In the summer of 2014, an indie promotion in Japan is firing on all cylinders, and in the summer of 2023, I’m breaking Mr Don Callis’ neck with my bare hands.
Okay, it’s not that simple.
I need to start a little further back. The promotion, a certain DDT Pro Wrestling, had seen unprecedented growth during the years prior to said summer, and had now decided to book one of their shows at the esteemed and spacious Saitama Super Arena (a venue with a potential capacity of 20k+ for wrestling) for the early spring of 2015, a feat that had previously been simply impossible. Part of that growth, according to CEO Sanshiro Takagi, was thanks to a tenacious, smart policy of adapting the promotion to the times, rather than trying to maintain a status quo against all odds (and critique). Listening to the fans and the wrestlers alike for the variety everybody wants to actually see is key, Takagi surmises in his autobiographies.
Another reason for their growth, though, was that the top echelon of their talent had amassed quite the fan following and prestigious career achievements, which had garnered DDT more attention than ever—inside and outside of Japan. And two wrestlers in that top echelon who contributed to that were the legendary Golden Lovers, Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega.
Of course success is more complicated than that, and much less black and white too. Shifting perceptions of pro wrestling in the Japanese mainstream, pop culture trends, global financial crises and booms all contribute to DDT’s at times tumultuous rise. But you’re not here to study the historical stock market value of the Yen. You’re here to study the naked-people-stunt-scene-sports-soap-opera known as wrestling.
This is where the Golden Lovers come in. During the, at that point, six years of their tag team run throughout indies and majors in Japan, they had not only won Best Bout Awards and international recognition—and in the case of Ibushi become the first talent in the history of pro wrestling under full-time contract with two promotions at the same time—they had also cultivated a new culture of wrestling within the company.
Praised by his peers for his self-disciplined lifestyle, Omega had inspired particularly the younger generation in DDT, and always went out of his way to highlight talent and possibility wherever he saw it. And Ibushi was a verified star by 2014, beloved by fans and critics alike, soaring through the sky with unparalleled, inspiring athleticism. He, like Omega, dedicated all of his time to bringing the experience of wrestling to as many people as possible, changing the world in the process.
“Several months ago, all four of us were eating together. […] At that time, Ibushi told us, ‘How long do you plan on crawling around in the shadows? Just put yourselves first already. Put yourselves first, give this every little bit you have. There’s no need to hide in the shadows.’ I think he meant this as an encouragement, and probably he doesn’t even remember it, but ever since he said this, it’s changed me […].”
Tomomitsu Matsunaga, 2014, TL mine
Fine, fine, I hear you say, but what does this have to do with everybody yelling about Takeshita saving Omega on AEW?
Well, for that, we need to go further back in time and pick up two more dramatis personae: a pair of young highschool students who watch Ibushi and Omega wrestle from the comfort of their homes, until their desire to emulate what they see grows so strong they can no longer just watch, and apply to become rookies in DDT.
These two kids are Tetsuya Endo and Konosuke Takeshita. The latter had hoped to be a wrestler as early as elementary school, but was turned down by all the promotions he sent applications to, due to his young age. All promotions, except one. Takagi told him to apply again once he graduated middle school, and so he did, finding renewed invigoration after seeing a match between Ibushi and Prince Devitt (aka Finn Bálor). The young prodigy was merely seventeen years old by the time he had his first sparring match for DDT in front of a live crowd, balancing homework, his track-and-field activities and practicing suplexes with surprising ease.
For Endo, things went a bit differently. As a child, he had seen his friends play a New Japan Pro Wrestling game on the N64, and indeed video games were a special treat for anyone like him who grew up in rural Miyagi. From there his interest was piqued, and as he was quite athletically apt due to his gymnastics background, he thought of trying himself in pro wrestling. Antonio Honda, whom Omega has noted as being one of his favorite long-time rivals in DDT, took Endo under his wings pretty much as soon as he began properly wrestling in the promotion (later, him and Takeshita stayed with Anton for while in a stable called Happy Motel, even winning the KO-D Six Man Tag Team Championships).
But no matter how different their paths were before DDT or as rookies, once Takeshita and Endo began their careers, they were irrevocably forever intertwined. Takeshita celebrated his official debut on August 18th 2012 in the renowned Nippon Budokan venue, on the same card that saw Omega and Ibushi wage an all-out war in the main event for DDT’s highest prize, the KO-D Openweight Championship (spoiler alert: said main event went on to become one of the most influential matches in the history of wrestling). Endo in the meantime had debuted a couple months prior, and despite his young age had already impressed audiences with his precise and high-flying style that was at times eerily reminiscent of Ibushi’s (I mean one of his nicknames is the Burning Star, for crying out loud). In an interview years later he would say that he wants to shake the shadow looming over him of always being compared to “those two”, but here, in this golden era, the comparison is the highest compliment for him, just like it is for Takeshita.
“I will never grow up!”
“A star that sets the midsummer night aflame.”
And so, just as soon as Takeshita and Endo started turning heads in DDT, Omega and Ibushi are one of the people who saw great potential in them. Especially Omega would go on to be very vocal about the pride he felt towards the former, and Takeshita famously was part of Omega’s last ever match in DDT, before he would clad himself in leather and sunglasses in a different kingdom. They met in various constellations in singles competition and even tagged with each other; and make no mistake—just because the young team was seen as the future of the company didn’t mean the Golden Lovers were at all inclined to go easy on them. On the contrary, they opted for the “tough love” route of the mentor that knocks you down in order to teach you how to get back up. So it was only a matter of time until they would clash in a true 2-on-2 tag match, in January of 2014.
The match ends in a 30-minute time limit draw.
Of course, ever so confident in himself and Ibushi, Omega would declare later that if it had been 31 minutes, the Golden Lovers would have won. Both teams were immediately eager for a rematch, and while you’re at it, make it 60 minutes now, no holds barred. A month before Omega departs DDT for NJPW, those who seek to change the world and those who have already done it face each other in legendary Korakuen Hall for the KO-D Tag Team Championships. Despite having happened a decade ago, the match is a timeless showcase of different styles that all gel together to form a captivating whole, and has stayed as fun and important as it was back when it first happened.
Takeshita and Endo, though by the skin of their teeth, emerge victorious from the match , and Omega, speaking for himself and Ibushi, takes the mic afterwards, disappointed, bitter, but at the same time full of pride and a quiet anger that will tolerate no breaking of promises, no disappointment. “We leave the future of DDT to you,” he says, and in many, many ways the gravity of those words hangs over the company to this day.
“You were very inspiring for the other wrestlers […]. You had a really big impact on a young Takeshita and Endô and others, because you were guiding them especially strictly. Same with everyone my generation, including myself, like HARASHIMA and MIKAMI. […] I don’t know if they went so far as to imitate your diet and training methods, but when it came to your thoughts about the wrestling business, I think you had a pretty strong influence on them.”
Sanshiro Takagi, 2019, TL mine
One legend ends, another begins. In the years after the Golden Lovers largely moved on from DDT (Ibushi would become a freelancer in February 2016), Takeshita rose up in DDT and became exactly the monster Omega had predicted him to become at breakneck speed. Ever since the star-making matches against the Lovers he had come to be known as the Future, and his name became synonymous with the KO-D Openweight belt itself (which he won for the first time as the youngest champion in the title’s history). His pose became synonymous with the pose of the champion, his entrance with the big match atmosphere preceding the kind of breathtaking bouts fans around the world had become accustomed to seeing from him. Early in career he was given the opportunity to wrestle New Japan ace and living legend Hiroshi Tanahashi, and one can’t help but see the similarities of such an opportunity with the match Ibushi had been given a year prior, in against the Rainmaker of NJPW, Kazuchika Okada.
And because time is a flat circle and history must always, always repeat itself, Endo began to feel left out. It wasn’t that he didn’t see praise and admiration, or that he was entirely unsuccessful, but when it came to the big belt, the most important gold, Takeshita seemed always out of reach, always just a step ahead (9 of their 14 singles matches so far have also ended in Takeshita’s favor). Seeing himself as the only one meant to stand above his former partner turned rival and yet out of options as he was bested by him time and time again, Endo eventually let himself be seduced to the dark side by Daisuke Sasaki, the leader of the Damnation stable (yeah, I know, super edgy name; wait until you see pictures of them).
Oh, Sasaki. Tragic figure Sasaki. You see, the lore is deep. Once upon a time, Sasaki had tagged with Omega and Ibushi in the Golden Stormriders stable (briefly called Golden Host Club), and quite enjoyed his time there too. Too bad then that Omega and Ibushi disagreed and dumped him on two separate occasions once the group fell apart (there is also the team they formed with secret dojo graduate Ihashi Gota, Golden Rendezvous and yes, those names are all real; it’s either power metal or dating sim in DDT).
I’m sure a lot of you can relate, so it should come as no surprise that going through two dramatic breakups in a short amount of time changes a man. So Sasaki is like, hm, you know what, why don’t I buy a motorcycle and a leather jacket and I wear dark make-up and I call my new stable Damnation? Yeah, that’ll show ‘em! And then later Endo is like, yeah, I like your style, I recently incidentally lost to my partner and rival and am now in need of a place where I can lick my wounds. And then Sasaki is like, sounds cool, and then they do their secret hand shake and everybody looks really sad.
(It doesn’t help that this grand story of love and betrayal is acted out by people who are, in their hearts of hearts, just a bunch of goofy children. I don’t think I need to reiterate this for Ibushi and Omega, but if you want to know, Takeshita’s current stable is a gathering of sauna-loving nerds. And while Endo may come across as a brooding Anakin Skywalker at times, the guy is really into bugs. No, I mean, really into bugs.)
So, two broken hearts meet in Damnation, and yonder the horizon whence they came, the Golden Lovers loom over the whole story like tall, skeletal towers, reminders of the past, “Lest We Forget” plaques for the future, omens and promises. But just like it did for the Cleaner, changing his MO works for Endo. He finds his new identity, new motivation in a new faction, and where he had been unable to obtain the KO-D Openweight championship while it was securely in the possession of Takeshita (or lost it to him once he did, the poor fella), he finally makes it known that he is, indeed, the undisputed King of DDT in March of 2022, winning the belt from Takeshita on the occasion of DDT’s 25th anniversary. After the match, knowing that Takeshita is about to embark on a journey in the US, he sends his former partner off with the words “I really hate you, Take!” You know, the stuff you text to your ex on a night of drinking and bad decisions.
Takeshita has [met] Kenny in matches, but I [spent time with him] privately…I saw him every day at the dormitory. He’s a wrestler, in the very routine basis sense of the word. Seeing [him like] that had a big influence on me. Of course Ibushi too. […] Ibushi is one of the people who inspired me to start wrestling. I hope we can both take over from where [Kenny and Ibushi] left off and make DDT even bigger […].
Tetsuya Endo, 2014, TL mine
April rolls around. Takeshita had visited AEW for the first time during the Daily’s Place era back in 2021, where he was welcomed by an evil cartoon man who suddenly forgot he was fluent in Japanese, and eventually tagged with the Elite plus Nakazawa (then in full heel mode) against Death Triangle and the Sydal Brothers. His speed and strength were noted back then even by people who had no idea of the monster he was in DDT, but after just three matches, he would vanish from AEW programming for a while, only to return with a vengeance. In 2022 the supernova talent was announced to have signed with both AEW and DDT, a miraculous accomplishment that once again rings eerily similar of what a brightly burning Golden Star before him managed to do, all the way back in 2013. And while it may have seemed like Bryan Danielson would call dibs on Takeshita, he has now tentatively, temporarily (?) joined the Elite, much to Omega’s initial confusion.
And now we are here. Where he fought in ten man tags and trios in allegiance with the Elite years ago, it’s now the first time he will tag with just Omega, the first time ever. Much has changed in all those years, and not just for the competitors themselves. The entire landscape of wrestling has changed, in no small part due to AEW’s continued success. Part of that success, in my opinion, is working together with different companies all across the globe, and the parent company over DDT, NOAH, TJPW and others, Cyberfight, is no exception in that international collaboration movement. Back in NJPW, the Golden Lovers needed to fight an uphill battle at times to be able to tell their story the way they felt it deserved to be told, and now it feels like we are on the verge of interconnected story threads coming together once more, just with less red tape.
Despite having his own history and own stories to tell, especially in DDT, Takeshita’s presence in AEW is also a catalyst. Him sharing the screen with Omega is enough to summon the elephant into the room, so much so that everyone is painfully aware of that. And as if to rub it in even more, the human personification of a Silent Hill bathroom, Don Callis, has called the tag team of Omega and Takeshita the Golden Brothers, a name that not just very obviously and very insultingly calls back to the Golden Lovers, but to a time before the Golden Lovers, when the world wanted them to be just circus twins, mirrors of each other from different continents, before they said, no, actually, check this out. And well, you all know how I feel about giving something a name when the part that is the reason for the name is very clearly missing (the answer is a lot of gun and explosion emojis).
Anyway, as I’ve noted before, I don’t think it’s out of personal dislike that Omega doesn’t appear as ecstatic over the new recruit as his friends. Like with Hangman, the hurt seems to lie much, much deeper, perhaps even hinting at the absence of a certain Golden individual that Omega had always hoped would be part of the puzzle. Things happened, a pandemic among them, and it didn’t turn out that way, but who can fault him for, among the fleeting pain and the fleeting happiness, always holding the door a bit open for his friend thousands of miles away?
Perhaps it’s time the light started burning through.
Thanks for reading.