Kota Ibushi has been the center of attention since his return. In this second part, he talks about a transformative match with Naito, his terrifying second rope piledriver, and what it meant when he knelt and bowed toward the ring.
–Let’s talk about Tetsuya Naito. Before the G1 you mentioned that you hadn’t faced him very often. How was the match looking back?
Ibushi: Right. He’s a different person since I faced him before (in the 2015 New Japan Cup final). Just an incredible amount of confidence.
–He was very confident against you.
Ibushi: Yes. The Naito before.. I don’t know, even talking to him he seemed kinda weird toward me. Seemed unconfident.
–He was weird toward you?
Ibushi: Right. He’d chat normally, but then when I’d say what I thought, he’d act surprised ‘oh, really?’ Like he was constantly worried he’d said the wrong thing. I think that lack of confidence came through in the ring as well, but this time there was nothing like that.
–Naito was always very mindful of you. When he felt that he’d surpassed you, it became a big theme for him, a big talking point.
Ibushi: Ahhh, so in his mind he just thinks I’m beneath him (laughs)
–It seemed in this match there was a struggle to dictate the pace, was that an aspect that was different to your earlier match?
Ibushi: Yeah, absolutely. Before, Naito was almost submissive. He’d let you dictate the pace, so I’d always feel that ‘if he does x, I can do y and win’. Then I felt like I could have some fun and still win. I had more in the tank than him.
–And this time?
Ibushi: Completely opposite. I went into that match, into the G1 after that time off and I was worried about how it would go. I was worried about starting off on the right foot. It was me who lacked confidence.
–So your positions were switched.
–But the match was fantastic. Especially that second rope piledriver, everyone’s hearts skipped a beat.
Ibushi: Ah, that! There’s a lot to say about that, but to be honest.. I could have been tougher.
–Something as dangerous as that, and you could have been tougher??
Ibushi: Well, it was only off the second!
–Oh.. Actually when you did that move I thought that was the new move you had mentioned, but it’s still not right?
Ibushi: Not at all! But that move… I don’t think it’s quite for me. It’s kind of.. more what the fans want..
–Like you mentioned before, that move was more a case of doing what the fans wanted to see than what you wanted to do.
Ibushi: Right, but even then, I still could be tougher with it. That can be leveled up one or two times.
–If you could refine it, could level it up those one or two more times, would you go for it again in a match?
Ibushi: Right, but then it was also ‘is it actually OK to do this?’ I didn’t know. I don’t think that uncertain feeling gelled well with the match.
–You didn’t know what fit within the current New Japan style and what didn’t yet?
Ibushi: Right. I was pretty lost in that match.
–And is that perhaps what led to your loss?
Ibushi: I think so. That match I was thinking too much about the fans. I kept thinking ‘what about me do the people want to see?’. I was catering to them, even in the middle of the match, almost going, ‘how about this? How about this?’. The point is, do they want to see me do something extreme? Or athletic? Or something independent of that? I spent the match feeling around for what the fans wanted to see.
–I see. But you settled into the flow of things as the G1 went on?
Ibushi: Right. Somewhere in there I decided that to say ‘what I want to do is what everyone wants to see’. After that, it got a lot easier, and the matches were much more fun.
–After Naito left, as you were on your way back, you knelt on the entrance ramp and bowed at the ring.
Ibushi: Ah, yeah, I did.
–You did the same backstage, kneeling on the ground in front of the press. Can I ask what that was about?
Ibushi: Sure. That was for the fans that had been watching me in New Japan before I left. I don’t know exactly how long I was gone, two years, maybe more? It was to them, to say sorry in a way. Sorry you couldn’t see me for two years…
–Was it something you just did on the spur of the moment?
Ibushi: Hmm, yeah. And the crowd response was so good during the match and during my entrance. I wanted to thank the fans for still thinking of me, too. So it was ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’.
–You certainly got a huge response for your entrance.
–On the first of the three Korakuen nights, you were in the first match and got a massive response. It was almost emotional.
Ibushi: Yeah, I suddenly realized ‘oh hey, that’s right, this is my first time back in Tokyo!’. It was explosive, right?
–The reactions to you all through the G1 were pretty big..
Ibushi: Really big! It sounds a bit off me saying it myself, but everywhere we went there was a big reaction for my entrance… It felt that I’d managed to clear a huge mental block when it came to the G1, and it gave me a lot more energy.
–The fans gave you strength.
Ibushi: Yeah. It sounds corny but I felt like ‘oh hey, it’s actually true!’ The fans really gave me a lot of energy.
–Sounds like you’re being poetic..
Ibushi: No, no! For real, I really truly felt that way.
–Feeding off the fans, taking a beating but having those people rally behind you and give you strength to keep going, that’s a fundamental of pro wrestling.
Ibushi: Right, but that’s actually the first time I ever felt that way. I’ve never gone out to wrestle because of the reaction I’d get from the fans. Never went wanting them to think I was great, or strong. This was the first time.
–We’re in danger of spending the whole interview talking about Naito and Tanahashi, but are there any other league matches that left an impression on you?
Ibushi: They all did in their way, but even though I lost, the match I was most able to show what I’ve done the last two years was against Bad Luck Fale.
–You had said you were looking forward to it.
Ibushi: Yeah. Even though I only had a few matches while I was away, that Fale match was where I was able to show what I had done and learned in that time.
–In what way, mainly?
Ibushi: I think back to the balcony dive. I’ve dived off balconies before, of course, but this time was different. I had everyone in the building with me, everybody on board before I went.
–Ah, I see!
Ibushi: It’s not about jumping off something high, this time it was as if we all jumped together. That’s what was different.
–You captured everyone’s hearts.
Ibushi: Right. That’s what I feel I worked on over those two years, that’s what I had been doing. It felt so gratifying, like everybody was saying ‘we did it!’
In the final part of this exclusive interview, Kota Ibushi finally speaks out about Kenny Omega!