Born in Auckland, New Zealand and raised as a Cook Island Maori, Toa Henare knew early in his life that he wanted to be a professional wrestler. He embarked on a journey that first led him to other combat disciplines before he attended a professional wrestling seminar taught by Toks ‘Bad Luck’ Fale. Before Fale Dojo was established at its South Auckland location, Toks Fale designed a training programme that was based on the New Japan Pro Wrestling ‘strong style’. Henare was one of the first Fale Dojo graduates to move on to the NJPW Dojo in Tokyo, thus becoming a product of the Fale Dojo-NJPW Dojo system. Soon after, Henare was elevated to the New Japan roster where he reached a historical milestone by becoming the first professional wrestler of Maori heritage to join NJPW in its almost 50 years in existence. Affectionately known as the ‘Prized Lion’ among the Fale Dojo community, Henare has been a notable addition to New Japan’s presentation; proudly displaying his culture to the excitement of the crowds. Henare remains grounded, not forgetting the foundation of his formal training. When he is in New Zealand, Henare will normally drop by the Dojo to assist with the young lions’ training.
As a young wrestling fan growing up, Henare’s first memories of pro wrestling involved watching WCW on the weekends with his cousins. It was from these early instances where he knew that he wanted to become a pro wrestler. “My favourite wrestlers were Goldberg and Sting,” he explained to Ite Lemalu Writings. “Those memories of WCW sparked something in me. I knew that I wanted to become a pro wrestler.”
In his quest to become a pro wrestler, Henare searched for training schools in Auckland but found there to be none at the time. With no credible pro wrestling training facilities available, he looked into amateur wrestling as an alternative. “I loved pro wrestling as a kid, but there were no wrestling schools, so I decided to do amateur wrestling.”
Henare proceeded in amateur wrestling with the intention that he would eventually find his way to pro wrestling. He trained at Dilworth School while receiving his secondary school education at Pakuranga College. “Not many people will make the connection, but pro wrestling is to Pakuranga College, what rugby is to De La Salle College. Including myself; Michael Richards and Jordan-Allan Wright came out of Pakuranga College.”
Henare thrived as a member of Dilworth’s esteemed Amateur Wrestling Club, excelling at a national level; winning championships in Freestyle, Greco-Roman, and Submission styles. He was also recruited to play for the school’s rugby team. “I also played rugby, because they knew that I could wrestle and apply those skills to the game.”
Henare also competed and won several mixed martial arts tournaments. Many of the MMA fighters who he competed with have since gone onto compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Along the way, Henare was approached to join the New Zealand Olympic wrestling team. This, however, would have come at the cost of not becoming a pro wrestler. “My goal all along was to be a pro wrestler,” Henare shared. “Even though it would’ve been awesome to be part of the Olympic wrestling team, I didn’t want to give up my goal when I knew that I was close to reaching it.”
Henare met Toks Fale in 2013 while attending a pro wrestling seminar that Fale had hosted. It was at that point where his wrestling hopes would begin to evolve. “Fale taught wrestling seminars before the Fale Dojo was set up,” he recalled. “I started training with Fale and became part of his seminars.”
“Fale helped me a lot,” said the prized lion. “He got me my trial in Japan and prepared me for it.”
Since Fale Dojo opened its doors, Henare has seen the opportunities that the Dojo has made available to aspiring wrestlers throughout New Zealand. “It’s great, now that Fale Dojo is a full-time wrestling school, the Dojo can benefit more people who share the same dream.”
During his time at the NJPW Dojo, Henare experienced why it’s regarded as the most reputable professional wrestling school in the world. Henare also noticed how it differs from Fale Dojo. “The NJPW Dojo is full-on,” he explained. “You’re doing similar warm-ups to Fale Dojo’s; 1000 squats, 200 push-ups and 200 sit-ups.”
“With the NJPW Dojo, your daily training begins as soon as you wake up. When it comes to martial arts, NJPW Dojo teaches styles that are relevant to the Japanese culture like Sumo and Ju-Jitsu. At Fale Dojo, you get to do kickboxing, shoot wrestling and boxing. At our recent training, we also got to do submission wrestling and looked at it from all sorts of different angles.”
Henare has been mentored by some reputable veterans at the NJPW Dojo, one of his senpais is Yuji Nagata. “I remember watching Yuji in WCW,” said Henare. “He wasn’t one of my favourite wrestlers then, but he’s become one of my heroes, and I study him a lot.”
“Since I started understanding wrestling more, I realised that New Japan was a better product,” he explained. “It’s not just about the money, New Japan lets me be who’s inside me: Toa Henare.”
Henare cited that an important value to working with New Japan is the schedule. Unlike its western counterparts that travel for most of the year, the Japanese wrestling schedule works in a tour system where their wrestlers can return home after a tour.
“New Japan is amazing because they let you come home regularly,” Henare emphasised. “Our Pacific culture is similar to their Japanese culture, so they understand our concept of family, and they acknowledge that it’s important to us. It’s a perfect balance; we come back home, set everything up, then go back on tour.”
Henare’s next goal is to become NJPW NEVER Openweight Champion. This championship is known for its physical matches, and its most notable champions specialise in hard-hitting strong style. Tomohiro Iishi, a former NEVER Openweight champion has wrestled Henare on many occasions and is someone who Henare holds in high regard: “Iishi Tomohiro brought me to a new level, that I never knew it was in me,” he said with great fondness. “He slapped me around and beat me up. Now everyone thinks I’m tough.”
Minoru Suzuki and Hirooki Goto are among other hard-hitters that Henare has wrestled. Henare regards his matches with these particular opponents as opportunities that will prepare him for the NEVER Openweight Championship. “These guys aren’t built to flip and fly around,” he assured. “They’re straight up strikers, and I need to be in the ring with these guys. I think I have a shot at the title.”