DRAGON GATE
FINAL GATE 2023
DECEMBER 24, 2023
FUKUOKA KOKUSAI CENTER – FUKUOKA, JAPAN

Watch: Dragon Gate Network

LUIS MANTE DEF. SHUN SKYWALKER, MADOKA KIKUTA IN A THREE-WAY MATCH TO BECOME THE 38TH OPEN THE DREAM GATE CHAMPION 

Luis Mante was not always the man that we witnessed in Fukuoka. 

Born under the name Luis Meza, the Mexican born standout entered wrestling at an early age, competing for AAA while only 16-years-old. He would soon bounce to CMLL, and at the start of the 2010’s, seemed to be a force to be reckoned with. He captured the Mexican National Trios Championships with Rush and Angel de Oro, then spent a brief moment with the Occidente Heavyweight Title, all before turning 21. It seemed as if he were tailor-made for CMLL, but he soon found issues. 

Despite two titles and two trips across the world to New Japan Pro Wrestling as a part of their Fantasticamania tour, Luis Mante was out of CMLL by 2013 and would be forced to scour the independent scene to make a living in professional wrestling. He would find brief work in Lucha Libre Elite, but would be hung out to dry when the promotion stopped running shows. 

He found a saving grace in All Japan Pro Wrestling in 2017, working on the opposing side of Ultimo Dragon on his 30th Anniversary show and then getting a spotlight match against Caristico (Mistico) on All Japan’s 45th Anniversary Show. The tour was brief, but Mante did enough good work to be brought back the year after as a part of their Lucha Fiesta tour. 

When Ultimo Dragon returned home and became a Dragongate wrestler in 2019, it was a shock to us all

It had been 15 years since the Toryumon split and ever since then, Ultimo Dragon had been exiled from anything Dragongate-related. His first match was a picture-perfect nostalgia-play that brought closure to 15 years of pain. When it was announced that he was joining the roster full-time, however, a new set of obstacles occurred. 

Long gone were the days of the original Toryumon class and their lucha-inspired training. Fewer and fewer Dragongate trainees were making excursions in Mexico, thus the house style had morphed away from a style that Dragon was comfortable wrestling. In an effort to make The Principal look competent, Mante got the call. 

His debut was impressive, but soon, the rigorous and unrelenting nature of Dragongate’s schedule caught up with the import. He was clumsy. He wasn’t fast enough to keep up with anyone other than Ultimo. I praised matches in which he “stayed out of the way.” I referred to him as a “replacement level luchador”. Mante was wrestling at a level far below the likes of PAC, Ricochet, or Rich Swann, and instead was harkening back to the era of names like Chris Bosh or Human Tornado. He simply wasn’t achieving the standard needed to wrestle in Dragongate. 

After Champion Gate in Osaka 2020, the world shut down due to COVID-19. At the time, Dragongate was housing four foreigners: Mante, Jimmy, Martin Kirby, and Michael Su. With no shows on the horizon and tremendous uncertainty in the world, Jimmy left for his home country of Mexico, Martin Kibry retired, and Michael Su was forced to head home to deal with a fractured fibula. 

Mante, however, stayed. 

This move would not only benefit him in the long run as he became “family” by sticking by Dragongate’s side during one of the most challenging periods in company history, but when shows resumed in front of fans in the summer of 2020, there was a definitive change to Mante’s game. Still wrestling alongside RED under his Diamante mask, he became the workhorse of depressing, pandemic-era shows. He was easily my Most Improved Wrestler of 2020. 

The next year, he asserted himself in new ways, as he helped spearhead a terrific RED vs. Masquerade feud in which he’d make youngster La Estrella look like a Rey Mysterio Jr clone. Estrella, at best, is a shaky high-flyer who tops out with a very low ceiling. When he’s wrestling Mante, however, Estrella looks like the future of flight. All throughout the year, Mante was saddled alongside Estrella in an effort to give Dragongate’s space alien a chance at surviving in the promotion. Wrestling Mante is the only time in which Estrella has ever looked like a star. 

Estrella wasn’t the only masked man that Mante would feud with that year. Shun Skywalker, the leader of Masquerade, would also battle Mante throughout the final months of 2021. Their chemistry was obvious. They did excellent work against one another, leading to an eventual Mascara contra Mascara tag match with Dragon Dia and Dia Inferno joining the fray. 

December 1, 2021 will go down as one of the most infamous nights in Dragongate history. Heading into the four-way mask match, it seemed most likely that Dia Inferno, the man we now know as Yuki Yoshioka, would be exposed. There was a healthy chance that Mante would lose his mask, but many assumed that was coming later (and likely to Ultimo Dragon).

Instead, Shun Skywalker turned on Dragon Dia and Dragon Dia was forced to unmask. This would become pivotal in the career of Luis Mante. 

As a result of the turn, Skywalker would take over the heel unit, transform RED into Z-Brats, and then shortly after, form a dominant tag team with Mante. 

Two-and-a-half-years into his Dragongate run, Mante had two brief stints with the Open the Triangle Gate Championships, but his tag team with Skywalker would elevate him to new heights. For the first time ever, it seemed like Mante could be taken seriously as an upper midcarder who could even progress past that. He and Skywalker won the Twin Gate belts in dominant fashion in May and held them through the end of July, when they were overtaken by the Kung-Fu Masters in one of the greatest Dragongate matches of all-time. It was clear after that night that Mante was a star in the making. 

We all knew a Luis Mante babyface turn was going to happen, we just didn’t know when. 

After a stop-and-go start to 2023 due to a pair of injuries, the Mante push was back on and in full force as Dragongate approached their biggest show of the year. In short, Diamante wanted Ultimo’s mask, Shun Skywalker wanted Strong Machine J’s mask, and Dragon Kid wanted to protect Ultimo Dragon’s mask, leading to a five-way cage match at Kobe World. In one of the most emotional matches of the year, it came down to not Mante and Ultimo or Skywalker and SMJ, but rather Mante and Skywalker, where Skywalker gladly turned on his Z-Brats partner and escaped the cage with his mask, leaving Mante forced to unmask and reveal his face for the first time in his career. 

Mante’s babyface run would not start immediately after his unmasking. He wanted to go home, a place he had not been for any significant amount of time since 2019. Mante bowed out of King of Gate and spent the summer in Mexico, healing, and manifesting revenge on Skywalker. When he returned in October, there was no question that his success in Dragongate had only just begun. 

After forming Big Hug with his longtime friend Hyo in November, Mante established himself as a 1A level guy in the current confines of Dragongate. You can’t mention Skywalker or Kikuta or Yoshioka or YAMATO without mentioning Mante. For the first time in his Dragongate career, he was the focus of a group and his vision was being pushed to the forefront. Together, he and Hyo are a loveable version of Diesel and Shawn Michaels, a quiet, soft-spoken leader, and a charismatic (and handsome) jitterbug beneath him. They could very easily be the thing that eventually takes Z-Brats down. 

The fact that Luis Mante ended Madoka Kikuta’s reign as Open the Dream Gate Champion is not surprising. The fact that he did it at Final Gate, is. After such a torturous year for the man they call Mexican Power, it seemed as if Dragongate had a hankering for beating him down. I would’ve assumed he would’ve had to have waited months for this to happen. I was targeting 2024. Very rarely does a wrestler win the Dream Gate belt during their first-ever challenge, but that’s what happened. Mante had been on a roll for a month-and-a-half and he rolled right into a victory. I theorized that this three-way was being instilled as a way of continuing to add fuel to the fire of the Mante vs. Skywalker feud while also not overshadowing Kikuta and his so-so title reign. The result of this match leads me to believe that was indeed the case. 

Three-ways in Dragongate are uncommon. The last one to happen for the Dream Gate belt happened at this very event, 11 years prior. That was more straightforward. This match somehow was good and bad at the same time, incredibly satisfying yet annoying. Dragongate’s 2023 was a year of “one step forward, two steps back” due to a variety of things, and this match represented that ideology perfectly. 

The portions of the match that focused on Mante and Skywalker were appropriately vicious. The hatred feels real and it feels warranted after the hell that Skywalker has put the now-Dream Gate Champion through. As the match continued without an elimination, though, they realized a change needed to be made. They harkened back to their days as a tag team and planted Kikuta with the Cielo Finale, but they began fighting with each other once more before either could eliminate the champion. 

The great flaw with this match was not with any of the three main competitors, but rather with the three members of Z-Brats who ran interference. ISHIN, KAI, and Yoshiki Kato were ejected from ringside early on in the encounter, but after a successful Vuelta Finale attempt on Skywalker, Z-Brats ran-in once more, attacking Mante, Kikuta, Referee Yagi, and anything at ringside with a pulse. 

I wouldn’t have had a problem with this had they not already been kicked out. Even in Dragongate, where big matches can be overbooked yet charming, this felt like such a cop-out. They were escorted from ringside when things didn’t matter, then waltzed right back into the ring at a crucial point in the match. Dragongate is all about the finer details, but this felt lazy and haphazard. 

Despite the odds being against him, Mante was able to fire up and fight back against Z-Brats, exploding with a comeback that brought Fukuoka into a frenzy. Before he could put away Skywalker with his own offense, however, ISHIN grabbed control of Mante, giving Skywalker the opportunity to brain him with a chair. Unfortunately for Mante’s former partner, he did this right as Referee Yagi came to his senses, which led to Skywalker being disqualified. 

You could argue that no one should ever be disqualified in a three-way match. I think when you add up all the chaos that Z-Brats caused, it’s fair to dismiss Skywalker from the bout. I don’t love that this is how they got rid of him. I would’ve rather had Kikuta pin him yet again. I’m all for Skywalker being protected and dominant, but this all felt silly. 

A Vuelta Facebuster wasn’t enough to put Kikuta away, nor was a Rolling Lariat enough to pin Mante. In the final seconds of the match, Mante and Kikuta felt like two huge, heavyweight stars duking it out for a title that really mattered. Kikuta’s reign was far from perfect, but he had enough goodwill banked as a lovable heavyweight champion to make the closing stretch feel like a colossal deal. 

After surviving a headbutt and a lariat from Kikuta with a kick out at 1, Mante proved to be the stronger man, catching Kikuta with one more Vuelta Finale in the middle of the ring and pinning him clean. 

Luis Mante becomes the first luchador to hold a major Japanese promotion’s top prize. He is the third foreigner to hold the Dream Gate belt, following in the footsteps of Ricochet and PAC. He is, alongside HYO, part of Dragongate’s hottest act. In a way, Luis Mante is Dragongate’s greatest success story ever. At one time a low-level luchador who was brought over to wrestle with one man specifically, he has since transformed into a top-of-the-line star. 

Four years ago, I could not fathom the idea of Luis Mante leading this company. As Dragongate heads into 2024, it’s the best thing they could be doing. ****

JACKY “FUNKY” KAMEI, JASON LEE, & U-T DEF. KAITO NAGANO, RYOYA TANAKA, & SHACHIHOKO BOY 

Daiki Yanagiuchi was originally booked for this match, but was replaced by Shachihoko BOY due to illness. 

Kaito Nagano must be feeling the heat. After an incredible start to his career, Nagano has battled injuries throughout most of the year. He’s watched his classmates in Yoshiki Kato and Mochizuki Junior bypass him, as well as newcomer Ryoya Tanaka. When Nagano is on, few wrestlers in this promotion are more exciting, but ever since his injury he suffered in September, Nagano hadn’t looked “on”. 

That changed in this opener. This was the Nagano show. He looked excellent the entire match, against everyone. The closing stretch between him and Kamei, largely built off of a battle of flash pins, was sublime. This was the type of Nagano that I want to see more of in 2024. He was quick, but he had a bite to his offense. It wasn’t good enough to pick up the win, however, as Kamei eventually caught him with the Jacky Knife to secure the win for his team. ***1/4 

OPEN THE BRAVE GATE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
HYO DEF. GENKI HORIGUCHI 

This win marks the second successful defense for Hyo and his second run as Open the Brave Gate Champion. 

Every time Genki Horiguchi is in a big match, it feels like it could be his last. Having celebrated his 25th year in wrestling this year, Horiguchi is showing signs of age. Of course, just not in his hairline. 

Horiguchi is a step slower, a little weaker, and not as smooth as the bulk of the Dragongate roster. It’s as if the spirit of Horiguchi was lifted and placed into the body of Hyo, who now resembles so much of what made Horiguchi special during his peak years. Both men fall under the “sneaky athletic” category. When you think of the great athletes throughout the history of Dragongate, neither of these two guys come to mind, yet no one in wrestling can do handsprings like Hyo and few wrestlers have the impeccable timing that Horiguchi has had throughout his career. 

This was at the level that I expected it to be at. It was competitive, with Horiguchi scoring a number of nearfalls with his signature Backslide From Heaven, but nothing can stop Hyo at this point in time. He’s the hottest he’s ever been, and quite frankly, he should hold this title for a very long time. He pinned Horiguchi at the 9 minute mark. ***1/4 

MASAAKI MOCHIZUKI, SUSUMU MOCHIZUKI, & YASUSHI KANDA DEF. DON FUJII, KAGETORA, & PROBLEM DRAGON 

If you like seeing Problem Dragon get his ass kicked, I have a match for you. The original M2K closed out their superb year with a justifiable ass-kicking against three of their usual foes. There was nothing pretty to this. There was no story. There was only pain, and that pain was brought to Problem Dragon. A Twister ended Dragon’s night just after the 5 minute mark. ***

BIG BOSS SHIMIZU, KZY, NARUKI DOI, & STRONG MACHINE J DEF. BXB HULK, DRAGON DIA, SHUJI KONDO, & ULTIMO DRAGON 

Naruki Doi did The Dance. 

These eight men were put in a lottery and the teams were decided the day prior at the Final Gate Fan Event. It just so happened that all of Natural Vibes got put together, leaving Doi as the man out of rhythm. After receiving a crash-course from the unit before the show, Doi garnered all of the attention as he stood in the middle of the ring and busted out signature Vibes moves with relative ease. It’s hard to believe so many people are stupid and wrong about Natural Vibes. The second and third incarnations of this unit have ruled. 

Unfortunately, Doi’s dancing was the highlight. This match never got going and lacked the charm that the prior match had. It’s always nice seeing Doi in a big spot, and he proved in this match that despite a year of heavy freelancing and wear-and-tear, he can still go at a high-level. Strong Machine J pinned BxB Hulk with the Machine Suplex to end this bout. **3/4 

OPEN THE TRIANGLE GATE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
ISHIN, KAI, & YOSHIKI KATO DEF. DRAGON KID, PUNCH TOMINAGA, & YAMATO (c)

It’s over. The miracle run of Dragon Kid, Punch Tominaga, and YAMATO is finally over. They dropped these belts after two successful defenses. This is Yoshiki Kato’s first title reign in Dragongate, while this marks the second time that ISHIN and KAI have held these titles. 

This was a coming out party for Yoshiki Kato. It had to be. He was embarrassed by Punch Tominaga a week prior in Korakuen Hall and you can’t have killer heels getting embarrassed by Punch Tominaga. Kato was the best version of himself in this match. Powerful, yet quick, brooding, yet charismatic. His Danzig haircut is a keeper, certainly. Kato is still wrestling like a big man wrestling in Dragongate, and not like a Dragongate Big, which is odd, considering the fact that he is a product of their dojo system. I don’t trust that he’ll be able to be neck-and-neck with the fastest members of the roster in their most complex sequences until I see it, but this was a good start. 

YAMATO has had such a sneaky great 2023. No one is talking about YAMATO, but I’ve loved his output. Even with Kato’s good night, no one was better than YAMATO in this match. He was brilliant in Rey de Parejas, energetic on house shows, a marvelous trios wrestler, and had two banger singles matches with Fujita “Jr” Hayato. I’d take 2023 YAMATO over some years when he’s been pushed to the moon. 

As expected, things broke down and we were left with Kato and Tominaga in the ring. A Cross Armbreaker from Tominaga to Kato nearly got the big man to submit, then Tominaga wisely turned the submission into a Punch Clutch and nearly stole the victory. A second Cross Armbreaker attempt did not go as planned. Kato dumped him with a powerbomb and then a Death Valley Driver before putting him away with the Cadere Luna. ***1/2 

OPEN THE TWIN GATE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
ALEJANDRO & KAITO KIYOMIYA DEF. BEN-K & KOTA MINOURA 

This match was originally supposed to be Dragon Dia & Yuki Yoshioka defending the Twin Gate belts against Alejandro & Kaito Kiyomiya. Yoshioka was forced to vacate the belts after he was diagnosed with a detached retina, paving the way for Ben-K & Kota Minoura to challenge the NOAH duo for the vacant belts. In a shocking turn of events, that NOAH duo then won the belts. 

I have never been a Kaito Kiyomiya guy. It’s not that I hate him, but I have never rated him as more than anything other than being a Nice Little Wrestler. I’ve failed to see what pundits and Pro Wrestling NOAH have seen in him. I had low expectations for someone of that stature coming into Dragongate. I assumed a purely NOAH product like Kiyomiya would look down on Dragongate, do the bare minimum, and then get out of there. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

I’ve praised Alejandro in the past, noting that he should jump ship from NOAH to DG because he fits like a glove here. Could the same be said for Kiyomiya? Kind of! He wrestled with such a spark in this match. Long gone was the depressed youngster who was getting jobbed out by a barely mobile Keiji Mutoh. This guy wrestled like he wanted to take over the world. Every time he stepped in the ring, it felt like a huge deal, and both Minoura and Ben-K responded in kind. 

I still don’t see a “star” when I see Kiyomiya, but I’ve seen plenty of wrestlers dog it when they aren’t wrestling in their home promotion (here’s to you, Hiromu Takahashi) and the NOAH trueborn was not dogging it. 

The chemistry between Minoura and Kiyomiya down the stretch was excellent. Minoura hit a Shining Wizard of his own, then looked to put the former GHC Heavyweight Champion away but was thwarted by an Alejandro springboard dropkick. When Kiyomiya returned, he planted Minoura with a Modified Tiger Driver. When that wasn’t enough, he finally connected with a Shining Wizard and put the Gifu-native away for the three count. 

Kiyomiya has now held the GHC tag belts twice, once with Go Shiozaki and once with Masa Kitamiya, the GHC Heavyweight belt twice, and the Open the Twin Gate Championships once. His career truly makes no sense. 

I’m stunned at how much I enjoyed this and how much energy this match had. Worth going out of your way to see if you’re a fan of Kiyomiya’s work. ***3/4 

Final Thoughts

Final Gate 2022 was a cathartic show that signaled greener pastures for Dragongate after a turbulent year. Final Gate 2023 laughed in the face of that idea, as Dragongate suffered more turmoil (largely due to injury) than perhaps any year previously. Final Gate 2023 was not a homerun show. It left me with a lot of questions and few answers. However, Luis Mante is the Open the Dream Gate Champion, and he absolutely deserves it.