DRAGONGATE
DEAD OR ALIVE
MAY 5, 2023
AICHI PREFECTURAL GYMNASIUM – AICHI, JAPAN

Watch: Dragon Gate Network

OPEN THE DREAM GATE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
MADOKA KIKUTA DEF. SHUN SKYWALKER (C) IN 23:16 TO BECOME THE 37TH OPEN THE DREAM GATE CHAMPION

On May 5, 2021, Madoka Kikuta was publicly humiliated. 

Then only 21-years-old, the Kanagawa-native was in the biggest spot of his career, wrestling for the Open the Dream Gate Championship at one of Dragongate’s “Big Five” shows. It was the biggest spot of his career, by default, essentially. Kikuta’s debut happened in a vacuum. He debuted in front of no fans after a grueling set of shows in an empty arena at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 11 months after his debut, his partner whom he’d began his career alongside was already on the shelf with what turned out to be a career-ending injury, but Kikuta was thriving as a fearless bully in Dragongate’s heel unit at the time, R.E.D. 

Shun Skywalker, amid his first reign as Dream Gate Champion, was a valiant babyface representing Masquerade and was buzz-sawing through anyone R.E.D. threw his way. He won the title from Eita, then knocked off Kaito Ishida and Kazma Sakamoto en route to his eventual confrontation with Kikuta. 

Their meeting at Dead or Alive was the youngest Dream Gate encounter ever and remains that way. Skywalker was an unproven champion at 25-years-old, looking to give Dragongate any resemblance of momentum in a pandemic-stricken industry. Kikuta, by that point, had only wrestled two singles matches. He wasn’t in the universe of being “proven.” He had barely gotten to a point in which Dragongate was putting his face on show posters (and they put everyone’s face on show posters). 

Kikuta had no shot at winning the Dream Gate, but a solid outing against Skywalker would’ve helped firmly establish a new wave of names, alongside SB KENTo and Jacky “Funky” Kamei, who violently pushed passed traditional Japanese hierarchy systems and established themselves as threats to the entire roster. 

Dragongate was creating known commodities in a world still filled with great unknowns. 

Two minutes into his historic title challenge, Kikuta was on the receiving end of a drop toe hold from the champion, something that he had probably taken one thousand times in the Dragongate dojo. This one, however, for lack of a better term, caused his shoulder to explode. 

I recapped the incident at the time, saying,  “Skywalker was halfway into the next spot when he realized that Kikuta was no longer in the ring. The referee began counting and Shun shuffled over to Masquerade in his corner. Kikuta never got up, and fearing a countout, the referee stopped counting momentarily. He resumed the count, Kikuta rolled back in, and Skywalker, the veteran in this situation, immediately applied a submission to the injured shoulder. My guess here is that Kikuta wanted to keep wrestling to some degree, so he put his foot over the bottom rope. Skywalker dragged him away from the rope, applied the same submission, and then Eita threw in a towel from the R.E.D. corner to stop the match. They immediately ran in and wrapped up Kikuta’s shoulder. Skywalker, frustrated with the situation, briefly celebrated and then stormed off.”

The match barely lasted four minutes. Kikuta’s parents were in the crowd. Afterward, it was reported that Kikuta broke down in tears backstage. It was a colossal disaster on the emotional and physical front, with a global audience bearing witness to it. 

Despite beaming with potential and clearly showing signs of “getting it,” which paved the way for him to get the title match in the first place, Kikuta’s entire future was now in question. 

What looked like a ca n’t-miss core of young prospects began dwindling away in the months that followed Kikuta’s injury. Sora Fujikawa, Shoya Sato, and Riki Iihashi all bowed out of Dragongate competition, and the company was still months away from ushering in a second unit of blue-chippers in Mochizuki Junior, Kaito Nagano, and Yoshiki Kato. 

While Kikuta was on the shelf, any updates regarding his condition were cagey, at best. It seemed like Dragongate could very easily lose yet another future star. 

334 days later, the Kanazawa-native roared back in his hometown. Kikuta made an active choice not to link up with Z-Brats, the heel successor to R.E.D., and instead announced that he wanted to carve his own path and that he would be making his in-ring return at the very event that put him on the shelf for exactly one year. 

 However, when Kikuta returned to the ring, the potential he had shown in his first year was vacant. I wrote at the time, “Kikuta lacked the fire that I would’ve liked to have seen from someone wrestling for the first time in a year. He looked gunshy. Rarely do Dragongate wrestlers fail to emote in a big room, but Kikuta played down his emotions. He came across as small. He was in great shape, his in-ring work was fine, but this return didn’t come across as a big deal.” 

Perhaps it was asking a lot for someone who was barely an adult to hit the ground running after a year-long absence, but that’s what I was asking for. That’s what separates the good from the great. 

The summer of 2022 was uneventful for Kikuta. He was wrestling, which is something he was unable to do the year before with his injury, but he wasn’t making an impact. Had he performed the way he is now, perhaps the build to Kobe World last year wouldn’t have been such a disaster. 

Instead, he would find his footing immediately after Kobe World when he became the official assistant to D’Courage, the duo of Dragon Dia and Yuki Yoshioka. 

Immediately, everything made sense. 

Kikuta and D’Courage worked perfectly from a visual standpoint, an in-ring standpoint, and from an aesthetics standpoint. It’s not that D’Courage was missing anything prior to Kikuta joining their ranks, but a new world of potential was unlocked with them competing as a trio. His “trial” period as an assistant quickly dissolved and paved the way for Kikuta to become an official member of the group. He and Dia won the Open the Twin Gate Championships in September as Kikuta began gaining palpable momentum. He had “it”. Much like during his first ascent up the card, he began demanding attention. Every show was better because with Kikuta on it. 

The turning point in his story will forever be Final Gate 2022 when he squared off against Shingo Takagi in his triumphant return to Dragongate. While the promo to build up the pay-per-view encounter did not showcase the aggressive spark that Kikuta brings to the ring, the match was everything Kikuta needed it to be. It was violent. He was roughed up by a Dragongate icon. It was the type of match that reminded people that he wasn’t just pretty; he could take a beating, and more importantly, he could come back from one. He was a man possessed in the closing stretch, throwing everything he had at Takagi and just barely coming up short against the New Japan standout. 

As a result, Kikuta entered 2023 a different man. 

When Shun Skywalker defeated his partner, the aforementioned Yuki Yoshioka for the Dream Gate belt in January (with Skywalker now a dominant heel), it became apparent to everyone that Skywalker vs. Kikuta II was on the table for Dead or Alive 2023. 

The beauty of Madoka Kikuta’s Dream Gate victory, which occurred in 23:16 after a trio of soul-crushing lariats to Skywalker, is that Dragongate gave people what they wanted. There are plenty of opportunities for wrestling fans to wait in anguish over their favorite wrestler not winning the big one, but whereas WWE failed to accomplish anything with Sami Zayn’s loss to Roman Reigns earlier this year, Dragongate paid off a two-year story in the most satisfying way possible. No one had to jump through hoops, overcome odds, or do anything other than win, and over the last year, Madoka Kikuta has done a lot of winning. 

The second incarnation of this match was one of the best matches of 2023. It was an emotionally grueling affair from the opening hype video through the post-match, show-closing promo in which Kikuta listed himself and his opponent, as well as Ben-K, Kota Minoura, Strong Machine J, and Yuki Yoshioka as the New Big 6 (in reference to the generation of Akira Tozawa, BxB Hulk, Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi, Shingo Takagi, and YAMATO, who were known as The Big 6). 

Nothing about this was overcomplicated. Skywalker spent the entire match working over the shoulder of Kikuta that caused him such embarrassment two years ago. They even reenacted the drop toe hold spot that injured Kikuta (this veered into NXT melodrama, which I did not love), with Kikuta failing to make a comeback at that moment due to the exorbitant amount of pain that the spot caused him. 

Eventually, he was able to mount a comeback. He lit up the champion with strikes and remained in control even after he was caught in a Fujiwara Armbar. He looked to take down the champion with his signature hip attack, but Skywalker caught him with an SSW in a truly stunning spot. Kikuta kicked out at 1, however. 

The challenger then survived a Kneesault, then a top rope moonsault. Skywalker looked to connect with another SSW, but Kikuta used a series of headbutts to free himself. That was the final turning point in the bout. Anything else that Skywalker threw his way, Kikuta simply overpowered. High off of a once-in-a-lifetime, “I’m about to win the world championship” adrenaline surge, Kikuta destroyed the champion with a series of never-ending offense. 

A snap piledriver and many lariats later, a new Dream Gate Champion was crowned. Kikuta, not yet 24, now holds the honor of being the youngest Dream Gate Champion and the fastest to get to the title, winning it 2 years and 11 months after his debut. 

His win is a testament to the human spirit. He debuted in the early stages of a pandemic, was injured in humiliating fashion, and still came back to conquer all. 

You are making a grave error if you do not carve out the time to watch Kikuta vs. Skywalker. This was everything that wrestling can be with a little bit of effort and common sense. 

Dragongate simply gave the people what they wanted. ****3/4 

U-T RETURN MATCH
KAGETORA & KAITO NAGANO DEF. JACKY “FUNKY” KAMEI & U-T

U-T is back! 

The Aichi-native returned after a six-month absence in his hometown and received a thunderous ovation for his efforts. U-T, now 10 years into his career, has magically turned into a crafty veteran after years and years as a youngster vying for a spot on big shows. This was his first time wrestling against Kaito Nagano, and it became evident very quickly that these two should spend a lot of time in the ring with one another. This seems to be the case with everyone that Nagano comes in contact with, however. From U-T and Kamei to Don Fujii and KAI, Nagano continues to thrive against every opponent that is thrown his way. 

U-T did everything in his power to secure a victory in his return match, but the offensive onslaught of Kagetora was too much for him to handle. He was pinned in 9:58 following a Gurumakakari. ***1/4

MASAAKI MOCHIZUKI, PUNCH TOMINAGA, SUSUMU MOCHIZUKI, & YASUSHI KANDA DEF. DON FUJII, MINORITA, PROBLEM DRAGON, & TAKASHI YOSHIDA 

This was a lot of Punch. A lot. As a result, it is entirely skippable. **1/4 

OPEN THE BRAVE GATE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
JASON LEE (C) DEF. DRAGON DIA 

This victory marks Jason Lee’s first successful defense of the Open the Brave Gate Championship. 

Jason Lee has long been one of the best wrestlers in the world. That’s not hyperbole. He has become Japan’s version of Roderick Strong, a wrestler who quietly goes about their business and that business is routinely outperforming everyone that shares the stage with them. Outside of a resurging Hiromu Takahashi, no junior in Japan comes close to Lee’s output, and I’d still take Lee over Takahashi if I had a gun to my head and needed a four-star bout. 

This Brave Gate run will hopefully provide Lee with a chance to show the world just how great he is. If things go the way that I hope, this title run will do for Lee what PAC’s 2011 Brave Gate run did for him. That blew the doors open for PAC’s career. No longer was he a hidden gem relegated to the Dragongate hardcores. The world took notice of him after a ridiculous 447 day reign, and although the current Dragongate booking regime tends to get antsy and bounce title belts from one person to the next, I feel strongly that Lee deserves time to cook with this title because he’s capable of having matches like this. 

While I’m sure that he and Dragon Dia are capable of having a better match, this was still great. Like, really great. I’m routinely blown away by the execution of these two wrestlers, specifically. When was the last time Dragon Dia was out of position for something? Has Jason Lee ever done anything sloppy? I don’t believe so. They’re machines, and they wrestled this match like the junior heavyweight machines that they are. This would’ve fit right in headlining any upcoming Super Juniors show. 

Dragon Dia survived a Maximum Driver from the champion, but was unable to kick out of the Hong Kong Tornado, which secured the victory for the champion. ****

NARUKI DOI & ULTIMO DRAGON DEF. DIAMANTE & HYO 

It is more clear now than ever before that Diamante and Ultimo Dragon are going to wrestle in a mascara contra mascara match at some point, with Diamante hopefully losing, unmasking, and becoming the single biggest heartthrob that Japan has ever seen. 

Well, at least two of those things are going to occur. 

The crowd was painfully dead for a mostly pedestrian affair between the four guys. Diamante and Ultimo continue to work very well together, but no one seemed to care. Ultimo, towards the finish, ripped off Diamante’s mask after HYO dropkicked Ultimo. Diamante, maskless, was unable to save HYO from a Doi 5’s and La Magistral. **1/2  

OPEN THE TRIANGLE GATE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
BEN-K, BXB HULK, & KOTA MINOURA (C) DEF. BIG BOSS SHIMIZU, KZY, & STRONG MACHINE J 

With this win, Gold Class have now made three successful defenses of the Triangle Gate belts. 

BxB Hulk’s time in Gold Class has been far better than I ever expected it to be. Hulk was exiled from Z-Brats at the start of the year and as Dragongate’s original pretty boy, he quickly found solace teaming alongside the company’s most vein unit. I thought by March, Hulk’s time in the unit would’ve run its course. History told us that the intrigue of Hulk’s character change would die down and by the time Dragongate’s yearly big shows rolled around, Hulk would be back to showing his age. 

In Gold Class, however, he remains an extraordinarily positive presence on the roster. 

For as good as Natural Vibes was in this match, Gold Class was even better, partially due to the output of Dragongate’s second-ever dojo graduate. 

The closing stretch of this match was terrific, starting with the clash between the former tag team of Big Ben and concluding with a successful Engranaje submission from Kota Minoura to Strong Machine J after a scary botched Gang (J wrestled the next day, quieting any injury concerns). My issue with this bout, however, is that the first half of it was dreadfully boring. I don’t know what it was about this match, but to me, it felt like it took forever to get going. That keeps it off of my notebook, even if I saw greatness in the match by the end of it. ***3/4 

DRAGON KID & NAOMICHI MARUFUJI DEF. YAMATO & YUKI YOSHIOKA 

Naomichi Marufuji was on this show a day after losing to Jake Lee in the GHC World Heavyweight Championship match in Tokyo. Why? Other than CyberFight trying to get NOAH some exposure by possibly paying for their wrestlers to be on the show, I have no idea. 

Marufuji tried, but he was in bad shape a day removed from a grueling world title match. That put the match into the hands of the three Dragongate mainstays, and although the work was fine, there was no reason whatsoever to care about this. Dragon Kid is without a unit (which needs to change), YAMATO is without a unit (which I’m okay with, actually, and Yuki Yoshioka is being “cycled down” after his year of dominance last year. That meant that despite those three guys being stars, there were no stakes in this match. 

Marufuji rolled up Yoshioka, which I get, but I don’t like. I would’ve much rather he pinned YAMATO. ***1/4 

Marufuji then quickly vanquished Konomama Ichikawa, who was looking for revenge after his loss at Final Gate 2019

OPEN THE TWIN GATE CHAMPIONSHIP
KENOH & SHUJI KONDO (C) DEF. ISHIN & KAI 

The cross-promotional team of Kenoh & Shuji Kondo have made their first successful defense of the Open the Twin Gate Championships with this win. 

It’s a shame that Kenoh is wasted in the useless void that is known as Pro Wrestling NOAH. Dragongate, since its inception, has been such an insular promotion and a daunting environment for any outsider to thrive in (Prince Devitt, for example, failed to come across like a star during his only appearance). KAI is the greatest success story an “outsider” has ever had. He’s now a contracted Dragongate wrestler, and a new viewer might not even realize that he lived a full life prior to linking up with DG. 

I wish Kenoh would be granted the same opportunity. It is so clear that he could wrestle, and thrive, in this promotion. He was so unbelievably good here, thrusting violence upon the much younger and inexperienced ISHIN. The second-generation standout has not had the greatest 2023, and I felt like this match was really going to tell us how valuable ISHIN stock would be long term. He passed with flying colors, luckily, thanks to his ability to duke it out with Kenoh. 

I loved the ongoing battle between Kondo and ISHIN throughout this match, which finally ended when ISHIN used his raw power to lock Kondo into his Death Penalty submission. While the hold was being applied, Kenoh leaped off the top rope and connected with his signature double stomp to the chest of ISHIN. He then peppered the youngster with strikes before landing a second double stomp on the challenger. This rocked. **** 

Final Thoughts

In an era where so many promotions drop the ball with their version of “storytelling,” Dragongate reminded us how simple wrestling can be and how satisfying it is when good overcomes evil. For that reason alone, Dead or Alive 2023 gets a thumbs up.

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