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Cafe Puro: DDT Pro Wrestling and the Entrepreneurial Spirit of Sanshiro Takagi



Welcome, ladies and gents, to the first installment of Cafe Puro (credits to fellow Smark Henry brother, MDJ, for the name idea), Smark Henry's column focusing on the world of Japanese professional wrestling (or "puroresu," for the first timers). This section is dedicated not only to those who are already accustomed fans of the venerable art of puroresu and want to know more, but also to introducing newer fans to the genre that has already gained much attention in recent years. So sit back, chill out, grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy!

The beauty of Japanese pro wrestling is the fact that it is as diverse as it is open minded with various aspects of the business. Sure, New Japan Pro Wrestling is pretty much the biggest wrestling company not named WWE in this day and age, but there is way more to puroresu than meets the eye.  You can be a fan of one company, but there are other puroresu organizations that deserve your attention, each having a distinct style and flavor from the rest. 

And for the first installment, we look at a man who decided to challenge convention and helped build his reputation as the kingpin of indie puroresu. This guy:



For those who haven't seen him before, his name is Sanshiro Takagi, puroresu star, Stone Cold impersonator, a man with an amazing sense of humor, and more importantly, the founder of Dramatic Dream Team Pro Wrestling (DDT for short), the top indie puroresu company in Japan. 

For 18 years, he helped shape DDT into the successful company that it is today. From its beginnings many years back to headlining the Sumo Hall yearly, DDT is a success story other indie organizations can only dream of. And if it wasn't for the entrepreneurial mind of Takagi, things would have been very different indeed.

Since DDT would not be in the position that it is today without Takagi's influence, and considering how there are many people who wants to start their own business and become successful in their own right these days, it is only appropriate that we look at the attributes that made Takagi the success story that he is today and connect that with DDT's history. Spoiler alert: craziness inbound.

Be Adventuous, Be Your Own Man






Having started off his career in 1995 and trained by former AJPW star Goro Tsurumi, Takagi debuted in IWA Kakuto Shijuku, a minor promotion in Japan. However, Takagi was more entranced with the American style of professional wrestling and wanted more out of his wrestling career. Having felt that he won't be able to achieve that much success working with IWA, two years later, he decided to leave and form his own promotion based on his love for the American entertainment style of pro wrestling that was slowly taking the world by storm at the time. 

Thus, DDT Pro Wrestling was born, the very definition of a sleazy and offbeat independent promotion that offered a combination of the craziness of Japanese humor and the entertainment stylings of companies such as the WWF and WCW.

When you consider the landscape of Japanese puroresu at the time, Takagi and DDT had absolutely no reason to succeed the way it did. NJPW was red hot, AJPW had the benefit of having the likes of Misawa, Kobashi, and Kawada on their employ, and various independent promotions were making themselves known with their deathmatches and serious wrestling styles. In other words, the puroresu landscape completely embraced the art as a serious sport, kayfabe to the very end, and DDT entered the arena as a promotion that threw kayfabe out of the window. It was not like any other puroresu organization in a competitive sense. It was self-aware of what it does, and for how wild Takagi's company is, there is definitely a method to his madness.

Understanding Your Audience





DDT was everything Japanese puroresu was not at the time, and it was a formula that Takagi embraced, and later on, perfected. The promotion may not exactly be everyone's cup of tea considering the popularity of other promotions, but it found a different kind of ocean to play around. In fact, Takagi did not have to compete with them! All he did was find his kind of audience to succeed. DDT managed to mix both the serious style of puroresu with the comedic antics that is distinctively Japan, and these were well received by the audience over time. Seriously, these are antics that may not even work in our own country, to the point that a few of these might even get the ire of various religious groups! Examples include:




Outrageous, over the top characters and personas such as an overly hardcore homo character (Danshoku Dino), an overpowered sex doll (YOSHIHIKO), a man with mystic voodoo powers (Poison Sawada JULIE), the aforementioned Stone Cold enthusiast who even had a faction inspired by popular idol group AKB48 (Sanshiro Takagi), an Italian Four Horsemen (seriously), a masked man who has a PowerPoint presentation ready before a match (Super Sasadango Machine, aka Muscle Sakai), and even an otaku whose moves are inspired by various anime and video games, as well as being one of the top stars of the promotion (Kenny Omega). To say the least, the DDT roster is full of interesting characters.




Unusual and offbeat wrestling locations. No one in the right mind would ever compete in a camp site, a beach, or even a populated mall. But DDT is no ordinary promotion. They were more than willing to engage themselves in multi-man matches at places no one would ever thought people would see men in spandex beating themselves up. The results were truly a masterpiece in its own right. Only in a promotion like DDT would you see fireworks deemed legal in a match and get away with using them.




Championships that are out-of-the-ordinary, besides your usual singles (KO-D Openweight Championship), tag team, and 6-man tag team titles. 

The DDT Extreme Championship is a title wherein defenses are stipulated by the champion, with various stipulations implemented over time (some of which even involves the removal of ring ropes, victory only by submission, and the use of bras). The King of Dark Championship is a cursed title where the "champion" is forced to compete only in dark matches until the champion finally wins a match. 


And the most infamous of DDT's titles is the Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship, DDT's version of the old WWF's Hardcore Championship. It is a title that is defended 24/7, and literally anyone can be the champion, with over a thousand reigns to this day. Former champions include: some of DDT's roster, a ladder, a monkey, the championship itself, a poster, innocent bystanders, new NXT female wrestler KANNA, NJPW booker Jado, and even AJPW president and overall badass, Jun Akiyama. 




But funny enough, despite the comedic antics of DDT, which has remained their staple over the years, they were certainly not afraid to show how talented the roster is when it comes right down to fantastic in-ring competition. 

DDT is lucky to have guys that know how to deliver quality matches on their roster, as is the standard for puroresu. You have (arguably) indie puroresu's most resilient wrestler in HARASHIMA, the Golden Star in Kota Ibushi, the dynamic Kenny Omega, the kick-happy KUDO, the submission expert in Hikaru Sato, and the newly crowned KO-D Openweight Champion, Yukio Sakaguchi. 

When you have a great balance of comedy and hard hitting action, it is no wonder DDT managed to keep an audience happy throughout the years, and their loyalty was definitely rewarded.





Keep An Open Mind, Expand Your Horizons





DDT is an indie promotion, but they are a promotion with big dreams and ideas, and they want to grow bigger. To do that, they have to keep an open mind and be ready to take opportunities when presented to them. Thankfully, Takagi knew his way in doing business with different promoters, having experienced wonderful results along the way.

DDT managed to co-promote their brand with different wrestling promotions, locally and internationally. They managed to deal with fellow indie promotions BJW, K-DOJO, Ice Ribbon, Stardom, and CHIKARA, among others. In fact, those from other promotions, like BJW's Daisuke Sekimoto, managed to secure DDT's top prize at one point. Not to mention, they were also able to book Minoru Suzuki when he was more free to deal with other promotions, and continue to do so in big events these days even when he's the leader of Suzukigun.

The indie promotion's prospect was so high, they were even able to do business with NJPW, AJPW, and even NOAH. Kota Ibushi's dual contract with NJPW and DDT, Team Dream Futures being prominent in AJPW, and even KUDO and Ibushi's appearances in NOAH are good examples of DDT's presence. Heck, the fact that an indie promotion like DDT managed to do business with the top wrestling companies in Japan is evidence enough of DDT's place in the wild and crazy world of puroresu. In fact, it may even have been unheard of. 

As an added bonus, Takagi now serves as the CEO of Keiji Mutoh's Wrestle-1 promotion, only to function as an official and not an on-air personality. That is how much faith people have in an experienced businessman like Takagi.




And while Takagi would have been happy already with DDT as his only promotion, he dreamed bigger. As DDT's popularity rose, so did the opportunities to expand the company under his umbrella, the biggest example being Union Pro Wrestling. If you thought DDT was indy sleaze back in the day, Union is more indy sleaze than indy sleaze, and has managed to capture quite a following since its start in 2005. It was through Union that we saw beasts like Shuji Ishikawa and extremely decorated champions like Isami Kodaka make an impact in the industry. Unfortunately, it will end its 10-year run on October this year; despite that, Union's impact would be felt for years to come.

You also have Hard Hit, a spin-off focused on MMA-style fights; BOYZ, shows dedicated to the more shounen (handsome boys) members of the roster (with the women as the target market), and Tokyo Joshi Pro, DDT's all-women promotion. These are just some of Takagi's various companies under the DDT umbrella, and truly, there is something for everyone.

Investing In The Future


If there was any lesson that AJPW and NOAH could have learned from the business-savvy Takagi, it's that there is always room to invest in the future. The fact that he made all these spin-off companies was already significant enough, but he thought beyond that.




For starters, he is already pulling the trigger in pushing the younger generation, and to their credit, they do show tons of promise. You have current KO-D Six Man Tag Champions,Team Dream Futures (or Team Drift), the young gun trio comprised of Keisuke Ishii, Soma Takao, and Shigehiro Irie—the latter being not just a former KO-D Openweight Champion, but also the man with the most number of title defenses in history.




You also have Tetsuya Endo, an energetic youngster primed to become a main eventer in the future. And then you have Konosuke Takeshita, a young man discovered by Takagi himself who has excelled in the world of athletics and is being groomed as "The Future". Facing the likes of El Generico (who may or may not be related to former NXT Champion Sami Zayn), Katsuhiko Nakajima, and even the greatest IWGP Heavyweight Champion of this generation, Hiroshi Tanahashi himself. If that's not a sign of Takeshita's stock rising, then I don't know what is.




DDT also has their own developmental program, known as DNA. In short, think of it as their own version of NXT where they expose young lions not just against each other, but also against popular faces in the puroresu world. It is through DNA that we get to discover future main eventers like Kazusada Higuchi, a former sumo turned pro wrestler with a bright future (much like the legendary Genichiro Tenryu), and Shunma Katsumata. The same can be said with Tokyo Joshi Pro, which is designed to groom today's joshi wrestlers to the bigger stage in the future. 

Suffice to say, DDT will be in great hands.

Lessons Learned





Entrepreneurship is a long struggle filled with challenges and obstacles, but in the end, it can only lead to great success. No one could have imagined how DDT would turn out since its debut in 1997, from a sleazy comedy promotion to one of the top promotions in Japan today, being able to conduct business with the many promotions, major and indie, in the process.

But all these would never have happened if someone did not dream of becoming his own man, coming up with his own promotion, and in the process, discovering various talent like Kota Ibushi, and effectively changing the landscape of puroresu forever. Perhaps for those who wanted to start their business and become successful, maybe they can take some pointers from Sanshiro Takagi's experiences. Who knows, it might help you in the future.

For next week's topic, I'll just leave you with this one little clue that you might want to ponder for a while:

What would have happened to Kazuchika Okada if he did not get sent to TNA? 


*****


Lance Tan Ong has been a banking guy for the past few years but a wrestling guy for most of his life. And after checking out matches of Mitsuharu Misawa and Shinya Hashimoto at an early age, he's also pretty much a puro guy as well. Currently checking out WWE (mostly NXT), NJPW, DDT, and other promotions that catch and demand attention. He currently handles NJPW news and coverage for Smark Henry.

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