Rey Mysterio is one of the most recognizable professional wrestlers in the world whose lucha libre style influenced a generation of high flyers and risk takers. His ability to believably wrestle any opponent despite his size created opportunities for smaller wrestlers after him. His falcon-emblazoned mask became a merchandise-mover in the United States and a symbol in Mexico.
Mysterio, who started wrestling professionally at 14 years old, has been a household name wherever he's wrestled for so long it's hard to remember a place where he wasn't. But Mysterio does. He'll never forget Dec. 13, 1995, the first time he entered Japan as an unknown 21-year-old "gaijin" hoping to make a name for himself in a foreign territory.
By that point, Mysterio, who had already established his name wrestling in Mexico and more recently in ECW, was brought into Japan for WAR's Super-J Cup -- a tournament featuring the top junior heavyweights from around the world. The tournament included the likes of Chris Jericho (then known as Lionheart), Chris Benoit (then known as Wild Pegasus), Gedo (now New Japan's head booker), Jushin "Thunder" Liger, and Ultimo Dragon. It was Dragon who recommended Mysterio for the Super-J Cup and while WAR owner Genichiro Tenryu heeded Dragon's advice, he had different plans for the newcomer.
"They thought I was too small to even be part of the Super-J Cup," Mysterio recalled in an interview with ESPN.com. "They just added a match onto the card and it was a guest match: Psicosis vs. Rey Mysterio."
The two were already formidable foes at this point, offering standout matches for ECW and AAA in Mexico, but that was worlds away from Japan. Mysterio knew he was nothing more than another masked luchador to the hard-to-please fans inside Sumo Hall, but he would learn that night he had at least one Japanese supporter, and it was that chance encounter that would change Mysterio's career.
"I show up to the arena and actually notice that somebody is coming to get me in the locker room. They're like, 'There's somebody out there waiting. They have something for you,'" Mysterio remembers. "I go, 'I don't know nobody here.' I walk out and I meet Masahiro Hayashi."
Hayashi told Mysterio he was a fan of his and wanted to give him a present -- a black and yellow outfit he specifically made for him. All Hayashi asked for in return was that Mysterio give him his mask after the match.
"I went along and I said, 'OK, I'll go ahead and try it on but I don't think it's gonna fit,'" Mysterio said. "The guy made it tailored as if he knew me for years. The outfit fit perfect. I wore it that night, I gave him the mask, he had another one for me, I signed it for him, and he's been making my outfits ever since."
Mysterio's now-iconic mask and colorful attire are deeply woven into the fabric of his career. In many ways, Hayashi has played a major role behind the scenes in helping Mysterio spread his name around the world. He's also the reason, 23 years later, that Mysterio is returning to Japan to compete at New Japan Pro Wrestling's Dominion on Saturday.
"Believe it or not, there was an intermediate person there that was involved and that person is Hayashi," Mysterio said regarding how the dialogue between him and NJPW started. "Me and him were conversating this last year and I told him how there's one obstacle left in my career that I still haven't accomplished and that was wrestling in the ring for New Japan. The conversation started there, next thing you know he had some feedback -- I guess there was some interest on behalf of New Japan. A couple months down the road, we scheduled our first event for Strong Style Evolved."
Mysterio was booked for NJPW's Strong Style Evolved show in Long Beach in March for what was supposed to be his first match under the NJPW banner. Mysterio wasn't able to wrestle for NJPW during his 13 years in WWE or the two years after with Lucha Underground and AAA (NJPW has a working relationship with CMLL, AAA's rival promotion). He was scheduled to face Liger, who won the 1995 Super-J Cup, in a rematch of their WCW Starrcade bout from 1996. However, Mysterio injured his bicep weeks earlier, leaving him to have to watch Liger face his replacement Will Ospreay from the front row.
"It was hard, especially after seeing the reaction of the fans in a sold-out arena," Mysterio said. "The fans were really excited and ready to watch that match all over again. I always say things happen for a reason. Getting injured at the time and not being able to heal properly, it just meant there was something bigger and better ahead."
Mysterio met with NJPW officials after the injury and both parties agreed that Mysterio would now be making his long-awaited NJPW debut two months later in Osaka, Japan at Dominion.
"For me it's probably one of the most exciting experiences that I'll get to live throughout my career just because I get to share the ring with two of the biggest legends in Japan. Not only do we get to work together, but we get to face the future of the sport right now. My main thing is always pleasing the crowd and giving the crowd what they want and I think the history that all three of us have competing in different parts of the world -- me doing my thing in the U.S. and them doing their thing in Japan, or worldwide for that matter -- to be able to put all three of us together for this one night, I think it's going to be a special night." Rey Mysterio
"Timing is everything. I think right now is the perfect time for me to enter New Japan," Mysterio said. "The style has changed drastically. The weight status has changed as well. You see the Will Ospreays and the Marty Scrulls and even Cody Rhodes, we had a long-time feud in WWE. Now, we're all working together."
NJPW made fans wait to find out who Mysterio would face in his debut, but on Tuesday they announced he will square off against the Bullet Club -- Cody, Scurll, and Adam Page, alongside Japanese icons Jushin Liger and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
"For me it's probably one of the most exciting experiences that I'll get to live throughout my career just because I get to share the ring with two of the biggest legends in Japan," Mysterio said. "Not only do we get to work together, but we get to face the future of the sport right now. My main thing is always pleasing the crowd and giving the crowd what they want and I think the history that all three of us have competing in different parts of the world -- me doing my thing in the U.S. and them doing their thing in Japan, or worldwide for that matter -- to be able to put all three of us together for this one night, I think it's going to be a special night."
Mysterio is also looking forward to sharing the card with his longtime friend Chris Jericho, who is facing Tetsuya Naito in the co-main event of Dominion.
"That's very exciting for me. Not to be out there on my own, but to have a fellow teammate," Mysterio said. "In a way we've been on the grind since we were kids. To be able to call our own shots and kinda do our own thing, it's a true blessing. Jericho's been a leader for a very long time. He's a leader to me. I know he's a leader to a lot of people. I look up to Chris very much because he's worked very hard to get to where he's at. I have the utmost respect for Jericho."
Mysterio and Jericho also shared the same stage at WWE's Greatest Royal Rumble in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in April. Coincidentally, Mysterio's last two WWE appearances have been in Royal Rumbles. He was also a surprise entry in January's Rumble, his first WWE appearance since 2014. In that year's Rumble, Mysterio was infamously booed when he came out at No. 30 as fans expected Daniel Bryan, a moment that characterized his exit from WWE months later. But when Mysterio made his way out as the 28th entrant in January after flying into a different airport and hiding on a bus for hours, the reception he received couldn't have been more different.
"I was blown away by the response for this Rumble. It was definitely a shocker for me," Mysterio said. "We kind of step out of the TV game, or the WWE universe for a period of time, but it just goes to show how the fans are very supportive and they follow wherever you're going. The reaction was unbelievable. I was blown away by the fans. My adrenaline was going at 100 man. It was unbelievable."
Mysterio was one of the last six competitors to remain in the match, leading to a moment that will be replayed on WWE television for years to come when Mysterio, Randy Orton, and John Cena, three wrestlers who debuted for WWE in 2002 and went on to become megastars, stared down the trio of Roman Reigns, Finn Balor, and Shinsuke Nakamura, representing WWE's current and future stars. Mysterio hopes to replicate the electricity of that moment on Saturday.
"It didn't hit me until after when people were saying, 'that moment you guys had with you the three, the old generation vs. the new generation." I was like, 'Wow,'" Mysterio said. "It was definitely one of those moments you could feel the intensity. You could feel the fans wanting to see something go down. It's almost the moment that's gonna happen this Saturday with Liger and Tanahashi and myself being in there with the future of the sport for New Japan."
Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of Mysterio's WWE return was the shape he was in and, as is the norm with Mysterio over the years, his attention-grabbing attire. Mysterio had been training for three weeks in preparation for the Rumble with his trainer Chris Cavallini of Nutrition Solutions. He reached out to Hayashi to have special attire made for the occasion. Hayashi put his creative mind to task and created something unlike Mysterio had worn in years--since 1995 in Tokyo, Japan, to be exact.
"That outfit that was made, I've been asking him for an outfit that had that third-dimensional look to it. For the first time in I don't know how long he was able to pull it off," Mysterio said. "It really looked good on TV. The colors were very similar to the first outfit that he made in 1995."
Mysterio is making the most out of being a sought-after free agent, having the freedom to wrestle whenever and wherever he wants. In addition to Dominion, Mysterio has signed on to compete at the buzzworthy All In show on September 1st. Cody and the Young Bucks reached out to Mysterio early in the process and once a date was announced he "jumped on board right away".
Mysterio also says negotiations with WWE have "been going back and forth," but at this stage of his career he can only wrestle once or twice a week. If a part-time schedule can be worked out, Mysterio is more than open to a return. In the meantime, he's busy checking off another milestone on his bucket list at Dominion. Mysterio says the match "definitely" won't be his last for New Japan. At 43-years old, and over two decades removed since he first stepped foot on Japanese soil, he's ready to remind Japanese fans that he's still one of the top wrestlers in the world.
"I want them to go back and when they see me this Saturday and remember, 'Wow, that's still the Rey Mysterio that I remember from years ago,'" he said. "I'm gonna be there to entertain my fans like I normally do, whether it's with my ring style or my outfit, I'm definitely gonna please the crowd. That's what I still love to do."