New Japan Pro Wrestling stands out against all other companies for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is the way they build their roster. Granted as of late a fair bit of talent has come from Western promotions, but New Japan prides themselves on their Young Lions.
For those of you not familiar with that term, a Young Lion is a name given to rookies in the company that has trained in their dojo. They even have their own yearly tournament that was recently brought back after 15 years. Some of the most famous Young Lions include Jushin Thunder Liger, Tanahashi, current WWE star Shinsuke Nakamura and even Okada himself.
What makes their system different from any other, are the Learning Excursions. After three or so years in the Dojo, wrestlers are sent abroad to hone their skills both in the ring and in character development. There is no set time to how long one might be gone, and upon their return, they typically lose the “Young Lion” moniker and are free to start their climb up the ladder.
It is clear that some benefit more than others from their time away, with recent notable examples such as Takahashi, Switchblade Jay White, and one half of the current tag team champions EVIL. Each of these stands out in their own way, especially if you were to compare them to their start abroad.
Takahashi went to CMLL and initially worked under a mask by the name of Kamaitachi. Only after losing his mask did he find traction as the Time Bomb we all know him as today and it was his time in Mexico that enabled him to join Los Ingobernables de Japon with fellow former Young Lion Naito. Since returning to New Japan, he has participated in some of the best Jr Heavyweight matches, even holding the belt for almost 5 months
Jay White’s first match in Ring of Honor was actually against Takahashi, one of the first times two Young Lions faced each other on their separate excursions.
While he also fought a few matches on the British independent scene, he caught the eye of fans with his performances in Ring of Honor. He actually came close to winning both the 6 man titles, as well as the Ring of Honor Heavyweight title.
While unsuccessful in both bids he was impressive enough that his return to New Japan was marked by him attacking and challenging Tanahashi for the Intercontinental title. Being only 25 years of age, the sky is the limit for the New Zealand native.
Perhaps the most prominent example of how positive an excursion can end up being, however, is EVIL. When he started in Ring of Honor, he went by his real name Watanabe.
I actually had the chance to see him in the ring a few times, and while he was a solid wrestler, there wasn’t much about his personality that stood out.
Honestly, at that point, it wouldn’t have surprised most fans if he never found his way back onto a New Japan card.
Once he returned though, he was given a chance to join LIJ, and it was the complete 180 that he needed. Under the moniker EVIL, the once unmemorable Watanabe has become one of the most vital parts of the New Japan roster.
With all of the recent success with their Young Lions, New Japan can only hope that the current Lions will follow in the footsteps of the past. The current crop includes Leo Tonga, nephew of the legend Haku, as well as the 2017 Young Lions cup winner Katsuya Kitamura. If history is any indication, the future is as bright as ever.