On June 17, Dragongate officially confirmed that Kento Kobune (SB KENTo) and Takuma Fujiwara were no longer with the company. 

This news, which was shared by Open the Voice Gate’s Twitter account on June 2 after a month of conversations shrouded in secrecy, comes as a major shock to anyone who followed Dragongate throughout the dog days of the pandemic. Two blue chip prospects still under the age of 25, Dragongate spent a notable amount of time and effort priming these guys to be future superstars. After what the company labeled a “contract violation”, however, all of that work seems to have been for naught. 

Simply put, this is one of the most noteworthy departures in the history of Dragongate.

Before he was SBK, he was Kento Kobune, and Kobune debuted like a comet in Dragongate at the end of 2019. He was immediately someone you had to pay attention to. He had the polish that you’d expect from a Dragongate rookie, but even in his debut match, he carried himself like an industry veteran. There was an inescapable charisma with his work, one that helped him create noise throughout the summer of 2020 while venues were forced to stay silent due to COVID-19 restrictions. Kobune would turn heel and win the Open the Triangle Gate Championships alongside Kazma Sakamoto and Takashi Yoshida at Gate of Destiny 2020. It’s there, as he linked up with R.E.D., that he donned the SBK moniker. 

There was no greater seal of approval for SBK’s talent than his performance in the Losing Unit Disbands match between R.E.D. and the Toryumon Generation a month later at Final Gate 2020. SBK nearly single-handedly killed the Toryumon Generation, eliminating Naruki Doi, Susumu Yokosuka, and Genki Horiguchi before tapping out Dragon Kid to wash away the Toryumon Generation once and for all. I wrote at the time while discussing all of the falls that SBK had picked up that, “his rookie year [was] something truly incomprehensible in contemporary Japanese wrestling.”

SBK entered his second full year on the roster as a respected, feared heel. He was given the honor of losing his hair in the main event of Dead or Alive 2021. I found myself awestruck watching him in the same ring with YAMATO, writing, “[This match] was also a vehicle to once again show the poise, talent, and potential of SBK. I said it when he walked into the company; he could be the next YAMATO. On one of Dragongate’s marquee shows in one of their marquee matches, SBK stood across the ring from YAMATO and felt like he was on the level of the ace of the promotion. SBK isn’t good for his age, he’s just fucking good. There’s no other way to describe it.”

He would capture the Open the Brave Gate Championship shortly after Kobe World 2021. An undeniable upper midcarder who continued to flirt with the main event scene, SBK and fellow-Aichi native U-T walked into the Nagoya International Conference Hall on December 19, 2021 for a headlining Brave Gate match. The show drew a bad number for pre-COVID standards, but 713 fans in that building at that time was more than a New Japan show from the prior June and a NOAH show with Keiji Mutoh, Go Shiozaki, and Katsuhiko Nakajima, among others, from weeks before. Even in the handicapped nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, SBK was leading the charge and proving to be a worthwhile draw. He only had 20 matches on record before the world shut down, yet he was becoming a bankable star in the pandemic-stricken world. 

SBK entered 2022 no longer as the baby on the roster. A fleet of rookies were ushered in during the closing months of 2021. Names like Takumi Hayakawa, now Minorita, and Ishin Iihashi, now simply ISHIN, quickly made impressions on the Dragongate fanbase and found their footing in the mix rather quickly. There was also a kid from Iwate who debuted at Gate of Origin 2021 by the name of Takuma Fujiwara. 

Fujiwara was born to be a wrestler. He spent his middle school career day in the Michinoku Pro dojo training with Toryumon X graduate Taro Nohashi. He wasn’t yet 20 when he debuted in Dragongate. He very quickly became the most exciting wrestler on the roster. His ability would best be described as supernatural. Not in a corny, Undertaker-like sense, but because Fujiwara possessed an ability to construct high spots and memorable moments in ways that most seasoned pros cannot do, let alone most 20-year-olds. Fujiwara very quickly became one of the most naturally gifted rookies ever. 

Dragongate began uploading select house show matches to their YouTube channel in 2022 and for the first half of the year, that became a place to showcase the sheer talent of Fujiwara. Time after time, the highlight of the upload was Fujiwara. 

If SBK debuted like a comet, Fujiwara’s first six months hit like an extinction-inducing meteor. He dominated Dragongate conversations. He crept into Wrestler of the Year conversations. He became an inescapable force who, much like SBK, was a shining star in a dull industry. 

 

Dragongate made plans to expand into North America in 2022. They had largely been landlocked since the closure of Dragon Gate USA in 2014, but this time with the help of Ultimo Dragon, Toryumon Casa would open up in Mexico and house wrestlers from Dragongate and Pro Wrestling NOAH. In June 2022, La Estrella and Fujiwara were shipped off to Mexico. Soon, SBK and trainee Takuma Nishikawa would join them. 

While Estrella and SBK were free to move about North America, working indie dates in both Mexico and the United States, Fujiwara was stuck in Mexico as a result of him not even having debuted when the paperwork for this North American expansion started. When Yuki Yoshioka, now a former Open the Dream Gate Champion, left for a Mexican excursion in March 2020 (otherwise known as the bleakest timeline), Dragongate’s goal was to send him away so that people would forget about him. They wanted him to become an afterthought. That way when he came back, he’d make a monster impression. You can’t help but feel like Fujiwara’s excursion was rushed so that they could mirror the success they had with Yoshioka’s post-Mexico run.

Fujiwara very quickly took to the lucha style. While Estrella struggled with body control and Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Junta Miyawaki looked like he was doing lucha at gunpoint, the 20-year-old Iwate native took to the style with poise and grace and now, working in an environment where crowds could make noise, very quickly elevated his character game. It was yet another example of his natural ability inside the wrestling ring.

For SBK, the initial months of his North American excursion were about survival. The confines of the dilapidated United States indies scene helped him find his footing. He was the sole bright spot of the King of the Indies tournament, a shining star in the Carolina-based Deadlock Pro Wrestling, and thanks to a Lio Rush injury, a 2023 BOLA participant. There wasn’t an audience that SBK couldn’t win over, as long as he was given an audience to wrestle in front of. He spent one weekend in October based in Florida with no bookings on the horizon and took to Twitter to plead for bookings.

 

He and La Estrella would wind up on an AEW Dark taping wrestling Dante Martin and Dragongate alum Matt Sydal days later as a result of this tweet. The match never aired. 

At the end of 2022, SBK and Fujiwara struck up an alliance that helped them find footing in AAA and win DTU’s tag titles. It made sense that Dragongate’s two phenoms worked so well as a tag team. It seemed like this alliance would create storyline tension in Japan with SBK possibly leaving Z-Brats to team with Fujiwara and Nishikawa full-time in Japan. Of course, that will not be happening now. 

The last time SBK and Fujiwara were seen was on January 28 when they dropped the DTU Nexo Titles to Aero Panther and Fight Panther Jr. Four months of silence followed. 

As explained on the June 7 episode of Open the Voice Gate, rumors of this situation began swirling at the start of May, with sources from both the Japanese side and the Mexican side engaging in conversations with me about their future within the promotion. It was expected from some within Dragongate that this announcement would be made following the Dead or Alive pay-per-view on May 5, which just so happened to be from SB KENTo’s hometown. Instead, matters were delayed, leaving those in the know more time to speculate over what might have happened. 

It became more clear as May went on that the rumors were true. It was notable that at the end of the aforementioned Dead or Alive show, the new Open the Dream Gate Champion Madoka Kikuta began rifling through names that are now collectively recognized as the Reiwa Generation, the wrestlers that will be leading the charge going forward. Kikuta, alongside Ben-K, Kota Minoura, Strong Machine J, Shun Skywalker, and Yuki Yoshioka were mentioned. Many felt it was notable that SBK and Fujiwara were left out of the conversation. One could make the argument that because they were stationed in Mexico, they were not a part of the active roster and thus out of sight, out of mind, but at this time it was still hard to imagine a Dragongate main event scene five years in the future that didn’t involve SBK or Fujiwara. 

By the middle of May, SBK had unfollowed President Kido from his Instagram account and Fujiwara had rebranded as “takuma_luchador” on the platform. Subtle, albeit poignant maneuvers. On May 30, a Dragongate alumni publicly referred to the two wrestlers as members of the Dragongate roster in a tweet. They were then contacted by the Dragongate office and asked to not associate the two wrestlers with the company going forward. On June 2, a representative from the lucha community confirmed to me that they were now living in Mexico City and “definitely aren’t there temporarily”. 

The pair has racked up upcoming bookings on AAA shows, a 6/17 Big Lucha show, and a 7/22 RIOT show. It became clear by the second week of June that the only domino left to fall in this story was the official announcement, which did not come as a shock, but still packed a weighty punch to it when it was sent out into the ether. 

While a lot of fans have remarked on the stark turnover that Dragongate has seen in recent years, specifically in a post-OWE world, it is not a historical anomaly, however, for Dragongate to shed talent. The infamous T2P class with names like Milano Collection AT, Masato Yoshino, and Shuji Kondo was nearly non-existent five years after the class debuted. A decade removed from their debut, only Yoshino, Naruki Doi, Shachihoko BOY, and Referee Yagi remained. 

The mid-2000’s were littered with names like Lupin Matsutani and YO-HEY going by the wayside. The “golden years” of the promotion, the mid-2010’s, were largely drama free until the OWE split in 2018. Since then, a growing number of names have exited the promotion, but their relevance is up for debate. 

In 2022, the promotion said goodbye to the following names: 

  • Gamma
  • Kaito Ishida 
  • K-Ness
  • Naruki Doi (freelance)
  • Riki Iihashi 
  • Shoya Sato 
  • Super Shisa

Gamma and K-Ness retired with both men being long past their prime. Shisa essentially retired from any relevant competition, as he now works in micro-indies for the most part. Again, not a name that had relevance in 2022. Riki Iihashi pivoted from wrestling to bodybuilding, but remains in good-standing with the promotion. Shoya Sato received a full retirement ceremony after his injury-plagued body finally had to call it quits. The only name that stung, if you will, was Kaito Ishida, and a year later it seems that Ishida was far more effective as a Dragongate wrestler than a GLEAT/All Japan guy. 

SBK and Fujiwara are easily the biggest losses that the promotion has suffered since 2018, because a cloud of “what if?” will forever linger over the promotion. 

For SBK, many stories of his will go untold. His relationship with HYO, for instance, goes largely unexplored. SBK’s eternal rival in Jacky “Funky” Kamei is now a thing of the past. When SBK left Dragongate last July to head for North America, Madoka Kikuta, his classmate, was going nowhere fast. Now he’s the top dog. He never wrestled Mochizuki Junior, Kaito Nagano, Yoshiki Kato, or his one-time companion in Mexico, Takuma Nishikawa. 

In two-and-a-half years, SBK racked up two Brave Gate reigns and runs with both the Twin and Triangle Gate belts. Perhaps had he been a few inches taller, he would’ve already been a Dream Gate Champion. 

For Fujiwara, he seemingly had unfinished business with Eita. He had a score to settle with his FUTURE classmate ISHIN. He left money on the table with Diamante. He also never squared off against Junior, Nagano, Kato, or Nishikawa. 

Amazingly, Fujiwara only scored one pinfall in his Dragongate career, a sunset flip in a five-way elimination match. You could argue that the biggest story left on the table for Fujiwara is that of success. 

It seems that these two will be stationed in Mexico for a very long time. While nothing is impossible, all signs show that this isn’t a ploy to work elsewhere in Japan. While they could waltz into GLEAT and become the most talented wrestlers on the roster, I don’t see that being their move. They also don’t seem like likely candidates for NOAH, given some issues they may have with wrestlers there behind the scenes. While they are talented enough to work in the New Japan juniors division, they would look incredibly small there. There is no obvious landing place for them outside of AAA. 

Of course, the two shared cordial messages with Dragongate and their fanbase on the way out, and if Ultimo Dragon can eventually come home, there’s no reason that SBK and Takuma Fujiwara can’t do the same eventually.