Year of the Dragon: Ryuya Matsufusa Rising.

In January 2024, Billy Ken Kid and Ryuya Matsufusa had a match for the Osaka Pro Wrestling Light Heavyweight Championship. Matsufusa’s babyface performance and Billy’s relentless attacks that showed both all and none of his 50 years created a hit, with approval of the match escaping the usually small western fanbase to make it onto the messageboards, podcasts and recommendation lists of a far wider range of English-speaking puro fans. As a relatively casual Osaka Pro fan, as well as a not-so-casual Matsufusa fan, I was delighted with the new eyes on the promotion and its stars. I was especially thrilled because this match is, for me, a great example of what Osaka Pro and Matsufusa’s reign has done exceptionally well – tell a well-constructed and contained story, built inside many bigger and deeper ones. 

Osaka Pro Wrestling is a small promotion almost by design. It has always been intended to be for the people (and especially children) of Osaka, something its current President, Zeus, is very passionate about. Unlike in previous incarnations, current Osaka Pro does not have a permanent physical base, and its television presence and sponsorship focuses on sharing its top matches or big events. This means that the majority of its story development has to take place at those televised events and there is not a direct equivalent of ‘house shows’ where regular fans might see a story extended. Despite this, the promotion and its wrestlers manage to develop long-term compelling storylines that make the most of recognisable tropes, without sacrificing creativity and character development.

In many ways the match between Matsufusa and Billy Ken Kid was a classic young gun vs veteran story, with Matsufusa outlasting the older man’s strength and experience. To enjoy this match, you don’t need to know that as a kid Matsufusa regularly attended Osaka Pro shows where Billy was often the star. You don’t need to know that Matsufusa’s first wrestling training was as an elementary school student attending Osaka Pro classes. You don’t need to know that Billy is actually part of a line of veterans that Matsufusa has tried to overcome to find his place in the promotion. You don’t need to know that the red haired wrestler in his corner is his almost constant corner-man from another promotion and fellow member of the jokingly named ‘quarter century club’ of young Osakan wrestlers vowing to be the future of Kansai wrestling. Not knowing this takes nothing away from the story they tell. But if you’re interested in those stories too, then those threads can lead you to other matches that similarly, are stories in themselves. It’s those threads I follow here, weaving through the story of Matsufusa’s rise thus far. 

Note: the matches below include show links where available. Where matches were aired on GAORA Sports, episode numbers are given and links to digest episodes provided if possible.

(21 May 2023, Osaka Pro Wrestling#16, GAORA Sports)

Our first match doesn’t even see Matsufusa step into a ring, though he is present. Nonetheless, this is part of Matsufusa’s story, as without him, it would not exist. It is also part of his journey to holding the belt and there are stylistic similarities to his own later title matches. 

Matsufusa made his formal debut in Dotombori Pro Wrestling in 2020, where he wrestled alongside friends and fellow alumni of Osaka Pro’s children’s wrestling classes Nozomi Haruto/Harutoki, and Yuto Kikuchi. Both Kikuchi and Matsufusa became part of the new Osaka Pro Wrestling when it relaunched under the Presidency of Zeus in early 2022, making occasional appearances there alongside developing in their home promotion, Dotombori Pro. They had an impressive and enjoyable run in the February 2023 Osaka Pro Tag Festival, making the finals and beating two Osaka legend teams along the way. That same month Matsufusa took his connection to Osaka Pro one step further, officially leaving Dotombori Pro. Kikuchi went the other way, intending to withdraw from Osaka Pro to dedicate time to his home promotion, where he was pushing to become its Ace. 

In Matsufusa’s first month and on the show Kikuchi announced his withdrawal, Matsufusa challenged for the Osaka Pro Light Heavyweight championship, facing its first title holder and Osaka Pro living legend, Tigers Mask. The match ended after 12 minutes when Matsufusa dislocated his elbow, ultimately requiring surgery. It was an abrupt end to what had seemed like an upward trajectory. When Matsufusa discovered the extent of his injury, Kikuchi rescinded his withdrawal from Osaka Pro – he had to take Matsufusa’s place and step up where his friend could not.

Kikuchi and Matsufusa bump fists

This match in May 2023, two months after Matsufusa’s injury, sees Matsufusa ringside, arm heavily supported. Although the ambitions to win are his own, Kikuchi makes it clear he is representing them both, carrying Matsufusa’s support towel around his face as he enters. The two bump fists at ringside. 

Matsufusa rushes into the ring, first offering support, and then rolling Kikuchi away from the goal they had both sought and failed to reach. 

Matsufusa returned to the ring in July 2023, initially tentative, but quickly seemingly even better than before. Throughout his time recovering, he had been a regular presence, adding commentary and hosting to TV broadcasts and regularly twitcasting with Kikuchi and others. He had seen the efforts of his peers up close while he was away and was keen to pick up where he left off. 

(15 Oct 2023 Tennozan 2023 first round, Osaka Pro Wrestling#21, GAORA Sports )

Tsubasa, like Tigers Mask, is something of an Osaka Pro legend. He has been an important part of the promotion throughout its history, even in tougher times. Although a brief match, this is the first time that Matsufusa overcomes a wrestler of Tsubasa’s stature in singles competition within Osaka Pro. This win coming over the man who beat him in his very first Osaka Pro match and taking place in Osaka Pro’s annual Tennozan tournament, where its winners are frequently leaders of the promotion, only adds to that significance. 

Kansai's young wrestlers pose in the ring.
Tigre gym
Kinoshita, Harutoki, Kikuchi and Matsufusa posing after Tsubasa's produce show
After Tsubasa’s Produce Show

This was not actually Matsufusa’s first win over Tsubasa. That had come two months earlier at Tsubasa’s 50th birthday produce show in a main event that saw Matsufusa team with fellow young Kansai stars Yuto Kikuchi, Kohei Kinoshita, and Harutoki to take on Tsubasa, Billy Ken Kid, Taka Michinoku, and Kaz Hayashi. Tsubasa highlighted the four young talents as the future of Kansai wrestling, and Matsufusa taking the win over all of them was no small nod to his potential. All four have a shared history as trainees, and although their choices have taken them on different paths, they remain connected in their shared ambitions. Jokingly referred to as the ‘quarter century club’ due to most being 25 or thereabouts, as of Tsubasa’s anniversary show, Matsufusa was the one lagging far behind the others in markers of his success. He needed some wins. He specifically needed a championship, and winning Tennozan was a good start. 

Matsufusa starts off the underdog in this match, his previous win quickly irrelevant as he finds himself at the mercy of Tsubasa’s creative submissions and still impressive speed. It doesn’t last long though, and the match becomes an entertaining back and forth, with Matsufusa’s advantage seemingly coming from an equal mix of stubbornness and skill. He shows off his versatility, not exactly able to match Tsubasa in the creativity of his submissions, but certainly able to think and act in a way that addresses Tsubasa’s strengths and provides space to showcase his own. He clearly does not have the experience of his opponent, but that doesn’t seem to put any dent in his ego. 

Matsufusa’s personality comes through strongly throughout, particularly the stubbornness and determination that might mark out a potential young champion. At points where Tsubasa has the upper hand, Matsufusa shakes his head vigorously, almost irritated that his expectations of victory are not being met. At one point, as Tsubasa seems like he might claw his way out of a leg lock, Matsufusa headbutts him back to a more manoeuvrable position, determined to take even a few more seconds of advantage, even at the expense of his own head. It’s not the best strategy but his persistence does pay off; Matsufusa returns repeatedly and relentlessly to his jumping knee offence, “Dragon’s teeth”, eventually wearing out Tsubasa and keeping him down for the three count. Matsufusa advances in the Tennozan tournament having put away his first veteran supporter. Interestingly, in future matches, Matsufusa is often teamed with Tsubasa as the veteran on his side, including in the pre-match to the Billy Ken Kid challenge.

(10 Dec 2023, Osaka Pro Wrestling#23, GAORA Sports)

Matsufusa did not win the Tennozan tournament but he did find a direction for his frustrations – he needed to overcome the events of the BUSHI-DO show in March and again face Tigers Mask for the Light Heavyweight Championship. The match was set for the December ‘Excalibur’ show. The pre-matches didn’t make tape but were, by the accounts of those involved and the blood on the inside of Tigers Mask’s mask, a heated affair. This is somewhat unusual for Osaka Pro’s events outside it’s structured calendar as they are often in public venues or funded by specific sponsors who want, effectively, the variety show that Osaka Pro is so good at. Taking space to highlight this rivalry shows a lot of trust in the young Matsufusa, and expectation of potential interest from the audience that could convert them to fans. It probably helped that Tigers Mask was someone who could and did provoke Matsufusa, demanding that Matsufusa live up to his claim that he could be the one to carry the promotion as champion. 

In Matsufusa’s corner this time is not just his perennial corner man Kikuchi, but also fellow Tigre gym alumnus and quarter century club member, Kohei Kinoshita, both ready to see Matsufusa join them as a champion. The referee is DDT’s own Yakinori Matsui, who is closely connected to Osaka Pro and its origins. As in DDT, Matsui’s facial expressions tell a story, and in this case his teeth are gritted throughout. 

Initially both Tigers and Matsufusa are cautious, perhaps hesitant to repeat an incident like March, but once he gets started, Tigers Mask is not gentle. Matsufusa almost invites him to attack, standing up against a barrage of kicks to deliver multiple headbutts and screaming in Tigers’ face. A more polished version of Matsufusa’s knee-based attacks against Tsubasa are initially on show here, with the pacing fast and strikes heavy. It’s impressive, but not nearly enough against the veteran and his arsenal of submissions and suplex variations that slow Matsufusa down. More than once Tigers seems convinced that he has finished off the young challenger, with tiger suplex following tiger suplex and Matsufusa’s kickouts getting more dramatic each time. Headbutts and elbow strikes turn the tide for Matsufusa and he looks almost drunk as he kicks a slumped Tigers Mask over and over in desperation. A standing canadian destroyer variant is not enough and he drags Tigers Mask to the corner for a first time avalanche version that finishes the match. He is still stumbling minutes later as he holds the belt above his head, screaming. It is a convincing victory of a youngster over a veteran, though it makes more sense knowing Matsufusa has come this far before and fallen. It is also a useful lesson to Billy Ken Kid, standing at ringside, that Matsufusa does not give up easily and is able to drag himself to new in-ring innovations if that is what victory requires. We see that the new champion has potential, but this is just one test.

Post match photo of Matsufusa holding his new belt

Note: I have spared readers and myself most of the full names of Matsufusa’s moves. He is an admitted otaku seemingly fond of idioms, oblique references and is very particular about names. On some days it is charming. When you’re 2000 words into an article, less so. It is relevant though that creatively inserting the word ‘dragon’ into move names seems somewhat reminiscent of someone who uses the word ‘snake’ in a fair few of his: HUB. 

Tigers Mask, though determined at times to cause Matsufusa (and Kikuchi) trouble, is also a big supporter of the young generation. On January 28 2024, both Matsufusa and Kikuchi appear in the main event of Tigers anniversary show in a team with Shuji Ishikawa and facing Tigers Mask, Kazuaki Mihara, and Osaka Pro’s first new generation rookie, Aran Sano. Matsufusa again beats Tigers Mask convincingly, solidifying his position. Following the match, Tigers can’t help himself in pointing out that the quality of young wrestlers in Kansai has a lot to do with his own gym and training. Beyond wrestling skill, Kikuchi and Matsufusa also have an excellent role model in how to cast themselves as the main character.  

(7 Jan 2024)

Billy was ringside as Tigers Mask’s second when Matsufusa won the title, as he had been in Kikuchi’s match too, a representative of the Osaka Pro ‘old guard’. He stepped into the ring almost simultaneously with Matsufusa’s call out to “someone I haven’t beaten yet”. Both Billy and Matsufusa were well aware that beating just two veterans was hardly enough to solidify Matsufusa as qualified to lead Osaka Pro forward. This match was almost inevitable. 

Unlike Tigers Mask, Billy had faced Matsufusa a couple of times in Dotombori Pro and had included Matsufusa in his produce show of December 2022. He had seen and experienced Matsufusa’s journey. He had also seen Matsufusa grow within Osaka Pro. On 8th January 2023, in the same venue as this title match, a last minute card shuffle had seen Billy Ken Kid defeat Matsufusa in a singles match inside 10 minutes. After the match Billy reflected that next time their singles would be in a main event. He was right. 

You can tell from the entrances that the match is serious. Even with his mask, you can see the set of Billy’s jaw, the intensity of his stare. Matsufusa carries himself more like a champion, despite only having held the belt for less than a month, but it’s not quite a confident swagger. As ever, Kikuchi is no more than two steps behind him. No one smiles. 

The bell rings and they advance slowly towards each other, Matsufusa rushing in when he sees a chance, dragging on Billy’s arm. He loses the advantage fast, Billy able to draw on experience to easily work Matsufusa into more painful positions. This becomes the early theme of the match: Matsufusa diving in, not without skill or effectiveness, but Billy still able to control the match to his own advantage. Youth v experience. 

It becomes apparent that Billy has a strategy. Matsufusa’s moveset largely requires the strength and power of his legs and to have confidence in his knees. Without this, he is severely hampered. And so, Matsufusa’s legs are the target. Barely five minutes in and Matsufusa is on the ground clutching his left knee with Kikuchi looking over him – a strange reversal of roles from Kikuchi’s match with Tigers Mask. In a way, they both did this to themselves. 

Billy is out to destroy Matsufusa’s left leg. Matsufusa can barely stand and when he does, it’s almost like Billy is letting him, knowing it won’t matter. Matsufusa manages a dropkick but ends up slumped in the corner anyway. Billy goes for a Billyco Buster, something he did with effect in the pre-match, but this seems to trigger something in Matsufusa and he is up and attacking. He knows he was not prepared for Billy before and he does not want that to happen again. With each offensive attempt, Matsufusa does further damage to his leg. He attacks anyway. The pain seems to matter less and less if winning is possible.

Billy does not share Tigers Mask’s simple brutality but there’s a coldness to his relentlessness. As Billy starts to work through his finishing moves, Matsufusa’s eyes seem to glaze over. It could be over. The screams of ‘Ryuya’ from the crowd are loud now. Matsufusa the underdog is not short on support.

Somehow, again and again, Matsufusa escapes Billy’s attacks, sometimes even falling on his knees as he does so. Billy seems increasingly irritated that the kid will not lie down. Then, out of nowhere, a knee catches Billy as he runs towards Matsufusa. The glazed look in Matsufusa’s eyes now makes him look like someone who has gone beyond pain and can only act. He half-drags his leg to lift Billy up for his front flip piledriver, for garyu tensei, and then a failed attempt on the move that finished Tigers Mask. Twenty five minutes in, multiple finishers, neither man will give up. Yet again, lying on the floor, Matsufusa grabs Billy by the ankle, then the leg. He will not let go.

In the end Matsufusa wins just barely. His finishing moves are far less pretty by this stage but it’s enough. Both look appropriately exhausted for a match that goes over 30 minutes. Matsufusa has outlasted the veteran, so he gets to keep his belt.

With the tag league ahead, no challenger is named. Instead Matsufusa is already intent on being a double champion along with Kikuchi, and on beating Rogue Nation, the heel unit claiming all the championships. His reign has a different focus for now.

As of writing, act five (resolution), has not yet happened. On 14 April 2024, on Osaka Pro Wrestling’s 25th Anniversary show, Matsufusa takes on HUB. Much like Matsufusa’s other two title matches, this is Matsufusa taking on an Osaka stalwart, part of the heart of the company. HUB is much loved as an Osaka Pro original, debuting with the company in its very first show in 1999. He is a favourite of Konosuke Takeshita and Yuki Ueno. He is a favourite of Matsufusa. More so even than the other legends he has challenged. Matsufusa has been known to incorporate elements of HUB’s moveset into his own and his verbal challenge to HUB was longer, more emotional, less certain, than his challenge to Billy. For Matsufusa, this is very personal. 

It is personal also for HUB, who has called Matsufusa his ‘recommendation’ and has championed him regularly, where character allowed. He remembers Matsufusa the elementary school student who came regularly with his family to shows and took photos alongside him and Gaina. He remembers so well that, when he faced Matsufusa and Harutoki in Dotombori Pro in 2021, he refused to shake Matsufusa’s hand before the match, saying afterwards that this would have brought on tears. In his March 2022 produce show, HUB put the still relatively junior Matsufusa in a singles match with Gaina, and on HUB’s most recent produce show in March 2024, HUB teamed with Matsufusa to take on the DDT Openweight Champion Yuki Ueno and Dick Togo. He certainly deems Matsufusa worthy of attention and praise. That praise has tended to come thus far in the form of putting Matsufusa in challenging positions and up against bigger names, so we can expect that he won’t be making this easy. 

Image from HUB's most recent produce show, showing all participants gathered in the ring. Matsufusa and Ueno are in the centre next to Gaina.
Hub Produce Show, post-match photo

This isn’t the first time the two have faced each other. A dojo based singles in 2021, and tag matches in Dotombori Pro and Osaka Pro, have also earned HUB’s respect and make for interesting viewing. In them, it is possible to see the fiery side to Matsufusa’s character that isn’t always at the fore but has been a driving force behind his previous victories. It is not so much arrogance than it is an unwillingness to accept that he will not overcome both the heroes and villains of his childhood. HUB is one such hero and villain and perhaps the one most likely to test Matsufusa against his own ideals of what wrestling should be.

This may also be the first time Matsufusa will have to do this alone. Kikuchi and Harutoki are both expected to be part of the show, but have to be across town for a Dotombori show the same day. Even if the timing works out this time, sooner or later the Osaka Pro champion and the Dotombori champion will have to tred their own paths separately. Matsufusa is the junior in experience by several years and has proven himself in his own right but facing a challenger without Kikuchi’s cheers at his back would still be a notable step forward. To take that step against a childhood hero, and on the 25th anniversary of both Osaka Pro and HUB’s debut, would be big but fitting.

I won’t make any predictions, not least because one of the things I love about Matsufusa’s reign is that it contains stories beyond his own. A young champion is part of setting up a new Osaka Pro wrestling and a new belt, not just his own ego. That champion being one of many Osaka Pro children’s class alumni makes connections to other wrestlers, other promotions, and to Osaka Pro’s histories and legends. The challenges of Osaka Pro legends show off the best of the company and highlight what Osaka Pro has always tried to be – a family, rooted in Osaka and their love of wrestling, who find ways to challenge and support each other. Who knows whose story this result is about.

Image of Osaka Pro Wrestling roster gathered in a wrestling ring and posing together.

Images taken from @osakapro on X or from @ryu_pw.

Please watch Osaka Pro! You can find their TV coverage on GAORA sports, usually airing a month after events, and can find full events and show digests at their YouTube channel. They have started some live and recorded broadcasting from smaller events, now have a podcast and are expanding their media coverage of all types so keep an eye on their social media for details. Kikuchi and Harutoki can also be found at just about every Osaka-based promotion, including several broadcasting and sharing free matches on YouTube.