This coming Monday, Hirai Kawato (the newest graduate of the New Japan Dojo) competes in his last NJPW match as a Young Lion before leaving on a learning excursion to Mexico. He teams with luchador legend Atlantis to take on CMLL’s Barbaro Cavernario and New Japan head honcho Gedo in Korakuen Hall, in what’s sure to be an exciting send-off for one of the main standouts of the Young Lion system. Kawato’s also one of the first graduates to benefit from New Japan’s ‘Lion’s Gate Project’ shows, events designed specifically to highlight the current crop of trainees and provide them with the sort of challenge they wouldn’t receive at this stage of their development on NJPW’s regular events.
But whatever the obstacle presented to him Kawato (or, ‘River People’ as he’s affectionately known, due to google’s poor translation of his name) has excelled, albeit largely in defeat, and the young man has managed to connect with crowds up and down Japan and around the world in a big way. So before Kawato leaves for CMLL, an excursion that could potentially last a few years, let’s look back at some of the defining moments in Kawato’s emergent New Japan career.
January 30th, 2016. After making his debut the day before Wrestle Kingdom 10, Kawato stepped into Korakuen Hall as a NJPW wrestler for his third competitive match. Just eighteen at the time, Kawato was by far the youngest of the trainees at the New Japan Dojo and gave up a fair bit of weight to his opponent that day, David Finlay, who had joined the dojo seven months prior to Kawato’s debut. Finlay was larger and way more experienced, having competed in Europe before joining New Japan, but Kawato gave a good account of himself and showed some good fire to get the Korakuen Hall crowd chanting his name for the first time.
Kawato’s offence is unrefined, but he still manages to draw a gasp from the crowd with his athletic (if somewhat sloppy) dropkick, before ultimately succumbing to a Boston Crab submission to give Finlay the victory. The next few months of Kawato’s career saw him grow in confidence and ability. Often paired with and against fellow rookie Teruaki Kanemitsu (who unfortunately suffered a spinal injury in November of that year which he has yet to return from), Kawato had seemingly fallen below the older, larger Kanemitsu in the pecking order. But it wasn’t long before he found his footing and was given ample opportunity to shine.
September 1st, 2016. On the third Lion’s Gate Project show Kawato was given a huge singles match against Pro-Wrestling NOAH’s Hajime Ohara, a versatile wrestler with an eclectic style who was quite unlike anything Kawato had faced up to that point. Ohara demonstrated this from the start and Kawato, perhaps realising he couldn’t match his technical skill, attempted to take the match in a more physical direction. That proved to be a mistake. Although he managed a brief comeback, hitting a nice missile dropkick and locking in a single-leg crab to force Ohara into the ropes, it wasn’t long before his vastly more experienced opponent locked in the vicious Muy Bien submission and forced him to tap. A painful learning experience devlivered by Ohara, but one in which Kawato earned his respect.
October 21st, 2016. After ten months as a Young Lion Kawato got his first big tag match, teaming with Tomoaki Honma and fellow rookie Kanemitsu against the veteran team of Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima live on NJPW World. Kawato was full of beans, running down to the ring so fast the camera crew only caught the blur of him speeding by. He had to be forced back into his corner by Kanemitsu, so eager was he to start the match. Eventually he got his chance and immediately called out Yuji Nagata. Moments later he was experiencing first hand what it feels like to have one of the best strikers in the game kicking him in the back, followed by some machine gun chops from Kojima. Kawato eventually floored Kojima with a pair of dropkicks and made the tag. He didn’t have much more of a part to play in the match, but he doesn’t take the fall either and gave a good account of himself against two of the toughest in NJPW.
February 5th, 2017. A little over a year since his debut Kawato had earned his first match at a big PPV-tier event, teaming with KUSHIDA in front of 5,545 Hokkaido fans against the Suzuki-gun duo of El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru. Kawato insisted on starting the match and KUSHIDA allowed it, but not without some trepidation. He knows better than Kawato how dangerous Suzuki-gun can be. Predictably, Kawato suffered a sound beating at the hands of Kanemaru & Despy, but showed good resilience before finding an opening and turning the tide with a beautiful dropkick. Too soon he was asking to be let back into the match, however, but did well against Desperado, scoring a big near-fall with a backslide that surprised the crowd. Inevitably, Despy regains control and hits the Guitarra de Angel for the win, but it’s another strong performance from Kawato who had the whole arena chanting his name.
March 3rd, 2017. While the opening 8-man tag match at New Japan’s 45th Anniversary Show may seem as throwaway as any other, it’s an important moment in Kawato’s career because this was the first time he got his hand raised in victory at Korakuen Hall. He started the match in bold fashion, surprising even his own team-mates as he let fly with a dropkick while Liger was making his entrance. Less than a week before his 20th birthday, Kawato seemed to possess confidence beyond his years as he took the fight to the living legend, but he angered Liger in the process and received a heavy beating. Liger tagged in Oka, a new Young Lion who debuted exactly a year after Kawato. Oka has a strong amateur wrestling background and is a sizeable opponent six years older than Kawato. Once again Kawato found himself in danger of being passed over, this time by a new arrival, and as such seemed determined to prove he could withstand Oka’s force. Ultimately, it was Oka on the losing end of things on this occasion, although not at Kawato’s hand. Kawato would have to wait for his own personal victory over the big man.
April 13th, 2017. Lion’s Gate Project 4 saw Kawato taking on Suzuki-gun’s ‘Rogue Luchador’ El Desperado. Kawato started the match with his usual fire, surprising Despy as the bell sounds with a series of elbows. Desperado, however, is a crafty competitor and took advantage of Kawato’s inexperience, luring him to the outside before taking him on a tour of Shinjuku FACE. Desperado really punished Kawato in this one, doing a lot of damage to his leg. Not because it plays into Despy’s finisher in any particular way, but rather because he just likes hurting people. Kawato fought back well, however, and almost scored the victory after an incredibly smooth inside cradle caught Desperado unawares, but he was exhausted and running on fumes. It wasn’t long before Desperado scored the victory, putting Kawato away with the Angel de Rojo. A resilient performance from Kawato, who by this point is a firm fan favourite. Comparing this match to his match against Finlay 14 months prior, it’s easy to see Kawato had come a long way.
April 22nd, 2017. Later that month Kawato was back in Korakuen Hall, taking on new Young Lion (and son of NJPW referee Red Shoes) Shota Umino in only his second ever match. While obviously less experienced than Kawato, Umino is only a month younger than him and of a similar size and build. While largely unremarkable, this match is notable for being the first singles victory Kawato earned in Korakuen Hall, but it’s also interesting to see him in command of a match for once. After being overtaken by Kanemitsu and frustrated by Oka, Kawato was finally able to assert some superiority over his fellow Young Lions with the arrivals of Umino and, later, Narita & Yagi. He also showed a bit of a vicious side here, submitting Umino with a nasty looking Lion Tamer.
June 20th, 2017. The biggest match of Kawato’s career to date, here he not only got to wrestle in the post-intermission slot at Korakuen Hall, but he also teamed with Hiroshi Tanahashi for the first time and faced Tetsuya Naito for the first time. Kawato ran down to the ring and immediately started attacking Naito, surprising even Tanahashi who had to scramble to remove his entrance gear! He did a great job of taking the fight to the Los Ingobernables duo, before they inevitably turned the tide. But Kawato fought back exceptionally well, flooring Naito with a dropkick and debuting a hurricanrana to take down Hiromu. Tanahashi tagged in and was in full swing, locking in a cloverleaf on Takahashi before Kawato begged to be tagged back in, much to the crowd’s approval. Of course, things didn’t go quite according to plan and Kawato eventually fell to a Boston Crab from Hiromu, but it was a wonderful performance regardless and the crowd’s reactions to the firey Young Lion only increase month after month.
July 4th, 2017. Another Lion’s Gate show and another big time singles match for Kawato, as here he took on the legendary Dick Togo. Also, another great learning experience as Togo took Kawato to task on the mat. There are few as technically proficient as Togo, he’s so smooth and knows every trick in the book, as Kawato quickly found out. Kawato struggled to gain any sort of foothold in the match, Togo had an answer for every step he took and controlled the pace of the match expertly. Eventually, Kawato managed to catch a break and scored with a big dropkick. Togo, however, has never been averse to taking shortcuts and after a thumb to the eye he regained control. Kawato tried to get back into the match, catching Togo with a roll-up for a big near-fall, but Togo ended his fight after a vicious lariat before hitting the Pedigree and diving senton for the victory.
July 20th, 2017. Two more firsts for Kawato here, the first time he got to team with Kota Ibushi and the first time he faced Zack Sabre Jr. There’s a moment early on in the match where Zack grabs a wristlock seemingly out of nowhere, Kawato rolls himself into a reversal and Zack breaks the hold using his foot, while Kawato stands there mouth agape wondering what the hell just happened. Suffice to say, that was probably the first time he encountered some classic British catch-as-catch-can. Zack and Despy (or the Murder Besties, as they’re affectionately known) lay a heavy beating on Kawato, but Zack takes him too lightly and gets caught with a dropkick to allow Kawato to make the tag. Later, he peppers Zack with some impressive kicks, before doing well to counter Despy’s Guitarra de Angel into a roll-up for a big near-fall. But while Kawato’s learned some of Desperado’s tricks, the reverse is true as well and Kawato gets caught with the Pinche Loco to give Suzuki-gun the win.
October 23rd, 2017. A huge opportunity for Kawato here, as he teamed with KUSHIDA for the Best of the Super Junior Tag Tournament. Their first round opponents? The brand new IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Champions Roppongi 3K of SHO and YOH, who had returned from their own learning excursion to great acclaim by winning the titles at the first time of asking. SHO and YOH argued over who should start, so Kawato decided for them and rushed in elbows flying! The champions regrouped and settled into control of the match, keeping Kawato away from his corner until he eventually hit a dropkick to bring in KUSHIDA. Down the stretch, KUSHIDA looked to tag out but Kawato wasn’t there, he was up on the top-rope and came flying off with a missile dropkick before hitting a picture perfect tope con giro that wowed the audience! Kawato did very well in keeping up the pace and showed off more new moves, a rolling cross-armbreaker to SHO and Prince Devitt’s Dreamcatcher enzuigiri to YOH! It wasn’t enough, however, and soon RPG3k caught him with their 3k elevated facebuster finisher to head to the semi-finals. A fantastic showing for Kawato, his best match to date.
December 17th, 2017. Late last year New Japan announced the return of the Young Lion Cup for the first time in 12 years, which showed the breadth of talent on offer in the NJPW Dojo these days. Competing in the tournament were Hirai Kawato, Katsuya Kitamura, Tomoyuki Oka, Shota Umino, Ren Narita & Tetsuhiro Yagi, but it quickly became obvious this was a tournament of two halves and that the winner would be either Kawato, Kitamura or Oka. As it turned out, Kitamura would walk away with the trophy, the 32 year old former bodybuilder proving too much for Oka and Kawato alike. But the tournament could also be considered a success for Kawato, who ended up in second place after racking up four victories, including in this bout against Tomoyuki Oka. Kawato was outmatched in terms of size and technical ability, Oka being a former Olympic amateur wrestler, but he wasn’t outmatched in experience and at last after two years of struggle, Kawato had firmly staked his place at in the upper echelons of the Young Lion ranks.
So, after two years and nearly two hundred matches as a NJPW Young Lion we bid a fond farewell and wish the best of luck to Hirai Kawato, as he heads to Mexico to follow in the footsteps of so many stars before him – and I’ve no doubt that fans around the world will be following along with his journey as best they can, and eagerly anticipating his return to the cerulean blue ring of New Japan Pro-Wrestling! Adiós y Buena Suerte!