Ace’s HIGH #68: The Last great Hope

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 #67: Dome IMPACT

Ace’s HIGH #69 Coming August 18!->

–Last time we talked about the setup for you and Keiji Muto at Wrestle Kingdom 3. You were presented as the last great hope for New Japan against Muto as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. 

Tanahashi: I remember at the end of 2008, the go-home show in Korakuen. I got on the mic and yelled ‘let’s do it at the Tokyo Dome’, and this one lady yelled back ‘I HOPE YOU LOSE!’ (laughs)

–Yuji Nagata was with you in the ring, and told you not to worry about it. The Korakuen fans actually booed the heckler!

Tanahashi: I think there was this sense with the fans that I was the only one that could beat Muto and bring the title back to New Japan.

–When you made your entrance on that main event, it looked like you were really emotional.

Tanahashi: I was practically in tears. Backstage, I hadn’t felt anything like it before. It was like I was a fan all over again. Like, I was there as a fan when Muto was fighting against Nobuhiko Takada from UWFI in the Tokyo Dome main event, and here I was wrestling him in the Tokyo Dome main event.

–Muto was defending NJPW’s honour in the main event that night and here he was the invader against you representing the home team.

Tanahashi: It’s funny how history repeats. I just had this big flashback to that night when I was backstage, and thought it was all a dream, like if I shut my eyes and opened them again I would be a kid in my bed at home again. I had to confirm for myself it was real, and then it was ‘OK, let’s go!’. There was definitely a big wave of sentimental emotions walking down the aisle, and yeah, there were definitely tears in my eyes.

–It was definitely emotionally charged. 

Tanahashi: That venue, against the guy I idolised, it was a once in a lifetime situation. I didn’t have the luxury of skipping to the ring like normal, obviously. I was just watching Muto from the top of the aisle all the way down. 

–Laser focused.

Tanahashi: I’d gotten into really good shape for that match, as cut as I could be. I actually happened to overhear Muto say to somebody else he would ‘kill for (my) body’. This guy they called ‘Sexual Tarzan!’  (laughs). That reminded me I was on the right track, and motivated me to get even better.

–The match begins before the match, after all.

Tanahashi: I had to put the work in beforehand. Otherwise he would just dominate the whole deal. The key with Muto is not to let his character colour the match. Otherwise, whatever happens, and whatever the result, it becomes a Keiji Muto Match, and there’s nothing you can do.

–He can really dictate the pace, especially on the ground.

Tanahashi: Right. He’ll tend to ground and then mount you, and after that there’s nothing much you can do. That’s something even Nagata has said about when he was a Young Lion- he’ll get on top, and then just rest. People imagine flashy offense when they think of Muto, but he spent a ton of time on the mat. He’s a strong guy, and at the time, close to twice my size, and then there’s the aura on top of that. You know, my ‘mater of the century’ bit was something I said at the press conference to try and break some of that spell.

–Much like the ‘I love you’ catch phrase, it had people taken aback at first. So, how was the match once the bell actually rang?

Tanahashi: Once the bell rang, it snapped me out of whatever emotions I was feeling and I had the confidence to just do what I was there to do. Definitely the preparation and the training work, but I might have overtrained; I actually had really bad leg cramp at a couple of spots during the match. 

–Because of overtraining?

Tanahashi: Well, I actually had water weight cut before the match, which was really not good for me. You hear about fighters do it to make weight for a weigh in, where they have water drained from the layer between your fat and your skin. Fighters do that to make weight, and then recover it after the weighin, right? Well dumb me did it to look shredded, on the day of the match. So with the added pressure and strain, my muscles were too tense, and cramped up; honestly my leg went right to sleep. I had to cover for it.

–You used a couple of Muto style moves in that match, with the neck screw and the Frankensteiner.

Tanahashi: That was to needle at him after he said I was a ‘Muto ripoff’ during the build, heheh. Nobody other than Muto can ever, ever do Muto properly though. 

–Much of the match was built around the two of you trading Dragon Screws; what do you feel was the turning point? 

Tanahashi: I think the key to that match was when Muto went to the top for a missile dropkick and lost his balance. At that point the message was Muto’s a h8uman just like everyone else, and he can screw up.

–And that the damage to his knees was finally taking effect after your offense.

Tanahashi: From that point was where I put my pedal to the metal. Had he hit the missile dropkick then it becomes a different match. That little bit of luck, along with the work, meant Hiroshi Tanahashi gets his hand raised.

–You won with a High Fly Flow in 30:22.

Tanahashi: The end of that match was very similar to the end of the Champion Carnival match we had. That went 30 minutes before the draw, and here I used that extra few seconds.

–At the Champion Carnival,  Muto hit the moonsault with seconds left and the time limit expired. Here, you were able to react in time, and then we saw what might have happened afterward.

Tanahashi: Well, if Muto had the extra few seconds at Champion Carnival, he would have won, but things turned out a little differently. You can’t really plan out everything about a match beforehand, but looking back at it, I think it links really nicely with the Carnival match. 

–And you really felt you had to win with the High Fly Flow?

Tanahashi: Right. I landed a Dragon Suplex before that, but with the bad knee, I couldn’t bridge for the pinfall properly. With his height and his traps, it’s difficult enough to get the Full Nelson in the first place. 

–Tetsuya Naito said of his match with Muto in 2012 in the Dome that muscling him up for a move really took it out of him.

Tanahashi: I’d like to rewatch that match actually. It’s an interesting thing to see two g8uys leaning rudo face off. I think the Naito of today wouldn’t have lost out to Muto. Anyway, when it came to lifting him, I think with his size, that left High Fly Flow as the only choice. That’s where that move first came about after all, to beat anyone of any size. And then I hit two for emphasis.

–How did it feel when that three count went down?

Tanahashi: It was like a full stop on one chapter in my career, seriously. One act was completely over, and now a second was beginning. It wasn’t just a win over Muto, it was a win over all kinds of pressures, internal and external.

–Muto alluded backstage to ‘passing the baton’ on to you.

Tanahashi: Muto’s said himself that wrestling is a marathon with no finish line. He always has a way with words. But he’s right, whether you win or you lose, it isn’t over, and even when you get that belt, you have that baton in your hands and you have to keep running.

–Muto said ‘guys will claim that they carried the standard for New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but the truth is if they really had, then I wouldn’t have been called in. They need to be aware of that as they move forward’.

Tanahashi: Basically he was saying ‘don’t call me in anymore’. I really remember that vividly. Muto brought people in, and now it was up to us to keep them there and bring more in on top.

–Muto was the last to wear IWGP Heavyweight gold while representing a different company. Muto was the Tokyo Sports MVP in 2008, and you took the prize in 2009, which is a sign of how the torch was passed.

Tanahashi: A lot changed with that January 4 match. I’m not afraid to say I changed history that night- after all, I inherited Muto’s ego when I took the ‘baton’ from him (laughs). In the end, me and Muto wrestled three times and went 1-1-1, which I think is nice. 

 –You yourself said after the match that Muto’s presence had elevated you to that level, and that now it was on you to elevate Naito and (Kazuchika) Okada.

Tanahashi: Oh! I like to think I’m a man of my word sometimes (laughs). You know, Muto would say he owed what he had to Fujinami and Choshu, and those guys to Antonio Inoki before hi. That’s the way it goes in this business.