Ace’s HIGH #84: A Fantastic Year

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 #83: All Tanahashi’s Children

Ace’s HIGH #85 Coming  December 8!->

–So, let’s turn the page into 2011. You would hold the IWGP heavyweight Championship all year, and this really was the time you became the face of professional wrestling in Japan.

Tanahashi: The V11 year, I was 35. Ten years ago already. I still have a lot to do though!

–The best is yet to come! January 4 saw you beat Satoshi Kojima on your fifth attempt to become the champion. 

Tanahashi: To be honest, I don’t remember much of that match. I remember being incredibly nervous. Even though I’d been in the Tokyo Dome main a bunch of times, Kojima was much more relaxed than me that night. 

–You’d had that high pressure main event with Keiji Muto in 2009, but this was a different kind of nerves?

Tanahashi: Right. I think there was a different kind of responsibility to the company, having lost to Kojima as an outsider in the G1. I think with Muto there was still this idea of pushing toward big celebrations with outside talent, but when we got into the 2010s it was about building within. Even with Kojima, although he was a freelancer, he would be effectively full time NJPW after that G1. 

–And he would be contracted from 2011. There wasn’t really any reliance on outside help through much of that decade. 

Tanahashi: I think that was something that really turned the corner for us when it came to getting out of the dark ages and into that next boom. In ring and backstage, there was more accountability for the boys to establish who they were facing and why. The matches are the steak, but those wars of words are what makes up the seasoning.  

–That’s what draws that emotional engagement. 

Tanahashi: Well, come to mention emotional engagement, you saw Hiroshi Tanahashi cry a lot in 2011 (laughs). Of course this was the year with that huge earthquake, and it was easy to get emotional, but there were happy tears through the year, too. 

–So you yourself were really drawn into the drama of everything going on. 

Tanahashi: Right. I was the main protagonist after all (laughs). I think feeling that sadness and joy on a real level and expressing that, it was natural, but it was also very important.  

–Shinya Hashimoto was very similar. Kenzo Suzuki tells the story of being his assistance when he was set to face Naoya Ogawa, and Hashimoto breaking down before his entrance. 

Tanahashi: Oh really? Maybe it’s a Gifu people thing (laughs).

–Satoshi Kojima was full of praise for you after that Tokyo Dome match, and pledged to be a part of NJPW going forward. He would officially sign in September; how did you take that news?

Tanahashi: Just that he’s a real pro. You know, there was never much, or even any antagonism toward him when he came back in. I think really if you had to single out one thing that Kojima has always been great at, it’s people skills. I think in that sense, Hiroyoshi Tenzan was a big influence on him. 

–Of course, we spoke earlier about how Keiji Muto had invited you to join him in All Japan. Kojima was the one to take that invitation up.

Tanahashi: And he came back in the end, heh. Man, back then Muto really was the center of the universe; everything span around him. 

–Certainly in the 2000s, but in the 2010s, the same could be said about you. 

Tanahashi: My gravitational pull got stronger in the ’10s (laughs).

–2011 saw the very first Fantasticamania events, on January 22 and 23. NJPW struck up a working relationship with CMLL in 2009, and this was a chance to bring a lucha libre feel to NJPW events. 

Tanahashi: I think it all started with me and Nakamura heading over there in 2005. Yep, Tanahashi pioneering again (laughs).

–Tetsuya Naito says that No Limit’s excursion to CMLL was what did it. 

Tanahashi: Tomato, tomato (laughs).

–With COVID continuing to be a presence, we haven’t seen Fantasticamania since January 2020, but it became a fixture on the calendar. 

Tanahashi: To be honest, I never expected it to last that long, but it’s a testament to how much appeal lucha has. I’d really like those guys to get over to Japan as soon as we can have them. It got to the point where it was like its own sub brand in a way. There would be lucha fans who wouldn’t normally go to NJPW events, but would make sure they were there for Fantasticamania. We had title matches and everything. 

–The featured match on this first tour was an IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match between the Golden Lovers and Apollo 55, so it wasn’t much of a lucha influence. The more the years went on, the more authentic the events became. 

Tanahashi: Right, and it grew from Korakuen only to a country wide tour. That speaks to how well the luchadores did… and how much of a fan Chairman Sugabayashi is (laughs)

–Of course the real bridge between NJPW and CMLL was the late great Black Cat, and this tour saw you in the first of many memorial matches. 

Tanahashi: Every year, we would give flowers to Black Cat’s widow as a sign of our gratitude. Kenzo Suzuki and I were his last Dojo students, in the end. 

–He would take the two of you to a separate gym after general training. 

Tanahashi: We would have a little break after practice and then off we went. I think the company had told him to look after the two of us. 

–And he would do the same training?

Tanahashi: Oh yeah. Cat was super tough. The only difference was that his knees were bad, so he didn’t get down deep on his squats. But we would have to match pace with him, only squatting so deep our butts would hit the floor. That’s tough, heh.

–That will get you stronger for sure.

Tanahashi: We called them the ‘Cat Squats’. But it’s because of him I got to where I am, and he really looked after us.