GIF via DDT/Youtube

Last week, Dramatic Dream Team, the largest independent pro wrestling promotion in Japan, pulled off one of its most ambitious events ever. Sanshiro Takagi, DDT’s promoter and one of its top stars, headlined the Tokyo Dome against New Japan Pro Wrestling star Minoru Suzuki. However, there were two key differences from 2017’s other wrestling show at the Tokyo Dome, NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom: The Dome was not just in its baseball configuration, with the field exposed, but was also completely empty. No tickets were sold, and no fans were let in. And like most of what DDT does, it was completely ridiculous in the best way possible.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, DDT is probably best known in the west for the viral videos and GIFs that it has spawned over the years. There’s current NJPW star Kenny Omega wrestling a little girl while representing DDT*; Kota Ibushi wrestling a blow-up doll; an invisible man wrestling; a heel turn thwarted by a friendship montage/flashback sequence, and the same match having the referee stop his count when he has his own friendship montage/flashback sequence involving the wrestler who’s being pinned; Joey Ryan using his strong American penis to win a test of strength; a ladder winning a title; the ladder having a retirement ceremony; and probably more that I’m forgetting. It’s not for everyone, and there’s a heavy emphasis on offbeat comedy, but DDT also has the most robust talent development program in Japanese wrestling, which has produced some incredible performances the more serious main-event matches.

The empty-dome match was broadcast live on DDT Universe, the promotion’s streaming service, and the first half was posted to DDT’s official YouTube channel to help draw in new subscriptions. (Yes, there’s an English sign-up guide.) As of this writing, the YouTube video is closing in on 50,000 views, quickly making it one of the most popular videos in the channel’s lifetime.

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Takagi vs. Suzuki is part of DDT’s “Street Wrestling” series, which the promotion started around 2008. “They set up matches regularly, once every couple of months,” said Jamie O’Doherty of the Dramatic DDT fansite. “It’s safe to say the matches are a signature of DDT now and the more out there ideas like the Train match”— a Royal Rumble on a moving train where a new wrestler enters at every stop—“and the Dome match are great ways to grab attention, at least from my end.” Over the course of an hour, Takagi and Suzuki, joined by numerous wrestlers from DDT and elsewhere making cameos, brawled throughout the cavernous building, with the baseball diamond serving as the “ring.” Seemingly the entire match was designed with the production and distribution of animated GIFs on social media in mind, and it’s an incredibly fun piece of offbeat comedy wrestling.

Suzuki’s involvement in DDT over the years is, in and of itself, funny even before he actually starts doing any comedy. Originally trained by NJPW in the late ‘80s, he quickly quit the company to join the UWF, which marketed itself as, essentially, “real” pro wrestling, and eventually helped found Pancrase, which really was (mostly) real pro wrestling. When accumulated injuries ended his career as a real fighter in 2002, he returned to his roots, doing the gimmick of, essentially, the anti-pro wrestler. His offense was mostly MMA-inspired, he would “refuse to cooperate” with Irish whips, and he showed disdain for titles he won by carrying tiny action figure-sized versions instead of the real deal. So it’s quite striking when you see Suzuki in DDT, whether he’s wrestling a mummy robot or cosplaying as various wrestling legends.

Even with the heavy focus on comedy and weirdness, though, one of the main reasons that DDT works so well is that it takes itself seriously and plays all of the ridiculousness completely straight. When Suzuki, for example, pantomimes walking through the ring ropes as he steps over the baseline, there’s no overt winking at the audience. He’s just as grumpy and stone-faced looking here as he is when he’s wrestling Kazuchika Okada in the main event of an NJPW card.

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“DDT legitimately is a universe,” Colorado-based indie wrestler and DDT regular Royce Isaacs told Deadspin. “Everything is congruent. What that means is everything makes sense, even if it’s the weirdest, craziest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s all inside of a universe where actions have repercussions. Sometimes you’ll see two characters interact on a wrestling show and it’s not very natural, or normal, or something seems out of place. In DDT, everything is part of this universe. I think that’s why you can watch something like that and not be like ‘Why is that guy breaking people’s arms with his butt?’ or ‘Why is that guy throwing people with his penis?’ If you’re watching it, and you’re in that universe, you get it, and everything is in context.”

Underneath all of the comedy, DDT is one of the most remarkable success stories in all of professional wrestling. Launched in 1997 by Takagi, it spent its first five or six years as one of many lower-tier Japanese independent promotions. While Japan had an incredibly healthy indie scene with solid visibility thanks to satellite television channels like Gaora Sports and Samurai TV, DDT was not at that level for its first several years. The bigger indies, especially if they featured junior heavyweight/cruiserweight wrestlers prominently, often got boosts in exposure by forging relationships with Jushin “Thunder” Liger, NJPW’s longtime top star and creative force in its own lighter-weight division. Smaller promotions of that era, like DDT, Eagle Pro, ZIPANG, Saitama Pro Wrestling Company, West Japan Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Crusaders, and Social Progress Wrestling Federation, had a few ways of trying to get attention:

  • Their own crops of smaller wrestlers.
  • Comedy and other general weirdness. (Often, this was mixed in with the junior heavyweights.)
  • Past-their-prime top stars who had major promotion exposure in the past, even if they never made it past the undercard (like indie mainstay and former major promotion veteran Goro Tsurumi).
  • “Nise” (fake) versions of bigger stars—although sometimes those bigger stars were lower-level indie figures themselves, like DDT mainstay Poison Sawada, who begat a Nise Poison Sawada.

DDT went with the first two, embarking on a similar path to ZIPANG, which shared some of the same talent, like wrestlers Asian Cougar and FM Taro as well as referee Grace Asano. While ZIPANG was out there even by Japanese indie standards, with gimmicks like Who Am I (an amnesiac American tourist in a Hawaiian shirt), El Consadole (a guy in a bird mask who acted like … a bird), Extraterrestrial Life (an alien, obviously), and Heaven (a masked wrestler in Daisy Dukes who taunted rivals by drawing crude pictures of them with boobs), DDT soon took the weirdness to another level.

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“I think the change happened around 2004-2006,” said O’Doherty. “Danshoku Dino came in and got over with his gay gimmick, the DDT Extreme Title was created and led to the wacky match stipulations becoming more frequent and then there were more and more comedy gimmicks and makeovers for the roster. 2008 was when I got into it and that was full blown with weird ideas like the Ironman Title being won by non-humans, the ladder being treated as its own entity and wrestlers pretending to be from other countries.”

DDT slowly picked up more of a following. They get minor TV exposure, though their first clearance was Mirai TV, an obscure network that only aired one other wrestling show, Doglegs Super-Handicapped Pro Wrestling. Still, as the Japanese wrestling scene went into a major recession, thanks in part to the rise of mixed martial arts and kickboxing, DDT grew. In 2009, not long after O’Doherty started following the company, Takagi had an ambitious idea: Run Sumo Hall, which had been NJPW’s home arena for years and was one of the most famous venues in the country. At first, the idea seemed like it was at least half-joking: DDT had run a show at the Fukuoka Dome in 2001, but it was part of a larger non-wrestling exhibition, and it seemed like the point of doing it was the joke of how it looked with so few fans present. Takagi, however, was serious, and the show because the hottest ticket in Japanese wrestling. DDT legitimately sold out the building, and running a major arena has become an annual event, one filled with special guest stars from other promotions and headlined by some kind of “dream match.”

Since then, DDT has been growing noticeably in just about every facet, thanks in large part to the business acumen of Takagi and company mainstay Muscle Sakai. (Dragon Gate, the only promotion other than NJPW that does consistently better business, consciously refrains from marketing itself to an audience of traditional wrestling fans, instead marketing to a younger, heavily-female fanbase that doesn’t watch other groups.)

DDT management’s reputation as businessmen become so great that that legendary wrestler Keiji Mutoh borrowed Takagi to run the fledgling Wrestle-1 group, while Sakai now wrestles as Super Sasadango Machine, the masked wrestler whose defining attribute is his skill at building at Powerpoint presentations. Super Sasadango Machine has one of the many cameos in the empty dome match, brandishing a Macbook while lamenting that he couldn’t get his presentation onto the stadium’s giant screens.

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“i worked on one of DDT’s Korakuen Hall shows and it was really fun,” said veteran independent wrestler Sam “Shirley Doe” Panico, who toured Japan in 2005 to work for DDT and Fighting Ultimate Crazy Kings (yes, FUCK). “The most organized company I’ve ever wrestled for. They have a steakhouse that their trainees worked at, so that funded the school and shows. I mean, I got a printed envelope with my paycheck, where I was on the show, and my percentage of the gate all old-school NWA style. That never happened to me, ever.”

“They run a lot of side businesses like restaurants, bars and gyms to give the wrestlers jobs away from the ring,” said O’Doherty. “Some of the roster also work in video production and wrestler training.”

On top of the interconnected businesses to keep the company funded and the wrestlers’ making full-time livings even in lean times, DDT has outpaced the rest of the Japanese wrestling business when it comes to talent development and recruiting. In an era where only a few wrestlers graduate from the NJPW dojo each year, DDT has launched numerous sub-brands to make sure all of its talent has a spot and regular work.

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“I think DDT is willing to try different things,” said Isaacs. “If you look at the people they’ve brought in, most of them aren’t particularly alike. So they look for variety and aren’t afraid to try something different.” Not being as picky about the wrestlers’ looks, body types, and so on has helped the promotion gather more talent, while the multiple brands make it easier to develop them.

“They don’t need to rush anyone along; they can see where someone fits in best to bring out all of their potential.”

With the launch of DDT Universe in January, a clearly increasing social-media savvy, and more and more American wrestlers defending DDT titles stateside, there’s still more room to grow.

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“I think it’s easy to go ‘DDT is the comedy promotion,’” said Isaacs. “DDT is just the promotion with the most variety … there’s a reason why Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, El Generico [Sami Zayn], and Colt Cabana have all come through DDT at some point, you know what I mean? Kenny and Kota carved out their names there, and now they’re two of the biggest wrestling stars in the entire world, inside WWE or out. I don’t think DDT gets enough credit for finding and cultivating talent. It should be an obvious thing, but it’s easy to brush it off as comedy, or the funny guys.

“Yeah, there’s an amazing amount of comedy, some of the most creative, funniest wrestling you’ll ever see. But at the same time, there’s some of the best wrestlers in the world, bar none.”

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.