NJPW has produced several iconic rivalries in the past few decades, one of the most prominent of these being Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada. With Kenny’s departure to AEW, though, it’s uncertain when or if we’ll ever see these two in the ring together again.
One of the company’s biggest current rivalries is the one between Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon (Ryu) Lee. This rivalry actually spans much longer than Omega v Okada; Lee and Takahashi have had a total of 19 singles matches from their first encounter in 2014 to the end of 2020. Between them, Lee has the advantage; he’s won 12 of their matches, including one mask vs mask lucha de apuesta.
The pair also have an interesting connection through Los Ingobernables. Dragon Lee’s brother, Rush, is a founding member of Los Ingobernables, and has welcomed Dragon Lee into his ROH branch of the faction. Takahashi, on the other hand, is a member of Los Ingobernables de Japon. While they’re not exactly teammates, they do have some shared relations.
An interesting facet of this rivalry is that there’s not one detectable ounce of bitterness between Lee and Takahashi. In fact, there seems to be quite the opposite; Lee and Takahashi have great respect and affection for each other, and both look forward to seeing each other as much as they do beating one another. Given the highs and lows of their history together, the love that the two hold for each other is equally understandable and miraculous.
The first meeting between Takahashi and Lee occurred in CMLL in 2014. Takahashi wasn’t competing under his name at this time; he was on his Young Lion excursion under the persona of Kamaitachi. The two had numerous fights together, including one mask vs mask lucha de apuesta, in which Dragon Lee was victorious.
Their mask vs mask match is of particular importance, not only because it ended Takahashi’s career as a masked wrestler, but also because Dragon Lee has kept Kamaitachi’s mask this whole time. He wore it during his entrance for his match against Takahashi in BOSJ 25, and would later carry the mask with him to his title defenses as a way of holding vigil for Takahashi during the Time Bomb’s injury.
Love Story Begins
In 2016, Takahashi ended his excursion and returned to Japan. The distance seemed to make the hearts of the two rivals grow fonder for each other. Dragon Lee began to call Takahashi by the name “gatito” (kitty), which could be a reference to Takahashi’s love for cats, or to his cat-eared persona from CMLL, Kamaitachi. Whatever its origin though, the nickname is evidence of the mutual affection and respect that Lee and Takahashi hold for each other, and the joy they find in fighting one another.
After losing to Dragon Lee in their match in BOSJ 25, all Takahashi had to say was “I’m honored to have been born in this time, so that I can keep fighting Dragon Lee.” Takahashi went on to win the overall tournament that year, as well as the IWGP Jr title. He named Dragon Lee as his first challenger. They met at the G1 Special in San Francisco, where Takahashi would successfully defend his title, though not without suffering a broken neck. He would have to forfeit his title afterwards, and stay on the shelf for over 500 days.
Takahashi’s Hiatus and Lee’s Title Reign
At the G1 Supercard in 2019 at Madison Square Garden, Dragon Lee was able to capture the IWGP Jr heavyweight championship in a three way match against Bandido and the then-champion, Taiji Ishimori. Dragon Lee made a goal for himself to hold the Jr Heavyweight belt until Hiromu came back. Dragon Lee would devote his title defenses to his rival. He would often carry Takahashi’s Kamaitachi mask to the ring, and post tributes to Takahashi after each victory, such as the following tweet:
“I dedicate this triumph to you. [Hiromu,] I’m waiting”
Takahashi was always grateful for his rival’s affections. To these kind words, he gave the answer:
“Congratulations Dragon Lee. Thank you for being part of my life. But sorry friend, I am stronger than you.”
Unfortunately, Dragon Lee was unable to achieve his goal. He lost the belt to Will Ospreay after the latter won BOSJ 26.
Hiromu Takahashi returned to action during the Road To shows leading up to Wrestle Kingdom 14. Dragon Lee was delighted to see his rival in the ring again. “Hiromu is back. The kitty is back.” Dragon Lee told reporters backstage. He continued, “Hiromu Takahashi, I’m truly glad that you’re back. This is what you wanted. This is what I wanted. This is what the people wanted.”
Takahashi was equally delighted. As soon as he captured the title from Ospreay, he named Dragon Lee as his first challenger. At the press conference before their match in Osaka, Takahashi sang a song for his rival.
The match was as hard hitting as you could imagine. There was an incredible unspoken tension, as well; fans and commentators alike feared what kind of damage Takahashi and Lee would do to each other. Thankfully, though, both fighters made it through relatively alright, save for the burning red handprints each had on their chests from vicious chops. Takahashi successfully defended his title, and every witness collectively let out a huge sigh of relief.
The current pandemic has separated Takahashi and Lee for the indefinite future. The two are still amiable, and are continuing to support each other from afar (The two share endearing exchanges on Twitter occasionally. Dragon Lee told Takahashi, “I miss you,” to which the Time Bomb responded, “Always always always waiting for you.”).
Though it’s not clear when we’ll see Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon Lee together in the ring again, we can safely assume that no amount of time apart will dim their chemistry. Whenever it is, their next match is bound to be another classic.
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