Yuji Nagata speaks title success
Back on February 19, Yuji Nagata made history by becoming the oldest winner of All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Triple Crown Championship at 54. The title win also put Nagata in a unique class- the only one to complete a Big Three grand slam of AJPW, NJPW and NOAH’s singles and tag team heavyweight championships, and the flagship singles tournaments (Champion Carnival, G1 Climax, Global League) in all three companies. We caught up with Nagata to discuss his achievement and what’s next.
I have to take responsibility to boost AJPW
–First of all, congratulations on your win!
Nagata: Thank you very much.
–I know when reporters asked you immediately after your win, it hadn’t quite sunk in for you. How do you feel now that a few weeks have passed?
Nagata: Well, having won the title, I’ve started to have AJPW’s ticket sales in mind, so I think that sense of duty a champion needs has kicked in. I do feel I need to be responsible to boost AJPW, and it didn’t take long for somebody to step up to try and take the title back as well.
–Shuji Ishikawa was quite fast to challenge you.
Nagata: It is all starting to sink in, and in the meantime, the response, really from all over has been fantastic. I was the official ambassador for the half marathon in my home town of Togane recently, and a lot of the runners were congratulating me on the Grand Slam. So it really feels like it’s something that’s reverberated pretty far, and I’m grateful for it.
–That’s a good point- you’ve joined the Grand Slam club.
Nagata: I’ve won all three major heavyweight titles, and I won the G1, the Champion Carnival and the World League (now N1 Victory). That’s a pretty big deal, and it feels great to have something big like this happen 31 years into my career.
Doing this as an NJPW wrestler means a lot
–And you’re the first ever to complete the Grand Slam for singles and tag championships and the singles leagues. Is that special to you, to be a history maker?
Nagata: Hmm, but there have been grand slam winners in the past, correct?
–Kensuke Sasaki won the singles grand slam, and then for singles and tags, there’s Yoshihiro Takayama, Keiji Muto and Satoshi Kojima.
Nagata: What means a lot to me is doing this as a NJPW wrestler through and through. Those other guys have changed promotions, or worked freelance. That in itself is a great achievement, but I’ve always been an NJPW wrestler, and as a New Japan guy, I’ve had those other promotions think me important, or needed for their business, that I’ve been loaned to compete there. There’ve been a lot of ups and downs these last 31 years, but to do all this as a New Japan wrestler to me is really big.
–As a contracted wrestler, being brought into these companies is a hurdle unto itself, and then to win all those championships and tournaments..
Nagata: Well, I think it’s about always being ready, being able to compete for those titles, in those settings, drive business in those companies. To do all that representing NJPW is something I’m proud of.
It was a new way of promoting for me
–So how do you feel looking back on the match?
Nagata: Well, (Kento) Miyahara has been the ace of that company for the last five, six years, and he’s carried the promotion on his back. He’s an excellent wrestler, and to have had a good match and get a win against him is something that gives me a lot of confidence.
–There was quite a bit of baiting and back and forth between the two of you on social media.
Nagata: That was really because we didn’t have any preview matches leading up. Last year, there were a lot of tag matches to build up, but this time it was a real first for me, to have a title match with no preview matches to build at all, and only able to build and promote through social media. We both had this duty to promote the match, but all we would have were backstage comments, promos or Twitter posts, and that was the first time I’ve been in that situation. But you know, even with that, we were able to have a really hot crowd and a big reaction to that match in the end, so it was a bit of a culture shock, but in a good way.
–Quite a modern way of thinking for you.
Nagata: Yeah. I got a lot of criticism, but I got a lot of support through it as well. Social media is a bit of an echo tunnel, but it was good for building that enthusiasm for both our sets of fans, I think.
Nagata: Thing was, I was enjoying riling up the anti Nagata fans, but it turned out that there were so many NJPW fans in the building on the day (laughs). But it was really great to try this different way of promoting.
–You’re right; it didn’t quite have that hostile territory feel you might expect for you.
Nagata: I was kind of looking forward to being in that situation; I haven’t been booed in a long time, so it was almost disappointing (laughs). 12 years ago I challenged for the Triple Crown during the Muto AJPW era, and there really was this sense that I was the enemy coming in. That encouraged me to lean right into it, but this time it was a little different. I think as well, it was during a period where NJPW hadn’t had many shows in the Tokyo area, so those NJPW fans were freed up to come and show their support, and that was great to feel.
I had to walk with a cane
–We saw that high head kick, the backdrop hold, the whites of the eyes; it was a real Yuji Nagata match.
Nagata: It was a pretty hard road to get to that point though. Last year’s Real World Tag League, I hurt my left knee, and going into this I’d hurt my right. It was really tough for me to walk for a while, but I did all I could between Western and Eastern medicine to make it in time.
–It’s rare for you to have injury issues.
Nagata: It really is, but it just hit me all at once. When I’m on the road for NJPW, we have our trainer that can help me work through any stiffness or pains, but AJPW doesn’t have that luxury. And I think I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself and letting things slide as well. I really took that to heart- things were definitely rough for a time. I had to use a cane to walk for a while.
–That is definitely rough.
Nagata: I had about 75 ml of fluid built up on my knees. So I was doing all I could in the holidays to try and heal up. I didn’t drink alcohol, and tried to walk as little as possible before I could get ready for this match.
–That speaks all the more to your achievement here.
Nagata: Well, it was a relief for sure. I just didn’t want to have a bad match, and we had all those fans on both mine and Miyahara’s side coming out. So to have that great reaction from the crowd, and then to take the title, that was definitely a huge relief.
They thought I was past my peak, and I took their title. They should be mad
–How significant is it to you to take the title at your age?
Nagata: Like I said with my injury, having actually made the challenge, there was definitely those doubts over whether I can take that title support AJPW as champion. That was definitely how I felt heading into this, but then actually having had that match, it made me feel like I have a lot I can still offer.
–So you welcomed that challenge from Shuji Ishikawa after the match?
Nagata: Well I would expect them to be lining up to challenge after I won (laughs). You know, when I first went to AJPW last year, there were definitely some people that thought I was past it, and it was that Yuji Nagata that challenged for the title. It was that ‘past it’ Nagata that took their title, you know? So they should be mad, they should be lining up for a shot. When I was younger I’ve been in situations like this, and I’ve always felt I had to take the situation head on. So I expect that not just out of Ishikawa, but everyone there. I know Ishikawa’s a great wrestler, and we should have a heck of a match.
–There are a lot of big heavyweights in AJPW, and Ishikawa is perhaps the biggest.
Nagata: I think especially for Japanese guys. He’s what, 194cm, 130 kg? But he can move very well for his size. And he’s a southpaw as well. His elbows come from the left, which makes it harder to anticipate his strikes than you’d think. But I’ve wrestled a lot of big guys over the last 31 years. The experience I’ve had against Scott Norton, or Giant Bernard should come in useful here.
–Do you see potential in AJPW?
Nagata: I do. You’ve got a lot to offer there in terms of these big fighters. Shotaro Ashino is smaller, but he’s gotten himself up to 102, 103 kg and he’s able to throw these big guys around. With us in NJPW, there are a lot of heavyweights that came up as juniors originally, but I think there they have a different kind of heavyweight, and I think that can be their niche.
–They have a unique style, then.
Nagata: There’s that Giant Baba lineage, obviously. So I think there is a company culture of big guys over there. The style might have changed, but I think the heavyweight power is something that is still part of that house style.
That ‘unchanging’ line was ten years too early
–When you won Champion Carnival 12 years ago, you made a theme of being the ‘unchanging’ Yuji Nagata. Now you have even more on your career, and you’ve achieved this.
Nagata: I think that ‘unchanging’ line was 10 years too early (laughs). Back then, I had just headed into my 40s, and I’d heard that talk of me winning that tournament ‘even though’ I was in my 40s. I wanted to say that I still had a lot to offer, and that’s where that ‘unchanging’ thing came from. Now here we are, with ten years of being unchaging on top of everything else, and you see the results.
–So on March 21, you’re that ‘unchanging’ Nagata defending that title in Ota. What kind of Yuji Nagata do you want to show that night?
Nagata: I think that All Japan has kept to All Japan. With COVID having been a big part of it, the issue I think they have is that however hard they might be going, it’s all a storm in a teacup, right? So for me, a Yuji Nagata who has won all these titles in different places, has won these singles leagues, to come in and affect that cup, what happens, how big can this thing get? That’s what’s exciting, I think.
If you only watch NJPW wrestlers, then I think you’d still understand, when our guys are wrestling our guys, the matches are great, but when wresrlers come in from overseas, that’s really exciting too, right? Or when Kazuchika Okada wrestled Kaito Kiyomiya recently, that got a lot of attention. All Japan has been missing something like that, and if I want to bring a little bit of that and create more of this storm in a teacup. And of course, I’ll retain this title, and I’ll get that TV Asahi announcer Nogami in the ring, along with my son, and I’ll lift them both on my shoulders. Ze-a!