Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–Let’s keep looking at the rest of your 2012. In September in Kobe you wrestled Naomichi Marufuji to defend the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for a fourth time. Marufuji had beaten you in the G1, and said before the match that he wanted to take the IWGP gold as a ‘ticket’ for a GHC Heavyweight title shot.
Tanahashi: He really knew how to draw the heat out of that situation. It’s one thing as a champion to lose to a guy form another promotion but you can’t get any more humiliating than to lose the championship to an invader. So the prospect of him then using that as a bargaining chip for a different title shot was really something.
–Explosivity is the word that comes to mind with Marufuji, and the educated feet as well.
Tanahashi: He was constantly changing things up, a lot of variation. I think that Marufuji really popularised the thrust kick in Japan, and it became a fashion. I’d like to do it, but I don’t have the hip mobility (laughs). YOH does it nicely enough.
–After you beat Marufuji with a High Fly Flow, you remarked it was a very different kind of match for you, and not dissimilar to wrestling Keiji Muto.
Tanahashi: Well, what I meant by that was, when you’re in the ring with a genius, you have to win out with emotion. I was inferior to Marufuji in every measurable way, but part of the excitement in pro-wrestling is being in that position and still finding a way to win. This was proof of that, I think.
–Were there any similarities between Marufuji and Muto stylistically?
Tanahashi: When you’re on a certain level, you can relax and have fun in the ring. For an ordinary guy like me, the work is a lot harder (laughs). But even though I’m an ordinary guy I’m also the Ace, so I can’t back down. That’s a familiar spot to me, to be in that odds beating position, and I feel it’s where I’m at my best.
–You were confronted post match by Minoru Suzuki, who stated ‘playtime’s over,’ before deriding the current landscape with you at the top as a ‘circus’ before challenging for King of Pro-Wrestling in October.
Tanahashi: You saw how opinionated Suzuki is, certainly. Bringing up that idea of the older wrestlers criticising the current product became a theme of that match, and I had to stand up for the current generation.
–There were a few cases at the time of former wrestlers criticising NJPW; you responded that you didn’t have time for people who weren’t watching consistently, and were ‘parachuting in’ to find something to complain about.
Tanahashi: Right. So when Suzuki was bringing that up, it was his attempt to change the direction of that match and make me wrestle his pace rather than my own. I think you can see his words reflected in the match itself.
–It was a very different match indeed, marked out by having no pinfall attempts except for the High Fly Flow that ended the match.
Tanahashi: I remember the strikes, and the Figure Four in that one. I had all those ‘circus’ complainers in mind and wanted to stick it to them with that match.
–There was one notable comment from a veteran around this time that wrestlers were more interested in playing (superhero) Kamen Rider than being tough.
Tanahashi: That’s the one that got to me most, as a wrestler and as a Kamen Rider fan (laughs).
–Disrespectful on two levels.
Tanahashi: I mean, I’ve watched every minute of every Kamen Rider show, and I don’t think that guy had an idea of what Kamen Rider was about either when he said that to be honest. The point is a comment like that doesn’t help the business, doesn’t help the boys, the staff, the fans, nothing. Nobody profits from talking like that. I get maybe there’s an idea of an old guard wanting to hold on to their generation of wrestling, but I’ll do all I can not to be like that ever.
–You feel they set a bad example.
Tanahashi: I’m not going to be wrestling forever. But even after I hang the boots up, I want to be in the corner of the younger wrestlers, figuratively. I want all the wrestlers to know I have their backs. All of us got to be where we are because of NJPW, so to then turn around and slam something you saw for two seconds and don’t like, you’re denying your roots and making yourself look bad in the long run.
–This match was certainly a very back to basics style though, and without as much of the flash, you were able to have one of the best matches of that year.
Tanahashi: Look at it this way, there might have been a grain of true concern in some of those comments. It might well have come from a genuine place. That match was about me facing up to that criticism and saying ‘look, there’s nothing to worry about’. I think that match helped broaden the Tanahashi style so to speak, and having Suzuki as my opponent definitely helped matters in that regard.
–Backstage afterward you cited the Japanese folk story of the Crying Red Demon, the story of a demon who wanted to be friends with humans who found him terrifying. A blue demon offered to cause trouble in the village so that the red one could ‘save’ the villagers and look like a hero. You likened the blue demon in the story to Minoru Suzuki.
Tanahashi: I loved that story as a kid. I think one of the prevailing themes in pro-wrestling is one of self sacrifice. I think there’s an element of Minoru Suzuki that always bought into that idea of being the blue demon of the fairy tale for this long career. It’s another layer of what makes wrestling great, I think.
–Jon Moxley referred to this match as a ‘masterpiece’ in later years.
Tanahashi: I heard, and I’m honoured it resonated around the world. I think these matches with Suzuki had a different feel to anything else in my career. It was this clash of values and philosophies. If you win having expressed what you want to express, and developed your own thought processes in that ring, that’s always an exhilarating feeling. Winning that match felt like more than just getting a three count.