In Part II of our preview of Hiromu Takahashi and El Desperado’s Wrestle Kingdom 18, we will complain about the build of this match, the way the company booked this contest. Essentially, the story consists of a challenge and not much else. And while it is flattering to the participants, in a way, that New Japan is comfortable enough with their status to run such a spartan program, we feel like it deserves more.

But before all that negativity, it’s time to gush. It’s time to explain why this match-up, this 13-year rivalry deserves more.

If we want to headcanon this particular match’s story, there’s a really exquisite story here, one bursting with profundity, of desolation and resurgence, of aleatory setbacks and resolute perseverance. El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi have been the unflappable diad of New Japan’s junior division of this decade, the post-Ospreay, post-KUSHIDA, post-Shingo bedrock of a profoundly deep division, arguably the highlight of the pandemic.

Their rivalry runs the gamut: shambolic, barbarous fights, tangible manifestations of each man’s pertinacious compulsion to subjugate the other, to composed, meticulous contests, technical displays of their maturation, punctuated by deliberate zeal and ferocity. At times, they dive. At other times, they overhand slap each other’s chests for five straight minutes. On occasion, they literally toss the artifice of pro wrestling out the fucking window and savagely tear away at each other. Whatever it takes for us, the audience, to believe, to immerse ourselves in them.

The careers are extensions of their personas, in a way. Hiromu the supernova, an onslaught of diablerie and untempered, manic energy, bursting to the top almost instantly. Desperado the slow burn, blithely measured but scathing, devastatingly persistent and eventually reaching the zenith himself.

As the company emerged from restriction hell, Hiromu Takahashi and El Desperado became their junior ambassador, crossing the globe, proselytizing their vision of wrestling, boldly dismantling barriers and archetypes. Hiromu made his way to NOAH, Dradition, Dragongate, GLEAT, Freedoms, CMLL, All Japan, Michinoku Pro, and DDT. All that in addition to being the public face of the Junior Festival thing in March. Despy’s 2023 is less voluminous but bonkers: NOAH, GCW, Mystery Wrestling in Canada, DDT, CMLL, and Hikaru Sato’s Produce show.

Despy-Ferdinand and Hiromu-Isabella
Dual Leaders, Giving Birth to Madness

Of course, one could contend that the plan was always for a junior heavyweight diarchy, just not with Desperado. This theory purports that El Desperado was just the pandemic-induced replacement for Dragon Lee, Hiromu’s other generational rival. Look no further than Wrestle Kingdom 14 and the Jushin Liger farewell matches. When it came time to choose a partner for Hiromu, someone to somewhat mirror Liger’s relationship with partner Naoki Sano, they chose Dragon Lee. Add to that, Lee signed a contract with New Japan, and unlike other Mexican wrestlers New Japan intently pushed the young luchador. Clearly, the idea moving forward was a junior division of Hiromu, Lee, and everyone else.

The Desperado-as-replacement theory is bunkum, and it doesn’t even require extracting Lee from the picture. Keep Lee there. He was supposed to be, because the junior division wasn’t meant to be a diarchy. It was going to be a triumvirate: Hiromu, Lee, and Despy, caught in a swirling confluence of bitter, acrid jealousy, malevolence, lunacy, and, most assuredly, some type of lust. The three of these guys spent a good chunk of the Best of the Super Juniors confronting each other, and it was up to the viewer to decide if their banter was mindgames, a direct challenge, or a mating dance.

But it is that element that suggests that Desperado would have been inserted into the Hiromu-Lee madness. The 2018 Best of the Super Juniors is such an illuminating tournament in retrospect. This was where Hiromu and Desperado main evented Korakuen, a wild affair which Despy won, looked like a complete fucking mess afterwards, and set up match #2: a Hiromu title defense a month later. And, wouldn’t you know it, Dragon Lee beat Hiromu three nights later in Osaka. 

But then, both of them beating Hiromu only connects the triangle on two sides. It took the final night of the tournament to complete the shape. On that night, Hiromu defeated KUSHIDA to win the A Block, ensuring his place in the final against Taiji Ishimori. But, on the undercard, El Desperado met Dragon Lee. Both were eliminated mathematically. Coincidentally, by KUSHIDA. KUSHIDA knocked off Lee on Night 12, and he ended Desperado’s hopes on Night 10. Both main events, by the way.  And so, when they met, it was simply for… something. Hiromu’s affection? A shared passion for lucha?

Either way, Desperado won. They both ended Best of the Super Juniors 25 with losing records, 3-4 each. But it was the aftermath where things got really interesting. Desperado’s backstage comment made it very clear that he considered Dragon Lee to be his new benchmark, someone that would allow him to recapture his lucha spirit. And… someone with whom he could make a scene. Lee obliged, not only declaring Desperado to be his new rival, but sharing the same audacity: he suggested a mask vs. mask match

Now, of course, things went awry at this point: Dragon Lee broke Hiromu’s neck two months later, and Jun Kasai broke Despy’s jaw a year later. They would each return in late 2019. Hiromu went on to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title at Wrestle Kingdom 14, the night before teaming with Lee against Sano and Liger. He then defended successfully against Lee at Destruction in February 2020. Then… well, fuck. That happened.

But then, what would have happened? Well, Lee challenged in February, so it wouldn’t have made much sense for him to win Best of the Super Juniors. We think the pandemic only altered dates, not booking decisions. Much like another of their dojo mates, EVIL, we think New Japan’s plans for Desperado were unaffected. He was going to be elevated, driven by the Wrestle Kingdom Liger snub. Becoming, in a sense, a Junior Naito (though, naturally, weighing as much as Naito). He probably would have won the Super Juniors and faced Hiromu at Dominion. The mask would have come off, and a legend would have been established.

Whatever the possible paths, he was going to escape the tag division and  be thrust to the top of the singles. The triumvirate would be established… or a tetrarchy with Ishimori, most likely.

Regardless, that didn’t happen. In actuality, Hiromu and Desperado became the foundational elements of this division. And, as such, they carried New Japan through an increasingly difficult period. When you look at the juniors prior to the pandemic, and you look at them now, we think you see a strong pre-pandemic division become a ridiculously blessed one post-pandemic. Their stature raised to the level of semi-main eventing Tokyo Dome multiple years in a row. 

That is on the backs of the ones that established such expectations in the months after the return from hiatus: Hiromu and Desperado. Their Best of the Super Juniors final in December 2020 was one of the peaks of the pandemic period, a spectacular moment of sheer brazenness. They’ve since wrestled three more times, but it’s been five-and-a-half years since they’ve met one-on-one  in front of a cheering crowd. This is their reward. This is their chance.

But to really mine the depths of this relationship, we have to go way further back than that.

Despy-Janus and Hiromu-Epimetheus
Sharing the Same Orbit, Willingly or Not

El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi debuted within five calendar months of each other. Despy debuted on March 7th, 2010, losing to Ryusuke Taguchi. Hiromu debuted on August 24th, 2010, losing to Desperado. 

And yes, we are using the Desperado name as a stand-in for Kyosuke Mikami. At this point, they are openly acknowledging Despy’s pre-Despy past. They danced around it when he took at the mask off at the Best of the Super Juniors 27 Final, but now they are nowhere near as coy,  including in Hiromu’s Wrestle Kingdom 18 interview: “Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t, but we came up together.”  They have all but come out and say that El Desperado is Mikami. 

Both entered from the May 2009 dojo tryouts, though from drastically different places. There’s an age gap of six years, for one: El Desperado was born in December 1983, Hiromu in December 1989. In the interview linked above Hiromu noted that they didn’t really talk: “We don’t talk now like we did then, but we really didn’t talk then, either.”  Despy was 25 and Hiromu was 19! What the fuck were they going to talk about?

They sure worked together, though. In the proceeding sixteen months, they shared a ring 42 times. They teamed together 18 times, and it did not bode well for them. They had a 5-13 record, with two of those wins coming against Kazuki Hirata, someone who would associate with Hiromu for much of 2023. They only teamed against each other 5 times; in that area Hiromu prevails, 3-2. In one of those bouts, Desperado teamed with Tama Tonga and Strong Man, vanquished by Hiromu, Tomoaki Honma, and… Tetsuya Naito.

But Desperado dominated the singles match-ups. In 19 bouts, Desperado defeated Hiromu sixteen times. Hiromu managed two victories, but one of those was a dark match. His sole broadcast success was on August 30th, 2011, and technically, it was a New Japan co-promoted Yuji Nagata produce show. Desperado beat Hiromu one last time on December 23rd, 2011, on the Road to Wrestle Kingdom VI.

To give a sense of how things have changed in ten years, the Junior Heavyweight Championship was defended on that show, not Wrestle Kingdom. Prince Devitt defeated Rocky Romero on that show, in the semi-main event below the Masato Tanaka-Honma Intercontinental title match main event. At Wrestle Kingdom, Devitt and Taguchi defeated Romero and Davey Richards for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles. The singles belt match was used to build the tag belt match. Despy lost to Tomohiro Ishii two days later on Christmas, wrestled a dark tag match at Wrestle Kingdom, and was off to Japan, never to grace a Japanese ring under his birth name again. He spent two years away, returning in at Wrestle Kingdom VIII, attempting to woo and presumably fuck Kota Ibushi.

As an aside, roughly an hour after Desperado left the ring, off to excursion, two wrestlers returned from excursion against each other: YOSHI-HASHI and Kazuchika Okada. With two of the most atrocious haircuts imaginable. 

Hiromu’s young lion period lasted significantly longer than Desperado’s. Hiromu would not leave for excursion for another eighteen months, finally escaping New Japan in June 2013. He was there so long, he only missed Desperado’s return by half a year. In total, Hiromu spent nearly an entire year longer pre-excursion than Desperado. He went off to England, and then to Mexico. He would spend three years away, gaining fame in Mexico, wrestling a prodigy named Dragon Lee.

Their paths back to New Japan are sublimely different. Just as Desperado had an accelerated path through training and excursion, Hiromu had an accelerated path where it mattered more: to the IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship. Back in 2014, Despy failed in his attempt to woo Kota Ibushi, fuck Kota Ibushi, or defeat Kota Ibushi for the Junior Heavyweight title. They would then team up to challenge the Young Bucks for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship, falling short in an excellent encounter. Desperado’s matches at this point were frenetic, bursting with action and his seemingly endless bounty of signature offense and finishing moves. But something felt amiss, and the crowd picked up on this, showing Despy a merciless amount of ambivalence. He turned heel that summer, joining Suzuki-gun, who would be exiled to the abyss of post-KENTA NOAH from 2015 to 2017.

Just as Suzuki-gun were returning to their home promotion, Hiromu was returning from America. He came back in fall 2016, and immediately set his sights on KUSHIDA’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship. Shockingly, he took the prize right away; in just his third match back, Takahashi de-throned McFly at Wrestle Kingdom 11. Suzuki-gun would return the following night. 

Hiromu’s first defense: Dragon Lee, of course. Hiromu managed four successful defenses before dropping the title back to KUSHIDA in June at Dominion. KUSHIDA only managed two defenses before losing the belt to Will Ospreay in October 2017, but his second defense was against, of course, El Desperado. As 2018 began, Hiromu found himself on the outskirts of the title scene, being a fourth wheel of sorts in the Wrestle Kingdom 12 four-way title match. Desperado was in the NEVER 6-man gauntlet, but would bounce back from that indignity by winning the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles with Yoshinobu Kanemaru, holding the belts for over 300 days. If you want to point to a turning point for that championship, it’s that reign.

It was during that reign that Best of the Super Juniors 25 happened. We detailed those events above:

  • A wild brawl in Korakuen, disguised as a match, in which Desperado came out looking his his face was literally fucking broken
  • Dragon Lee up in each other’s business, beating Hiromu and losing to Desperado
  • Hiromu winning the tournament, beating Ishimori in the final in one of the best matches of the decade

That was followed by a title match at Korakuen, where Despy first displayed the mask-related insouciance that would reach a crescendo in the Best of the Super Juniors 27 final. In 2018, however, when Hiromu pulled his mask off, he did not freak out: he went ahead and finished bludgeoning Hiromu in the head with the title belt, casually picked the mask back up, paused, and put it back on. The whole way through, the crowd gasped in a sort of stunned excitement. 

They would not truly meet again until fall 2020, during the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team tournament. This was a mini-tournament to crown new champions, as YOH had injured his knee and Roppongi 3K relinquished the titles. Desperado and Kanemaru defeated Hiromu and BUSHI not only in the league play but in the final. Despy gleefully taunted Hiromu, planting the seeds for their upcoming singles battles. 

But, from this point, the matches tell the story.

El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi
The Matches

Note: This part was meant to be filled with screenshots and helpful visual aids. But our early Christmas present, the New New Japan World, of course, has zero archive. And we couldn’t find the matches elsewhere, so all we can offer are the things we had already saved. Sorry….

El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi, under these names, at least, have wrestled seven singles matches. Here are the basic particulars for each match:

  • Match 1 – May 22, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXV Night 4 Block B: El Desperado [4] defeats Hiromu Takahashi [2] (22:48)
  • Match 2 – June 18, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): NJPW Kizuna Road 2018 Night 3 Junior Heavyweight Title: Hiromu Takahashi (c) defeats El Desperado (28:16)
  • Match 3 – November 18, 2020 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Night 2: El Desperado [2] defeats Hiromu Takahashi [2] (23:10)
  • Match 4 – December 11, 2020 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Final: Hiromu Takahashi defeats El Desperado (30:14)
  • Match 5 – November 21, 2021 (Dolphins Arena, Aichi): Best of the Super Junior XXVIII Night 4: El Desperado [3] vs. Hiromu Takahashi [5] – Time Limit Draw (30:00)
  • Match 6 – January 4, 2022 (Tokyo Dome, Tokyo): NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 In Tokyo Dome Night 1: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title: El Desperado (c) defeats Hiromu Takahashi (16:18)
  • Match 7 – June 3, 2022 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior 29 Final: Hiromu Takahashi defeats El Desperado (30:37)

And here is how we rank them:

  1. Best of the Super Juniors 27 Final (December 11th, 2020): 5/5
  2. Best of the Super Juniors 29 Final (June 3rd, 2022): 4.85/5
  3. Best of the Super Juniors 25 League (May 22, 2018): 4.6/5
  4. Best of the Super Juniors 28 League (November 21st, 2021): 4.5/5
  5. Kizuna Road Title Match (June 18th, 2018): 4.4/5
  6. Best of the Super Juniors 27 League (November 18th 2020): 4.25/5
  7. Wrestle Kingdom 16 Title Match (January 4th, 2022): 4.25/5

This seven match series really is an exceptional chronicling of the maturation process of these two men. Injuries and increasing burdens like age, wisdom, status, and expectations have refined their output. We wouldn’t go so far to say they’ve mellowed, we’ll stick with refined. But that’s admittedly interpretive; their early bouts were utter bedlam. And while they’ve gained technique and a bit more sophistication, they’ve lost a little of that chaotic spirit. 

The Opening Moments and General Work of Each Match

Openings 

  • Match 1 – May 22, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXV Night 4 Block B
    • Hiromu sneak attacks Desperado, tosses him out of the ring, they brawl into the Korakuen stands
  • Match 2 – June 18, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): NJPW Kizuna Road 2018 Night 3 Junior Heavyweight Title
    • Desperado hits Hiromu with a bouquet of flowers, much brawling
  • Match 3 – November 18, 2020 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Night 2
    • The circle each other, lockup, throw each other outside the ring, then shoot fuck each other up
  • Match 4 – December 11, 2020 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Final
    • The stare from their corners, circle 3/4ths of the ring, then a strong lockup
  • Match 5 – November 21, 2021 (Dolphins Arena, Aichi): Best of the Super Junior XXVIII Night 4
    • They run at each other, shoulder bump several times, then exchange forearms
  • Match 6 – January 4, 2022 (Tokyo Dome, Tokyo): NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 In Tokyo Dome Night 1
    • They run at each other, shoulder bump several times, then exchange forearms
  • Match 7 – June 3, 2022 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior 29 Final
    • They pause, circle the ring fully, do some hand wrestling, then lockup

The General Match Style

  • Match 1 – May 22, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXV Night 4 Block B
    • A wild brawl amongst the Korakuen stands, then a big moves match
  • Match 2 – June 18, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): NJPW Kizuna Road 2018 Night 3 Junior Heavyweight Title
    • A wild brawl amongst the Korakuen stands, then a big moves match with a big mask spot
  • Match 3 – November 18, 2020 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Night 2
    • A wild brawl around the ring, followed by Desperado working the leg, then a ref bump where Desperado uses a chair
  • Match 4 – December 11, 2020 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Final
    • Heavy legwork from Desperado, Hiromu fights back, the biggest mask spot imaginable, then a furious sprint to the end
  • Match 5 – November 21, 2021 (Dolphins Arena, Aichi): Best of the Super Junior XXVIII Night 4
    • Desperado with heavy leg focus, Hiromu focused on locking in his triangle choke, a sprint to the time limit draw finish
  • Match 6 – January 4, 2022 (Tokyo Dome, Tokyo): NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 In Tokyo Dome Night 1
    • A faster pace from the outset, heavy striking and reverse sequences, then a return to legwork until a straightforward, somewhat abrupt finish
  • Match 7 – June 3, 2022 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior 29 Final
    • Desperado controls the first half with the legwork, Hiromu tried to counter with his triangle choke, they switch to elaborate sequences around the 20 minute mark, more finisher kickouts and traditional fire-up spots than any of the other matches

One element that displays this is the way the matches begin. Of all the elements we tracked, that we compiled, we feel like the way they began each match is the most illuminative. So much extends from those opening moments.

Their early matches were totally outrageous, just gloriously irrational. In the first match, Hiromu’s pre-injury bestial nature was resplendent, as was Los Ingobernables de Japon’s status as beloved heelish tweeners: Hiromu sneaked attacked Despy before the bell. And that made sense. This was the first year of Hiromu’s pre-BOSJ book, and while the other entrants were replete with Hirou’s typical jocular eccentricities, Despy’s was pithy and caustic: “I know who you are, and I hate you.” It was a magnificent prelude to a manic, sadistically turbulent match

Desperado returned the favor a month later, when they met for Hiromu’s newly won Junior Heavyweight championship on the Kizuna Road tour. In a callback to his debut, Despy brought Hiromu flowers, just as he had for Kota Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom 8. He then thrashed Hiromu with them, setting off a completely bonkers match, with the aforementioned de-masking. In that way, the match acknowledged Despy’s awkward past, and foreshadowed his transcendent future.

And then, the pandemic. When they met over two years later, on Night 2 of Best of the Super Juniors 27, things had changed significantly. Hiromu was pushed to the brink of retirement after his accident against Dragon Lee in 2018. Desperado’s injury, a broken jaw from Jun Kasai, was less severe. And yet, the effect on both were the same: a shift in their styles, partially restraint and partially refinement. Gone were the bell-to-bell movefests and brawls. 

Or were they? In match #3, they hinted at such sublimation of their instinctual rawness: they circled briskly and then locked up. What an exceedingly normal… prelude to the most feral 90 seconds in the entire rivalry. They pushed each other to the outside from the lockup, and then… the only way to describe it is that Kyosuke Mikami and Hiromu Takahashi, old dojo mates with the trust in each other of old dojo beats, had a planned, but legit, fight. They scrapped, clawed, tore, poked, ripped, scratched, shred, and pried at each other. It wasn’t like a breakdown, it was more like they threw traditional professional wrestling out the window in order to express their character’s profound hostility towards each other. 

But then, that match did not play out like the previous two. Perhaps that torrent of malevolent violence was a final fling, one final flourish of their old selves. Because from that point on, things become much more structured. And, assuredly, this was for the better, even if one nostalgically pines for the defiantly uncontrollable nature of their past.

Match #3 set the template for the rest of the matches: Desperado now had his Numero Dos stretch muffler, and that was going to be the template for each and every match forthcoming. From match #3 onwards, the Numero Dos was the connective tissue of every match. Of course, in match #3 Desperado was still cosmetically a heel. Unable to finish Hiromu off with Numero Dos normally, Desperado bumped the ref and grabbed a chair. Hilariously, Hiromu berated Despy for this infraction, and Desperado seemingly took his old training mate’s worlds to heart…

For roughly 2.5 seconds, and then he smashed the chair over Hiromu’s near multiple times, woke up the ref, slapped on Numero Dos again, and Hiromu tapped out.

Match #4 was a noticeably more distinguished affair, not merely a Best of the Super Juniors final, but in the historic Nippon Budokan, Also, they were the main event, over the World Tag League final. They began this moment with more ambiance: they stared at each other for a few moments, circled each other 3/4ths of the way around the ring, and then engaged in a strong lockup. In a sense, this match was the converse of the previous one held just a few weeks prior. In match #4, the began with orthodoxy, strong lockups and Desperado’s ubiquitous, compelling legwork. And then, a ref bump. And then…

One of the all-time great moments ever, in anything. The moment they will forever be chasing, and one painfully wasted on a pandemic-era, clap-crowd restricted show.

From here, we see their masterful ability to structure and mask orthodoxy at play. Matches #5 and #6 begin the exact same way: the run at each other at the bell, meet in the center of the ring with shoulder bumps, then pepper each other with forearms. As they both get older, they are wisely using big moves not as the mechanics of the match, as with the first two matches, but to punctuate the more cerebral work and to vary the pace. Matches #5 and #6 are heavily based on Desperado legwork and his Numero Dos attempts, though this time Hiromu goes back into his pre-pandemic playbook  by breaking out the D, his triangle choke kinda thing. The one he started doing, and Will Ospreay had to inform him, at a press conference, that he named his new finisher after dick. Not a dick. Dick itself.

Anyway, in both matches, they played around with pace in peculiar ways. Match #5 was the time limit draw during Best of Super Juniors 28, so they spent much of the match slowly building the intensity, accumulating engagement, until they sprinted to the time limit finish.

Match #6 is the most controversial of the matches, even though everyone seems to agree. It’s what we agree upon that makes it controversial: it is the weakest match of the bunch. And even at that, it’s a really good match, certainly worth revisiting if New New Japan World ever gets around to putting it up. Imagine if they, you know, were able to plan things out so that their relaunch, roughly two months out from their biggest show of the year, would include archives relevant to the upcoming flagship event?

This match took place at the Tokyo Dome, and as such, it is the shortest match by far. It is a full 6:30 less than the next shortest match, Match #1 back in 2018. It is 40% shorter than that match, which itself is significantly shorter than all but match #3. Every other match pushes thirty minutes. As noted, they began this match as they did match #5, running at each other from the opening bell. But this time, they didn’t retract, they escalated. The first several minutes of that match are frantic, almost hysterical. It took ten minutes until Desperado locked in his first Numero Dos, and in that time they flew across the ring area, until a Hiromu sunset flip bomb abruptly halted things. 

That match was unique in that they had more striking and reversals than in previous matches. There was a greater sense that they were finally learning from the past. Instead of just doing stuff to each other, they were anticipating and using foresight. Unfortunately, just as Desperado’s control was starting to sink in, they ran into the finish. It felt abrupt. The usual 5-act play was condensed to somewhere between 2 and 3. It’s dismissed as a failure, but that’s only by the measure of their other matches. And even then, it’s a pretty captivating match. 

It’s not the only time Desperado came in as champion, but it’s the only one where he defended it. In the series, one of these men came into their match as champion only three times. Desperado came in as champion in match #5, a BOSJ league match, which ended in a draw. He then defended the title successfully in match #6 at the Tokyo Dome. Hiromu came into match #2 with the belt and defeated Despy at Korakuen Hall. Keep that in mind for Wrestle Kingdom 18; a sign of a great rivalry isn’t necessarily the participants trading a belt back and forth, but retaining against each other.

Match #7 took place six months later, and had the most orthodox beginning of any of the matches. they didn’t run at each other, they didn’t brawl to the point of riot, and they didn’t fuck with each other through sneak attacks or propwork. They paused, circled the ring, did some hand wrestling, and then engaged in a normal lockup, not as strong as match #4. This match isn’t well regarded, at least from what we’ve read, but then again, some people have the taste level of a toddler. Fuck it, this match was our match of the year for 2022. The more we reflected on it, the more impressed we were. It was the culmination of all the previous six matches. Those that followed these two closely were rewarded handsomely.

Yes, of course, there was relentless legwork from El Desperado. And Hiromu countered with his triangle choke Dick move, though both were stymied. Things were running into a pattern, and patterns violate the principles of these two and this feud. And so, at the twenty minute mark, they once again flipped the script. They delivered sequences more elaborate than anything else they had tried in the series. They started kicking out of each others finishers, something that they had never really done in the previous matches. They started doing legit Ishii-esque fire-up spots.

One in particular was exceptional, and shows the level of detail, the microscopic plane that these two operate upon in their thoughts, ambitions, and impulses. At one point, Desperado attempted to lock in Numero Dos. Just as he was about to grab the arms, Hiromu sat up. Now, there’s a famous moment in match #4 where Hiromu turned a Numero Dos into a Canadian Destroyer. They’ve repeated that spot, it was so fucking good. But here, Desperado, for the first time, blocks Hiromu’s Destroyer attempt. Despy then tries to turn this situation into a fucking Dudebuster, but Hiromu desperately squirmed out of that position, reestablished the Destroyer, hit it… and then Despy popped back up and fucking nailed him!

This is why we rate match #7 so highly. The way they intricately manipulated the memories of the previous six matches, subverted the patterns that they had established against each other… this is the pinnacle of the medium. Guys like this using, exploiting, leveraging the past, and building upon it. In match #8, every time Despy goes for the Numero Dos, especially after the 10-15 minute mark, watch to see where Hiromu positions himself. If he goes for that Canadian Destroyer again, expect a magnificent parry-riposte battle to ensue.

Of course, with all the finisher kickouts, someone had to exceed their past, and Hiromu was the one to do so. After Time Bomb 2 was rendered insufficient to defeat his eternal rival, Hiromu broke out the Time Bomb 2.5. We believe this is the first and only instance that he has used the move. Of course, his match against Yoshihiko was interrupted by the bell. Certainly, 2.5 was coming, and maybe 3.0. And even then, it’s not assured that would have been enough.

As a final note, Hiromu said something very interesting in his recent Wrestle Kingdom 18  interview:

“So, I will say this is the last time El Desperado and I wrestle for the junior title in a match other than the main event. I really think that match should be a main event wherever it happens.”

We think that’s part of the reason the sixth match, the Wrestle Kingdom match was doomed, and possibly this upcoming match as well: it’s simply not the right fit for Wrestle Kingdom. It’s a unique situation, and a testament to how hard these two men have worked, assiduously getting both themselves, the title, and the division over so strongly. Their match-up is the pinnacle of the division. But the Wrestle Kingdom main event is held in a firmly hegemonical grip by the IWGP (World) Heavyweight championship. The best the juniors will get is the semi-main, which is where they were slotted in 2022.

But that placement seems so incongruous with our feelings about the match. It just seems naturally misaligned in a subordinate position. The other five matches, all of them, main evented the shows that they were on, from Korakuen Hall to the Budokan. That is how our brains are calibrated to view this as a main event-only match-up. El Desperado vs. Hiromu Takahashi is a 20 minute minimum main event, with the spotlight solely on them.

Anything less than that, even in the context of Wrestle Kingdom, feels insufficient. Especially when the constraints of a Wrestle Kingdom limited them to a 16-minute match. 

No doubt, other matches, matches of even higher regard, have slotted below the main event at Wrestle Kingdom. Matches like Kenny Omega vs. Will Ospreay, for instance. In every one of these examples, the match itself had a mitigating factor that subjugated it to the main event world title match. In most cases, that factor was the title on the line. In the example above, Omega-Ospreay was for a secondary title; even with the participants’ stature, that placed it behind the world title main event. And, in the other cases, a title wasn’t on the line, also ranking it below the main. And yes, there is that one famous example, back in 2014. Well, that one involved the future President; we’re going to chalk that one up to a once in a hundred years fluke.

Because the junior division is segregated from the heavyweights, it’s not as easy to dismiss the junior title. Technically, it’s the same level as the world heavyweight title, in its context. And thus, when you have such a transcendent match-up for that title, it just feels innately peculiar to have it below the top.

Finishes: Patterns, Disruptions, and Adjustments

  • Match 1 – May 22, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXV Night 4 Block B
    • A Pinche Loco after a low blow
  • Match 2 – June 18, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): NJPW Kizuna Road 2018 Night 3 Junior Heavyweight Title
    • A Time Bomb after a corner DVD
  • Match 3 – November 18, 2020 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Night 2
    • Numero Dos after several chair shots to Hiromu’s leg
  • Match 4 – December 11, 2020 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Final
    • Time Bomb II
  • Match 5 – November 21, 2021 (Dolphins Arena, Aichi): Best of the Super Junior XXVIII Night 4
    • Back and forth leading to the bell – Hiromu hits a belly-to-belly into the corner, followed by a victory royale. He then went from Time Bomb II, which Desperado countered with El Es Clero)
  • Match 6 – January 4, 2022 (Tokyo Dome, Tokyo): NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 In Tokyo Dome Night 1
    • A Pinche Loco, roll-through, and Pinche Loco
  • Match 7 – June 3, 2022 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior 29 Final
    • A Pinche Loco, Hiromu kicks out, Time Bomb II, Desperado kicks out, Time Bomb 2.5

The previous section covered the essential points and details, and so the rest will be more concise. The finishes of each match also show the progression explicated above. In a way, it re-affirms our affinity for match #7, the Best of the Super Juniors 29 final. In a way, that match was a renaissance of the in-ring, a rebirth of the past. They went from moves to strategy back to moves again.

It is interesting to see the consistency of Hiromu, however. While Despy evolved into a limbwork wrestler, Hiromu has largely relied on the same basic toolset. Though he started to incorporate The D into his repertoire against Desperado (he had lost track of it in his general work, but brought it back in force during Best of the Super Juniors 29, after a losing streak forced his hand), but never finished Despy with the hold. At all points, it was a Time Bomb.

Thus, the finish of match #7 is so brilliant. Whereas Desperado’s finishes have been more eclectic, Hiromu’s had become predictable. He had not beaten Desperado in two-and-a-half years at that point, while just six months earlier Despy had conclusively put Hiromu away, and on the biggest stage of the year, no less. This time, though, it was Desperado caught in stagnancy: his Pinche Loco with roll-through wasn’t going to work again. Hiromu knew he needed something different himself, and unveiled Time Bomb 2.5

Going into match #8, keep an eye on that. Because this match is largely a placeholder, and has been built like a placeholder match, we don’t expect something drastically different here, especially since Hiromu almost certainly has to win. As such, we’re going into this match thinking about how it portends match #9. Desperado is going to have to innovate if he wants to beat Hiromu Takahashi again.

Turnbuckles, Low Blows, and a Hooligan’s Salvation

Turnbuckles in the Match

  • Match 1 – May 22, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXV Night 4 Block B
    • The buckles are exposed, but Hiromu cannot run Despy into them. Desperado wins
  • Match 2 – June 18, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): NJPW Kizuna Road 2018 Night 3 Junior Heavyweight Title
    • The buckles are exposed. Hiromu suplexes Desperado into them. Hiromu wins
  • Match 3 – November 18, 2020 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Night 2
    • The buckles are exposed. Hiromu DVD’s Desperado into them. Goes for the pin and gets countered. Despy wins.
  • Match 4 – December 11, 2020 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Final
    • The buckles are exposed. Hiromu DVD’s Desperado into them. Goes for Time Bomb II instead of the pin and hits it. Hiromu wins.
  • Match 5 – November 21, 2021 (Dolphins Arena, Aichi): Best of the Super Junior XXVIII Night 4
    • Buckles are not exposed. Time limit draw.
  • Match 6 – January 4, 2022 (Tokyo Dome, Tokyo): NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 In Tokyo Dome Night 1
    • Buckles are not exposed. Desperado wins.
  • Match 7 – June 3, 2022 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior 29 Final
    • Buckles are not exposed. Hiromu wins.

Low Blows and Ref Bumps

  • Match 1 – May 22, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXV Night 4 Block B 
    • Ref bump? YES. Ref bumped when Desperado, being spun into Time Bomb position by Hiromu, grabbed him. Desperado grabbed the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship belt. Hiromu superkicks it into his face. Later, ref turned but not bumped taking the belt from Despy. 
    • Low blow? YES. After the ref took the belt, Desperado gave a low blow arm thrust from the front to Hiromu, leading to the finish.
  • Match 2 – June 18, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): NJPW Kizuna Road 2018 Night 3 Junior Heavyweight Title: 
    • Ref bump? YES. Ref bumped by Despy, who once again grabs and pulls the ref down as Hiromu spun Desperado into the Time Bomb position.
    • Low blow? YES. Desperado low blow kicked Hiromu. Desperado’s chair shot attempt fails, leading to the unmasking spot.
  • Match 3 – November 18, 2020 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Night 2
    • Ref bump? YES. Ref bumped by a charging Hiromu, who was side-stepped by Desperado and led into the referee.
    • Low blow? YES. Despy low blow kicked Hiromu, leading to the chair shots to Hiromu’s leg and the Numero Dos finish.
  • Match 4 – December 11, 2020 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Final
    • Ref bump? YES. Ref bumped after Desperado escaped a Fireman’s Carry and ran Hiromu into ref.
    • Low Blow? YES.  Desperado gives Hiromu a low blow arm thrust from behind. This leads to Hiromu giving Desperado a low blow, and eventually the famous de-masking.
  • Match 5 – November 21, 2021 (Dolphins Arena, Aichi): Best of the Super Junior XXVIII Night 4
    • Ref bump? NO.
    • Low Blow? NO.
  • Match 6 – January 4, 2022 (Tokyo Dome, Tokyo): NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 In Tokyo Dome Night 1
    • Ref bump? NO.
    • Low Blow? NO.
  • Match 7 – June 3, 2022 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior 29 Final 
    • Ref bump? NO.
    • Low Blow? NO.

Oddly, exposed turnbuckles were the key indicator of which wrestler won which match. If the buckles were exposed and Hiromu was able to run Desperado into them, Hiromu should have won. If not, Despy won. 

The key element was whether or not they capitalized the the buckles. In match #3, Hiromu ran Desperado into the buckles, but went for the immediate pin instead of Time Bomb. That cost him the match, as Desperado reversed the pin, bumped the ref, and never looked back. In match #4, Hiromu learned from that mistake and hit Time Bomb II after the turnbuckle DVD he fancies.

Low blows and ref bumps have a weaker correlation to the finishes; they are more of a representation of Desperado’s shift from incorrigible heel, to rogue scamp tweener, to mildly cantankerous babyface. In the first four matches, he aggressively pursued both ref bump and low blows. The variety of ways he bumped the ref, and assortment of positions from which he gave the low, let alone techniques used, separate a genius like Desperado from formulaic trash like Yano.

By the time we reach match #5, Desperado has ascended to Junior Heavyweight champion status, and no longer relies on these scornful tactics. It hasn’t really cost him. As a dickhead heel, he was 2-2. As a rule-following tweener, he is 1-1-1. 

Considering the stakes involved, the venue, and the atmosphere, we don’t expect any of these games to be played at Wrestle Kingdom. But that would be an interesting development if they do arise. As we said before, this match has been treated like an afterthought and has no buzz… why not brazenly appropriate this rivalry’s wilder history to spruce things up a bit?

The Mask
The Symbol of the Match’s Frenzy

We end with a photo collage of sorts, tracking the masks that Desperado has worn to each match, and the state of each mask by the end of the match. In this way, the mask represents the obstreperous nature of the earlier matches, and the cosmopolitan orthodoxy of the later matches. For those that pine for the savage unpredictability of the earlier matches, this is the tangible symbol of that lost vigor.

We hope that this dive into the history and matches of El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi might have sparked some intrigue for this match, after a build that did nothing to affect anyone. This truly is a marvelous rivalry, befitting any slot on a Wrestle Kingdom card. 

We hope that these details and tidbits add to your enjoyment of the match. These are two of the finest to do it. Their Wrestle Kingdom match should be a treat. And, afterwards, we’ll have plenty of time to orient match #8’s content into this continuum; both men are probably traveling different paths in 2024. As always, whatever they do will be worth following.

  • Match 1 – May 22, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXV Night 4 Block B
    • The Mask: White and black, white base with black wing, closed face long white tassles in back (black pants w/ clasps)
    • The Aftermath: An utter mess. Mask ripped, swollen face

  • Match 2 – June 18, 2018 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): NJPW Kizuna Road 2018 Night 3 Junior Heavyweight Title: 
    • The Mask: White and black, white base with black and white wings, open face and open back (black pants w/ clasps) (Came out with classic white and black w/ black base and white wings, and removed)
    • The Aftermath: Removed, put back on. Clean at end.

  • Match 3 – November 18, 2020 (Korakuen Hall, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Night 2:
    • The Mask: The classic – black base and white wings with gold trim, open face, long white tassels in back (black pants w/ stripe and fringe). Side note: check out O-Khan in the picture.
    • The Aftermath: Clean

  • Match 4 – December 11, 2020 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior XXVII Final: 
    • The Mask: White base and white wings with black tips, gold trim, open face, long white tassels in back (white pants w/ stripe and fringe)
    • The Aftermath: Mask ripped to shreds, removed. Not put back on.

  • Match 5 – November 21, 2021 (Dolphins Arena, Aichi): Best of the Super Junior XXVIII Night 4:
    • The Mask: The classic – black base and white wings with gold trim, open face, long white tassels in back (black pants w/ stripe and fringe)
    • The Aftermath: Clean

  • Match 6 – January 4, 2022 (Tokyo Dome, Tokyo): NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 In Tokyo Dome Night 1:
    • The Mask: The immaculate – pure White, white base with white wings and gold trim, open face, long white tassels in back (white pants w/ stripe and fringe). Also, white face paint with gold trim.
    • The Aftermath: Clean

  • Match 7 – June 3, 2022 (Nippon Budokan, Tokyo): Best of the Super Junior 29 Final: 
    • The Mask: The sophisticated – pure black, black base and black wings w/ gold trim,  open face, long gold tassels in back (black pants w/ black stripe and gold fringe). Black and gold facepaint.
    • The Aftermath: Clean