Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–So we spoke last time about defending the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for a record 11th time in the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 6. After you won, here comes Kazuchika Okada.
–Before we get into that challenge, Okada had wrestled YOSHI-HASHI earlier that night in a double return match, since both were coming back from excursion. Quite a rare set of circumstances.
Tanahashi: Yeah. When I saw the card, I really thought that wasn’t a fair shake for either of them. When you’re coming back from excursion, that’s your chance to show someone who’s really improved, and made a big step forward. A situation where you have two returnees against one another, well someone has to lose, and then you had Okada do what he did while YOSHI-HASHI had a rough time of it out of the gate.
–What did you think of Okada’s transformation into the Rainmaker?
Tanahashi: Before he really looked young and green with the black hair. As soon as he changed his look, dyed his eye and eyebrows, he stood out. It was a little unfair though…
Tanahashi: A guy with a look like that, the physical gifts that he had, and then they give him the Rainmaker name on top of that. The implication was that this guy would bring all the riches and prosperity to NJPW. That’s a pretty righteous thing to say when you think about it. Yet here he was with CHAOS which was the anti-establishment group at the time, so it was hard to position ourselves in Hontai to combat that. I know Naito had a hard time with it.
–Gedo would be a big part of Okada’s presentations in these early years.
Tanahashi: That was huge. A very American style approach, like putting jimmy Hart with Hulk Hogan. Soon enough, he’s be able to stand on his own, but at this point, having Gedo as his spokesman was really important.
–Okada is a good talker, but he didn’t speak much when Gedo was with him.
Tanahashi: Right. He can articulate well, and his voice was easy to hear in the buildings. But I think the first direction for him was to give an air of mystery. They might be opposite sides of the ring these days, but Gedo was probably Okada’s biggest booster in the early phases of his career. And it all paid off. He had that sudden rise to the top, but now it’s a big ‘what if’. Like, what would happen to NJPW if Okada hadn’t come along at that point in time?
–It would be a butterfly effect. It’s hard to see Tetsuya Naito forming LIJ in that universe.
Tanahashi: Right? I like playing those games of what if. Sometimes I think about what would happen if Keiji Muto, or Riki Choshu hadn’t left NJPW, how it would shape the rest of history.
–So what did you think about YOSHI-HASHI in that return match?
Tanahashi: Hmm. I think character wise he was a little… “half-baked” is harsh, but it was more like he didn’t know who YOSHI-HASHI was or what was right for him.
–He was a foul mouthed heel when he first came back, quite a different guy to the one he became.
Tanahashi: With CHAOS helping tweak that character, he finally got a bit closer to who he really is. It took a really long time, but he was finally able to win championships and turn a corner. Now nobody can doubt the ability he has.
–Okada would win that double return match with a very different form of the Rainmaker than what became his calling card.
Tanahashi: Right. I think somewhere in the times we’ve wrestled I might have taken that version of the move once. I think changing that move up shows how smart he was coming back; the standing version shows off his height and is that much more powerful. Still, maybe he’s still got that original Rainmaker in his back pocket as a secret weapon…
–After your main event win, Okada would offer you ‘thanks for the hard work’, before declaring that ‘the Ace’s time is over and now the Rainmaker will lead New Japan Pro-Wrestling’. He was roundly booed.
Tanahashi: I think that after his match earlier that night, the fans weren’t willing to accept him. But he came out with all that confidence to challenge. By the way, this was the first time I think I said ‘I’ve never been tired in my entire life’.
–Quite a significant line for you. You followed it up by saying Okada was ‘a long way from being IWGP worthy’, which fans would take to heart, and talk about you being closer to the IWGP when you were challenging.
Tanahashi: OK, not to sound conceited, but I’m really proud of that line. I think it was a different way of framing the usual wrestler speak. It’s never in terms of distance, it’s always ‘I’m not losing to you,’ ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’ kinda thing. So that got taken to heart by the fans and got put to use over the years. Including to me when the roles got reversed, heh.
–Being as how you never got an excursion yourself, how did you feel about Okada getting that extravagant comeback?
Tanahashi: I’m always envious when guys get that. Always really jealous! That return match is always a real blooming moment. As tough as those excursions must be, I think I would have enjoyed that experience. And there’s always that anticipation from the fans, the rumours about how they might come back. I think Okada really set the bar for best return though.
–It’s hard to think of a bigger impact than the one he made.
Tanahashi: I think it’s much more than having the body, or the moves. You really need the conviction, the self belief that you’re going to be the guy. I’m not sure there’s ever been someone that had that complete package after Okada. O-Khan has been the closest in my opinion.
–And Okada was a common thread as Great-O-Khan interfered in Okada’s G1 match with Will Ospreay.
Tanahashi: Usually you see a guy come back from excursion with this new persona. Great-O-Khan was Great-O-Khan all the way through his excursion, which is really cool, and perfect for him. He’s able to express himself so effectively, and he’s been able to cultivate this hardcore fandom while still being a complete heel out there. He’s *the* guy for this generation, I feel.