Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–Last time we touched on your time in TNA. There was quite a collection of talent there at the time, from Kurt Angle and Booker T to Sting. What was the locker room like?
Tanahashi: It was really a two class system, heheh. You had the top guys in one group, and then I was with Volador, Jay Lethal, Austin Creed (WWE’s Xavier Woods), shoved in a side room (laughs).
–This was before you were truly an international superstar.
Tanahashi: Right. What I was doing in Japan hadn’t really gotten out to the west. I really didn’t interact with the main event guys, with AJ Styles being an exception. But everyone in that little side trailer got on great, and I learned a lot about how they do things in the States.
–Who did you get on with the best?
Tanahashi: Ah, I’d have to say Austin. He was always super positive, a great guy. He came into NJPW once, in April 2010. After that, seeing him go on to win the tag titles in WWE and everything, I was really happy to see him do well.
–While you were on excursion, Naoki Sugabayashi, our current chairman, and president at the time, went to see you in Tampa. Keiji Muto had won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and he was appealing to you to challenge and take the title back. But you put the challenge on hold at first.
Tanahashi: It was supposed to be this indefinite excursion, and this happened not one month into it. It really felt to me as if nothing had changed; I wanted to immerse myself in training a little more.
–It was too short.
Tanahashi: I had wanted to come up with a new move, or have a big visual change in my look. If I did that, it would change my mental disposition, and help me evolve all around. In the end, I was pretty worried about it all, but I was able to go into that Tokyo Dome main event determined enough.
–This really was the biggest match of your career up to this point.
Tanahashi: No doubt. Muto has a special place in my career, so it took a lot to face him in that spot. And I was being held as the last great hope for NJPW, after he had run through a bunch of challengers.
–Muto had beaten Shinsuke Nakamura on April 27 to win the title, then defended against Manabu Nakanishi, both G1 winner Hirooki Goto and runner up Togi Makabe, and then Shinsuke again.
Tanahashi: After he beat Nakamura for the second time, it became pretty clear that it had to be me in that role, and nobody else could fill it.
–And Sugabayashi coming all the way to America to set that match up must have been a big deal.
Tanahashi: Right. I have a long history with Sugabayashi. He really came up through the ranks here from sales to the president then, and chairman now. He has a real sense of trust with all the employees. He takes a lot of responsibility, and looks after everyone, from the staff to the boys if they get hurt. So when someone like that needs you, you have no problem being there for them in return.
–Muto had said that with him as champion, everyone from wrestlers to staff to the company at large was benefitting.
Tanahashi: He wasn’t wrong either. He might have been the outsider, but he was still the ultimate babyface. We were seeing in 2008, the business was just starting to inch upward, and a lot was to do with his presence.
–He was an outsider ace.
Tanahashi: He would get big pops and chants wherever we went. Getting new fans in, Muto was a brand old fans identified with while I was doing the groundwork with promotion for the company at the same time. So while there was a nostalgic presence, we were building for the future underneath that.
–And Muto helped maintain the trust among older fans while the next generation was being gotten ready.
Tanahashi: So it all added up to a difficult position for me heading into the Dome. Normally against an outsider I would be the babyface.
–And all after having being told by Muto not to let the business break you while you were being booed.
Tanahashi: Well, I mean, he was saying ‘you’re a babyface, so why the hell are you being booed out the building?’ Muto had a way with words that was a bit acerbic, but I didn’t have a good enough comeback for him at the time.
–He was a real mentor to you.
Tanahashi: He was. I grew up a fan of his, wanted to be a star like he was. Then all of a sudden I was his attendant, going on the road with him, went drinking with him, and learned what it meant to be a wrestler on his level. By any metric, this was the biggest match of my life.
–It was quite the rich story between the two of you.
Tanahashi: And think about it, I was 32 then, and Muto was, what, 45? Older than I am now. So it really makes me think I have to still work hard.
–You cancelled the rest of your TNA dates and came back to Japan on November 14, before officially challenging Muto on November 18. You stated you would be ‘an idiot not to pass this chance up,’ that you ‘needed the atmosphere in the Dome’, and that you would do whatever it took to get the belt back.
Tanahashi: It was putting the conceited part of my character on the back burner a bit. The most important thing here was to put myself on a level with Muto, and that meant talking big, because at that point in time, I would have been seen as a drop from Muto’s status.
–December 7 in Osaka, you defeated Togi Makabe, before calling Keiji Muto out to ‘speak to my gorgeous self’
Tanahashi: Quite the turnaround from the guy who was his attendant. I think I was on that wrestler’s high after the match as well, I don’t remember exactly what I said, heheh.
–You said to Muto in ring that the ‘IWGP title belonged to NJPW’, and that you were going to take it back. In response Muto was confident saying that you ‘rip all (his) moves off’.
Tanahashi: I remember those lines. But it didn’t really faze me. The Dragon Screws weren’t a Keiji Muto thing, they were a Tatsumi Fujinami thing. Muto’s Figure Four was hardly an innovative maneuver either.
–A lot of pro-wrestling is about learning from past masters and adding your own originality to the mix.
Tanahashi: There was a time when Shining Wizards were in vogue for sure, but I only ever directly lifted one thing from him. I stopped doing it eventually, but shooting a guy into the corner, and then catching them with that kangaroo kick, Muto used to do that when he was younger and I thought it was cool. I’ll admit to stealing that and only that for a time.
–So you didn’t give much thought to him saying you ripped him off.
Tanahashi: I remember him trying that kangaroo kick of his on me one time, I think knowing that I was doing the same move. I bailed to the opposite corner! He was probably cursing me out afterward.