IWGP World Heavyweight Champion addresses G1 33
SANADA is about to head into his eighth G1 but with many firsts. For the first time he’ll be walking in with the target of being a singles champion on his chest, and the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at that. In an A Block field fueled by youth and first time entries, we spoke to SANADA about the campaign to come.
When I was over with AEW, I felt how important that IWGP label is.
–Before we get into the G1, let’s look back on the first half of the year, and the biggest six months of your career, right?
SANADA: I’ve been chasing, been the hunter for my whole career and now I’m the hunted. That puts a target on you not just from the wrestlers but the critics as well.
–There were quite a few negative voices when you left LIJ for Just Five Guys.
SANADA: You can’t please some people. But I think the people that weren’t pleased multiplied by about three times.
–Well, you’ve gotten three times the focus and attention.
SANADA: Yeah, and that’s a great thing. For all the negative voices, there have been more positive than ever before, and to have people think highly of you is where life feels the most worth living.
–When you won the title you talked about wanting to take in the view from the summit- how is that view looking right now?
SANADA: It isn’t as scenic as I thought it would be. It’s tough up here, man. It’s no picnic.
–No time to take in the view.
SANADA: Right. I think that’s a reflection on me, that I don’t have the ability to take a second and take in what’s happening around me. When I can do that, I’ll be a better champion. Where I’ve been at so far, each of my defences have been ‘gimme’s in a way- like my opponents have been guys that I should be beating anyway.
–Well, it’s been a different generation of challenger from Hiromu Takahashi to Yota Tsuji to Jack Perry. In any of those matches you could say a new champion would be a big upset, but does being the heavy favourite in a match actually give you more pressure, then?
SANADA: It does, it really does. When you’re chasing this title, there isn’t anything you have to protect, not just the belt itself but the image behind it. When I was over with AEW, I felt how important that IWGP label is.
–Do you think that trip made it hit home for you?
SANADA: I got to chat with CM Punk, and he was like ‘that belt is the coolest’. You know, for a CM Punk to know who you are and what you’re doing, that speaks to how widely the IWGP Champion is known.
–You talked about showing new horizons to fans, but you’ve been experiencing new horizons yourself.
SANADA: If anything I’ve seen nothing but new horizons. It was my first time in AEW, and it really reminded me that America, or Canada in this case, is the land of entertainment.
–Your first foreign excursion was to Canada, so it was a bit of a reverse homecoming in a sense.
SANADA: Good point, I guess so.
–How did you feel about the IWGP title match being fourth on the card at Forbidden Door?
SANADA: My opponent, Perry, I could see there was something to him, the fans had been behind him, and he had a good match with DOUKI in Chicago. I think he’s someone with a lot of upside. But I think with this being an away game, the most important thing was being able to show who I am in that environment and in that atmosphere. Where you are on the card, that’s important sure, but it was my job to show who SANADA is within that environment, and win on top of that. I did that and I’m grateful I was able to.
–It was a good experience to have before the G1 all told.
SANADA: Right. Since I’ve won this title as well, I’ve been defending against my juniors the whole way, so maybe that last defence before the G1 carried its own meaning.
This is a G1 all about trying new things
–So in your block of eight, you have six debutants and five guys in their 20s. You’re the oldest in A Block which is quite remarkable.
SANADA: That’s something new in itself. All of a sudden, I’m the grizzled vet, heh. You have all these young guys and then the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. I think having the champion there is what sets that block off, and it changes the way you look at it all.
–It’s the ‘SANADA Block’
SANADA: Right, any way you look at it, the block circles around me.
–Being the champion certainly puts a target on you.
SANADA: It’s a lot of young hungry guys… and Chase Owens (laughs). But they all want to be number one, they’re all selfish and they all want attention.
–That’s what happens with a youth block.
SANADA: Well, there’ll be plenty to eat, for me at least. A little steak here, a little sushi there.
–You sound confident.
SANADA: Well, I don’t want to look like I’m full of myself, but at the same time, this is my block after all.
–This is your eighth G1, but you’ve only made it out of the block phase once, in 2020. Last year you were 3-3, and the other years 4-5. Do you find the tournament particularly difficult?
SANADA: I wouldn’t say it’s a weakness, but I don’t have a great track record. At the same time, even if the results aren’t there in my G1s, I think the match quality is, and I think in that respect I’ve had a lot more wins on the board.
–We think about those matches with Zack Sabre Jr. and Kazuchika Okada a lot, for sure. But this time as champion, you have to produce the wins as well.
SANADA: I’ve got nothing but confidence wen it comes to A Block. That might sound cocky, but I’m not coming into this wanting to show anything other than a SANADA that’s making the last eight. In that respect that’s something new for me, and that’s a theme of this G1- not just to get results, not just to have good matches, but to do new things I haven’t done before.
–Do you feel like rather than being on the defensive as the champion you want to keep on the offense?
SANADA: You don’t get anywhere by living in the same box ideas wise. I wanted to change that and I got this belt as a result. That’s been really important to me this year.
–You want to keep evolving through the tournament.
SANADA: People are at their most boring when they’re on defense. Even with all this youth in A Block, I have to be the most youthful even though I’m the oldest. I’m the veteran but hunger wise, aggression wise, I have to think like a rookie. You know, since I’ve been champion, I’ve been in a lot of new situations, and I’ve gotten used to wrestling younger guys. Through the G1, I figure I can deal with the momentum these guys have- it’ll be a growing experience for them and for me at the same time.
If I can beat Hikuleo I’ll be in good shape
–Your first block match, the main event of opening night in Sapporo will be against Hikuleo. He’s 32 now, but having taken Jay White out of NJPW, he’s built up a lot of steam.
SANADA: I think the most contact he and I have ever had was in a battle royal in England once. His height alone makes him dangerous- it’s going to be hard for me to use the offense I usually use. And the opening match is the most dangerous.
–It’s the upset special certainly.
SANADA: I don’t do well against big guys usually, so this is definitely a tough opener. But then if I can get a win here, I’ll be in really good shape I think.
Shota just lacks originality
–Second is Shota Umino in Yamagata. He did pin you earlier in January this year. How do you feel about him?
SANADA: I think he’s got most momentum of the young guys. He’s fast, he’s got a good look… he just lacks originality, you know? He comes out like Moxley, looks like Tanahashi, talks like Naito..
–You think there’s not enough that’s all his own.
SANADA: If he can get that down he’ll be unstoppable.
–But you think he’s a bit of a copy cat right now?
SANADA: It’s only natural to take influences, but he hasn’t been able to make those influences his own. I think as it is with him right now, we won’t see a repeat of that tag match in January.
Tsuji is one class removed from Narita and Umino, but he’s on a level above
–Third is Yota Tsuji, in a rematch from Dominion.
SANADA: He can’t leave well enough alone.
–You’re not thrilled about being int he same block?
SANADA: He’s just one of those persistent types. You see him with that smug grin as well.
–Looks aside, what did you think of him in Osaka?
SANADA: When you look at Narita and Umino, they’re feuding with one another, but even though Tsuji’s one class removed from them, I feel he’s on a level above. His thinking is about bringing all of NJPW forward.
–Do you feel that makes him a direct threat?
SANADA: I think his ideas, and the way he’s carrying himself is awesome, but I don’t think he’s that much of a threat in the ring. He had the one up on me in Osaka because I really didn’t know what to expect. This time, now we’ve had that one match, I do know what’s coming, and I’m ready for it.
–You’ve had that one match as reference to prep, but so has he.
SANADA: Well, he’s got a lot of matches of mine to watch on World. I don’t have that. What I have is the benefit of experience, so he’ll be feeling that.
–You’ll be on home turf in Niigata.
SANADA: Can’t complain about that, heh. I definitely want to close out the night with a home win.
Kiyomiya will get heat either way, so he should do what he wants
–July 25 in Korakuen Hall you have NOAH’s Kaito Kiyomiya. There’s a lot of buzz about his inclusion; what are your thoughts?
SANADA: To be honest, I tend to focus on where I’m at and what I’m doing, so I really don’t know much about Kiyomiya. What I do see online is that he’s certainly got a lot of momentum, but that he’s a bit like me- whatever he says or does, he tends to get criticised.
–He’s certainly been a divisive figure.
SANADA: Tsuji went to that NOAH show on June 22, right? And Kiyomiya blanked him. He got heat for that, but I think if he hadn’t ignored Tsuji he’d get heat for that as well. In a situation like he’s in, you’re going to get critised either way, so he should just do what he wants.
–You and he aren’t that dissimilar.
SANADA: Whenever you’re trying to rock the boat, of course you’re going to get pushback.
–Do you feel he’s putting the work in to get out of his situation?
SANADA: I do. I feel his work ethic, I know he has a good look, he’s in shape, his moves are on point. But I just don’t feel that spark with him. Everything else, he has.
–Kiyomiya’s really singled you out heading into this.
SANADA: Well, he didn’t get Okada in his block, so with me being the champion, he’s shifted that talk to me because I’m the most attractive opponent. I get that, but I don’t see a threat from him, I don’t plan on losing, and I don’t feel this is a NJPW vs NOAH situation in any way. It’s a league match, that’s it.
–But you’d have to say there is at least some extra pressure as IWGP Champion to make sure you’re not beaten by a NOAH wrestler.
SANADA: Maybe there’s stress from a fan perspective, but I genuinely don’t see myself losing. I do know pride comes before a fall, so I’ll be putting the work in to prepare, but I don’t see myself having problems.
–Both of you make use of the Shining Wizard. Is that going to be a factor do you think?
SANADA: I’d like to promise I’ll win without using it, but then if I bust it out people will complain (laughs). Anyway, I’m not all that tied to it either way.
I’ve been through a lot of growth since last November, you can’t say that about Narita
–Next is July 27 and Ren Narita. Narita beat you in November during the NJPW World TV title tournament, but how do you feel about him in 2023?
SANADA: Everyne’s entitled to their own opinion but… He’s Shibata, right? The feeling that he’s copying Shibata is just too strong right now, and like I said with Umino, he hasn’t made any of that his own yet. His moves, his style, none of it is truly his. I admit I lost to him in November, Narita that night was tougher than I was. But I also think Narita was in a better state then than he is now.
–You think the bloom is off the rose?
SANADA: Maybe not that far, but he hasn’t moved forward any. I lost to him last year and I went through a lot of growth since. You can’t say that for Narita.
Gabe’s a teenager in his rebellious phase
–August 1 in Takamatsu, it’s Gabe Kidd, another first time match.
SANADA: We’ve never touched before. It feels like with him in BULLET CLUB, like he’s a teenager in his rebellious phase, heh.
–Do you feel the tough guy stuff is a bit of a smokescreen?
SANADA: Yeah, I see nothing but that. But once he settles into his own skin, he’ll go far.
–He’s bringing a rough style that’s hard to read.
SANADA: Unpredictability is a dangerous thing for sure. You’d have those punk kids at school sneaking out to drink and smoke, and whether they’re putting it on or not, you never knew quite what those kids would do.
–August 5 and Chase Owens rounds out the block. He’s the only one you’ve wrestled in a G1 before.
SANADA: Chase is a veteran now. You look at that A Block, and he’s probably the craftsman of the group, wouldn’t you say?
–Do you find people like him easier to wrestle?
SANADA: I’m honestly, genuinely looking forward to this match more than any of them. Wrestling a guy like that, you learn something every time. This will be the last league match, so I want to be undefeated coming in, and undefeated going out.
I want Tanahashi to have a fairytale run
–How do you feel about the 20 minute time limit on these block matches?
SANADA: It’ll be physically demanding, definitely.
–Do you have to be faster on offense?
SANADA: When you have the clock in the back of your mind the whole time, it adds a lot of pressure. You have to manage yourself stamina wise as well as that time factor.
–You tend to pace yourself in your big matches, but this year will be different.
SANADA: We have 32 guys in four blocks this year as well. Being a minimalist, I think everything about this year’s tournament is opposite to that, but it is what I want when it comes to trying new things. This year I tried something new, and wound up winning the world title, so I plan making the G1 part of the year of SANADA.
–This year, even if you make it out of the block, you have to go through three opponents in the elimination phase if you want to win.
SANADA: It’s a long road for sure. But then again in terms of match numbers, it’s the same ten matches as when we had 20 guys, so the same rules apply. One match at a time.
–Is there anybody you’d like to face in the final?
SANADA: Tanahashi. I get the feeling Tanahashi’s on a bit of a downturn right now.
–He is a NEVER 6 Man Champion, but he hasn’t been putting many singles Ws on the board.
SANADA: There’s a real fairy tale story to Tanahashi at this stage of the game to make it to the final. That’s a dream I want to come true for him and I know that he can still go.
–After wrestling your block matches against the newer generation, you feel you want to have the essence of the older generation in the final.
SANADA: There’s no doubt that Tanahashi defined a generation, I think I can still grow if we wrestle again with a title on the line, or the G1.
–In the end though, you’d be the one to crush Tanahashi’s fairy tale story.
SANADA: …Yeah, sorry about that.
–Nobody has ever won the New Japan Cup and the G1 in the same calendar year, and the IWGP Champion hasn’t won the G1 since 2000. Does that feel like a challenge to you?
SANADA: I’m more about making memories than breaking records. I’m not too focused on the stats, but the G1 in itself is a huge achievement. I’ve been in the final before, but being the winner, and being the runner up is a world of difference. You have to be in it to win it, and I am.