One warm April evening in Osaka
Last April I was in Osaka, Japan, and as luck would have it, 30 minutes from my hotel, there was a wrestling show organized by Doutonbori Pro, a miniscule Osaka independent wrestling company. I had no idea who or what was on the show. I went anyway and spent 3000 yen of my hard earned money on basically a pig in a poke.
Turns out, this was the cutest little piglet that I would happily let roll around in a mudpit all day long.
It’s Saturday night and the sun is setting on Hirano, a sleepy suburb-seeming place in southern Osaka, far away from the bigger venues like Osaka-jo Hall or Edion Arena. The place is Tigre Gym, a small warehouse with a ring and one row of seats on three sides of the ring, two on the fourth.
When I arrive, the wrestlers are hanging out outside on the sidewalk. Some of them move instinctively to give way, thinking I’m walking past. I approach them. “Pro..wres?” I put a finger up and am about to launch into my best Japanese, which ain’t great, but “one person, one ticket” I can muster. The sign language suffices this time, and as I get my ticket a masked guy says to the person next to them, “sugoi..” (“Amazing”).
The event, titled Young Master 3, gets underway at 7pm on the dot. A young guy enters the ring and thanks us for coming. Turns out his name is Yuto Kikuchi and he is in the main event, probably the first of his career. He’s got three fans or three family members in the front row, a father and two young sons. We all cheer him. He shakes everybody’s hands, which does not take long since there are merely 15 of us here. I feel his hand briefly in mine. Cold and damp - he has to be nervous.
The first match is a singles with a wrestler named TORU. He wrestles in a t-shirt, which seems a bit lazy, especially considering it looks like he’s got one of the better bodies on the card tonight, but later as he hawks his shirt during intermission, I think maybe it is merely a character choice. His opponent is a young kid shaped like a stick figure whose name is probably Kyohei Kinoshita. This kid has evident promise. The match tells a simple story — can Kinoshita pull off the impossible? TORU lights him up with chops and brutal suplexes, but the kid always comes back with fire, and lands every dropkick beautifully. There are nearfalls that have me believing it could happen, but sadly it does not. TORU finishes Kinoshita off easily, t-shirt still on, barely broken a sweat.
The second match was the masked guy I met outside the building before, Tako Yakida, reference to takoyaki, which is a popular streetfood here in Osaka. (I got confused because “da” means “is” in Japanese so I thought they announced him as “Takoyaki da!” not “Tako Yakida!”.) He is tanned brown like those little doughballs lathered in sauce are. The mask hides his age, but he definitely is younger than his opponent: Akagi. Blonde, in his 50’s maybe, seen some shit and gone through some shit, based on the condition of his skin. He should borrow a t-shirt from TORU. This was the only match I struggled to get into. Both wrestlers worked hard but it just did not connect with much of what they did. The chops were brutal and drew blood on Akagi’s already beaten chest, but the emotion was somehow missing. Afterwards, Tako Yakida set up a match for a future event between him, Akagi and a round-shaped feller whose name I completely failed to catch.
At intermission, I catch myself staring at Tako Yakida’s tanned backside because this man is the opposite of TORU. No shirts are ever on this guy. He catches the weird foreign girl staring and decides to make small talk. First time, is the only thing I understand from the first question. First time to Japan? To Doutonbori Pro? Yes. I answer with an enthusiastic, “hai!”. He asks something else. I hesitate, not understanding a single word. “Did you have fun?” he asks, rephrasing himself. “Hai, arigatou.” He looks happy with this reply, and moves on.
I may have failed to mention the referee for each bout, a young woman who’s short and determined-looking, sporting a ponytail, red shoes (coincidence?) and resting bitch face. She is wonderful. Nobody gives her crap, because she looks like she has already had enough of it.
The next match is a big one. We have a champion in the house, a round-bellied green-haired EVIL BEAR OF BOMBING as his tee says. Kazuaki Mihara is the WDW champion and he has the crowd behind to support him. I’m an instant fan as well. EVIL BEAR OF BOMBING. Who doesn’t love that?
His opponent is Yuki Tanaka, a strangely handsome wrestler in black and pink tights, who is not here to mess about. They grapple for a bit and it is clear Tanaka is here to play to his own strengths and take the big man down with clever submissions. His kicks are dangerous, too, and he zeroes in on a target: Mihara’s arm. The bear stumbles; he simply cannot go through his power moves when his arm is hurting this bad. The kicks keep coming, and the crowd winces each time. An armbar attempt, and the evil bear is a wounded puppy, crawling to the ropes. The crowd is behind him, though, kids in the front row pleading for victory by calling out his name. The champ can’t go down like this.
But moments like these are what makes a champion. The Evil Bear gets to his Bombing, but what happens? Tanaka kicks out. Mihara throws a few forearms with his good arm and goes for the ultimate tool in his arsenal: a muscle buster. He yells out NIKU BUSTER before he does it. The NIKU BUSTER gets the Evil Bear his victory. The crowd cheers him and the opponent. Tanaka showed his technical prowess too, tonight, and I loved both guys in the match, which told a very good story so effectively and logically. Everything clicked and mattered, and both came out looking like stars in the process.
The final match is our young boy Kikuchi taking on Katsumi Oribe, a veteran. The pressure is on Yuto Kikuchi and even if he has the fans behind him, Oribe does not go easy on him. Each kick lands with a thud, every scoop slam seems to maul the poor boy. They even go to the outside in a building small enough for the outside to be literally outside. One of the ring crew ushers us away from the action but we are still in the thick of it. Oribe stomps on Kikuchi in front of me, and my gasp of the Finnish word for “no” goes unnoticed. The old Japanese man next to me looks at my reaction, almost as if to say, “you know it’s fake, right?” — but to me it’s as real as anything in that moment.
The action returns to the ring and Oribe remains on top. But Kikuchi is firing back up, full of frustration and will to fight on. He lands some forearms that barely touch Oribe’s massive chest. He has to outwit the veteran where his power just won’t suffice. We get schoolboys and jacknife attempts, we even get the classic small package. But Oribe is just too learned, too good. He wins the match.
Kikuchi remains in the ring, receiving the good effort applause. He thanks the crowd. He says he lost, but he is happy. His promo falters, and like his in-ring work, it is clear he has a lot to learn on this front: even not understanding the language fluently, I can tell the exclamation points are in the wrong places, and the message isn’t as clear as it ought to be. But everybody applauds. The kid did his best. He will learn, and grow. Maybe one day he can wrestle a great match in a t-shirt. Maybe one day he will tan like a brownie. Maybe he will win the main event and win the big one in sleepy Hirano, or a crowded Edion or wherever his journey takes him.
I thank some of the people outside with my awkward bows and barely-there Japanese skills. I don’t have enough money to buy a TORU shirt or a EVIL BEAR OF BOMBING shirt. Maybe next time, because I would love there to be a next time. They could not booked a show more to my liking, and if there was a way for me to see Young Master 4, I would want to be there again.
Go support independent wrestling, everyone.
[Originally posted April 15th on the Voices of Wrestling message board.]