In a 2022 interview with the Puroresu TODAY publication, Dragongate veteran Genki Horiguchi was posed the question, “what is wrestling to you?” He paused, then lit up as he strung his words together, saying, “When I went off to Mexico – maybe this doesn’t really answer the question, who knows – I had a girlfriend and I was put in a position where I had to choose between wrestling and the girl. I did not even need the full second to decide, instinctively, straight away I went with wrestling.”
Nearly three decades have passed since Horiguchi was shipped off to Mexico as a member of Ultimo Dragon’s second Toryumon class. During that time, he’s become a champion, a family man, and an influential figure across all of wrestling, but most of Horiguchi’s success can be traced back to one night, a nearly mythical entry in the Dragon System history books.
El Numero Uno 2003 changed Genki Horiguchi’s life forever, and 20 years after the fact, we are still living through the enduring legacy of The Backslide From Heaven.
Horiguchi grew up in Kumamoto, Kyushu and took to baseball at a young age. His knowledge of wrestling was non-existent until he was offered a spare ticket to a SWS show in his hometown by a friend while in his last year of primary school. He became transfixed by the combination of sport and show at the SWS event and quickly realized that he had a calling in life that had nothing to do with baseball. He continued his athletic career through high school after being tapped to play on his high school’s baseball team, but his interest for wrestling never subsided and during that time, Horiguchi joined the wrestling team and took up mixed martial arts training in an effort to ready himself for his future career.
In the aforementioned interview with Puroresu TODAY, he described his busy high school schedule, noting, “…whenever promotions would put on shows at Suizenji Gym – once or twice every six months or so – I would go, it didn’t matter who it was. As soon as baseball practice was over I’d speed over to the show on my bike, inevitably miss the first and second matches but… Well if it was a New Japan show I’d pull into the bike rack area to the strains of Liger’s entrance theme.”
Despite his burgeoning love for the sport, it caught Horiguchi’s mother by surprise when he spoke about his dreams in front of his high school teacher and his family. His mother began swearing, loudly, to a point in which she needed to be consoled by school officials, when she found out that her son had written down on a career day questionnaire that he wanted to be a wrestler. Horiguchi recalled, “it put the fear of God in me.”
Fears aside, the Kumamoto-native saw an ad for Yoshiaki Yatsu’s Social Pro Wrestling Federation in a ShuPro magazine and decided that this would be his in. He informed his mother he would be traveling to Tokyo for a tryout, with her departing comment being, “Like they’re going to recruit someone as small and as slow as you are?”
Horiguchi stumbled through Tokyo with only a scrap of paper that had the SPWF’s dojo address scribbled on it. As the story goes, Horiguchi clocked ex-sumo Teranishi Isamu zooming past on his bicycle and in a matter of seconds, Horiguchi not only recognized who it was, but had the instinct to run him down, realizing he too was headed to Yatsu’s gym.
A week after his attempt to jumpstart his career in Tokyo, the SPWF office rang Horiguchi’s mother to inform her that her only child did not pass the examination. She delivered the results to her son with “uproarious laughter”, exuberant that she was not losing her baby boy to pro wrestling.
Soon after, Genki Horiguchi learned that Ultimo Dragon was looking for students to join him in the Toryumon dojo.
When asked about what Horiguchi means to Dragongate, Pro Wrestling Torch contributor Alan Counihan replied, “I’ve seen Dragongate operate at home & abroad countless times, I’ve watched the promotion consistently for 17 years, and I think I’ve gotten a feel for how they operate. If there’s one thing that keeps that wheel turning, it’s enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for providing to their fans at all times in all situations – big shows, small shows, meet & greets in foreign countries whatever it may be….. that roster is, and always has been, powered by enthusiasm.”
He continued, “The only comparison I can think of that is similar is, oddly enough, peak ECW. Much like Dragongate you had wrestlers enthusiastically working behind the scenes be it as a local promoter in a specific town or designing the merch, and there was clearly a huge passion inside all those guys for their product. But we know what drove them – Paul Heyman’s cult-like brainwashing abilities. It ended up driving them off a cliff. Surely since Dragongate is still going strong after two decades and showing no signs of slowing down as a new wave of ENTHUSIASTIC young wrestlers have emerged with the same ethos, the driving force must be something healthier than a coked up manipulator with a penchant for jazzing up the truth.
As I close my eyes and think what this driving force is…..the image I see is a different man struggling with hair loss.”
Hair follicles have never been one of Horiguchi’s strengths. Across the world, the “H-A-G-E” chant has followed him. It’s far more popular than anyone chanting his actual name. Hage is the Japanese term for bald, and perhaps in an attempt to solidify his “average Joe” status, Horiguchi embraced his early hair loss and has since used it as a rallying cry.
His weak hairline is perhaps his only physical weakness, as throughout his quarter decade as a professional wrestler, Horiguchi has remained remarkably healthy. At press time, he’s clocked in over 3,330 matches according to Internet wrestling database Cagematch and has wrestled at least one match in every single month since December 1998. His match-in-a-month streak lasts longer than I’ve been alive.
Matches Per Year and Month
As Dragongate historian Angry216 explains, “Guys like Genki were the heart and soul of first generation Dragon Gate. As great as CIMA, Masaaki Mochizuki, Dragon Kid and the Big Six were, Genki was one of those guys that held everything together.”
Ownership, logos, and brand names have changed, but the energy that radiates from Horiguchi has been the same since his very first match.
Six months after graduating high school, Horiguchi was shipped off to Mexico by Ultimo Dragon to begin his career. The culture shock was intense, and one week into his stay, he and Yasushi Kanda, who was also fresh out of high school, were at a loss for how to deal with their world-altering change. Nevertheless, with a mother back in Kumamoto ready to say “I told you so.”, Horiguchi maintained a strong work ethic and made his professional debut on October 17, 1998. He was paid in tacos after his debut.
He won the 1998 Young Dragons Cup, outlasting the likes of Kanda, SAITO (Super Shisa), Susumu Mochizuki, and Kenichiro Arai. The tournament would later go on to be won by names like Milano Collection AT, Kazuchika Okada, and Kota Ibushi.
Despite being a barely legal adult when he was first sent over to Naucalpan, he had the foresight to soak up as many communication skills as possible. “Most fans don’t get to see him ‘At Work’. He is everywhere, working everything,” described Pro Wrestling Illustrated contributor Issa Marie, “Genki is DG’s Gerber Multi Tool…he is fluent in Spanish and English, helping greatly bridge the communication barrier when working with foreign talent. He’s also the man behind the execution of the current transition from the last of the main “6” to the current generation.”
Horiguchi lamented his linguistic skills in his conversation with Puroresu TODAY, explaining that he was seconds away from making his entrance at Speed Star Final when the Japanese TV crew pulled him aside to assist in translating a Diamante promo. When asked why the translation needed to be done then and there, the then-Brave Gate Champion said, “They said they weren’t going to be able to finish the editing otherwise. They were pleading with me.”
— Kayden/ケイデン🌸🌺 (@KVR216) August 1, 2021
The first match on the very first Toryumon Japan show was wrestled by Horiguchi and his homesick brethren, Yasushi Kanda. By the summer of 1999, Horiguchi adopted a surfer gimmick that showed the audience for the first time his natural, uncompromising charisma. On September 14 of that year, he and Susumu Mochizuki put forth the first truly great Toryumon match not involving the first generation of students. Off the back of Horiguchi, it became clear that Toryumon was not going to be a flash-in-the-pan promotion and that Ultimo’s influence was not going to stop after his first class of students. His kids, and the promotion, would begin to set the standard for contemporary wrestling going forward.
Come 2003, numerous other wrestlers had followed in the footsteps of Horiguchi and the like. They paid Ultimo Dragon a training fee, headed towards the unfamiliar land of Mexico, and with a mix of luck and sheer will, landed back in Japan to become Toryumon superstars. The promotion, on paper, was thriving. Even with the boom of J-MMA and a surging Pro Wrestling NOAH, thanks to the return of Kenta Kobashi, Toryumon maintained a strong foothold in the pro wrestling landscape because of their unrelenting touring schedule (in 2003, Toryumon ran 179 shows. NOAH ran 113) and their unwavering commitment to training the next generation of stars.
By April 2003, Toryumon had established stars like CIMA, Magnum TOKYO, and Masaaki Mochizuki who had been there since day one, plus names like Milano Collection AT and YOSSINO, who were now on the road full-time with T2P no longer running shows. It was publicly acknowledged by then-President Okamura that the company was preparing for a “brand split”, for lack of a better term, once the upcoming Toryumon X class featuring Taiji Ishimori was up to snuff. Toryumon had a wealth of talent at their disposal; they were far deeper than any other promotion in the country at that time. Despite thriving on paper, however, there were real issues at hand with Toryumon in the spring of 2003.
Magnum TOKYO and Genki Horiguchi are members of the same unit and, in theory, friends. The good thing about friends is that you can lariat them on their head and they will forgive you. #Toryumon #DragonGate #ElNumeroUno2003 pic.twitter.com/vJWkDu8qZ1
— Dan (@GolazoDan) December 17, 2017
In what we now recognize as “The Social Dance Era”, Ultimo Dragon had gone full steam ahead with Magnum TOKYO as the figurehead of the promotion and had veered harder into “sports entertainment” than ever before. The beauty of Toryumon, at least hypothetically, was that it blended American entertainment wrestling with Japanese tradition and Mexican pageantry to create the perfect wrestling promotion. In 2003, with a WWE deal looming, however, Ultimo leaned too hard into the American entertainment aspect.
Matches were short, angles were long, finishes were murky, and booking plans were unfocused.
Horiguchi had done his best to keep his head above water. He got his first taste of singles gold when he won the NWA World Welterweight Championship against Ryo Saito in 2002. He had two short reigns with the title that summer, then in April 2003, stepped in to wrestle YOSSINO for the suddenly vacant Welterweight belt as Darkness Dragon had to relinquish the title due to injury. YOSSINO won the match, which paved the way for his immediate success in Toryumon’s El Numero Uno 2003 tournament.
El Numero Uno began in 2001 as a way to determine Toryumon’s top singles wrestler. Masaaki Mochiuzki won it the first year, then Magnum TOKYO (surprise, surprise) took home honors in 2002. 2003 seemed to be paving the way for YOSSINO to break out from behind the shadow of Milano Collection AT and become a mainline Toryumon star.
On the first night of the tournament, YOSSINO tapped out CIMA with Sol Naciente. The next night, Horiguchi suffered the same fate (the aforementioned match for the vacant title). Over the course of the next week, Ryo Saito, YASSINI, Dragon Kid, and Anthony W. Mori fell victim to YOSSINO’s dreaded submission finisher. YOSSINO went undefeated in block play, tapping out everyone who stepped in his way.
Outside of a victory over Second Doi, who went winless in Block A, Horiguchi failed to secure any wins. He went 1-4, losing to Don Fujii, Kenichiro Arai, Magnum TOKYO, and Milano Collection AT.
By the time Toryumon rolled into the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo on April 22, 2003 for the finals of El Numero Uno, Horiguchi seemed like a non-entity. The winner of the tournament was set to become the first ever UDG Champion, the promotion’s new top singles title that symbolized their transition away from indie status.
The block winners and their runner-up were placed in quarter final matches in the tournament, leaving two open spots for whoever was able to survive the longest in the PPV’s opening match, a Dragon Scramble Battle Royal. Alongside Susumu Yokosuka, Genki Horiguchi would outlast names like Condotti Shuji, Don Fujii, and Dragon Kid, which opened the door for him to make it into the quarter-finals.
Unbeknownst to the 5,700 fans that were in attendance, they were about to witness a star being born in front of their eyes.
“To be honest, it was a very tough night for me.” answered Horiguchi when I asked him about his recollection of El Numero Uno 2003. “I had to wrestle 3 top wrestlers in one night, that’s a very specific memory for me.”
After surviving the battle royal, he did what no one thought was possible.
In 3:41, Horiguchi defeated the prior year’s El Numero Uno winner, Magnum TOKYO, with nothing more than a simple backslide. It was a shock to everyone watching, as many assumed that Toryumon would yet again turn to TOKYO vs. Masaaki Mochizuki, which had been the tournament’s final for both years of its existence. Magnum TOKYO was Toryumon’s first star, a charismatic comet that flew into Earth’s orbit, and combined raw sexuality with a cult-like “cool”. He was the top dog, and going forward, it didn’t seem like that was going to change anytime soon. Horiguchi was a reliable hand and nothing more. A goofball, really. He had dropped the surfer gimmick many moons ago and was now an underling to TOKYO in Do FIXER. He wasn’t even 25 and yet he was balding rapidly. People like Genki Horiguchi simply don’t beat people like Magnum TOKYO unless there’s something greater at play.
As it turned out, that’s exactly what was going on.
Genki Horiguchi pins Magnum TOKYO, his DoFIXER superior, with the Backslide from Heaven. This is still one of Genki's signature finishing holds to this day and it's because of this tournament. #Toryumon #DragonGate #ElNumeroUno2003 pic.twitter.com/N1HczznJp3
— Dan (@GolazoDan) December 17, 2017
Horiguchi, now with a groundswell of support from the Tokyo crowd, stepped into the ring with Masaaki Mochizuki for a semi-final encounter. The winner of this match would go on to wrestle CIMA in the finals, who snapped YOSSINO’s winning streak in 3:54 with a Schwein.
It would make sense that Toryumon would pivot away from Mochizuki vs. TOKYO and do Mochizuki vs. CIMA, the promotion’s other two biggest stars. In both prior El Numero Uno’s, they met in the semi-finals, where Mochizuki was victorious. At the time, Mochizuki was the leader of Shin M2K, a failed reboot of the once mighty M2K. He needed a boost, and a main event with CIMA in a big building could be that. It would be their biggest singles match to date, surpassing their Hair vs. Hair Lumberjack Match at the tail end of 2001. All signs pointed to another CIMA vs. Mochizuki encounter.
Then, Genki Horiguchi won.
In 2:32 with yet another measly backslide, Horiguchi knocked off one of the most powerful men in all of Toryumon. It was HoriguchiMania. The backslide was “a thing”. Horiguchi was “a guy”.
It was all happening so fast.
— Dan (@GolazoDan) December 18, 2017
I was eager to ask Horiguchi about the origin of the backslide, now dubbed The Backslide From Heaven. The victories over TOKYO and Mochizuki paved the way for the next 20 years of Horiguchi’s career. It didn’t matter what continent he was wrestling on, people knew Genki Horiguchi because of The Backslide From Heaven. “It wasn’t original, it was just a backslide,” explained Horiguchi. “It just came out in this tournament.”
A career-defining move, one that was used against the top stars in the promotion in the most effective way possible, was essentially spawned out of thin-air.
By the time Horiguchi stepped into the ring with CIMA in the main event, the crowd was far more in favor of the kid from Kumamoto than the top dog of Toryumon. Speaking about the event on a podcast covering the timeline of the Dragon System, Dragongate English commentator Jae Church said, “It’s an example of how you can elevate a guy in one night, and then he’s made forever…Watching the H-A-G-E phenomenon start and watching it manifest itself over the course of the night, from, you know, just being a chant to encourage Horiguchi, to becoming a full-blown phenomenon by the end of the night to where people were siding with Horiguchi over CIMA.”
For fans in the building, they were witnessing something truly remarkable. Those watching the results halfway across the world, however, like Church and Five Star Match Game host Joe Gagne, were baffled by the sudden emergence of Horiguchi. “I remember at the time when results came out, everyone was disappointed that the quarters and semis were so short and everyone was shocked Genki went to the finals,” explained Gagne. “This was well before Twitter, so we didn’t have any gifs to see, any sense of the quality or even how fans reacted, just the plain results. But as people started being able to actually view the match, it was clear the finals was one of the defining matches of Toryumon, and if you consider it THE defining Toryumon match, I might argue, but not very strenuously.”
The match between CIMA and Horiguchi was nothing like their matches from the quarter-finals and semi-finals. This was a 20-minute slugfest. The intensity was surreal. Horiguchi, now having captured lightning in a bottle, wasn’t ready to give it up. For CIMA, who despite his success was dealing with severe neck and back injuries, seemed offended at the idea that he’d have to share the ring with Horiguchi in a big main event. As the match transpired and the crowd continued to rally around Horiguchi, CIMA only became more perturbed.
There are a handful of more famous matches in the history of Toryumon (Darkness Dragon vs. Dragon Kid’s mascara contra mascara match, the four-way trios match from August 30, 2003) and a couple of more famous shows (notably the T2P debut show), but CIMA vs. Horiguchi capped off the night with the greatest enduring legacy from Toryumon. It’s a terrific main event, perhaps the best singles match in the history of the promotion, and the lore that continues to surround it remains vibrant 20 years after the fact.
— Dan (@GolazoDan) April 22, 2017
Horiguchi would come up short against CIMA, the rightful winner of the tournament and inaugural UDG Champion. Horiguchi didn’t need to win. He arguably gained more from losing in the finals than he would’ve had he come out victorious.
Reflecting on the legacy of El Numero Uno 2003, Horiguchi told me, “If I hadn’t been a finalist in that tournament, I probably wouldn’t have been able to continue wrestling until now. Because of that tournament, H-A-G-E chants spread everywhere, even into the USA and Europe. I’m very happy about it.”
Horiguchi isn’t the only one who is happy about his longevity. Counihan described his long term impact by saying, “Horiguchi has been the uplifting force that has made Dragongate what it is – and his legacy will be felt as long as it exists into the future.”
nr1 reason why Genki Horiguchi can't retire until fans are allowed to be vocal again (also I actually think he still wrestlers forever he is only 43 lol) pic.twitter.com/quzLECClEb
— Sondre Bjørn (@SondreBjorn) June 15, 2022
Nine years after El Numero Uno 2003 and long since Toryumon had become Dragon Gate, Horiguchi found himself on another miracle run in a tournament. King of Gate 2012 seemed like a surefire way to continue Akira Tozawa’s dominance, but yet again with the help of The Backslide From Heaven, Horiguchi squeaked past Cyber Kong, Don Fujii, Masaaki Mochizuki, and then the aforementioned Tozawa in the finals of an emotional tournament. Now believed to be well past his prime, Horiguchi, who had just begun his time in The Jimmyz, was victorious yet again.
His win was parlayed into his first career Dream Gate challenge, where of course, he challenged and failed against CIMA.
The final Natural Vibes dance with Susumu and Genki.
End of a era😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/wYIMb6vRaz
— Sondre Bjørn (@SondreBjorn) May 5, 2022
Genki Horiguchi’s career will not be defined by the titles he won or the great matches he’s had. His legacy continues to grow as a tour de force in all aspects of wrestling. Even with the limited schedule he’s adopted since 2019, Horiguchi remains the heart and soul of the promotion he’s called home since the very beginning. It can’t be an accident that current Dragongate lightning rods like Jacky “Funky” Kamei and Kzy spent their formative years wrestling alongside Horiguchi.
It’s hard to imagine a Dragongate without him. Big names have said goodbye to the promotion over the last couple of years, and although their departures have signaled the end of specific eras, Horiguchi’s eventual departure will send the promotion’s infectious spirit into a flatline.
This year marks 25 years as a pro and two decades since his career-altering performance. He expressed admiration for Genichiro Tenryu, whom he was briefly an assistant for, and his longevity as a pro, when speaking with Puroresu TODAY. Expounding on what wrestling means to him, he said, “I’ve thought about retiring and what life after wrestling would be like, but whatever it is, I’m always going to be a former wrestler – they’re always going to put the words ‘pro wrestler’ under my name. My other classmates have become suits, have gone on to do other things but…My life started with writing the words ‘I want to be a pro wrestler’ on that career day form and since then, I’ve put food on the table for my family doing what I enjoy – what a charmed life it’s been, it’s brought me great happiness.”
April 22, 2023 marks 20 years since Genki Horiguchi made himself a star in one night.
You can watch CIMA vs. Genki Horiguchi, in full, here.