The first graduate from Katsuyori Shibata’s LA Dojo, Karl Fredericks is leaving the pack mentality behind.
Karl Fredericks is no longer a Young Lion. His first round New Japan Cup match against KENTA was set to be his re-debut in March, but due to current circumstances his re-debut came instead in early July.
Whilst rehabbing from an injury suffered on The New Beginning in USA tour in January he flew to Japan to train in the Noge Dojo, specifically training kick boxing with his tutor and LA Dojo head coach, Katsuyori Shibata. Upon learning he would be taking on KENTA in the first round of the New Japan Cup he knew he would need more than the limited Young Lion style allowed, and Shibata agreed. Fredericks was given the green light to leave the pride.
Due to Covid-19 the original New Japan Cup was scrapped and that match never happened. As Fredericks says, “it was a chance to shock the world.” It was the most personal match lined up for the original Cup; a chance for Fredericks to fight for Katsuyori Shibata’s honour and pride against KENTA, the same man who continuously disrespected Shibata throughout the latter half of 2019. It was highly anticipated even without the knowledge we have now; it wouldn’t have been a Young Lion entering the ring against KENTA, it would have been an alpha wolf.
However New Japan have recently announced New Japan Cup USA and fate has Fredericks crossing paths with KENTA in the first round. Unable to take his shot first time through no fault of his own, Fredericks has the gift of putting another bullet in the chamber and taking fire again.
Becoming A Lion
The importance of the Young Lion system cannot be overstated. A large contingent of the New Japan roster over the years have been those that worked their way through the system. Wrestlers that started their career as Young Lions before finding remarkable success include; Jushin Thunder Liger; Keiji Mutoh; Hiroshi Tanahashi; Shinsuke Nakamura; Kazuchika Okada; Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor); Tetsuya Naito; Hiromu Takahashi; Jay White and so many more. It is a process that undeniably works and produces incredible results.
Being the first graduate from the LA Dojo is another notch that Fredericks can add to his limited yet already fruitful New Japan career. As head coach, Shibata decides who can progress from his ranks and when, meaning that one of the toughest wrestlers of all time has given his approval to Fredericks. In a September 2019 interview, Shibata revealed he had been impressed by Fredericks since his initial dojo tryout, “First thing I thought when I saw him was ‘this guy’s awesome’.”
Fredericks had only wrestled in a NJPW ring 69 times prior to his re-debut, with 53 of those matches taking place in Japan. His first match under the New Japan banner was on 10th November 2018 but his first in-ring appearance in Japan came during the G1 Climax 29 tour on 13th July 2019. Less than a year after his Japanese debut he is already taking the next step in his NJPW career. In comparison, Young Lion Shota Umino, who has been pegged by fans for greatness, wrestled for more than 30 months in an NJPW ring before leaving to go on his international excursion in September 2019.
The expectation for a Young Lion is to train within New Japan before leaving to go on excursion to either USA, UK or Mexico, a learning experience to develop their own individualistic style using the knowledge of an entirely different wrestling method to compliment what they have already mastered within Japan. A chance to discover who they will be within the squared circle. Fredericks hasn’t need that step because he had already determined who he is and who he can be. Similarly, the ace Hiroshi Tanahashi did also not go on excursion.
Even though he was chained down by the Young Lion regime, Fredericks still found great success. In September 2019 he became the first foreigner in history to win the Young Lion Cup, a tournament that has been won by the likes of Keiichi Yamada (Jushin Thunder Liger), Masahiro Chono and Satoshi Kojima.
He competed in the 2019 World Tag League alongside Hirooki Goto, gaining experience by confronting veterans such as Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr. and Tomohiro Ishii. As a Young Lion a single win in a tournament is a surprise, but the Goto Fredericks team conjured up three wins, most important of them being victory over KENTA.
At Wrestle Kingdom 14, he competed in an eight-man tag match, winning the opening match of the show and the first New Japan match of the new decade.
The quality of Fredericks was often too powerful for the Young Lion process to hold down. He had a swagger and flair about him unlike any other. As a Young Lion he was restricted to a limited move-set but he turned the restrictions on their heads; adding a mid-air tuck and roll to his dropkicks; an elbow drop in Super Mario fashion; a wicked spinebuster. These tiny additions to some of the most basic wrestling moves ensured everybody watching could see that Fredericks was atop of the lion pride.
The difference between Fredericks and his Young Lion counterparts is evident in his last match in Japan, a six-man tag match on January 5th 2020 at New Year Dash!!. Unlike his LA Dojo teammates he doesn’t charge to the ring for his entrance, he takes his time. When the ring announcer makes the introductions, he works the crowd up. On the apron he is animated, barking support and roaring orders to his partners. At the end of the match it is Fredericks getting the submission victory and walking away triumphantly.
All of this is not very Young Lion-esque, but this is a competitor who touted himself as the Lion King, a title that cannot be argued given his achievements as a Young Lion.
Fredericks’ re-debut as part of Lion’s Break Collision must have been a source of frustration and disappointment. Instead of adding another dimension to the KENTA and Shibata story as originally planned, prepared to “shock the world”, he found himself returning to the ring in a tag match, teaming with TJP to take on Rocky Romero and Jeff Cobb. The re-debut can be a defining moment for a NJPW wrestler, so to return in front of no live fans with little pre-hype must have been deflating.
Making the best of the situation he could, Fredericks looked to make an impact by taking aim at the biggest man in the room, former Olympian and NEVER Openweight Champion, Jeff Cobb.
Fredericks’ re-debut was in startling comparison to what we had grown accustomed to – introduced as Alpha Wolf, flash in red and white with tassels and “alpha” donned on the front of his trunks. His new look inspired by his Native American background, a heritage he is immensely proud of. The fiery attitude he had to contain in the past now exploded, giving way to a wolf where a Young Lion used to stand.
Three matches into his new journey the tried and tested offense has been on show, namely Fredericks’ rolling dropkick that is more stunning than usual, the new tassels on his boots now billowing through the air. Every shot he lands echoes a resounding thud, throwing forearms and kicks with a hollowness to them, eating into his opponent’s spirit.
A roll-up gave Fredericks’ victory in his first match but his hunger was still palpable. He chose to celebrate by pie-facing Cobb, leading to a brawl between them that left unfinished business.
His next match saw him win in far more definitive fashion. The Shibata-ism instilled in him was on full show through his thumping kicks and the build up to his new finisher; a deep choke hold which led to an elevated DDT dubbed “The MD” (Manifest Destiny). Similarly Shibata would lock in a choke hold when setting up for the PK.
Fredericks stole the spotlight during his backstage interview. Without the shackles of being a student he delivered a striking promo; “You’re never gonna’ see me stick my neck out in submission and follow somebody else’s lead. Right or wrong, I’m gonna’ stand on my own two feet. Karl Fredericks is always Alpha.” Intent on forging his own path, he is going against the norm and akin to his Young Lion days, it once again makes him stand out.
The unbridled confidence Fredericks has in himself could easily be misconstrued as arrogance, but in the world of wrestling arrogance and confidence are at times indistinguishable. There is something intoxicating about his irrefutable conviction.
The nature of the NJPW structure would frequently see Shibata finding himself in tag team matches, but he never allied himself with an individual group. He had companions such as Hirooki Goto outside of the ring, but inside the ring he was solely intent on doing what was best for him, a characteristic that Fredericks is now embracing.
The influence of Katsuyori Shibata has always shone through in his disciples’ matches, none more so than Fredericks who has adopted his trainer’s offense and used it as his own. It is now evident that the lone fighter spirit that Shibata was prolific for having is entrenched within Fredericks.
The final match of Lion’s Break Collision brought with it the conclusion of Fredericks’ beef with Cobb. A singles match between the two that embodied the fighting spirit of New Japan; stiff forearms from both men which left Cobb with a bloodied nose; Fredericks landing Shibata’s signature corner dropkick with full extension imploding directly into Cobb’s face. Despite all of Fredericks’ bravado, it was Cobb who walked away with the win. It was a character building defeat, it would only leave Fredericks more determined and feeling like he has more to prove
The Hunt Begins
Starved of wrestling, eager to show who he is but currently limited to wrestling within USA, Fredericks finds himself in a vexing position. Although his fluctuating fortune may be changing for the better.
NJPW have just announced Strong, a new series that will air on NJPW World every Friday night, kicking off with the aforementioned New Japan Cup USA. The winner of the tournament will go on to challenge Jon Moxley for the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship, and the brackets have Fredericks placed among familiar company.
The first round sees him going up against KENTA in a match that can set the tone for the restart of Fredericks’ career more so than Lion’s Break Collision did. The intricacy of Fredericks’ relationship with Shibata and in turn his disdain for KENTA is simply compelling and makes this the stand out match of the tournament. This is the most important match of Fredericks’ career thus far; Shibata can’t fight so Fredericks is going to fight for him. It’s a story wrapped in the trappings of respect with deep roots going back to 2005.
Intriguingly, should he get past KENTA he may meet Cobb in the second round which offers Fredericks vindication, a chance to settle the loss he suffered at Lion’s Break Collision. The path is there for him to settle past transgressions and challenge for his first title in New Japan.
The original script for Fredericks’ re-debut was torn up but G1 Climax 30 can be the paramount chapter to kick start his new profile. When the tournament begins on September 13th the world will hopefully be in a better position and those wrestlers that have been sorely missed from the New Japan roster can make their way back to their wrestling home.
The G1 Climax is where Karl Fredericks can back up his bravado. The G1 is where Karl Fredericks can show he “is always Alpha.”
The G1 will be a proving ground for Fredericks. He stood out among the Young Lion pride. His new look and attitude has pushed him up another rung of the ladder. Standing out during the G1 Climax is entirely different. He will be in the wilds against the very best that New Japan can offer, vying in the most grueling tournament in all of wrestling that churns out match of the year contenders continuously, showing his worth against the pillars of New Japan such as Okada and Tanahashi.
He is primed to cement himself at the top of New Japan. Everything a top star needs, Fredericks has and he will only improve as he develops his character and masters his in ring craft. A future IWGP Heavyweight Champion waiting to be crowned.
As a Young Lion Fredericks became king of the jungle. Now it’s time to conquer a vastly wilder landscape, and put himself upon a new throne as the Alpha.