Editorials NJPW Puroresu

Brock Hates Wrestling: Two Departures

Credit: @kay_mys on Twitter, @shupromobile on Twitter, and Weekly Pro Wrestling

Goodbyes are rarely easy. We all know the pain of loss, the sudden absence of a loved one, the void left behind. We know what it feels like to choke back tears and force out meaningless pleasantries to someone we’re never going to see again. The thought of it hurts, with the absence of another made all the worse when replaced by a lingering pain. It turns once happy images into bitter remembrances, transfiguring golden monuments of memory into mausoleums of the missing. We never get what we want out of goodbyes, never say enough, never wring quite enough joy out of that final encounter to last a lifetime. And in the end, we never hold tight enough to the fading memento of that last happy day before it darkens and is lost forever.

Wrestling, for better or for worse, has little in the way of definitive goodbyes. It’s hard to tell if we’re lucky for it or not. For every emotional retirement, we have two or three half-hearted returns. For every Terry Funk who never stays gone for long, we have an Eddie Guerrero who is tragically stolen away forever. There’s a balance to these things, some cosmic or divine justice that is impossible to find meaning in, perhaps simply because there is no meaning in it at all. It’s just how things go.

Occasionally, though, these goodbyes aren’t really goodbyes in a conclusive sense; they are instead dramatic relocations. In this industry in which loyalties are always shifting and contracts are being signed and ended constantly, and in this era in which technology allows us to view events across the globe almost instantaneously, goodbyes in wrestling are rarely permanent, though they often hurt all the same.

2016, a year of profound insanity on many levels, provided more than its far share of goodbyes, whether permanent or otherwise. Daniel Bryan, after a decades-long downward spiral of injuries and concussions, finally had to retire. Eschewing contracts from NJPW, DDT, and WWE, Kota Ibushi stepped away from wrestling full-time, embracing life as the world’s most baffling part-time independent contractor. Following a slow but steady path to recovery after his career-ending neck injury more than fifteen years ago, Hayabusa suddenly passed away, joined by an all-too-numerous contingent ranging from the likes of Chyna and Mr. Fuji to Don Bass and Blackjack Mulligan to Thunder and Espectrito to Lord James Blears and Kris Travis to Axl Rotten and Balls Mahoney, and so many more. Of these many departures and goodbyes, two in particular have stood out to me, especially for their dichotomic and mirrored nature, and these are the departures and goodbyes of Shinsuke Nakamura and Akira Tozawa.


This song is for the rats
who hurled themselves into the ocean
when they saw that the explosives in the cargo hold
were just about to blow.
-The Mountain Goats – “Cotton”

Before I say anything else, I have to say that I’ve never really liked Shinsuke Nakamura. If you’ve not already stopped reading, please, let me explain. New Japan, despite my feelings towards the current product, is a promotion that I have a great deal of fondness for. Some of my favorite performers, from Shinya Hashimoto to Hiroshi Hase to Kazunari Murakami, were hard-nosed men of NJPW in their day, and their matches and exploits there mean a lot to me. As the Third Generation of NJPW began to fade and as the new crop of stars began to rise in the mid 2000’s, something changed. With Nakamura’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship win in December 2003, when the man was only 23 years old and less than a year and a half into the business, it was clear that the company was transforming and I didn’t like it one bit. Spearheaded by this pompous, silver spoon-swirling young faux-shooter, as well as his anime-haired, air guitar aficionado counterpart, the promotion took a turn towards an in-ring style that it is still deeply immersed in and a booking doctrine it may never recover from. I couldn’t get behind this young punk who had everything handed to him, who hadn’t earned his keep, who wasn’t anywhere close to good for the first nine years of his career, and even when he exploded with skill and charisma around the start of the new decade, his occasional laziness and stale booking did little to turn me around on him.

For these reasons, hearing the news that Nakamura was leaving NJPW to join WWE was a curious experience for me, and I wasn’t quite sure how to react. My first inclination was schadenfreude, pointing and laughing at the misfortune of others having their beloved wrestler leave them and join “the enemy”, because deep down I’m a despicable person and indications to the contrary are hollow and short-lived. After that, my heart softened, and I wondered how this process would play out, as this sort of high-profile departure hadn’t ever really happened like this before in puroresu. Sure, there were countless big retirements over the years. Genichiro Tenryu had retired barely two months before Nakamura left, perhaps the last of the true big names of the scene. Popular gaijin such as AJ Styles and Prince Devitt had high-profile last matches as well. In the 90’s, short-term excursions to WCW were quite common for NJPW midcarders. But this sort of defection from a Japanese main eventer, one of the top stars in the promotion in his relative prime, to the WWE was unprecedented. No one was sure how it was going to unfold.

Unsurprisingly, it was a pretty emotional affair. At the man’s final press conference five days before his last match, it’s clear what sort of state he’s in leading into his last days in his native land. There is pain etched across his face, hesitation and uncertainty we haven’t seen from him in years. As he mumbles and murmurs his way through his statement, barely able to glance at the cameras as he answers a few questions, it’s clear that this is not quite the Nakamura people are used to. This is a fragile, vulnerable man confessing that with his age and with all he has already accomplished in NJPW, he wants to set out for new thrills and new challenges abroad. Admirable, really. There’s no shame in wanting to accomplish more with the time you have left in life. But that doesn’t make his leaving hurt any less.

Korakuen Hall, a 2,000 seat sports arena buried deep in the heart of Tokyo’s special wards, is perhaps the finest venue in the world for professional wrestling, and on January 30th, 2016, it was home to Shinsuke Nakamura’s last match in NJPW. Teaming with fellow CHAOS stable members Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii, the three of them faced off against Hiroshi Tanahashi, Hirooki Goto, and Katsuyori Shibata. Considering then-current feuds between the men, as well as rivalries that stretched back years and years, it was a fitting end for Nakamura. I must say, watching the man’s last show was an odd experience. My first thought, upon booting up the live stream all those months ago, was that it was such a meaningless show. NJPW rarely stacks their Korakuen Hall cards and this was no different, but even with the departure of one of their biggest stars of the last 13 years, the whole event felt routine and uninspired. At least it did before the main event. The reason I describe Korakuen as the finest wrestling venue in the world is that it brings something out of people, a certain energy that you rarely feel anywhere else. A hot crowd in Yokohama or Chicago or Essen or Camden isn’t quite the same as a hot crowd in Korakuen. There’s an extra element in Korakuen. There’s something in the water, and you could feel it in this main event match.

Credit: @Pw__photo on Twitter
Credit: @Pw__photo on Twitter

 

Life is strange as a performance artist. Anyone who has spent any considerable time acting will know what I mean. Getting lost in a role or a character is uneasy sometimes, especially early on. There’s a disquieting feeling of some sort of loss of self, that the you on stage isn’t the real you. The only me is me, one might say, but are you really sure the only you is you? When you begin to really dig into acting, though, you learn to let go a little easier. You slip into something else for a little while, wearing its skin as your own, feeling it conform to your shape as you breathe in and out. Soon you are one. Everything that you are, all of your memories and fears and anxieties and uncertainties are concealed by this new you, this other you. It’s not a mask, per se, but rather a whole new self that was deep inside you all along, formerly hidden away and now revealed to the world. Cracks in the armor can appear, however. No matter how many selfs we have, they are all human in the end. Here, in Korakuen Hall, as Nakamura makes one last entrance, you can see the cracks. He’s holding back tears. He’s shaking off doubt. He’s hiding behind his persona, his shtick, his other self, but soon the facade will break.

This match isn’t all about Nakamura, though, and that’s apparent from the opening bell. NJPW is going to have to go on without him, and the rivalries between these other five competitors are going to continue in his absence. The match begins with with Goto and Okada facing off, after Goto forced his two partners back to the apron to a chorus of boos and insisted that Nakamura step aside. He wants the champ. They do their same old song and dance, rope-running and reversals before an uninterested Okada tags out to Ishii, who calls for Shibata, the man who stole the NEVER Openweight title from him. Smashing each other with boots and forearms, their sequence is rather typical as well. As Tanahashi is tagged in, the crowd chants for their man Nakamura by his first name. You can take that one of two ways: either as an informal manner of speaking that only close friends partake in here in the fairly rigid societal structure of Japan, or simply as the crowd taking the path of least resistance, as the two syllable “Shinsuke” is far easier to chant than the four syllable “Nakamura”. I’m a Romantic at heart and I read far too into things (why do you think I’m writing thousands of words every week on wrestling?), so I like to think the former is true. Tanahashi doesn’t take to the chants too well. The ace of the promotion, he’s used to the crowd being on his side. As they continue to chant for Nakamura, Tanahashi points to them to try to draw out chants of his own, but to no avail. He pauses before nodding and smiling sheepishly to himself. He understands. This isn’t his moment.

An all-too brief sequence between Nakamura and Shibata makes me realize that we sadly never got an extended feud between them, and a sequence between Nakamura and Goto a few minutes later reminds me that their feud in 2015 did little for either man. When Tanahashi tags in again against his generational rival, they trade forearms and get the crowd going, but there’s something missing as Tanahashi takes control. Korakuen doesn’t want to boo the ace, but they’re here to cheer for their man Nakamura, so Tanahashi’s control segment is met to a smattering of polite claps. Soon the match breaks down as run-ins and cheap shots are responded to in kind. Strangely enough, Shibata is really the focal point of this match, spending the majority of the time in the ring, and spending most of that time with Ishii. At least in terms of kayfabe, the struggle between these two is the least important story in this match and yet it gets most of the attention. I have to wonder if that was intentional. In the end, Okada cuts Shibata off with a dropkick, allowing Nakamura to follow up with a Boma Ye before Ishii hits a brainbuster for the finish. Without any real dramatic build, with no emotion or tension, the 13 year career of Shinsuke Nakamura in NJPW comes to an end with a pinfall he’s not even a part of.

After the match, following some heel chicanery and storyline progression from Goto and Kenny Omega, Nakamura stands alone in the ring with a microphone. He quietly wonders if he should say something, getting a laugh from the crowd before breaking out into a bit of song, musically asking, “Hmmm, what should I do?” He drops to his knee with the sort of effortless flourish that people love him for, and Korakuen lets him hear how much they appreciate it. As he stands, his face is twisted in agony. He recovers, continuing with his goodbye, but his speech is slower now, more pained. The moment is all too real to him, now that it has finally arrived. He thanks the fans, his fellow wrestlers, and NJPW as a whole, his home. He promises to show an unsuspecting world who he is, to show them “the Nakamura that was born and raised here.” He urges everyone to remember that this isn’t “goodbye forever”, but rather “so long for now”, saying that he’ll return when he’s stronger. With one last “YEAOH!”, he bows to the crowd and turns to leave as “Subconscious” plays and red balloons bounce around the crowd.

He doesn’t get far before he’s stopped by his CHAOS partners, who force him back into the ring for hugs and one last photo op. Okada is openly weeping, with Nakamura and Toru Yano holding back tears of their own. On commentary, Milano Collection AT’s voice waivers through his soft crying. Grabbing the microphone once again, barely keeping it together, Nakamura echoes a sentiment he’s proclaimed time and again over the years in New Japan: “the greatest sport in the world is pro wrestling.” Finally he breaks down, doubled over from the tears as the crowd chants his name. YOSHI-HASHI carries the man around the ring on his shoulders, and Okada does the same around the ringside area and to the back. It’s a sight to behold, the hero of these people hoisted high in the air, almost floating above them as they reach out to know his touch even for a moment. There’s something angelic in it.

Credit: @White_engel_612 on Twitter
Credit: @White_engel_612 on Twitter

And I am healthy, I am whole,
but I have poor impulse control
and I want to go home.
But I am home.
-The Mountain Goats – “Riches and Wonders”

In stark contrast to Nakamura’s career in NJPW, Akira Tozawa struggled every step of the way in Dragon Gate. While his time there has been covered extensively by writers far more talented than I, for the purposes of this article, I need to touch on the fact that the man has always had issues with his home promotion. Being the youngest and smallest member of his dojo class didn’t stop Tozawa from being a bratty troublemaker that rubbed his seniors the wrong way, and to top it off, he was a slow learner in the art of wrestling early on in his career. After being sent back down to the dojo only three months after debuting, Tozawa re-debuted in October 2005 and formed his own unit, a cram school-inspired group called Tozawa-juku. Though it was designed as a place where a troubled young man such as himself could go to shape up and learn a thing or two, Tozawa was hardly the central figure of his own unit, and he quickly began acting up again. Around this time, his unit-mate Yuki Ono began gaining quite a bit of weight, and to mess with Tozawa, the older members of the roster forced Tozawa to gain weight along with him and demanded that the two of them begin wearing skimpy biker shorts to show off their size. The two were dubbed the Metabolic Brothers and were ridiculed for months, a clear example of outright hazing in Dragon Gate’s fraternity-like environment.

Years pass, a mysterious animal abuse incident occurs and is subsequently covered up, and Tozawa is sent on a year-long excursion to the United States. Finally, the fiery troublemaker finds his legs on the shores of southern California. With high profile matches with and against the likes of Chris Hero, Kevin Steen, and El Generico, Tozawa took PWG and the US indie scene by storm in a few short months, and by the time he returned to Dragon Gate in the summer of 2011, he had all the momentum in the world behind him. Establishing himself as one of the top heels in the company, Tozawa partnered with dojo classmate BxB Hulk to win the Open the Twin Gate titles for his first taste of gold, nearly seven years into his career. It wasn’t until a full ten years into wrestling that the man would win his first singles title, the faux-cruiserweight Open the Brave Gate championship. From a booking standpoint, with only a pair of tag team title reigns, a trios title reign, and now a midcard title reign in a decade, it’s clear that Tozawa was never truly a focal point of Dragon Gate. Even as a major heel character, he always had to share the spotlight with the more important figures of CIMA and Hulk. Despite his popularity in the West and consistent fan support by the native crowd, the so-called Sun of the Ring never was a real star.

That all changed with the Cruiserweight Classic. The wrestling world was abuzz when WWE announced their plans to hold a massive tournament with smaller wrestlers from around the globe. I can’t quite tell you how I felt when Tozawa was one of the first names announced for the tournament, but I know what I, and the rest of the world, was thinking: WWE wants him, and they’re going to get him sooner or later. When Tozawa challenged YAMATO for the Open the Dream Gate Championship in August of this year, and when the news came a few weeks later that he’d been signed to WWE, it became clear that the time was now. Or at least… soon. Following Tozawa’s emotional, unsuccessful bid at the top prize in Dragon Gate, there was no “graduation ceremony” (the term DG uses to refer to the in-ring ceremony of the entire roster bidding farewell to a wrestler who has signed with WWE, which takes place immediately after the wrestler’s final match in the promotion) and fans were confused and outraged. Were they going to send Tozawa away without a graduation ceremony? Were the bookers and higher-ups still angry about Tozawa’s troublemaking all those years ago, as Western fans had suspected for years? Were they simply keeping this fan favorite down?

In the end, Tozawa got his graduation ceremony. A week after losing to YAMATO, Tozawa made the announcement that his final match would be on November 3rd, at the aptly-named Gate of Destiny show, and he requested a tag team match with his peers, the so-called “Big Six” that had been the primary focus of the promotion over the last five years. In a match rife with storyline implications and references to rivalries and relationships going back years, Akira Tozawa, Masato Yoshino, and Naruki Doi would take on the team of YAMATO, BxB Hulk, and Shingo Takagi.

Credit: @aoimushi4 on Twitter
Credit: @aoimushi4 on Twitter

 

The Dragon Gate style catches a lot of flack, and rightfully so. It’s fairly nonsensical, with little selling and far too much escalation for escalation’s sake. To use a phrase, it’s all style and no substance, at least on the surface. These are all valid complaints, and ones I feel sometimes when I watch this promotion and these performers that I love so much. But what many detractors miss, and what Dragon Gate excels at perhaps more than any other promotion in the world, is the emotion and long-term storytelling, and nowhere is that more evident than in Akira Tozawa’s last match in the company.

The chorus of his theme plays: “One more Be Naked, baby.” A subtle reminder that this is the last time we’ll hear this song before one of his bouts. For years now, Tozawa has warmed up before matches with a cheeky little leg stretch in the corner, standing with one foot on top of the ring post and with the other stretched high into the air as he fights to stay balanced perched a dozen feet above the floor. Dubbed the Big Stretch, it’s a photo op, a goofy quirk, but more than that it’s something Tozawa began doing when he was at his lowest point back in the summer of 2013, back when wrestling wasn’t fun, back when he was abandoned and alone. It’s an important ritual for him, something he does before every match, and he just can’t pull it off here. His legs are shaky, his confidence broken, his eyes watery and troubled. When he finally pulls it off one last time, it’s a small triumph, the kind that careers like his are built on.

If you’re familiar at all with Dragon Gate, I’m sure you could guess how this match plays out. The lucharesu style, exciting as it is, lacks a bit in variety. As the action picks up, though, the real meat of the match makes itself known: the character interactions and the storytelling. We see Tozawa face off against Shingo (the resident bully of Dragon Gate who partnered with Tozawa for years and was an important part of his ascension as a face) for the first time in a big main event setting since Shingo turned his back on their unit Monster Express nearly a year and a half ago. Yoshino, the Monster Express leader who Shingo defeated for the Dream Gate title to kick off his heel turn, has unfinished business with the mulleted bruiser as well. We have Doi and Yoshino, perhaps the greatest team in DG history, reuniting tentatively for the first time in years (they’re even wearing their old ring gear from when they were a team together, which is a nice touch). The only team that can rival them, Doi and YAMATO, are meeting here only a few months after Doi betrayed YAMATO and kicked him out of the VerserK unit. In turn, Doi is facing off against Shingo for the first time since the latter kicked him out of VerserK just a few weeks prior to this show. Tozawa comes face to face with an old friend, Hulk, years after Hulk kicked him out of Mad Blankey, which heralded the start of Tozawa’s face turn. Hulk and YAMATO, who have feuded bitterly with Shingo for the better part of a decade or more, are forced to team up here with their nemesis and aren’t happy about it. Barely a month before this, YAMATO defeated Tozawa to retain the Dream Gate title (with Tozawa’s five failed Dream Gate attempts being the most of anyone who has never won the belt in the company’s history), and Yoshino was the one who ended Hulk’s only Dream Gate title reign back in 2015, so championship squabbles are present in this non-title match as well. A complicated web of friendships and rivalries, alliances and backstabbing, this match is a shining example of Dragon Gate’s best qualities as well as some of its worst.

As the match progresses and momentum swings back and forth between the teams, it becomes clear that Tozawa is the odd man out here. He’s jovial and hitting his big goofy comedy spots and trademark moves, but he’s a step or two behind everyone else in the match. As was the case for his entire career, he’s just not good enough to keep up. He can’t win the big one. He’s not main event material. As Shingo goes after Tozawa and beats him down, looking to make an example of this bleached blonde buffoon, the point is hammered home that Tozawa is the weak link. This doesn’t mean he’s going to roll over and give up, though. He’ll fight ‘til his dying breath. It’s just what he does. Here at the conclusion of the match and Tozawa’s DG career, as he’s fighting through Shingo’s Pumping Bomber, as he’s surviving the biggest moves Shingo can throw at him, I don’t want this match to end. Even if Tozawa can pull off the upset and beat Shingo, exacting revenge on the man who betrayed him and destroyed the group of friends that made wrestling worth it for him again, I don’t want this match to end. Even if he can beat Hulk and finally prove that he’s just as good as his former friend who ruined his life for a while, I don’t want this match to end. Even if he can defeat YAMATO, perhaps the blueprint of the perfect Dragon Gate wrestler and one of the more decorated champions in the promotion’s history, I don’t want this match to end. I’ve never really loved Tozawa. He’s never been one of my favorites, someone I went out of my way to see, someone whose work I poured over for hours and hours. But here, at the end, I don’t want to see him go.

Credit: @aoimushi4 on Twitter
Credit: @aoimushi4 on Twitter

 

In the end, he has to go. It’s his destiny. A few hours after the Chicago Cubs finally, finally won the World Series again after 108 years, Tozawa cemented his legacy as the guy who just wasn’t good enough and ate the pinfall in his last match in Dragon Gate. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, the troublemaker who the office thought wasn’t good enough for the big time, a sentiment that urged him to leave in the end and confirm their suspicions. It’s poetic, perhaps, tragic in a sort of oedipal way (just without the incest, as I think we can agree that wrestling should stay far away from incest). In the end, tragedy or no, it was always Tozawa’s destiny to leave, to return to America, to say goodbye to his home.

After the match, Tozawa lies supine and motionless on the mat. There are the first inklings of tears in his eyes. His time in Dragon Gate is at its end, and he’s going to lay here and take it all in, soaking up the last few fleeting moments. Even the stoic Shingo is moved on some level. Once he reminds the man that only the strong survive at the top of the food chain, Shingo softens, saying that Tozawa really showed him what he’s made of in this match. He continues to say that even though they’re not all good ones, the two of them have many memories together. Shingo wishes him luck in WWE and extends his hand, and after a moment of uncertainty, Tozawa shakes it. A bastard to the end, Shingo uses the moment to level his old friend with a lariat one last time before VerserK runs out and beats Tozawa down. Curled up in a fetal position as boots and blows rain down on him, Tozawa’s face is rather empty and expressionless. He’s not surprised or altogether too hurt by this final betrayal. It’s what he expected. Maybe, he thinks, it’s what he deserves.

The locker room empties and drives off the VerserK attackers, unwilling to let Tozawa’s last night in the promotion end like this. Taking advantage of the fact that they’re all in the ring together now, they decide to hold Tozawa’s graduation ceremony. From rookies who have only been in the promotion a few weeks to veterans who have known Tozawa since he was a teenager, they all say goodbye to the man, ranging from cordial farewells to teary sendoffs. Tozawa cries, saying goodbye to the friends and coworkers that he’s known for more than a decade now. He wishes the youngboys who will take his place well. He’s left in shock after Yosuke♡Santa Maria kisses him. He laughs after Big R Shimizu backs him into a corner and yells in his face, and when Kotoka BLEHHHs all over him. K-ness urges him to be the best Akira Tozawa he can be. Genki Horiguchi says that if it’s too rough in WWE or if they mistreat him, that they’ll always be waiting for him back here in Dragon Gate. Masaaki Mochizuki states that the hole Tozawa is leaving behind will never be filled. Takashi Okamura, the president of the promotion, tearfully states that they’ll always be family and tells him to go show the world that the DG style is the best. Last in line, a somber YAMATO encourages him that they’ll all meet again somewhere, someday, and when they do, they’ll laugh and cry and act like idiots together.

Thanking everyone for their kind words, Tozawa addresses his peers for the last time. He’s not sure what sort of example he’s set over the years for the younger generation, but he hopes they learn from his mistakes. He thanks his elders for putting up with him when he was a young delinquent, and for all their help and advice. Speaking to the fans, he says that he doesn’t know what kind of legacy he’s leaving behind, but he hopes they never forget the guy called Akira Tozawa. He bows, hiding his tears. Confetti rains down from above. His fellow wrestlers crowd in around him for one last group photo and toss him in the air in joyous celebration. After meeting with and thanking all the fans at ringside, he walks up the entrance ramp and turns one last time, bowing and waving goodbye to his people, to his home.

Credit: @aoimushi4 on Twitter
Credit: @aoimushi4 on Twitter

 

Not everything is connected, and not everything relates to each other, but still, I can’t help but compare these two departures of Shinsuke Nakamura and Akira Tozawa. Taking place in the same year, with either man leaving the two biggest wrestling promotions in Japan to embark on a journey to WWE, the similarities are obvious. The interesting bit, though, are the painful differences. Nakamura left NJPW an unbeaten champion, a hero to the people who had dominated the promotion and accomplished all he could in 13 years. Tozawa left Dragon Gate relatively undecorated compared to his peers, the bratty underdog who never truly got his day in the sun. Nakamura was pushed heavily from a young age, winning his first championship less than two years in the business regardless of merit or skill. Tozawa struggled every step of the way, not winning a title until he was well over six years into his career. Nakamura chose not to win his last match, acquiescing the victory to a remaining wrestler who had something to prove. Tozawa, despite his best efforts, couldn’t hang with his friends and rivals, ultimately taking the pinfall in his final match. Obviously these are different wrestlers in different promotions that have different mindsets and business models, but the mirror images they inhabit are curious to say the least, and it makes me wonder if these dissimilarities will remain in WWE.

To be honest, I’m quite scared about how these two will do in WWE. As of this writing, Nakamura has been in NXT for seven months now, and Tozawa has yet to debut in the company outside of the Cruiserweight Classic. Already Nakamura has proved himself a worthy talent and has won the NXT Championship, but you have to wonder what being the top dog in the so-called developmental brand means at age 36. Likewise, Tozawa is seemingly headed for the RAW brand and the Cruiserweight division, which has already gotten off to a bad start and shows no real signs of improvement, with little fan reaction and support. Even if these aren’t my favorite performers in the world, I worry about how they’ll fare in WWE. I worry that they’ll “waste” precious years of their careers in front of fans who don’t know them and don’t care to learn who they are. I worry that they’ll feel frustrated and swindled, trapped in multi-year contracts in a promotion and situation that they hate. I worry that they’ll begin to hate wrestling, this thing that has brought them so much joy and success. Watching Tozawa do all his signature spots over these last few months, all his comedy antics, I worry that the vast majority of the audience he’s about to perform in front of won’t get it. Maybe that means it’s a bad act. Maybe that means that American fans are dumb. Maybe that means that cultural differences and niche comedy just don’t translate outside of its original market. Whatever it means, I worry. I worry that all their time and effort will be for naught. I fear that they’ll fail. That fear weighs heavily on my heart.

For those of you who don’t know, I babysit for a living. For a third of my life now, I’ve helped raise about 25 different children in two different states for periods of time ranging from a few months to several years. It’s always hard, saying goodbye to them in the end. This year I had to say goodbye to the first two kids I ever babysat, two boys I’ve known since they were infants only a few weeks old. I knew them for eight years. Eight long, tumultuous, exhausting years. I was with them when they started walking and when they began learning their first words. I was with them when they mastered potty training and when they first fell off bicycles. I was with them when they started to go to school, when they fought through developmental disorders, and when they triumphed in the face of their struggles. They showed me their perfect spelling tests and their favorite LEGO sets. They came to me with their scraped knees and their complaints about eating broccoli. They shared parts of their lives with me, and I shared parts of mine with them. It hurt more than I’ll ever be able to express to say goodbye to them, these children who weren’t mine. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was so incomparably fulfilling to be able to watch these little people grow and develop and learn and become.

It hurts to let go, and to let people go. But as my favorite poet says, it also hurts to become. As much as it hurts to let go, so too does it hurt to leave something or someone you love behind to start on a new path, one you wholeheartedly believe is one worth taking. Sometimes, you have to let people go. You can’t desperately cling to them, fearing the pain of their absence, fearing the harsh sting of their failure or the bittersweet taste of the success they achieve without you. Sometimes, you have to let people fall so they know how to get back up. They have to do it on their own. As Shinsuke Nakamura and Akira Tozawa venture forth into this new day, this new chapter of their lives and careers, I know I can’t cling to them. I have to let them go. But I know it’ll be worth it. This goodbye isn’t forever. They never are, in wrestling. It’s just so long for now. I’ve been lucky enough to have these people around for this long, and although their absence will hurt forever, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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