Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–We talked about how NJPW forged on through the New Japan Cup in the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake. After one cancelation, touring continued on March 13.
Tanahashi: I think people really took on the power of pro-wrestling, and with us at the forefront, everybody did what they could to recover.
–In the end Yuji Nagata would be victorious in the New Japan Cup, defeating Shinsuke Nakamura in the final. He would be your second challenger, on April 3 in Korakuen Hall. As there were rolling blackouts across Japan at the time, the match took place without a big screen, and without entrance gates so that there was an evacuation route secured, and electricity was conserved.
Tanahashi: A really simple setup, but with this full crowd in Korakuen, it was really hot. Back then you still used to see IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches in Korakuen. When we were coming out of the mid 2000s slump, the idea was to really rally around the home base in Korakuen first, and you saw these big title matches in Korakuen. This was one of the last few, I think.
–Right; there was one more after this, when Kazuchika Okada defended against Tetsuya Naito on March 4 2012. After that, the title was only defended on large scale events.
Tanahashi: I think looking back on it, those defences were really special. It gave a real premium feel to those live events, where only 2000 people or so could see it in the moment.
–It was your first singles match against Nagata in three and a half years, and since you really became the Ace.
Tanahashi: He was really the gatekeeper for myself and Nakamura. But I think hat as I kept calling myself the Ace, and after I took the belt from (Keiji) Muto in the Dome, it all started to come together for me, not just results wise, but in terms of confidence. You had that with this match; he wasn’t any easier by any stretch, but I felt I was able to hang much more comfortably and take control of the match.
–You won with a High Fly Flow in 35 minutes. Post match, nagata said ‘You’ve turned into a hell of an Ace’, and shook your hand.
Tanahashi: I’d been calling myself the Ace for years at this point, but he finally recognised it, heh. That was a really important thing to me. After all at that point he had the defence record for the IWGP title.
–Nakamura challenged you for the title right afterward.
Tanahashi: He said ‘annoying ain’t I? Let me challenge you for that belt.’ I’d used the same line to him before, so that was an homage, I think. And yeah, it was pretty annoying (laughs).
–You wound up wrestling one another at Dontaku on May 3. You had started to make fun of Nakamura’s recent mannerisms, saying ‘I liked the old Shinsuke, not this freakish guy’.
Tanahashi: Stiff, hah! I think sometimes I might contradict myself while I’m trying to promote a match.
–You said that Nakamura had chanced upon himself as a character, but that he didn’t know what to do next, and couldn’t draw non-fans.
Tanahashi: Said the super cool air guitar guy (laughs). I think I was very fixed in my ideas back then, and he went on to be a worldwide star soon enough. You know I think I saw that stuff from him, and it didn’t really hit me that everything was done for a reason with him, that it was a show of strength in itself. Like going from static to dynamic. It probably came from his training in martial arts, understanding that, and how it would be compatible with his frame and body. He found it hard to be a power fighter, and hard being a traditional heel, but he kept working harder than anyone to pinpoint exactly where he could succeed.
–There was a lot of trial and error.
Tanahashi: And in the end, he learned to do much more with much less. He started having fun with it, and that was key. After that he was off to the races.
–The natural charisma started pouring out of him as well.
Tanahashi: The key to wrestling is being able to take what you’ve internalised, and externalise it. He had all of this knowledge, potential and everything tucked away in him, but it took him a long time to freely be able to express himself.
–You were faster in that process?
Tanahashi: Yeah, I think so. Even if it took me getting booed along the way (laughs). But taking that heat from the fans and keeping my conviction, that’s what got me popular. Same with Nakamura; there were a lot of people who thought ‘the hell is this?’ but it takes time for that to turn the corner into ‘this is cool as hell,’ and the important thing is to ride that wave.