As the Head Coach of the Fale Dojo three-month professional wrestling course, Tony Kozina is responsible for providing the young lions with their initial training. The objective is to introduce the lions to the Dojo lifestyle and teach a solid foundation that will prepare them on a path to one day pursue further training at the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo in Tokyo. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has stifled progress for many businesses and organisations worldwide, the remaining young lions continue to train while in lockdown.
“February 2020 has been unique, to say the least,” said Kozina. “The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus sent many of the students scrambling for home, but we still have a handful who showed the dedication and commitment to stay and see it through.”
Kozina added: “Since we all live and train at the Dojo, this pandemic, while shutting down the outside world, really hasn’t changed what we’re doing as far as our training goes! While we have cancelled all open public classes, we still do our daily Fale Dojo Young Lions training and that has never been interrupted!”
Portland, Oregon, USA
As a child, Derrick Shaw was enrolled in boxing and wrestling classes by his parents. His early education in combat sports helped him develop the philosophy that professional wrestling should be treated with dignity and legitimacy. Prior to his arrival at Fale Dojo, Shaw spent the last two years wrestling throughout the Portland area.
“What inspired me to become a professional wrestler was the local wrestling scene that was lacking,” said Shaw. “I figured if I trained to become a wrestler, I could help do something about it.”
“The scene lacked passion, and I resented those who ran it for not caring enough to improve the standard,” he added. “Those very people told me that I wouldn’t make it in pro wrestling.”
Shaw was not the least bit shaken by the remarks. Instead, he sought training from two local wrestlers Josh Barr and Cameron Star: Both were students of Col. DeBeers and the late Buddy Rose. From there, Shaw devoted himself to developing his skills based on a specific breed of wrestler that fit his preferred style and complemented his strong build.
“I love technical wrestling,” he shared. “I watched matches that involved Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, Billy Robinson and Taz.”
Shaw added: “I studied the way Terry Gordy ran the ropes and threw his whole body when he charged at opponents, and I applied that to my style. I also followed Jeff Cobb very closely. He’s one of my favourite wrestlers.”
“I try to be as individual as I can, it’s hard to be original nowadays.”
Shaw’s hopes were boosted when he met Tony Kozina on July 2019:
“I had a match with Tony in Portland during the three months he spent back in the States,” Shaw recalled. “After our match, he came back and thanked me for keeping him safe and listening to the crowd to keep them involved.”
Shaw continued: “Tony extended the offer to me to train at Fale Dojo! I turned down the offer at first because I couldn’t leave my job and I hadn’t updated my passport. Tony then told me to wait for a week and then we can figure it out. While thinking it over, I realised I was only making excuses. After a week had passed, I messaged Tony and told him that I accept the offer and I would come in February.”
Shaw’s journey at Fale Dojo thus far has been filled with many lessons and challenges. He relies on the philosophy by which he was raised for clarity.
“My mom and dad taught me to never say anything I didn’t mean, so when I tell you that my journey so far has been extremely trying I mean it. That tells me the outcome will be a blessing,” Shaw described.
“As cliché as it is, it’s very true: if it were easy, everyone would do it. However, while being difficult and painful, I’ve been learning on a daily basis more about the Pacific Island culture, Japanese culture, why we train the way we do, as well as more about myself and what I may be capable of.”
“My limits have been pushed and surpassed; every day I find I am now able to do more than yesterday.”
“My biggest challenge has been realizing I’m not as strong as I thought I was,” Shaw revealed. “Both physically, but more importantly mentally and emotionally. My body can take a beating, knowing that I have a long way to go in bettering myself mentality is something I’ve been struggling with since I’ve been here, because it’s never been pushed and challenged as hard as it has been here.”
“I’m excited to see how much my confidence and mind frame changes and adapts when I finish, but I also am fully aware of how difficult and how patient I will have to be in going through the change.”
As the oldest member of the young lions, Shaw finds himself at a disadvantage. However, his maturity and forward-thinking makes up for it, as he demonstrated with his recent transformation.
“I’m the oldest trainee here by an average of almost 10 years,” said the young lion from Portland, Oregon. “I also came in as the third heaviest. That in itself is a big motivator for me; if I’m the oldest and one of the most out of shape and I can keep up with these young and super fit men, who’s the actual threat here? Me.”
Presently, Shaw is training at the Dojo during New Zealand’s self-isolation lockdown. Inspired by these trying times, Shaw remains focused.
“I’ve learned that it’s never ok to settle or get comfortable, especially with what the world is going through today,” he expressed with determination. “I had previously accepted that my cardio was not good at all, but now I push it every day to see how much more I can do and how much further I can go than the last time. Some days are better than others.”
He continued: “I’ve been making it a point to make sure that my teachers or trainers or seniors above me are acknowledged with pride, and are taken care of first before myself.”
“I’ve been greatly enjoying my time here in New Zealand and if I was asked to stay longer I think I’d be more than happy to oblige,” he stated. “The weather alone is a huge turnaround from back home in the states, Portland, Oregon, where it’s raining and overcast 88% of the year.”
“I have quite a few things that help keep me focused while I’m here. The work here can be unbearable and I’d be more than happy with going home some days,” Shaw said in closing. “My peers and the trainers push me very hard and I believe they do it to motivate me and make me realize that I can, in fact, do this and I can, in fact, keep up.”
Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
Australia’s Liam O’Donnell is otherwise known by his wrestling persona, Zeke Andino. As a young fan, O’Donnell grew up watching WWE. Years later, O’Donnell came upon the Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega match from New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 11. He replayed the match over and over as it was nothing like what he’d seen before. O’Donnell became an avid fan of NJPW so much that it inspired him to pursue professional wrestling.
“I started training in Australia,” said O’Donnell, the native Queenslander. “Then in September 2017, I ventured overseas to broaden my experience.”
O’Donnell gained a great following through his travels overseas. His social media accounts have a combined close to 50 thousand followers although he’s only been an active wrestler for a few years. O’Donnell however, has stayed firmly grounded. Upon his return to Australia, O’Donnell searched for avenues that would lead him to New Japan.
He stated: “I had no idea how to get to New Japan. But once I saw the NJPW try-outs that were being held in Australia and learned about Fale Dojo, I knew I had to take the opportunity.”
“I tried out twice for Fale Dojo, but I’m very fortunate to be here for this intake,” he shared.
O’Donnell’s experience at Fale Dojo has come with some observations that will help prepare him for the wrestling profession and life in general.
“My journey thus far at the Fale Dojo has been an eye-opening experience,” O’Donnell expressed. “It has been testing both mentally and physically but also very rewarding.”
“If you can overcome the task here at the Dojo then it gives you the confidence to tackle anything front on in the world whether it may be overcoming a fear, coming out of your comfort zone, applying for a job, proving your worth, and much more.”
O’Donnell added “It’s been awesome meeting so many new people and learning about their backgrounds and culture. This has made me want to learn about my background and my parent’s upbringing and culture which has additionally made us closer and connect more.”
“The experience so far has also taught me to appreciate the little things in life and how important it is to be open, talk to family and friends and to not hold anything in as that can bring you down negatively. I also miss my mum’s cooking!”
Challenges that have arisen for O’Donnell include the concept of shared space and the lessened time he’s had to spend with loved ones. Nevertheless, O’Donnell has adapted.
“Living in a confined space with 8 to 10 other guys that you barely know can be difficult as you are required to work as a team on a daily basis,” said O’Donnell. “But everyone has been open-minded and we all became a close group after a couple of weeks of figuring everything out.”
He explained: “Over the past five months I’ve only seen my family for about five days prior to coming to the Fale Dojo. I was living in America for three months, working in Victoria, Australia for six weeks, and now I’ve been here in New Zealand for around six weeks. It is all a part of the sacrifices we make but I’m confident and positive that it will pay off.”
“Another challenge is being smart with money as I don’t have an income so I make sure that every cent I spend is worthwhile,” O’Donnell advised.
O’Donnell discovered the severity of the training regime at Fale Dojo. Although he felt he tried his best to prepare beforehand. The experience taught him to dig deep and find more physical and mental strength than he’s had to before.
“Being under the guidance of Fale-San, Tony-San and the other senpais is impeccable as you get to pick their brains on a daily basis and apply what you get taught to your craft,” said the young lion. “At the Dojo, you learn a lot of Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, kickboxing and amateur wrestling which are all different martial arts/disciplines that I’ve always wanted to learn.”
“Getting taught the correct techniques and applying them in our fights help expand my arsenal and gives me the confidence needed when facing any opponent no matter what size they are. We also get put through rigorous drills where you have to push past the point of exhaustion and that teaches you the fighting spirit, that when times are tough you have to keep fighting and pushing through.”
“I’ve already learnt so much whilst being here,” he noted. “I look forward to learning so much more and having a different approach towards professional wrestling.”
“I’m loving my time here in New Zealand. It’s awesome because my mum is a Kiwi, she was born and raised in Hawke’s Bay,” O’Donnell revealed. “Mum will always try to teach me some funny slang and tell me stories about her upbringing and it’s another way that we can bond and share what our experiences are like in this country.”
“I love coming across new cultures and learning about their traditions and that’s one of the great things about the Fale Dojo is that it’s more than just a wrestling school.”
O’Donnell’s quest is strongly supported by his family and friends. He regards his two younger sisters as his greatest supporters.
“I miss my family and friends every day but I keep my eyes on the prize and think of what the payoff will be in the long run,” O’Donnell stated. “I’m very fortunate to have such a great group of mates and family who constantly keep in touch with me to see how I’m travelling and are willing to talk to me for hours if needed just to help out.”
“One of my sisters has downs syndrome, she’s always supported me,” he shared with fondness. “I want to be able to take her to wrestling shows and bring her joy. That makes me happy as well.”
“My goal is to be a young lion at Fale Dojo and the NJPW Dojo. I also hope to compete at Wrestle Kingdom.”
“I do this all for my family,’ O’Donnell said in closing. “I want to support my family through professional wrestling.”
Mangere East, South Auckland, New Zealand
Eliseni Fale is the youngest member of the February 2020 intake. He is also the nephew of Toks Fale. Eliseni was enlisted by his uncle Fale to join the three-month professional wrestling course after he left high school. Eliseni’s enlistment will likely serve him well as it will teach him discipline, and life skills, and provide the international training needed to pursue a career in sports
Eliseni attended De LaSalle College where he was immersed in the school’s proud culture which teaches its students the importance of service, brotherhood, loyalty, and where lifelong friendships are forged. The philosophy is embedded in Eliseni’s kind character and is a crucial ingredient in maintaining strong relationships with groups, communities and organisations. Such is the case for Fale Dojo which is heavily influenced by Toks Fale’s values and beliefs (Fale is a notable graduate of De LaSalle). Furthermore, the spirit of brotherhood is evident during NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14 when Fale invited his high school friends, Hendrix Tui and Timothy Lafaele (international rugby union players who are based in Japan) to join him at ringside for his match.
Eliseni the young Tongan stands at 6 feet 1 inch and played rugby for two years. He has been a regular observer of the Dojo’s various classes and is aware of what is expected of him in the three-month course.
“My training has been challenging, learning the Japanese way in and outside the Dojo,” said Eliseni. “We are training six days a week, two to three times a day. I’d say it’s been the best choice for me since I left school.”
“I’m only 15 years old and I got a bright and even more challenging future ahead,” he added. “Training has had a huge impact on my life. I feel better than before when I was eating takeaways and would train here and there. I’m more active and I’m happy living a healthier and better lifestyle!”
“The training is intense but I seem to slowly get better at it day by day!” shared the young lion from Mangere East. “I get sore and all but that’s not an excuse to not train. I fight through it and still try to manage it and finish the workouts.”
“I’ve learnt to be more active daily whether it’s cleaning, training or doing something useful,” Eliseni said in closing. “I learned to do stuff on my own and work on stuff on my own.”
Manhattan, New York, USA
Liam Hazan has returned to Fale Dojo with the goal to complete the three-month course. Hazan was initially part of the 2019 February intake, however, during the training, he severely injured his wrist and had to withdraw from the programme. Hazan spent much of his time away rehabbing his wrist, working out, and watching New Japan Pro Wrestling in preparation for his return to New Zealand.
“It’s been pretty great being back,” said Hazan. “I’m learning to accomplish things that I used to think I could never do, breaking down these mental barriers that I once had has been really motivating.”
“My grandma was a big wrestling fan,” he shared with great affection. “My family is from Israel, and wrestling was huge there.”
“The first wrestling memory was watching a videotape of New Japan at my grandma’s house that showed a match between Nobuhiko Takada against Shinya Hashimoto,” Hazan recalled. “I gravitated to New Japan because our values are very similar to Japanese culture.”
Hazan arrived at the Dojo ready to train. Prior to his return, he spent the year working out and developing a solid physique; a stature he did not have previously.
“I’m being conscious of all of my subtle body language and how I position myself during the wrestling portion of training has been a learning process,” said the young lion from Manhattan, New York.
“I’m learning a lot of new things,” he added. “Outside of the wrestling aspect of training, I’m learning to put my all into every aspect of life. It’s a lesson I think about a lot more since coming here.”
Hazan is clearly a very driven and determined individual. Having fought back from his injury, he is now ready to complete the Fale Dojo training and continue on his path to becoming a professional wrestler. Hazan has a straight-to-the-point attitude that helps him focus solely on his training without getting affected by homesickness and outside issues, as it’s clear his aim is to progress to the next part of his journey.
“I really like the atmosphere over here and how laid back things are in Otahuhu and in the city,” Hazan concluded. “It’s a nice dichotomy to the Dojo that makes it easier to go outside and unwind after training. Nothing really makes me homesick, to be honest, I’m content with just being here and focusing on my life at the moment.”