(This interview originally appeared in Japanese in Rolling Stone Japan under the headline “Why did pro wrestler MAO hit Sanshiro Takagi with a car?”)
Employing several dozen wrestlers across multiple sub-brands, Dramatic Dream Team has reached the point where it’s hard to call it an indie promotion. One wrestler who stands out among their roster is 22-year-old wunderkind MAO. One half of the graceful, acrobatic tag team Moonlight Express (along with Mike Bailey), MAO carved out his place in professional wrestling in DDT’s infamous Street Wrestling events – an off-the-wall format that fits him to a T.
Some fans call MAO “the second coming of Kota Ibushi” for his physical prowess—and also his affinity for nonsense. Why is it that he prefers such a bizarre style? We caught up with MAO as he prepares for DDT’s Wrestle Peter Pan 2019 event, coming soon to Tokyo’s Ota City Central Gymnasium.
A Pro Wrestling Prodigy for the YouTube Generation
Curiously enough, MAO was born in 1997, the same year as DDT. He tells us of his first brush with pro wrestling, thirteen years later:
MAO: Most wrestlers in my generation can probably say this, but the first time I ever saw wrestling was on a late-night NJPW broadcast. My very first match was Togi Makabe vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, when Nakamura betrayed Makabe and founded CHAOS. Makabe had been double-crossed and beaten up, but he kept on fighting, and that really moved me.
MAO says that as a boy, he would “space out, no matter what you put in front of [him].” But with that match, he’d finally found an obsession. He started watching random wrestling matches on YouTube.
MAO: Soon I wanted to start wrestling myself. Shocking, right? In [popular wrestling video game] Fire Pro Wrestling’s character edit mode, you could watch move animations frame-by-frame, so I used that for research. All throughout middle school, pretty much all my friends and I did was pretend to wrestle.
Before he knew it, MAO was uploading his own match videos to YouTube—which would eventually lead to his DDT debut.
MAO: Back then, there were tons of kids all over Japan posting videos of themselves wrestling. Then one day [DDT president Sanshiro] Takagi tweeted that one of those kids had taken the test to become a real wrestler.
MAO wasted no time in replying to Takagi’s tweet with links to his own videos, trying to get the DDT president’s attention. And he got it. The two of them began talking over e-mail right away. But at that point, MAO had already set his sights on DDT and DDT alone.
MAO: I got serious about becoming a pro wrestler when I saw a video of Takagi’s match with The Great Sasuke at Sumo Hall.
That was no ordinary match. It was a weapon rumble, with new weapons introduced one by one as the match went on, all perfectly legal to use. And what weapons they were! From bicycles to piping hot oden; from steel lockboxes to the wrestlers’ own wives. Takagi vs. Sasuke was a legendarily bizarre match, still talked about today.
MAO: That match sure didn’t feel like anything a mature, upstanding adult would do! It hit me right in my childish heart. And all of DDT’s events were like that. They went beyond just being fun to watch. It really looked like the wrestlers were fighting to make sure that anyone who saw them would really, truly enjoy it. That’s why I wanted to join, so I could try and shine like that, too. I never thought about joining another promotion. Not once.
Thanks to the videos he’d uploaded to YouTube, that dream came true. The internet-age boy jumped into DDT at Sumo Hall in August 2015.
In Pursuit of Bullshit
When MAO made his DDT debut, the promotion was already expanding beyond its typical Sumo Hall show towards Saitama Super Arena. They’d also established an experimental new sub-brand for new wrestlers called DNA (DDT New Attitude). And on top of all this, the promotion was in the middle of major reforms to its overall style.
MAO: Ever since around the time I debuted, DDT’s kept up their usual big spectacles, but they’ve also sped their shift towards a more athletically-inclined “Strong DDT.” [Konosuke] Takeshita’s at the heart of that. It’s a natural development for a promotion that’s trying to mature. On the other hand, though, I’m sure there are a lot of fans who’re afraid that DDT’s usual layer of bullshit, for lack of a better term, has been spread thinner than before lately. Bullshit like in the weapon rumble that shocked me so much back in the day. And I’ve felt that dilemma myself.
Kota Ibushi, the “Golden Star,” was a rare talent who combined both Strength and Bullshit. He left DDT around the same time MAO joined. Sanshiro Takagi, who had mostly stepped down as a wrestler to focus more on his managerial duties as the “Big Boss President” of DDT, must have noticed the timing.
MAO: If the fans aren’t getting all the bullshit they want, I figured it’s up to us, the younger up-and-coming DDT wrestlers, to pile it on thick again. But then, our generation doesn’t have it as together as those above us, huh? You can’t just be taught bullshit. So I knew I had to force Takagi’s hand. I had to make him feel that DDT bullshit I loved so much directly on his skin.
Who’ll do it if I don’t? With that mantra in mind, MAO began gunning directly for Takagi. He launched a campaign of absurdity through hardcore and street wrestling matches, hoping to stir memories of “the old DDT” in his boss. This came to a head at a 2018 event at Shin-Kiba 1st Ring, when MAO commandeered a company van and hit Takagi with it in the middle of a match. His absurdly violent behavior made headlines online.
MAO: I saw the van parked outside, and it hit me: What if I drove that right into the venue? How cool would that be? Everyone from the colder parts of Japan knows there’s a trick to starting up a car when the road’s covered in snow. You have to accelerate suddenly over a short distance, then quickly throw on the brakes to drop down to a safe speed. Luckily, that’s also the trick for dealing maximum damage to Takagi while leaving the audience and chairs and ring and all that unharmed.
Right now, MAO’s single goal is to hold a street wrestling event featuring only DDT’s rookie wrestlers.
MAO: Street wrestling is unmistakably DDT. But it calls for a certain technique and sensibility. Not just anyone can do it. That’s why I’ve gotta show the audience and the senior wrestlers that my generation can do it on our own. If I can pull that off, that’s when I can proudly proclaim myself the true heir to DDT’s bullshit.
Out of Ibushi’s Shadow and into the Future
Of course, “bullshit” isn’t the only thing MAO is after. As anyone who’s seen his one of his matches knows, MAO is an exceptionally skilled wrestler, even under the normal rules. Moonlight Express, his tag team with Mike Bailey, is widely praised as reminiscent of the Golden Lovers, the classic DDT team of Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega.
MAO: I braced myself for the Golden Lovers comparisons the moment I started tagging with Bailey. It’s an honor, of course, but I knew if we kept them in mind, we’d just become a boring rehash. I want to take back “the old DDT,” but not like that. And Bailey doesn’t want that either.
As a wrestler, MAO has a particular perspective on professional wrestling and where it’s heading:
MAO: When you search for pro wrestling on YouTube, you get a big mix of matches, that aren’t sorted with regards to history or anything. When I think back to those YouTube days, and what I liked other than DDT, 90s Michinoku Pro comes to mind. Back when TAKA Michinoku, Dick Togo and Shiryu (Kaz Hayashi) were on the roster. It may seem kind of bland, but I admire their approach of fascinating the audience through solid technique. Right now, acrobatic moves are trendy, but I’d bet on a return to that 90s style once that trend dies down. I want to be a central figure in the pro wrestling world by the time that happens.
Four years have passed since MAO’s debut, but he’s still only 22 years old. Possibly because his career has aligned perfectly with DDT’s period of reform, his fundamentals as a wrestler are surprisingly deep for his age. Aside from wrestling, his main passion is music—notably obscure genres like beatdown hardcore.
MAO: I started playing in bands after I moved to Tokyo. I usually kept my guitar drop-tuned. Since my debut, I’ve been too busy to really stick with it. But I still go out to shows. I have to be careful, though, because once word gets out I’m a wrestler, people start coming at me in the mosh pit for real. It feels way more dangerous than a match!
“Deep down, I’m an extremely ordinary guy,” MAO says. “That might be why Takagi and his DDT bullshit was so appealing to me.” With his breezy smile hiding a heart full of strength, madness and—yes—bullshit, he’s the one to lead DDT to a new world.