The unlikely converging paths of Jay White and Hangman Page at NJPW Strong Style Evolved

In the moments following Jay White's greatest achievement to date -- beating Kenny Omega for the IWGP United States championship -- Adam Page swooped in as the next man up to challenge for the title. TV Asahi/NJPW

There's no one right way to make it in professional wrestling. It's a business that usually comes with a humbling, unforgiving and seemingly never-ending journey, but for a lot of performers those sacrifices make it even more rewarding when they reach their potential.

When a wrestler earns their way to the top, most fans will know that story and appreciate all the work that went into making it.

At New Japan Pro Wrestling's Strong Style Evolved in Long Beach, California, on Sunday, two faces of the future for the biggest promotions outside WWE -- NJPW and Ring of Honor -- will collide. Jay White defends his IWGP United States title against "Hangman" Adam Page in a battle of two guys who have certainly earned it and stand to make a big statement in the co-headlining match.

Over the past year, they've each worked tirelessly to prove what a growing number of people now know -- these guys have "It." But to say it was unlikely for a globe-hopping New Zealander in White and a former teacher from Virginia in Page to cross paths in such a way, in one of the biggest matches of their careers, would be a drastic understatement.

Jay White caught a break early in his career that would quickly change his life. Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) recommended White to fellow Kiwi Bad Luck Fale in 2014, and Fale reached out to White about joining the vaunted New Japan dojo shortly after. White didn't hesitate to leave everything behind to move to Japan and learn in the most rigorous training environment in wrestling.

After shaving his head upon arrival, White had to wake up at 8 o'clock every morning to help clean the dojo from the inside out alongside his fellow "young boys," which is the name for rookie trainees in Japan. After finishing his morning chores, White trained for several hours, starting with at least five hundred squats along with any other group exercise he was asked to do.

"That would suck sometimes," White recalled in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "It was very intense."

Respect is an important part of Japanese culture, and the young boys learn to take those lessons beyond the dojo and the ring. The then-21-year old White upended his entire life, relocating over 5,000 miles to prepare food, clean dishes, fold laundry and watch over veteran Japanese wrestlers. Still, he never doubted his decision.

"Yeah, it's hard work, but it's very clear how worth it it is the whole time and you're constantly reminded of that," White said. "Especially the big shows when you're there ringside as a young boy watching these huge main-event matches and have goosebumps throughout these matches. There wasn't really points where I had second thoughts about it."

While "Hangman" Page didn't learn wrestling through the discipline of a dojo, he fought his way up from the bottom and ultimately ended up with some shared experiences.

Page began wrestling at shows while still in high school in his hometown of Halifax County, Virginia. After earning his bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech in just two years, Page went back to his high school to teach; he needed a full-time income to supplement his wrestling career. Page taught journalism, graphic design and communication courses to students who were sometimes only two to three years younger than him, from Monday through Friday; he'd then go out and wrestle on Friday nights and weekends. The schedule was brutal.

"I did that basically every week just nonstop. It didn't stop," said Page, during a separate interview. "I didn't have any time off until summer camp. It was really hectic. It was wild. I was brought up knowing that you have to make a living. When I was 19 or 20 years old, I wasn't making a living wrestling. I needed a full-time income."

Page started appearing for Ring of Honor on a more regular basis in early 2013, when he participated in the ROH top prospect tournament. By the end of the year he was facing Matt Hardy inside of Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom, but even as he made an immediate impact Page continued to teach on the side.

Page's first real chance to showcase himself on ROH TV was as part of a faction called "The Decade" alongside longtime ROH performers BJ Whitmer and Jimmy Jacobs.

"When I signed with Ring of Honor, looking back now, I don't think I deserved it," Page said. "I was still kind of growing before I joined the Decade. I was lost in the water. I didn't have anything going. Joining the Decade was huge for me and it gave me a platform."

Whitmer and Jacobs forced Page to prove himself before he'd be considered a full-time member of the group, and it all played out onscreen. Page had to carry buckets of water, bring towels, help ringside and be willing to assist the Decade with any request. Page was their young boy, only they were playing it up for the TV cameras -- a stark difference from what White was doing quietly behind the scenes in New Japan.

"I was cut down to nothing. I was a nobody," Page said. "I think that helped because it gave me a fresh slate to start and grow on my own in front of everyone. I think people like seeing that. They don't like seeing somebody come in with a rocket strapped to their back. They like to watch a guy go from zero to hero, and I feel like that's what the Decade helped me do."

White and Page showed signs early in their careers of the performers they would become, but both were in need of something to connect with fans who saw them as nothing more than solid company hands. They both needed identities.

White went on a lengthy excursion to the United States following his graduation from the dojo, and he quickly drew attention for a handful of standout matches. But it would be his return to NJPW that would give White the final piece that he needed to reach the next level.

He was ultimately revealed as "The Switchblade," a character that NJPW teased for months with fans looking for any signs they could find to decipher who the mysterious figure could be. After Japanese legend Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Kota Ibushi to retain his IWGP Intercontinental title at Power Struggle in November, yet another cryptic Switchblade vignette aired -- but this time it revealed White's face at the end. White challenged Tanahashi to a match at Wrestle Kingdom 12 before laying the legend out on his back -- a sign that New Japan was ready to turn its young boy into a star.

"It was very special," White said. "Whether it's returning or debuting, you always have that feeling or fear of, 'Are they even gonna care?' I wasn't expecting any reaction from the crowd, especially being a foreigner back in Japan. When they revealed my face on the screen, I stood right backstage before I walk out and there was actually quite a big reaction. I was surprised. I was very happy with that."

White, who used to marvel at Tanahashi's matches from ringside as a young boy, then had the chance to wrestle him on the biggest stage NJPW has to offer. Tanahashi retained his title at Wrestle Kingdom 12, but White did more than enough to show that New Japan's investment in him was paying off.

While White made his mark as an individual, Page has seen his stock soar after joining forces with the Bullet Club.

Being associated with the Bullet Club has exposed Page to an entirely different world of fans since he joined in May 2016. Though the group's fanatical fans took a little while to warm up to "Hangman" Page, his in-ring style and charisma have made a lot of people come around on him. His shirt is sold at Hot Topic alongside all of the other Bullet Club merchandise, and it's one that's starting to crop up more often in crowds at wrestling shows across the country.

Page became one of the crucial players on the YouTube show "Being the Elite," in which his kidnapping was one of the most talked-about storylines over the show's almost 100-episode run and served as one of several key instances of those stories overlapping with ROH and NJPW storylines. He gets to wrestle alongside world-class performers in the Young Bucks, Marty Scurll and Cody every night, and Page even won his first titles in ROH, the Six-Man championships, alongside the Bucks.

Most importantly, Page's ascension within the Bullet Club allowed him to leap one final hurdle -- he was finally able to quit his teaching gig.

"My life did a 180 when I joined Bullet Club," Page said. "Joining Bullet Club opened the door to New Japan for me. It made me more valuable. I probably got the news in April [2016] and I joined in May, so I threw my papers in the air and left my teaching job because I knew I was going to be wrestling full time. It totally changed my life."

Page, who has been wrestling almost exclusively in tag matches since joining the Bullet Club, stepped up to challenge White for Strong Style Evolved on Sunday. No matter how that match goes, Page will follow that potentially career-altering moment with another opportunity in the spotlight against Kota Ibushi less than two weeks later, at ROH's Supercard of Honor on April 7 in New Orleans.

"These are two really big singles matches for me," Page said. "I haven't been doing a lot of singles lately, so I'm looking forward to the change of pace. I feel like I've gotten over a bit, but it's been as the Young Bucks' tag partner or tagging with Cody. This is different. This is just me."

White defends the IWGP United States title, which he won in a breakout performance against Kenny Omega at New Japan's New Beginning in Sapporo show. That's where he and Page first crossed paths, as Page interrupted White's celebration only for Omega to snatch the title belt and hand it back to White. Despite their tense introduction, White sees similarities between him and Page and the journeys they took to get to where they're at today.

No matter how intensely they may battle onscreen, in promos and in the match to come, there's no denying they've each earned an opportunity to prove themselves. They're both in their mid-20s, and there's a lot to look forward to in the years to come.

"There's parallels in the opposite companies, Ring of Honor and New Japan. We're the same age and both have done pretty well for ourselves in a short amount of time," White said. "It will be a very cool dynamic to the match. Just trying to prove ourselves and prove that we belong in these big matches and belong at the top."