I got Tetsuya Naito speaks on a crucial G1 campaign
Tetsuya Naito’s 13th G1 campaign got underway Wednesday in Sendai. An appropriately unlucky number for El Ingobernable, Naito started the tournament with back firmly against the wall as he admitted that this could be his ‘last chance’ at his desired Tokyo Dome main event on January 4. We spoke to the LIJ leader about his campaign as he continued a pre-tournament PR campaign in ‘second home’ Hiroshima.
–So it looks like you’ve been travelling a little bit in your down time before the G1…
Naito: Well, I had my eye surgery, but apart from that I’ve been relaxing a bit.
–So that goes for that 11day stretch we’ve had from new Japan Road finishing and G1 starting?
Naito: Right. I said that this 11 day period would turn out to be really important for everyone. So then it came down to me deciding what to do, and I just skived off, heheh.
–No intensive training?
Naito: Obviously I’ve been getting ready and thinking about my matches. But I think keeping all that in your head, and going intensive in the gym isn’t the right way to go about it. So a little baseball game here and there is just right.
–There’s a lot to be said for self-care.
Naito: Heh, a couple of days ago I went to the Koshien (national high school game), and when I was promoting the G1 in Hiroshima, I got the chance to do some guest commentary. So I was able to get work done while I was able to head to my second home and recharge.
I didn’t produce in the first half of the year
–It feels like you’ve been the ‘nearly man’ in 2022. You challenged for the IWGP World heavyweight title twice but came up short, made the New japan Cup final, but was runner-up.
Naito: Well, it’s on brand, isn’t it, being the nearly man. But the truth is that I don’t feel I’ve gotten results so far this year, because I haven’t.
–‘Second place is first loser’, kind of thing.
Naito: Right. There’s no point in me being the nearly man in this G1. I haven’t produced and I need to.
–You’ve said right from the outset of the year that you’ll be in the January 4 2023 main event. So this is all on the line for you.
Naito: I let this go and things are going to be really bleak. Maybe it isn’t quite my last chance, but it’s as close as you can get to one. No doubt my back is against the wall.
–If you make it to the January 4 main event, it would be your fourth Tokyo Dome main.
Naito: If you count January 5, then yeah, I’ve been in the main event three times. Twice as challenger and in 2021 I walked out as champion. But I’ve never walked back up the ramp last as the winner. In ’18 I lost to Okada, ’21 I lost to Ibushi. In 2020 I won, but KENTA laid me out…
–So you’ve never had that real crowning moment?
Naito: Right. Never had that big roll call. That’s big for me.
–And perhaps a key part of that grand plan is the return of voices with a cheering section in Korakuen Hall September 5 & 6.
Naito: Sure. In the end the best matches aren’t really the best without the fans being a part of it. For me, age is a factor of all this, so it’s something I really want back as soon as possible.
I won’t know until we try it.
–This year, it’s the biggest G1 field in history with 28 entrants, but there are no Japanese debutants.
Naito: It’s great to see entrants from all over the world. We have this worldwide feel, for sure, but this is New Japan Pro-Wrestling, so that says there’s something lacking from a Japanese standpoint.
–There are five foreign debutants, so although the scale is impressive, there’s a bigger picture issue, you feel.
Naito: Right. But I am looking forward to it. I’ve spoken a lot about whether we need to have a large number of entrants. But I’ve never been in a four block G1, and I might end up thinking that this is the best format for it. We’ll have to wait and see.
–There are more entrants, but fewer league matches this year.
Naito: From a schedule standpoint it is quite a bit easier. And I enjoy having those preview tags, being in the ring even when I’m not in league matches. I really want to be in there as much as I can, and I think ring rust does more damage to you than the bumps and bruises.
–This is also the first G1 since 2009 with semifinals and finals.
Naito: I haven’t experienced that either. That’s a result of the four blocks, and I’m definitely glad we don’t have a four way or something. Back in the day, it would be the semifinals and finals in one night, but I’m glad they’re split up this time.
Why did Goto join CHAOS in the first place?
(Interview conducted before July 20)
–So let’s talk about your schedule. It starts on July 20 in Sendai against Hirooki Goto. You have a long history with goto, but haven’t faced him sicne you won your G1 Climax 30 match in 2020.
Naito: When it comes to Goto, my match with him in February 2011 really stays with me. That was in Sendai, too.
–You said that match got over with the audience more than the main event between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Satoshi Kojima that night did.
Naito: Right. I lost, but we beat the main event. To be honest, I like wrestling Goto.
–How do you view Goto of late? He’s currently a NEVER 6 Man Champion.
Naito: He had the tag belts with YOSHI-HASHI as well. As a singles though, I’m not so sure. I still don’t really get why he joined CHAOS.
–He accepted Okada’s invitation to join CHAOS after you beat him in the New Japan Cup final in 2016.
Naito: I think he lost his hunger as a singles guy somewhere down the line. I’m definitely interested in seeing what he’s like with the mindset he has now. He’ll make for a good start, I think.
Tanahashi is a special opponent for me
–On July 24, you face Hiroshi Tanahashi in Ota. You faced one another in the New Japan Cup back in March, and you won with a jackknife pin.
Naito: I think this is the first time we’ve wrestled in Tokyo for quite a while.
–Last time would have been in Ryogoku in the 2017 G1 so five years.
Naito: When they announced the matches in Korakuen hall, there was a real bustle in the crowd for this match being in Ota. It’s good to know that fans are looking forward to it. Tanahashi is a special opponent for me, for sure.
— Did you get a taste of the old Ace in March?
Naito: Nope. I don’t think so.
Naito: Motion is a problem with him. He’s gotten heavier. I think he’s bigger since we wrestled a lot last, and he’s slower along with it. I hope we see something a bit different from him or he’ll be rolled up again- or hit with Destino.
EVIL was better with me
–On July 31 in Aichi, you have EVIL. You faced one another several times in 2020, but this is actually your first singles match since he formed HOUSE OF TORTURE last September.
Naito: EVIL’s really lacking something, I feel. I guess he’s doing what he wants to do, and he has his own way of thinking about things, but I feel he was better off when he was on my side.
–EVIL was your first pareja in what became Los Ingobernables De Japon.
Naito: I get that after he left for BULLET CLUB he took the double IWGP Championships. Maybe it was the best choice for him career wise- it got him results, but I think status wise, he was better with me.
–Interference is a pretty heavy theme in his matches these days.
Naito: If he’s happy to do things that way, and he has a vision for what he wants to do from here, then so be it, I guess. But if he’s just going through the motions, then that’s disappointing.
–Sometimes we see flashes of the tough, straight ahead competitor in EVIL.
Naito: Hm. I’m not saying I want the old EVIL back, even though I personally think that’s more appealing. What I want to feel in this match is that he believes in whatever it is he’s doing.
What happens if Henare gets that Ultima on me?
–I think we’re getting into a common theme with you about living in the now. On August 5, you have Aaron Henare in Item Ehime. Your first singles match with another man who’s gone through changes in the last year.
Naito: He’s the only one in this group I haven’t wrestled before. We could argue about whether he would make the cut if it was 20 guys in this tournament, but with him in, it gives a fresh match like this, and I’m looking forward to it.
–Henare’s a powerful, heavy hitter.
Naito: I’ve tagged against him a few times. I think in terms of power, Cobb has the edge, so I’m not sure what makes him really stand out per se. I think he’s behind those other United Empire members- Ospreay, O-Khan and Cobb. But that means he’ll be all the more motivated.
–He’s been using a full nelson he calls the Ultima as of late.
Naito: Usually you see guys try adding moves to their arsenal that nobody has ever seen before. It’s pretty unusual for guys to take an existing move, tweak it a little and make it their own like that. Maybe Henare couldn’t think of anything new, I don’t know.
–There is originality in taking a classic move and putting it in a new light with a new twist, don’t you think?
Naito: Maybe. It submitted BUSHI, but my neck is pretty flexible, so can he really hurt me with it? I don’t know. I hope when I get in there with him he’ll prove me wrong on all this.
KENTA will give me even more trouble than usual, I think
–On August 9 in Hiroshima, you face KENTA.
Naito: I was supposed to face him in Hiroshima in last year’s G1 if I hadn’t gotten hurt. It’s a bit poetic with KENTA and Hiroshima, the first time we crossed paths when I was younger it was Hiroshima.
–When he was in NOAH. That wasn’t in a match, but privately?
Naito: Right. I spotted him at a music festival, actually. We didn’t talk much though. Then there was a Carp game where KENTA was set to throw out the first pitch. That had to have been 13 years ago or so? I remember hating him for being the first wrestler in Matsuda Stadium to throw out the first pitch. I prayed for the game to be called off and then it got rained out, haha! Still it turned out Riki Choshu would be the first wrestler to throw out the first pitch there. Not me, heh.
–You ended up throwing out the opening pitch in 2017. So you’re fated to meet in Hiroshima, indeed. KENTA’s coming back after a six month break due to injuries in the Tokyo Dome on January 5.
Naito: His back is a real mess of scars, right. I think with him in that comeback mood, he’ll be even more of a problem for me than usual.
–KENTA is the master of trash talk.
Naito: That’s another interesting part of all this. It isn’t like I’m planning to throw a bunch of trash his way, but I’ll see what he says. I wonder how he’ll make fun of my name this time.
Zack is one of the smartest guys in the room
–Your last league match is August 16 in the Nippon Budokan against Zack Sabre Jr. He put you out of the G1 last year with a knee injury after the very first match, and then beat you in the New Japan Cup final.
Naito: And I lost to him in the Budokan in 2018. I’ve dropped my last two straight with him. So just like always, he’s a tough opponent for me. Now he’s got all these submissions and he’s gotten bigger too.
–And he could hit you with the Zack Driver if he needs to.
Naito: He has so many ways to submit you that he ends up making up these long move names. He has just so many variations. He really is one of the smartest guys in the room.
–He’s one of the biggest obstacles to you.
Naito: But having him last is probably the best scenario for me. The best recipe for revenge would be meeting him in the tournament phase, but this is definitely a good set of circumstances for me to make the final.
Everyone wants to beat the champ
–So with the top point scorers in each block, who do you think will advance from each group?
Naito: I see Okada coming from A Block. I mean, yeah he lost the belt to Jay, but I don’t see him going on a slump. I think he really wants that title back and he’s working to get there.
–Okada’s having to come through that monster block.
Naito: There’s a lot of talk about that monster block, but I don’t think it’ll create all that many upsets for Okada. You look at Cobb, Fale, Archer, JONAH, against one another when they can’t throw one another around then you have that battle of attrition. Okada will know they’ll come at him with power though, and he’ll be able to plan for that.
–Okada can really strategise for those guys ahead of time, you feel.
Naito: Right. Then Tom Lawlor, I’m not sure how that’ll go since I don’t know much about him. But I think Okada probably has to be most wary of Yano. Still, I think he’ll have no worries making it through.
–How about B Block? IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Jay White stands out.
Naito: See, everyone wants to beat the champ. I know first hand that it’s hard to get through a block as a champion. That said, I want SANADA to make it through. He’s another that’s coming back from injury and I want him to really hit the ground running.
–He finally won his first singles title in February.
Naito: But then he got hurt and vacated right after. He’s under a lot of pressure, he can’t be that cool SANADA anymore.
–And in D Block?
Naito: Hmm. I think it’s between Takagi and Ospreay, and I’ll go with Takagi. I’d definitely be excited about a first time singles match with Ospreay, but after we were supposed to meet in Kobe last year, I want to take Takagi on. Our match in the ’19 G1 was a big deal for him I feel.
–So you feel the other semifinal would be Okada vs SANADA, and…
Naito: Obviously ideally it would be SANADA. He beat me in the ’20 G1 in Nagaoka. Beating two other LIJ members to win the whole thing would really be best.
–You have had quite the series with Okada already this year.
Naito: Of course there’s unfinished business there, but it isn’t like he has the belt right now, so I think SANADA is the more attractive opponent. Then again, Okada is a tough guy to beat.
If the young Naito predicted this thing…
–So you have pretty set predictions for each block.
Naito: Yeah, I’m pretty convinced.
–How about if you took yourself out of your boots, and thought about this G1 from the young fan’s perspective, the one who was an NJPW fanclub member back in the day.
Naito: That’s interesting. I think if the young Naito predicted this thing, he’d have Tom Lawlor come out of A Block, Tama Tonga out of B. Naito for C, but if I can’t pick me, then Zack. D, if I’m a fan, then I’d go with YOSHI-HASHI, but I think my head would say Ospreay. Then I have four foreigners in the semifinals. I think that circles down to what I was saying before, that there really needs to be a big new Japanese star to really breathe some new life into this picture.
–Who would fan Naito have winning?
Naito: Tama. He has everything from the BYULLET CLUB fall out around him, he won his first singles title recently, the Japanese fans like him. Zack and Ospreay might have a bigger resume, but Tama would make the most impact.
–A real upset winner.
Naito: There aren’t many G1s like that. Especially in the 50th Anniversary year it would be cool to flip the script. But in the end, the big favourite is Tetsuya Naito. I took myself out of the predictions, but fan Naito would definitely choose the current me.
–So a final message to the real life fans out there?
Naito: With the biggest field, it’s hard for individuals to stand out, but I think this will end with people saying ‘that was Naito’s G1’. That’s the summer I want, and I want everyone to remember a triumphant Tetsuya Naito whether you’re in the venues or watching on NJPW World. And I hope everyone gets hyped for January 4 2023.