Ace’s HIGH #76: Most Valued Rival

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 #75: Peas in an Angry Pod

Ace’s HIGH #77 Coming October 13!->

–So last time we talked about Shinsuke Nakamura defending the IWGP heavyweight Championship against Shinjiro Otani in Ryogoku on October 12 2009. Nakamura made some controversial comments about Antonio Inoki after his match, but you came to the ring and reset the focus to yourself and Shinsuke.

Tanahashi: I definitely wanted to make the fans forget about that line, heh. I managed to swing them toward Tanahashi vs Nakamura again though. 

–In the end Inoki himself laid the issue tor rest by simply stating that he was retired.

Tanahashi: It was a bit messy, and you still had these issues with NJPW and IGF. To an extent, I daresay Nakamura was just floating something and putting it out there to see what happened, but in the end, the best way to bring focus back to NJPW itself was going to be through me versus Shinsuke.

–There was unfinished business there after you met in the semifinals of the G1. You were the champion at the time, but fractured your orbital bone during the match and then had to vacate the title. Nakamura beat Togi Makabe to win that belt, but you wanted to reclaim the title you never lost that November in Ryogoku.

Tanahashi: It was the obvious direction after my return, but compared to now where things tend to move much more quickly, there was a bit of time building to this one. Then you had those Inoki comments adding to the whole deal, so it gave this other ideological edge to the match and made it feel pretty significant.

–You had said before the match happened that this would be the most significant of your matches to date. Nakamura had undergone his own transformations having formed CHAOS earlier in the year. It certainly was your hardest hitting match together to date.

Tanahashi: It was joining CHAOS, and adopting that Boma Ye for a finish, that’s what finally made Nakamura home in on his style. He went through a lot of trial and error, being a power guy for a while, bringing lucha into his stuff as well. But he gradually chipped away the stuff he didn’t need, and what was left was the real deal. I came out on the losing end, but this was the hottest year of our rivalry, I think. 

–After he beat you, Nakamura asked ‘what’s wrong with pitting yourself against history? What’s wrong with trying to overcome the feats of the past?’ After the Inoki comments beforehand, how did you interpret those comments? 

Tanahashi: Well, I think Nakamura had a far deeper connection to Inoki than I ever did, and this was in connection with his comments before as well. I think it showed our different approaches- mine was to build for the future without looking at the past. My logic was that the past really doesn’t matter. If things are getting hot now, if the fans are enjoying what they’re getting right now, then that’s what counts right? To take it a step further, what good comes from comparing yourself to the past? On the other hand, Nakamura was saying that if you compared what we were doing to what came before us, then there was no doubt that we were better.

–You had different philosophies.

Tanahashi: Keiji Muto once said something like ‘you can’t compete with nostalgia’. I think Nakamura was driven to win the unwinnable in a sense. Really with me and him, we never could find common ground, and we were always aware of that fact; that’s what kept us going. Whenever I found myself slightly agreeing with the guy, I’d be like ‘oh sh*t!’ and save myself (laughs).

–After the match, TAJIRI attacked you with a green mist backstage. That set you up for your fianl big match of 2009 in Aichi that December, and a revenge match from the G1.

Tanahashi: I learned a lot from our little feud together. In and out of the ring. The build to it, the match itself, and all the aftermath. It was all really fresh. The thing was, he had a mind for pro-wrestling that was really separate from everything created in New Japan. Doing things like firing up Kazuo Yamazaki on commentary so much he tried to get in the ring, spitting mist in the face of Chairman Sugabayashi. He motivated me, in a unique way.

–In the end, you beat TAJIRI with the High Fly Flow, putting the cap on what Tokyo Sports felt was an MVP worthy year. Ten years into your career, this was your first MVP award.

Tanahashi: One of the reporters got in touch and said that I was in with a good chance of winning, so I was standing by at the office waiting for the release. I felt like a baseball player waiting to hear the draft picks, you know, heh.

–How did it feel to get that acknowledgement?

Tanahashi: It meant I wasn’t just the face of NJPW, but of all Japanese wrestling, and that was important to me. I remember when I got accepted to the Dojo, my parents saw me off at the station and my dad said ‘whatever it takes, get to the top’. When I got MVP I called home and said ‘well, dad, I did it’.

–And how did he react?

Tanahashi: Well, my dad’s my dad, so I know he was delighted, but what he actually said was ‘oh, good for you’ (laughs). I think for me, it was repaying my folks a little for what I had put them through over the years. But yeah, to have gotten MVP even after missing two months with my eye injury, that really was soemthing, and it spoke to how well the first half of the year went. 

–From 2011 onward, the Tokyo Sports MVP has been from NJPW, but this was the first time since 2001 when Muto won while still signed to NJPW that a New japan wrestler had taken the award.

Tanahashi: Saviour of the company, there it is! (laughs). But I think it was something that made the office happy to finally break that duck after all those years. And it was an award for all the fans that stuck with us through the rough patch.