Ace’s HIGH #99: “Here to pick a fight”

Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!

<–Ace’s HIGH #98: Hase Hassle

Ace’s HIGH #100 Coming October 5!->

–Let’s continue our look at 2012. Last time we talked about you making your second defence of the IWGP heavyweight Championship against Masato tanaka, which meant you were heading into the G1 as champion.

Tanahashi: Okada won his debut tournament that year. So even though I had taken the title from him in June, he had bounced back, he was the focal point.

–You were alive into the last night of the tournament, with wins over Shelton X Benjamin, Satoshi Kojima, Toru Yano, Yujiro Takahashi and Yuji Nagata, and losses against Naomichi Marufuji and Minoru Suzuki. Finally, you lost to Karl Anderson on that finals night, which meant that he advanced past you to face Okada in the final.

Tanahashi: The Suzuki match is one I remember well. I ended up wrestling him three times that year between the G1, January 4 and then October in Ryogoku. I think those matches really improved me. It’s a bit weird to say, but I see a lot of similarities between me and him. 

–In what way?

Tanahashi: In the sense that, I think Okada is the very best in terms of having an athletic, hard fought wrestling match, but there’s something extra about putting a match together. I think on that psychological basis, Suzuki and I are pretty similar on a base level. The fans see it taken in completely different directions, but the roots there are the same. 

–Another match fans had circled was the one between you and Maomichi Marufuji. Marufuji was originally scheduled for the 2010 G1, but injuries delayed his entry to this year.

Tanahashi: This was the first time we had wrestled since 2003 over the U-30 title. Holding your company’s top title, you can’t really afford to lose against someone from a different promotion, but that’s what happened, heh. 

–It was a fantastic match.

Tanahashi: We’re about the same age, so I always had him in the back of my mind. They always called him a genius- I was the ‘genius of the sun’ for a brief time, but when I saw Marufuji’s matches it was clear he deserved the ‘genius’ label more than me. It was really a poise thing with him. Whether on offense or if he’s bumping around, there’s no wasted motion. He had a clear idea of the kind of wrestling that he wanted to do, and was able to enjoy himself doing it. And even though he was a smaller guy, he crafted his offense around that so you didn’t notice a big difference in size with him and his opponents. 

–He certainly has one of the hardest chops regardless of weight class.

Tanahashi: Oh no doubt. Nearly everyone throws chops, but only one guy throws Marufuji Chops, heh.

–This G1 saw your first singles match with Shelton Benjamin, who is a WWE veteran. How was that experience?

Tanahashi: I’d known of Benjamin since his Team Angle days in WWE, but it really struck me wrestling him how he was actually the biggest guy of that group. So put together, especially those shoulders of his. And just an incredible pure athlete. 

–There can’t be many Japanese wrestlers who had singles matches with Kurt Angle, Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin.

Tanahashi: That’s a good point. Man, I’m special- at least to a very specific demographic of wresting fans (laughs). Benjamin is the very model of somethign I’ve spojken about before- I feel so jealous of guys that have such unbelievable athletic DNA, just blessed to have incredible athletic ability, like Okada as well. But then again, it’s probably my shortcomings that made me a success. I could never fly around, but I had to focus my efforts on developing from a psychological perpective instead. 

–The big deal about the G1 final, apart from the match itself was the return of Kazushi Sakuraba and Katsuyori Shibata, Shibata giving his famous line of ‘I came to pick a fight’.

Tanahashi: Ahh, yes indeed.

–There was a lot of emotions behind his return, and obviously the connections he had with you and Shinsuke Nakamura. But you were fairly restrained when he first came in.

Tanahashi: I was? I thought I got really hot didn’t I?

–The heat came about a year later when you faced off in the G1. After the match Shibata gave comments saying ‘pro-wrestling’s gotten interesting again’, and you had quite the angry response, ‘how dare you’ kind of thing.

Tanahashi: Ahh. I kept it all under wraps and then the gloves came off one year later. Shibata leaving in the early 2000s really put the company in a bad spot. It took a while for me to understand what he went through himself, that challenging himself and trying MMA was something that important and difficult for him. Definitely when he first came back I really had no time for him. 

–It was a very complicated thing to process.

Tanahashi: Well, I don’t know whether I thought about it with much complexity. To me it felt like here was a guy who hadn’t succeeded like he had wanted to in MMA, and the wrestling business was getting hot again so he hopped on the band wagon. That’s where the negativity lay with me. But in the end it got our relationship to where it is now, so all’s well that ends well.

–We’ll talk about the match you had in 2014 where you buried the hatchet afterward, in due course. But for those first two years, it was really quite chilly between the two of you?

Tanahashi: Yeah. You know, I think really it got chilly right when he left in 2005.

–After he left in 2005, Shibata came back for January 4 2006 to represent Big Mouth Loud, and you lost in a very aggressive match. The two of you were set for a rematch in BML the next month at Ryogoku, but that match got called off, so it really was this resurfacing of all that bad blood over seven years later.

 Tanahashi: Well, we have a lot of history, he and I. It’s like I said about Hase, I think opinions and personalities are two different things, and you can’t write off a person just because of their takes about something. The fact is we spent a lot of time together coming up, we both went out of the Dojo together, on those little shopping runs, savouring being able to taste the open air. I didn’t hate him, I didn’t hate him at all. but we had very different worldviews when it came to pro-wrestling, and neither one of us was willing to budge. 

–Almost by direct contrast to Shibata in that opening address was Kazushi Sakuraba. He said ‘I’m not a big fan of picking fights, but this place excites me and I want to compete’.

Tanahashi: Definitely a different first impression. I ended up being opposite him a few times in tags after that, and I definitely felt like he enjoyed pro-wrestling. I didn’t really have any ill will for Sakuraba; I didn’t have the history with him that I did with Shibata.