Interview With Sanshiro Takagi

Professional wrestler turned promoter Sanshiro Takagi has had a lasting impact on the Japanese scene. In 1997, he formed Dramatic Dream Team (DDT), a promotion known for it’s blend of traditional strong style wrestling and comedic hijinks.

Having seen the group grow under parent company CyberAgent, Takagi now oversees Pro Wrestling NOAH and Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling (TJPW), in addition to DDT.

Inside the Ropes’ Liam Wyatt recently spoke with Takagi to understand more about his own personal journey as well as his aspirations for the ‘CyberFight’ collective.

You formed Dramatic Dream Team back in 1997. How did the idea for the promotion come around and what was your initial vision?

I was put in the position before I could come up with a vision; I was wrestling for the independent promotion PWC at the time alongside NOSAWA and MIKAMI, and there was a time in the summer of 1996 when we were able to draw 1,500 fans to a venue called Luna Park, but then drew only 80 people to Kitazawa Town Hall just 4 days after that. The President of PWC Kenji Takano became furious and declared that he would disband the promotion, which I took as his way of getting us motivated, but it turned out that he actually meant it, and we were all devastated.

NOSAWA and Koichiro Kimura talked me into being the head of a new promotion, and that’s when DDT started. I was going to retire with the disbanding of PWC but ended up becoming President of a promotion instead, so it was not like I went in prepared with ideas or a vision.

How has the pro wrestling landscape changed in Japan since the inception of DDT and what have been the biggest challenges?

The biggest change, for me, was prompted by the fact that DDT ended up being successful, that we became a model case of a wrestling promotion being able to be successful with low overhead, without the backing of major sponsors or TV networks.

At the time, both major promotions and independents like FMW or WING all had annual guaranteed contracts for their wrestlers that resulted in a high-cost structure, but DDT worked around those issues. The model got replicated and that resulted in a multitude of independent promotions and local promotions getting started up, giving birth to an era of numerous promotions in Japan (70 to 80 promotions at its height).

The biggest challenge, aside from COVID-19 of course, was the global financial/subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. We managed to get through those hard times though, with the success of our first-ever big show at Ryogoku Sumo Hall.

You’ve had an association with comedy, both as a wrestler and through DDT, throughout your career. Tell us about the importance of comedy in wrestling and why you enjoy it so much?

The first American wrestling that caught my eye was Vince McMahon vs Stone Cold Steve Austin on WWF at the time. Vince getting put in awful situations, in my eyes, was quality comedy, and at the same time the WWF were successful in putting on great wrestling in the ring.

We could not emulate their style in DDT because of our budget, so we cut down the costs and also added some Japanese flavor, much like what you see in Japanese variety shows on TV, as comedy in Japan is a bit different than in the U.S. At the time, most of wrestling in Japan was very serious and very Strong Style, with just a little comedy here and there in the mid-card of All Japan. DDT needed to differentiate so we aggressively took comedy in as a part of our style, but back then a lot of our comedy was parody major promotions, like reenacting the back and forth between Atsushi Onita and Ring Announcer Manabe with talent like Shark Tsuchiya of FMW fame, or using Kenshin who is an impersonator of Kensuke Sasaki.

Eventually talent with extraordinarily creative minds like Danshoku Dieno and Super Sasadango Machine joined us, giving birth to our own unique and original style of comedy. Personally, it is not like I am particularly fond of just comedy; I like everything that is fun, like Rojo (street) pro-wrestling. I feel that comedy is a necessity for us in order to differentiate within the industry and to attract new eyes to wrestling from outside of the existing market.

Having been both a wrestler and in management for so long, has that been a difficult balance to strike?

Of course, but I feel that wrestlers are best fit to preside over groups of wrestlers and that being successful as a wrestler works best in leading the staff of wrestling promotions.

Having said that, this style of leadership is becoming less effective at CyberFight, especially with the Joshi (female) wrestlers; me being successful as a wrestler does not directly correlate to gaining respect as much as it does with male wrestlers. I feel that the secret of my success is to take a step back inside the ring; wrestler-presidents in the past succeeded by becoming top stars in the ring, but that gets difficult to maintain with age.

Furthermore, wrestling has become a lot more diverse and there is no single formula for the ideal top star, so it is harder to run promotions under a single top star for a prolonged period. I have very little confidence in myself and I do not consider myself to be an A-lister, so it was easy for me to step back and accept a secondary position in the ring. Had I been adamant about making myself the top star for years and years, I do not think DDT would have been successful.

Konosuke Takeshita suggested on The Wrstling Podcast (episode 4) that DDT could be considered an ‘indy’ promotion in comparison to the likes of New Japan and All Japan. Is this a label that you embrace?

My belief was that the boundaries between “major” and “indy” promotions have broken down some time ago, but having a better grasp of NOAH’s culture and environment now, I feel that DDT is neither completely major nor independent. I think Takeshita answered in the way that he did to cleverly simplify the concept for the listeners, but in my opinion that distinction is not that clear in today’s environment. If I were to classify DDT into some sort of category I think it would be “alternative” but not necessarily “indy”, because we do have media backing us in the form of ABEMA. I truly think that we are unique.I get where Takeshita is coming from; I think we are just using different words to express the same thought.

Kota Ibushi used to say something similar to what Takeshita said, but he ended up in NJPW. Takeshita has potential to thrive at any promotion, but his current choice is to work in DDT. When I look at the competitive landscape as President of CyberFight I can’t avoid the question of who can beat NJPW, and I think there is more than one way in doing so; DDT is trying to become number one through crossover appeal to the masses, and I think NOAH should strive for the top spot from within the wrestling industry. I am very interested in seeing which route Takeshita chooses going forward.

What is your philosophy on competing with these promotions? Is it something you strive for, or due to DDT’s niche in comedy/strong style, are you simply not comparable with these companies?

Personally, I am very flexible about in-ring styles. For example, when I faced NOAH’s KONGOH in the ring, I felt that the fundamentals underlying the respective wrestling styles were not so different between DDT and NOAH, but at the same time I felt that we had different goals; at DDT, we do not focus solely on winning inside the ring, but our end goal is to satisfy the audience and viewers.

In that sense, it is rare that we ever compete inside the ring directly with promotions that do not share our mindset. NJPW was one of them; we are one of the few promotions that competed with them after UWF which was decades ago, and we are also one of the very few, if not the only promotion that did not get swallowed up by NJPW at the end of the competition. Having said that, they did succeed in taking Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi from us, so in that sense I feel that we neither won nor lost.

At the beginning of the year, DDT parent company CyberAgent acquired Pro Wrestling NOAH. How involved were you with that deal and what led to it?

I did initiate the series of events because I felt that the industry cannot afford to lose such a prominent promotion like NOAH (View full transcript of the press conference for details). However, I could not predict COVID-19 and its full impact at the time. NOAH itself would not have survived COVID-19 on its own so in that sense it turned out well for the promotion, but for me the managerial and psychological burden ended up doubling.

As part of the acquisition, you were named as President of NOAH. How hard has it been to preside over two distinct brands and what, if any, challenges have there been?

It was not as tough as you might expect, because I was only going to get involved in the financials anyways, with Takeda (former President of NOAH) staying on as Board Member and looking after the in-ring product alongside Marufuji. However, the impact of COVID-19 as well as the burden of managing related health hazard risks had doubled now that there was NOAH on top of DDT, so that was difficult. Maybe even triple the burden when you include Tokyo Joshi. Having said that, we were able to learn three times as fast, so we were able to share knowledge and leverage experiences across the promotions so that helped us.

Speaking of Tokyo Joshi, we did lose several wrestlers to Stardom recently, but that has not posed much of a challenge for us; in a way the locker room is now tighter, more closely knit. As for NOAH, they are striving to become the top promotion in the industry, and the synergies from the ABEMA streaming platform are being realized.

DDT is focusing on WRESTLE UNIVERSE for its platform, but it also leverages ABEMA with specific content such as Rojo (street) pro-wrestling and Bakuha Koshien, the brand for explosion deathmatches. In terms of the roster, younger talent like Yuki Ueno and Shunma Katsumata are showing rapid growth and thriving in the ring.

CyberFight now has an array of companies under its banner, each of which offer something different. Has this sense of variety been a conscious decision or a happy coincidence?

When NOAH joined CyberFight, we made a conscious decision to distinguish between the different brands so that we have a wide variety to offer: DDT is the promotion that aspires to cross over and appeal to the masses. It does not hesitate to bring celebrities in and will even have them wrestle. Tokyo Joshi was established specifically to run a Joshi promotion, and has a mindset that is different from and independent of DDT. Ganbare Pro-Wrestling is a more purely “indy” promotion. In that sense, what our previous portfolio lacked was “presence inside the Japanese pro-wrestling industry”, and NOAH filled that hole perfectly. Bringing NOAH on board was not intentional, but with them joining CyberFight we were able to fill that missing piece of our portfolio.

Do you foresee a continued expansion of CyberFight and if so, are there any promotions or styles of wrestling that you don’t currently have exposure to that you would like to explore ?

We are not necessarily seeking expansion through mergers and acquisitions, but options that would further complement our portfolio, in my personal opinion, are a deathmatch/hardcore promotion and a more traditional Joshi promotion. TJPW is innovative and stems more from the idol culture, which is very different from traditional Joshi pro-wrestling which has a long-standing history of focusing more purely on being the strongest inside the ring.

Other than that, what we do not have right now as a part of our portfolio are local promotions in major cities outside of Tokyo such as Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai, Sapporo, Fukuoka, Niigata, etc., but whether we truly need that inside our Group is an entirely different discussion. From a separate point of view, there is the concept of expanding the content portfolio of WRESTLE UNIVERSE as opposed to owning and running more promotions.

In that context, the aforementioned Bakuha Koshien covers the deathmatch/hardcore space, and we also have non-Japan specific content like the Chris Brookes Produce Show where everything is in English from the ring-announcing to the commentary.

Clearly the pandemic has had a massive effect on live events yet DDT and the other CyberFight companies have managed to continue running shows. What made you decide to continue and how difficult an environment has it been to do so?

The entire industry had come to a halt, including NJPW, so we had to keep going.

The risk was that much larger because we had to spearhead the effort, but we still just had to. We said, “the show must go on”, and decided to carry that on our shoulders though no one asked us to. There was a big risk in continuing and what we had to go through, for example to create protocols to ensure safety from scratch, was a challenge that was tough beyond words, but we still made the move because we felt that the risk of the industry shutting down and the market shrinking was even bigger.

I believe that NOAH was the first promotion to have a large-scale, full-on empty arena show complete with championship matches etc. in an arena the size of Korakuen Hall, on March 29. A National Emergency was declared in April so that stopped everything including DDT and NOAH, but we went right back to having empty arena shows in May and brought fans back into the arenas in June. COVD-19 influenced not only promotions but also individual wrestlers. The changes provoked wrestlers to rethink their careers, and some chose to make moves based on those new outlooks.

Not everything was doom and gloom though; for example Jun Akiyama was scheduled to go guest-coach in WWE, but that got cancelled due to COVID-19 and he ended up being on rental transfer to DDT, which was a big ‘get’ for us.

From an in-ring perspective, has the pandemic altered many of your plans within DDT?

The fact that we had to cancel our big show at Saitama Super Arena was a huge blow, both financially and psychologically. We had to do the show over two days in a different venue without an audience, which of course affected the in-ring product. Our November show, Ultimate Party 2020, was also scheduled to take place at Ryogoku Sumo Hall but that also had to be changed to Ota-ku General Gymnasium. Larger venues like Ryogoku and Saitama Super Arena are simply not available right now, so we are shifting more towards slightly smaller venues, such as Ota-ku for DDT and Yokohama Budokan or Yoyogi 2nd Gymnasium for NOAH.

DDT (and TJPW) appear to have an informal working agreement with All Elite Wrestling. When travel allows, how would you like to see that relationship develop?

We were going to bring Kenny Omega back, so we want to make that happen when it becomes possible again. His harsh words against Endo and Takeshita got them motivated, so we want to see that through all the way until the end. I also want Yuka Sakazaki and Shoko Nakajima to return to AEW, and I would also like to see other Tokyo Joshi talent in AEW too, such as Miyu Yamashita, Maki Itoh, Yuki Kamifuku, Hikari Noa, Miu Watanabe, Mirai Maiumi, Suzume, etc.

I feel that Mirai is very underrated despite the fact that she is still in her second year, and some might not have expected much from Kamifuku when she debuted because she was also a model, but you rarely come across someone that tall in Joshi. Itoh was dubbed as the fired idol and that was her distinguishing trait, but she has completely evolved into a fullfledged pro-wrestler. Hikari is exceptionally charismatic and says things like “I would like to run Takagi over with a van on a Rojo (street) pro-wrestling show too” (I welcome her and take on the challenge, by the way). Miu is also very unique in her own way.

From DDT, I would like to see Konosuke Takeshita, Tetsuya Endo, Yuki Ueno, and Kazusada Higuchi wrestle in AEW. Jun Akiyama might also be an interesting choice, considering the fact that he was originally supposed to guest-coach at WWE. As for Yuki Ueno, we were planning to have him make his U.S. debut in April on WrestleMania weekend, and though that got cancelled with COVID-19, he has been proving that we made the right decision by showing tremendous growth in the last few months. In general, we are very open to sending over any good talent, if there is the capacity and demand for them on AEW’s side.

Post pandemic, do you harbour plans to expand internationally and if so, what might be involved (ie running shows outside of Japan, English commentary, etc)?

Live English commentary for our regular shows require a significant technological undertaking, so that will be a more long-term initiative. In the meantime, we would like to do another Chris Brookes Produce Show, entirely in English but with fans in the arena this time. Of course we eventually would like to run shows overseas again, but I feel that it will be some time before we return to a state where COVID-19 is contained enough internationally to allow us to do so. In any case, that will be something for us to consider after the Japanese market returns to where it was, and our domestic situation improves.

Looking forward, what is your ambition for DDT, and the CyberFight collective, over the next 5 years?

As CyberFight, we are eyeing Tokyo Dome. We need to consider whether it would be a DDT show, a NOAH show, or a joint show, etc. The reset button has been hit on a lot of things surrounding DDT with COVID-19 so we have to take things one step at a time, but first things first we must return to Saitama Super Arena which got cancelled this year, and then we will start paving our path to Tokyo Dome.

At Ultimate Party, you return to the ring to challenge for Shinya Aoki’s Extreme Championship. How excited are you for this match and what can fans expect from it?

To my eyes, it looks like Aoki is very fulfilled, enjoying pro-wrestling. He is a very clever individual with many ideas in his mind and a lot of tricks up his sleeve, so I intend to force him to pull everything he has out for our Weapon Rumble match at Ultimate Party.

Finally, given all of your duties outside of the ring, has in-ring retirement crossed your mind?

Oh, all the time; I still think about it right now. I would retire if the timing is right. However, I’ve been seeing fellow wrestlers that I know retire and then come back, and I want to retire at the perfect timing when I can steal the spotlight entirely for myself; if I’m going to retire, I’m going to make it count and have a more impactful retirement than anyone else ever has. I probably will not return to the ring once I retire, but that is precisely the reason why I want to have the best retirement ever, which makes it that much harder to come across the perfect timing to retire.

You can follow Sanshiro Takagi on Twitter, as well as DDT, Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH. All promotions stream content regularly on WRESTLE UNIVERSE.

With thanks to Mr. HAKU for assisting with translation and DDT English Update for the DDT/NOAH press conference transcript.