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For the past two decades, the junior heavyweight term has held a negative connotation in American pro wrestling.

WWE’s most recent version of the cruiserweight ultimately accomplished more harm than good, with wrestlers preferring to stay as far away from the division as possible. Not since WCW highlighted the best junior heavyweights in the world in the late 1990s has the division had positive mainstream momentum in the United States.

Hiromu Takahashi is seeking to change that.

“I think Japanese fans already know about how great junior heavyweight wrestling is, but not many fans in the US know what the division means,” says Takahashi, speaking through a translator. “In the US, cruiserweight divisions used to be more common, but the word ‘junior’ doesn’t mean ‘less than’. Not at all.”

The reigning, five-time IWGP junior heavyweight champion, Takahashi will wrestle on Saturday at New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s All Star Junior Festival USA 2023 show at Philadelphia’s famed 2300 Arena, a site that formerly was home to ECW. Five months ago, New Japan held the All Star event at Korakuen Hall, which was a spectacular show that was overseen by Takahashi. The sequel now comes to Philly, featuring a roster that includes Impact world champion Alex Shelley, Ryusuke Taguchi, “Speedball” Mike Bailey, Rocky Romero, El Desperado, Bushi, Ace Austin, Chris Bey, and Master Wato, who headlined the All Star Junior Festival in Japan this past March before winning the acclaimed Best of the Super Juniors tournament in May.

Streaming live on New Japan World, this show is led by Romero, who will work closely with Takahashi.

“Rocky Romero is producing when LEC Presents All Star Junior Festival USA 2023,” says Takahashi. “The Japanese version of the ASJF was red-hot. We had so much great junior heavyweight talent there, and between them, the bigwigs in each company and all the staff putting their work in, All Star Junior Festival was very successful. I hope this USA version will be just as successful and for fans in America to know how exciting junior heavyweight wrestling is. Plus, you get to see the producers of the Japanese and US shows teaming up.”

The New Japan Pro-Wrestling star will team with Romero in a three-way tag ladder match for the right to become the inaugural winner of the Pat’s King of Steaks Philly Cheesesteak Cup.

“All Star Junior Festival is the show to let fans know how great all of junior heavyweight wrestling is,” says Takahashi. “So what I can do as the junior heavyweight champion is to enjoy the show more than anyone else. I’ll be fighting over Philly cheesesteak in a ladder match–nothing could be more iconic in Philly. I couldn’t be more hyped.”

Courtesy NJPW

Courtesy NJPW

One of the most spectacular talents in all of wrestling, Takahashi wrestled at the New Japan/AEW joint Forbidden Door show this past June in a six-man tag with Los Ingobernables de Japon’s Shingo Takagi and Bushi. In the final match of the preshow, they were victorious against the United Empire’s Jeff Cobb, Kyle Fletcher, and TJP.

Takahashi thoroughly enjoyed his experience at Forbidden Door, especially after he was unable to wrestle at last year’s event when he had been scheduled to team with Sting, Darby Allin, and Takagi against The Young Bucks, Kyle O’Reilly, and Hikuleo.

“I couldn’t wrestle at the Forbidden Door last year because I got a fever,” says Takahashi. “I was gutted, so I’m so glad I could wrestle in the show this time.”

As he attempts to set a new record for IWGP junior heavyweight title defenses, Takahashi would be open to defending the belt in AEW.

“A dream of mine is to have a match on live prime time TV,” says Takahashi, whose words hopefully catch the attention of AEW’s Tony Khan. “I’d be stoked to wrestle in AEW any time and defend the IWGP junior heavyweight title there. Last year, I was supposed to team up with Darby Allin and Sting. So I want to team up with Sting rather than wrestle him. Wrestling someone? That would be Darby.”

The record for IWGP junior heavyweight title defenses in one reign is 11, which was set by Minoru Tanaka. The most combined title defenses since the belt’s inception in 1986 is 31 by Jushin Thunder Liger (followed by WWE’s Finn Bálor with 15). Takahashi has 13 combined title defenses, with five of those since he regained the title this past January at Wrestle Kingdom 17.

“I am doing my best to make that title defense record,” says Takahashi, whose ambition is to hold two very specific titles at once. “I’ve had a dream since I was a student in junior high school. My dream is to become the IWGP junior heavyweight champion, and then, as junior champion, win the IWGP world heavyweight championship. That’s my ultimate goal.”

On Sunday, Takahashi teams with Mike Bailey at Multiverse United 2: For Whom the Bell Tolls, a joint show with Impact Wrestling. Takahashi and Bailey are perhaps the two very best junior heavyweights in the world, and their singles match in the Best of the Super Juniors tournament in Japan this past May was outrageously compelling. They will team up against Trey Miguel and Lio Rush on Sunday in a match that has every right to steal the show.

Only 33, it is a frightening thought to consider that Takahashi has yet to even enter his prime. He will continue to pursue his goal of bringing junior heavyweight wrestling–and all that it stands for–to the forefront of the industry.

“In NJPW, there are two classes, which are heavyweight and junior heavyweight. If your weight is over 100kg [220 pounds], you’re a heavyweight–and under 100kg, you’re junior heavyweight,” says Takahashi. “If you come to our show, you’ll know just how great that term ‘junior heavyweight’ is. I’d like to see the junior heavyweight distinction more established in the US, and a big step will be to have as many people as possible watching the All Star Junior Festival.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.