This article originally appeared in Rudo Can’t Fail issue 16

Yoshihiro Asai – Ultimo Dragon
By Matt Farmer

The Asai Moonsault is one of wrestling’s most spectacular moves, yet some fans may not be aware of the origins of the maneuver. While it cannot be said for certain that Yoshihiro Asai invented the move, it can be said he used it with such frequency and precision that the move was named after him.

The story of Ultimo Dragon is a rather amazing story that began in Japan. As a young man, Yoshihiro Asai was a big fan of Antonio Inoki and New Japan Pro Wrestling. During the glory days of NJPW, it was carried on Prime Time television and viewed by massive television audiences. When New Japan would hold try-outs for their legendary dojo, hundreds of hopefuls would show up with visions of becoming famous professional wrestlers. Asai was one of only a handful chosen to enter the New Japan Dojo and began training at the notoriously brutal dojo under head master Kotetsu Yamamoto. Training was extremely difficult, often out of the handful that are selected only a few men complete the training. Yoshihiro Asai was one of the few men who did complete the training, however when his peers graduated and were offered contracts with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Asai was not. He was told due to his lack of size among other things, he would not be offered a contract with the company.

Asai did not give up on his dreams so easily. On his own admission, he traveled to Mexico to seek out Gran Hamada, who himself had graduated from the same dojo and was now a star for the UWA promotion in Mexico. Asai began training in the art of lucha libre under Hamada’s watchful eye and in no time made his debut for Carlos Maynes Universal Wrestling Association.

On May 13, 1987, Asai made his debut teaming with fellow Japanese wrestlers Hirokazu Hata and Naoki Sano. Both men had graduated from the same dojo a few years earlier and had been sent to Mexico on their excursion. The three men teamed up to face the legendary trio of Los Misionarios de la Muerte. The trio quickly moved to weekly cards at El Toreo where Asai’s reputation as a great performer grew.

Four months into his career, he and his partners Hirokazu Hata and Naoki Sano captured the Distrito Federal Trios Championship on Aug. 26, 1987, from Los Temerarios (Black Terry & Jose Luis Feliciano & Shu el Guerrero) at Arena Naucalpan. Along with the trios titles, Asai added a singles championship with the UWA World Welterweight Title. He also added to his list of credentials when he took the hair off numerous opponents like Bello Greco, Black Terry and Jose Luis Feliciano.

His success in Mexico and relationship with Gran Hamada lead to Asai getting an opportunity to go back to his home country and wrestle for the Universal Pro-Wrestling company. Universal, or later known at Federacion Universal de Lucha Libre (FULL), was owned and promoted by former New Japan Pro Wrestling president Hisashi Shinma, his son Hisatsune Shinma and Gran Hamada. This promotion was the first company to bring a lucha libre tour to Japan. The promotion also featured many Japanese independent wrestlers that would go on to more success with the Michinoku Pro company.

By 1991, business was booming in Mexico with Paco Alonso’s EMLL being on fire. Besides having a highly-rated television program, a key to Empresa’s popularity was Antonio Pena, who was working with in a creative role with the company. He is credited with creating some of the country’s more popular characters. One of the characters he created when he brought in Yoshihiro Asai was the Ultimo Dragon persona.

Ultimo Dragon which translates to the Last Dragon, was a concept Antonio Pena had where Asai would be the last student of Martial Arts legend Bruce Lee. Ultimo would be a regular trio partner with Octagon and Atlantis, who were two of the companies brightest young stars.

In the same year, Yoshihiro Asai got the opportunity to bring Ultimo Dragon to Japan. This time it was for Genichiro Tenryu’s Super World Sport promotions. On Dec. 12, 1991, Dragon faced Jerry Estrada in front of over 30,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. This match put a lot of eyes on Dragon and almost immediately fans began clamoring for a dream match between Ultimo Dragon and Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger. At the time, it was a match which politically was going to prove difficult to make due to issues between Japanese offices. However, Super World Sports closed its doors leading to the opening of the WAR promotion. This opened the doors to a working relationship between WAR and NJPW.

On Nov. 22, 1992, Ultimo Dragon defeated El Samurai for his IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. With Dragon holding the most prestigious junior championship in the world, it allowed them to book the match fans wanted to see. At New Japan’s Jan. 4, 1993 Tokyo Dome extravaganza, Ultimo Dragon wrestled Jushin Liger in front of a sold-out Tokyo Dome!

With this appearance, Yoshihiro Asai proved all his doubters wrong by coming back to the company that snubbed him years earlier and wrestled a featured match on their biggest event of the year.

Ultimo Dragon continued capturing championships. At one point, Ultimo Dragon held a total of 10 championships at one time. They included the J-Crown Title, which consisted of 8 titles from companies around the world. He added the WCW Cruiserweight Title and the NWA World Middleweight Title. These combined championships made Ultimo Dragon the most decorated wrestling in history. It would take a book to list all the credentials Dragon captured during his career.

With a book of credentials, his legacy in wrestling may come from something else he accomplished. While working for World Championship Wrestling, he opened a gym where he trained young wrestlers in the hybrid lucha libre mixed with Japanese style wrestling. He began booking some of his students on to WCW events and began promoting shows with the IWRG promotion in Mexico. This lead to Dragon opening his own company, Toryumon, and would later morph into Dragon Gate. These companies and students of Ultimo Dragon have proven to be some of the most dynamic wrestlers in the world and have continued to popularize the hybrid style of wrestling that Yoshihiro Asai was responsible for showcasing on a world-wide stage.

Yoshihiro Asai’s legacy and impact can be felt in every corner of the globe. The Asai Moonsault remains one of wrestling’s most spectacular maneuvers. His style has inspired dozens of wrestlers from around the world and continues to inspire young wrestlers to this very day.