Originally published on Fanbyte on July 16, 2022

I haven’t loved DDT this year.

Despite easily being my favorite Japanese promotion of the 2020s, the back half of 2021 and the start of this year exposed several issues with the company’s booking. The back-to-back KO-D Openweight Championship reigns of both Konosuke Takeshita and Tetsuya Endo failed to produce the level of quality I’d been accustomed to from the company. Both reigns leaned into a lot of the systemic booking issues that drove me away from other Japanese companies. An overreliance on bloated main event “epics” really began to take its toll on my fandom, especially because DDT used to be quite good about avoiding those pitfalls.

Circumstance and bad luck forced a change on DDT’s part though. For one, there’s Takeshita’s extended excursion to the United States, which has removed him from the main event scene for the foreseeable future. Then, at their big interpromotional event with sister promotions NOAH and TJPW, Tetsuya Endo suffered a concussion at the hands of Katsujiko Nakajima.

The injury at CyberFight Festival forced Endo to withdraw from the upcoming King of DDT tournament, and also led to him relinquishing the Openweight Championship. As a result, it was announced that the tournament would be used to crown a new champion in his place.

There were quite a few good candidates to take Endo’s place. A future ace like Yuki Ueno or reliable former champions like Jun Akiyama or HARASHIMA. One thing I knew though was it probably wouldn’t be Kazusada Higuchi.

The Failed Challenger

It’s a tale as old as time. Kazusada Higuchi, in spite of his immense talent, just can never catch a break. Across five title opportunities for the top championship in DDT, Higuchi never got the job done. While talented wrestlers never being at the front of the line feels normal in most Japanese promotions, it just doesn’t quite sit right in DDT — a promotion that has a history of being much more loose and experimental with their title lineage than others. Surprise cash-in title shots, abbreviated reigns, all of these are things DDT has used in the past to ensure the KOD Openweight Championship scene stays fresh and engaging.

Higuchi’s last shot at the title came on June 12th, 2021, against then reigning champion Jun Akiyama. Higuchi earned the opportunity as a result of defeating Akiyama in the 2020 D-oh Grand Prix II, putting the legend away in a matter of minutes. Akiyama refused to wear the KO-D Title around his waist until avenging the loss to Higuchi.

In one of the best matches of 2021, Higuchi fought hard against the legend. However, a calculated attack on the hand and arm of Higuchi successfully neutralized his signature Brain Claw Slam. From there, Akiyama followed the path to victory, putting his embarrassing defeat in the D-oh Grand Prix behind him. As a sign of respect, Higuchi himself strapped the championship belt around Akiyama’s waist.

DDT played on Higuchi’s history as a failed challenger in the set up to this year’s King of DDT. At the pre-tournament press conference, Higuchi stated, “Every year I think it’s my year … but this year in particular I feel it’s the strongest.”

At the announcement of the title tournament, I even tweeted out, “Wishing it’ll be Higuchi (it won’t be).”

The official DDT Pro English account liked the tweet.

Passing Akiyama

That Higuchi got through the first two rounds of the tournament didn’t surprise too many people. While a shock upset win for either Yukio Naya or Masa Takanashi might have been in the cards, Higuchi was always a solid bet to make it to the final night of the tournament. It was when the semi-final matches were set that dread really set in for me.

Higuchi’s opponent in the semi-final round was Jun Akiyama, the man who I assumed was the most likely winner of the tournament. Akiyama’s a major name, a former KO-D Openweight Champion in his own right, and the stablemate of the former champion who stated he wanted to carry on his teammate’s legacy. All the pieces were there for another Akiyama reign, which I absolutely would not have been opposed to.

As understandable a choice as Akiyama would have been, it also would have been the most boring possible option as the only man left in the tournament to have held the title previously.

That being said, at least we would get another great Akiyama/Higuchi match before my hero’s run at the gold ended in yet another inevitable failure. In fact, the seeds for Higuchi’s failure were already being sown on the tour shows before the final night of the tournament. In a tag match on June 25th, Akiyama yet again attacked Higuchi’s hand. It seemed he was setting up the strategy that worked so well for him the year before.

Once the bell rang for the semi-final match at Korakuen Hall though, things didn’t go quite as well for Jun Akiyama. The veteran’s strategy never found a chance to develop, as early on Higuchi nails Akiyama with the Brain Claw Slam on the apron. Taking such a big blow early, Akiyama escalated the action much sooner than expected. He ran Higuchi through his arsenal of knee strikes, front chokes, and exploder suplexes in an attempt to put down the younger man quickly.

A lot of credit has to go to Higuchi here. Despite being a larger man on the DDT roster, his ability to play the underdog babyface in this match shines through. Higuchi has no issue bumping and selling for Akiyama for a majority of the match, and he earns the crowd’s sympathy like a master here. It’s always impressive to see such a big man know how to work much smaller than he is.

Instead, Higuchi endures. He weathers the storm, coming through on the other side of Akiyama’s beating to win the match in the end. It’s a great match with a simple hook — can Higuchi get past the man who dashed his dreams the year before? It’s not quite as layered and excellent as their KO-D Title match, but as a high stakes, emotionally investing semi-final, it more than gets the job done.

In a lot of ways, Higuchi won the tournament by surpassing Akiyama. Awaiting him in the final was Naomi Yoshimura, a talented and very promising young wrestler on the DDT roster who only recently has been making waves as a main event singles competitor after spending much of his time in the tag team ranks. Despite an impressive win against HARASHIMA in the second round, Yoshimura was very much not the favorite to win the tournament especially when paired against Higuchi.

The Finals

Given all of that history and context, the main event match between Higuchi and Yoshimura might be even more of a feat than the Akiyama match. Where the semi-final match was rife with uncertainty in regard to the result, the final seemed to be an open and shut case for Higuchi to finally lock up his first ever KO-D Openweight Title.

What the two wrestlers needed to do was introduce doubt. They’re able to pull that off as well. Yoshimura’s performance here does him a lot of favors in that regard. 2022 has seen a marked improvement for the already skilled worker. In particular, Yoshimura’s viciousness while controlling a match has never been better than it is now. The little things he does to fill up the space in his matches has tightened up to the point that all his offense looks killer at this point.

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