Sanshiro Takagi (C) TwitterSanshiro Takagi (credit Twitter)

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Independent Creativity in the Face of Convention

As a writer, the state of publishing is in a constant state of flux. At times, it’s difficult to find where someone like me and slot themselves in. When I start thinking like that, I think about Sanshiro Takagi, a Japanese pro wrestler who carved a path for himself and created his own universe.

If you’re here but don’t know or care about wrestling, stick with me. I promise there’s a relatable story here.

Japanese wrestling fans, especially in the west, love Japanese wrestling for being so different from American wrestling. WWE (nee WWF) largely defined American wrestling, and still does, which is known for the over-the-top characters, dramatic presentation and distinct lack of taste. Japanese wrestling is more about strength, “fighting spirit” and honor, or at least was, traditionally. The big companies in Japan, which were New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling (later Pro Wrestling NOAH) are all about larger-than-life characters who, instead of being cartoonish, are much more grounded. The wrestling styles are more physical and realistic. In fact, mixed martial arts (see: UFC) began largely as a splinter from Japanese pro wrestling, including some of my favorite splinter wrestling styles in shoot or UWF style.

In a time when there were set styles and expectations in the world of wrestling, Sanshiro Takagi didn’t see himself fitting in anywhere, but knew he still wanted to be a pro wrestler. Japanese wrestling was looking for big, stoic, athletic wrestlers, and the smaller indie promotions he was hanging around in had flashes of brilliance, but endless trouble. American wrestling was all about the “sports entertainment” of presentation steroid-driven soap operas with little regard for the actual craft of wrestling. You were either this. Or that.

Which is what made Sanshiro Takagi’s DDT so strange.

A Splinter of a Splinter

Sanshiro started DDT in 1997 as a small, local independent company. Japanese indies have always been… different, to say the least, influenced by the fracture of Atsushi Onita’s FMW in the 90s, which led to former FMW stars leveraging whatever waning star power they had to build smaller touring groups who weren’t selling out big arenas, but doing just fine in smaller venues with a different cast of characters. This meant some wrestlers weren’t on the same technical level as the ones in the bigger companies, but creatively they took chances and weren’t afraid to experiment.

This was the playground where Sanshiro Takagi built his universe in, and he did so by doing the unthinkable: he modeled his company after American pro wrestling, namely WWE. His character was a direct copy of WWF superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin, although with his own flourishes like his slicked back hair, his own array of “Sanshiro Stunners” and the use of an infectious electronica song for his entrance. He sampled from whatever indie stars were available while quietly building up a stable of regulars who weren’t going to main event the Tokyo Dome anytime soon, but understood character work on a unique level.

That’s not to say that early DDT doesn’t have its problems. It does. There were angles, characters, and wrestlers who simply didn’t work, were embarrassing, or flat-out problematic and cruel. Those proved to be growing pains, though, as Sanshiro took the American wrestling aesthetic onto the small stage and his adaptation of it was rife with flat-out absurd comedy. While American wrestling was presented from a mostly serious perspective, most of the gimmicks, storylines and matches were absurd, and allowing those same ideas to be presented as a joke helped set DDT apart. While New Japan Pro Wrestling was knee-deep in Inokism, where founder Antonio Inoki’s obsession with MMA led to rocky years of professional wrestlers trying, and failing, to be fighters, while actual fight promotions like PRIDE FC and K-1 were stealing their audience, Sanshiro was building a cult following making fun of major WWF storylines.

There was a storyline from 1999 where The Rock, a heel at the time, stole Stone Cold Steve Austin’s “Smoking Skull” World title and incited him to come and get it. This led to Rock throwing Stone Cold and the belt off of a bridge into a river.

This was meant to be taken seriously.

DDT’s version of that involved heel Masahiro Orihara, a river, and a mutant child being born because of that in Masahiko Orihara, all of this leading to the establishment of DDT’s KO-D Openweight Championship and Orihara defeating Sanshiro to become the company’s first “world” champion. This coincided with their jump in 1999 to taping events and angles, editing them onto a “digest” for monthly TV.

From there, the angles only grew more and more absurd. There was my personal favorite, Poison Sawada JULIE, a New Japan Dojo washout turned deathmatch wrestler who in his most famous match from the 90s, was bitten by a “venomous” snake in a deathmatch with a mummy. That was used to create the character Poison Sawada JULIE who had evil snake powers, would use his hand as a rattle to hypnotize his opponents, and culminated in a big storyline involving the heads from Easter Island, an evil stable of hypnotized baddies (including Orihara’s toxic river son) and JULIE disappearing from TV because a former minion (KUDO) broke free from his spell, defeating JULIE, who then lost his head and went missing.

Embracing the Unconventional

Sanshiro found outcasts and took them in, giving them a space to be creative and, most importantly, themselves. Not everyone flourished, some were too weird or not motivated enough. But those who were able to blend together solid pro wrestling with over-the-top character work became certified stars. MIKAMI, a wrestler who’s entire thing was being a Japanese mimic of Jeff Hardy, who carried around a personal ladder to jump off of, much like Jeff Hardy was famous for big WWE ladder matches where he threw himself from ladders. Then his ladder… came to life? His ladder went on to win the DDT Iron Man Heavy Metal Championship, which itself was a riff on a 90s WWF gimmick in the “Hardcore” title, which was essentially a title where anyone, anywhere could win the title, before it was retired. In DDT, though, the idea that anyone—or anything—could win the title took on a new life when the ladder won the title. Since then a blowup doll, a Christmas tree, the NJPW IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, and a host of random people, celebrities, objects and such have held the title.

The eye for talent cannot be emphasized enough, as DDT opened its own dojo and began training new talent under Sanshiro’s direction, and has churned out stars like New Japan and AEW star Kota Ibushi, AEW star Konosuke Takeshita, stars Saki Akai, Yuki Ueno, MAO, Kazusada Higuchi and much more. Including, well, Danshoku Dino. Dino became an international sensation as a gay man with an over-the-top gay panic gimmick modeled on various famous pro wrestlers, including MEN’S Teioh, where Dino got his look of the fringed tights and white hair and, well, there were rumors about Teioh’s sexuality, of which Dino became a parody of. In addition, Dino adapted legend Bruiser Brody’s entrance, where he’d whip a rope around and terrorize the crowd, but instead, Dino would run through the crowd and find men to kiss. Most of his in-ring work is, well, sexual assault, which makes it a surreal and at times uncomfortable bit, although everyone has seemingly made peace with Dino and his antics.

Wrestlers like Harashima (formerly known as Konika Man and HERO!), Takeshita, Kota Ibushi, Shuji Ishikawa, Takashi Sasaki, and more never in short supply, DDT proved itself capable of much more than mere comedy or parody, presenting legitimate wrestling as well over the years. Because DDT has always been evolving, never standing still. There are always new DDT sub-brands, usually helmed by loyal DDT wrestlers to present new and unique styles of wrestling, including UNION Pro, which was more of a FMW breakout style, to Ganabare doing deathmatch wrestling, Tokyo Joshi Pro producing some of the best women’s wrestling in Japan, and a lot more. I mean, seriously, I could go on for a very long time about the history of DDT.

The truth is, DDT went from running crowds of barely 100 fans to being one of the largest wrestling companies in Japan. Now owned by CyberAgent alongside Pro Wrestling NOAH, DDT has, for all intents and purposes, eclipsed Pro Wrestling NOAH, which was at one time the second most popular company in Japan. Takagi himself has so clearly been the driving force of much of Japan’s wrestling scene for a long time now, helping to steer the ships of not just DDT and its associated brands, but the ill-fated Wrestle-1 and now Pro Wrestling NOAH. Sanshiro himself found CyberAgent as a buyer for DDT because they believed in his vision and could help bring his company to the next level, which to him was competing with New Japan Pro Wrestling.

He’s built a universe (as in WRESTLE-UNIVERSE, their streaming platform) where the talented outcasts don’t need to go through the traditional route of attending a prestigious, stuffy dojo to make a living as a pro wrestler. They can be strange, interesting, different and try new things without fear. There’s a reason why a wrestler like Chris Brookes made DDT his home, where so many of his UK contemporaries either signed with WWE or chased glory in New Japan. Brookes has made it clear that regardless of his talent, his heart lies with the smaller, stranger world of DDT and he’d rather help DDT grow and prosper than find himself as another face in an established brand.

Someone like Kota Ibushi, who was trained in DDT and made a name for himself as a skillful, death defying high flier who would work a constant stream of strange gimmick matches wrestling in parking lots, rivers and elsewhere, went on to be one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest stars, but found the professional stuffiness of the company difficult for him to cope with in a very public, very strange departure that is very… Ibushi.

Hell, his good friend (possible lover?) and current megastar Kenny Omega cut his teeth on the Canadian and US indie scene before he really found a home for himself in DDT pro wrestling, which allowed him to be the strange, videogame obsessed weirdo that he is (I say that lovingly), which led to his tenure with NJPW where he rose to being the top star in the company, which then led to the formation of All Elite Wrestling where he’s arguably one of the biggest stars not just there, but in the business. Because sometimes all that talent needs is a place to explore comfortably, to be themselves, and they can flourish. Without his tenure in DDT, what are the chances of Kenny Omega making it to New Japan when he did? The chances of him rising to the top? Or the chances of All Elite Wrestling forming on the back of Omega and others’ successes in Japan?

All of this is to illustrate that there is not just one path when it comes to success at your art.

There’s Always Another Path

Sanshiro Takagi is a creative, strange man, driven to succeed and bring along anyone willing to stand with him. It’s undeniable that DDT Pro Wrestling has cultivated some of the wrestling world’s current crop of star talent, that he’s found gold in the trenches of Japan’s divisive indie scene and that no matter what the challenge, Sanshiro rose to the occasion, found the right people, wasn’t afraid to ask for help, and built his own little wrestling universe when the industry turned its nose up to people like him. So he made his own damned universe and trained his own wrestlers. Because why not?

As I’m writing this, I’m watching Tetsuya Endo, a star of DDT’s creation, helping Yukio Naya put on a star-making performance and can feel the DNA of Sanshiro Takagi’s mind all over every moment of this match. A match that’s not that funny, but is dramatic, interesting, and different. I’m someone who always watches wrestling and marvels at how so many struggle to make stars. Yet here I am, watching DDT create more and more stars. All it takes is faith in the talent, guidance and a chance.


Sanshiro Takagi and DDT Pro Wrestling have become an undeniable force, all of it because of vision, flexibility and the ability to think outside of the box not just as a marketing gimmick, but as a way of life.

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