Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–After you defended against NOAH’s Takashi Sugiura on July 20, you headed into 2009’s G1 Climax as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
Tanahashi: I got struck with the G1 Champion’s jinx, and I wound up getting hurt as well and having to miss time, but in terms of the variety of talent, this was a really memorable G1.
–Right, there were four outside wrestlers in the tournament. Your run got off to a bad start with a loss to freelancer Takao Omori in Hiroshima, but then you beat Giant Bernard and Toru Yano. You then went to a draw against Togi Makabe, lost to TAJIRI, who was represented HUSTLE, but ended with a win over ZERO1’s Masato Tanaka.
Tanahashi: That first loss to Omori was a damaging one. Here I was, the Ace and the champion, losing to an outside wrestler. I think this was actually the one and only time I lost, and still did the whole ‘Aishitemasu’ thing.
–The fans were chanting your name while you recovered in the ring, and you gave them an ‘aishitemasu!’
Tanahashi: It really did take me aback. They didn’t leave, they were cheering me on even after I lost. I don’t know whether I did the right thing in that situation; I didn’t really think about it.
–Your match with TAJIRI was memorable. TAJIRI received a bouquet of flowers on getting into the ring for the main event. He hurled them straight at the announcer’s desk. Kazuo Yamazaki was doing colour commentary and was so hot he tried to get in the ring.
Tanahashi: I told Yamazaki to chill out a bit (laughs). TAJIRI was a real pro. He really understood that he would get heat as an outside invader, and just dumped a load of gasoline on those flames. He knew exactly what his role was and exactly what he should be doing to make the most out of that role at any given time. He was excellent.
–A lot of western fans know him for his work in ECW and WWE through to the mid 2000s.
Tanahashi: We would have our issues from there on out, but it was a great learning experience to go through that feud. It helped me learn how to deal with that devious style. I think he sensed that I was still a little green here and there, heh. What I remember best about TAJIRI was in his initial run here, he had that incredible match with Shinjiro Otani.
–Ah, January 4 1997 in the Tokyo Dome. It was part of an interpromotional series of matches between New and Big Japan on the card. He really impressed in a big spot, especially for an indie wrestler, and it got him a spot in Best of the Super Jr. that year.
Tanahashi: He had a high pressure spot on a big show, and delivered in spades. Then that opened the door for him to go to the US, where he became a big star and returned even better. That’s a really cool story.
–In the end the two of you wrestled in the same Aichi building where Tajiri first came into NJPW with the invading BJW faction in 1996. From indie new name to main eventer.
Tanahashi: And he beat the IWGP Champion. Quite the success story, even though it was at my expense. But he’s living proof you don’t have to be the biggest physically to really engage the audience.
–The match with Masato Tanaka was a first time meeting as well.
Tanahashi: Well, he was his promotion’s ace, and another guy who liked lifting weights, so we had a bit in common. But the real thing that struck me with Tanaka was just how fast he was. He would really go, go, go and I’m more methodical, so it was difficult to control the tempo.
–After the match you pointedly praised Tanaka as an athlete, rather than a wrestler.
Tanahashi: Well, trends come and go in wrestling, and I think the athletic style that became very popular in the next few years was something Tanaka helped pioneer.
–Tetsuya Naito talked about his own feud with Tanaka through 2013, and that he would do long distance running to prepare for the pace he brought. He credits those matches with improving his stamina.
Tanahashi: Tanaka wasn’t just muscle, he had amazing cardio. I heard on the grapevine about how hard he worked on his cardio, so it’s no surprise how fast he could move deep into a match.
(content warning: the following section contains a graphic description of eye injury and surgery that some readers may find disturbing)
–This was the only G1 in history to be in part determined by coin toss. In the end, A block was down to yourself, Togi Makabe and Masato Tanaka at 3-2-1. Tanaka lost to yourself and Makabe so he was out, but because you and Makabe had wrestled to a draw you were on exactly the same standings. In those days there were semifinals in place. Usually it would be the first place in one block against the second in the other, but it was the coin that decided you should wrestle Shinsuke Nakamura, while Makabe had Sugiura.
Tanahashi: The coin toss! I remember it now you mention. That was a really hard thing to convey to the crowd and I’m sure the fans didn’t like it. It was in that semifinal with Nakamura that I hurt my eye. It was in the middle of the match; he hit me with a knee and then followed with a mid kick that blasted me right in the eye. I lost all focus in my vision; all of a sudden I could see five or six ropes in the ring. That was the one and only time in my career something like that happened. When you do in your orbital bone, you get incredible nausea, and when I was throwing up backstage, that’s when they realised it was probably a broken orbital and I got taken to hospital.
–It was a very serious injury.
Tanahashi: I couldn’t look to the right at all. Where the fracture was, the muscles that control the eyeball had gotten wedged in there. So they had to cut out some of the muscle, and then take cartilage from my ribs to transplant it in the orbital floor. It was a six hour operation. The wild thing is I had tied my hair up, because I figured having it down wouldn’t be good for the surgery. But that actually made my head heavier, and messed with my circulation, giving me this bald spot, about the size of a penny. An extra souvenir of that injury I guess.
–With you having to miss the next tour, you had to relinquish the IWGP title.
Tanahashi: We were just starting to build back a little momentum, but that’s just why we had to have the title and the champion on the road all the time. Plus I would be coming back as the Ace and with all eyes on me, no pun intended.