Dragon Lee vs. Kamaitachi: The Kids Are Mad and It's Glorious!
On January 9th of this year, CMLL's Super Viernes telecast featured one of promotion's favorite gimmicks; the Lightning Match. Aside from its rad name, a Lightning Match is real simple; unlike the usual two out three falls format CMLL uses, a Lightning Match is only one fall, with each contestant having 10 minutes to pin or submit their opponent for victory (if no one has won the match by the 10 minute mark, the match is a draw). It's not much, but it's an effective way to create urgency for a match. This particular Lightning Match was no different, pitting two young superstars on the rise against each other with a real opportunity to show Arena Mexico what they could do. Though it hadn't been the first time these two had battled in a Lightning Match, it was fresh enough that the fans could sink their teeth into it. The battle raged on for a solid, but unspectacular seven minutes or so before one of the competitors, trapped in a powerbomb position, suddenly pulled off the mask of his opponent. This is normally a DQ in CMLL, but the referee missed it, and the villainous dude rolled up his unmasked opponent for the pinfall. Arena Mexico jeered, lucha fans took note, and had he still been living, I'm certain Casablanca actor Humphrey Bogart would've declared this the beginning of a beautiful rivalry. He would've been correct.
The two young men in the ring that night were Dragon Lee and Kamaitachi, two wrestlers who couldn't have come from more different backgrounds. Like most luchadors, the then 19-year-old Lee was part of a huge lucha family; his father Arthur Munoz is a long time lucha veteran, while his brothers both wrestle in CMLL today (you may have heard of one of Lee's brothers; he's a dude called Rush. Has a future I'd say). There was never any question about Lee's greatness, other than how long it would take for him to find it. Kamaitachi was a different story. A then 25-year-old who got into wrestling thanks to former New Japan/WCW star Masahiro Chono, Kamaitachi trained in the New Japan dojo before spending three years struggling to prove his worth for the Japanese wrestling power. He was thus sent to CMLL for seasoning (CMLL and New Japan have a talent exchange), put on a mask and took the name of a legendary supernatural monster in Japanese lore. That the two were ultimately put together for this Lightning Match earlier this year was likely more of a coincidence than a plan, with CMLL just throwing to young bucks out there and hoping they'd give the Arena Mexico crowd a joke to start the show. Boy did that coincidence pay off; the one off Lightning Match between Lee and Kamaitachi grew into a full blown feud in 2015, where the two fought almost ten times in singles competition (not to mention several more times in tag and six man tag matches) and delivered at least four matches that could be considered Match of the Year candidates. Not even Goosebumps being a non terrible waste of time was as big a shock this year!
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the feud (which may very well be the best non-Lucha Underground booked rivalry in wrestling this year) is how CMLL actually pulled it off. If you take a look at the history of wrestling, you'll notice that for most major rivalries, the feud between the two competitors or entities is treated like a soap opera story. Now that's not a bad thing; a heightened sense of drama has helped make many a thing work over the course of wrestling and overall pop culture history. Jealousy, lust, love, anger, rage and all those other things that made Kevin Spacey the perfect killer in Seven can be very effective story telling techniques. Dragon Lee and Kamaitachi however was about none of those things; they didn't fight over girls or because they loathed each other (well, at least not at first). The brilliance of Dragon Lee-Kamaitachi was that CMLL treated it like, wait for it, an actual sports rivalry. Yes, instead of emulating James Bond, the two young guns chose to emulate the Battle of Alberta (Oilers and Flames FTW!). It felt like an actual heated competition between two young competitors wanting to stake their claim to superiority in the historic grounds of lucha libre's most famous arena. From that concept developed all the things that come with a great sports rivalry; exciting match ups, legit heat and an eventual intense dislike and desire to not just win, but to win with a statement. Not to toot Zack Snyder's horn (okay, twist my arm), but rivalries like this are the basis for that Jeremy Irons quote in the Batman v Superman trailers. Rivalries like this is how it starts; the fever, the rage that turns good men cruel.
In this case, it turned Kamaitachi cruel and into the perfect foil for Dragon Lee. Now look, there's no question that Lee, who is beloved by lucha and non-lucha fans (Dave Meltzer is evidently a huge fan) and he deserves all the accolades that he's been given. But as great as Dragon Lee is, Kamaitachi was by far the straw that stirred the drink with this rivalry, and mainly because of his real life background. Every rivalry, real or fake, needs an alpha and an underdog, one side with pedigree and success and another that has to scratch and claw for respect, that competes with a chip on their shoulder. Kamaitachi was the latter; unlike Dragon Lee, he didn't come from a wrestling family and he didn't become an overnight sensation. That sort of real life difference in background carried over once the two stopped having Lightning Matches and started competing for bigger stakes, and only heightened the more time went on. For Dragon Lee, it was about becoming the bigger name everyone expected him to be. For Kamaitachi, it was all about proving he was just as good as the phenom, that he had just as much right to be there as Lee did. And thus started the fever.
That fever within Kamaitachi (whether it was real, kayfabe or both) made the rivalry, especially as that inferiority complex grew. When Lee and Kamaitachi fought in a mask vs. mask match back Homenaje a Dos Leyendas, Kamaitachi's rage and unstoppable will to unmask and humiliate Lee both made the match the most compelling bet match of the year (aside from Atlantis-La Sombra) and led to Kamaitachi losing his own mask to a more focused, less emotional Lee. The loss only added to Kamaitachi's anger, and as the feud shifted from masks to the CMLL World Lightweight Championship (which Lee won from Virus in May), he seemingly came back at Lee time and time again, even more vicious the next time around. And yet, it was never enough. As Hamlet would say, there's the rub. Though records show that Kamaitachi did get the better of Lee in certain matches, it was never when it counted. Indeed, Kamaitachi's victories either occurred in Lightning Matches or six man tags when nothing was on the line; when the bright lights shown, he was coming up shorter than the Cubs, too focused on revenge and too caught up with his own insecurities to overcome a budding superstar coming of age before our very eyes. That this feud elevated Dragon Lee in that way was a triumph; that the story had it so it wasn't enough for Kamaitachi that he was doing the same as his rival made it even more better.
Most importantly, it made their last match just four days ago on CMLL's Super Viernes show a classic, one that you'll all eventually get to read about in a 201 entry years down the line. If La Sombra-Atlantis, the best match CMLL produced this year till this one, was slow burning epic ala Lawrence of Arabia, Lee and Kamaitachi put on a display that was a cross between Fury Road and Run Lola Run. The pace was electric and dangerous from the beginning; seriously, Lee and Kamaitachi nearly kill each other on at least three or four different occasions. The near falls were actually dramatic once both men had gotten a fall a piece (remember, CMLL does two out of three falls). I could go on and on and on, but the short story is that everything worked. It was as if the two had taken their unbelievable chemistry, taken all the amazing things they'd done against each other this year and put it all together for one definitive, screaming statement to the wrestling world. And yet, the most brilliant decision made in that match may have not been from either Lee or Kamaitachi, but by CMLL's production crew.
Towards the latter stages of the bout, cameras began to cut a Japanese woman (who I sadly can't find a picture of) in the crowd cheering on Kamaitachi like her life depended on it. It wasn't her first appearance during one of these matches, as she'd been shown onscreen during another excellent match between the two back and August. Whereas that match only showed us glimpses of her, here she became part of the bout; her expressions, excitement, disappointment and overall emotional state added so much drama to a match that was bursting with it like it was one of those Alien babies. How important was the woman for the match? For me, I went into the bout just hoping to enjoy the two pummeling each other; that woman (combined with Kamaitachi getting so close and coming up short so many times) had me rooting for the rudo. When he appeared to win the match and the title after a Canadian Destroyer, I erupted with cheers the same as that woman did. When the decision was rightfully reversed (Lee had his foot on the ropes, which the ref missed) and Lee rallied to win the match with an impressive final flurry, I sank back on the couch disappointed while that woman nearly came to tears. It was almost a reminder of my own fandom with the Chicago Cubs, a team that has been so close but never quite seems to seal the deal (it's coming though folks. Trust me). That emotion rang true here, for me, for that woman, and for every other Kamaitachi fan out there (consequently, Dragon Lee fans get to enjoy their superiority. It's like they're Cardinals fans, minus the insufferable entitlement and overall douchebaggery).
And well, it'll have to keep doing so. The rivalry between Dragon Lee and Kamaitachi is over, and potentially for good. After this Friday, Kamaitachi will return to New Japan for good, having finally proven that he belongs in the halls of Japan's wrestling power. With his rival gone, Dragon Lee will now move on to being CMLL's next big star; I seriously wouldn't be shocked to see him in a high profile match with his brother Rush or even Atlantis at the 83rd Anniversary Show next year (can you imagine Dragon Lee unmasking Atlantis? Would that not be the biggest win in modern lucha history?!). In other words, the rivalry did exactly what it needed to do. When their rivalry began, Lee and Kamaitachi were just two young guys looking to prove their worth. Through the course of twelve months, they proved it with several amazing matches built around competition, envy and maybe even a little bit of the coming of age genre sprinkled in. Trust me when I tell you that you won't find a rivalry that brought the in ring fire this one did. There may have been better stories (Vamprio vs. Pentagon), there may have been bigger stories on bigger stages (Cena-Owens, Atlantis-La Sombra), but nothing had the fire, the fever of Dragon Lee vs. Kamaitachi. The only downer is that it had to end.
Well, that and the fact that Kamaitachi never did get that big win. But that's a selfish thing I want, not just because it fit his story but because the reaction that woman would've given would've been better than the match itself! Hopefully she takes solace in this; in the end, it really didn't matter whether it was Kamaitachi or Dragon Lee won on that given night. It's clear as day now that they both did.