KUSHIDA’s first interview back in NJPW
With a challenge to Taiji Ishimori, KUSHIDA made his shocking return to NJPW last month, before embarking on a quest to ‘prove himself’ worthy of IWGP gold once more. Before facing Alex Shelley at Music City Mayhem as part of that quest, we spoke to the Timesplitter.
–So we’re actually speaking with you remote while you’re in Charlotte.
KUSHIDA: Right. We just finished shooting NJPW STRONG here and up next is Alex Shelley in Nashville.
–You’ve been based in the US since you went to WWE in 2019; what are things like over there right now?
KUSHIDA: Expensive (laughs). Gas is really expensive, and getting a Big Mac set on Uber Eats works out to, like, $25.
KUSHIDA: But a lot of wages have gone up to suit, so people don’t seem to be affected as much as price hikes in Japan… I could talk about economics all day! But this is for the official NJPW site, right?
KUSHIDA: I’ll say this- I can’t remember the last time I’ve done an interview like this in my native language, so maybe I might say something I shouldn’t.
–We’ll get it cleared by PR first (laughs).
KUSHIDA: Ah, well in that case let’s get on topic.
Not having that match with Alex stuck with me for seven years
–Well, let’s talk about Music City Mayhem first of all.
KUSHIDA: It’s definitely my job to make sure everyone watches it. It’s available worldwide on FITE, so I hope people do.
–Being in the afternoon US time, it’s a difficult start time for Japan to watch live, but with this card everyone will want to see on demand. Yourself and Alex Shelley one on one is a big attraction, obviously.
–You sent a special message to challenge him- or should we say a love letter?
KUSHIDA: We had a main event in Korakuen Hall scheduled for the 2015 Best of the Super Jr., but Shelley got hurt in his first match and was knocked out of the running.
–It was during his match with David Finlay. Shelley suffered a torn ligament and fracture in his left foot.
KUSHIDA: Not being able to have that match really stuck with me for all this time. I couldn’t let it slide, but now that I’ve left WWE, it seemed like this was the best timing, so that’s when I wrote the letter. We actually teamed up one time in NXT…
–In January 2020’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament.
KUSHIDA: We were knocked out in the first round, but I had a dream and a plan for us to team together at Wrestlemania. But then COVID happened, and Shelley had other things he wanted to do, like get his physio qualifications. The timing just didn’t work out, and we were never a consistent tag team in WWE.
–But fate brought you together here this weekend.
KUSHIDA: I’ve been in the business 17 years now, and I’ve been able to do a lot, but I still do think that there’s a lot left on the table for me and Shelley as a team. If I got hurt and had to retire tomorrow, I think I would regret that we could have done more together.
–You took the IWGP Jr. Tag titles twice, but you have a deeper attachment than that.
KUSHIDA: Tag wrestling is important to me- seriously I think it can be double the emotions and the fun of a singles match, and the older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve done in my career the more that’s rung true with me. I think if we could get Chris Sabin involved as well then we could be a great trio in NJPW, IMPACT and AEW.
–That would be quite the trio.
KUSHIDA: One match in particular sticks with me teaming with Shelley. In 2014 Timesplitters challenged the Young Bucks in Osaka, right?
KUSHIDA: Back then, nearly every big event was starting with a junior tag title match. I was the only Japanese wrestler with a lot of foreign teams, so it was really difficult to get traction.
–Apart from the Young Bucks there was ReDragon, Roppongi Vice, Matt Sydal and Ricochet…
KUSHIDA: And I wasn’t quite on that singles star level. Kota Ibushi and Ricochet were above me on the ladder, and my time hadn’t come around yet. It was a tough time in my career but that match with the Young Bucks was really important to me. I don’t know how this match will go in Nashville, but it’s a hell of a card, and I want us to have a match that can help us pick up where we left off, and lead into what’s next.
–That’s how important he is to your career.
KUSHIDA: I think especially now, I’m coming back after three years away. So there’ll be new fans who don’t know me, and if they don’t know me, they certainly won’t know Shelley. But I think delving into history is one of the great things about pro-wrestling, and I hope with this match people can understand a little of the journey we’ve been on.
–You owe the position of junior ace that you had to that time as the Timesplitters.
KUSHIDA: Right. I don’t know what Shelley’s headspace is when it comes to wrestling moving forward, but I want to light a fire in him, and do some incredible things; if it isn’t Wrestlemania, then at a Wrestle Kingdom and that level of card. Shelley Sabin and KUSHIDA vs Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks would be a heck of a dream match to have in my book.
I wanted to move to LA ages ago
–Let’s get a little bit into what brought you back to NJPW. You left WWE in April, and that obviously led to speculation.
KUSHIDA: Before i get into that, I want to re-state what I said when I came back in Korakuen on July 3. I said then that I didn’t want to talk about WWE going forward. I think for whatever show, whatever event you talk about, creating those comparisons doesn’t do anyone any favours, on either side. It’s not fair to WWE, and it’s not fair to NJPW either. They’re just different.
–You did say that talking about both in the same context isn’t fair to either side.
KUSHIDA: But in an interview like this, it’s meaningless to completely ignore the experience I had there, and I think I have to talk about my time in WWE. So I’ll talk about my experience, but not in a comparative way. Just to calibrate people’s expectations a little.
–Understood. There were rumours after you left WWE that you might head somewhere other than NJPW.
KUSHIDA: Hmm. Well, to set the scene a bit, the turnover in WWE is really relentless. In August of 2021, there was a really sudden change in thinking there. Essentially they wanted to train young wrestlers, under 30, that didn’t have pro-wrestling experience and had come from other athletic backgrounds. When it comes to me, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that left me redundant, effectively.
–NXT underwent a big shift last summer.
KUSHIDA: You have to remember I was 36 when I got an offer from WWE. It still really seems kinda hard to believe that HHH would reach out with an offer… What was the question again?
–After you left WWE…
KUSHIDA: Right. So with this youth push on over there, it wasn’t like I had a shoot time machine of my own, so it became ‘OK, what can I do here?’. Everyone was asking the same questions, I think, actually. And NJPW immediately popped in my head. I felt really strongly right away that LA would be the best place to base myself.
–So the first thing that popped in your head was LA?
KUSHIDA: Even when I was in WWE, I had wanted to move from Orlando to LA, but the company wouldn’t let me; that hurt my motivation a little, heh. I think there’s a little bit of magic around LA that made it somewhere I always wanted to live.
If I couldn’t be true to myself I couldn’t do this anymore
–With NXT you had to be near the Performance Center in Florida, I assume.
KUSHIDA: Florida and LA are six hours apart, but from LA you can fly direct to Japan. From Florida, you have to make connections, and that’s pretty tough for me.
–You did always have a thing for LA even when you lived in Japan.
KUSHIDA: Before I left NJPW, when the LA Dojo was set up I had planned to move to the US anyway and base myself out there.
–Ah, you mentioned it on your podcast once, in March 2018 when the Dojo opened.
KUSHIDA: It really was a dream of mine for a long time. All the way back, what six years ago? I talked about it with Chairman Sugabayashi as I was renewing my contract and now I get to make it happen. It all worked out nicely.
–So LA was your first port of call when you left WWE.
KUSHIDA: Right. And I remember before I left two or three years ago, I was a champion for a lot of that time, but I would also be wrestling a lot of matches overseas. There would be people saying I was neglecting Japan, or I was neglecting my role as a champion…
–There were quite a few of those kinds of fans.
KUSHIDA: Right. People can think what they think, but in the end you can’t please all those masters. There’s a limit of what I can do, and the pro-wrestlers way is doing things the way you want to their limits. So that was the stance I took.
–And you still feel that way.
KUSHIDA: Well, the stance I have now is I want to base myself in LA and wrestle as much as I can in Japan and worldwide. I think there should be at least someone with that mindset in NJPW, it’s 2022 after all. I’m not denying Japan anything, at all and I’ll essentially be a part of every tour going on in Japan. That’s something I’ve told the company as well.
–And presumably you want to be a big part of NJPW internationally like you are right now as well. So coming back into NJPW was dependent on a few conditions then.
KUSHIDA: Yeah, I’d say so. When I left WWE, the plan was head to LA and then let me think about contracts and things of that nature.
–So was there any thought at all of wrestling for another promotion in Japan, or in the US for that matter?
KUSHIDA: Right…. right. To be honest as soon as the news broke my phone kept ringing and ringing, so I turned it off.
–You had our fair share of people wanting to make offers then.
KUSHIDA: Yeah. I’m really grateful for that, but turning my phone off was more a thing of not wanting other people’s voices to influence me. I figured that this is one of those crossroads in life, somewhere where I had to really think about what I wanted to do next. If I couldn’t be true to myself, I couldn’t be a pro-wrestler any more.
I never had a junior heavyweight inferiority complex
–There was also a fair bit of speculation that you would turn heavyweight now that you were returning. Was there anything to that?
KUSHIDA: Not at all. Never.
KUSHIDA: HHH and Shawn Michaels would always say this when I was in WWE- ‘make it organic’. Me coming back to an NJPW ring having died my hair blonde and with new gear, entering the G1 and then challenging a heavyweight champion. That might be the organic path for a wrestler that came through the Dojo system. But I didn’t. It wouldn’t be the organic path for KUSHIDA.
–It’s about being true to yourself?
KUSHIDA: In the end, KUSHIDA is KUSHIDA. It’s me, it’s organic. My whole life story is me being a short, small guy who took himself to Mexico and got on this road of being a professional wrestler. I didn’t come through the NJPW system, and I have pride in that too. All of that is how I’ve managed to survive in the business. I’m not going to deny all of that.
–We often talk about the pride of wrestlers who stay true blue NJPW, but not much about the pride of outsiders.
KUSHIDA: Right. And I never ever had an inferiority complex. I never thought the heavyweights were better. The juniors are the juniors, heavies are the heavies and both are great.
–We often see wrestlers come back with a very different look, a different position, maybe a heel turn. If anything, the same KUSHIDA coming back was perhaps a surprise to a lot of people.
KUSHIDA: Well, that’s one way of going about things, and maybe to get a little short cut. My way is different. I was KUSHIDA in NJPW, KUSHIDA through WWE and KUSHIDA now.
More in part two!