The Resurgence of El Desperado

The tragedy that is 2020 has a few redeeming qualities. In the world of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the roster has been limited and it has afforded El Desperado much needed time in the spotlight, time to remind us that he is a top tier contender in the junior heavyweight division. It’s something we’ve always known but merely forgotten, an injury suffered in 2019 causing him to be overshadowed for the majority of the year. Thankfully, the devilishly debonair Desperado has spent the months since New Japan’s return showcasing his artistry through a series of stellar matches, charismatic promos and gloriously bad-ass masks.

Credit: Haoming Mask

2018 was the biggest and best year of Desperado’s career. He spent nine months as half of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, racking up four successful defences and holding the belts longer than anybody else had since 1999. But, it was the Best of the Super Juniors tournament were he stood out: his character work, wrestling acumen and mannerisms setting him apart from the competition.

His wily performances in BOSJ did not translate into many wins, however it did earn him a significant victory over his long-time rival and then IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi. It is one of the most heralded matches of Desperado’s career, an explosive and heated battle, with the victory leading to an unsuccessful title shot for Despy a month later. All in, the bevy of eight singles matches across the one month tournament cemented his place as a potential standard-bearer for New Japan’s junior heavyweight division.

One week before the 2019 edition of BOSJ, Desperado suffered a broken jaw in a deathmatch with Jun Kasai that would derail his momentum for the next year. Forced to miss the BOSJ and the next five months of in-ring action, Desperado would go from having eight singles matches in one month in 2018 to having only eight singles matches in the following two years, five of those being for NJPW and three of them taking place between June to August this year.

Credit: Taiga

It raises a reasonable concern about the lack of singles opportunities there are for the junior heavyweights. Whilst the heavyweights have the New Japan Cup, G1 Climax, and four singles titles (Heavyweight, Intercontinental, US and NEVER Openweight) to vie for, the juniors are limited to the BOSJ and two singles titles (Junior Heavyweight and NEVER Openweight). However in the eight year history of the NEVER Openweight Championship only five junior heavyweights have challenged for the title, two of those challenges coming in July this year, and one of them being Desperado himself.

It speaks volumes about the importance of the BOSJ tournament for the junior heavyweights, and it’s indicative of why El Desperado went from being the potential champion of the division to being an afterthought in the tag division, his ability and skill unjustly not being taken advantage of. Thankfully, the Best of Super Juniors is imminent, and with El Desperado being the current dark pearl of the division, it could very well be his time.

Credit: Dragon Stop

His time to garner attention post-injury aligned with the return of NJPW, and his entry into the New Japan Cup. The NJCup field included an assortment of junior heavyweights, giving many their first ever singles matches against heavyweights. Most notable of the first round matches was El Desperado vs Tomohiro Ishii. For Desperado, it was his first NJPW singles match with any real meaning since he challenged for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship two years prior.

The match was one of the most anticipated in the first round and it was tremendous, earning a firm place as one of the best of the tournament. The weight classes felt non-existent: Desperado threw Ishii around, matched crushing blows and stood on equal footing with the heavyweight hoss. This was the beginning of Desperado’s resurgence, the crafty villain proving he is the perfect foil to the heroes, capable of high caliber matches that invoke his Suzuki-Gun notoriety without spoiling the flow of a match, only adding to the suspense.

One month later he challenged Shingo Takagi for the NEVER Openweight Championship in immaculately suave fashion. The dapper Desperado debuted a sleek new mask, black and gold instead of white and black, and he looked so fucking bad-ass with the darker colours bringing extra attention to his piercing artic white eyes. Unscrupulous as ever, Desperado stole the title prior to the match and it looked sublime in his grasp, the black and gold of the championship mirroring his own attire perfectly.

Credit: NJPW

Desperado attacked the match methodically, weakening Shingo’s leg to set up Numero Dos, his stretch muffler submission move. In similar fashion to the Ishii match, victory was within reach for Desperado but inevitably he suffered another defeat, although he found constant promise in these character building losses.

Next was the KOPW tournament and Desperado was once again set to face another heavyweight, Satoshi Kojima. The “no-finishers” match stipulation played perfectly to Desperado’s advantage, his smarts proving mightier than Kojima’s brawn, eventually goading Kojima into using his Western Lariat finisher. Kojima knocked Desperado’s head off but in doing so was disqualified, proving Desperado was right after all: “Thick arms but an empty head.” It was a different affair to his previous two matches, allowing him to strut his savvy ring intelligence rather than his physical strength, a dive into his personality instead of his power.

The importance of New Japan’s backstage comments are irrefutable in helping build character and it is perhaps no more apparent than here. El Desperado is an absolute joy to listen to in his backstage promos. His innate charisma is inescapable even through the language barrier and he has carved a stern reputation as one of the best talkers on the roster. He is a walking treasure trove for memes and an absolute must-watch, always able to elevate his opponents whilst still vilifying them.

In early September, Desperado found himself in contention for IWGP gold, teaming with Suzuki-Gun teammate Yoshinobu Kanemaru in a tag tournament to crown new IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, with Hiromu Takahashi also in the tournament. Desperado’s ingrained chemistry with Hiromu has been evident for years, dating back to their many matches as Young Lions ten years ago and their two defining singles matches in 2018. Twice in three days they clashed as part of the tag tournament, including the finals. It was here that Desperado was able to reaffirm his place in the junior heavyweight division as he picked up the win for his team on both nights, even pinning Hiromu in the second match to add another chapter to their storied rivalry. Middling success competing against the heavyweights was compensated by dominating the juniors.

Credit: NJPW

Now into his second reign as a tag champion, Desperado is refusing to let the fickle flame of fortune fizzle. The titles are usually overshadowed, the defences generally solid but dwarfed by the more significant matches on a card. However the chemistry between Hiromu and Desperado has kept the titles firmly in the spotlight, and the matches between them have been some of the best junior tag matches in recent memory. An almost 30 minute main event war in Korakuen Hall saw the two Suzuki-Gun men put the LIJ pair away for the third consecutive time, Desperado and Kanemaru making it abundantly clear that they rule the tag division.

The originally cancelled Best of the Super Juniors tournament for this year has thankfully been rescheduled, now taking place throughout November and December. It’s the most crucial and necessary time of the year for the junior division, and much like 2018 it can be the launching pad for El Desperado. Two years ago he entered the tournament with little fanfare and demanded our attention. This year he has our undivided attention and copious talent to warrant the recognition. It’s the chance to reiterate his deserved spot as one of the best juniors in the world, the chance he missed out on in 2019.

El Desperado winning Best of the Super Juniors is a possibility. El Desperado becoming IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion is inevitable.