None of this was supposed to happen. New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor weren’t supposed to have a show WrestleMania weekend at Madison Square Garden. Dragon Lee getting a shot at the IWGP Jr. Championship seemed almost out of nowhere. To imagine him winning the championship in a venue that used to ban masked wrestlers. In a country, New Japan has only run shows in for a few years. Yet it happened, Dragon Lee won the IWGP Jr. Championship in a triple threat match against Taiji Ishimori and Bandido. The match was stuck in the middle of the card and only lasted a little more than eight minutes but the significance is what was important.
New Japan has had a long history of bringing in luchadors. What they haven’t had a history of is treating any of those luchadors like stars and giving them real pushes. Instead, they are used to add more dynamic wrestlers into tournaments like the best of Super Juniors or the Super J Cup. Dragon Lee would be only the third luchador to ever hold the IWGP jr. Championship. He joins Misticio who was champion in 2009 and Juventud Guerrera who held the title for a week in 1999. Those title reigns are interesting when you look at how much of the junior heavyweight style is based on Lucha libre.
New Japan certainly has enough talent coming in from Mexico to give more luchadors better pushes. They have had a talent exchange with CMLL for years sending stars like Hiromu and Naito over to come back a take up roles as some of New Japan’s fines talents. There is Fantastica Mania which are some of the most exciting shows of the year. Yet whenever CMLL sends over stars for Best of Super Juniors or the Junior tag tournament they barely get in any wins. Titan only picked up three wins this year and was never even thought about to be in the running as a winner. When Titan returned for the Junior Tag League he didn’t do much better getting only four wins with his partner Volador.
Dragon Lee has had a better year in New Japan than any other luchador has in years. So what makes Dragon Lee stand out from everyone else? Why Dragon Lee as the breakout Mexican star in Japan this year?
Dragon Lee has had a fantastic year in New Japan over his 2019. He started the year not at the Tokyo Dome but instead at Fantastica Mania 2019. The first night of Fantastica Mania would be Dragon Lee’s first time wrestling with New Japan since the infamous Hiromu Takahashi match at the G-1 Special in San Francisco. Lee would compete in a few multi man tag matches teaming with other technicos, until the fifth night of the tournament when he and Mistico would take on Flyer and Volador in the first round of the tag team tournament.
Dragon Lee felt right at home in a New Japan ring. Where he looked crisper and more interested than he had looked in a while in CMLL. The finals of the Family tournament were Dragon Lee and Mistico vs Gran Guerreros and Último Guerreros. Dragon Lee looked right at home in a New Japan main event. Even though he is wrestling all CMLL luchadors it didn’t come off like a Friday night main event but like a mid-tour main event of a New Japan show. It is a fun match that has the crowd excited the entire time, cheering loudly for all four of the competitors’ taunts, reacting to everything. Dragon Lee and his brother Mistico would go on to win the family tag team tournament. They would go into the crowd and celebrate after the win. Dragon Lee draped in the Mexican flag, the fans screaming his name, would call out his long time rival Hiromu Takahashi. “Hiromu Takahashi, muto! Muto! Muto! Muto!” Dragon Lee would scream into the mic.
While the Fantastica Mania Family tag tournament might not have been the most important tournament of the year it set Dragon Lee off to a good start. Dragon Lee would be one of the only luchadors asked back for a regular tour when he came back for the Anniversary tour mostly in multi man tags with young lions and other freelancers against Suzuki-Gun members.
Then came one of the most important matches of his career, the Ring of Honor and New Japan Madison Square Garden show. The match got announced when Champion Taiji Ishimori would challenge anyone from Ring of Honor to a match at MSG. Dragon Lee was the first person to answer. Later Bandido would also add accept the challenge os the match was between a New Japan Pro Wrestling star vs a Ring of Honor star vs a CMLL star.
Dragon Lee came out to the ring with Hiromu’s old mask in hand. The last time he had challenged for the title was when he broke Takahashi’s neck in San Francisco. It was important for him to win the championship so when Hiromu returned they would have to face each other again.
Triple threat matches in Japan are usually rare, especially for titles. These three knew how to work with the stipulation though. They weren’t given much time and so they raced through the entire match at a breakneck speed. Hitting every single one of their moves on the other. The highlight of the match was Bandido picking up both his opponents on the top rope and at the same time throwing them over his head. The entire Madison Square Garden crowd lost it’s collective mind after that move. The match certainly wasn’t the most notable match on the card or the most important but the outcome was surprising. Dragon Lee was able to knee Ishimori out of the ring and pin Bandido to become the IWGP jr Champion.
Dragon Lee would quickly return to New Japan for the Dontaku tour. Where he became good friends with Choas and mostly had teamed in multi man matches against the Bullet Club. At the end of the Dontaku tour, he would face the man he beat without pinning for the championship, Taiji Ishimori. Dragon Lee was looking more at home than ever in New Japan. He wore the lions head on his mask. He introduced the Shibata dropkick and pose into his repertoire. The main event of Dontaku was an all out war between two of the best junior heavyweights on New Japan’s roster. They were given much more time then they were in MSG and they used every bit of it to have a four and a half star match according to Dave Meltzer.
Dragon Lee would stay in Japan and compete in the Best of Super Juniors. The first night he would once again face off with Taiji Ishimori this time Taiji getting the upper hand and the win. Dragon Lee would go on to only lose one other match in the tournament against the undefeated Shingo Takagi. Dragon Lee would rake up 14 points in the entire tournament. Having absolute fantastic matches against Sho, Titan, Marty Scrull and almost everyone else in Block A. The block would be taken by Shingo Takagi who would face the winner of Block B Will Ospreay. Will would take home the Best of Super Junior trophy and challenge Dragon Lee for his championship at Dominion. If you are reading this you probably have your opinion on Will Ospreay, which is fine. I have my opinion on Will Ospreay too but this isn’t the time or place for that right now. Will Ospreay vs Dragon Lee was one of the best matches of the year.
These two were third from the top of the Dominion card and under Kota Ibushi vs Naito for the Intercontinental Championship and Okada vs Chris Jericho for the IWGP Championship. You could tell these two wanted to be on the top from the way they wrestled. The first few minutes of the match are these two reversing each other at an unreal speed.
At one point Will Opsreay hits a crossbody to the floor that hits so hard the snap echos through Oska Hall. Dragon Lee would hit the Shibata dropkick on Ospreay. They trade hit each other with heavy strikes. At one point Dragon Lee ties Will up into the guardrail, while Dragon Lee dives out at him and crashes over the commentators and into the crowd. An absolutely unbelievable move that will leave you cringing.
The two would trade strikes on the top rope, Dragon Lee trying to get his signature foot stomp but Ospreay was able to knock him all the way to the floor. Then hitting a corkscrew moonsault to the floor. Both these two reverse out of the other finishers. Neither man ever gains control for very long in the middle of the match. At one point Dragon Lee would go for huricanrana from the apron to the floor but Ospreay would flip out of it and land on his feet. Dragon Lee thinks he hits the moves and celebrates his back turned to his opponent but Ospreay is fine.
While Will is hanging upside down outside of the ring over the apron Dragon Lee hits an amazing double stomp to the floor. Dragon Lee loses his footing as he hits the ground and shockingly isn’t hurt. Ospreay just beats the count getting into the ring at 19 only to get a knee to the face from Dragon Lee. The two trade more hard strikes Dragon Lee getting a slight advantage but never for too long. Ospreay hits all three of his finishers on Dragon Lee and only that is enough to put him away. Will Ospreay is the new IWGP jr. heavyweight champion.
The match was fantastic but the result was a bummer. Dragon Lee only held the title for a few months. He defended the title only twice. His title reign never really got going like it has the possibility to which is a shame. Sure his BoSJ run was fun but it felt like he lost the title too soon to someone who would fight as a heavyweight for most of the summer.
Dragon Lee wouldn’t be around at all for New Japan for the rest of the summer instead showing up in his home promotion of CMLL and Ring of Honor. The next time he would wrestle for New Japan would be in the United States at the Super J Cup. Another tournament he would do well in. Advancing over YOH in the first round, Taguchi in the second, Caristico in the third round and face El Phantasmo in the final round. El Phantasmo would come up with the win again keeping us from a second Will Ospreay vs Dragon Lee match.
Later in September Dragon Lee would enter another tournament in PWG’s Battle for Los Angeles. There were some political issues as CMLL didn’t want Dragon Lee facing other luchadors from other Mexican companies. Dragon Lee was apparently asked to pull from the tournament but went ahead with it anyway. He would beat Rey Horus and Jake Atlas in the first two rounds only to lose to Bandido in the semi-finals. CMLL would later announce they would be parting ways with both Dragon Lee and his brother RUSH. Lee who was announced to appear in team CMLL in the Super Junior Tag League but was replaced by Volador jr.
No one knew what this meant for Dragon Lee and New Japan’s relationship. New Japan and CMLL are partners and share talent and with Dragon Lee pulling out of the tag tournament things looked strange. Dragon Lee would not appear on any New Japan shows for the rest of the year. Dragon Lee would wrestle only for Ring of Honor, AAA, and a few other Mexican promotions. Dragon Lee had signed a deal to appear in Ring of Honor and even won their Television title at Final Battle.
During the build to the Tokyo Dome, it was announced that New Japan signed a one year deal with Dragon Lee. Going over the heads of their CMLL partner to secure a talent they put quite a bit of stock behind over 2019. Lee announced he was changing his name to Ryu Lee and challenged Jushin Thunder Liger to his final match ever. On the second night of the Tokyo Dome show, it will be Dragon Lee and long time rival Hiromu Takahashi vs Jushin Thunder Liger and long time rival Naoki Sano. In a match that acts as a changing of the guard from the old junior heavyweights to the new junior heavyweight.
When looking back at New Japan’s track record with luchadors it seems strange that they would go around CMLL to sign Dragon Lee to a deal. One of the biggest reasons starts with Hiromu Takahashi. One of the best and most exciting wrestlers in all of wrestling who was injured all year because of his match with Dragon Lee. Hiromu and Dragon Lee have battled all of the world; in Japan, Mexico, the United States. They have fought each other for in multiple promotions for titles. They have fought each other in apuesta matches. The feud these two have is one of the best feuds in all of wrestling stemming back almost four years when Hiromu was sent on an excursion to CMLL. These two just click, they always have.
While Hiromu has been away, fans have missed him, the Junior division has been lacking. Sure Will Ospreay has been having fine matches but his move to heavyweight seems inevitable in the next few years. New Japan needs a star for its junior division a homegrown talent and Hiromu Takahashi is just that person. So while he is away why not build up his greatest rival as someone important. Someone who could win the title from him. While Hiromu was away Dragon Lee made a name for himself in Hiromu’s home promotion. He did battle Takahashi’s rivals and stablemates became more at home in Japan. Expect Dragon Lee and Takahashi to pick up right where they left off in 2020 in one of the best feuds in all of wrestling.