IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champ speaks ahead of title bout Tuesday
March 21, the New Japan Cup will culminate with finals action in Nagaoka. Before Ao-re Nagaoka sees the NJC 2023 winner crowned however, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship gold will be on the line, as Hiromu Takahashi defends against Lio Rush, the first IWGP Junior Heavyweight title match in the building since 2016. Before the cup tour got underway, we sat down with Hiromu to discuss Rush and his championship reign.
I like this YOH better
–Before we talk about Lio Rush coming up, can we look back a bit about your February 5 defence against his partner YOH?
Hiromu: He’s really changed. From the 2021 and 2022 BOSJs, and the time we wrestled in Fukuoka last May, he’s completely different.
–In what way?
Hiromu: I really felt that he used to be thinking about what to do next the whole time, and now he’s found that answer. He used to have that cool exterior but it was really an act. Now he’s much more straightforward and I really felt that in ring.
Hiromu: Like I never knew he had such a big voice in ring (laughs). I’m always really vocal, but he seemed like he might beat me in volume. It was unlike him, but I definitely prefer this YOH.
–It was the most motivated both of you were out of all the times you’ve wrestled so far.
Hiromu: I’d say so. I had the title on the line, but I still felt we could have kept wrestling all night. It was fun, like almost a shame when I beat him.
Hiromu: I mean, obviously I wanted to win and win quick, but I wanted the match to go on at the same time. I’m always the type to take nine shots to give out ten, and I think we were able to have that kind of match in Sapporo.
80,90% of a match is in fan reaction
–How did it feel to close out those two events in Sapporo?
Hiromu: It was the main event on the second night. There have been a lot of heavyweight matches over the years, last year it was the IWGP World Heavyweight title, but this year day one was Naito san and day two was me.
–Back to back LIJ.
Hiromu: Well, Naito was a special singles match with Shota Umino, it wasn’t for a title, but I was happy to get the second night spot all the same. With Shingo Takagi getting the main event in Osaka the next week as well, we were happy for one another, but that competitiveness came out as well.
–LIJ really is a competitive faction.
Hiromu: Closing out the weekend was a little win for me, and it was great to get the crowd to make that noise as well. It was like I’d fogotten Sapporo could be that loud.
Hiromu: I feel like every town we’re going to, it’s blown me away how loud the people have been. I think there’s definitely been a lot of pent up energy with this COVID mess.
–You might be right.
Hiromu: That main event, the energy really was something. There were a lot of fans cheering for YOH, but I was getting energy from that as well.
–That’s a real fundamental part of wrestling.
Hiromu: And on the mic after, I could shout ‘more!’ and get ‘more!’ back from them. With COVID I was screaming out and getting nothing in return. I can’t say anything good has come from the pandemic, but feeling that release fans are having now is definitely something positive.
Lio is how junior heavyweights should be
–A week after your defence against YOH, Lio Rush issued his challenge via video in Osaka.
Hiromu: Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t lose that night for a start. If I had got beaten by Taguchi, he might have challenged too.
Hiromu: February 9, we were in Saku, and he was jawing with me in the ring, but in a small voice, so only I would hear, you know? And he was saying ‘I’m going to challenge next, keep the belt warm for me.’ So I said in my post match comments that I accepted this non official, barely audible challenge.
–Ah, that’s right.
Hiromu: So that gets online and then people just assumed, OK it’s me and Taguchi next.
–And it almost was.
Hiromu: I don’t think either of us were expecting that video! But either way, it’s a good thing I won.
–What went through your mind when the video played?
Hiromu: I haven’t been able to do anything with Lio before; we never crossed paths when he was here for Super Jr. Tag League. So it was really exciting. I’ve always said on social media ‘hey, anytime!’ but I didn’t expect him to pop up so straight up like that.
–What do you think of him as a wrestler?
Hiromu: I really think he’s how a junior heavyweight should be. That smaller guy with so much speed, so much ability to fly. Like, he’s the model junior heavyweight.
Hiromu: I don’t really wrestle a junior heavyweight style per se. I have a lot of speed, but I use quite a few power moves, and I don’t really fly that often. In that sense, Lio is a real junior’s junior.
–And you want to face that head on on March 21?
Hiromu: Oh for sure. It’s hard work to face a high flyer, and you’re constantly surprised with what they can do, and the angles they come at you with. But I like that. I like facing guys that can do what I can’t, and seeing how I can overcome that head on.
I want people to leave as Lio Rush fans
–Lio has quite the international name for himself; is the global feel of this match something that’s on your mind?
Hiromu: I guess now you mention it, but it’s more the personal competition that’s exciting to me. I think maybe overseas fans might have Lio’s resume, or his time in WWE in mind, but I don’t think that’s as much of a factor in Japan.
–A lot of Japan is seeing Lio for the first time.
Hiromu: And a lot of Japan doesn’t know quite how good he is, so I really want to bring everything out of him in this match. I definitely want there to be new Lio Rush fans after this match.
–This has been your first series together in Japan, but there is some history here, right?
Hiromu: Ah, it had to be, what, seven eight years ago? When I was on excursion in ROH we crossed paths but I don’t remember having that much contact. There were tags, or 6 ways, things like that, but no singles matches.
–So this is your first singles meeting.
Hiromu: It’s fresh, and at the same time, it takes me back a bit that he was coming up just as I was working on my excursion.
–So do you think one theme of this match is you winning a Lio Rush showcase of sorts?
Hiromu: That’s what I have in mind, but I don’t know whether or not I can do that. Like, I don’t know if I have the luxury of letting Lio Rush show what he can do. He might be thinking of just trying to crush me as soon as the bell rings, and I have to be able to deal with that in the right way too. You never quite know until the match gets started.
–Every opponent and situation is different after all.
Hiromu: It might be the shortest title match since that KUSHIDA one.
–April 9 2017, you beat KUSHIDA in 1:56 in Ryogoku.
Hiromu: That was the case of him exploding out the gate and me going ‘ok, well in that case..’. For my tastes though, I like being able to take nine good shots before I give ten.
I want to have a title match with no TV, no World, just for the people there
–What are your thoughts on the title match being on the same day as the New Japan Cup finals?
Hiromu: I definitely have that final in mind, but my mind’s on defending the title. Every time I’ve won the belt I’ve talked about putting up the defence record, and then lose it on my first or second defence somehow. My record is like four or five. Right now I’m in a rush to get these defences down, so that’s why I wanted the match as soon as possible- it just took me aback when it was made this soon, heh.
–Quicker than you thought.
Hiromu: But I do really like Ao-re Nagaoka. It’s right by the station there, very easy to get to, and a really nice building for wrestling. As far as I recall, we haven’t had a junior heavyweight title match there before, so I’m really happy to have it there.
–It’s great for the fans.
Hiromu: I’d really like to defend the belt in all sorts of different venues. I’d love to go to all sorts of places with this belt- even have a title match in a tiny town with no TV, no NJPW World, just for the live audience.
–That would be something!
iromu: I think we’d pack out wherever that would be. What I want people to really feel is how exciting it is to be in the venue and see wrestling in person. It’s great to have NJPW World and be able to watch wrestling wherever you are, but there’s something you can’t feel just through watching video. The sights and sounds, the atmosphere of being live is something else. But then again, if the company agreed and said let’s do a title match here, World will ask to broadcast it, right?
Hiromu: So I’ll tell them, no (laughs). I think it’d be really fun to have a special, big match that’s just for the people that show up.
–Maybe you could have a title defence in each of the 47 prefectures of Japan.
Hiromu: I don’t know if my body would hold up to that! But I’d definitely like to defend it in places that have never seen a defence before.
I definitely want to defend in Hachioji
–Right now you’re defending at a pace of one match a month. How do you feel about that rate?
Hiromu: A defence every month is pretty tough. I think if it increased to twice a month or so, there’d be too much stress. How to wrestle, how to win, how to get the match over with people and make it matter.
–A good point.
Hiromu: But then the question is how soon can I get to that defence record on one match a month? I think having that momentum, keeping winning is pretty key; bringing that pace up a bit might be important.
— Momentum breeds motivation.
Hiromu: And it goes back to wanting to defend in those small towns. I’d like to get on a boat and go round the tiny islands off the coast and defend there. Internationally, yeah absolutely that’s a route, but I also want to bring the title and title matches to places in Japan that never normally see that kind of thing at that kind of scale. That’s one way to bring that pace up.
Hiromu: I want everybody to just think ‘Oh man, I’ve got to go see this!’. And I want to defend in Hachioji, absolutely. I don’t know if we’re running there this year, but I definitely want to!
–Well, thanks for your time today! Final thoughts for Lio Rush?
Hiromu: Well, it’s business as usual for Hiromu Takahashi, another great match, another defence and onto the record… Actually I want to do 50 defences this year. Let’s say that. Including Hachioji and every prefecture. Let’s go! (laughs)