The Emotional Rise Of KUSHIDA: Another Reason You Should Be Watching New Japan Pro Wrestling

New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Climax tournament is in its final days as we speak. As covered here previously, the G1 is the annual tournament to determine the No. 1 contender for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at NJPW’s flagship show, Wrestle Kingdom. Rather than break down the competitors and action so far, I thought I’d take a different approach and give the world of New Japan some context for the benefit of those who may not be as familiar with Japanese puroresu.

Make sure you check back next week for our annual recap of the G1 Climax finals, but for now, let’s look at NJPW on a more intimate level. This is the story of a wrestler who grew up idolizing a hero, and eventually got to fight that hero one-on-one.

When I Grow Up

Entrance videos aren’t a huge deal in New Japan Pro Wrestling. In WWE, a wrestler’s TitanTron video is often just as much a part of their persona as their moveset is. Cesaro becomes James Bond for a few moments, and Neville comes crashing to Earth from somewhere in distant orbit. But in NJPW, the focus is always on the wrestling. The story takes place in the ring, always.

For that reason, it’s easy to miss something contained in the entrance video of the current IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, KUSHIDA. Between the clips of him diving onto his opponents, you might be able to glimpse brief flashes of VHS home movie footage. A young KUSHIDA can be seen moonsaulting onto mattresses and powerbombing pillows. It’s the kind of thing that parents find adorable until a lamp gets dropkicked off an end table, and then wrestling is never allowed in the house again.

Yujiro Kushida knew he wanted to be a pro wrestler from an early age. His quest for that dream was anything but a straight line to New Japan, though. He started in the world of mixed martial arts, training in the ways of legitimate submission wrestling and fighting his way to an undefeated record (six wins, two draws). From there, he made his way through various Japanese promotions like All Japan Pro Wrestling and Tajiri’s SMASH. In 2009 and 2010, he had a second home of sorts in Canada, a country that still gives him fond memories. His first Twitter handle was KUSHIDA_CANADA, after all.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2011 that KUSHIDA went full-time for New Japan. After initially struggling to find his footing, he eventually found tag team success with Alex Shelley. As the Time Splitters, they were an ersatz Doc Brown/Marty McFly combo that went on to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles twice.

But nowadays, when you consider how far he’s come as a champion in his own right, those Time Splitter days seem a lifetime away. KUSHIDA is the reigning IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, currently enjoying his third reign with the title. And while he’s always been an unsung workhorse for NJPW, 2016 began a chain of events that turned him from just a champion into the face of the junior heavyweight division.

The Proving Ground

After winning the title from Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 10, KUSHIDA’s next high-profile defense would be in April against the debuting Will Ospreay. As previously mentioned here, Ospreay is right on the cutting edge of what junior heavyweight wrestling can be. After forcing Ospreay to submit, KUSHIDA was greeted by a surprise visitor to the ring: Jushin “Thunder” Liger.

The puroresu icon entered the ring and grabbed a microphone, declaring that his time as an active wrestler was entering the final chapter. But before calling it quits, it was his desire to hold the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship one last time. KUSHIDA gracefully accepted the challenge for Wrestling Dontaku on May 3, setting up a match that seemed destined to happen.

Remember the old home movies? Those VHS artifacts showing a young boy powerbombing pillows? Take a closer look. Those aren’t just any powerbombs … those are running Liger Bombs. KUSHIDA had now accepted a challenge from his hero. He would be wrestling the man who made him want to be a wrestler.

Wrestling Dontaku would not be their first one-on-one meeting. They had several battles during the Best of the Super Juniors tournament over the years, usually won by Liger. Yet in 2014, KUSHIDA managed an upset submission victory.

Following that match, Liger was quick to compliment his opponent. “KUSHIDA, because of you I became stronger,” he said. Now, two years later, their title match was being billed as “Legend vs. Champion.” A 51-year-old Liger went before the media and finally gave them a timetable on his career, saying that he had less than five years of wrestling left in the tank. Someone would have to step up, take the wheel, and steer New Japan’s junior heavyweights toward the future.

May 3, 2016

KUSHIDA’s strength in the ring is adaptability, but not in the traditional sense. He doesn’t change his style to match his opponents, he wears down his opponent until they match him. In the unpredictable world of the junior heavyweights, he faces drastically different challenges every time he wrestles. Maybe he’ll have to deal with the outside interference of the Bullet Club or Los Ingobernables. Maybe he’ll have to plan for aerial moves of Ricochet, or the wild temper of Rocky Romero. Or perhaps he’ll have to face a living legend like Jushin Liger.

Regardless of opponent, he doesn’t stray from the game plan that has brought him this far:

1. Don’t panic.
2. Don’t get too fancy.
3. Start working the opponent’s arm.
4. Catch them by surprise.
5. Hoverboard Lock until you hear the bell ring.

But if anyone could break a solid strategy like that, it would be Liger. The day of Wrestling Dontaku arrived, the pounding drums of “KUSHIDA Makes You Rock” began, and the defending IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion marched to the ring as the VHS images from his past were projected onto a video screen high in the mezzanine of the Fukuoka Kokusai Center.

During the match, there’s a point where KUSHIDA appears to tweak his knee on a bad landing, and Liger zeroes in like a shark smelling blood in the water. It’s vicious, but it’s never mean-spirited. Three decades of wrestling experience have taught him that ruthless efficiency is necessary, and Liger passes that knowledge to KUSHIDA with every kick to the kneecap. And eventually, KUSHIDA picks up on the lesson, targeting Liger’s left arm with kicks and cross armbreakers. True to form, KUSHIDA catches Liger in the Hoverboard Lock, bends back his fingers for good measure, and suddenly the Legend is tapping out to the Champion.

The moment that comes next gets me emotional every time I see it, no exception. KUSHIDA sets down his title, and we start time-travelling. It’s 1991, just like the timestamp on the VHS footage says. There’s no more KUSHIDA, it’s just a boy named Yujiro sitting one foot away from his hero. The boy bows. And then Jushin Liger, one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time, speaks volumes with his actions. “No. You’re the one now. You earned this.”

Abruptly, we return to 2016. KUSHIDA asks for the microphone and begs his idol not to stop wrestling. It’s the “Fight Forever” chant, asked as a personal favor instead of a shouting demand.

I tend to poke fun at myself whenever I make it publicly known that I like pro wrestling. I figure if I’m the first one laughing at myself for enjoying it, no one else is going to make me feel bad about it. But occasionally, I don’t feel bad about it at all. Sometimes I’m just proud to watch. Sometimes I realize that wrestling might just be the only thing that gives us moments like this.

New Japan Pro Wrestling makes a habit out of giving us moments like this, precisely often enough that it feels special every time. And now that the end of G1 Climax is rapidly approaching, Wrestle Kingdom season will be upon us sooner than we think.

Of course, G1 won’t tell us who KUSHIDA’s opponent will be, but something tells me he’ll be ready for whoever it is. We’re seeing him at his peak now, and he’s taking the whole junior heavyweight division with him into the future.

Someone like Hiroshi Tanahashi is probably the heart of New Japan, but KUSHIDA is its soul. The fate of puroresu depends on a kid who used to run around the living room giving Liger Bombs to pillows. We’re in very good hands.