Ace’s HIGH #75: Peas in an Angry Pod

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 #74: Buzzsaw the competition

Ace’s HIGH #76 Coming October 6!->

–As we discussed last time, in the semifinals of the G1 in 2009, you suffered a broken orbital bone at the hands of Shinsuke Nakamura. That put you out of action, leading to vacating the IWGP heavyweight Championship, and even missing your own tenth anniversary event on September 23. 

Tanahashi: That has to be a first, right? (laughs). It was in my home town in Gifu, I was the only one on the poster. ‘Tanahashi comes back home!’ was the tagline. And I couldn’t wrestle. 

–You did come to greet the crowd.

Tanahashi: Well, obviously the fans wanted to see me, but then there was my dad, who went around telling everyone he knew that I would be there. There were friends of mine from college, everything. So I had to go out and say something, but it still felt so disappointing.

–Four days later in Kobe, Shinsuke Nakamura faced Togi Makabe in a rematch from the G1 Climax final, with the vacant title at stake. Nakamura won with a Boma Ye; you were on guest colour commentary that night.

Tanahashi: I remember that pretty, pretty well. Nakamura brought up Inoki in his promo, almost specifically to make me feel uncomfortable, heh.

 –After Nakamura won the title he said ‘This belt carries with it the history of all its former champions. But does it shine the way it used to? I don’t think so!’, before declaring ‘Inoki! I will bring this title back to its roots!’ Inoki was almost persona non grata at the time, speaking his name broke a taboo. 

Tanahashi: Resurrecting the curse of Strong Style… It’s wild to think this was over a decade ago now. I’m still not sure what he really sought to achieve with that promo.

–Talking to him afterward, it did seem like there were a lot of motives there. He said that after stepping back as an owner, Inoki was quietly being pushed out of existence. There was a little bit of anger over the relationships between Inoki’s promotion IGF and NJPW, and it was a little pipe bomb as it were, to stir up controversy as well.

Tanahashi: Hmm. From where I was sitting, I had worked to try and put us in the ‘post Inoki’ era and Nakamura was chanting his name like an incantation to try and bring him back. 

–You probably both wanted the same thing but in different ways, with Nakamura not wanting Inoki to be written out of history.

Tanahashi: Right. It all goes back to me and him climbing the same mountain via different routes over our careers.

–Maybe there was a conscious effort to run counter to you as the face of the ‘new’ ‘New Japan.

Tanahashi: Ahh, it could well be, yeah. But at the time, all I felt was him trying to take us backward. After me first winning the title and getting booed out of the building, everything had finally started to head in the right direction, for me and for the company. When he said that the belt didn’t shine, I thought that was a clear shot at me personally. But you’re right, we’ve always been aware of one another. It’s quite possible he felt he wanted to be at the top in a way that didn’t overlap with me. In that sense, bringing up Inoki the way he did was very like him.

–Nakamura and Inoki had a long and complex relationship. When he debuted, it was as Inoki’s hand picked favourite son, but later he would rebel against Inoki somewhat.

Tanahashi: Inoki clobbered him in the Osaka Dome that one time, right?

–November 13 2004. It was Nakamura and Manabu Nakanishi against Kazuyuki Fujita and Kendo Kashin. After Nakamura lost to Fujita, Inoki suddenly lit into him with punches.

Tanahashi: That night, I was teaming with Tenzan against Toshiaki Kawada and Naoya Ogawa. I had a suspected concussion and was carried out to the trainer’s room. (Katsuyori) Shibata was there too after he and Genichiro Tenryu tore one another apart, and then there was Nakamura coming in after Inoki had walloped him. The new Three Musketeers indeed (laughs).

–Quite the backstage drama. 

Tanahashi: We were all laid there next to one another. Three peas in an angry, pissed off pod (laughs).

–Nakamura actually considered quitting after that incident.

Tanahashi: Really? I guess there was a lot more to his Inoki comment than I realised at the time, it just pissed me off then to have him dig all that up. In the end though, he turned it all into the ‘King of Strong Style’ deal, and that was a really stylish way to put a bow on it all. 

–Nakamura would have his first defence on October 12 in Ryogoku against ZERO-1’s Shinjiro Otani. You came to the ring afterward and said you didn’t recognise Nakamura as champion, saying ‘until you beat me in this ring, you can’t call yourself the champ’

Tanahashi: It was a difficult place to be in. Nakamura and Otani had a hell of a match. Rerally great stuff, and then I came out in the post match, which was always going to elicit a few boos. Nakamura didn’t really sell me showing up either, so it left the crowd feeling like ‘what the hell is this guy doing here?’.

–But you turned the mood on its head, saying ‘Until you accept my challenge I’m going to keep saying the same damn thing. Annoying, ain’t I?’, which brought the crowd back. 

Tanahashi: It changed the atmosphere, for sure. The crowd weren’t just thinking ‘he’ll try and sound cool for a bit and then go’. It was one of my top five moments on the mic, I think. It definitely started a new chapter for me.