On the heels of “Finishing The Story” and winning the Open The Dream Gate Championship last month at DEAD OR ALIVE 2023, Madoka Kikuta spent his victory address declaring a new era of Dragongate and naming the five peers who would join him at the front-line: Shun Skywalker, who was left lying at Kikuta’s feet after the end of his second Dream Gate run, Yuki Yoshioka, DG’s MVP of 2022 and inarguably the Lead Character of the promotion in recent years, Ben-K, the first of his generation to win the Dream Gate and the first person to beat PAC in 24 months at that time, Kota Minoura, the clubhouse favorite for the next first-time Dream Gate champion, and Strong Machine J, the surprise of the group whose recent elevation, and second-generation appeal, played into his first Dream Gate challenge this March. With this moment, Dragongate entered its third true era after years of questioning amongst fans and set its course to these six men. The first test of “The Reiwa Generation Leaders” will be the biggest stage in Dragongate, Kobe Pro-Wrestling Festival 2023 on July 2, as the six make up the lion share of the headlining matches. 

It is not surprising in the slightest that Dragongate would proclaim this era’s main players. We are living in a time where the Japanese wrestling industry is coming to terms with three years of, at best, half ticket sales. The best drawing card in Japan since COVID hasn’t been Kazuchika Okada, Giulia, or Kaito Kiyamiya, it’s whatever aging legend is being celebrated or someone’s retirement. I think this was probably a moment the industry was bound to come to as business was not great country-wise in 2019 and early 2020 before COVID. In response to the last three years and zero immediate bounce back to fuller capacity and cheering, the industry determined that this is a time of transition and preparing for the future. STARDOM has their Golden Generation of women that the Bushiroad Money Machine will market to be at the forefront of not just Joshi, but the industry at large. New Japan announced their Reiwa Three Musketeers today (6/30), an attempt to appeal to history with the poor wrestlers destined to replace Okada, Tanahashi, and others. 

In Dragongate’s case, they truly began this transition in 2019, a time before COVID, a time where Ultimo Dragon being back was a genuine earth-shattering shock, and a time when Masato Yoshino was still wrestling without an announced retirement date. At Kobe Pro-Wrestling Festival 2019, Ben-K won the Open The Dream Gate championship from a PAC who at that time had not dropped a fall worldwide in almost two years. At the time, I wrote an article where the build to Kobe World 2019 felt like the anointing of Ben-K as the ace of his generation. His title run didn’t end up that way for Ben-related (Before Chiki Chiki, Ben was a historically bad promo) and booking-related (Unaligned Dream Gate champions don’t do well) reasons, but it signaled the new era that would come less than four years later.

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In the meantime, Dragongate looked ahead.

The dojo in Kobe entered a period of success not seen since the Toryumon era, graduating four to six wrestlers a year for several years where other promotions have had much bigger issues with talent development. Some of the older or critically injured wrestlers left Dragongate. The booking as the company entered COVID had one central goal: Prepare both the young wrestlers and the notoriously fickle native fanbase for the reality that future of Dragongate, and ostensibly the survival of the promotion, lies at the feet of whomever gets the ball.

That has been the looming question surrounding Dragongate for the last while, or at least the last five years after Stronghearts and Shingo Takagi left the promotion. Dragongate doesn’t have the conglomerate lifeline that the other industry leaders have in Japan. As a promotion, you cannot take a massive swing like a Dome (or even Sumo Hall) show if you’re Dragongate as there is zero safety net. As well, DG is half the age of New Japan and All Japan and hasn’t encountered this future before where everyone who was around for the landing of Toryumon Japan in 1999 has retired or moved on from the promotion. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to consider the existential threat of what might happen if the Reiwa Six don’t take off or shoulder the load of leading Dragongate.

A point in the Reiwa Six’s favor is that this is not the first time Dragongate as a company declared main characters or had the weight of the promotion on a group’s shoulders. Although it was never declared, the main event of 1999 until 2002 was regularly inhabited by Toryumon leaders of CIMA, Magnum Tokyo, and Masaaki Mochizuki. This is not even the first-ever “Six” that Dragongate has had: in discussing the Reiwa Six and their potential future, we must consider The Big Six.

Consisting of Shingo Takagi, Masato Yoshino, YAMATO, Naruki Doi, BxB Hulk & Akira Tozawa, The Big Six were declared by CIMA as the ones who would lead the transition from the first fifteen years of the promotion and the Toryumon generation of stars. After CIMA dropped the Dream Gate to Shingo at Kobe World 2013, there were only two title reigns of a combined 85 days that the belt wasn’t held by a Big Six member. One of those, then-named Jimmy Susumu won the Dream Gate as a storyline beat in a longer feud with Shingo. The other, Ricochet, was the first foreigner Dream Gate championship reign and was a part of Ricochet’s incomparable year of 2014. If you pick a random Dragon Gate major show from 2012 until Akira Tozawa’s departure in 2016, you will see those six names all over the top of the card, holding titles, and unequivocally be THE focus of the promotion during that era.

But eras and silver and golden ages have to come to an end.

More often than not, they’ll end before we are ready. After becoming a big Americophile during his early 2010s excursion, Akira Tozawa left Dragon Gate in November of 2016. Soon after Masato Yoshino would suffer the injury that would eventually doom his career. Shingo Takagi became a blue whale in the local fishing hole and departed after Stronghearts to New Japan. Then finally, last year, Naruki Doi went freelance. Left with whatever was left in BxB Hulk after his Dream Gate run, and YAMATO, Dragongate (as it would be renamed in 2020) went with necessity: YAMATO as the company ace. 

YAMATO’s acedom is something that I have a lot of misgivings about personally, but that’s my issue, what’s not to doubt is the success the company had with him as its captain. It was an unsteady future in 2018 during the OWE Split, and he was the only person that could be THAT GUY. The television network GAORA liked him enough to give him his own cooking show, a fun hobby of YAMATO’s, and a likely future business when his career winds down. Circumstances made YAMATO the ace, and I may not think it was the most interesting way for him to spend some of his remaining prime years, but his tenure was what the company needed at its most critical hour. 

There were clear steps taken in COVID to prepare the Reiwa Six for this moment. Yuki Yoshioka and Shun Skywalker went on an uniquely cursed excursion at the height of COVID, then Yoshioka wrestled as masked Dia Inferno for over 18 months before his face turn and elevation. In 2022, he and Dragon Dia formed D’Courage and became the focal figures for the year. That focus led to the Twin Gate, 2022 King of Gate victory, and winning the Dream Gate against KAI at Ultimo Dragon’s 35th Anniversary Show at Kobe World Memorial Hall. Skywalker returned right back into the main event of Kobe World 2020, won the Dream Gate on his first match back, then dominated the main event in 2021 until the momentous Skywalker & Dragon Dia vs. Inferno & Diamante Apuestas match where he turned heel and went insane. A short Dream Gate run in 2023 makes him easily the most decorated member of the Reiwa Six, being the only one to have captured the Dream Gate multiple times.

Kota Minoura became the biggest winner of Dragongate’s return to crowds in 2020.

Entering COVID, he was a talented, albeit plain, prospect. When Dragongate returned to live crowds in July 2020, Kota Minoura went to time-limit draws with then-Susumu Yokosuka and Big R Shimizu. He hasn’t stepped back since those draws, main eventing Kobe World 2022 in controversial and troubling circumstances. His interjection into that match notwithstanding, Dragongate has spent the last three years preparing everyone for the eventuality of Kota Minoura.

If Ben-K didn’t find charisma from the Chiki Chiki character, I would feel really worried about him returning to this spot. The 2019 title run was perfect until he picked up the microphone after defeating PAC, and then the run put him in the wilderness for a couple of years. A concussion at Final Gate 2020 didn’t help matters and then the albatross of HIGH-END made things worse. Only through Ben-K watching battle rap during a bus ride on YouTube could we end up with this result. Now, Ben-K’s arguably one of the ten most charismatic wrestlers in the world and 2019 only feels like a part of the story, instead of the entire thing.

Strong Machine J’s path to the Reiwa Six and his role within it is unique upon himself. He became the first second-generation wrestler in Dragongate’s history when a mysterious press conference was called in 2019. The son of Super Strong Machine, Junji Hirata, J was considered too small for the then-existing New Japan dojo rules. Moreso, New Japan actively passed on him, if the company wanted him then they would have ignored the height provision. J’s rookie year was the most decorated for any rookie in Dragon System history. Practically undefeated, he set the record of being the shortest time before their first title victory, the Triangle Gate at Kobe World 2019. He was named Tokyo Sports Rookie of the Year. Then came the tricky shoulder injury that made him an unreliable presence in 2020 and 2021. The vestiges of his father’s gimmick weighed heavy on him, it appeared that there wouldn’t be a “next step” for J, that being an homage to Super Strong Machine might be his lot in wrestling. 

2022 would change that.

We finally got Strong Machine J’s next step when he revealed himself as actually a competition-level breakdancer and became the Dancing Machine in Natural Vibes. As the calendar year turned to 2023, he had his first Dream Gate challenge against Skywalker as well as debuting his Killer Mask persona. 

When we look at the card for Kobe World, we don’t have to look too hard to find the Reiwa Six. Ben’s challenging for the Twin Gate with BxB Hulk. Kota Minoura is reuniting original Gold Class to face Natural Vibes for the Triangle Gate. Kikuta’s defending the Dream Gate against Yoshioka, and the main event Five Way Cage Survival Match have Skywalker and J in the cage risking their masks. 

It’s a good thing that Dragongate spent the last several years preparing for this era change. As I mentioned earlier, I think this is potentially the most precarious time in the history of the Dragon System, and the fact is that the company has acknowledged it by announcing the Reiwa Six and playing their cards in anticipation for this launch. This is an audience that has been more than willing to show their disapproval with their wallets, and they’ve rejected aces before. Dragongate couldn’t simply run out Ben-K as he was in 2019, or run straight into a second Minoura Debacle. There are far less years in front of the original Toryumon Japan era wrestlers as active wrestlers than there are behind it. Kobe World 2023 will be the debut of the Reiwa Six on the big stage as the cornerstone of Dragongate. I hope a few years from now when I’m writing a column in advance of Kobe World 2028 that we can talk about how much of a success Yuki Yoshioka, Kota Minoura, Madoka Kikuta, Shun Skywalker, Strong Machine J and Ben-K have been.