The opening of New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s LA Dojo in Carson, California, earlier this year was a significant moment in the company’s expansion outside of Japan. Since their initial five-day training camp and grand opening event this spring, the dojo, led by head coach Katsuyori Shibata, has held more camps, hosted and set up for New Japan events, been the subject of the California Dreamin’ documentary series (available to watch on NJPW’s YouTube channel and as free content on their streaming service), and opened its own dojo house for full-time trainees.
The first training camp at the LA Dojo had thirty students. At the time of writing, only three, Alex Coughlin, Clark Connors, and Karl Fredericks, make up the current class of official NJPW LA Dojo Young Lions. They live in the dojo house with Shibata and train with him almost daily. Connors and Coughlin made their debuts for the promotion in a dark match at Fighting Spirit Unleashed in Long Beach on September, while Fredericks debuted on November 10 at Lion’s Break Project 1 at CharaExpo USA in Anaheim, a convention held by Bushiroad, New Japan’s parent company.
I spoke to Coughlin and Connors in the office of the LA Dojo about their experiences as Young Lions so far. Both had prior wrestling experience (Coughlin had trained “about a year combined” at NYWC in Long Island, New York, and Connors did a three-month course with Lance Storm followed by working the Northwest indie circuit and training at the Buddy Wayne Academy in Everett, Washington), but nothing as intense as training with Shibata at the New Japan dojo. Coughlin, a longtime NJPW fan, had jumped at the chance to sign up for the first training camp in the States, while Connors heard about the opportunity from friends and signed up at “literally the last second.” They tell me Fredericks was a last minute sign-up as well.
When asked what’s unique about training with Shibata, Coughlin replies, “Everything from the ground up. How we do our rolls to the very, very basics, everything… Just the Japanese style in general is very, very hard-hitting. Like, wrestling in general is very tough, physically it’s intense, but even more so, wow, it’s hard to put into words… It’s like getting beat up a lot, but in a good way, you know?”