New Japan’s Young Lion system is viewed by many as the premier training method in the world today. When you consider that the likes of Kazuchika Okada, Hiromu Takahashi and Jay White have all come through the programme, it’s not hard to see why. You can now add the name Clark Connors to that list as the American continues to impress under the guidance of LA Dojo head trainer Katsuyori Shibata. Clark recently spoke with Inside the Ropes’ Liam Wyatt about life as a Young Lion, his time on New Japan Strong and his goals for the future.
What was it that attracted you to wrestling? When did you get in and who are your earliest influences?
Well, I am one of those guys who got into wrestling what I call “The New, Old-Fashioned Way,” meaning I started watching it when I was around 12 years old, and fell in love with it immediately. The mix of athleticism and pageantry completely encapsulated who I saw myself becoming when I grew up. And boy was I right. As for who I idolized, it was guys like Shawn, Lashley, Jericho, and Liger-san. If you look closely to my style of wrestling you’ll be able to see fragments of each.
Some of our readers may not be familiar with the Young Lion system in New Japan, please could you give a little explanation as to what it involves?
The Young Lion system in New Japan, as I’ve come to understand it, was developed at the inception of the company itself in order to properly instill fighting spirit into future generations of wrestlers. Traditionally, trainees are hand-picked from a tryout, and from there begin to live at the dojo full-time. At the dojo, they’re expected to cook, clean, and take care of their senpai wrestlers, all the while going through rigorous daily training.
How rigorous is the process of getting into the LA Dojo?
Anyone considering trying out for the LA Dojo can expect to go through one of the most physically and mentally taxing experiences of their entire lives. I won’t go too much into the details of what the process entails, as it is a more closely guarded secret than the 11 herbs and spices in the Colonel’s chicken, and speaking out about it is punishable by death (or chops).
How does your experience at the LA Dojo compare to that of a Young Lion going through the system in Japan? Do you think it is easier or harder for the LA contingent?
As I have not trained in the Noge Dojo, I can’t speak to what they go through on a daily basis, but I’d bet the farm that the actual training we go through in LA is more strenuous. But when you add in the fact that the Japanese Young Lions have so many senpais to constantly answer to, their day-to-day life is just more stressful. That being said, I think the LA contingent itself has it harder because of the learning curve of adjusting to Japanese culture, and as outsiders, earning the respect of not only the other wrestlers, but the fans as well.
What’s the relationship like between Japanese Dojo Young Lions and LA Dojo Young Lions?
At first it was incredibly contentious. We had been told that they didn’t like us, and they had been told the same. But over time, through living with one another in Japan and recognizing that we shared similar responsibilities and philosophies about wrestling, we grew to develop a mutual respect for one another. So much so that you even see a guy like Narita coming over to train with us during his excursion process.
You had previously trained under Lance Storm prior to joining the LA Dojo. What made you decide to re-train?
Any time you have an opportunity to learn from any accomplished wrestler you have to take it. So when I got the opportunity to train under Shibata-san there was no question in my mind. I looked at it as adding more tools to my tool box, rather than “re-training.” At the risk of going off on a tangent, I also want to say that no great wrestler is ever done “training.” There is always something to learn, as long as you are willing to listen and apply yourself. Okay, the soap box has been put away.
How challenging was the process of re-learning?
I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of the process (once again, punishable by death), but it was one of most trying undertakings I’ve ever experienced in both my professional career and personal life. I’d equate it to the mental and physical strain of giving birth every day for years on end. Maybe not that bad, but you get the picture (God Bless all of the mothers reading this now).
Earlier in the year we saw your LA Dojo-mate Karl Fredericks graduate from the system. How much did that motivate you?
It wasn’t necessarily as much of a motivator for me as much as it was the reminder that there is the light at the end of the tunnel that is the LA Dojo Young Lion process. It was Karl’s time to move on at that point, and I know that it will be mine sooner than later.
For you, is adding to your move set and wrestling attire something you’ve given a lot of thought to? Is there anything you’re champing at the bit to add to your look/repertoire?
When it comes to attire in the ring, I don’t want to get ahead of myself and would rather wait until some kind of inspiration strikes rather than giving myself a badass nickname and throwing on any old pair of shiny pants (though Ol’ Shiny Pants has a ring to it). Honesty, I really haven’t thought that far into the future. As for my move set, what you have seen so far is just a taste of what is to come. I have a whole bag of tricks I’ve been waiting to use, but until they’ve been perfected, I just couldn’t in good conscience waste them. I guess you’ll have to tune in to NJPW World (only 999 Yen a month!) to find out what is in store.
You’ve been front and centre for New Japan Strong. How have you enjoyed that experience?
I don’t necessarily see myself being the cover boy for Strong, but you said it, not me. I just go out and try to win every match that I’m put into. And when I win, I’d say I enjoy that experience quite a bit.
We’ve seen a raft of new faces enter the Dojo for Strong. Who have you been most impressed with?
Of all the guys who have come through, I can only speak about those I have actually been in the ring with. But names like Fred Rosser, Adrian Quest, and really all of the guys who took part in the Lion’s Break Crown come to mind. There is a lot of talent on Friday nights.
As part of Strong, you participated in and ultimately won the Lion’s Break Crown. How did you find the tournament and what did that victory mean to you?
As I stated above, everyone in that tournament comes to mind when I think of who have impressed me most on Strong. Guys like Logan Riegel, Jordan Clearwater, Barrett Brown, and the eventual runner-up Danny Limelight all feel like future big names in this business. The tournament itself felt like a proving ground specifically paved for me, as I am the one full-time NJPW talent, to show everyone, fans and those in the business alike, exactly what NJPW is about. I came into the tournament as a heavy favorite, so winning the whole thing was more of a relief than anything else. But to be able to be the first of anything in this prestigious company will always be a blessing.
You also entered your second Super J Cup this year, where you wrestled Chris Bey. How did you enjoy that and how did it differ from the Lion’s Break Crown tournament?
Well, I enjoyed the Super J Cup less if only for the fact that I lost in the first round. Losing sucks. The difference in the two tournaments as a whole was that I went from being the odds on favorite to win the Crown, to being looked at as not even a dark horse in the Super J. I saw both tournaments as an opportunity to prove myself, but in each, under completely contrasting circumstances. Unfortunately, I ran into the very talented Chris Bey in the first round of the J Cup and wasn’t able to prove much of anything.
Upon graduation, would you sooner remain in LA or would you been keen to work more in Japan (assuming travel is feasible)?
I love America. Definitely my favorite country. But seeing as the “J” in NJPW stands for Japan, I think professionally it makes sense for me to spend the bulk of my time in Japan. Ever since I started in the Dojo, I have been practicing my “Nihongo” every day, and learning more and more about the Japanese culture. After a few trips to Japan, I really have fallen in love with the country, so I can see myself living out there in the near future.
Who are you outside of wrestling? What makes you tick? What do you like to do for fun in LA?
As much as I may look like a real prick inside the ring, outside I am actually a really laid back guy. I really enjoy learning, art, and good old-fashioned drinking until my eyes bleed. With the shut down over the past year in LA, I have been lucky enough to find myself as more or less the muse to a fantastic balloon artist (@southbayballoonbar on Instagram), and hopefully, I can continue to do that into the future.
What can fans expect from Clark Connors in 2021?
Well, at the risk of sounding cliché, 2021 is going to be my year – the year where I breakout into the next stratosphere of superstardom in New Japan. I will keep chopping, keep grinding, prepare for each opponent one match at a time with my nose to grindstone and most importantly, never blink. Not too clichéd, right?
Our thanks to Clark for his time and to the New Japan office for helping put this interview together. Catch Clark every Friday on New Japan Strong over at NJPW World.