The Japanese tradition of sending their younger wrestlers on excursions to other countries is one that has yielded a lot of success over the years. Many have discovered themselves on these tours, going from blank canvases and creating identities that in many cases have lasted them for an entire career. The examples are numerous. Keiji Mutoh transformed into The Great Muta in the 1980s after travelling to the United States, most famously for the NWA at the close of the decade. Promising All Japan junior heavyweight Atsushi Onita discovered the beautiful brutality of hardcore wrestling after surviving wars in Memphis and Puerto Rico, eventually leading to the birth of his FMW promotion. Wrestlers like Satoru Sayama and Jushin Liger wrestled extensively in England prior their return, whereas Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Kensuke Sasaki spent a number of years in Europe for Germany’s Catch Wrestling Alliance.

This story, however, concerns a New Japan junior heavyweight who also left on an excursion. After passing the test to enter the New Japan dojo in 2009 and paying his dues in opening matches, suffering numerous losses and submitting to an above average number of Boston crabs, he made his way to Mexico. In this new country, in front of a new audience, he created a new identity for himself under a mask and began to improve his skills. He added newer, crazier moves to his arsenal. He lost his mask (as well as his hair) and eventually returned to Japan, joined dominant heel faction, and this year he is participating in the Best of the Super Juniors tournament. This should all sound familiar. This perfectly describes the career path of the current IWGP junior heavyweight champion Hiromu Takahashi, but it also describes a wrestler a little lower in the rankings: El Desperado.

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The comparisons between the two wrestlers are easy to make, although looking at their current positions on the card and their reputations among the fans that might be somewhat hard to believe. El Desperado, known as Kyosuke Mikami in his early days, spent much of his time training with, teaming with and wrestling against Hiromu; indeed, his first ever New Japan win came over a young Ticking Time Bomb. Mikami was also the first of the two to leave on excursion, as he moved to CMLL in 2012 and adopted the character of Namajague, a demon from Japanese folklore. This is not uncommon source material for Japanese wrestlers seeking to rebrand in Mexico, as seen recently with Sho Tanaka and Yohei Komatsu wrestling as Fujin and Raijin respectively. The same would happen to Hiromu, who would move to Mexico after a spell in England, becoming Kamaitachi upon his arrival in CMLL. While Hiromu found a perfect dance partner there in Dragon Lee (a feud that continues to rage to this day and will likely continue until the heat death of the universe), Mikami didn’t find anyone with quite the same chemistry, although he did have enjoyable matches on many occasions with Stuka Jr. and Rey Cometa, matches that saw him take his fair share of insane bumps in and around the ring. A penchant for these bumps remains one of his more… admirable qualities to this day.

When Mikami returned to Japan he received a rebrand that proved to be a far more severe one than Takahashi’s years later. Hiromu’s rise to prominence, with his incredible matches being seen by more people than ever thanks to his participation in ROH, PWG and, indeed, New Japan for Fantasticamania 2016, it made no sense to change this. Additions were made in the form of a magnificent jacket, a title belt fetish and the “Ticking Time Bomb” moniker but make no mistake, the Hiromu Takahashi of 2017 New Japan Pro Wrestling is the same warped little boy that Kamaitachi was.

Mikami had no such fanfare when he returned and is officially regarded as a different wrestler entirely. This was both a blessing and a curse. It allowed him to start afresh once again as whatever they wanted him to be, but he also brought no reputation to be promoted. He’d have to hit the ground running. This fresh start began at Wrestle Kingdom in 2014 when “New Japan’s newest signing”, the masked luchador-singer-songwriter El Desperado, challenged Kota Ibushi for his IWGP junior heavyweight title in an unconventional way, presenting Ibushi with a bouquet of flowers. This was a slightly more gentlemanly gesture than when Hiromu challenged for the title by licking the belt but no less romantic.

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While initially presented as a babyface, wrestling and teaming with Ibushi on a few occasions, it didn’t quite fit. His matches were good – very good, in fact – but he hadn’t returned with much fanfare and he seemed destined to play second fiddle to the flashier Ibushi for the foreseeable future. He fell in defeat to Ibushi in their title match, leading to a heel turn, a switch to the Suzuki-gun stable, and eventually a move to Pro Wrestling NOAH. Towards the end of his New Japan run Desperado assumed the role he currently occupies, predominantly to take the pins in Suzuki-gun matches. He did win a championship in NOAH (the junior heavyweight tag team titles with Taka Michinoku) but this may have said more about Jado’s opinion of the native NOAH juniors than anything else. While he did well when required in NOAH, “out of sight, out of mind” became a real problem at this point, both due to NOAH’s state at that time and his own injury issues. He could have been injured, he could have been having awful matches or he could have been stealing the show every night. It barely mattered if nobody was watching in the first place.

El Desperado returned to his New Japan home this year. His former classmate now rules the junior heavyweight division with an iron fist and, all being well, likely will for many years to come. El Desperado is never likely to rise to those same heights. He may never hold the junior heavyweight title, although a junior tag title run is not out of the question. He is very much a utility man on their roster. This is an underappreciated and unforgiving position that deserves more respect than it often receives. New Japan uses him for very specific purposes and he does them well. Need him to wrestle a rookie? He’ll do it. Need him to get pinned in an eight man tag? He’ll do it. How about having a great back-and-forth match with a top level wrestler? He’s doing that this very month.

His current run in the Best of the Super Juniors has seen him look more motivated than ever before in an attempt to keep up with the very competitive field this year, and his match with KUSHIDA on the opening night was absolutely tremendous. Will this translate to anything more significant? Chances are that it won’t. Hiromu and Mikami would only be able to meet at the earliest in the semi-finals of the tournament and a title match, while it would be an insane match between two of wrestling’s craziest boys, seems unlikely to happen any time soon. He might never get those matches, nor may he ever get the recognition he deserves from most of the fans. But, for now, here’s to El Desperado, one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s unsung heroes.

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