Of the wrestlers on the various indy circuits in the United States that I think are unique and marketable to the mainstream, few stand out like Dragon Gate USA’s YAMATO.
Currently the “Open The Freedom Gate” Champion, the Dragon Gate veteran was the fifth graduate of the company’s dojo, who started fighting with his real name (Masato Onodera) in Pancrase, and evolved into his current guise since his debut in 2006.
Dragon Gate, like most intricate professional wrestling promotions, has a depth in its history that cannot be readily boiled down to a 1500 word article, and I’ve learned long ago that I can destroy that word count without thinking, without self-editing, in a few heartbeats of your typical wrestling critical cynic.
So let me try to paint a picture of the man for those ignorant of YAMATO’s greatness.
It was amusing to see YAMATO in action on the Full Impact Pro Third Year Anniversary show. He was a bit softer, had a nondescript haircut and a less groomed goatee. He looked way too normal for what he would become in Dragon Gate, and what he looks like now in the American arm of that Company.
Today, YAMATO sports a striking goatee, enhancing his villainous demeanor. While I wouldn’t call him chiseled, he’s got that athletic look hearkening back to a Buddy Rogers, and with that sense of dastardly attitude, but without all the real life baggage (as far as I know.) His hairstyle is less a mullet, but not so far removed, exemplifying his antisocial leanings.
His ring-gear is odd, typically some sort of half-skirt covering wrestling trunks, likely more culturally significant in Japan than in the US. It’s nowhere near the kilt of Roddy Piper, but more like the uniform of Amazing Kong … again, with only half of it existing.
The 30-year old is one of the most impressive heels in the indy circuit, which to my eyes, puts him towards the top of the food chain of the industry. There’s no tweener sense here, no playing to the crowd in any subtle, or not-so-subtle way, no attempts to be popular because of his badness, no attempts to do that nudge-nudge, wink-wink of the Kevin Nash universe.
YAMATO was involved in Dragon Gate’s “Final M2K” faction, introduced in 2006 and given his due by Yasushi Kanda. Many consider Kanda the exemplar of heels, but a serious neck injury back in 2001 derailed a promising career. But YAMATO was part of that faction, and he carried the mantle of the “Gekokujo” character – roughly translated as ‘the lower rules the higher’, which undoubtedly fuels much of his current attitude as a heel.
As a rookie, YAMATO won the NEX-1 Tournament, obviously not to be confused with US mainstream nonsense, and set the stage for a promising career. With MMA experience with Pancrase, and the NEX-1 Tourny win granting him the privilege to travel to the United States, he further learned the craft in Full Impact Pro and Ring of Honor, battling Claudio Castagnolli in that early part of his career.
Kanda’s influence on YAMATO is noted by those who followed Dragon Gate a lot longer than I. But YAMATO eventually broke away from Final M2K, and the shadow of Kanda -- the former heel, former heel referee and eventual office worker, and eventual regular worker again, for Dragon Gate.
Factional warfare in Dragon Gate is complex and fascinating, and YAMATO was involved at all times. When he returned to Japan after a three month tour of the US, he joined Shingo, BxB Hulk and Cyber Kong in the New Hazard faction. It was at this point forward that he was known as YAMATO.
Betrayal and ruses ensued, and New Hazard became Real Hazard, and a long running feud with BxB Hulk was born. The six-man titles, called the Open the Triangle Gate, were won by YAMATO, Gamma and Genki Horiguchi, establishing the powerful new faction.
They lost the titles, but YAMATO teamed with mentor Yasushi Kanda & Gamma to regain the belts.
YAMATO continued a run where he was almost always with a strap around his waist, teaming shortly after losing the six man championship with Cyber Kong to with the Open the Twin Gate Titles, the traditional tag tem belts of Dragon Gate.
Real Hazard began to implode, and YAMATO orchestrated the battle between Kanda and Gamma, seizing power even though Gamma won the match, setting himself up as a leader in the promotion and bringing in Keni’chiro Arai.
In a weird angle, YAMATO continued his feud with the BxB Hulk, with this other Hulkster in the guise of the “Black Hulk”. Losing to Black BxB Hulk seemed to have unnerved YAMATO, and he grew tired of the interfering ways of Real Hazard, and refused the assistance of Kanda’s Blue Box in fighting Shingo.
A tour of New Japan Pro Wrestling saw him defeat Jushin Liger and Koji Kanemoto (the eventual winner of the Best of the Super Juniors Tournament) but he ended up with a 2-4 record. When YAMATO returned to Dragon Gate, he left Real Hazard and went to Kamikaze to team with Shingo Takagi.
Feuding with Real Hazard, YAMATO & Shingo captured the Open the Twin Gate Titles from Ryo Saito & Genki Horiguchi. When they lost the belts, YAMATO was primed for bigger things.
In the debut of Dragon Gate USA, it was no surprise that YAMATO battled BxB Hulk, taking their feud across the Pacific Ocean. In the US, YAMATO struck a nerve in the battle of styles, and a battle of the trainees of Jorge Skayde Rivera, and began a heated feud with CHIKARA players Mike Quackenbush & Jigsaw.
Meanwhile, the formation of Kamikaze USA occurred, with Shingo and Jon Moxley as the leader. They added Gran Akuma (a CHIKARA turncoat) and Akira Tozawa.
YAMATO defeated Naruki Doi to win the Open the Dream Gate Championship early in 2010. He used the Gallaria – now his signature move, which is a scoop into a sit down piledriver of tremendous impact. He held the belt for four months before losing to Masato Yoshino in Kobe.
Another favorite move is the CBV, his version of the Stepover toe hold & Facelock, otherwise called the Cross Bone Vanguard.
Those familiar with the Dragon Gate style are aware of the speed of the promotion. YAMATO isn’t the fastest, and isn’t the strongest, he’s among the most hard-hitting, and displays an arsenal of suplex variations (including the Death Valley Driver & Brainbuster), and a variety of kicks, plus a solid understanding of submission holds.
The feud with CHIKARA ended badly at Enter the Dragon, with a multiple man matchup where CHIKARA took up arms with Masato Yoshino. But YAMATO won the Open the Freedom Gate Championship, the top belt in the DG USA branch, from old nemesis BxB Hulk.
Factions come and go, and eventually YAMATO and Shingo’s participation in Kamikaze USA, spearheaded at once by Jon Moxley, disintegrated with Moxley’s move to FCW and a WWE contract. Shingo just recently disbanded Kamikaze. Both Shingo & YAMATO have joined with Masaaki Mochizuki’s stable to form a yet to be named faction to counter CIMA’s Blood Warriors.
Ironically, one of the members is BxB Hulk, and another member is Shingo’s rival, Dragon Kid, setting up another tension-filled faction in the promotion.
YAMATO, with a name obviously inspired by the WWII battleship, or perhaps the Space Battleship Yamato Anime more closer to his year of birth, has proven himself to be a deadly weapon in the professional wrestling ring, and a unique character in the industry.
As an unrelenting heel, he’s the necessary other side of the dynamic: the guy you want to see get beaten, the villain that stirs up the story, the guy who usually goes out of his way to win, who usually makes use of overwhelming numbers and interference to beat down his opponents.
YAMATO’s exploits can be followed in his native Japan, or in the ongoing saga of Dragon Gate USA, ably steered by Gabe Sapolsky as they integrate top US indy names with the awesome talent roster of the parent promotion.