Fale Dojo / NZ Dojo welcomed the second student intake of 2022 with training commencing in the second week of June. Led by Head Coach, Toks Fale aka ‘Rogue General’ Bad Luck Fale of New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), Fale is joined by his team of Tony Kozina – Pro-Wrestling Head Coach, and Tangi Ropati – Strength & Conditioning Coach.
In addition, the coaching staff welcomes Brad ‘Quake’ Riddell. Riddell, a world-class professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) organisation, has been lending his expertise to the young lions to broaden their combat abilities. Riddell also teaches Kickboxing as part of the Fale Dojo General Community Classes.
Tony Kozina oversees the day-to-day training of the young lions, marking Kozina’s twelfth intake of training aspiring professional wrestlers.
“The June 2022 intake, while getting off to a rocky start has ended up blossoming into one of the finer intakes we’ve had at Fale Dojo,” said coach Kozina. “I believe you will see this in the ‘before and after’ photos. It may end up being the best transformation we have had!”
Kozina commented on the varying levels of wrestling involvement in the current intake of young lions. “With that said, we have the most diverse group yet. From little life experience to well-travelled, and from no wrestling experience to several years.”
The June intake consists of five young lions. They are also joined and guided by the senior lions signed to NJPW, Michael Richards, Andrew Villalobos, and Jake Taylor.
“It has necessitated creating two classes to make sure everyone gets proper focus time at their individual level,” Kozina explained of some changes to the training schedule. “This is something I have planned for, knowing that at some point it would be needed.”
“Conditioning has been strong and in this last month we are really starting to focus on coordination, balance, plyometrics, and footwork,” Kozina described. “It’s an entirely different workout than before, and that’s certainly a breath of fresh air for the guys, instead of the same old, same old.”
“Tangi Ropati has taken the three lions under contract with New Japan and is working to get their bodies in pristine shape, in the event that they get the call to go to Japan,” Kozina added. “You have to be razor sharp and ready. While Tangi handles the bodywork, I am prepping their minds in the ring.”
NIKOLAI ANTON BELL
Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
Nikolai Anton Bell arrived at Fale Dojo earlier this year from Christchurch. As he was the only new student in the February 2022 intake, Bell trained alongside, NJPW contracted wrestlers, Michael Richards, Andrew Villalobos, and Jake Taylor. The June 2022 intake marks Bell’s second class, giving the young lion, a post-graduate experience.
Bell’s journey to Fale Dojo began in May 2021.
“There was a tryout in Christchurch for the Dojo that took place with the company that I was wrestling for independently,” Bell shared, having already two years of wrestling experience. “I went to the tryout even though I was injured and couldn’t partake and I got to know Fale-San and Mark-San. Upon that, they invited me to join the Dojo.”
“My initial thoughts after arriving at Fale Dojo and starting my training in February was, ‘this is hard,’” Bell revealed. “It was a bit of a reality check, and it wasn’t as glamourous as I thought it was going to be.”
“It was the same with living at the Dojo house,” Bell continued. “You’re now living with a group of dudes you never really met, and you’re expected to simmer in and get on with it. But now, you don’t put much thought into it.”
The occurrence of homesickness has been a challenge for Bell to overcome. Nevertheless, the resilient crusader from Christchurch is managing to fend off these issues so that they don’t become barriers to his progress during training.
“There are those days when you miss home, and you miss the people that are around you. It’s easy to have a support system anywhere you go, but nothing really beats home,” Bell shared.
“The girlfriend is now a long-distance girlfriend, and I’m not as close to my family, because I’m pretty horrible at keeping in touch,’ he added.
“Obviously, there are little challenges, but you live day to day,” Bell put into perspective. “I don’t try to think of the intake as a whole, I look to finish each week and make it to Sunday, my day off, and then I forget about all the challenges.”
Bell has gained clarity since adapting to the environment at the Dojo, absorbing tremendous knowledge throughout his two intakes.
“I look at the training a lot differently in the sense that the coaches are not just trying to kill us, they’re actually helping us to progress,” said Bell.
“Tangi-San kills me every day that we work together,” Bell alluded to Tangi Ropati’s famous strength and conditioning workouts. “Tangi-San has helped me understand the significance of taking care of your body, how to get the most out of the weights instead of going through the motions and how to target specific body parts.”
“Fale-San and Tony-San can do the same thing with you at training, and both have different types of feedback which is fantastic,” Bell observed coaches Toks Fale, and Tony Kozina. “It’s such a wide variety of learning. You do the full scope of wrestling here at Fale Dojo – from every significant little detail all the way to thinking of a match holistically.”
“Training with the ‘Quake’ is awesome,” Bell shared of his grappling and shoot fighting training with coach Brad Riddell. “It’s always nice to have that extra layer of groundwork and shoot fighting.”
“Brad-San is insanely talented at what he does,” he said. “Brad-San loves his sport, and he wants to share it with other people, and it adds a whole other level of intricacy to what we do.”
The training of the young lions gets put to the test at the Dojo’s Exhibition student showcase events which take place fortnightly.
“The Exhibition shows have been great,” the young lion reflected on his experience. “Some of my matches have been good, while some others have been … I guess we can call them, learning experiences. I’ve come out of every single match with something that I could work on and something that I could be proud of.”
“I’ve always had a vision in how I see myself wrestling,” Bell shared of developing his craft. “Before I came to the Dojo, my wrestling wasn’t matching my taste. What Tony-San and Fale-San did, was they helped me get my skills to the point where my wrestling production has started to get close to the wrestling that I like to watch.”
Bell added: “The old school wrestling mentality appeals to me, and Tony-San has helped me flesh that out and reaffirm the kind of wrestling I want to be doing and showing me how to do so.”
As Bell approaches the final month of the intake, his long-term goal is to earn an NJPW contract. Throughout the last two intakes, Bell has been shadowing his Senior senpais, Richards, Villalobos, and Taylor in pursuit of reaching his goal.
“I really want to get a contract with New Japan, whether if it’s with this intake or the next couple,” Bell stated, staying committed to his aspiration. “Being ADHD, I’m quite impatient, but I’ll just hold out.
“Michael-San, Andrew-San, and Jake-San are the example setters.” Bell the young lion shared. “They are where I want to be, they’ve gone and done it. So, it’s about monkey see, monkey do with them, and if I have any questions about how to get where they are, I know I can ask them.”
“I know I’ve accomplished a lot, like finishing an intake,” Bell said in conclusion. “There are little minor wins I’ve had somewhere down the line. I’m not done yet, so I don’t want to pat myself on the back.”
Palmerston North, Manawatu-Whanganui, New Zealand
Prior to his training at Fale Dojo, Rowan Davis had been working at his regular job while wrestling on the local independent scene throughout the past six years. After much thought, and at the risk of leaving the safety of his job security, Davis decided to take the next step in pursuing a full-time career in professional wrestling, leading the young lion to the Dojo.
“I’ve always been hungry for knowledge when it comes to the in’s and out of professional wrestling and I wanted to learn from the best,” said Davis.
“I had a mindset that Fale Dojo would be hard so coming in, my only thought was whatever you do, don’t give up,” he described of his first-time training at the Dojo. “It was a brutal first month of conditioning but luckily, I was able to lean on the young lions beside me.”
Upon his arrival, Davis was thrown into the deep end when he competed in his debut Exhibition match on the first week of the intake.
“The Exhibitions are great,” said Davis. “Fale-San and Tony-San are great coaches and it’s very satisfying to be able to put their advice into action.”
Davis has remained a regular on the Exhibition shows, excelling in his craft with each event. By the conclusion of the June 2022 intake, the young lion from Palmerston North would have wrestled on four Exhibition events.
Davis’ journey has not come without its challenges, however, having sustained an injury to his ankle early in the intake.
“For a couple of days there was a lot of stuff I couldn’t do,” explained the young lion of the setback. “I started rehab quickly to build my strength back, but I was often too optimistic about my ankle’s well-being, tweaking it or hurting it while training. I didn’t want to get left behind and was able to find a happy medium between rehab and continuing to push my limits.”
Persevering through his injury, Davis, with determination and hard work accomplished the neck bridge – a badge of honour for many Fale Dojo young lions who came before him.
“Nailing the worm neck bridge was great,” Davis shared. “For something that looks impossible, being able to perform that bridge gave me a lot of self-confidence.”
In addition, since his arrival at Fale Dojo, Davis has developed a greater understanding of the wrestling industry.
“I think it’s how deep the rabbit hole goes,” explained Davis. “The industry has changed so much in the last couple of decades so when Fale-San or Tony-San explain why certain things are done it’s super interesting.”
“Fale-San blows my mind with most trainings I have with him,” Davis elaborated on his coaches. “Fale-San always has a bit of knowledge or a certain technique that really opens your eyes into the wrestling world.”
“Tony-San is a veteran in every sense of the word. He’s seen it all and done it all,” Davis continued. “Every question asked usually comes with a great story from his experiences in the business and helps change your personal preconceptions when it comes to pro wrestling”
“Brad-San really sharpens our arsenal helping us to combine two different styles of combat to make our own brand of professional wrestling,” Davis shared about his grappling and shoot fighting sessions with Brad ‘Quake’ Riddell.
As Davis alluded to Tangi Ropati’s strength and conditioning classes which were a complete shock to the system: Davis’ goal is to exceed his one repetition max test that he lifted at the start of the intake.
“Tangi-Sans sessions are days I both dread and look forward to,” Davis shared about the ‘Soul Taker’ Ropati. “Tangi-San runs awesome sessions for us, and he motivates you to think you can do the impossible.”
He continued: “When Tangi-San explains his workouts, sometimes you think ‘is this a joke?’ and after hundreds of reps, you didn’t think you’d get through it, you are ready to take on the next impossible task!”
“Our Senpais have a hard job between coaching us and living with us at the Dojo house, but they are living proof that hard work pays off,” Davis shared about Richards, Villalobos, and Taylor in his conclusion. “I’m always inspired when I train with the Senpais and young lions. It motivates me to work harder.”
Ipswich, Queensland, Australia
Shep Alexander has been longing to cross the Tasman sea to further his wrestling at Fale Dojo. Shep’s quest was five years in the making. However, at that time, his desire to relocate to Auckland, New Zealand was never compromised.
“While wrestling in Australia, I had been studying NJPW matches for years,” said the young lion from Ipswich, known then as Alex Shepard during his ten years wrestling on the local independent scene.
“In 2017 when NJPW held tryouts in Melbourne, I was given an opportunity to showcase my skills, in doing so I met Fale-San,” Alexander recalled of his first meeting with Toks Fale. “Fale-San talked to me about coming to Fale Dojo to improve and take my wrestling to the next level.”
The experience of meeting his future coach Toks Fale and getting a taste of New Japan gave Alexander the motivation to seize greater opportunities.
“Ever since then, I’ve been working to get here, despite some difficulties,” he commented. “I now finally have the chance to learn from Fale-San and Tony-San in order to become the wrestler and person I aspire to be.”
After arriving in Auckland for the June 2022 intake, Alexander was ready to work.
“There was so much to take in,” he recalled from his first day. “I could see for myself there was a lot to work on, in terms of conditioning, wrestling, and how to show proper etiquette to my senpais and fellow kohais.”
“The major challenge I encountered was keeping a strong mental mindset when faced with an almost impossible physical task,” Alexander shared of the obstacles that he overcame in time. “In the midst of these challenges, I found confidence in applying my new grappling skills to hold my own with professional wrestlers that had more experience and abilities than I had when starting out here.”
Alexander has been developing his skills as a participant in the Exhibition student showcase events where he has been receiving a master class courtesy of coach Tony Kozina.
“I’ve been very lucky when it comes to the Exhibition shows, I have wrestled Tony-San twice and each time I have felt an improvement due to his wrestling ability and knowledge,” Alexander shared, the Dojo’s Exhibition also marking his NZ debut.
“Tony-San has a vast amount of experience, and each day continues to impart knowledge about our in-ring movements and the psychology of a match,” he added. “In doing so Tony-San has opened my mind to how I should wrestle to keep competing at a high standard in this modern age.”
“I’ve also been allowed time to showcase my mic skills and engage with the audience and Dojo staff and Dojo members,” Shep alluded to challenging Tony Kozina to a rematch.
In addition to wrestling two matches with Kozina, the 20-plus year veteran; Alexander teamed with his fellow young lions, Nikolai Anton Bell, and Rowan Davis in a six-man tag main event match against their senior senpais, Michael Richards, Andrew Villalobos, and Jake Taylor.
“I have enjoyed training and learning from all three Senior Lions,” said Alexander. “Each offers a different perspective and strength to learn from.”
Alexander’s outlook evolves as he continues to train at the Dojo. This is indicative of the world-class training that the coaches have helped to instil in the young lion.
“Fale Dojo is far from easy, in fact, it’s the hardest experience of my life, and I’ve been through a lot,” Alexander stated. “It’s about being on and ready to go all the time. We train hard, are held accountable for every detail, and lead a tough lifestyle not endured by the average person.”
“Fale-San has a presence and composes himself in a way which conveys knowledge and power,” Alexander shared about the influence of Toks Fale. “He has taught me lots of small things which the average wrestler wouldn’t even pick up on and I look forward to learning more from him as time goes by.”
“Tangi-San is both motivational and truly a soul taker,” Alexander continued, speaking about Tangi Ropati. “He will push us beyond our limits and while doing so takes a special interest in our nutrition and training to make us grow.”
“Brad-San has taught us some exceptional wrestling and striking skills,” Alexander elaborated on the MMA influence that Brad Riddell has implemented in his overall training. “Every technique he breaks down each movement and why we do it to be an effective fighter. All of which can now be implemented in the wrestling ring.”
With a month left in the intake, Alexander looks to make the most of his opportunities.
“I now look at wrestling from a more combative perspective rather than entertainment,” stated Alexander. “Now it’s up to me to hone and apply my skills in order to become victorious and advance up the ranks within Fale Dojo and NJPW.”
“You have to submit your mindset to use the Fale Dojo experience to the best of your ability, especially if you want this to be your livelihood,” he added.
“I encourage my peers back home and around the world to strive towards improving and investing in yourself,” Alexander the young lion roared in closing. “When you’re ready to take the next step to become a better version of yourself as a professional wrestler or to harness life skills then Fale Dojo is the place to be.”
Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Seth Reese has travelled the furthest to train at Fale Dojo. From Louisville, Kentucky, USA, Reese followed the same path that other Americans before him travelled, namely Hikuleo, Aaron Solo, Juicy Finau, and Derrick Shaw. Reese, unlike his predecessors, came to Fale Dojo with no previous wrestling experience on top of being in a new country for the first time.
“I’ve been watching wrestling since I was seven years old, and I was inspired to become a wrestler by the time I graduated from high school,” said Reese.
Arriving two weeks before the start of the June 2022 intake, Reese immediately jumped into training. However, such an adjustment became a barrier for the young lion.
“It was a big challenge for me mentally and emotionally,” Reese openly shared. “There were problems I left behind back home in America and after this huge culture shock, I started breaking down.”
“I didn’t open my mind to anything, and that led me wanting to go back home due to various reasons,” he revealed. “Overall, I felt like I wasn’t ready for this change, and I didn’t want to hold anyone back.”
Reese continued: “I couldn’t do any of the techniques that Jake-San and Andrew-San were teaching me. I couldn’t understand the form and technique of the lion push-up.”
Reese shared his doubts and concerns with Dojo staff and senior senpai Jake Taylor. The staff in turn supported the young lion to continue with his training. To gain another perspective close to home, Reese was contacted by Dojo graduate, Derrick Shaw, who spoke about his own experience, training through the 2020 global pandemic, before assuring young Reese to stay the course.
After much effort, Reese persevered with the workouts and adapted to his unique environment.
“The lion push-ups were the one thing that bothered me the most,” he recalled. “But by the second week of the intake, I was able to overcome the challenge and learn the technique.”
During the Exhibition events, Reese was responsible for maintaining the Dojo in addition to being at ringside to observe the matches and tend to his fellow lions after they wrestled.
As the intake progressed, Reese became involved in the sumo wrestling style tournament that became an addition to the Exhibition.
“In my first and second Exhibitions, I was doing other duties like serving sausage sizzles,” Reese shared. “Being able to help out made me feel useful.”
He continued: “On the last couple of Exhibitions, I was able to be a part of the show by grappling with my fellow lions.”
“It was an interesting experience,” he added. “I wanted to see if I could get with some of them. Of course, it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go but I will keep improving my grappling skills to show future lions that I can compete.”
Outside of training, Reese has adapted to the New Zealand culture and gravitated to the local cuisine after having his first mince and cheese pie. Reese credits his coaches for their guidance.
“I love my coaches and trainers,” Reese expressed with gratitude. “Fale-San provides the best feedback on matches. He knows a lot about how a match should be structured.”
“Tony-San is the main coach that I’ve trained with,” Reese continued. “I do my best to impress Tony-San who helps me to improve my technique with certain exercises.”
Reese recalled his first strength and conditioning session with Tangi Ropati: “Tangi San is called the Soul Taker for a reason. He took my soul in our first session.”
He added: “Tangi-San pushes us to the limits. It’s very hard to overcome these sessions, but when we make it to the end, it’s the best feeling.”
“My training with Brad-San has been the coolest so far,” Reese shared of the grappling and striking technique classes with Brad Riddell. “To be able to train with an international fighter is unreal, I learned a lot in a short time. Brad-San is patient with me so that I can get the techniques right.”
“I’ve been learning how to properly do a combo of punches, and kicks and knee strikes,” he continued. “I was able to learn how to grapple and learn some of the takedowns and how to counter them. I will incorporate that into my wrestling. I can’t wait to train with Brad-San going forward.”
“The Senior Senpais are monsters!” Reese complemented Richards, Villalobos, and Taylor. “I see why they earned their way to getting signed to New Japan Pro-Wrestling. They’ve done everything that’s been thrown at them. Now their hard work and dedication is paying off.”
He added: “I respect my Senpais for reaching the next level but of course, their story isn’t done. Hopefully, I can get to train with them more.”
Reese is aware that there is much to learn. With the confidence he has gained, along with the pastoral care from his coaches, the young lion from Louisville, Kentucky is aiming to finish the intake strong.
“My goal is to overcome everything I struggle with,” said Reese. “I want to get used to everything and adjust my ability to maintain that mindset to keep getting stronger and faster and be able to stay positive with everything they throw at me.”
“This intake has been a whole new experience for me,” he reflected on his life-changing journey. “I will be honest; this is not for everyone: This is for anyone that wants to put the work in. It’s been hard for me to keep up, but I’m with the right pride of lions to help keep me in line.”
“Coming to Auckland was a big leap for me,” said Reese. “My next step is to reach the next level in my training.”
“I’ve got a lot of time, so I’m not in a rush to overcome all the obstacles,” Reese said wisely in closing, following Tony Kozina’s ‘it’s you versus you’ philosophy. “I love it here, but I also hate it here. That’s the experience coming to Fale Dojo.”
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
From the small town of Red Hill in Melbourne, Australia, Fraser Pittard is the youngest lion in the June 2022 intake. Pittard shares his love of wrestling with his uncle Anthony, and in 2018 they both attended the NJPW Fallout Down Under show at Melbourne’s Festival Hall that was promoted by Toks Fale, and Dojo graduate, Gino Gambino.
This was a significant bonding moment for Pittard’s family. While Anthony reminisced about watching Andre the Giant wrestle in the same venue thirty years earlier, Pittard decided that his ambition was to one day wrestle with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Now at the age of 19, Pittard signed up for the Fale Dojo three-month training course to kick start his wrestling journey. Pittard’s initial reaction to the training was quite a revelation, he explained.
“It was to put it frankly a little shocking to say the very least,” said Pittard. “Seeing the age range and how the Dojo is set out. The training and the discipline is at first daunting, but once gotten use to their great learning tools.”
“I would say that each day has its challenges,” Pittard stated, having to adapt to his new atmosphere. “The most challenging would be getting used to living with so many people at the Dojo house and also how far the training is going to push you.”
When asked about what he regarded as his main accomplishment thus far, Pittard spoke about not giving up.
“Not that it’s much of an accomplishment but I’ve stuck with this course,” he humbly noted. “It’s definitely hard but the fact that even on the worst days, I’m still here is an accomplishment that I am proud of.”
During the Exhibition shows, Pittard was paired with Seth Reese in doing duties around the Dojo while gaining first-hand experience in setting up a wrestling event.
The youngest of Fale’s pride eventually became an addition to the sumo wrestling tournaments and demonstrated some exercises that are part of the NJPW workout.
“It’s a fresh experience learning the ropes,” Pittard explained. “It’s good learning how to set up an event and know what roles are needed to be done and prepare oneself for a show because as much as training can teach someone, it’s not as quite the same as doing it in front of a crowd.”
In addition, the Exhibition executes all the lessons that the coaches have taught the lions.
“Tony-San is a spring of knowledge,” Pittard stated about Kozina. “He shares ideas about how he sees matches. The way he constructs and deconstructs a match is brilliant, a true wrestling scholar,”
He went on to add: “Not only training with Tony-San is worth the time, just talking with him you can sense the enthusiasm.”
“While having much less time with Fale-San, his training hasn’t left my mind even now,” Pittard, observant of Tony Kozina and Toks Fale’s tag team training. “What Tony-San may not cover, Fale-San covers in spades with how to look and feel during a match. It’s shown much clearer through his training.”
“Fale-San’s wealth of knowledge of within the Dojo and New Japan has been enlightening, showing what it means to be a wrestler,” Pittard stated.
Tangi-San’s training is terrible in the best way possible,” said Pittard of his love-hate relationship with Tangi Ropati’s strength and conditioning workouts.
“Tangi-San pushes you to the very boundaries of what you think you can physically do, then makes you push past them,” he described his account of being a victim of Ropati’s classes. “It’s fantastic training but the Soul Taker is no joke.”
“I would say, Tangi-San’s workouts are something to look forward to,” he said. ‘It’s something new and different each time we train with him. so, it’s good that he keeps us on our toes.”
“Brad-San is phenomenal and unique,” Pittard spoke about how Brad Riddell’s classes have helped benefit him as the smallest lion in Fale’s pride. “I really enjoyed being able to level the playing field with people much larger than me.”
“The kickboxing and the UFC style wrestling translated excellently with the stuff we are doing with other trainers,” Pittard reflected. “It was difficult being that it was a lot of leg work, and my hamstrings are tight, and it really tested me.”
“Training alongside Michael-San, Andrew-San, and Jake-San has been brilliant,” Pittard said about his senior senpais.
“They each have taken me under their wing and shown me a different perspective on not only training but wrestling as a whole,” explained the young lion from Red Hill. “It’s great training with them but also living with them, they’re all really good people and I enjoy their company.”
After two months of taking in the best of professional wrestling, conditioning, and combat at Fale Dojo, the outlook of the young lions has become more in-depth.
“The training has definitely illustrated what needs to be taught and how much of wrestling I use to watch could be so much better,” Pittard commented. “It shows how I should strive to learn.”
“My goal for the remainder of the intake is to have a match even a practice match with one of the lions,” this is an objective that Pittard aspires to reach. “I would like to have one before my time here is done.”
“I will say that I’ve made out the training at Fale Dojo is hard because it is, but I shouldn’t undermine how much fun it is,” Pittard clarified with gratitude. “While each day has its challenges, it’s also some of the most fun I’ve ever had.”
“I genuinely enjoy not only the training but also the people each person here at the Dojo from the trainers to the lions to admin, and the Kohai. They are good people to be around,” Pittard said in closing. “I may be leaving at the end of this intake, but I would love to come back.”
Credit Cover Graphic: Michael Richards, Squared Circle Graphics
Credit Richards, Taylor, and Villalobos photo, and in-ring photos: Isoa Kavakimotu