It was a moment many New Japan Pro Wrestling fans dreaded. The impending departure of 6x IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion KUSHIDA after eight years of being one of the most dominant Junior Heavyweights in New Japan history, following the announcement last month he would be departing NJPW when his contract ended on January 31, 2019. Tied with Tiger Mask IV, only Jushin “Thunder” Liger has more Junior Heavyweight titles than Tokyo’s KUSHIDA. And now, seemingly on Liger’s encouragement, KUSHIDA appears to be headed to the WWE Universe.
KUSHIDA originally started out in the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), joining the Takada MMA Dojo while still a teenager in high school in 1998. At the Dojo, he trained under 1992 Japanese Olympic wrestler Takumi Adachi and five years later, made his MMA debut with Tokyo-based MMA promotion ZST. For two years, KUSHIDA competed for ZST, going undefeated, with a 6-0-2 record in eight fights. But as his MMA career began to wind down, the pull of professional wrestling became more than just a passing fancy.
In 2005, after his final fight, a draw against Shinya Sato, KUSHIDA moved to Mexico, where he began to train in the art of lucha libre under the guidance of AAA and CMLL veteran El Oriental, at the Aztec Budokan wrestling school. He soon debuted under a mask as Yujiro. His stint in Mexico was brief and after a short round of training, he returned home to Japan. Upon his return, he was scouted by former WWE Superstar Tajiri, and he soon signed with Hustle, the promotion run by Nobuhiko Takada (the owner of the MMA Dojo he initially trained with). For three years, he learned the ropes of Japanese wrestling, working primarily with Hustle, plus showcase matches with All Japan, Osaka Pro Wrestling, and ZERO1. But while gifted athletically, he still had much to learn.
In 2009, KUSHIDA embarked on his first proper foreign excursion, moving to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, where he enrolled in the Can-Am Wrestling School run by future IMPACT Vice President Scott D’Amore. Under D’Amore’s training, at the same school that produced the likes of Bobby Roode, Rhyno, Eric Young, Rosemary, Petey Williams, Moose and more, KUSHIDA would work for D’Amore’s Border City Wrestling (BCW), as well as other Canadian indies like Ottawa’s Capital City Championship Combat (C4), Winnipeg’s Canadian Wrestling Elite (CWE) and Oshawa’s Great Canadian Wrestling (GCW), while taking trips south of the border to the likes of CHIKARA and Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW).
In 2010, he returned to Japan as the complete package, signing with NJPW and debuting in the 2010 Super Junior Tag League alongside Gedo. He made his first appearance in a New Japan Best of the Super Juniors that year as well, but despite wins against La Sombra (WWE’s Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas) and Prince Devitt (WWE’s Finn Balor), he failed to make it out of his block. But the youngster would make an immediate impression, working tag matches alongside such stars as Hiroshi Tanahashi and one of his mentors, Tajiri.
In 2011, he formed a new tag team alongside Tiger Mask IV, where the legendary Junior Heavyweight helped propel YUSHIDA to new heights to the New Japan fans, although they lost their only opportunity for IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team gold against No Remorse Corps (Davey Richards & Rocky Romero) at that year’s NJPW Power Struggle. But the wheels were set in motion – KUSHIDA had emerged as one of New Japan’s brightest Junior Heavyweight stars.
By 2012, he found himself in a new tag team, The Time Splitters, alongside Alex Shelley from the Motor City Machine Guns. Shelley, who was also a graduate and former trainer with Can-Am Wrestling School, knew of KUSHIDA and together they became one of the new bright spots of the Junior Heavyweight tag team division. They won that year’s Super Junior Tag League and KUSHIDA finally struck gold in New Japan at NJPW Power Struggle 2012 when the Time Splitters would defeat Forever Hooligans (Alex Koslov & Rocky Romero) for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles. The Time Splitters would remain a threat in the tag division for the following year, but in 2014, it was time for KUSHIDA to enter the singles division with more aggression.
In 2014 he made the finals of the Best of the Super Juniors for the first time but ultimately lost to another emerging young star, in US indie star Ricochet (now in NXT). But it didn’t stop any of his momentum. In July, at NJPW Kizuna Road, KUSHIDA would defeat Kota Ibushi for his first IWGP Junior Heavyweight title. He had now established himself as no longer a top prospect in the Junior Heavyweights, but it’s top star.
He finally won his first Best of the Super Juniors in 2015, after five previous attempts, as well as capture his second Junior Heavyweight Championship from Kenny Omega at NJPW Dominion. He also reunited with Alex Shelley, as the Time Splitters won their second IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles. At Wrestle Kingdom 10 in 2016, he won his third IWGP Junior Heavyweight title, again from Kenny Omega, and proceeded to hold the title an impressive 257 days.
The year of 2017 was a huge year for KUSHIDA, and arguably the peak of his New Japan career. He won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship twice that year, as well as capturing gold in Ring of Honor for the first time, defeating “The Villain” Marty Scurll for the ROH World Television Championship. He also won his second Best of the Super Juniors and captured the first ever Pro Wrestling World Cup held by Defiant Wrestling in the UK (then WhatCulture Pro Wrestling).
By 2018, there was a new breed of Junior Heavyweights emerging, such as Hiromu Takahashi, Will Ospreay, and Marty Scurll, and while KUSHIDA would still have his place in the division (even capturing his final Junior Heavyweight title last October), there were new young guns becoming the focal point. With no real desire by New Japan to push KUSHIDA into the heavyweight division, it seemed he’d achieved all he could in New Japan. At 35 years old, KUSHIDA has decided it was time to see the world and now he’s ready to do just that.