Originally published on Fanbyte on December 31, 2021

When Jun Akiyama arrived in DDT in 2020, it was with the express purpose of passing on his knowledge to a new generation of professional wrestlers. As a guest coach, Akiyama sought to bring the teachings of Giant Baba to DDT. Really, few other wrestlers are quite as capable as Akiyama for this purpose. As a key part of the late stages of the King’s Road era of wrestling, Akiyama studied under the learning tree of Giant Baba while sharpening his craft in the ring surrounded by some of the most revered legends in the history of pro wrestling.

This legitimate guest coaching soon turned into a key part of DDT’s programming in 2020. Akiyama soon became a regularly featured act in the ring and built himself a stable of talents that began to act as an outside force thrown against the much more established factions in the company.

Even after signing as a full-time talent with DDT in February this year, Akiyama and his Junretsu stable were still considered outsiders by much more tenured members of the DDT roster. This was even a key plot point in Akiyama’s feud against Konosuke Takeshita. When Akiyama became KO-D Openweight Champion, Takeshita often spoke of defeating him to bring the title back home to DDT.

Jun Akiyama works in DDT because his decades at the highest levels of Japanese pro wrestling grant him a gravitas that no one on the roster can match. It makes him a believable and credible force within the company to oppose the younger stars that comprise the core of the roster. His time wrestling in the company allows him to sharpen DDT’s roster through the sheer force of his skill and experience.

The wonderful thing about learning, however, is that it can often be a two-way street.

Enter Yoshihiko.

Yoshihiko is an icon in his own right. Even those that don’t follow DDT regularly will know of the sex doll legend with notable matches against the likes of Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega. Just last year, Yoshihiko main evented one night of DDT’s annual Wrestle Peter Pan show in a cinematic clash against Konosuke Takeshita.

Yoshihiko embodies the sillier, more comedic side of DDT. His continued presence in the promotion highlights that DDT never takes itself too seriously. While there’s always going to be quality wrestling from some of the best performers in the world in DDT, there’s also sex dolls, mummies, and deathmatches built around a single lighttube.

The first significant interaction between Akiyama and Yoshihiko came from the CyberFight Festival on June 6th. Yoshihiko figured in the big twelve-man tag that pitted members of the DDT roster against the Kongoh faction of NOAH, while Akiyama successfully defended the KO-D Openweight Title against HARASHIMA in one of three main events for the evening. At the end of the night, as the performers on the show came out for a curtain call, Jun Akiyama came out onto the ramp with Yoshihiko proudly draped over his shoulders.

It’s an image that pretty perfectly captures the tone that DDT’s always put forth. It also showed that, while Akiyama may be a new addition to the roster, he has a sincere dedication to the varied aspects that make DDT so great.

The Best of Friends

The relationship between Akiyama and Yoshihiko only continued to blossom from there.

Several months later after losing the Openweight Title to Takeshita, Akiyama’s stable Junretsu was entered into an eight-man tag team tournament where the losers had to permanently disband. After securing their safety by winning a first round match up, Junretsu were asked about their goals for the upcoming year. While several members of Junretsu looked to championship gold as a natural next step, Akiyama’s only stated goal was to team with Yoshihiko.

On September 12th, Yoshihiko gets booked in a six-man tag that sees him partner with fellow DDT comedy icons Pokotan and Mecha Mummy against Sanshiro Takagi, Antonio Honda, and Toru Owashi. The bout featured standard DDT comedic fare with the team of more traditional competitors interacting with the comedy trio with a lot of sincerity.

The twist comes late in the match when the team of Takagi, Honda, and Owashi attack the puppeteer that helps Yoshihiko maneuver when he’s out of range from his opponents and partners. Typically, the wrestlers in DDT approach the puppeteer clad in black as though he’s not actually there to emphasize the illusion of Yoshihiko’s agency. The attack thus leaves Yoshihiko immobilized and helpless.

But not for long.

The lights go out, The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness theme song plays, and Yoshihiko returns from the dead yet again with another puppeteer in tow. As usual, the puppeteer is dressed head to toe in black, with even their face covered to represent their invisibility. That anonymity gets subverted when the puppeteer helps Yoshihiko nail an Exploder Suplex on Antonio Honda.

The puppeteer pulls their mask down to reveal themselves as Jun Akiyama.

I’m incredibly fond of this small interaction for some of its implications. Yes, it’s a fun little angle to run, the comedic contrast between living legend Jun Akiyama and actual sex doll Yoshihiko speaks for itself. But beneath that, there is the implication that for those few moments, Jun Akiyama actually becomes Yoshihiko. In the black puppeteer’s outfit, beneath the mask, he vanishes himself into the identity of DDT superstar Yoshihiko—they become one.

Tag Team Partners

All this leads to the climactic moment when Jun Akiyama and Yoshihiko finally get to compete together as a tag team. The match takes place on September 26th in Korakuen Hall, with the dream team of Akiyama and Yoshihiko taking on HARASHIMA and Kazuki Hirata.

As odd as it is to say about a tag match that features a sex doll, what I love most about this bout is how fundamentally sound it is. The fascinating thing about Yoshihiko is that he actually provides a surprising insight to a wrestler’s abilities to work. Yoshihiko is essentially a blank canvas that allows his opponents to wrestle in whatever fashion they see fit. For this tag match, HARASHIMA and Hirata chose violence.

All the credit in the world to both HARASHIMA and Hirata here. They respond to the unique challenge of working with Yoshihiko by actively selling and bumping for him in really interesting ways. Hirata takes on the brunt of the selling here, spiking himself on his neck and head on multiple self-inflicted suplexes.

HARASHIMA, on the other hand, applies himself more towards inflicting damage instead. In an inspired moment of mat work, HARASHIMA’s actually able to simulate the struggle and shifting dynamics of a submission exchange as Yoshihiko drags himself towards the ropes. HARASHIMA follows this up by stepping on Yoshihiko’s legs for leverage on a Japanese stranglehold. He finishes the sequence off by literally bending Yoshihiko in half and caving his chest in with a stomp.

I get it, it’s a comedy spot with a sex doll and some people will just see it as an instant affront to the artform. But with this spot, one gets to see the wheels turning in HARASHIMA’s mind while running through a simple sequence. So often, fans and critics of wrestling are told that it’s the little moments of connective tissue between grander spots that distinguish good wrestlers from the great. That moment-to-moment effort is on full display here with HARASHIMA getting the maximum possible drama out of a ground exchange with an inanimate object.

Akiyama’s time in this match is actually quite limited but he makes the most of it. There’s a brief opportunity to lock up with HARASHIMA again after their excellent title match in June, but more than that there’s the affection that Akiyama shows for Yoshihiko. There’s very little irony to how he approaches the match, he’s clearly fond of it all and he embraces that silliness with sincerity.

All these interactions between Akiyama and Yoshihiko only serve to emphasize how truly talented Akiyama is at his best. He’s spent close to three decades demonstrating his abilities as a strait-laced worker fighting a who’s who of names from multiple generations. That much we already know about him. Revealing this more lighthearted and comedic side of him only goes to show how truly versatile he is.

These matches show that Akiyama approaches the company and the jokes integral to its identity with the love, respect, and care that he showed any number of epic battles he’s been in. At the end of the day, Jun Akiyama is an undisputed legend of the industry. He loses nothing by having a little fun on some undercard DDT tag team matches. If anything, DDT only benefits from his continued participation in every facet of promotion’s identity. Yoshihiko is a big part of that, a truly iconic representation of DDT’s philosophy of pro wrestling. Akiyama gets that, and at the end of the day, real recognize real.

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