Ace’s HIGH #79: SMASH Brothers

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 #78: Strong Man, Weak Haircut

Ace’s HIGH #80 Coming  November 3!->

–So, let’s round up the first half of 2010. You were tied to Toru Yano for the bulk of that time, having beaten him on Valentine’s Day in Ryogoku, and then losing in Fukuoka to his then-new modified sidewalk slam. It came down to a hair versus hair match in Osaka at Dominion. Just as you went to cut his hair, Takahashi Iizuka made the save.

Tanahashi: TAJIRI and KUSHIDA evened the odds. I was finally able to get my revenge for having my hair cut by him in Ryogoku.

–KUSHIDA and TAJIRI were both representing TAJIRI’s SMASH promotion at the time. KUSHIDA had been beaten down by Yano and Gedo in Korakuen Hall the week before, and that’s what prompted him to come to your aid. Then you, TAJIRI and KUSHIDA formed a team for the J-Sports Crown trios tournament at the end of June in Differ Ariake.

Tanahashi: This was the start of my relationship with Kushi. When he left SMASH to come to NJPW, I was there to greet him in February 2011, and then when he left NJPW to go to WWE, I was his last opponent.

–What were your initial thoughts on KUSHIDA?

Tanahashi: Well, really just he was this young guy, who could really go in the ring. He’d had some experience overseas, so he was a bit more showy than many other wrestlers at his age, so he wasn’t accepted by the core NJPW audience right away, even though his matches were good. But he grew from that and got to the top of the junior division. I think more than anyone else, he was able to flip the fans to his side. Even today you have some fans that only really pull for the NJPW native talents, but he decided that he wasn’t going to let that affect him, and for him, it really didn’t. 

–You actually first met him in 2005 in Mexico, right?

Tanahashi: That’s right, in CMLL. I think Kushi was taking some time out from university at the time? We didn’t talk all that much though. It wasn’t until he came into NJPW, sitting next to me on the bus, that we got closer. He and I have a pretty similar take on wrestling and what we like, so we just got on like a house on fire. Like my kid brother kinda thing. 

–KUSHIDA joined WWE n 2019 and is on the NXT roster now.

Tanahashi: He was always this internationally minded, free spirit kinda guy, so it really didn’t surprise me that he would head there eventually. Plus there’s the TAJIRI influence as well, obviously. I had, still have a ton of respect for TAJIRI, so this was a real fun trio in that tournament.

–After Iizuka ran in on your attempted Yano haircut, it led to the two of you wrestling in a knockout only match in Sapporo. You hit Iizuka with the High Fly Flow and then a sleeper with hooks in to put him out.

Tanahashi: Come to think of it, it was a cool deal, to have that kind of match with him in his home town.

–Iizuka retired in Korakuen Hall in February 2019. He was a bit of a mentor to you.

Tanahashi: Right. I watched him as a fan. He used to be a handsome guy, believe it or not, and had this great look. To be honest, I always thought he gave something different to the Three Musketeers. I kinda felt he was a bit underutilized. It was almost like he was in the wrong era. J.J. Jacks (his tag team with Akira Nogami) never really got their big break either.

–His feud with Kazunari Murakami in 1999, as you were coming into the business, was quite transformatory.

Tanahashi: Ah, yeah, he would be part of that feud with Shinya Hashimoto and Naoya Ogawa. When I came into the company, Osamu Kido and Black Cat were my coaches, but Iizuka would start coaching not long after, leading the drills and stuff. He was super strict. Katsuyori Shibata would say the same, Iizuka was a scary dude.

–Anything specific?

Tanahashi: Hmm.. he was really tough when you were sparring with him, and he was strict leading the drills, but it was more that he just had an aura to him. When he was leading training you knew you couldn’t F-around. I hardly ever saw him crack a smile.

–Almost like that heel turn in 2008 was him finally accepting his calling.

Tanahashi: I really think so, I really do. And you saw that in him, that he was finally where he needed to be. He was always a scary dude, and then when he finally had that heel turn, it all matched up. You know, when you’re able to bring your own unique character to raw skill, that’s when it all takes off for you. In Iizuka’s case, he completely changed as well. After he changed his look, he completely withdrew, you didn’t see him in any of the local gyms, nothing like that. Just completely committed.

–But even though he didn’t go to the gyms, he still kept up his physique.

Tanahashi: he was so put together. Freakishly strong as well.

–One of the most unique retirements in history as well.

Tanahashi: There was all this speculation over whether he would go back to hontai and his old partner Tenzan until the very end. Then he stays a heel, storms all the way through the crowd and leaves. Nobody’s seen him since! Man, what a goddamn pro. I don’t think there’ll ever be another guy like him.