In October 2018, Michael Richards and Andrew Villalobos joined the ranks of the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo in Tokyo. Prior to moving over to Japan, Richards and Villalobos first completed a three-month wrestling course at the Fale Dojo training facility, a partner of New Japan Pro Wrestling based in Auckland, New Zealand. As they near the end of their trial with the NJPW Dojo, the Young Lions reflected on their journey together.
“Looking back at the time between Fale Dojo and now, it has been pretty surreal,” Michael Richards told Ite Lemalu. “In 2017, I was sent to train at Fale Dojo after attending the first ever New Japan try-out in New Zealand.”
“It’s just crazy to see how far I’ve come since then,” stated Richards. “But this is still the very beginning of this journey.”
Andrew Villalobos’ expedition to Japan began when he moved from Australia to New Zealand so that he could attend Fale Dojo. “I feel like I’ve achieved something special,” said Villalobos.
“It’s a milestone sacrificing what I had when I moved to New Zealand, then being able to come here to Japan to train with the best,” explained Villalobos. “But I will only truly be satisfied once I accomplish my goal of being signed with NJPW.”
Having to relocate countries, twice in six months demonstrated Villalobos’ passion in pursuing his goal. It was also an eye-opener as he encountered on his initial day of training at the NJPW Dojo. “It was definitely a culture shock,” he recalled. “It’s always nerve-racking, starting something in a new place with new people who expect a lot out of you.”
When their journey first began at the Fale Dojo; Head Trainer and founder, Bad Luck Fale gave a clear and specified outline of what he expected from his students. They were also told that the teachings at Fale Dojo would be a taste of what they would endeavour at the NJPW Dojo.
“It’s definitely harder here,” said Villalobos. “But Fale Dojo prepared me for what was to come.”
Richards remembered his first day at the New Japan Dojo as one that was demanding and structured with routine exercises. “Our first day of training was very brutal, to say the least,” described Richards. “Training started at 10 am, and we were pushed to the limit from the word ‘Go’. The day consisted of a variety of exercises including squats, skipping, lion push-ups, etc.”
“I was very nervous before starting my first training session at NJPW Dojo,” said Richards. “But now that I’ve been here for quite some time now, those nerves have indeed gone away.”
“The training at NJPW Dojo is harder than Fale Dojo,” Richards anticipated. “At Fale Dojo, Fale himself was in our face screaming if we did something wrong. The same thing happens here. Senpais always scream in your face, which is very frightening.”
Richards and Villalobos train alongside five other Japanese Young Lions at the NJPW Dojo, Shota, Kanemitsu, Narita, Tsuji and Uemura. Each student brings their own depth of experience which has helped them to transition to the Japanese Dojo. Richards and Villalobos explained how their experience at Fale Dojo helped them to adapt to the training in Japan.
“The whole purpose of Fale Dojo is to prepare and climatise those who wish to train here at the New Japan Dojo, and that’s exactly what it did,” assessed Villalobos. “But I wouldn’t call it an advantage as everyone else here is so much more experienced. I am starting from the bottom.”
“Fale Dojo helped prepare me for the New Japan Dojo in many ways, most importantly the three-month course I took part in earlier this year,” endorsed Richards. “We were doing intense training six days week. We were waking up at 8 am every day and we also had to clean the entire Dojo every morning. That course was just a small taste of what we expected in Japan.”
During the New Japan events, the Young Lions are put on ringside duty where they are required to perform a number of tasks around the venue. Such responsibilities involve keeping the ringside area in order and securing a safe distance between the crowd and the wrestlers. This is also an opportunity for the lions to observe the matches up close. The Fale Dojo graduates had their first outing at the Road to Tokyo events.
“As some of you may have seen, Andrew and I were on ringside duty at the Road to Tokyo Dome shows in Korakuen Hall,” Richards shared. “There were many duties we had to do which included opening and closing the ringside gate that led to the entryway for the wrestlers. We also had to set up the steps next to the ring and put them away before the match begins. Overall, our job is to monitor and oversee the show as it goes on.”
In addition to their workouts at the New Japan Dojo, the lions are afforded the opportunity to learn from some of the senior members in the New Japan roster. Many of whom have come through the NJPW system and are regarded as elders by the Young Lions. For Richards and Villalobos, they were grateful for the interaction they gained from working with Fale and Toa Henare while they trained at Fale Dojo.
“When I was at Fale Dojo, I had a short practice match with Henare, which was a great experience, that, as well as Fale himself, teaching us,” recalled Villalobos. “Here in Japan, a few Senpais like Jay White may jump in during training to show us a thing or two.”
New Japan’s English-speaking commentators have noted on many occasions about Minoru Suzuki’s ruthless handling of the Young Lions during sparring sessions and at NJPW events. Villalobos and Richards were casualties of Suzuki’s famous beatings.
“I haven’t had any dealings with Minoru Suzuki yet, just a kick or two from him at the Road to Tokyo Dome show,” said Villalobos, a survivor.
“Since we have only been here for a very short time, I have not sparred with Suzuki San,” said Richards. “But with that being said, while we were ringside at the Road to Tokyo Dome shows, he attacked both Andrew and myself as he was making his entrance.”
“In terms of Henare San, we used to wrestle and train with each other back home in New Zealand,” explained Richards. “I even had my first match with him on the NZ indy scene back in 2015.”
Michael Richards and Andrew Villalobos are two of the most recent examples of Fale Dojo and New Japan Pro Wrestling’s ability to give New Zealand and Australian wrestlers the platform to compete on the international stage.
“I know the NJPW Dojo wants to expand,” expressed Villalobos. “I can’t speak for the rest of the world or the New Japan’s LA Dojo, but I know that Toks Fale and Fale Dojo has given and continues to share opportunities for Australians and New Zealanders that want to make it to New Japan Pro Wrestling.”
“Now that Fale Dojo is getting more traction and exposure around the world, the chance for Kiwis and Aussies of getting to a world stage is much greater,” stated Richards.
“The proof is in the pudding. So many names have come from Fale Dojo and have gone on to wrestle for NJPW. Guys like Jay White, Henare, Hikuleo, Robbie Eagles, even Andrew and myself beginning our training at the Dojo,” Richards concluded. “It’s a real safe bet that New Japan Pro Wrestling is providing better opportunities to us Kiwis and Aussies who are looking to wrestle on an international level.”