Tetsuya Naito on Jeff Cobb and what lies beyond in 2022
Deposed as double champion on January 4, a G1 struck by injury, and falling just short in World Tag League, 2021 did not go as Tetsuya Naito planned. The ever industrious El Ingobernable now has his sights set on January 4, 2023- but his campaign begins against tough opposition. We talk to Tetsuya Naito about facing the Imperial Unit Jeff Cobb.
I’ll be in World Tag League next year. Whatever happens
–Let’s look back on 2021. You said that this was a difficult year for you.
Naito: It wasn’t all bad, I didn’t hate the year, but all told, there was more bad than good for me.
— You ended the year in World Tag League with SANADA. You put in an impressive run, but didn’t quite reach the final.
Naito: After my injury, I was glad to go around the country and make towns. We were close too, but it all fell apart in my second home of Hiroshima…
–You lost on December 12 to EVIL and Yujiro.
Naito: So near and yet so far, story of my year. But it was fun being back in the WTL. I always wanted to be in there these last few years and the company didn’t let me.
–It was your first entry since 2015.
Naito: I had a great time. I’ll be in again next year. Whatever happens.
–Even if you have a match at the Tokyo Dome?
Naito: There’s no rule that says if you win WTL you have to take an IWGP tag title match at the Tokyo Dome. I think if anything, the people on the Dome card should be made to be in the tournament. Otherwise it makes a mockery of the whole ‘tag festival’ idea.
I’ll use his power against him
–So at the double tournament finals in Ryogoku on December 15, two singles matches were made- SANADA facing Great-O-Khan, and after your hurricanrana pin on him, you versus Jeff Cobb.
Naito: It was difficult heading into the last big card of the year with nothing for the Tokyo Dome. To then have Cobb step up- I’m grateful for that.
–Cobb said he was glad to find his own opponent.
Naito: Right, we were both in a similar spot.
–You wrestled Cobb in the 2019 G1 Climax, but this is the first time you’ve met since Cobb joined United Empire.
Naito: He’s had a huge year. There’s no doubt that he’s become a big deal over the last 12 months. I faced him a couple of years ago, sure, but he’s changed so much since I don’t think I can use that as reference.
–On the last Road to Tokyo Dome card on December 24, Cobb used your own corner combination, before saying backstage that he can do everything you can do.
Naito: He did, huh…
–He asked if you were ready for your ‘trip’…
Naito: Trip? Oh, the Tour of the Islands. Cute. Well, I can’t give him a Tour of the Islands. But even if I could, I wouldn’t. I have enough self confidence to wrestle in my own style.
–You only use your own moves.
Naito: I kinda get the sense that Cobb lacks confidence in his own wrestling, and that’s why he uses his opponents’ stuff. A top class wrestler like that, he should believe in himself more.
–You mentioned that you do well against guys like Cobb. Why do you think you can handle power wrestlers so effectively?
Naito: Destino is a big help. It’s a move I can definitely hit clean on power guys, and the stronger they are, the harder they seem to fall to it. Cobb, he seems to be a Naito fan, right? He probably has a bunch of LIJ merch at home.
–Well, on the other hand, he’s used Kota Ibushi’s Kamigoye and renamed it the Cobbigoye. And the Rainmaker, calling it the Aloha Maker.
Naito: Ah, so it isn’t just me he’s infatuated with (laughs).
The potential is clearly there. But I haven’t seen ‘it’
–All the power talk aside, you yourself look like you’ve added more mucle mass.
Naito: True. I lost weight heading into the G1.
–To move more easily?
Naito: Partly, yeah. A lot of it was stamina for a run of singles matches, but while I was rehabbing, I figured I’d actually lost a little too much weight, so I ate a lot while I was off.
–You don’t strike me as a big eater. What did you eat to get your weight back?
Naito: Truthfully? Noodles.
Naito: From the convenience store. A ton of them (laughs)
–A noodle fueled body. In general, you’ve been leaner in your LIJ incarnation than in the early part of the last decade.
Naito: My knee was a big part of that. The more weight you have on a bad knee, the worse it gets.
–But you’ve shifted that balance to get a little more weight against Cobb.
Naito: Hmm, I wouldn’t say specifically for Cobb. You’re never going to match him for power, so you’re better off going in a different direction.
–But Cobb can compete on speed, with that standing moonsault and everything else he can do.
Naito: That’s an Olympian for you. Power and athleticism.
–Cobb started his year with a defeat to Shingo Takagi for the NEVER Openweight Championship.
Naito: That was the start for him, but he went on to really display that potential. I’m just not sure I saw ‘it’ from him. That really big result.
–He hasn’t had that big title win yet.
Naito: I think that gets to him as well, and he’ll be extra motivated on that big stage. It’s a non title singles match we have with one another, but I think we’re both planning on this being a springboard to bigger things.
–After you lost the double IWGP titles to Kota Ibushi on January 4, you promised that you would make the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 16. How do you feel now about being before the semi main on January 5?
Naito: I wanted to bounce back within a year. It isn’t enough for me to say ‘there’s always next year’; at my age and my career level, there isn’t always next year. I absolutely need to be in the main event on January 4 2023. When I beat O-Khan in April, I said that was the start of my return, but it fell apart from there. This has to be the start of my road to Wrestle Kingdom 17.
When I started in the business, I thought I’d go until 40.
–You turn 40 in 2022. What are your thoughts on this being the last Wrestle Kingdom in your 30s?
Naito: Ahhh… To tell the truth, when I started in the business, I thought I’d go until I was 40.
Naito: As I’ve gotten nearer, I’ve started to become more conscious about retirement.
–There’s more of your career behind you than in front.
Naito: I’m not saying I’m going to hang it up tomorrow. It’s just that the word ‘retirement’ is looming in my mind. That’s a sad thing for sure, but it’s motivating at the same time.
–It drives you to keep going.
Naito: Time waits for no man. But that means if I don’t enjoy everything to its fullest now, I’ll regret it later. If anything, being aware of my use by date has made me stronger than ever.
–There are a still a lot of wrestlers older than you, it seems hard to imagine you as a veteran figure.
Naito: I’m not going to carry on just to carry on. When I’ve lost sight of a goal, I’ll stop then and there. Goals are important to me. If I have them I can do anything, without them, nothing. I think once I don’t have a goal left, I’ll switch to civilian mode, in a heartbeat.
–So would you say you’ve had a goal in mind all the way through your career to now?
Naito: Yeah. Every time I’ve gotten one goal, I’ve had the next in mind. When I can’t think of what’s next, that’s when I’ve hit the finish line, I think.
–You don’t want to be dropping the ‘De! Ja! Pon! catchphrase in your 50s?
Naito: Heheh. You never know, all that might take until I’m 70, and I’ll be active until the day I die.
I don’t want the IWGP World Heavyweight belt.
–I do want to know what you think of the main event situation January 4 & 5. With the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship Shingo Takagi holds, the belt that Will Ospreay brought into the picture, and the IWGP V4 belt that Okada holds. What are your thoughts on that situation?
Naito: I’m on the outside looking in, mind, but I’m not sure I get it. Still, I think that Takagi’s position is probably the right one. That isn’t just because we’re on the same team; what he’s saying makes the most sense to me.
–Takagi took exception to both Ospreay and Okada calling him an ‘interim’ champion, and vowed to clear the whole controversy up.
Naito: Look, I don’t really get it, and I’m a wrestler here. The fans are even more confused with this three belt stuff. I’m sure some like the complexity, but complexity isn’t going to bring new fans in. People watching for the first time are going to say ‘I don’t get it,’ and tune right out.
–But if we dig deeper, you were at the heart of the Double Gold Dash in 2020 that brought us to where we are now…
Naito: I get that a lot, heh. But I don’t agree. I never wanted the titles to be unified. I wanted to be the first to hold both titles, and to defend them separately.
Naito: It was the company who ignored me. I was the only one vocally against the unification from day one.
–That led to you challenging Kota Ibushi on February 28 specifically for the IWGP Intercontinental.
Naito: I wanted to put a stop to it, but to be the one blamed for bringing the whole deal about ticks me off. I won’t be bitter and say that my plan would have played out better, but I want it emphasized that I was anti-unification.
–After a lot of twists and turns, Shingo Takagi has really elevated that title. What are your thoughts on its status right now?
Naito: I’m certainly not out to criticize the title itself, and nor am I in a position to. There is no doubt that the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship is the top title in NJPW. But I was against its creation, and I don’t want that title. I came into NJPW wanting the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and started my wrestling life because of that title.
–The IWGP Heavyweight still has a deep significance to you.
Naito: Right. So I really don’t keep that world heavyweight belt in mind, and I don’t see myself wanting it anytime soon.
–Kazuchika Okada had the most successful IWGP Heavyweight Championship run in history. Now he carries the V4 belt as a symbol of his G1 win- what are your thoughts on that?
Naito: That I really don’t get. If he was intent on bringing that back, why didn’t he speak up about the unification in the first place?
–You think he should have said something earlier.
Naito: I get we’re not exactly friends, but I expected that Okada and Tanahashi would have had my back over the world title thing.
–You wanted support from two of the belts most iconic champions.
Naito: Okada kept his mouth shut, so for him to them bring that belt back is all wrong to me.
–You said you don’t want that belt. But if you want what it represents- being at the top of NJPW- that surely means you will be competing for that title at some point?
Naito: I suppose so. Big events, and obviously the Tokyo Dome, will and should have that title in the main event. I want to be in the main event at the Tokyo Dome. I want to finally close out at the Dome with a call of ‘De! Ja! Pon!’. A condition of that would be to go for that title. But the end goal would be that Dome main event.
–So the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship for you would be the means and not the end.
Naito: Right. Maybe when I get that title, I might come round to it, but right now I see it as a way of getting where I want to be, not the target itself.
Kongo remind me of the start of LIJ
After the Tokyo Dome, we turn to Yokohama Arena on January 8, against NOAH.
–December 22 backstage, you said that NOAH are the guests in this situation. That you want to show hospitality to them, and not be reluctant.
Naito: It’s all under the Wrestle Kingdom banner, so I wanted it to be an NJPW event, to be honest. But as soon as NOAH were involved, well it had to be Kongo.
–It’ll be all five members of Los Ingobernables De Japon against Katsuhiko Nakajima, Kenoh, Manabu Soya, Tadasuke and Aleja. You’ve always said that you pay little attention to other promotions, but you’ve been aware of Kongo?
Naito: Well, I get my Weekly Pro-Wrestling magazine every week, so I’d notice Kongo when I was leafing through.
–After both retained at the Budokan on January 1, the team has both the GHC Naitional and Heavyweight Champions in Kenoh and Nakajima.
Naito: Well, here they’re coming to our house. It’s up to me to be a good host. I have to get results at the Tokyo Dome, and be the most attractive opponent possible for them.
Nakajima’s kicks might be the hardest in the business
–Is there anything specific about Kongo that captures your attention?
Naito: There’s something about them that reminds me of when LIJ was starting out. It seems like an interesting group, especially Nakajima.
–Not Kenoh, but Nakajima, then. Nakajima’s comments when the card was announced did seem very Naito like.
Naito: Is Kenoh the top guy there?
–Well, it was formed around Kenoh initially in March 2019, but Nakajima joined the group last summer. So it is a little similar to yourself and Takagi, in that the member that came in later is the one with the top title.
Naito: Nakajima’s an interesting one. I know Takagi has brought him up as well. I’ve been watching him since he was a kid on NJPW shows.
–In 2004, he was a junior heavyweight on the rise at just 16 years of age.
Naito: At the time I was in Animal Hamaguchi’s gym trying to find my way, and here was a kid younger than me, right where I wanted to be. That really got to me. Then years later we were in the G1.
–In 2016, you beat him in a heated match.
Naito: Right in his home town of Fukuoka too, heh. That match really stuck in my memory. It was a lot of fun, and I’d like this to continue on those lines. He’s changed a lot about himself since, so it’ll be a different deal for sure.
–That karate background of his is sure to be a factor.
Naito: Those kicks of his- they’ve got to be the hardest in the entire business. He’s not the biggest guy, but his kicks have hurt me more than anybody else’s in my career. I had more of an edge though, heh.
–You’re confident, then?
Naito: Of course. If he was the same guy as back then, there would be no way he could beat me. But he’s evolved a step or two since then, and that’s exciting. It was that much fun before, so.
–You’ve also faced Manabu Soya in the past.
Naito: Now you mentioned it, I did, once..
–During the 2008 Champion Carnival in NJPW, you were tagging with Tanahashi against Soya and SUWAMA.
Naito: that was another interpromotional deal. But I think Soya and SANADA is the pairing there.
–You’re right, the two of them used to tag with one another as Es, and took the All Asia Tag titles. Do you know much about the other Kongo members?
Naito: Kenoh, Tadasuke, Aleja, they’re all new to me. But they’re facing a full LIJ contingent, so we’re sure to come out on top.
50th Anniversary is a big deal. But I won’t approach it any differently
–The three nights of Wrestle Kingdom, Yokohama Arena, Tokyo Dome, it all kicks off the 50th anniversary celebrations for NJPW.
Naito: 50 years… Well, I can’t say I’ve been a fan for 50 years, I wasn’t alive for a good chunk of that, heh. But I’ve been watching for over 30 years. I remember the 25th anniversary.
–You would have been 15 then, in 1997.
Naito: The Dome tour in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. nWo being hot as hell then. As for me though, the 40th anniversary match I had with Okada is up there.
–Ah, on March 4 2012. It was your last chance to take the IWGP title in your 20s, from a man who instantly shot to the top against Tanahashi. Already ten years ago…
Naito: That’s how time goes. Well, as a NJPW fan, of course the 50th anniversary is a big deal, but I’m not sure there’s anything sp@ecial I should be doing myself. It’s all about being the Naito I am now, and us being the LIJ we are now.
–Being in the now is always key to Tetsuya Naito.
Naito: Getting to 50 years is a huge achievement, and without the wrestlers tat came before me, I wouldn’t be here now. But right now is more important than any of those 50 years before. Getting myself to the main event in the Tokyo Dome on January 4 2023 is. And to do that, I need to make a stepping stone of Jeff Cobb January 5.