Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–So last time, we talked about your match with Keiji Muto at Wrestle Kingdom 3. That win over your master really put an end to a chapter in NJPW, with the outsider Muto defeated.
Tanahashi: But an end is a start. After the match I called out Shinsuke Nakamura, with the whole ‘there’s only room for one Ace’ line.
–So the 2009 chapter began.
Tanahashi: The keyword for the year and the issue with Nakamura was ‘Ace’. If I do say so myself, I think the promo was a pretty effective one, heh.
–We hadn’t really used the word ‘ace’ in the business up to that point. Back in the ’80s, you had the ‘NEW Leader/NOW Leader’ stuff which was similar.
Tanahashi: You have ace pitchers in baseball, ace strikers in soccer. Playing baseball in middle school, it was a status I always wanted and never got. It made sense to use it in a pro-wrestling context.
–So your school baseball days stuck with you, huh?
Tanahashi: That might be one of my biggest contributions to the business, bringing ‘ace’ to the wrestling vocabulary.
–The only thing is that the word is so synonymous with you, it’s going to be hard to have another ‘ace’…
Tanahashi: Yeah, it’s probably a little tough to have another ace while my theme music blares ‘Go ACE!’ (laughs).
–You’d lost your last two to Nakamura, but in the intervening months, he lost to Muto twice, and you’d beaten the man who beat him.
Tanahashi: I think beating the guy Nakamura couldn’t beat was a big deal, yeah. You win some and you lose some in this business, but for him to be beaten twice by Muto probably gave birth to a grudge, heh. But he didn’t lose out visually to Muto in terms of size, and both of those matches had that sense of scale going for them.
–Nakamura started his 2009 teaming with Hirooki Goto against Mitsuharu Misawa and Go Shiozaki of NOAH. That same card had Mistico and stars from CMLL, as well as Kurt Angle, Kevin Nash and Team 3D over from TNA. So it was quite the melting pot.
Tanahashi: These days we’re able to build a Tokyo Dome card with our own talent, but back then we had to rely more heavily on those outside names to drum up business. That’s a real indication of the transitional period we were in at the time. But Nakamura did great against Misawa. He wasn’t intimidated at all. Him stepping right to Misawa right before I was set to go up against Muto was important.
–February 15 in Ryogoku, your first defence of the IWGP title was against Nakamura. Up to now you were booed pretty heavily by the fans, but after beating Muto, the crowd was getting on your side.
Tanahashi: Yeah, I think that Muto match was a real turning point when it came to turning those boos to cheers. There were still some boos, but the balance was shifting, and I was wrestling to suit, backing up the flash with results.
–This was the eighth match between the two of you, with 4-2-1 the record in Nakamura’s favour. You eventually won with two High Fly Flows.
Tanahashi: After the Dome was in the books, I really was just brimming with confidence. I could really owe that win over Muto to so much, and it made Nakamura much less intimidating a barrier to get over.
–Nakamura was holding nothing back with his offense, but you were able to overcome.
Tanahashi: I think I walked into the match a good one or two steps ahead, momentum wise. A key part of it all was that it wasn’t just the title, but that ‘Ace’ status on the line.
–Nakamura didn’t share the same attraction to that ‘Ace’ title. In his post match comments, he said ‘as you wish, feel free to take that ‘Ace’ label.’
Tanahashi: Well, even though he wasn’t interested in the label itself, it was interesting to have another layer and more stakes to that match. He was still with RISE at this time, right?
–Right, he would form CHAOS two months later.
Tanahashi: So he was kind of walking that line between babyface and heel, and that probably affected him. My character, and that gaudiness was probably the stronger element in the match.
–The gaudiness along with the newfound seriousness.
Tanahashi: Right. Like ‘he’s a cocky prick, but when it’s time to get it done, he gets it done.’ I’d always be the type to get decent test scores without studying after all. (laughs)
-After that match you were challenged by one Kurt Angle, and accepted pretty quick.
Tanahashi: Nobody was going to turn that down. Honestly to be challenged by one of the very best in the world… from beating Muto, then the whole ace deal with Nakamura and then Angle, it was a pretty damn good start to the year.