As the Pro-Wrestling Coach at Fale Dojo / NZ Dojo, Tony Kozina oversees the day-to-day training of the young lions and offers his thoughts on the latest intake.
“Our September three-month intake has come to an end, and usual, it finishes with a full spectrum of emotion,” said Kozina. “Surprised, pleased, proud, and disappointed. I see a lot of promise in many, but as usual, it’s a question of ‘how badly do you want it?'”
“Injuries hampered the progress of some, but if they return, we could see strong and new talents emerge,” Kozina spoke of the potential of the lions should they resume their training for a second intake.
“For the first timers, Sean Tohi and Leon Metcalfe, they got injured early on, and while that held back progress, I believe they can both become strong players if they return and maintain their solid work ethic,” Kozina gave a brief report on the seven young lion’s featured in the final part of this two-part series.
“Andrew Morgan and Theo Board have started developing into solid, mat-based wrestlers and that is good to see,” Kozina continued. “Nevada Kingi-Whata isn’t far behind them, nor are Tyler Illes and Daniel Guest, who can pretty much match them hold for hold.”
“This has been our biggest intake so far, and it’s going to yield us a handful of promising talents,” Kozina said in closing. “As most students plan to stay on board and even join me in training over the holiday break.”
Weston-Super-Mare, England, United Kingdom
Andrew Morgan is one of two young lion’s in the 14-member intake that has travelled the furthest to gain the Fale Dojo experience.
“I came to New Zealand to try and take my wrestling to the next level, both in terms of skill and to make it into a career,” said Morgan.
Morgan arrived at the Dojo early enough to begin his training during the later stages of the June 2022 intake when the lions were at an intense level. The revelation took him by surprise.
“I was initially shocked at just how full-on the training was,” he shared. “I was able to get through the first day fairly comfortably. It was pushing on in the coming days when I was already aching which nearly broke me early on. It took me a good four weeks to get over these aches and adapt to intense training every day.”
Of the obstacles that Morgan faced, the most notable was fighting through some old injuries that were sustained prior to his arrival at the Dojo. Fortunately, the expertise of Tangi Ropati, Strength & Conditioning Coach, and Andrew Villalobos, Senior Senpai, and a qualified remedial therapist helped Morgan successfully move past these setbacks.
“My biggest challenges have been pushing through several small reoccurring injuries,” Morgan spoke about his obstacles. “I have a few injuries that reoccur from when I played rugby that would usually stop me from doing any sport. Tony-San pushed me to tape it up and carry on, a mentality that I never had before which I will keep with me going forward.”
“My biggest accomplishment this intake has to be getting back into hard exercise after a knee injury I suffered a few years ago,” he continued. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was never able to properly rehab or use a physio. With help especially from Tangi-San and Andrew-San, I have got flexibility and it has been stronger this intake than it has since I had surgery.”
With the freedom to move around more in the ring, Morgan has been seizing the opportunity to gain experience from his coaches.
“Fale-San has taught me more about presence and movement in wrestling in the sessions we had than anyone else has previously,” said Morgan of Toks Fale, Head Coach. “It was never something that I had really thought about in wrestling until I came here, so it has added another dimension for me to work on as a wrestler.”
“Tony-San has really toughened me up and has changed my mind how seriously I take wrestling,” he added about Tony Kozina. “He has also opened my eyes to how many different styles and nuances there are in professional wrestling by watching tapes with me and the other lions.”
“Tangi-San has probably pushed me physically more than I ever had before,” not even Morgan was safe from Ropati, the Soul Taker. “He has also taught me to never trust the phrase ‘one more exercise.’”
Overall, the Fale Dojo experience has helped Morgan reshape his outlook on the wrestling profession.
“My perception has changed massively,” Morgan explained. “I initially trained hard back home and would then forget about wrestling until my next match or training session. I have been shown how dedicated you should be In all aspects including diet, outside conditioning, recovery, and studying wrestling.”
“It has been great having the Senior Senpais around as they are always approachable for any wrestling or Dojo questions that you have,” Morgan spoke of Michael Richards, Andrew Villalobos, and Jake Taylor in closing. “They would also always take the time to help out whenever you needed.”
Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Toks Fale has often said that getting to the Dojo to begin your wrestling journey will be the hardest action to take. But when one does arrive at the Dojo, everything would eventually fall into place with the help of the coaches. Theo Board is one of many from this second instalment that overcame the discomfort of procrastinating to start his formal wrestling education.
“I wanted to be a pro wrestler, and I wanted to do something that would make me fulfilled and happy,” said Board. “Pro wrestling was one of the only things that brought me joy, so I went all in and signed up to the Dojo after finding out about it online. Arriving at the Dojo and starting my journey was a bit daunting at first. I had no prior wrestling experience and with guys that have been here and done an intake before was a little intimidating. But I’m happy to say that I kept my head up and was pushed through and adapted to the training.”
One of his greatest challenges and achievements during this intake was overcoming the fitness workouts and stepping into the squared circle.
“My biggest challenge was probably my fitness since I wasn’t a sporty kid growing up,” Board shared. “My fitness mainly came from the gym, but even then, it was nothing compared to the training here at the Dojo.”
“Probably my biggest accomplishment in this intake was having a match,” Board stated. “It was only for two minutes, but the feeling of ‘I learned how to do this’ was satisfying.”
With the guidance of his coaches, and Senior Senpais, Board gained a solid foundation in his wrestling education.
“It’s amazing working with Fale-San, Tony-San, and Tangi-San,” stated Board. “All three of them know so much about their respective fields that you get great coaching in all aspects of fitness and wrestling.
After completing his three-month training, Board said in closing, “I look at wrestling completely differently now to how I did when I arrived, it’s something I can’t really put into words, but my thinking has definitely changed.”
Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Throughout 2021, the Dojo held a number of tryouts throughout New Zealand to expand its initial vision of offering local aspiring wrestlers a pathway to a full-time wrestling career. Nevada Kingi-Whata heeded the call and attended the Auckland tryouts that were filmed for the Lion’s Roar docuseries. Although he was unsuccessful in securing a placement, Whata’s potential was still noted by the coaches, therefore he was invited to take part in a future intake that he gladly accepted.
“My first thoughts after completing the first day of training in the September intake was what I was expecting,” explained Whata. “It was extremely difficult, intensive, mentally, and physically challenging and it seemed as though everything we were doing was being treated as a test.”
Whata elaborated: “Whether this is from how we used the Japanese etiquette, how we greeted our Senpais and each other, how we cleaned our environment, and how we trained, everything felt as though we were being closely monitored.”
The high-level training of the Dojo brought on some serious challenges, both mentally and physically, however, Whata pushed through the immense obstacles.
“Staying positive and mentally strong during training and in my own free time was a major challenge,” Whata revealed. “At times I felt as though I wanted to quit, though I was able to overcome this by confiding in my peers, coaches, and Senpais.”
“I was also being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis early into the training,” he explained the severity of his setback. “This meant I had to take a few days rest and ease back into the training.”
“Throughout the intake, however, I’ve completed a number of workouts that I struggled with at first,” Whata spoke of tackling NJPW high-level workouts. “From struggling with morning runs to now, comfortably completing the runs, not being able to do a neck bridge but now being able to hold one for two minutes, and doing a lion push-up. Each one of these displays significant progress and have been my biggest accomplishment.”
“Training with Fale-San always feels like a valuable lesson, we always came away with a newfound knowledge or techniques of the New Japan style and wrestling in general,” Whata shared about the world-class teachings of Toks Fale, and Tony Kozina. “The same can be said for Tony-San, though he has more of an aura of unpredictability, he also helped me to see professional wrestling as more of a fight than a match.”
“I have a love-hate relationship with Tangi-San,” said Whata, another casualty of Tangi Ropati’s soul-taking conditioning classes. “Each session has a sense of dread to it, but at the same time an aura of excitement. While the trainings are extremely tough, Tangi-San is always on the sidelines motivating and pushing me to get through the training.”
“Tangi-San always likes to say, ‘this is the last exercise of the day,’” Whata added. “Though we end up doing a bunch of other exercises. I always come out of Tangi-San’s sessions with a high and feeling like I’ve accomplished a great and sometimes impossible feat.”
Whata explained about the support given by the Senior Senpais that contributed to his training. “Michael-San guided me throughout my struggles with the lion push-ups and other exercises I was having a hard time with. The training we’ve done with Andrew-San and Jake-San has had a strong emphasis on learning to wrestle and how to formulate a young lion’s wrestling match. Being around the three Senpais have also allowed me to see how we should be carrying ourselves and the level that we are expected to be at if we want to become young lions for NJPW.”
After completing his first Fale Dojo intake, Whata has emerged with a refined outlook on professional wrestling.
“My perception of wrestling has evolved in the sense that I now view certain wrestling matches through more of a combat sports lens instead of just being a performance,” Whata concluded. “I can now make sense of the various pieces that formulate a professional wrestling match.”
Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
For the Dojo’s second 2021 try-out, the coaches ventured down to Christchurch arriving to an eager group of applicants. Among the list of aspiring wrestlers, was Nikolai Anton Bell, who has since led the way for his friends to join him at Fale Dojo. Tyler Illes, a close friend of Bell was also among the many applicants that arrived in Auckland to take part in the September intake.
“Going into my first few days in training at Fale Dojo, I thought it was going to be a great experience, but after a couple of training sessions, I thought to myself that this will be a long three months,” said Illes, the youngest member of the intake. “It opened my eyes up in many ways, not only was the training difficult, but you also still had to do all the extra chores such as cleaning the Dojo, cleaning the Dojo house, and making sure everything is where it should be.”
Of all the members of the September intake, Illes faced the most challenges, first, suffering rhabdomyolysis, then a grade 2 muscle strain in his quad. These injuries occurred before the end of the first month. However, Illes would receive the sad news that his grandmother had passed away
“Having all of this happen was a major challenge for me,” Illes recalled of the enormity of his loss. “The coaches and the guys at the Dojo house were incredibly supportive throughout this time, although it got to the point where you start thinking is this for me? Like maybe it’s not meant to be. Fortunately, the coaches were very understanding.”
Illes later resumed his training, while gaining the wisdom of his coaches.
“Working with Fale-San and Tony-San is something special,” he explained. “The knowledge those two have is amazing and they get the best out of everyone. Obviously, they have been all around the world, they have seen and heard it all. Every chance, I get to learn from them, it’s an opportunity that should not be missed.”
“Training with Tangi-San is the day I look forward to the least especially after he took my soul,” Illes spoke about Tangi Ropati’s intense conditioning workouts. “By the end of his session, I always walk away feeling good about myself.”
“The Senior Senpais bring different experiences to our training,” explained Illes of Michael Richards, Andrew Villalobos, and Jake Taylor. “It’s great we get the opportunity to train along with them because not long ago they were in the same shoes as us.”
During the New Japan Tamashii launch in Christchurch, Illes returned home to assist Mark Tui, Dojo Co-Director, in preparing for the event. Much of his responsibilities entailed running errands as he was a local in the area, as well as performing young lion duties during the event. This included seconding the wrestlers to the ring. Such an experience was absolutely vital to his training. In spite of his setbacks, Illes persevered to the end of the three-month training.
“My biggest accomplishment in this intake would be finishing to the end,” said Illes in closing. “It hasn’t been the smoothest intake with a lot of ups and downs so finishing to the end and feeling good about myself is my biggest accomplishment so far.”
Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
The 2021 Christchurch tryouts also attracted the interest of Daniel Guest. A close friend of Nikolai Anton Bell; Guest joined Tyler Illes at Fale Dojo for the September intake.
“I’m not going to lie, I found out pretty quickly it’s a grind and a lifestyle,” said Guest upon his arrival at Fale Dojo. “You have to be 100% here, mentally in order to get through the days. It’s a professional environment and at training, everything is taken seriously and that is made very clear to you on your first day.”
With injuries and sickness running amuck in this intake, Guest was not immune to the hindrance.
“I had unfortunately sustained both injuries and sickness at some point doing the intake,” he shared of these challenges. “I had no choice but to overcome them in my own time by either giving it my all in the training or rehabbing in the gym to get to where I needed. The minute you are injured and sitting on the sidelines is the moment you are getting behind because everyone’s progressing ahead.”
Adapting to life in a new city and surroundings was also among the difficulties that Guest encountered.
“Not only are the trainings hard but life outside the Dojo can be as well,” Guest shared. “Moving into a house with a majority of strangers was hard, and having to learn the Japanese etiquette was tough, but eventually it becomes second nature.”
“Homesickness was also a factor,” he continued. “On the odd rough day, I would miss home, and it was easy to think, ‘I want to go home,’ but I knew I came here to work and get the job done, I didn’t come all this way just to quit. Mental toughness was a big thing over the course of this intake.”
Keeping to his goal of surviving the three months, Guest looked to his coaches, absorbing as much as he could from their expertise.
“With all three trainers, Fale-San, Tony-San, and Tangi-San, it blew my mind how knowledgeable they are,” Guest spoke with great respect for his coaches. “Fale-San and Tony-San could pick out the smallest thing at training and explain how to do it better for like 10 minutes, it just goes to show that they have been through the ins and outs of this business and those years of experience really show.”
“Tangi-San has kicked my butt this whole intake,” stated Guest. “When he explains the workouts, you think he’s joking, and after we’re done, he says there’s more! They are workouts I never thought my body would be capable of doing before this intake. Tangi-San just wants the best out of everyone and he really wants all of us to succeed and become the best version of ourselves.”
“Training alongside Michael-San, Andrew-San, and Jake-San is quite motivating because those are the guys who set the standard for the rest of us,” explained Guest. “They are the ones who have been through it all. Whatever we are going through in this intake they have been through it before. Having them around is great because they always have your back and let you know straight away if you’re doing something right or wrong.”
In addition to Guest’s training, he joined Illes in Christchurch for the New Japan Tamashii show. Thrusted into the role of a young lion, Guest gained some valuable skills that required seconding the wrestlers to the ring, observing the matches from ringside, and being on call to support the wrestlers after their matches.
“My perception of professional wrestling has changed for the better,” said Guest. “I have learned that there are many different aspects that make a good wrestler in the ring.”
“My biggest accomplishment was getting through this intake due to the many setbacks I had,” he revealed of his feat. “This has honestly been one of the hardest physical and mental three months of my life and I am very proud that I got through it to the end.”
“I really enjoyed my time at Fale Dojo,” Guest shared in closing. “I have made memories and good friends. Yes, the training is hard, but you know all your brothers beside you are going through the same thing. Next for me is that I am looking to come back for the February 2024 intake.”
Middlesborough, England, United Kingdom
The reputation of Fale Dojo continues to reach many countries and attract international students. Such is the case for Leon Metcalfe, who travelled from Middlesborough, England.
“I came to Fale Dojo, initially to learn to wrestle in a very focused setting and get as much training in as possible,” explained Metcalfe. “I wanted to train at a place that has a direct connection to a wrestling organisation I like, New Japan Pro-Wrestling.”
“The conditioning was exactly what I expected with the hard high reps,” Metcalfe shared of the Dojo’s curriculum. “I thought that we would get straight into wrestling, but we had to wait weeks until we built up our fitness.”
With sickness and injuries becoming common obstacles in the intake, Metcalfe had his share of setbacks that happened throughout his first month of training. Metcalfe managed to weather the storm, excelling in lifting weights.
“One of my biggest accomplishments is the first one rep max day, getting good numbers while injured mainly in my rib. I hadn’t trained with heavy weights in almost a decade,” said Metcalfe. “I got good numbers in most exercises and then came first in the deadlift which I was shocked about.”
“I didn’t interact much with Fale-San mainly because he was touring overseas, but what small interactions I had were fun,” Metcalfe spoke about his time with the coaches. “Fale-San is laidback and giving, always taking care of everyone, and he’s ready to listen when times get hard.”
“Tony-San is a taskmaster, he wants you to do the conditioning and be believable but most of all he wants the young lions to perform the basics correctly,” he spoke of the basic necessities that Tony Kozina requires of the lions.
“Tangi-San is a godsend when training gets monotonous, Tangi-San appears with a hard but fun workout session,” Metcalfe shared about Ropati’s soul-taking reputation. “The change in pace, the use of different weights, and going outside and seeing the grass being in the sun, it’s brilliant.”
Metcalfe’s time at Fale Dojo has reaffirmed his goal to become a full-time professional wrestler.
“My time at Fale Dojo has made me realise what I really want to do in pro wrestling,” he expressed in closing. “That’s to have fun and make money with a strong emphasis on the fun.”
Avondale, Auckland, New Zealand
Sean Tohi hopes to achieve his childhood dream of becoming a professional wrestler. As one of the youngest in the September 2022 intake, the New Zealand-born Tongan has come to the right place to gain his formal wrestling education and to develop under the collective wealth of knowledge between Toks Fale, Tony Kozina, and Tangi Ropati.
Furthermore, it would be imperative to Tohi’s growth to have his natural Pasifika attributes be nurtured by Fale who is of Tongan heritage, and Ropati, a NZ-born Samoan.
“Coming to the Dojo, made me realise that it would be very challenging, and I would need to be disciplined,” said Tohi.
During his training, Tohi sustained a serious injury, much to his disappointment.
“I had suffered a concussion three weeks into training,” Tohi revealed of his setback. “This caused me to be side-lined for a good amount of time from the intake. I tried making my way back into the training, but I was struggling as I was still battling with symptoms from my concussion.”
“This caused me to become frustrated with myself,” Tohi explained, eager to resume his workouts. “But through patience and discipline, I began to slowly make my way back into training. I still suffered symptoms but as time progressed, they are slowly becoming less frequent and I’m seeing improvements as training continued. “
“On the plus side, I was able to reach my weight goal for this intake,” Tohi shared. “In the beginning, I first weighed in at 114kgs. As of this week [three months on], I have cut my weight down to 105kgs.”
While taking in the experience of his Senpais, Tohi has also sought their wisdom.
“Working with Tony-San, Fale-San and Tangi-San have been an absolute pleasure to learn and train with them,” Tohi shared about his coaches. “Both Tony-San and Fale-San have given me a whole new view towards professional wrestling. I was able to pick their brains and learn new grapples, and different types of wrestling techniques, and learned how to present myself in a professional way.”
“Tangi-San has given some very useful tips when it came to training, and dieting and also provided great advice when I was struggling,” he continued. “I thoroughly enjoyed being under the tutelage of these Senpais.”
“Michael-San, Jake-San, and Andrew-San have been a huge help in terms of learning not only the etiquettes of the Dojo but also towards training and how to present myself in the ring,” Tohi spoke about his Senior Senpais. “They also provided me with some helpful boost in morale when I was struggling with my concussion. Training alongside them has been nothing short of amazing.”
“My perspective towards professional wrestling has significantly changed since I first began training at the Dojo,” Tohi said in closing. “I have found a whole new love and respect for this profession now that I have grown to see the business in a whole different way from when I first stepped foot into the Dojo.”
Credit Cover Graphic: Michael Richards, Squared Circle Graphics
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— NJPW Tamashii (@NJTamashii) December 9, 2022
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