intense offense of Dragon Lee, Will was able to pull out the victory after another OsCutter to Stormbreaker combo.

July 18 vs. Kota Ibushi
G1 Climax 29

After an opening duo of Lance Archer and SANADA, Ospreay had a winless Kota Ibushi in his sights for night five of the G1. After a loss to Ospreay to open the year, Ibushi looked to gain revenge in block competition.

Both men were injured coming into their third night of singles competition. Ospreay was dealing with a neck injury that had kept him out of tag competition on the last show, while Ibushi had injured his ankle on night one. Ospreay was trying to walk down a road Ibushi had already traveled, a junior trying to make his way into the heavyweight division.

Early into the match the Korakuen crowd chanted Ibushi’s name, but a countering Ospreay chant quickly drowned out this chant. The game plan was simple for both men: target the injuries. Ospreay spent the early portion of the match testing the ankle of Ibushi, while Ibushi tailored his offense to the ever-injured neck of Ospreay.

Ospreay was able to once again hit Ibushi with the Hidden Blade, but both of his attempts at the Stormbreaker were reversed, and he eventually fell to the Kamigoye.

July 20 vs. Kazuchika Okada
G1 Climax 29

When the blocks were announced for the G1, it was clear that Ospreay had found himself in one of the most stacked blocks in G1 history. If that wasn’t bad enough, the schedule came later. Night five against Ibushi and night seven against Kazuchika Okada, all within a 72-hour span.

After Okada eliminated him from the New Japan Cup, Ospreay had a chance at tournament redemption against the Rainmaker. The story of each Ospreay and Okada match is that Ospreay gets closer to defeating Okada in every subsequent contest.

Okada still looked at Ospreay as the little brother in the New Japan Cup match. This match started out cordial between the CHAOS stablemates until Ospreay ambushed Okada on his way back into the ring. This set the tone for the most intense match in their series, with Ospreay hitting two OsCutters on Okada that couldn’t put the champion away.

Like the Ibushi match, Ospreay wasn’t able to hit the Stormbreaker to put Okada away after being countered three times. Ospreay was defeated after four Rainmakers, one for each time he had fallen to Okada.

August 10 vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
G1 Climax 29

When the final night of block competition arrived, Ospreay and his opponent Hiroshi Tanahashi were both eliminated from contention. Even though Will couldn’t make it to the G1 final in his first appearance, a win over The Ace in Budokan Hall would still be a statement in this early stage of Ospreay’s heavyweight career. As expected, Tanahashi looked to take away Ospreay’s explosive offense by working on the leg with the Dragon Screw leg whip and the Texas Cloverleaf. Tanahashi had scouted Ospreay well, evident by countering the OsCutter and the Stormbreaker.

Like many of Ospreay’s G1 matches, the match turned when a signature move was reversed. This time, however, Ospreay countered the Aces High from Tanahashi and transitioned that into a hook kick, Hidden Blade, and Stormbreaker counter for the biggest win of his young heavyweight career.

Ospreay finished his 2019 by defending the Junior Heavyweight Title and filling out his tournament punch card. By the end of 2019, Ospreay had competed in the New Japan Cup, the Best of the Super Juniors, the G1 Climax, the Super J Cup, and the Super Junior Tag League. While he worked himself to the limit, Ospreay was rewarded with the Most Outstanding Wrestler award from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

Though he was still in the junior division, it felt like the jump to heavyweight was coming sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Ospreay looked to start his 2020 with a successful defense of his junior heavyweight championship against a returning Hiromu Takahashi.