Junior Wrestling in Japan: History (2000/2010s)

In the first part of my overview about Junior Heavyweight Wrestling in Japan in the 1980/90s, I covered the legendary encounters of Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid and the golden age in the mid-90s. Now, I’ll cover the quasi decline in popularity for this style in the 2000s up until today. As mentioned in Part 1, it was the exodus in AJPW, a deemphasis on Juniors in NJPW and a general downturn in terms of pro wrestling popularity in Japan that led to this rather dark phase in the early 2000s. Until this day, it never again reached the heights – in terms of mainstream popularity – it had up until the 90s.

With the formation of Pro Wrestling NOAH by Mitsuharu Misawa, there were two especially promising youngsters, who would go on and become big names on a worldwide scale: Naomichi Marufuji and KENTA (Hideo Itami). While both still debuted as young lions for AJPW, they really began to make in impact just a couple of years later. Mitsuharu Misawa wanted to feature Junior Heavyweights more prominently than before in AJPW, and in later years and with rising popularity of the two, young flag bearers, there were often also crossover matches with the heavyweights and their highly popular mentors, Misawa and Kobashi.

Even though NOAH put the Juniors more in a spotlight than All Japan did before, there was something else, something bigger brewing for Junior Heavyweights in Japan. Already 1998 formed world-famous Junior Heavyweight Ultimo Dragon Toryumon to give his students a platform to showcase their skills. On a side note, Toryumon means literally ‘climbing up the dragon gate’ but is more understood in a meaning like ‘gateway to success’.

Toryumon was first formed as a dojo in Mexico, to enable Japanese Junior Heavyweight hopefuls to learn the Mexican lucha style, just like their teacher had done before. First co-promoting in Mexico with IWRG and then promoting events in Japan from 1999 onwards under the name Toryumon Japan. As is mentioned before, there was a real void in terms of Junior Heavyweight Wrestling at that time, and that void was perfectly filled by Toryumon as it gained popularity quickly and was one of the hottest independent promotions in Japan in the early 2000s.

All should change when founder Ultimo Dragon came back to Toryumon at the 6th Anniversary show in 2004 and announced shortly thereafter to leave Toryumon and take all the trademarks with him. As a result of this, the promotion was renamed Dragon Gate and really kept to the success formula of the prior years. With the focus on the Junior Heavyweights and factions in general, Dragon Gate presents a very unique take up until today and gained worldwide recognition in the wrestling community when their famous six-man-tag team match Ryo Saito, Dragon Kid, Genki Horiguchi vs CIMA, Naruki Doi, Masato Yoshino at Ring of Honor’s Supercard of Honor in 2006 gained a five-star rating by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. This kind of fast-paced multi-man Junior matches are to this day a staple of DG and they even were considered the number 2 promotion in Japan for multiple years in the 2010s.

I have been able to visit a lot of different Dragon Gate shows since living in Japan and I would consider them the most easy-going and a very pleasant live experience overall. It’s very family-friendly in general and there is just a comforting vibe during a DG event. So, if you are ever able to come to Japan, don’t miss out on a Dragon Gate show!

With Dragon Gate rising and Pro Wrestling NOAH having two bonafide stars out of the Junior Heavyweight Division, what was going on in New Japan during that time period? Well a lot of down at first, with the whole promotion in the ‘captivity’ of Antonio Inoki and his vision of shoot-style/pro-wrestling. Although the whole promotion saw a sharp decline in popularity at that time, just like NJPW as a whole, also the Junior Division became more relevant in the late 2000s.

With top foreign competitors like Prince Devitt, Low-Ki or Mistico coming into the promotion, the quality of the division once again slowly picked up again. It wasn’t until the 2010s when the Junior Division really came into its own again, when KUSHIDA became the ace of the division and people like Kota Ibushi, Kenny Omega and also a pre-Funky Weapon Ryusuke Taguchi. But where did all that leave Jushin Thunder Liger?

There was a short run for Liger in the Heavyweight Division in 2000, when Riki Choshu wanted to deemphasize the Junior Heavyweights, but it never really took off and the fans rejected the notion, that Liger was supposed to be a Heavyweight competitor. Ironically, afterwards Liger should never become Junior Heavyweight Champion again,  although still today standing on top of the totem pole in terms of total reigns with 11 (!).

I agree, that he is the best Junior Heavyweight of all time but I always wonder how the innovator of the Shooting Star Press would have fared when there hadn’t been any weight divisions at all? Isn’t talent limited from the get-go being categorized as a Junior Heavyweight? Is it not really the exception to have somebody like Kenny Omega or Kota Ibushi graduate to the Heavyweights and having the success they have today? Now we get to the question that has to be asked: Are weight divisions really necessary?

While I think that NJPW actually does a decent job of keeping Junior Heavyweights and Heavyweights separate, we don’t see too often Junior Heavyweights main event shows that are not in Korakuen Hall. It is the ongoing categorization as something that is certainly NOT the main event that really hurts the drawing power of somebody like Hiromu, KUSHIDA or Ospreay in my opinion.

The example, that the formula of using no weight restrictions in Japan can work actually very well has to be Dragon Gate. Outside of Shingo Takagi, Takashi Yoshida (the former Cyber Kong) and maybe T-Hawk, Dragon Gate almost exclusively features Junior Heavyweights.

As mentioned before, the whole Dragon Gate live-event experience is very family-friendly and even the obligatory heel faction often has very comic facets what keeps everything very light-hearted. I’ve had a decent amount of small-talk conversations with some fans going to the events and especially the parents that went there with their kids always state, that their kids just relate better to the smaller stature guys what I think was really interesting. You’d maybe suspect that something like this happens subconsciously but not really that the parents are fully aware of this. Of course, it is also the relatively family-friendly product, which draws in the families.

Dragon Gate proved that it can work relying on Junior Heavyweight without labeling them as such. In NJPW, people always bring up the point of tradition, that it was done for ages like that and it shouldn’t be changed. What is your opinion on that?

This concludes the second part on my view on Junior Heavyweight Wrestling and the third and final part is about to come out relatively soon, where I will state my personal opinion how the Juniors could evolve in places like NJPW, if something like the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Title is really necessary and if we will ever see somebody like KUSHIDA or Hiromu Takahashi headline big PPVs. See you next time!

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