Back in Time: KUSHIDA Interviewed (2/2)

Second part of KUSHIDA’s return interview

After KUSHIDA made his return to NJPW competition in July, the TimeSplitter has not been resting through the heavyweight G1 season. Heading to the US, he faced Alex Shelley in a 20 minute draw at Music City Mayhem, and will now be a part of eight man action at the Vermont Hollywood on August 21. We resume our interview with KUSHIDA as he discusses junior heavyweight competition and more. 

NJPW STRONG tapings: Fighting Spirit Unleashed 2022 August 21 tickets

The biggest difference from then to now is the fans’ voices


–So you returned to NJPW action on July 3, after three years and four months away. How was that experience?

KUSHIDA: It was a real throwback moment. It definitely felt great to be back in Korakuen Hall, and I remembered just how easy it is to work in an NJPW ring; it’s pretty different to the American rings. The only negative was the lack of cheering. America handled the pandemic very differently and was very fast in allowing people in buildings to full capacity and making noise. Especially in Florida.

–Ah, right.

KUSHIDA: Masks became a matter of personal choice as well. So that was another thing that’s been really different. The biggest change from when I left the company to coming back is in the fans’ voices.

–Of course. You left a year before COVID, and now you’re back and the pandemic is still a factor.


KUSHIDA: I think that’s especially tough for the young wrestlers. They’re trying to build a foundation and it’s hard to do that without vocal feedback. But a positive change I think has been NJPW STRONG taking root over in the US.

–The brand just celebrated its second anniversary.

KUSHIDA: They’re doing great stuff, and I want more Japanese fans to pay attention to it. I think back to ten years ago when I was touring with ROH along with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura. That was planting these seeds that have taken root and started to flower with STRONG. It was a real honour to be a part of the tapings in Charlotte. It’s something I hope can and should continue to flourish over the next ten, twenty years.

I was always in touch with Shibata in WWE


–To go back to your surprise return on June 21, did you talk about that appearance to anyone beforehand?

KUSHIDA: Not beforehand, it was a real flying visit. I came in the day before from Orlando and headed straight back the next day as well. But… as soon as I left WWE Katsuyori Shibata was the first person I called.

–Oh really?

KUSHIDA: Yeah. And the morning of that Korakuen show I got in touch with Tanahashi.

–I can see Tanahashi, but it’s a little surprising that Shibata was the first person you got in touch with after your release.

KUSHIDA: Well, I was always in touch with him while I was in WWE, you know. There was a time when a lot of guys who had been on STRONG were coming into NXT, and I would end up wrestling most of them. Then a lot of those guys have gone back to STRONG since.

–Ah, good point. So you’d talk to Shibata about those guys.

KUSHIDA: Right. I remember us both saying how much upside Alex Zayne has; we both have a similar mindset when it comes to talent.

–And now Zayne has been catching on big in Japan.

KUSHIDA: A lot has come from this Shibata KUSHIDA connection, heh. When the LA Dojo started up in 2018 I insisted the company let me head over and help lead a camp. If you look at the group picture from there, it’s crazy how many guys are really active, either in WWE or on the world stage in some form. 

–The LA Dojo is really changing the world.

KUSHIDA: I knew from jump that the LA Dojo had a ton of potential, and I wanted to be a part of that, absolutely. You have to remember, when I was starting, I couldn’t hope to meet the entrance requirements for the Noge Dojo, so I debuted in Mexico. Not unlike what DOUKI has done.

–You both made your pro-debuts outside of Japan. 

KUSHIDA: I think that’s absolutely a path for Japanese wrestlers. This is me on my own here, not something the company or Shibata has said, but I think there could quite easily be Japanese talent who maybe are too small to join domestic tryouts, but want to get a start in the business and give LA Dojo a shot. Women as well; we could easily train female wrestlers here and help them get a foot in the door in CMLL, or STARDOM, or elsewhere.

–So there’s a lot of different avenues the LA Dojo can take.

KUSHIDA: Absolutely, there are so many possibilities, so much potential.

–When you came back to Korakuen Hall you made the comment that you wanted to dedicate the remainder of your pro-wrestling life into helping the further growth of NJPW. Can you expand on that?

KUSHIDA: Well, a big part of that is being contracted to New Japan. I think that’s an important distinction and difference to the US. Over there, they use that ‘independent contractor’ phrase, because you are self employed to a general extent. You have to look out for number one, and you aren’t protecting or representing anyone other than yourself in a sense. You’re out to increase your own worth. 

–So the stance of a pro-wrestler is a little different in the US and Japan. 

KUSHIDA: Exactly. But here I am, KUSHIDA being KUSHIDA, but being based in the US and furthering NJPW as an entity wherever I go. That’s the discussion I had when I signed my contract.

If I can wrestle Ishimori I want it in the right place 


–Let’s switch over to more current NJPW talk. Obviously right now, Taiji Ishimori is the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, and he’s someone you have a fair bit of history with, most recently him defeating you on January 4 2019.

KUSHIDA: I suppose you’re right. I wasn’t really thinking about that when I made my challenge. Obviously a lot has changed over the last three years, in the company at large as well. I’ll be honest- it isn’t like I’ve been watching that whole time either; I’ve been too focused on fighting for my survival over (in WWE).

–So it was more a case of you going after the top guy in the division?

KUSHIDA: Right. I really do think that he’s a perfect champion, and when I went out to challenge him I knew I was approaching a guy right in his heyday. But I’ve really been developing my own game, training better than ever, and getting right into the best shape I’ve been in. I think having a singles match with (Ishimori) would be something truly special. I honestly just want to try myself against him.

 –You sound like you really rate Ishimori.

KUSHIDA: He is a good deal more experienced than most of the other juniors. I think that’s meant he’s a little more conscious of picking his spots, and knowing when to turn it up to 100%. When I got in the ring with him in July, I really felt that true ‘champion Ishimori’, and he was definitely raring to go. That was pretty damn exciting.

–You’re about the same age as him, right?

KUSHIDA: I think he’s a year older? But career wise, he’s way above me. When I went to Mexico, he was already working as the ace of Toryumon.

–Ishimori has had a very diverse career.

KUSHIDA: At any rate, I guess I lost one of our tags, but he’s graciously allowed me to continue my ‘assessment’. So I’ll be working to pass his high standards, heh. If I do get that title match, I want it to be in the right place at the right time.

They’re all my rivals. They all want to make this era theirs. 


–What are your thoughts on the junior division as a whole right now? I guess you weren’t watching all too closely while you were in WWE.

KUSHIDA: For some reason I can’t get on the paid  Japanese smartphone site from my American phone, heheh. But of course, I kept general tabs on who was doing what. 

–And you want to experience that.

KUSHIDA: Right. I think it’s a real group of guys with a ton of pride. They’re all my rivals in my opinion; they all want to take this era and make it their own. I’m really heading into all this with a mentality of KUSHIDA versus the world.

–Certainly Best of the Super Jr. was a real success this year.

KUSHIDA: I think while I’ve been gone, Hiromu and Desperado have completed their development if you will, and now they’re at their peaks, Ishimori is a perfect champion. Over the last three years, SHO, YOH, Master Wato, DOUKI have all progressed and become significant in their own right. I’m looking forward to wrestling them, too. I can’t let my guard down around anybody- maybe Tanahashi and Taguchi (laughs).

Hiromu and Desperado don’t need to beat me to prove anything


–We haven’t heard much from Hiromu or Desperado about your return; is that something that gets to you at all?

KUSHIDA: Hmm. Well, I don’t think they need to beat me to prove anything. I’m not of use to them as a springboard to get to anywhere; it’s more on me having to go and rile them up I think. 

–That’s how highly you view them?

KUSHIDA: Well, if you grabbed a fan off the street and asked them to name the top guys in NJPW, they might say Okada, Naito, Tanahashi for the heavyweights, and the juniors, they’d say Hiromu, Desperado. I’m not really interested in just wedging myself in there.

–You aren’t?

KUSHIDA: I’m interested in being KUSHIDA. Part of that is finding something that only I can do while I’m basing myself in LA. I need to find a balance for myself, and that’s something i didn’t have the luxury of looking for before. In 2017, 2018, it was all about doing all the duties, playing the role as champion, and that’s really tough.

–Mentally and physically.

KUSHIDA: I think if I had stayed in that mindset in NJPW it really would have completely burned me out. If I’d have stayed from 2019 to now, I wouldn’t have survived it. You know one thing that Hiromu said about me back then that I’m really grateful for in hindsight- ‘(wrestling) KUSHIDA doesn’t excite me’.

 –That was heading into Ryogoku in April 2017.

KUSHIDA: At the time, that really got to me. Like he was saying that just as I was doing everything I could over here. Thinking back on those words after my WWE experience though, I’m glad he said them.

–You were having trouble with that champion’s role back then?

KUSHIDA: Right. It wasn’t like I was a natural born champion. I was trying to grow into the role and learn on the job. But I think having itchy feet has helped me through my career. I’ve been away from NJPW for three years, and I’ve grown in that time, and before that thanks to a whole bunch of different teachers and mentors, and I’ve wrapped a lot of different psychology into my way of doing things, not just from NJPW. That’s why I want to be champion again- to validate my choices, and bring that title to a different level that it hasn’t seen before.

I’ve got some pretty wild ideas


 –So to wrap up here, I want to loop back to something you said earlier on, mentioning that you had wanted to wrestle Bryan Danielson and Kyle O’Reilly at Wrestlemania while you were in WWE.


–Both are currently in AEW, and it seems that window of possibility isn’t entirely shut.

KUSHIDA: I went drinking with (Shinsuke) Nakamura a while ago, before my release. He said all my rivals are in AEW now, heh. There was a period where it was kinda hard to see where things were going to land, especially with a language barrier in place, but it felt like all of a sudden a ton of those guys had jumped from WWE. But regardless of the situation, I was never going to suddenly put less effort in. I have to give 100% no matter what or where my friends and rivals are.

–And then you got released, too.

KUSHIDA: But like I said when I talked about my dreams continuing, there are so many more things I can do, and that are only possible to me now. I want the IWGP Junior belt again. I want to do more as the Timesplitters with Alex Shelley again. The NJPW STRONG Openweight title is really attractive. I think I would be the best possible singles match opponent for Tom Lawlor. And yeah, living in LA means I’m incredibly flexible, and I can basically take bookings all over the world. But the top priority will be for NJPW, in Japan. I want that to be clear.

–So while NJPW is the main stage for you, you could pop up in any number of places.

KUSHIDA: And, and this is a bit pie in the sky, but I have an idea in my head for a kind of ‘bonus track’ for my career. I don’t know whether it would be 3, 5, 10 years from now, but I want to produce an all junior card. One thing that still sticks in my mind was Super J-Cup in 2016. I won, as the IWGP Junior Champion, but I don’t think that I was able to live up to my position at that point.

–You were IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, and beat Yoshinobu Kanemaru, who was the GHC junior champion at the time, to win the tournament. 

KUSHIDA: Hm. But it was a case where the tournament was put together by the company without the thought given to the place the (Super J-Cup) has in the hearts of wrestlers and fans. I really want another chance at doing something like that and doing it right before I retire.

–So there’s still some regret lingering there?

KUSHIDA: (long pause) have you ever seen that Amazon Prime series, ‘Documental’?

–It’s a comedy show right? They put ten comedians in a room and they have to make one another break with their stories. 

KUSHIDA: They have this deal where the people receive an invitation card into the room to be on the show. I want to send those cards out and film these wrestlers from all sorts of places getting them. I’ll get Liger to help pick out guys… or Mrs. Liger (laughs).

–Liger’s wife was the uncredited eye recruiting for the 1994 Super J-Cup. 

KUSHIDA: I’m not saying I want ‘KUSHIDA Presents: Super J-Cup 2022’ or anything. It could be a different concept entirely. You know, I’ve held a lot of titles, and been in a lot of rings. Just this month I’m on STRONG and IMPACT. I’ve been meeting a lot of other wrestlers again over the last few weeks alone. It’s nice to reminisce, but having been in all of these places and having had all of these contacts, and then watching the old J-Cups really made me think that there’s still a few dreams and ambitions I want to achieve.

–So you have a sense of purpose.

KUSHIDA: And HHH’s phone number (laughs). I wouldn’t completely rule out being able to get a few good guys on loan from over there- don’t ask, don’t get. And you know, that’s the attitude I’ve always had. I’ve never been anything but honest and straightforward all the way through my career, from Mexico to the US, to Hokkaido down to Okinawa in Japan. 

I’m 39, and I’ve been doing this 17 years.  I’ve survived in a big man’s world as a small guy, and it’s all because I’ve had dreams in mind and worked to achieve them. That’s what I want to show everyone. What I want to show kids who aren’t destined to be more than 170cm and are getting set to give up on pro-sports as their careers- that there is still room and still things to achieve in this incredible business. There’s still a lot I want to achieve, yet.