Kota Ibushi breaks silence before IWGP US Championship bout Saturday
The main event of night one at Wrestle Grand Slam in the Metlife Dome on September 4 will see Kota Ibushi challenge for the IWGP United States Championship for the first time in his career. The bout could see Ibushi to an unprecedented grand slam, but Ibushi will have to face a rival and mentor figure in Tanahashi as he recovers from a serious illness. We spoke to Ibushi about his journey back to MetLife.
I’ve not had to contend with something like this before
–The big question that we have to get out of the way first- you’ve been on the shelf since July 2 with aspiration pneumonia. Can you talk about your physical status and how you’re feeling right now?
Ibushi: It’s definitely a different situation to an injury. When you have an injury, an external wound, you can train around it, and as you train that area, you can feel it improving. There’s an easy understanding of ‘ok, today I can go this far’, or ‘it’s hurting this much, so maybe today I can do a little more, or a little less’.
Ibushi: With your lungs it’s a different issue. Depending on the day, you can work really hard on one day and then be absolutely knocked out the next.
–Can you let us know a bit more about aspiration pneumonia? What symptoms were you suffering from?
Ibushi: Well, it really wasn’t how I would envision pneumonia to be. I didn’t cough once, for instance. But the fever would come and go, and that was really hard for me to regulate.
–So it was the fever that was an issue.
Ibushi: I thought I could start slow with training and work my way up, going 20%, then 30, 40 and so on. But every time I tried to push the pace a little, the fever would be back. So then I would have to go from 40% back to 20, then I would get to 50 and have to go back again. I really hadn’t experienced anything like it before, injuries, illness or whatever.
–In complete honesty, is stamina a concern for you?
Ibushi: I have to say, a little bit, yes.
–So with that in mind, and as we speak this is one week before the match with Tanahashi, where are you at physically?
Ibushi: I’ve gotten to 90% training wise. And then I had some issues with that.
–You have your own training system, and it is notoriously demanding.
Ibushi: Well, I really don’t feel comfortable if I’m not pushing the limits of what I can do. I know there is a time limit on this, and that has me rattled a little bit, but I am trying to bring the pace down a little.
I cried thinking of the people I let down
–In the end, it was left until the last minute, but you were removed from the Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome card on July 25. That had to be difficult for you.
Ibushi: I’d already main evented in the Tokyo Dome twice this year and was going into my third. Nobody has done that before, nobody. And it really felt like I could be the only one to pull that off. To have that taken away, that was definitely difficult, initially.
Ibushi: But the more I gave it thought, the less it was about me. I let down the fans, let down the company. That was the overwhelming feeling to me. I’d left this gaping hole in that card.
–It was a different scenario to an injury even, a hard thing to express.
Ibushi: There really just wasn’t anything I could say.
–There was so much talk going into that event about you and Takagi main eventing against one another, the same age, the Olympic year, all of it.
Ibushi: Right. I think there really was something special about it being Shingo, and Shingo specifically. To be able to have a singles match with him. For it to be for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, which was something I brought about as well… Just the timing of it all, the stars were all lining up. It was less about the Tokyo Dome, and more about wrestling Shingo. And then Tanahashi stepped up with me away.
–Tanahashi nominated himself after the prior night’s main event.
Ibushi: He wrestled KENTA in a main event one night, and then right to Shingo and the IWGP world title the next. That shows you how amazing he is. Then he goes right out to the US, wins the US title and calls me out.
–NJPW can certainly always rely on Tanahashi in a pinch.
Ibushi: No doubt he’s still a god.
–In that Tokyo Dome match, Tanahashi used the Kamigoye. How did seeing that make you feel?
Ibushi: Hmm. I felt quite conflicted about it. It should have been me in there hitting that move to win. But to see him use that move in my place, that really hit me. It was a weird one.
Ibushi: It was the first time for me to suddenly have to pull out of a big match like this. It put so much strain on so many people, and that was just so tough for me mentally. Honestly, I cried quite a bit about it. The biggest emotion was guilt to be honest. I’m not usually one to get emotional, but that got to me. But I think Tanahashi showed a vision of what I can still be, the dream I always aspire to, and that was something special.
–Right around this time last year, it was Summer Struggle in Jingu that saw Tanahashi in quite a bit of a slump. You had expressed your doubts on Tanahashi and were trying to get him to pull through- it’s been quite a year since.
Ibushi: It really has. A year is a very very long time in this business.
–The story never ends.
Ibushi: It really doesn’t. Wrestling just flows, perpetually.
I want to surpass expectations. From Tanahashi, from the fans
–Tanahashi was quick to call you out after he won the US title, saying there was ‘nothing wrong with a detour once in a while’. What were your first impressions, watching that video?
Ibushi: The first question in my mind was ‘why?’. It did feel a bit sudden. But in that video, I saw the strict side of him, and it was a bit presumptuous of him to set my return date. But at the same time, with him making that call, there was the plus of going right into a title match. A few years ago now, Tanahashi talked about anting to see me match my potential, and I really flashed back to that.
–You responded to his ‘detour’ comments by saying that Tanahashi was ‘the most direct route’ back to the top.
Ibushi: Right. The colour of the belt might change, but being a champion, any champion is indication of being the best in its own right. Tanahashi was probably suggesting that the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship is the top motivation, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Obviously the fans view it as the top title, and I understand that. That’s why everyone wants it. But for me, as important as championships are right now, the most important thing to me is to experience the professional wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi in that ring. That’s what I need the most right now.
–Especially as Tanahashi has undergone his own resurgence in 2021, it’s a key match for you.
Ibushi: Exactly. It’s really important that I suprass all the expectations. Both the fans’ and Tanahashi’s.
–That expectation of meeting your full potential.
Ibushi: If I can, then Tanahashi has set up the ideal situation for me to shoot right back to the front.
–But on the flip side, being in a main event, on a big stage, with a title at stake- how will you respond to that, physically and mentally?
Ibushi: I have to be honest. When I’ve come back from illness or injury before, it was with everything in order, and at 100%. This time, I don’t know how far I can push my body. It’s tough. It is. I’m not talking about it being tough to produce per se, I’m talking about the whole situation. I just have to push through and overcome.
–Fairly or not, and whether this is Tanahashi’s opinion, or the office’s, or whatever, but there is this thought that ‘it’s Kota Ibushi, he can do it’. A lot of fans will be thinking the same way.
Ibushi: That’s what I want to show as well. There are a lot of people that probably don’t want to push myself too hard, but pushing myself too hard is kinda my thing. ‘Too much’, in my mind isn’t always a negative term. Now is the time to do ‘too much’.
Enjoy Kota Ibushi. Enjoy Tanahashi. Enjoy professional wrestling
–To talk about the US belt itself, recently Jay White won the NEVER Openweight Championship to complete what he called a ‘grand slam’. Tanahashi then matches that task, or beat it if you count his tag title victories. Here you have a chance to leave both in the dust.
Ibushi: Definitely, if you count my junior heavyweight title wins.
–Including the junior title is huge. It’s hard to see anyone matching what you have done, championship wise.
Ibushi: I’m really proud of having been able to win everything in my career in New Japan from junior heavyweight on up, and that’s certainly a record I want to keep.
–So that is a motivator for you?
Ibushi: Of course. I want the belt, I want all the belts.
–To finish up here, to all the fans that have shown their concern over the last few weeks, any final message?
Ibushi: I think as soon as I’m back in there in that ring, there’s no need for concern, and I don’t want that concern. I certainly don’t want people to look at me any differently. I want to show a Kota Ibushi that is completely ready. How ready I am, how my body feels, that’s something only I can properly understand. So for you guys that are paying to watch on NJPW World, or buying a ticket to show up, it isn’t for you to worry or think about. All I want you to do is enjoy Kota Ibushi’s return. Enjoy Hiroshi Tanahashi, and I want everyone to enjoy professional wrestling and this wild world we’re a part of.