New Junior Generation: Despe Times, Despe Measures (1/2)

El Desperado has a lot to say on the lay of the land in NJPW since events have been cancelled!


An end is a start. A pause in NJPW action for the last few months really does make it seem as if a new chapter in New Japan history is about to begin when we get back to action. In no area is this truer than in the junior heavyweight division. After Jyushin Thunder Liger retired back in January the question is who will lead the way for junior heavyweights in the Reiwa era in the same way that Liger shaped the division during Heisei? El Desperado would have you think it’s him. 

Not being involved in Liger’s retirement hurt. It still hurts today. 

–So, this interview is going to be the first of a series examining junior heavyweights in the new Reiwa era.

Desperado: Huh. OK.

–Last year, we began the Reiwa era in Japan. The man who really defined junior heavyweight wrestling in the last era of Heisei was undoubtedly Jyushin Thunder Liger. Did his retirement in January impact you at all?

Desperado: Hm. To me there’s no disputing that he made junior heavyweight wrestling what it is today.

–I see.

Desperado: I think I feel comfortable saying this knowing that we won’t ever face off again, but without Liger there wouldn’t be a junior division.

–A rare respectful statement for you. The two of you did have your issues; at one point in March 2014, it seemed as if you were heading toward a mask versus mask match…

Desperado: I remember. By then, I was already in talks to join Suzuki-Gun. I wanted to make a big splash before I did.

–You joined Suzuki-Gun officially that July.

Desperado: I’d made my debut in NJPW in January. To be honest, I was still finding my way and hadn’t done much of note. Having this novel situation with Liger seemed to be the perfect way for me to make a mark.

–You were very new. Maybe Liger himself thought that he could bring something out of you. 

Desperado: Hmm. Maybe it turned out that way in the end, but I really don’t think he was trying to do me a favour. I think I probably just pissed him off, don’t you?

–He’s certainly a powder keg. Very short fuse, too.

Desperado: Haha! It’s pretty hard to figure out just how to set him off. A bit of me did think that something pretty great would come from setting off that anger in just the right way, but then I joined Suzuki-Gun, it calmed down a little bit, and it just didn’t seem like the right direction anymore.

–It kind of died out before it became an all out war between you two.

Desperado: I think in hindsight I’d have liked to have done more with Liger.

–How did you feel about Liger naming Hiromu Takahashi as the one he wanted to face last?

Desperado: Maybe this isn’t what somebody of my generation wouldn’t normally say, and maybe people won’t like hearing this, but I’m of the opinion that the top guy in a Japanese promotion needs to be a Japanese wrestler. After Hiromu Takahashi beat Will Ospreay on January 4, and became the champion, I was OK with him being opposite Liger on the fifth. But Ryu Lee, after he talked himself into that match? That had me mad.


Desperado: Jealousy, really. I understood the logic: Liger and Naoki Sano vs Takahashi and Lee, two teams of rivals. I get that. But I don’t think it was particularly interesting. I’m not saying that I would have wanted to tag with Takahashi or anything like that, but I just think it hurt, not being involved in Liger’s retirement. It still hurts today. Maybe it always will. 

–So Liger’s retirement definitely made an impression on you.

Is BoSJ just a passport to the heavyweight divison now? Eat s**t.

–Liger was a fixture in the junior heavyweight ranks for so long, but recently there have been a lot of names come and go, wrestlers turning heavyweight and so forth. 

Desperado: Hm. Well if you think about recent stuff, I was out of the Best of the Super Juniors last year with my broken jaw. It cut me up too much to watch many of the matches, so I just watched TAKA (Michinoku) and ‘Nobu (Yoshinobu Kanemaru).

–Just the Suzuki-Gun matches.

Desperado: But in the end, it was (Will) Ospreay and (Shingo) Takagi in the final. And they both went up to heavyweight. the two top juniors, both changed weight class. 

–They both entered the G1 Climax. The timing might have been different for the two of them, but they’re both heavyweight now.

Desperado: So they made the Best of the Super Juniors look like it was just a stepping stone to the heavyweight division. There was no other way to look at it. They can eat s**t in my mind. 

–You weren’t a fan of how that played out. But your partner in Suzuki-Gun, Taichi, he moved up to heavyweight from wrestling as a junior as well, in 2018. 

Desperado: I think with Taichi it was a lot more natural. He is a big guy, was a big guy, and really he couldn’t not be heavyweight. It wasn’t just a case of him saying ‘I don’t have anything left to do as a junior’, any of that BS. 

–Since going heavy, Taichi has done a lot, including winning the NEVER Openweight Championship. What do you think of his efforts?

Desperado: Taichi can do a lot of things that I can’t. I don’t know whether it’s all deliberate or something innate he doesn’t think about, but he’s always in the right place at the right time. That isn’t him deliberately making himself stick out, it’s a natural ability he has to draw eyes to him. 

–I see.

Desperado: When he was gone from those junior tag matches I really felt we lost a ring general. I figured I had to fill that role. 

–It’s easy to see that Taichi has excellent presentation, but he’s a real details guy as well.

Desperado: Look, you hear it a lot in this business. ‘Idiots can’t wrestle.’ Taichi is a smart guy.

–A lot of people felt like KUSHIDA was the top star in the junior heavyweight division. In February 2019, he left NJPW.

Desperado: Well, he had his own dreams to chase. Even when he came into NJPW, he was already saying he had his eyes on the world stage. Well OK, he had his reasons. 


There’s no surprise that Hiromu is where he is 

–Obviously, Hiromu Takahashi is at the top of the heap. He came back after a long absence in December and immediately took the title; what do you think of how he’s made his comeback?

Desperado: It’s not really a surprise that he is where he is. There’s nothing really strange about him getting right back to where he was before he got hurt. He deals in the unpredictable. He says these wild things and does these wild things. If he had come back from his injury and was more meek, if he didn’t make this big splash on his return, well then he wouldn’t be where he is right now. But seeing him run down that ramp in Osaka, and throw himself into the guardrails, I knew he hadn’t changed. I’m not as good a speaker as him. 

–You think so? Your comments backstage get a lot of praise.

Desperado: If I don’t have someone pushing my buttons, I tend to just give no comment and move on. Someone like him though, he doesn’t need someone to push him, he’s always on. I can’t help but tell him I love him sometimes.

–Backstage at Dominion in 2018, that was how you challenged Hiromu. You’re certainly vary mindful of him.

Desperado: How can you not be? I’ve had my eyes on him since he was wrestling in Mexico as Kamaitachi. It’s no surprise at all that he got to where he is. Nobody has the stubborn drive that he has. He’s taken that, expressed himself in the ring, and shot right to the top.

–So you’ve really been following Hiromu for a long time.

Desperado: I mean you look what he had, still has going with Ryu Lee. That match has made money all over the world, right? And even though it started in Mexico, they never wrestled Mexican style. It’s always been an American Japanese fusion.

–And you think that’s why it caught attention all over the world?

Desperado: I’ve known Lee before he put the mask on, when he was just a kid training. From day one, that guy has always been Katsuyori Shibata in his mind.

–Shibata is his idol.

Desperado: Hey, I happen to know he likes the Boss (Minoru Suzuki) as well. I think they’d beat the hell out of one another if those two had a match. 

–Ryu Lee is a former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion himself. Did you predict that he would have this level of success in Japan?

Desperado: I never did to be honest. When I saw him coming up, I always thought he had great athleticism, but that he was a luchador who hated lucha.

–He split away from CMLL before he came back to NJPW as Ryu Lee. 

Desperado: He had a lot of other choices. A lot of offers on the table. I guess it goes to show how much he likes the New Japan style. Thing is, if he went to wrestle somewhere else, they’d kill what’s good about him. It’s only NJPW that lets him show just how wild he is. He knows that. Because Hiromu’s here.


Hey, I loved the match with Kasai.

–Let’s get into some of the matches you’ve had with Hiromu. I specifically wanted to talk about your match from Best of the Super Juniors in 2018; he took your mask off, but you still pressed on and beat him.

Desperado: Oh yeah, when he wouldn’t shut up about how I really was. That was a fun match, but later when I challenged for the title (in Korakuen on June 18), I lost. 

–But both of those matches really helped re-establish you as a singles wrestler. After that, before last year’s Best of the Super Juniors, a lot of guys like Ryu Lee and BUSHI were talking about how they expected a lot from you in the tournament.

Desperado: I really did feel like I wasn’t trying to draw attention to myself, but here it all was anyway. And then for me to get hurt and miss the tour, well that’s me all over. 

–Right before the tour kicked off, you took on Jun Kasai in a deathmatch in Korakuen Hall for TakaTaichi Mania. It was a no-contest, and you broke your jaw. Thoughts on that match?

Desperado: Hey, I loved that match!

–Even though you got hurt?

Desperado: I always liked Kasai. I’ve bought tickets to his deathmatches in the past. That match came about when he beat DOUKI (on March 31 in Shin Kiba) and I figured ‘if I go and attack him, we might have a shot at a match’

–You had no problem with the deathmatch style?

Desperado: None at all. I know a lot of the keyboard warriors were calling me an idiot for taking a deathmatch right before BoSJ and missing the tour, but the thing is, that injury had nothing to do with weapons or anything like that. It was a punch from Kasai that did it. I just felt a crunch and a ton of blood in my mouth. I just thought right there ‘yep, that’s broke’. But the match was great.

–You were happy with the match itself.

Desperado: It taught me some things, you know. I had been using punches during my matches before, but I never really felt I could hit them flush. After I got hurt like that, when I came back and me and ‘Nobu wrestled RPG3K in Ryogoku (at King of Pro Wrestling) I won after a punch to SHO.

–That punch meant something.

Desperado: Oh yeah. In this game, you can either do something for no reason, or have it mean something. That’s up to you as a wrestler.


Kanemaru broadened my outlook on wrestling

–Hiromu Takahashi came back from excursion in late 2016, and went straight on to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship the at the Tokyo Dome. You had your own high profile debut.

Desperado: Well there was a lot that I hadn’t figured out to that point. Now I have a lot more freedom, I can look back at me back then and understand.

–Speaking to freedom, when you first came into NJPW in January 2014, you had a lot of mystique, and a lot of things hidden away. Now you’re very outspoken, you’re effective commenting backstage and you’re entertaining on social media. What prompted that change?

Desperado: Well, I think at first the reason I couldn’t speak effectively was I didn’t know what it was I should be saying. I was so fixed on trying to do what would earn me respect, and I didn’t know what that was. So I was just spinning my wheels.

–That’s the situation you found yourself in.

Desperado: After I had joining Suzuki-Gun in the back of my mind… Maybe, like with Liger, I could have done more at that point, but I needed that time in my career. I needed the time to find myself. Sh**ty guys like me need a little extra time to really stick (laughs).

–Joining Suzuki-Gun was a real turning point for you.

Desperado: For sure. I keep my friends very very close, and ever since being with them I think it did change me mentally. And the biggest figure of all has been ‘Nobu.

–You started tagging with Yoshinobu Kanemaru in 2017’s Super Jr. Tag Tournament. You two beat Roppongi 3K the next April and went on to one of the longest IWGP Junior Tag Team Championship reigns of all time.

Desperado: I want what i want. So purely selfishly, I thought if we didn’t have the belts, I’d be at a disadvantage. He really broadened my outlook on wrestling.

–He taught you a lot.

Desperado: He taught me to not do too much too. He taught me to do what I want to do, to not seek out praise, not to care about what other people think. Nowadays I would never ever ask for support.

–You’ve forged an image around bending the rules and fighting tough. If you compare yourself to other junior heavyweights, do you think there’s any one area where you really excel?

Desperado: Not really. I’m not super fast, don’t fly a crazy amount. I’m more flexible than most perhaps. I don’t think there’s any one thing about me that really puts me above the field, which is weird isn’t it? It’s all the more weird to see Roppongi 3K, two guys with amazing bodies and all the moves who still manage to look like geeks (grins).

More thoughts from Desperado on RPG3K and more in part 2!





photography by Taiko Kuniyoshi