John LaRocca reflects on his memories of Wrestle-1.
On April 1st, Wrestle-1, which was founded in July of 2013 by Japanese wrestling legend Keiji Mutoh, ceased operation. Wrestling companies close often, including my very own wrestling promotion PREMIER out of Gilroy, CA. PREMIER closed in 2016 and the closing of Wrestle-1 hit me just as hard.
Honesty, I can’t say I was a fan of Wrestle-1 from the very start. Wrestle-1 started off strong, but what drove me away was the “Americanized” pro wrestling influence on the promotion. Japanese wrestling was always my alternative to pro wrestling here in the United States, so when I saw W1 having a more western influence, I checked out.
In fact, after first checking out their shows in 2013, I quickly lost interest once I saw the product they were presenting. After Speed Partners purchased All Japan Pro Wrestling in November of 2012, Mutoh soon left and took many of the promotion’s top stars at the time and top future stars with him to form Wrestle-1.
In 2017, I started to get back into watching Japanese pro wrestling again and checked back in with Wrestle-1. Business was down, but they had a really good crop of young home-grown wrestlers who quickly caught my interest, especially Shotaro Ashino, Jiro “Ikeman” Kuroshio, Kumagaro, Koji Doi, Takanori Ito, Seigo Tachibana and Diaki Inaba. Along with that young talent, they had a really good core of veteran stars like Kaz Hayashi, Shuji Kondo, Manabu Soya, and Masayuki Kono. Plus, other stars who had their start in other promotions like the powerhouse Yuji Hino and technically-sound Yusuke Kodama.
My passion has always been about the next generation of stars in pro wrestling and I saw that Wrestle-1 had the building blocks for the future. I started watching Wrestle-1 again right as Shotaro Ashino won his first W1 Heavyweight Championship on March 20th, 2017, defeating Masayuki Kono. Ashino’s amateur wrestling background stood out to me right away and you could see his pro wrestling style being heavily influenced by former Olympian and pro wrestling great, Kurt Angle. Ashino’s title reign was 359 days long and highlighted by his memorable title defense over Jiro Kuroshio at Wrestle-1’s biggest show of the year, Puroresu Love in Yokohama on September 2nd, 2017 in a 36:07 classic. This match featured Jiro Kuroshio doing a moonsault off the balcony of the Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium. This spot would be highlighted on every show opening going forward. It was nuts. Shotaro Ashino’s title reign would end in a classic in one of my favorite matches of 2018 when Manabu Soya won the gold on March 14th.
My favorite storyline during my time of watching Wrestle-1 was when Manabu Soya started getting serious, stripping his persona down to the basics and leaving his comedic fun-loving persona behind to focus and win the Wrestle-1 championship. The rise of a young, powerful and yet odd couple tag team “New Era” of Koji Doi and Kumagoro becoming tag team champions and a heel turn by Kumagoro to join the top heel group heading Shotaro Ashino’s Enfant Terribles were also favorites. Literally, you could hear sadness from the crowd when Kumagoro turned heel. Late 2018 through 2019 was highlighted by the promotional feud of Wrestle-1 versus CIMA’s Strong Hearts group which helped attendance grow, but not enough to keep Wrestle-1 going. Finally, I loved Jiro Kuroshio’s chase of the W1 Championship, but it had a great first act that never was paid off.
I truly believe that not crowning the beloved Kuroshio as W1 champion was one of the many reasons why Wrestle-1 suffered with attendance. Wrestle-1 had their own version of Ric Flair versus Dusty Rhodes, as you had the classic champion in Shotaro Ashino and the charismatic babyface in Kuroshio. I usually don’t care much for comedy wrestlers, but I love Kuroshio. He is a sensational athlete with a fun entrance and personality that quickly grows on you. The first act was great. Kuroshio comes up short in a classic match that left you wanting to one day to see him win the gold. As much as I loved Manabu Soya’s storyline of his chase and defeat of Ashino, I always felt it was Kuroshio who should have been the man to dethrone the dominant Enfant Terribles leader.
Maybe it was never considered, but it was held off and in my opinion cooled the momentum that Wrestle-1 was building in 2017-2018. During the Wrestle-1 versus Strong Hearts War of late 2018 -2019, Strong Heart’s ace T-Hawk ended Ashino’s second and final W1 championship run and it looked like Kuroshio would be the man to end the invader’s title reign. The build to their eventual clash on March 21st, 2019 at the Ota City General Gymnasium was going perfectly, but once again Kuroshio came up short. The ultimate gut punch was when Kuroshio announced his departure from Wrestle-1 on March 23rd, 2019. Kuroshio’s announcement was first sign that Wrestle-1 was in a lot of trouble. “Ikemen” became a freelancer and he had a successful tryout with WWE’s NXT in 2019. If NXT Japan ever gets off the ground, I am very confident Kuroshio will be apart of that roster.
A few things I will miss about Wrestle-1 is their great opening on their shows to the background music of U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name. Not sure how that song fit with pro wrestling, but it always got me pumped up before the show. I always thought maybe Keiji Mutoh liked that song a lot. Another aspect of Wrestle-1 I will greatly miss is their thirty minute weekly show on YouTube. The show was hosted by one of the beautiful Wrestle-1 women and they would show highlights of action from events during the week with promos and vignettes to build to the next big show and also look at the next generation of Wrestle-1 trainees coming through the system.
Through my new found love for Wrestle-1, I became friends with another big fan of the company. Every Wrestle-1 show, I would see this gentleman sit by the entrance way, wearing a Tiger Mask and taking pictures. Searching Wrestle-1 on Twitter one day, I stumbled across the Tiger Mask wearing Wrestle-1 fan. I decided to send him a direct message and tell him how much of a fan of the product I was. His name is Ryu (or at least I think that is his real name) and we would chat Wrestle-1 from time to time. He would even send me pictures of the action from Wrestle-1 matches he attended. My bucket list trip is to go Japan to watch pro wrestling action and Wrestle-1 was on that list. Ryu and I both looked forward one day watching a Wrestle-1 show together. Sadly, watching a Wrestle-1 show together will not happen, but I hope to one day go to Japan and catch some great pro wrestling action with my friend in Japan. On April 1st, after watching the very last Wrestle-1 show, Ryu wrote me to say he was happy none of the wrestlers were hurt in their last Wrestle-1 battle and grateful that he met me through the love of Wrestle-1. All things come to end, but the closing of Wrestle-1 was a tough blow to my pro wrestling fandom.