Ace’s HIGH #66: Total Nonstop Ace

Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!

<–Ace’s HIGH #65: On a knee and a prayer

Ace’s HIGH #67 Coming August 4!->

–Last time, we talked about your 2008 G1 run. After the G1, on August 26, it was the referee Red Shoes Unno’s 20th anniversary. He had a special card in his honour, and produced the main event, of you teaming with Shinsuke Nakamura against Hirooki Goto and a young Tetsuya Naito.

Tanahashi: I didn’t know that he was the one who put that match together, but it was an interesting match to set up. Unno really saw the potential in Naito, even back then, and it was good to tag with Nakamura again.

–This was your first time tagging together since March of 2007, so a year and a half, almost.

Tanahashi: Recently I’ve been watching us tag together in Mexico on NJPW World. That’s a hell of a nostalgia trip.

–Speaking to Naito about that match, he recalls being knocked for a loop by one of your palm strikes, and then not being able to get through the rest of the match in the way he’d wanted to. Then Unno would joke around and give him heat for ‘stinking up the joint’ after he’d booked him in the main event!

Tanahashi: Oops (laughs). I mean, Naito isn’t the only victim of that palm strike. 

–It broke Hirooki Goto’s jaw in the 2013 G1. 

Tanahashi: But Naito really lets rip with his own palm strikes, it’s a secret weapon for both of us. I think it’s our background in baseball, maybe, that snap of the wrist. It’s also a very fine line of where it connects; if you don’t get the face or neck, but right on the jaw, you can get concussed. Anyway, with this match, I think a lot of people were paying attention to me and Naito, but Goto and Shinsuke was an interesting combination in itself. And I wasn’t the only one  beating on Naito- Nakamura was crazy stiff with him. I really thought ‘yikes, he owe you money?’

–Nakamura would praise Naito, especially for how equipped he was on the mat, but he was strict toward him as well. In their match in November 2011, he was yelling ‘I’ll kill you!’ which was very un-Nakamura like.

Tanahashi: Man, with all the changes Naito has undergone since those days, Naito vs Nakamura today is a dream match.

–Nakamura left NJPW right as the LIJ phenomenon was beginning.

Tanahashi: It was like he took over from Nakamura as the top charismatic guy. Whether it’s that spot, or the spot of the top foreign ace, whenever someone creates an opening, there’s always someone else stepping up to take that spot. Wrestling history is a funny thing.

–With that tag match as a prelude, you teamed with Nakamura’s faction RISE through the September tour to take on Great Bash Heel. What were your thoughts on RISE?

Tanahashi: They were a cool group. You had Nakamura and Hirooki Goto as the two centerpieces, and then Prince Devitt and Milano Collection A.T. Everyone in that group was a great wrestler, they all looked cool, but there wasn’t much of a vision for the group as a unit, and it didn’t get as over as it could’ve.

–In the end, RISE didn’t even last two years, with Nakamura forming CHAOS in April of 2009. It was during the September tour that you had an offer to head to TNA Stateside. You left to head over there saying ‘I want to be in the title mix right now, I want to be at the top, but I can’t as I am right now. I’m heading to the US, and I don’t know when I’ll be back’.

Tanahashi: I was in a bit of a slump, coming off the knee injury and other guys making their moves while I was away. After the G1, I had this offer come along, and it was a good chance to reset.

–October 13 in Ryogoku, you teamed with Masahiro Chono against Manabu Nakanishi and Yutaka Yoshie. You took the fall in that match, and lamenting your slump, left for America on October 26.

Tanahashi: For all of me trying to present myself as the coolest guy in the room, I wasn’t. So it was really important to change my environment and get back into the game.

–You tagged a lot with Volador Jr. in the States.

Tanahashi: I’d first met him in TNA in ’06. He was a young guy; I remember saying hello and him coming across a bit arrogant. I think back then neither of us knew the other, but by this time, we’d both done our homework, and it was more amicable, heh.

–It made sense that by the time you were a top guy in NJPW, Volador knew who you were. And it was quite a big deal for him to represent CMLL in TNA.

Tanahashi: I mean, he really stood out, moving the way he did. It made sense he would have a spot there. Me and him get along well now, we just got off on the wrong foot.

–What do you remember from your time in the US?

Tanahashi: I didn’t have that many matches to do, but I spent a lot of time in the gym, working on my bench press. When I was in college, I could bench 120-130 kg, but after I turned pro, I was more focused on my legs, or other parts of my body and I didn’t bench as much. During that trip to the US, I upped my personal bench best to 150 kg.

–Is there a particular reason why you trained so hard in the US?

Tanahashi: Well, it was nice to focus on that without any distractions. Plus the gym receptionists were cute (laughs). And in the gyms in the US, there are all these jacked body builder types, and that was a motivation. Like, I couldn’t lose out, I had to do right by pro-wrestling.

–So you really did benefit from the new environment.

Tanahashi: I kept benching when I came back, and then I got my best to 190kg in 2013, 2014. I remember being blown away when I was Keiji Muto’s assistant and he benched 190, so that was a big achievement. I think I can owe that to TNA, or maybe the cute gym receptionist (laughs).