Ace’s HIGH #72: The Monster Upset

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 #71: The G in Goto stands for Golden Week

Ace’s HIGH #73 Coming September 15!->

–Last time we talked about your intense schedule as IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the start of 2009. May 6, you faced Manabu Nakanishi in your second defence in three days. 

Tanahashi: We talk so much about how the crowd can really power a professional wrestler, and Nakanishi is the ultimate example. Every single town at this point in time you had those huge Nakanishi chants. 

–The boos you used to have were turning to cheers after you won the title back from Keiji Muto, and then defended against Nakamura and Angle. But Nakanishi was on another level.

Tanahashi: We’ve all definitely felt this in the COVID era-those chants are so, so important. It can really make a difference with how explosive you can be. Nakanishi was just a beast at this point. 

–And every time you two wrestled, he tended to maul you.

Tanahashi: You’re not wrong. In the early 2000s, we seemed to meet every G1, and when you’re someone my size going up against him, that’s a tough task to figure out. But that really helped me grow, in much the same way as Nagata helped me become the wrestler I am, just in a very different form.

–He forced you to think outside the box, or outside the rules even.

Tanahashi: You just can’t tackle him head on. Even if you targeted his knees, by the second half of the match he’d be moving like there was no problem at all. Just really strong joints on Nakanishi.

–Was it a case of him being flexible for his size? 

Tanahashi: I think he just had steel cables for ligaments (laughs). It would just feel hopeless sometimes, like there was no damaging him at all. 

–Just defying all logical approaches! In this match in Korakuen even as you tried to wear him down, he would stop you with that Iron Claw.

Tanahashi: Incredible grip strength, and he was a 130 kg man who could hit you with a missile dropkick or a plancha. It really wasn’t fair.

–Nakanishi won the match with an epic German suplex.

Tanahashi: The way I took that German, I actually broke some of the intercostal cartilage in my ribs, and it still looks weird today. I don’t know whether it was the bump itself, or that strong grip he had, but it was a weird injury.

–After 16 and a half years and at age 42, Nakanishi finally won his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship. 

Tanahashi: And there was that iconic moment of Kotetsu Yamamoto crying at ringside. I mean, him winning his first title at 42 certainly means I can still get back up there, too!

–He debuted all the way back in 1992, and just never quite seemed able to get to the very top of the mountain.

Tanahashi: He was a super rookie in his debut, but he had smarts beyond his years I think. He would see guys younger than him get bigger breaks, or win titles earlier, but he never let himself get too dissuaded and he found ways to keep in the mix, all the time. Very honest, very pure, humble and worked his ass off so that nobody would have a single complaint about him, and that’s so important. That tenacity to boot. 

–Olympian level tenacity, you can say, and he was just that.

Tanahashi: I remember seeing him wrestle Scott Norton for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship when I was a college student.

–December 4 1998. It was Nakanishi’s first challenge, and he threw all he had at Norton.

Tanahashi: He had that wild long hair, this incredible physique, and he didn’t look Japanese, although he was. I thought he was just cool as hell. I mean, I was the one that lost the belt to him, but it definitely suited him. All the way through his career he had refused to wear kneepads, was as simple in presentation as you could get, but that belt was the ultimate accessory he had been missing.

–Nobody since he retired has stuck with the Young Lion style look like him. 

Tanahashi: Maybe I’ll go back to the black one day. I’ll keep this hair-do though (laughs).

–Nakanishi said in the past that although the company had higher hopes for Kenzo Suzuki originally, he thought that you would be the one to break through based on the effort you put into watching and researching your seniors. He said that made up for ‘not being the most skilled’.

Tanahashi: Ahhh, he had it all figured out. I’m not skilled at all, especially wasn’t back then (laughs). That’s why the ‘prodigy of the sun’ label was really a really rough one to shake off. It was all effort to put the pieces together.

–You had a rematch with Nakanishi for the title at Dominion on June 20. This was the first time the Dominion event finished off the first half of the year. 

Tanahashi: Now it’s in Osaka Jo Hall, but in a different setting then. It was definitely a great deal for me to be in that first main event, even though I had to look up what ‘dominion’ meant. 

— This time the match passed the 30 minute mark before you won with a High Fly Flow. 

Tanahashi: Being in Osaka, we were near Nakanishi’s home town, Kyoto. The Nakanishi chants were huge, but I think as the match went on you had more Tanahashi chants in there. In the end, the Tanahashi chants won out. I think in large part that’s because of Nakanishi being my opponent- you can’t not appreciate someone taking offense from a guy like him and still firing back. 

–The Osaka crowd is a particularly interesting one. Booing from them sent Naito down the road to LIJ.

Tanahashi: Oh, I’ve been booed out of the building by Osaka fans too. But it’s crazy that the blance shifted like that against another western Japanese like Nakanishi. Getting Osaka’s approval, that was definitely a huge deal. If you can get over there you can get over everywhere in Japan. And it all happened naturally in the match, it wasn’t a case of my trying to whip the crowd up. Between the Korakuen loss and the crowd in Osaka, it was a pair of unexpected events to end the first half of the year.