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Francesco Akira, from Rising Sun to AJPW

2 years ago

Francesco Akira, from Rising Sun to AJPW

The 22-year-old Italian AJPW Star Tells Us Why He’s Bound for Greatness

By: Francesco Mandolini

“I remember my first wrestling training session. I was so anxious but I couldn’t wait. Before that day I tried many different sports: kickboxing, soccer, swimming, basketball, tennis… but ultimately I stuck with wrestling.”

This is how Francesco Akira Begnini, 22-year-old from Urgnano, in northern Italy, recalls his first training session – the one that started it all. At that moment, the passion of a 14-year-old skinny redheaded kid who grew up watching John Cena and Rey Mysterio on Italia 1 (the Italian national TV station that aired SmackDown from 2004 to 2007) really burst into flames.

The Unlikely Start

Italy is a place commonly associated with food, cars, music, arts, football and much more, but wrestling probably wouldn’t even make the list of the top 100 things anyone would pair with it. The very idea of an Italian wrestling scene is actually quite a novel concept. It started around the year 2000 with places like Italian Championship Wrestling (ICW) and has continued to develop in front of our very eyes.

Akira started training at the ICW gym under an Italian wrestler named Kobra. Luckily the gym was just a 15-minute drive from his home, whereas many others had to endure a five-hour drive just to get to a training session: “on the first day I wanted to learn how to chop, but the other wrestlers were afraid to show me. I was too thin and the trainer would get mad if they did,” Akira commented.

His skinny frame was problematic in the first two years of training: “I couldn’t bump,” he recalls, “not even on the crashing pads.” But with the passing of time he developed just enough mass to protect himself from the mat. Then, at 16 years old, it was time for his debut match — under a mask.

“I could not see anything! I was too skinny for that mask (which belonged to ICW and was stored in a box only to be used on similar occasions), it kept turning around my head so it was impossible to work. But even with that cheap red mask on, I knew I was hooked. Before going through the curtains, the butterflies in my stomach went away. I felt at home.”

Rising Through the Ranks

All that Akira needed now was a boost of confidence from a promotion, a place where he could wrestle consistently, get some reps in and call it his home. This place ended up being the newly formed promotion Rising Sun Wrestling.

Rising Sun is a wrestling promotion created in 2016 by the passionate wrestling fan-turned-promoter, Fabio Tornaghi, in his hometown of Bergamo. As if through serendipity, the Italian wrestling league happens to be close to Akira’s hometown.

It was the first in Italy to promote a type of wrestling with a style less about family-friendly content, and more of the gritty indie style matches like those put on by Progress and RevPro in the UK.

Rising Sun has also booked foreign talents quite regularly, which is why around that time (2016-2017) names from Britain (Will Ospreay, Tk Cooper, and Ashley Dunn) started to pop up in the Italian wrestling circuit, as well as American imports (Holidead, Alexander James), European stand-outs (A-Kid, Bad Bones) and Japanese ECW/WWE Legend Yoshihiro Tajiri (TAJIRI).

At the time Akira was still too green to tango with them in the ring, but he had a chance to shine while they watched.

“Rising Sun gave me a great opportunity,” said Akira. “They believed in me and I just wanted to pack my bag and go wrestle for them as much as possible. It didn’t matter if there were next to no fans in attendance or 300 (which was the average for Italian shows). Without this experience and the respect for the discipline they taught me I wouldn’t have made it in Japan.”

An Excursion Abroad

With a few years of experience under his belt, Akira started to get the first chances to prove himself on smaller European and British promotions such as GWP in Germany, SWA and Sacrifice Pro in the UK as well as the legendary WAW, the promotion owned by the parents of WWE’s Paige (This was also portrayed in the movie “Fighting With My Family”, produced by The Rock.)

“That was a dreadful experience because they were all so big and I was so small!” Akira jokes and adds, “also at the time I didn’t speak the language, so there was a very real comprehension issue. Fortunately, as I discovered lately in Japan, the moves are called in the same way everywhere.”

When he came back from his first foray into Japan, more promotions put their eyes on the Italian prodigy. The fans from UK’s Wrestle Gate and Kamikaze Pro and Ireland’s OTT got a firsthand experience of how much Akira improved in just one tour, but that was only the beginning of the road for him in Europe.

The Buzzsaw and the Opportunity

“It was in the afternoon of one Rising Sun event. I entered the arena where it was held and immediately noticed this elderly man, with a coat and a hat, reading a book while sitting on the chairs ringside. I didn’t pay too much attention and just passed by him to go to the locker rooms. That man was Japanese legend TAJIRI and I didn’t recognize him.”

Akira didn’t know it, but on that day he was about to meet the man who would change his life forever and become his mentor. TAJIRI had toured Italy before and probably didn’t expect to meet his future protegé either, knowing that the standards there are much lower than Japan and USA when it comes to wrestling.

He’s also, like many other Japanese people, a quite reserved person. Usually TAJIRI doesn’t talk much to people he doesn’t know personally. So when Akira asked for some feedback after his match, he generally replied that it had been good without going too much into detail.

It was a couple of hours later, while Akira was tearing the ring down after the show, that TAJIRI went to the young Italian wrestler asking for his contacts. Baffled by the proposal, Akira asked if there was any chance for him to work in Japan.

The reply from TAJIRI was simply, “Would you like to come for three months?”

What’s in a Name?

Francesco Akira sounds like a cool gimmick name, half Italian-half Japanese.

It’s something that could work well in wrestling, especially if you aim to go to Japan. All of that is true except it’s not a gimmick, that’s actually his real name. Akira’s mother loved Japan growing up, so she decided to give both her sons two names: one in Italian and the other one in Japanese.

Ironically, 20 years later, her firstborn son would fly away to that country for his first two All Japan tours.

“I often asked myself this question: ‘have I taken this path somewhat influenced by my own name?’ but in the end I think it’s just a happy coincidence. I wasn’t an otaku when I was a kid and knew nothing about Japan. Now after two years there I learned a lot and I love the culture, but it was difficult to adapt.”

The Moment it All Came Together

In 2019 Francesco Akira toured Japan two times: the first one for three months (when he also faced TAJIRI for the first time ever in the Junior tournament) the second one for a two months stint.

It is with his third Japan tour that things would shift his career drastically – and a year later, the whole world started to hear more and more about COVID-19.

Bergamo, Akira’s hometown, was the first and most afflicted city in Italy and he was challenged with one of the most difficult decisions he ever had to make: fly back home to Italy until it’s possible to return, or stay in Japan. How would he turn the negative into a positive and make the most of his career.

As we now know, this moment in life led him to win the 2021 Junior Battle Of Glory Tournament (beating his mentor TAJIRI for the first time ever, in the opening round) and become the first ever European (and overall third gaijin) to win the AJPW World Jr. Heavyweight championship, ten years after a certain Kenny Omega did the same.

But it didn’t come without sacrifice.

“AJPW gave me a roof when I needed one,” states the Italian wrestler, “They let me live, train and eat in their dojo, but I couldn’t have done it by myself. I studied Japanese the entire time, the other wrestlers and young boys were helping me and I taught them some Italian in exchange, but there’s only so much that you can say if you don’t master a language properly. Living alone and adapting to another culture is no easy task.”

Akira’s Future

When asked about a possible return date to Japan, Akira confirms that he’s a free agent. He’s on good terms with the AJPW management and head trainer TAJIRI, but at the moment his focus is on the European indies and though it will most likely be in the spring of 2022, there’s no comeback date on the calendar yet.

Akira recently debuted for wXw in Germany, arguably the biggest and most prestigious promotion in Europe. He is set to let the fireball roll through Insane Championship Wrestling (Scotland), RevPro (England), Bodyslam (Denmark), Bodyzoi (Belgium) and many other places. He’s also set to receive a hero’s comeback in his home promotion Rising Sun.

He simply sums up his immediate future by saying, “I just want to travel and become the best wrestler I can be.” At just 22 years of age, one can only imagine what the next decade will bring for the Italian fireball Francesco Akira.

We could be on the brink of the rise of a true new international wrestling star – one that, for the first time since the days of Bruno Sammartino, comes from a small town in Italy and is ready to take on the world.

Francesco Akira - AJPW Jr. Heavyweight Champion - Monthly Puroresu - Promotional Artwork

This Q&A first appeared in Monthly Puroresu Issue #6