May 4th brought with it one year of the HDBNG CLUB division of Bullet Club.

    A full year of El Phantasmo throwing fan’s caps into the rafters; flipping off toddlers; tormenting Chris Charlton on commentary; Bullet Club shenanigans; low blows; feats of strength; flips; rope-walking; championships and tournaments. A full year of ELP proving himself as one of the best junior heavyweights in the world with a remarkably successful start to his New Japan career.

    ELP debuted at Wrestling Dontaku by pinning Will Ospreay in a tag team match. On his first night with New Japan, Phantasmo took aim and overwhelmed the de facto Junior Ace. Ospreay, at the time, was a two time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and the only junior to win the NEVER Openweight Championship, a title he lost the month prior. During the match Phantasmo stunned the crowd by walking the top rope to hit a spectacular moonsault to the outside, quickly giving a glimpse of what he is capable of. In a single night ELP had laid the groundwork for cementing himself as a key player in New Japan’s junior division. 

    Less than a week later he won RevPro’s Undisputed British Cruiserweight Champion in London, a title once held by Prince Devitt. It would become synonymous with ELP for the next nine months as he raised the title’s prestige worldwide, carrying it with him to every New Japan event. 

    Best of the Super El Phantasmo 

    3 days later ELP was back in Japan competing in the famous Korakuen Hall as part of Best of Super Juniors 26. His first singles match in NJPW came on 14th May when he defeated Bandido in a tournament match that would be the first in a five win streak. As the tournament progressed, so did the character of El Phantasmo as it became inherently clear that his place among Bullet Club was perfect for him. Brash, arrogant and cocky, he put an emphasis on winning by any means over sportsmanship, and his trademark low blow that would be prevalent in nearly all his matches started to rear its head.

    His win streak included victories against then fellow Bullet Club member Robbie Eagles and a second victory over Will Ospreay, setting the biggest junior feuds of the year in motion. As fair as ever, ELP pulled Eagles’ headband over his eyes which led to a CR2 and a pinfall victory. The main event war with Ospreay set Korakuen ablaze and culminated in a low blow that would lead to the CR2 and a win. ELP wasn’t making many fans, he definitely wasn’t making any friends but he was laying waste to all who stepped in the ring with him and was the tournament front runner.  

    On 24th May ELP finally met his match when he suffered his first defeat in one of the best matches of 2019, an absolute lesson in storytelling within the squared circle in front of a frenzied New Japan crowd. With only a single victory to his name despite being an established veteran, Rocky Romero managed to do what nobody else had done so far. ELP had his foot on the accelerator for so long as the frontrunner and on the back of his loss the wheels came off and he suffered a further two consecutive defeats, to YOH and Ryusuke Taguchi, before returning to winning ways on the final night against DOUKI. The tournament finished with ELP joint second in the B Block, with Ospreay winning the tournament and going on to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. 

    For all the athleticism that ELP consistently showed in the tournament, it was his character that set him apart in a promotion that hosts the best wrestlers in the world. His matches with Romero and Ospreay were his tournament standouts but the animosity with fellow Bullet Club member Robbie Eagles was the overarching story. Having lost to YOH during the 10th night of the tournament, ELP abused the camaraderie expected in the Bullet Club for his own gain in the next match of the night, by helping Eagles defeat Ospreay. In doing so he kept himself in contention to be the tournament winner. Unlike what is expected from Bullet Club, Eagles wanted to have a fair match with Ospreay and was conflicted after ELP smashed Ospreay’s knee with a chair, eventually taking the opportunity to win via tap out. On the face of it ELP had helped his partner pull off a big win but in truth the selfish Phantasmo had only done so to keep his tournament hopes alive. 

    The fragile partnership between Eagles and Phantasmo came to a climax on the final night of BOSJ during a six man tag between Roppongi 3K and Bullet Club. Eagles had then IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion SHO down for the three count when ELP tagged himself in to claim the glory. With a victory over the current champions, ELP had put himself at the front of the line for a title shot. He stole the titles after the match and chose to celebrate with the third member of the Bullet Club tag team, Taiji Ishimori, instead of Eagles. Disgruntled and frustrated, Eagles argued with the pair before walking out by himself. At the end of the month, Eagles left Bullet Club to join Chaos at a show in Sydney, having been alienated by Phantasmo and his unyielding arrogance. 

    Gold Rush

    Less than two weeks after the BOSJ finished, and a month and a half into his New Japan career, El Phantasmo had gold strapped around his waist. With fellow Bullet Club member Taiji Ishimori he became IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion by defeating Roppongi 3K at Kizuna Road, with the helping fist of a low blow. 

    The beginning of June started with winning his first IWGP title and the end had ELP defending his British Cruiserweight title twice. As part of Kizuna Road tour, ELP successfully defended the title against Ryusuke Taguchi in Miyagi and just four days later he successfully defended the title against Rocky Romero in Melbourne, levelling the score after losing to both men during BOSJ.

    With July and half of August dedicated to G1 Climax 29, ELP’s next venture with New Japan was the returning Super J Cup. This is a tournament New Japan have held sporadically to highlight the best junior heavyweights from across the world. Unlike the BOSJ tournament, the Super J Cup is single elimination (think New Japan Cup but for juniors). A stacked field of 16 juniors from NJPW, CMLL and ROH competed across three nights to win the coveted tournament, hoist the cup and claim the golden jacket. 

    In the first round ELP was lined up against somebody he had disrespected since competing in New Japan. With a low blow and a roll-up, he once again defeated Robbie Eagles, continuing their saga. The second round saw him take on T.J. Perkins; a low blow and roll-up later and he had progressed to the semi-final. He was now face to face with Will Ospreay for the second time in singles competition although there was one key difference – Ospreay was now IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. ELP’s perfect NJPW record against Ospreay continued, thanks to the interference of Ishimori. With a win over the current champion already in his pocket, ELP reached the final where he met former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Dragon Lee. Their battle ended with the inevitable low blow followed by a CR2 and ELP etching his name in history as the Super J Cup winner.

    Always the respectable stalwart, when handed the trophy by tournament creator Jyushin Thunder Liger, ELP elected to boot the trophy out of the ring and threaten to retire Liger early. With a golden jacket across his shoulders and two pieces of gold around his waist, he was primed to challenge for the top junior title in the world. 

    Four months after debuting and ELP was Undisputed British Cruiserweight Champion for RevPro, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion and now one of only five men in history to win the Super J Cup, putting himself in the record books alongside Jyushin Thunder Liger and Naomichi Marufuji. In just a few short months ELP had made his definitive mark in New Japan, much to the ire of fans across the globe. He constantly showed the undeniable ability to best any wrestler in the division whether it be technique, strength or flips, so his preference for devious tactics was infuriating to fans and opponents.  

    The First Missed Bullet

    Overly confident, arrogant and smug, El Phantasmo was made to be in Bullet Club. Nothing was off limits and everything was there to be taken. He harkens back to the style the faction once flourished in, roots they are regaining with Jay White at the helm. Phantasmo’s callous attitude has shades of original Bullet Club leader Prince Devitt, with ELP even entering the ring with a light-up jacket like Devitt once did. Incorporating Bullet Club more than most, ELP would use tricks synonymous with the group’s alumni, notably AJ Styles’ Styles Clash and Kenny Omega’s V-Trigger. 

    On 31st August NJPW held Royal Quest, their first ever UK show, in which Birds of Prey (Ospreay and Eagles) defeated ELP and Ishimori in a non-title match, setting up a future Championship match between the teams. It was a smidge of revenge for two men tortured by ELP, although it was Ospreay that pinned Ishimori for the win, leaving ELP still undefeated by both. 

    Throughout September ELP competed in multi-man tag matches with his Bullet Club brothers. The most important match was on 16th September at Destruction when he and Ishimori put their tag titles on the line for the first time against Birds of Prey. Par for the course, sportsmanship was not a factor when Ishimori blasted Eagles with the belt, eventually leading to ELP pinning Eagles. Again. 

    With the rivalry brewing since the day ELP stepped foot into New Japan it was inevitable that he would meet Ospreay for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Phantasmo’s record in New Japan spoke for itself with plenty of ticks in his win column. On 14th October at King of Pro Wrestling the pair clashed in a monumental match in Ryōgoku Kokugikan. The match involved all of ELP’s trademarks; interference from Ishimori; a belt shot to the face and a low blow. It also showed his better side; a moonsault from the top rope over the barriers and into the crowd; a dive from the stands onto the floor; a One Winged Angel attempt. The inimitable combination of athleticism and underhand tactics wasn’t enough on this occasion and Ospreay retained his title.

    “Phantasmo is good enough, he doesn’t need any of that nonsense!”

    – Kevin Kelly, commentator

    Rebounding to Wrestle Kingdom 

    On the back of defeat to Will Ospreay, El Phantasmo entered the Super Junior Tag League alongside Ishimori, looking to another trophy to his cabinet and assert Bullet Club’s dominance in the junior tag division. Also entering the tournament were Birds of Prey and, unsurprisingly, a low blow from ELP led to him pinning Robbie Eagles in their match. Again.

    This was the final bullet, for now, as Ospreay would make the jump to Heavyweight a few months later, seemingly putting a halt on Birds of Prey’s short lived run. Thus far, Robbie Eagles has had no glimpse of vengeance against his nemesis, much to the delight of Phantasmo who will gladly remind you that he has never been defeated by Eagles. Despite finishing joint first, the Bullet Club pair did not make it to the final due to losing tiebreakers to Suzuki-Gun and Roppongi 3K. 

    On 9th November ELP defended his Undisputed British Cruiserweight title for the fifth time against SHO in San Jose. This was SHO’s first opportunity at singles gold in his career and the Junior powerhouse tried all he could, having ELP dead to rights after hitting Shock Arrow but no referee there to make the count. A low blow, CR2 and three count later, Phantasmo kept his grip on the title to a chorus of angry boos. 

    ELP rounded out 2019 teaming with Bullet Club in multi-man matches as Wrestle Kingdom 14 drew closer. Having won the Super Junior Tag League for a third consecutive year, Roppongi 3K would be challenging for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships in Tokyo Dome. Going into the show both teams had one victory over the other and the biggest possible stage was set for the decider. 

    Stepping foot into the Tokyo Dome for the first time ELP would leave defeated. His go to weapon for seven months would be his downfall when SHO and YOH wore cups to protect themselves from the inevitable low blow. The mastermind behind the cups was none other than Roppongi 3K’s manager, the man who handed Phantasmo his first defeat in New Japan, Rocky Romero. 

    The following night the Bullet Club partners were unsuccessful in a four-way tag match that included the new champs. Despite not losing a match in early February during the New Beginning Tour ELP was out of contention for the titles, having no claim to face current IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi or challenge for the tag titles. 

    Having defended the Undisputed British Cruiserweight Championship six times over nine months across four continents, ELP was uncrowned when long term foe Michael Oku defeated him at RevPro’s High Stakes on February 14th. Continuous success in 2019 was not repeated in early 2020. 

    One Year of HDBNG Club

    The New Japan calendar is favoured towards Heavyweights at the beginning of the year, with the majority of March taken up by the New Japan Cup. ELP’s time to shine would have been coming again with BOSJ 27 where he would have been a favourite to win, but due to the current global landscape the tournament was cancelled.

    The Wrestling Observer Newsletter rated five of ELP’s matches higher than four stars in 2019 and three of those were rated 4¾ stars. For all of the shenanigans he leans towards during his matches, it’s unarguably evident that he possesses everything needed to be a major success in New Japan. It’s highly unlikely that Phantasmo takes the high road anytime soon and nor should he. He is capable of putting on top tier matches but wrestling is substantially more than the action in the ring. ELP offers something that nobody else in the junior division can match.

    TOKYO,JAPAN – MAY 23: El Phantasmo enters the ring during the New Japan Pro-Wrestling ‘Best Of Super Jr.’ at Korakuen Hall on May 23, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images) (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

    El Phantasmo injected much needed personality into the junior division in his first year. The division truly lacked a wrestler who is unequivocally loathed. Suzuki-Gun members don’t invoke the same reaction as ELP. When Ishimori competes solo he doesn’t use the same tactics as when allied with Phantasmo. Combined with the loss of Hiromu Takahashi for the entirety of 2019, Phantasmo helped keep the division fresh. The in-ring ability of the division was never in doubt but ELP gave the division a vagrant and made the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships relevant for the majority of 2019.  

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    You can find me on Twitter @CiaranRH. Thanks for reading.