Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
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–Last time we talked about Kazuchika Okada’s first appearance as the Rainmaker, and his challenge to you at the end of Wrestle Kingdom 6. That match was set for February in Osaka, and there were fireworks right from the first preview matches.
Tanahashi: Well, when he made that challenge there were a lot of voices, the fans included, that were thinking he was nowhere near ready. But as soon as we touched in that first preview match I realized we had something big on our hands.
–It was the first time you’d touched since January 2010. Did you feel he’d made a lot of progress in those two years?
Tanahashi: Definitely. Right from the bell, in those early feeling out stages, he was taking the lead, and even though he’d put on weight since his Young Lion days, he still had that explosiveness and that huge dropkick. The most important thing was that he was carrying himself like a star. But I do think I was in the minority in spotting that at first. You have to remember that NJPW World wasn’t around back then, so even up to Osaka people were very sceptical.
–The fifth match between you was January 29 in Korakuen Hall. Tanahashi and Naito vs Okada and Nakamura is quite a dream card when you think about it now. It was the first time Okada put you down with the Rainmaker, which really changed the dynamic between the two of you.
Tanahashi: You were really seeing him put it all together. In Mexico he had a foundation in llave and the sort of ‘three dimensional’ dynamic movement. In the Noge Dojo he was able to get the physical foundation going, in America he learned that showmanship. Even when he started signaling for the Rainmaker before the hard cam every time, that was a sign of how far he’d come, to have the awareness, and the presence of mind to do that, was big.
–Okada has said that one of the biggest things he did in his excursion in TNA was learn the importance of the camera placement.
Tanahashi: That’s the difference between him and me, heh. I’ve always like playing to the crowd, but to see Okada be so good at knowing where the cameras were really made me change up my game.
–Okada also said that the wrestler he watched most while on excursion was Kurt Angle.
Tanahashi: Well, that explains why he learned a lot. I don’t think I’ve seen a bad Kurt Angle match. He could throw you, submit you, then go up for a moonsault, so he had all those physical skills and yet so much character as well. I’m sure some of Kurt rubbed off on Okada. But I think another reason his excursion was successful is that we really didn’t hear much about him in Japan.
–Now we have quite a few wrestlers on excursion having their matches air on NJPW World.
Tanahashi: It’s nice to be able to see the progress of some guys. But on the other hand you had an air of mystery when guys were going away and there was a media blackout from a Japan perspective. Perhaps Okada was the last ‘traditional’ excursion, and he took the most advantage of it.
–On January 31, as this Okada feud was developing, NJPW was brought into the Bushiroad Group. There was a special press conference with all wrestlers attending, but the actual content of the announcement was kept secret to most.
Tanahashi: I found out about it at the same time as the rest of the boys actually. I think I would have said something at the announcement, being the champion, but I can’t quite remember. To be honest, like a lot of people in the company, I was worried about just what would happen to NJPW, but talking to Takaaki Kidani afterward I really understood that the guy was passionate about pro-wrestling and devoted to making this work. The things we’ve been able to do since, like wrapping the trains on the Yamanote Line with Tokyo Dome ads, it was the sort of stuff we hadn’t done before. I’d been steadily working away doing promotion, and he was taking everything to a whole new scale. I’m definitely grateful to him.
–You’d been putting in that work as Yuke’s had helped the company with their 2005 purchase. What are your thoughts on Yuke’s?
Tanahashi: I’m really grateful for Yuke’s as well. Back at this press conference I remember saying to their Chairman, Taniguchi-san ‘Thank you for rescuing our company. I hope I can repay that debt someday’. I’m sad we haven’t been able to do that yet, but I hope that sometime we can have a full on collaboration again, like having the old Tokon Retsuden video games.
–The first big event of the Bushiroad era was New Beginning in Osaka. The main event between yourself and Okada saw you target the knee while Okada went for the neck and the Rainmaker.
Tanahashi: It’s interesting to watch this match back. Okada’s match structure was very different then; there would be more llave, and he would use his dropkick much earlier in the match. He had some great counters in this one, it was an exciting match… even though he beat me with the Rainmaker.
–It’s a shock that none of us have forgotten.
Tanahashi: I remember shots of these fans standing, holding their heads in shock. As much as I can rue the loss, I have to admit that moment has to be among the most impactful of returns in history.
–With everything happening in the 40th anniversary year, it really felt like the stars had aligned for this Rainmaker Shock, and the birth of one of the biggest stars in NJPW history.
Tanahashi: Yeah, I guess all those gears were perfectly aligned. Plus I was his send off match and then he came back and beat me on the first try. I guess the Ace of the Century makes the stepping stone of the century too.
–Was there a kind of bitter sweetness to that loss to Okada? Like things were really kicking up a notch?
Tanahashi: I think so. Years and years ago, I said in an interview that even if I wasn’t the face of NJPW’s recovery, that I would be the foundation of it. History tends to repeat, and maybe there might be someone waiting in the wings to make an even bigger impact at Okada’s expense ten years on.