A Non-Expert’s Guide to Getting into Dragon Gate

I’m really excited to see who wins the next Open the Dream Gate Championship match, and that’s something I couldn’t imagine myself saying a year ago.

Dragon Gate had been one of those promotions I put off checking out for a long time, mostly because my impression of the company was more intimidating than it was entertaining. It had a reputation as a Prestige Wrestling Promotion (the Dragon Gate dojo was even referred to as “prestigious” on Raw within the past few months.) Every time I would see about Dragon Gate online, it would be in-depth company history and lore, behind-the-scenes rumors, detailed critical analysis of the wrestling style, and how a DG offer match in Ring of Honor over a decade ago got a five-star rating from Dave Meltzer back when those were much rarer than they are now. Similar to ROH’s glory days, I kind of got the impression that I needed to take an exam to start watching this promotion, or that if I did start watching it and mentioned it anywhere, someone was going to start quizzing me or trying to explain it to me in-depth unprompted.

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Pac and Ben-K pose with the Open the Dream Gate Championship before their title match, Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival 2019 (Dragon Gate Network)

I finally started watching Dragon Gate, weirdly, after a critical mass of former Dragon Gate wrestlers had showed up in other things I was watching. Stronghearts started invading everywhere, Shingo Takagi was killing it in New Japan, and 205 Live was not giving me enough Akira Tozawa. Plus, Dragon Gate was where Pac decided to return from off the grid, and I thought that was a cool move.

Once I started creaking open the Dragon Gate, I realized it had way fewer barriers to entry than I had thought. Dragon Gate has a lot of promos and other talking segments in Japanese, closer to a promotion like DDT than one like New Japan, but despite not understanding a part of these shows, I was hooked. The matches were cool and they got more enjoyable as I started getting to know the characters and storylines. At this point, I’m far from a Dragon Gate expert, but I’m definitely an enthusiast and a regular viewer.

When Hunktears asked me if I wanted to write a Dragon Gate explainer for Fanfyte, I said something like “I can’t explain all the lore or anything, but I could do like an idiot’s guide” and they were like, “Yeah, yeah, that one. The idiot’s guide.” (In this case, “idiot’s guide” means an explainer by an idiot; you, reader, are probably not an idiot and might know a lot more about Dragon Gate than me and just clicked on this out of curiosity.) So here’s an explainer of why Dragon Gate is a promotion worth watching from someone who can’t break down, like, the King of Gate booking from 2007 but who really enjoys the wrestling this company puts out.

Chaos in a four-way six-man tag team match in 2008 (Dragon Gate)

First, let’s briefly Open the History Gate

Dragon Gate has been around for a little over twenty-one years and has had two different company names. In 1997, Último Dragón started a wrestling school in Mexico, a place for Japanese students to learn lucha libre. In 1999, Dragón and his students started their own promotion in Japan called Toryumon. Toryumon had a unique aesthetic and in-ring style influenced by the Mexican, Japanese, and American wrestling of the time and was a success as an indie, but came to an end when in 2004, Último Dragón left the promotion and took the trademark for its name with him.

The promotion was renamed “Dragon Gate,” a name very close to the English translation of the original, and in the long term, it didn’t suffer without Último. Like all wrestling companies, it has had its ups and downs, but over the next decade and a half Dragon Gate put on high-quality matches, turned out great wrestlers from its training school, and created storylines and characters and factions (Dragon Gate has a LOT of factions) with which fans connected. Its biggest shows drew audiences of around 10,000 people. Internationally, it gained exposure through relationships with PWG and Ring of Honor, and, from 2009-2015, it had an American spinoff promotion called Dragon Gate USA. (MLW recently announced a partnership with Dragon Gate, but it’s hard to tell how that’s going to go when their Pro Wrestling NOAH-MLW partnership resulted in literally one NOAH guy showing up in MLW and vice versa.)

CIMA talks to two adorable children in 2016 (Dragon Gate Network)

Opening the Dragon Gate is fun and easy, actually!

Here’s something that happens on almost every Dragon Gate show: One of the more veteran wrestlers, usually Ryo Saito, asks for a kid from the audience to volunteer to be the night’s Gong Kid. An excited and sometimes nervous child or two is then chosen from the audience and led to the ring, where they’re asked their name, age, if they like Dragon Gate, and who their favorite Dragon Gate wrestler is. If the wrestler is in the ring, and sometimes they are, the kid gets to take a picture with them. Then the kid gets to go down by the commentary table and ring the bell to start the next match, and sometimes there’s a false start because the kid is too little and gets confused.

There’s a lot about Dragon Gate you can enjoy and/or analyze as a “serious” or “smart” wrestling fan, but it’s a company whose shows are absolutely meant to be accessible for children as well as adults. Its live audiences are always a mix of ages and genders; in addition to being kid-friendly, it’s also what you could call “fangirl-friendly.” It’s as obvious that most Dragon Gate wrestlers are supposed to be appealing to people attracted to men as it is that most Stardom wrestlers are supposed to be appealing to men. Yamato, for example, is a good wrestler with a background in Pancrase; he also does a shirtless cooking show. He has a real Hana Kimura/Liv Morgan situation going on.

Yamato showing off his new sexy cookbook at Open the Truth Gate 2020 (Dragon Gate Network)

Aside from having a roster that’s overall easy on the eyes, the way Dragon Gate presents wrestling is just easy to watch. The promotion’s cards mix more comedic matches with ones based around drama or athleticism. Its wrestlers play a mix of gimmicky characters and ones that are more like exaggerated humans, and their friendships, betrayals, and rivalries are easy to get invested in. Plus, the entrance themes are almost all good and sound like actual songs, their light shows and big show pyro look great, and while Dragon Gate events are pretty long, they have a built-in intermission because this is a promotion that is aware that the human body needs to walk around and/or pee every couple of hours. Dragon Gate really gets and embraces that pro wrestling is entertainment and escapism—because of this, it’s not hard to process their work with the dumb part of the wrestling fan brain.

However, this doesn’t mean that Dragon Gate isn’t satisfying for the smart part of the wrestling fan brain. The company’s lucha-influenced style, zero fear of putting like nine people on three different teams in a main event, and what must be a hellish strength and conditioning training regime behind the scenes makes for some innovative and exciting matches. There’s a lot of strong character work in the promotion to appreciate too, and learning more about the kayfabe lore and company history does make matches and storylines more interesting.

Heel faction R.E.D. (Dragon Gate)

Open the Basics Gate

Now that you know the really important stuff about Dragon Gate (everyone is hot and can lift 5,000 times their own body weight like an ant and/or do three backflips in a row), here are the basics of the also pretty important stuff like what its big shows are and what titles people can win. Dragon Gate currently has four active championships:

  • Open the Dream Gate Championship – the equivalent of a world heavyweight championship. This title has so much gravitas surrounding it that they play the national anthem before defenses.
  • Open the Brave Gate Championship – the equivalent of a junior heavyweight championship, keeping in mind that Dragon Gate wrestlers are relatively small and a lot of them can switch between challenging for the Dream and Brave Gate titles without any drama about weight classes.
  • Open the Twin Gate Championship – the tag titles.
  • Open the Triangle Gate Championship – the trios or six-man tag team championships. Tag team wrestling is a Dragon Gate staple and priority, so the Twin and Triangle Gate matches feel like a bigger team than these types of championships do in other companies.

Dragon Gate’s biggest event of the year is Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival in July and its other main shows are Dangerous Gate in September, Gate of Destiny in November, Final Gate in December, and Dead or Alive in May, which is headlined by a big cage match in which the loser loses his mask or hair and there are sometimes titles on the line or other stipulations involved (I am obsessed with these.) Other than these, anything that takes place at Korakuen Hall (like last night’s Dragon Gate Truth Gate) is worth watching, as well as anything that looks like it was filmed for TV and not just with a hard cam. You can keep track of the Dragon Gate schedule on the Dragon Gate Network streaming service or their English-language Facebook page (or the weekly Fanfyte schedule).

Team Dragon Gate (Dragon Gate)

Open the How to Start Actually Watching This Gate

The only way to legally watch Dragon Gate besides Japanese TV right now is on the aforementioned Dragon Gate Network. As pro wrestling streaming services go, it’s not great. It costs about $14 USD a month and you’re only able to watch shows within a week after their original air date before they expire and then are re-uploaded to the Network months later. The archive is really limited too, with hardly anything from before 2017.

However, considering what indie shows go for on FITE, I think a DG Network subscription is an alright deal if you’re going to watch at least one show a month. In addition to the regular events, they upload episodes of Prime Zone, their studio wrestling show that features shorter matches and more jokes and skits, and old Toryumon matches.

As far as when and how to actually start watching Dragon Gate, here are a few different paths I think you can take:

1) Jump right in! There’s really no best place to start watching any wrestling promotion because wrestling never stops. Just start watching the latest big show or Korakuen Hall show and if you don’t get what’s going on, look it up the current angles or wait for them to play out. Bigger shows have English commentary as of this year, so if that’s something that appeals to you, this might be the best route.

2) Jump right in the deep end! Look up a Dragon Gate match with an unusual setup or stipulation like a Loser Disbands or Dead or Alive match or an elimination match with like twelve people in it. These are always a mix of character/drama stuff and cool spots, so you will almost definitely be confused at some point, but if one of these matches makes you want more instead of turns you off, Dragon Gate is probably for you.

3) Stan Mode (or “dig into a wrestler’s back catalog” or whatever.) Find matches that pair up people you know and like who used to work in Dragon Gate (Tozawa, Cima, Pac, Shingo, Ricochet, Apollo Crews as Uhaa Nation, Lindaman, T-Hawk) with someone you’ve never seen from there and go where that takes you. Or watch those guys versus each other and go where that takes you. There are no hard and fast rules in Stan Mode.

Team Toryumon (Dragon Gate)

Though there are tons of Dragon Gate matches worth watching from the past, a big upside of starting to watch what they’re doing now is that there’s a big overarching storyline that’s pretty easy to understand: the Generational War! The whole roster, aside from a few free agents, is split into three factions, Team Toryumon (veteran wrestlers who worked for the company when it was Toryumon, currently all babyfaces), R.E.D. (Real Extreme Diffusion, heels), Team Dragon Gate (babyface wrestlers who joined the company after it became Dragon Gate and want to surpass the veterans and beat the bad guys.) This environment was created by months of returns (Último Dragón after fifteen years!) and betrayals (the young Kaito Ishida and former wrestling pop idol BxB Hulk) and informed by years of history, but the basic dynamic is very accessible and creates an easy starting point for new or lapsed viewers. So if you’re looking for more fun, quality wrestling in your life with a great aesthetic, this is a good time to open your mind and wrestling viewing habits to Dragon Gate.