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Honorable Shingo: Following Shingo Takagi?s tour of ROH

Posted in In My Head by Jack at 20:49, Jul 12 2007

Traveling Shoes
What did Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero and William Regal all have in common? They toured the world to improve. Since the days of the U.S. regional and territorial systems, professional wrestlers have known the value of moving to new areas to hone their craft. Performing in front of new audiences presented new challenges and forced wrestlers to adapt to what people wanted. As the WWF swallowed territories, wrestlers saw greater value in going to other countries, to see how those cultures perceived and reacted to the art. Outsiders like Karl Gotch, Stan Hansen and Vader made indelible marks on the state of Japanese wrestling, and turned visits into careers.

In turn, Japanese wrestlers like Jushin Liger and Ultimo Dragon realized the training value in touring abroad, as well as the star power it could win them when they returned home. Today several Japanese companies send their stars around Europe and America for vital experience and exposure. Pro Wrestling NOAH, New Japan Pro Wrestling and Dragon Gate have all enjoyed sending talent along foreign indies. Indies are particularly handy since the smaller companies have to be more receptive to booking restrictions that protect their talent and will generally work harder to please the big Japanese companies? offices. In turn, the indies get promising and popular foreign stars that can draw big crowds for them. For instance, NOAH recently granted Takeshi Morishima to ROH as a semi-regular. Despite not living in the U.S., Morishima has appeared on thirteen of ROH?s nineteen shows this year, and will carry the banner of the brand when they debut in Japan this Monday. Morishima is just the latest of many NOAH stars to visit the company, following Kenta Kobashi, KENTA, Naomichi Marufuji, SUWA and Go Shiozaki.

Honorable Shingo
Shingo Takagi graduated from the Dragon Gate Dojo in 2004 and immediately debuted in their home promotion. That year he won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter?s Rookie of the Year award over the likes of Akebono, Daniel Puder and Bobby Lashley. It wasn?t the best year workrate rookies, but Shingo Takagi showed great promise. He had good size for Dragon Gate, and a complimentary surprising quickness that, despite being surprising every time you see it, is almost a prerequisite for big guys these days. Most importantly, he had the drive to improve.

If you?re new to Dragon Gate and want to see Shingo on his home turf, look around the ring for the big one with the mullet. That?s Shingo Takagi. Keep your eyes on him; you?ll be well-rewarded.

Just a year after debuting on Japanese TV, Shingo Takagi went overseas for a guest spot in Ring of Honor, at a show titled ?Dragon Gate Invasion.? Many fans had no idea what Dragon Gate was, but were still enthused to see a couple of foreign stars. Shingo Takagi came over with CIMA, the company?s most popular superstar. Both men had singles ?International Dream Matches.? CIMA would wrestle AJ Styles, and Takagi would wrestle indy veteran Christopher Daniels.

To this day I don?t know why these were supposed to be international dream matches. No one (except the bookers, apparently) was dreaming of Takagi Vs. Daniels. Fortunately the match was in the middle of the card, with CIMA Vs. Styles and a world title match as the main events. Daniels was ?replaced? in the match by his alter ego, the mad-dancing Curry Man. The novelty of Daniels playing such a funny, over-the-top masked man helped shield Takagi, who did little more than roar and hit a bunch of big moves. It wound up being a fun match, and any disappointments people might have had with the rookie were overshadowed by CIMA Vs. Styles, which was too slow and low octane for most people?s expectations of a breakneck exhibition.

The show was quickly forgotten in the coming months as Bryan Danielson began his extremely popular world title reign and Kenta Kobashi visited from Pro Wrestling NOAH to put on two of ROH?s best-selling and most-talked-about shows. Dragon Gate Invasion was considered a failed experiment, with fans arguing the selling point was a great title match, seldom mentioning the two international stars.

Seven months later, Ring of Honor experimented with Dragon Gate again. They flew in CIMA, Genki Horiguchi, Ryo Saito, Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi and Dragon Kid for a three-night event over Wrestlemania weekend. These shows were hosted in the same town as Wrestlemania, on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before WWE?s pay per view. Since there were tens of thousands of wrestling fans in town, ROH would have an easier time drawing. The six Japanese stars produced several highly praised and popular matches, stealing the love of both fans and wrestling critics. The mere word of mouth from the Thursday and Friday shows drew more fans each night, so that the Saturday show (?Better Than Our Best?) drew ROH?s largest crowd ever. The most popular match of the weekend was a Dragon Gate trios match on the second night (?Supercard of Honor?), which received five stars from the Wrestling Observer and Figure Four Weekly, and was on almost every indy top-10 list for 2006. Before Monday morning, Dragon Gate was a commodity for ROH, and the DVD?s of all three events sold spectacularly. Every indy was more receptive than ever to a visit from Dragon Gate.

Shortly after Wrestlemania weekend, it was announced that Shingo Takagi would be coming to the U.S. for an extended tour of the indies, primarily ROH and FIP (Full Impact Pro wrestling, ROH?s sister promotion in Florida). ROH?s press releases said he was coming to win an American title. Considering that he?d only been wrestling two years and most wrestling fans had only seen one match from him, the internet wrestling community took a wait-and-see approach.

He arrived in June and wrestled at ROH ?Destiny,? crushing Ricky Reyes in under ten minutes in a very physical match. With Ring of Honor?s general long-match style and Reyes? tough character, people were stunned to see Shingo beat him so quickly and decisively. It might have been the start of something special, if not for an unfortunate injury that put Shingo out until October.

He returned in October at ROH ?Suffocation,? in full health, now only calling himself ?Shingo.? He wrestled a power-based style, and quickly picked up wins over Jimmy Rave, Mark Briscoe and Roderick Strong. These matches showcased his striking and power-wrestling ability. Just like in Dragon Gate, in Ring of Honor Shingo was mammoth and didn?t have to bump as hard or sell as much as most of the roster. It covered his defensive weaknesses and let him focus on developing his offensive strengths ? in many of the indies, as well as Dragon Gate, great offense could easily outweigh selling and bumping. His size and physical style quickly drew him into a bully-role.

His victory over Strong and role in FIP also initiated a series of matches between the two, which tried to cast him as a harder heel. Strong was an enormously popular babyface who could get the crowd to pop for just about any move, so it ought to have worked well. Unfortunately, even the FIP Title?s hardcore match-like rules didn?t help ? the two didn?t click. Perhaps Strong wasn?t prepared to face guys as big or bigger than him given his offense. Perhaps Shingo had too much ring rust, or the cultural barrier was inhibiting him. Whatever the causes, the big title match fell flat, and fans opined Dragon Gate?s decision to send this guy over ? how much nicer it would have been to send Masato Yoshino or Naruki Doi over for a tour, as though they were available.

Shingo had a surprise in store for everyone at ?The Chicago Spectacular.? On Night One he wrestled in a tag match, teaming with Matt Sydal. Sydal had already spent time in Dragon Gate and was scheduled for more, so he understood the mentality Shingo was trained in. It was an odd team, but it could work. They challenged the tag team champions, Austin Aries and Roderick Strong. It was an extension of Shingo?s rivalry with Strong, and Sydal?s pursuit of the tag titles. Aries and Strong were always trusted to have a good match, but Shingo and Sydal worked a better together than people were expecting, with Shingo?s power offense complimenting Sydal?s flying. Furthermore, Shingo revealed a new strength in ROH ? he was brilliant at picking his spots and reading off his partner.

On Night Two he was part of a massive Survivor Series style tag match, where he went toe-to-toe with some of ROH?s bigger wrestlers. The match was crazy, with so many falls very unusual for an ROH match, but again Shingo held his own with seven stars who had been in ROH much longer than himself.

Coming off of those impressive outings, ROH booked him in tag matches for their final events of 2006. CIMA was flown in, and Shingo teamed with him for both shows. On December 22 at ?International Challenge? they main-evented the show against tag team champions Matt Sydal and Christopher Daniels in what even ROH?s past results section refers to as ?the match of the night.? CIMA soaked up the adulation and spotlight, but Shingo held nothing back, throwing some of the best strikes of his career, and again, picking his spots. Instead of just hitting a Lariat out of nowhere, he?d wait for the others to showcase athletic feats, then cut off their momentum with the simple but devastating move. His bigger moves, like a Giant Swing out of the Cobra Clutch position, were no longer just there ? they were placed dynamically to what everyone else tried to do. The next night at Final Battle 2006, Shingo, Sydal and CIMA teamed against Austin Aries, Roderick Strong and Delirious. Shingo came in with the same mindset, and helped produce another high-octane juniors tag match. Afterwards critics vehemently defended Shingo as a great tag wrestler. It had taken him a while, but he?d found his niche.

In early 2007, if you put Shingo in a match with more than one man, you were guaranteed a good match. On January 27 at ?The Battle of the Icons,? he was put on one of the weirdest teams ever assembled: Delirious, Davey Richards and Shingo. There was no reason for this team to assemble. The wrestlers had nothing in common. There was no reason for this team to work. But it did. Somehow between Delirious? insane babbling and Shingo?s muscle poses, they gelled and had the best match of the night ? which was ironic, given the title of the show referred to ROH icons Homicide and Samoa Joe having a high profile title match in the main event. These kinds of performances helped him fall into the generic ROH tweener role of somebody who could be cheered for impressive action in the ring, but still cheered against if wrestling a sympathetic babyface.

Shingo didn?t have to be restricted to tag matches. Ring of Honor loved (and still loves) it?s zany multi-man matches, pitting three (Triple Threat), four (Four Corner Survival or Four Way Fray) or even six (Six Man Mayhem) guys against each other. Shingo could apply the same logic from tag matches here ? stand back, let the aerial guys do their thing and catch them when they?re off-guard, or try and provoke them into striking battles they can?t possibly win, or catch them and ground them. His repertoire, especially for working with smaller opponents, was expending. This was best exemplified at Fifth Year Festival Dayton, when Shingo once again got put in a match with a bizarre line-up: Shingo Vs. Mark Briscoe Vs. Matt Cross Vs. Claudio Castagnoli Vs. Pelle Primeau Vs. Roderick Strong.

It had indy cluster**** written all over it. Mark Briscoe was one half of a great tag team, but hadn?t been very impressive in singles. Roderick Strong? He?d just turned heel and wasn?t doing much fun offense anymore. Pelle Primeau was a student whose gimmick was getting the crap beaten out of him all the time. Claudio Castagnoli was a directionless Swiss wrestler who was trying to be serious even though the fans were begging him to be funny. And Matt Cross? A flippy indy star who looked like a create-a-wrestler model. This was either going to be a flip-fest or it was going to crash and burn.

Apparently nobody told these six guys that those were the options. One fall to a finish meant everyone had to rush and even bend the rules to prevent opponents from winning, while not burning themselves out in a sprint. Pelle Primeau tried to use his body and quickly became a punching bag. Since Strong was holding back, Shingo waded into the combat and floored opponents with raw power. Nobody even tried to look as dominant, though Castagnoli was taller and perhaps stronger. Caastagnoli played to his best strength (as an exceptional base for high flyers) and let Shingo shine at his game. Somehow all six guys came together and gave a little bit of everything. Shingo got to leave the show with another ?match of the night? under his belt. But he still didn?t have a belt.

He got his reward in Liverpool. Shingo flew over to the United Kingdom for two special shows with ROH. At ?Fifth Year Festival: Liverpool,? he teamed with fellow Dragon Gate star Naruki Doi to take on the new ROH tag team champions, the Briscoes. Hundreds of American fans huddled around computers for results were floored to hear that the new and very popular champions were dethroned. All reports said it was a great match, and that the rematch should be even better. ROH booked shows in Detroit on the Friday and Saturday before Wrestlemania again, and gave the Briscoes their return bout on that Friday.

Unfortunately, something went terribly wrong in the rematch. Mark Briscoe leapt to the top rope to hit a shooting star press to Doi, who was standing on the floor outside the ring. It was one of the scariest falls I?ve ever seen, as Mark landed square on his head on the thin ringside mat. The crowd, accustomed to hollering through Briscoes matches, was hushed with whispers, ?Is he dead?? ?He?s breathing.? ?I saw his foot move.? ?He?s not paralyzed, is he??

You couldn?t expect a breakneck tag match when one of the guys might have just broken his neck and couldn?t get up from the floor. Jay Briscoe valiantly tried to take out his frustrations on both opponents in a handicapped match and recaptured the tag titles. Shingo heartlessly focused on Jay, the remaining Briscoe brother all the sympathetic heat in the building. It was a miracle that they got the crowd to pop for the Jay Driller, a butterfly piledriver that spiked a man right on his head, when everyone was still feeling nervous over Mark. Shingo did better than anyone could have expected in the circumstances. And thank God, Mark only had a concussion, as the fans learned the next day.

The next day was Shingo?s biggest match. It was one year after the famous Dragon Gate trios match at ?Supercard of Honor.? This show was titled ?Supercard of Honor 2,? and was main-evented by a new Dragon Gate trios match. Dragon Kid, Ryo Saito and CIMA, who had been in the previous year?s match, all returned, along with Masaaki Mochizuki and Susumu Yokosuka. Shingo was the sixth man. A year ago, he hadn?t even been brought over for the Wrestlemania weekend shows. This year, he?d main event one of them. It was his reward for proving himself in all those tag matches. Of course the match was great, not the same as the previous year, but it?s own, more physical story. All six men were stars, but Shingo received special heat ? like a hometown hero.

After the match, I had the pleasure of shaking his hand and congratulating him on how far he?d come. He smiled patiently in that international symbol for, ?Americans think everyone speaks English,? then left for the autograph table. It was a great moment in my career.*

His final stretch of matches were all singles, building to a titleshot. The story was that if Shingo could dethrone ROH champion Takeshi Morishima, he would stay in ROH indefinitely. The singles matches showed how far he?d come. He didn?t need to work off of partners or multiple opponents, approaching singles matches more realistically. Instead of just hitting big moves and going for falls over and over, he chained moves together, executed them more fluidly, and produced more logical follow-ups, like grabbing a hold if his opponent kicked out too energetically, to keep him grounded. He'd just about perfected the Lariat, leaning over his opponent?s chest as he hit it, to help drive them down, and simultaneously assist them in bumping for it. It?s a simple move, but today nobody does it better than Shingo Takagi.

While sharpening his offensive psychology, he also drastically improved his selling. Because he was a veritable tank he couldn't fly for the little guys, but he could look like he was fighting to stand up, and became much more expressive with his face to show exhaustion or pain. This was best displayed in ?The Battle of St. Paul,? when he took on an opponent of his own size in BJ Whitmer. He flew for BJ?s suplexes, and looked convincingly knocked out after a bad fall on the concrete. These were little touches that made him a much more solid performer, and would be very useful in the junior heavyweight paradise of Dragon Gate when he returned.

His farewell was at ?Good Times, Great Memories.? It was a bizarre show in ROH history, as it was supposed to be a goodbye to Colt Caban, but was also the last appearances for Shingo, Christopher Daniels, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin and Homicide. But if Shingo was leaving, he wasn?t going without a fight. He took on the champion Morishima in the middle of the card, with main event enthusiasm. He could throw the 300-pounder around the ring, but he lifted him up for stunning things like a Death Valley Driver and a Superplex. He proved his bumping had improved by letting Morishima crush him at numerous points, and got one of the pops of the night for building to a final nearfall. It was by far his best and most emotional singles match in Ring of Honor, and was the best possible way to illustrate how he?d improved. Afterwards, Morishima shook and raised Shingo?s hand in a sign of respect he hadn?t shown the majority of his opponents. The crowd chanted in appreciation for him to ?Please come back! Please come back!?

Shingo had already been flying back to Japan to appear on Dragon Gate TV, and won the Open The Triangle Gate trios titles with BxB Hulk and Cyber Kong. He was made to look competitive with top stars like Susumu Yokosuka and CIMA. Dragon Gate was ready to do big things with him, while ROH and its fans would be happy to have him back in the future should he be available. Everyone was quite happy to hear he?d be in the main event of the Osaka Ring of Honor show on July 17th, in ROH?s debut doubleshot in Japan.

Shingo?s entire tour of shows is available on DVD at www.rohwrestling.com. If you?re interested in him I recommend Fifth Year Festival: Dayton to see his memorable six man mayhem match, Good Times, Great Memories for a great title match, and either Final Battle 2006 or Supercard of Honor 2 to see him in a phenomenal trios tag.

*I don?t know if Shingo speaks English; I just know he didn?t care to speak it to me.

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