NZ Dojo / Fale Dojo welcomed the second intake of 2023 which began on the first week of June. This intake marked some key milestones as the Dojo’s 20th class since its inception in 2016.
The 2023 June intake was the largest graduating class, standing at nineteen strong, as well as welcoming a new era with the launch of Lion’s Den and being the first to compete in a NJPW Tamashii event. The Lion’s Den shows will be streamed on NJPW World.
Eight countries and a variation of wrestling experiences were represented in the 2023 June intake which included students from New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, England, Canada, the United States, Germany, and Chile.
Led by Toks Fale, Dojo founder and Head Coach, New Japan Pro-Wrestling star, and NJPW Tamashii promoter, he is joined by Tony Kozina – Pro Wrestling Coach, and Mark Tui – Graduate, Coach, and Co-Director.
“An absolute pleasure working with this intake,” stated Toks Fale the thirteen-year veteran. “Training progressed really fast because the students were here to work. Everyone pushed each other to the next level, and this was evident at the New Japan Tamashii Lion’s Den.
With a week since the completion of the 2023 June intake, the young lions reflect on their training in this three-part article. This first instalment looks at the eight Senior Senpai.
Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Jordan Allan-Wright aspires to become the first-born New Zealander to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. A goal that served as motivation for the June Intake to see their training through to the end. Beneath Wright’s intense and rugged exterior is a lion with a generous heart for those that he leads.
“I enjoyed tagging with Nikolai at the first Lion’s Den against Tony-San and Richie-San. I was especially proud of the other students who got to display their skills on the show. They had been developing over the past couple of months and it was excellent to see them in action.
“Of all the lions in our intake, Joe Flowers inspired me the most. Joe pushed himself every day despite his challenges with diabetes. Joe showed a champion’s heart throughout his training and in his first Lion’s Den match.
“I am driven more than ever to achieve my goals. I’m in the ring and in the gym lifting weights most days. I thank my trainers, both Fale-San and Tony-San who have been a massive help in answering any questions I’ve had.
“I’m excited to be making my way across the Tasman again to compete in Tamashii. My last time wrestling in Sydney was glorious: The crowd hated me, and I look forward to seeing them again.”
Read Ite Lemalu’s TAMASHII Focus: Jordan Allan-Wright on njpw1972.com
NIKOLAI ANTON BELL
Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
This is intake number five for Nikolai Anton Bell. Bell’s role in every intake changes slightly, however, this intake has had the most significant change. Bell’s role as Senpai was largely centred around guiding the progress of the newer Senpai towards leadership, as well as assisting the new lions in achieving the next level. In addition, Bell applied his background in media and communications to support the Dojo’s social media presence.
“The other major part of my time has been working on my wrestling and my body. I’ve been in the ring and slinging the weights on most days. Over the last 4 months, I’ve chucked on another 10 kgs. All that hard work was for the first Lion’s Den.
“I didn’t win at Lion’s Den, but I’m proud of how it turned out. I got to be in the main event with Richard-San, Tony-San, and Jordan-San. I came away with a bit of a concussion, but that’s just wrestling. I’m working on taking care of myself and as soon as I’m ready, I’ll get back in and start the work again.”
Tongariro, Ruapehu District, New Zealand
As one of the youngest Senpai, Trent Hooper was privileged to lead other members of Fale’s pride. Leading from the front came with its challenges at first, but once the Senpai from Tongariro embraced his new role, he started to see positive changes in all areas of his training.
“This intake flew by, it felt like you had to keep on your toes at all times because you never knew what would come next. We trained hard as a unit in preparation for the Lion’s Den shows which had its benefits in regard to giving people an opportunity to work towards having matches. Overall, this was a very successful intake, and puts the returning lions in good stead for the future.”
“My biggest highlight has been having the opportunity to further integrate the gym into my everyday training. The intakes tend to feel a little hectic at times, and it can stress you out when you’re not entirely sure what’s going to be happening next. I’ve managed to find a system that works for me and being able to go to the gym four or five times a week has been super beneficial. I feel like I’m making steady progress as I continue to put on size.
“Wrestling on Lion’s Den was a real privilege. Our intake all benefited from the added pressure of wrestling in front of a live audience and applying everything we’ve been working on in the last couple of months. I wrestled in the semi-main event against Cameron McCallum, and despite the loss, I was grateful to be in that position. It felt like the Senpai were giving me the nod of approval by putting me in that match. I look forward to having that opportunity again soon.”
Kaeo (Ngati Kahu), Northland District, New Zealand
It has been four and a half years since Johnny Gardner last trained at Fale Dojo. As a graduate of the September 2018 intake, Gardner was part of a small class of four. Having not fulfilled all of his goals during his first intake, Gardner returned to New Zealand in June of this year to pounce on those goals, proving that it’s never too late to chase your dreams.
“When I came to Fale Dojo in 2018, I thought to myself after day one, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ However, giving up and flying back to Brisbane where I had been living wasn’t an option. I hadn’t made my mind up just yet and I had to at least finish the three-month intake for my own sake.
“It was always my intention to return to Fale Dojo after leaving in 2018. The pandemic really put a stopper on that, followed by a work-related back injury and a car accident in May of 2022.
“I had the honour of wrestling in the first Lion’s Den show in Auckland. This was a huge milestone for me as it was my NJPW Tamashii debut. When I first came to Fale Dojo and set out with the goal to get my foot in the door with New Japan, and now I have achieved that on top of competing at Lion’s Roar 2. I’m looking forward to competing on the next Tamashii show in Sydney, against fellow Dojo graduate, Vincent Di Maria.”
Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
Tyler Illes resumed his training at the Dojo midway into the 2023 February intake. His transition to Senpai was undertaken in the 2023 June training. Much of his time entailed shadowing Toks Fale, a role that was held previously by Oskar Leube and Derrick Shaw. Like his predecessors, Illes possesses a natural gift for entertaining and connecting with people from all walks of life. Whether it’s amongst his fellow lions, with members of the public, or wrestling in front of an audience.
“I’ve learned a lot of what it takes to become a Senpai. There have been ups and downs, but Fale-San was a big help in steering me in the right direction. The first month was the hardest because your role was to make sure everyone knew what they were doing.
“Patience and communication were a key factor. We had people coming from all across the world with various language barriers and different lifestyles. The Dojo’s training soon got everyone on the same level. When you can accomplish that with a class of 19, then that level of understanding makes wrestling a lot easier.
“Wrestling on Lion’s Den was a huge experience. Less than eight months ago, I was seconding some of the top NJPW stars to the ring in Christchurch at the first Tamashii show. To see KENTA, Taiji Ishimori, Fale-San and Dojo graduates past and present wrestle up close, gave me the push to get in the ring. Lion’s Den is a great step for our wrestlers at the Dojo to work towards. With two Llion’s Den matches under my belt, I am hyped to wrestle at the upcoming Tamashii show in Sydney!”
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Continuity, momentum, and progression – these are the three themes that persistently resonate with Canada’s Will Driscoll after completing two intakes. Of all the Senpai, Driscoll arrived at the Dojo in February this year with no previous wrestling or other combat experience. Driscoll, however, has advanced fantastically alongside his peers,
“The differences in my personal development between my first intake and this past one are immense. Obviously, the more you stay here at Fale Dojo and the more committed you are to sticking it out, the more you absorb, and then it becomes a fully immersive experience.
“When it comes to training, I definitely had a better idea of what to expect and was more prepared for anything and everything since it can be different on any day. The huge difference with this intake though is I wasn’t just trying to get myself through it. As a senior during training, you have to find a way to motivate and make sure the new lions get through everything at the level Fale-San and Tony-San have set. This is something I struggled with at the beginning of the intake. Eventually, it was the Seniors getting together and frequently discussing the training that made it clear how I should proceed. Making sure everyone was on the same page. It was all on communication this intake.
“Being senpai to all the new lions comes with a lot of responsibility and at the end of the day it’s all about respect. Trying your best and doing everything the proper way to show respect to Fale-San and Tony-San who put their trust in us senpais to help bring the young lions up. Respecting the etiquette and the style here of putting 100% in even the smallest acts and teaching the young lions to follow by example. Respecting the new young lions themselves too because just a short three months ago I was in their shoes.
“By far the biggest blessing and highlight of this intake was the Tamashii Lion’s Den shows we’ve put on. I couldn’t be more grateful for getting the opportunity to compete on the show. I will continue to do my best and work hard so I can have more chances to compete at such a high level. I fully believe even more from completing this second intake that this is the best place to learn professional wrestling as well as absorb valuable life lessons along the way.”
County Meath, Leinster, Ireland
This intake has been a journey of self-discovery for Cian Devin. Realising his potential as a Senpai, particularly while training others, has helped further the Irishman’s craft. Furthermore, Devin has been sharing his expertise in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as part of the training sessions with the young lions. Quiet and peaceful by nature, the lion from Leinster is a force to be reckoned with.
“As a Senpai, I’ve been helping to run our training. At the start of this intake, I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but it’s been the complete opposite, it’s been one of my favourite parts. I’ve learned that I can be a leader, and I didn’t think I would be that type of person, however, it has been a pleasant transition.
“This has been a very easy group to lead. They’re willing to listen and learn, take advice and constructive criticism. Also, during the training sessions, I’ve been applying my background in grappling. I really appreciate the Dojo for the opportunity to contribute my craft.
“Competing in Lion’s Den was a huge highlight because I got to make my professional wrestling debut. I learned a lot from wrestling Will Driscoll, and although I lost to Will, I came away with a tonne of experience. I’ve become more comfortable in the ring as a professional wrestler, and I knew this would come with time. I hope this continues into the next intake. I’ve also focused on lifting weights, getting bigger and stronger.”
New Brighton (Ngai Tahu), Canterbury, New Zealand
Applying professional wrestling as an outlook to connect with others has been at Cameron McCallum’s heart. McCallum and Tony Kozina have been mentoring the students from the local intermediate school as part of the Dojo’s work with the community. Having competed as a freestyle wrestler during his teenage years, McCallum knows fully well the values that wrestling has to offer the youth as a vehicle to succeed.
“Doing a second intake has been a completely different experience from the first. I found the first intake a lot less challenging, because I had to follow instructions, work on conditioning and training, and listen to authority, and that’s something I’m naturally good at. This intake was more about taking a leadership role and how much can you help those around you. This next level was about seeing how good of a coach are you, and how good are you at looking after team morale and solving problems. Basically, I was looking at this intake from the perspective of a leader. This shaped my way of thinking about things. It gave me an appreciation for seeing things from a coach’s perspective.
“The opportunity to work with the kids of Otahuhu Intermediate has taken me aback. Wrestling both freestyle and professional growing up for me was a huge part of my personality, and played a huge factor in shaping who I am. Just a fact that Fale-San stood before the Otahuhu Intermediate school assembly and asked all the kids, “How many of you know AJ Styles?” and they all put their hands up. Then we put the highlights of Fale-San wrestling AJ Styles in Japan on their huge screen. The Maori and Pasifika kids had their mouths open in shock, and they kept turning around and looking at Fale-San and then looking at the screen, it was an amazing experience. I thought to myself when I was in school, I would always daydream about a wrestler coming into the assembly to talk to us. If we had a programme like what we’re doing with the local intermediate school when I was a kid, it would’ve prevented so many hardships and troubles for me and got me on the right path a lot earlier. The workouts themselves, the kids are really good. They’re really switched on. We teach them the same principles we learn at the Dojo – responsibility, teamwork, discipline, and showing your heart. I was amazed at how much heart these young kids have. We pushed them with some pretty hard stuff and difficult techniques, and these kids have gone above and beyond, I couldn’t be prouder. I see a lot of myself in these kids, especially some of the Maori kids. They remind me of a young me and the challenges that I was going through at that age, so being able to help them and see them develop through wrestling, I just count my blessings every day.
“My Tamashii debut match with Trent Hooper was great. I managed to luckily get the win with the crossface submission, but Trent was a very hard opponent. It’s very interesting when you wrestle someone every single day, and you learn their habits, and they also know your habits. Trent knows the counters to my counters, and it kept me on my toes. Wrestling Malcolm Evans at Lion’s Den 2 was also incredible. If you know me, I love wrestling heavyweights because it’s such a different challenge. It was fun because Malcolm has a different style from mine, he is a heavyweight from America. The opportunity to go out there in front of Otahuhu Intermediate students and be given a very nice reception was humbling. Being able to have a match completely at the moment and be present and immersed with an opponent like Malcolm who I never wrestled before was a highlight. I’m proud of the effort that I put into both shows.
“I love the fact that I get to wake up in the morning and wrestle every day. Fale-San is so knowledgeable, every day I could get in the ring and Fale-San critiques my work, and I learn a little piece of gold – a diamond of knowledge. That’s the same with Tony-San, especially living at the Dojo and being in the same vicinity. I get to pick his brain while we’re eating dinner or if we’re watching wrestling films. I’m amazed at how fast you can grow when you do it every single day. Pro wrestling is a lifestyle, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Cover Graphic: Blackstorm Creative