IWGP World Heavyweight number one contender speaks
After a victory over IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Switchblade Jay White during the G1 Climax, Tama Tonga is well on the way to a showdown at Declaration of Power on October 10 in Ryogoku. Before the big autumn event, we talked to Tama about big shifts, big opportunities, and making NJPW history.
I went back to basics, the beginning of when I first came to New Japan
–So Tama, this is the first interview we’ve had since you joined Hontai in spring.
–What’s the experience been like for you these past few months? It feels as if the fans have been wanting to get behind you all this time, and now you’re out of BULLET CLUB they’ve made you this red hot babyface.
Tama: Yeah, I can definitely feel that. It grew over the past few months, and talking about it now, it gives me chills. Especially during the G1 I really felt that from the crowd.
–Did it feel strange somewhat after you courted controversy all that time?
Tama: To be honest, this whole thing, it’s like I left an identity behind and I’ve been trying to find a new one. It’s been a soul searching process, but in the end, I just went back to basics. I went back to the beginning of when I first came to New Japan, and dove into that feeling of what it was like being on the babyface team at the very start.
–You were on the Hontai side from your 2010 debut, before BULLET CLUB.
Tama: And through this G1, I was able to really tap into that young, hungry guy that was at ringside for Tanahashi’s matches and Shinsuke Nakamura’s matches. They motivated me back then, and I felt I was able to tap into that.
–So you were able to tap into your past as you built for the future.
Tama: Right, it’s all about asking what I wanted from this side of the fence. So these six months have been about finding myself again and refining that.
–It’s been close to a decade at this point, and that means a big turnover in fans during that time, but it still felt like the audience knew you had come up through the Dojo system, that you are one of our own so to speak, and they supported you for that.
Tama: Right. You know, that makes me think, in a weird way, it’s almost like I’ve been on a decade long excursion (laughs). I mean, I did a couple of stints out in Mexico back in the day, but I was never really gone and out of the public eye like the Young Lions usually are. So I feel this whole heel run, this whole BULLET CLUB thing we started, I was there from the beginning to now. Now I got kicked out, it was almost like that was my graduation. It was a whole learning experience.
–So now you’re at the start line you feel.
Tama: If we’re going real deep into wrestling, yeah, it feels like it.
It was the place my father made his debut in sumo. Ryogoku is a very special place
–To go back to that point about fan support, we’re heading into this match for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship with Jay White on October 10. We’ve been in Ryogoku Sumo Hall for, what, 37 years since it was built.
–To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time ever that NJPW have had two non-Japanese wrestlers in the main event in that building.
Tama: Wow. Really? I never would have imagined.
— Brock Lesnar wrestled the American born Japanese Akebono, but neither of you are Japanese nationals. So there is this idea, that, and it applies to Jay as well to an extent, that you are both, not made in Japan to borrow the term, but made in New Japan and that’s a theme for this match.
Tama: So Ryogoku was the place that my brother and I won our first tag team championship.
–In April 2016.
Tama: And it was the place that my father made his debut when he was in sumo when he first came into Japan. So that place is a very special place, and hearing that adds to it. This is big, for me personally. It’s really something.
If I had my way, Hontai would have the best team in New Japan
–To talk about being in Hontai a little longer, one of the big changes for you has been the chance to work closely with the Young Lions coming up. What’s that experience been like, and how do you view those three talents Nakashima, Oiwa and Fujita?
Tama: Well, I’ve always had a thing for young talent. Even when I was in BULLET CLUB, I tried to help the younger members and try to get the best out of them. So in Hontai it’s still the same. I love it. I love to teach, love to show, love to help really, it’s my nature.
I was actually in the Dojo training when those three first came in. Nakashima was already in there before then. But I watched Oiwa and Fujita came in. Watching how they’ve evolved over just a year has been amazing. They pick things up so quick. And it’s wild, they just had those first events with crowds cheering…
–September 5 and 6 in Korakuen.
Tama: That had to have been their first time hearing that, right?
Tama: I’m happy they get to see that, because their whole time from the start they haven’t experienced that big part of the business. So I’m happy to see their progress and their growth.
–How do you assess that growth so far?
Tama: I can tell who’s working hard and who’s dialing it in, not just in ring but out of it, what they put their body through. You can tell who the hard workers are, with diet, eating, all that stuff. There’s a real science to all this, a discipline. You can tell who’s hungry. I saw that in SHO and YOH when they first came in, I could tell from outside they were hungry.
–So you see that in this group now.
Tama: I do, and I’m looking forward to being hands on with them. Like Tanahashi was really hands on with me when I first came in, so did (Manabu) Nakanishi, (Yuji) Nagata. They had a big big influence on me in my first few years in New Japan, and I always appreciated that. Not just helping in the ring, but taking us out to eat, showing me how things were supposed to be. So I want to be a good senpai now. I love the system, it’s a teamwork thing, and I love that if it’s done right.
–A lot of young wrestlers recently tend to want to make a big change when they come back from excursion, and often that might mean joining a different faction. You were seen as a recruiter for BULLET CLUB, welcoming in Taiji Ishimori and KENTA- do you think you can fill that role for Hontai as well, making it a more attractive prospect for the young guys after they graduate?
Tama: Absolutely. I feel that Hontai kind of needs that right now. If I had my way, we would have the best team in New Japan. The best look, the best body guys, everything. I think we can be, and we should be better than any faction there is.
You just never give up, keep swinging, and one of those Gunstuns is gonna hit
–Reflecting on the G1 somewhat, last year your campaign was really defined by the win over Kazuchika Okada. It was a case of showing you could beat anyone on any given night, but this year it felt you needed to show you can beat everyone on every given night. Can you talk about how things progressed year on year?
Tama: A lot of it was confidence. Last year I had been away from the G1 for a few years, and I’d been a tag team guy for all those years. In a tournament like this, a lot more is asked of you mentally and physically. So this year it was about being consistent and showing I can stay on that level and representing every night.
–It felt like last year there was a lot of experimentation from you in terms of new moves that you were using. The theme of a lot of your matches this year was really about pushing for the Gun Stun until you could finally get it. Was there a conscious effort to dial back and focus on that one move through your matches?
Tama: Yeah. I knew that people would be looking for that. In my tag matches I could hit it out of any counter, or I would try to. So I knew my opponents would be looking for it, but I wasn’t afraid to keep shooting for it, and keep trying until I get it. You just never give up, keep swinging and one of them was gonna hit.
–The semifinal against Kazuchika Okada was like a rubber match, after you traded wins in 2021. So many times this year we’ve talked about Okada’s opponents wrestling a perfect match but not being able to beat Okada. How do you think he’s progressed over the last year?
Tama: He’s just more refined. He’s 100% aware of the ring, himself and his opponent. He just knows everything. Last year, he knew me but we were still trying to figure each other out in the ring, and maybe that’s why I beat him. This year, he was just refined in everything he did and much more controlled.
I’ve prepared myself to take any kind of abuse, to survive and adapt
–Speaking of refinement, let’s turn to Declaration of Power and Jay White then. The personal issues with BULLET CLUB aside, how do you feel about him as a pro wrestler over the last 12 months, between what he’s done in Japan and the US?
Tama: I see it better now from outside BULLET CLUB looking in than before- he is a much better wrestler than I had thought. There’s a different perspective you get when you wrestle against someone rather than with them, and I can see now just what he’s capable of which is a hell of a lot.
–You both have that counterpunch style, where you can use your respective finishers from any position. Your G1 match was very much about that, and though you came away with the win, it was definitely balanced on a knife edge. How do you plan on approaching Ryogoku, tactically?
Tama: Should I say that and have him see it? (laughs)
I guess to answer your question, before I came into wrestling I was in the military. The one thing that taught me was the ability to adapt to any situation and overcome. That’s the gameplan; prepare myself physically to take any kind of abuse, and to keep coming, adapt. That adaptability is key.
–Jay White is a master manipulator and will always push those buttons with his opponents to draw them into a mistake. You have some big personal buttons to be pushed, potentially. Is that BULLET CLUB history an issue?
Tama: I think the 2017, 2018, 2019, maybe even 2020 Tama Tonga is a long way behind the Tama Tonga that I am now. There’s been a lot of maturing on my part to see things clearer, keep my emotions in check. That’s growth I’ve done. If I didn’t grow I don’t deserve to be in the upper echelon, but I have grown and I do belong.
Jado helps me see the whole playfield
–Jado’s been a big supporting factor for yourself and your brother as a tag team and now as a singles wrestler. Gedo is obviously a factor in Jay White’s matches, but Jado knows him better than anybody. Are you turning to Jado for help and advice in this match more than usual?
Tama: I don’t want Gedo to be a part of this match, but I have to be ready for anything. Jado has been a great mentor. He helps me see the whole playfield, helps me prepare for any situation. So if Gedo wants to be a part of this match physically or not, we’ll handle it.
–If you come out on top of this title match, you would be the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion with three months left until Wrestle Kingdom. How would you see yourself as champion heading into the end of the year and into the Tokyo Dome potentially on January 4?
Tama: This is our 50th year, right?
Tama: So we’re going into the next half century. I want to be that guy that marches through the gates toward that big century mark. Okada was the guy to end the first half, but here I am. I came up the traditional way but as a foreigner. I came from the bottom up, seven time IWGP Tag Team Champion as a foreigner as well. That means something. To carry that title, beat Jay White, beat Okada and start the next half century.. Just thinking about that. Representing Hontai, where it all began but with the path I’ve had. I get chills just thinking about it. That’s the story. I’ve gone through a gauntlet and made it through the other side.