With the Young Lion Cup upon us, representatives from the New Japan, Fale and LA Dojos will all be battling it out to see who is the future of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Who better to assess the prospects of the LA Dojo entrants than their coach? Katsuyori Shibata gave NJPW1972.com his appraisal of Karl Fredericks, Clark Connors and Alex Coughlin!
I’ve been hard on them all year. But that’s paid off. These guys aren’t half-assing it.
–So, the Young Lion Cup is kicking off in Korakuen Hall, and three of your students are represented.
Shibata: It’s exciting. I really wanted this to happen. To have my students go to Japan and test themselves there, that was one big step, a goal of mine that we’ve achieved.
–Clark Connors and Karl Fredericks were in those preliminary matches during the G1 tour and instantly showed how good they are.
Shibata: I think those performances really played a big part in them getting entered into the Young Lion Cup. I’ve been really hard on them for the past year, but that’s paid off. These guys aren’t half-assing it.
–They’ve definitely showed that in the ring.
Shibata: But it really is just the beginning for them. I mean, I haven’t been teaching them anything other than the fundamentals. Nothing more at all. I haven’t taught them how to throw elbows, anything like that. The strict fundamentals, taught in a strict way. And I think that’s something you can see in the matches, there’s something about their determination that’s different to the Japanese kids. I’m not sure if it’s OK for me to say this but…
–Something different about their determination?
Shibata: How can I put this? It’s like the Japanese kids, you see them playing to the fans far more than is necessary. They’re wasting their effort like that. Right from an early stage, they have bad habits, turning their backs on their opponents. If you’re ahead, why waste time on playing to the crowd when you can be stomping on your opponent? I’m teaching the opposite mindset to what they’re picking up.
–You have a different approach?
Shibata: It’s where you put the emphasis in a match. That’s what’s different. There are a lot of things that you can only experience at this point, at this young stage in these kid’s careers. This is a tough, tough business, so there are lessons you learn through all of that hard training. The basis of a match, the necessities are bumps, rope work, mat work. To go beyond that, the most important thing to me is ‘readiness’. I think… Put it this way, 20 years ago, when it was me and Tanahashi at that point, you’d have the Young Lions go out in the first match and batter the living daylights out of one another. I think those kind of matches have become more rare.
–The Young Lion style has changed over the years.
Shibata: These days you see the Young Lions teaming with their senpai in tag matches. I think the idea is the experience rubs off on them, but you’re losing the real test of character that comes from one on one rivalries in the Dojo.
Shibata: It feels a little stale… I think really only (Yuya) Uemura truly feels fresh.
–Was that thought process something that you consciously brought into your training in the LA Dojo?
Shibata: No, I wouldn’t say it was so much a conscious thing as this is the path I’ve walked in pro wrestling all these years. But in teaching these guys in LA and then going out there in the world, I think it’s confirmed I’m doing things the right way. The response, from a lot of angles, all over the world, has been good.
–Certainly you got that raw Young Lion battle feel with the LA Dojo guys in the ring. You mentioned playing to the crowd, that’s soemthing we often think of non-Japanese wrestlers doing more. Were you conscious of that while training in the Dojo?
Shibata: Oh, yeah, haha. That’s why I’m really proud that they’ve come on board with me. They understand how I think about wrestling in that regard. Right now, I have one more trainee who won’t be in the cup, so altogether that’s four, and they all get it.
–American or Japanese, they understand Shibata-ism.
Shibata: But there have been people who didn’t really get it, and they all dropped out. I’m strict. Very strict.
–You’re uncompromising, it’s only fitting that you should be strict.
Shibata: Well, I understand that different countries have different cultures. I was kind of finding my way for a while there. But something happened…
–What was that?
Shibata: I was living together with them in the same house, and after about a month, they weren’t treating any of it with enough respect. They were slacking off in the house, they weren’t training as hard, and one day I completely lost it with them. I really thought things are different in different countries, I need to be patient, but I lost it. From there on though, they straightened up. I was pouring energy and passion into teaching and that rubbed off on them.
–They respected you, trusted you more for it.
Shibata: It’s a rare kind of connection. But I think the guys I’ve taught are proud of coming from the LA Dojo, and that makes me happy too.
Clark is the captain of the LA Dojo team. I leave a lot of the drills to him.
–Let’s look at each of the LA Dojo wrestlers in turn. First, 25 year old Clark Connors.
Shibata: He listen to me the closest. He has a lot of ambition.
–You can tell he wants it.
Shibata: Oh yeah. I think you can call him the captain of the LA Dojo team. If I’m not around, I leave the drills to him.
–And as a wrestler?
Shibata: He’s changed a lot since he started. He looks different, he’s gotten bigger. He was really small when he started. All the guys in the dojo were chosen from a training camp we had when it fist opened. We reached out to the guys who had the most promise, and Clark was the first one we called.
Shibata: And between us calling him and him coming to the Dojo, his legs had gotten quite a bit bigger. He said he’d been doing 500 squats every day. He was really putting the work in. That’s the attitude he had.
–He showed how motivated he was.
Shibata: And he’s the first to realise when something pisses me off (laughs). He’s got a good head on his shoulders.
–Connors was entered into the Super J-Cup in August.
Shibata: He lost in the first round, but he had a good match with TJP. I’ve got a lot we can talk about when it comes to TJP, but I don’t want to take all day here! (laughs)
–TJP was a member of the original LA Dojo back in the early 2000s, so the TJP and Connors match was an LA Dojo battle. Well, maybe let’s talk about it on another day.
First thing I thought when I saw Karl was ‘this guy’s awesome’
–Next is 29 year old Karl Fredericks.
Shibata: When we did the first short training camps in LA, we had about 15 guys in each of the first and third sessions, but only Karl had applied for the middle one. We were talking about just cancelling it.
–You couldn’t get enough applicants?
Shibata: But the guy had gone through the trouble of applying, so we took a look. First thing I thought when I saw him was ‘this guy’s awesome’. He had no trouble with the drills at all. Every part of his body is like a spring. And he’s tall.
Shibata: He came with experience too. I guess I can say this? He was called by another major company as well, and went through their camp.
–He went through that training camp as well?
Shibata: But there, he asked himself whether he could really do what he wanted. When he did our camp, he decided ‘this is where I should be’.
–He’s obviously a top prospect, but he was being scouted by other promotions too.
Shibata: When I asked him ‘do you want to train with me in LA?’ he answered yes right away. He has a natural sense, so much potential. If he takes his chance, he’ll be on a rocket to the moon.
–It’s just a matter of time before he gets his break?
Shibata: During his matches in the G1, I thought he was moving even faster than I expected him to. You have no choice but to respect the guy. He’s smart, too.
–And a striking, muscular look.
Shibata: Hm. People have talked about how all the LA Dojo guys have good abs (laughs). But I think that comes from a sense of rivalry with the New Japan Dojo. When Karl knew he was going on the G1 tour he put even more work in on his body, to stand out.
–He wanted to make the most of his chance.
Shibata: At this stage, with relatively little experience, he really doesn’t want a single match to go to waste. When Karl and Clark came to Japan, they went straight to the Lion Mane Dojo, and within ten minutes the were training, putting in 2,3 hours.
Shibata: The Japanese kids were surprised.
–To change the subject a bit, Fredericks resembles you quite a bit in terms of appearance and attitude.
Shibata: Hmm. One time, Tanahashi came to the Dojo and we were talking. I explained that I was only teaching the fundamentals, but he said that these guys were watching me so closely they were starting to look like me. I guess when they’re learning by my example, that’s what happens.
–To tell the truth, when you Connors and Fredericks debuted, Connors seemed a little more reserved while Fredericks seemed a little gaudy. When he came to Japan, it really seemed like he changed. He looked just like you!
Shibata: Well, we live together, we eat together. I guess we’ve come to look alike. They don’t say they’re particularly conscious of it, they don’t say they watch my matches, but they probably do.
–Surely they do.
Shibata: But they don’t copy. They take stuff in, put it through their own filters, and make their style their own. That goes for all of them.
Alex, he’s like the world’s strongest baby. He’ll only grow from here.
–Then there’s a man making his Japanese debut in Alex Coughlin.
Shibata: Yeah. He was sick for a while, so he couldn’t come on the G1 tour.
–So he could have been on the G1 tour? He wasn’t left out because of ability?
Shibata: He’s the least experienced of my guys. But he is insanely strong. and very flexible as well. His bridge is just awesome. He’s just… lacking a few things.
Shibata: He hasn’t got much experience, there’s a lot he doesn’t know. How can I put it? He’s like the world’s strongest baby.
–The world’s strongest baby?
Shibata: It’s like he’s only just been born. He’ll only grow from here, and there’s so much possibility for him, but it’s as if he’s one year old. OK, maybe two. But that’s a real treasure in the wrestling world.
–Still pure, with a lot of potential waiting to come out.
Shibata: I’m really strict with him. I don’t want to treat my guys differently per se, but all those areas where he’s lacking in experience, I have to be extra careful to teach him. But I7m fairly strict with Clark too, I guess. Anyway, Alex is a weird guy. Really weird.
Shibata: He told me ‘I’ve never once been angry in my life’. He’s got such a different outlook, it really is like he’s a baby. I was telling him ‘show your anger in the ring!’, but he was like ‘I’ve never been angry in my life, I don’t know how’.
–That’s… Unusual for a wrestler.
Shibata: So I’m taking more time to bring him up. Missing the G1 tour will really mean the gap between him and Connors and and Fredericks has opened up, so his homework’s been to think of ways to close that gap.
–To be fair on August 25 in Long Beach, Coughlin managed to beat Shota Umino.
Shibata: Yeah, but he was spinning his wheels. He’s still searching I think, finding out who he is. When we were in Japan, he went to train with Josh Barnett, actually.
–Barnett competed in NJPW in the early 2000s, and challenged for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. An accomplished MMA fighter as well. So Coughlin really wanted to learn.
Shibata: All those kids are very serious. They’re all training hard. Be it for a match, or for their own benefit. They don’t just go through the motions, or train because someone will get mad at them if they don’t.
In the Budokan, as soon as Connors took down Tsuji, and then Narita and Uemura were right there, I thought ‘ah, that’s New Japan’
–A big part in the decision to have this Young Lion Cup was just how impressive the LA Dojo guys were during the G1.
Shibata: Right. I think really, we might call it the Young Lion Cup, but this is really about the Japanese versus American Dojos. That’s how I’d like to look at it, that’s how it was in the Budokan on August 12.
–It was Connors and Fredericks against Tsuji and Narita, but post match the seconds got involved and all hell broke lose.
Shibata: I saw that and instantly thought ‘ah, I get it.’ They really lit a fire under the Japanese guys. I’m Japanese myself, so it’s kind of weird that I’m on the American side here (laughs). But I’m cool with having this war, you know. I like this kind of thing. As soon as Connors took down Tsuji, and then Narita and Uemura were right there, I thought ‘ah, that’s New Japan’
–The LA Dojo boys have brought a bit of the old NJPW spirit.
Shibata: I think so. You look at that and you go ‘ah, that’s New Japan’. I really think this Young Lion Cup will be the embodiment of what NJPW is. The old essence of NJPW is something the Japanese kids don’t know, but that I’ve taught to my students. Pitting all those guys against one another, that’s a true test of character, a true learning experience. I think everybody’s going to be fired up for this. I know I am.