IWGP World Heavyweight Champion talks Dontaku
SANADA promised a different landscape for NJPW and professional wrestling at large when he headed into the spring, and has ended up delivering, bringing himself and Just5Guys both the New Japan Cup and the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. With his first defence against a former partner in Hiromu Takahashi on the horizon May 3 at Dontaku, we spoke to the new champ about the new horizons he’s embarking on.
I was surprised at how heavy the belt was
–So first of all, congratulations on your world title victory.
SANADA: Ah, it was nothing.
–So what do you think of the horizon right now, as you put it?
SANADA: Well right now I ‘ve just won the title and haven’t been on the road with it . So I think I can say I’m at the start line right now. It feels like one start line after another.
–Some wrestlers are very particular about when they actually wear the belt, but you put it right on.
SANADA: Before I knew it, everyone was putting it on me, so it was like ‘ok’! I just went with it.
–Did the belt feel heavy?
SANADA: Oh yeah. It was the first time I’d held it.
–So you’d never held it before you won it?
–Sometimes you hear about teammates wanting to try a belt on for size backstage.
SANADA: Ah, not my style. And a lot of times you see challengers take hold of the belt during the build, right? I never did that once. So when I finally got a hold of it, it surprised me how heavy it was.
–Tanahashi said on commentary that the belt really suits you.
SANADA: Oh he did?
–Did anyone else say anything similar?
SANADA: Quite a bit, actually. A few people said it goes well with my new ring gear.
I’m at the top of the business, so the responsibility is heavy, too
–How do you feel about the belt itself?
SANADA: When it first came out there were all sorts of comments. Anything new tends to bring out those negative opinions; I got criticised for leaving LIJ.
–So you like the belt design?
SANADA: Yeah. I think I’ll love it the more I have it, though.
–Did you take the belt home with you after you won it?
SANADA: I did.
–You didn’t take it to bed with you?
SANADA: I didn’t go that far (laughs). Do most wrestlers take the belts home, or do more leave it to the company?
–Some do leave it to the company to take of, but I think most take their first belts home with them. Did you get asked?
SANADA: No, I didn’t, I just assumed you take it with you.
–Any tears and beers as you looked at the belt at home?
SANADA: I was honestly so exhausted when I got home I went straight to sleep. I was like a zombie.
–There was all the damage done during the match obviously. It was your first time for a while to wrestle Okada on a big stage like that.
SANADA: Our first singles match in a couple of years I think? This year we’ve really seen an angry Okada, and that’s been a real plus for him.
SANADA: He hadn’t put that into his matches until recently, it was something I think he always had there, but he didn’t bring it out in full, if that makes sense. I think it was a new Okada, a stronger Okada. But I had that momentum, and that confidence, and I had so much riding on that match, that was where I was able to win out.
–We have seen more of an emotional wrestling style from him of late. How do you view Okada as a professional right now?
SANADA: He hasn’t just led this company, but the whole industry. That’s something you really feel getting in there with him. Having that many people support him on that big of a stage, that is a lot, a lot of weight behind him that I had to deal with.
–But now you’re in the same position that Okada had held.
SANADA: Like I said, I’m only at the start line now. I’ve been in NJPW for seven years, and I even took the tryout way back in 2005. It’s only now I’ve become IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. So I’m walking proof that if you don’t give up you can achieve your dreams.
–Was there ever a point where you considered giving up?
SANADA: No, not once.
–It never crossed your mind.
SANADA: I knew that I’d get there eventually. That’s an important thing to have deep down.
–That showed in the atmosphere in the building.
SANADA: You think?
–I think there was more of an expectation for you than ever.
SANADA: Hmm. There was quite a lot of negativity after I left LIJ, so at first I didn’t feel a lot of that support wherever we went, especially during the New Japan Cup. Then even in the April tour there was a bit of ‘is it OK to get behind this guy?’ kind of thing.
It took me ten years to get here. This isn’t something you can get on a whim.
–Your first defence is not far away on May 3 against Hiromu Takahashi. His challenge surprised a lot of people?
SANADA: You weren’t expecting it?
–Well, he’s a different weight class for one.
SANADA: Right, it was pretty unexpected. Hiromu and I, even when I was in LIJ we never really spoke much.
–Ahhh. It always seemed on social media you were closer to Shingo Takagi.
SANADA: Right, it would usually be me and TKG on the road.
SANADA: Me and TKG would usually go get dinner or Starbucks or something.
–And then you and BUSHI had the same back ground in AJPW.
SANADA: Right. We had a lot of history, so even if we didn’t speak much, we were able to communicate.
–I see. But Hiromu is a very chatty type…
SANADA: He is, but even when we were in the same locker room, we didn’t talk.
–Because he didn’t talk to you, or?
SANADA: Hmm, I’m not sure.
–You don’t like one another?
SANADA: I wouldn’t say that. I did use to call him Mr. Fried Rice because that was all he ate before shows…
–So there are little bits you guys might have, but nothing particularly deep.
SANADA: Right. We never had any meaningful conversations, I don’t think.
–But then again, Hiromu was the most emotional when you left LIJ. The others didn’t have the reaction he did.
SANADA: What’s the saying? ‘Don’t go after the ones that leave you?’
–Naito seemed to take you leaving in his stride, but Hiromu was particularly stung by your comments on the mic about having no use for LIJ anymore.
SANADA: Well, those comments got a bit of a mixed reception.
–Another aspect of this match of course is that it could be champion versus champion.
SANADA: Hm. One thing that gets to me about all this is Hiromu saying he wants to face Naito if he beats me for the belt.
–Ah, he hinted at that backstage in Ryogoku.
SANADA: He sees me as a stepping stone? Maybe he might not think that way, but that’s the way he comes across. It’s like he’s more interested in wrestling Naito than winning the title.
–Intentional or not, it gets to you.
SANADA: It took me ten years to get this far. This isn’t something you go for on a whim, and if you do, like I said in the press conference, it all ends as a pipe dream.
I have to take it at my pace
–When we had a public press conference before Ryogoku, Hiromu Takahashi and Robbie Eagles had their presser before you and Okada.
SANADA: Ah, yeah. That went forever.
–You said as much on the day, and now it seems a war of words between you and he might be pretty tough.
SANADA: Well, he has his way and he wants you to go at his pace. That’s what you have to do; if you can’t go at your pace, you can’t produce.
–Hiromu is arguably one of, if not the best at that.
SANADA: Perhaps. He certainly has a lot of momentum, maybe more than anyone in NJPW right now.
–Do you feel any particular responsibility for the weight class? Do you feel like you can’t be beaten by a junior?
SANADA: Well, maybe. I think if juniors can beat heavyweights in a spot like this, it’s time to talk about not needing weight classes. So I do think I need to establish a certain difference, a cut above.
–Do you feel as a heavyweight like it’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed?
SANADA: Well, I think they’re separate things, and I want to show why they’re separate, for sure.
–So, openweight competition doesn’t interest you?
SANADA: No, not really. I’ve always liked heavyweight wrestling, and I’ve never been in any junior heavyweight leagues or anything like that either.
If Kanemaru wins, it only makes sense for me to wrestle him instead.
–You’ve actually wrestled Hiromu once before, right?
SANADA: Right, back in 2012.
–In Taiwan, when NJPW and AJPW combined for a show there.
SANADA: I won with the Skull End, actually. Back then, it was called This Is It, but it was the Skull End.
–You said in the press conference that you felt then that he would be a big star.
SANADA: He definitely had that star aura about him. I could definitely tell he wasn’t going to be jerking the curtain his whole career.
–Hiromu puts his junior heavyweight title on the line against Kanemaru on April 27. You’d have to say that if Kanemaru were to win, it would take a lot away from your match May 3.
SANADA: Absolutely. Not just for the people, but for me. In that case, I think Kanemaru should get the shot.
–You think Hiromu needs to have the belt.
SANADA: Right. So if he loses, then I think he loses that right to challenge to.
–And then the Dontaku main event would be…
SANADA: SANADA vs Yoshinobu Kanemaru. That’s the only way it makes sense.
–You don’t think of May 3 as a double title match or anything like that?
SANADA: No, I don’t like that kind of thing. I’m a minimalist.
SANADA: I think it’s important to focus on just one thing. And at any rate, I’m not a junior heavyweight. I don’t really feel the need to be a belt collector, and I want to keep focus on one thing at a time.
–That might explain why you winning the world title felt like such a big deal. You said after the match that not winning for so long was what led to winning it, and that’s a pretty cool line.
SANADA: Everything was leading to that moment, definitely.
My gift to Hiromu is the truth
–Do you have a particular vision of yourself as champion going forward?
SANADA: I’m not sure I was able to express this in my press conference… I usually finish things after my main events with that ‘gift’, right? Having everyone’s lights in the venue… am I repeating myself?
–No, it’s fine (laughs). So do you want to do that all across Japan?
SANADA: Not necessarily. Gifts can have a lot of different meanings, and a lot of different forms, and they’re not just something to get, but to give as well.
–There’s give and take with the audience then.
SANADA: Right. Those lights in the arena are a real sight to see, and I’d like to think that as a champion I can bring a lot of different gifts to everyone that are all just as beautiful.
–So if people come and see your matches as champion, they’re guaranteed to leave the venue happy.
SANADA: Coming to the building and receiving that positive energy, that’s a gift I can give the people and the people can give me, too. I’m not bringing presents here, I won’t put Starbucks gift cards under every seat, but all of us leaving with more energy than they came in is a gift we can all enjoy.
–After three years of struggling with the pandemic now finally at an end, it makes that message, and your timing with the title all the better.
SANADA: Well, sorry to keep you waiting. I just feel really grateful for everything right now. You can’t pick and choose with timing at the end of the day.
SANADA: Heh, that ight be part of it, too.
–I want us to touch on Just 5 Guys a little bit as we finish up. How was it touring with them through the last series?
SANADA: I think we’ve gotten some pretty good teamwork down. We’re communicating well. It was the same with LIJ as well, though- but maybe there it was to where we didn’t need to communicate to have it work. Here it’s more like we’re working well because we communicate but (in LIJ) we were working well despite not communicating.
–Is it right to think that Taichi is the leader of the group?
SANADA: No, there’s nothing like that. No leaders.
–No hierarchy. Does it feel comfortable.
SANADA: It does. It definitely feels good to have people out there in my corner.
–That wasn’t the style in LIJ.
SANADA: It wasn’t. Having the corner call to you, telling you when to slow down and when to go on offence, that really helps, mentally as much as anything. That’s a gift in itself.
–And you returned that gift by winning the title for the team. It really seems harmonious.
SANADA: Those gifts are an important part of changing the landscape. It all takes different forms.
–You could say a main event like SANADA and Hiromu for Dontaku is another gift, with how deep your history is.
SANADA: Sure (smiles).
–Everything can be! Does Dontaku have any special significance to you?
SANADA: Well, in 2019, I challenged Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and before that, my first singles match in NJPW was at Dontaku with Okada as well.
–Ah, in 2016.
SANADA: I like it. There’s always a good atmosphere in the building and around the town.
–And any final thoughts for this year’s Dontaku?
SANADA: The business and NJPW’s place in it, it can be up and it can be down. Either way, it’s the champion that’s the representative, the champion that’s responsible.
SANADA: That’s why this title match is so important. To keep presenting gifts to everyone else, the gift I’ll present Hiromu with is the truth, and the knowledge of just how much this title means.