G1 Climax 33 winner speaks
Tetsuya Naito’s third G1 victory in Ryogoku Sumo Hall was an emotional journey in itself, but for El Ingobernable, but one step rather than the culmination. Now closer to his goal of the main event in the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 18, now an awful lot is on the line January 4 2024.
Next thing I knew, everyone was gone
–So first of all, congratulations on your third G1 Climax victory!
Naito: Thank you.
–Full disclosure, we’re doing this right after the G1 Climax press conference. You talked about being so sleepy during the presser- how are you feeling now?
Naito: You’re running on fumes and adrenaline at the end there, and as soon as it was all done (at the final) yesterday, that all shut off. I’ll be honest, I really wanna go home right now (laughs).
–Just a little longer, if you please. We all saw Hiromu Takahashi and Shingo Takagi both post pictures of you being laid out on the floor of the locker room backstage.
Naito: I legit shut my eyes and then the next thing I knew, I woke up and everyone was gone. I don’t know when that picture was taken.
–So they took that shot and then left?
Naito: Right. BUSHI and Tsuji both left as well. The next thing I knew everyone was gone.
–And then you drove (Tokyo Sports reporter) Okamoto home as well?
Naito: Right? The nerve of that guy to have me be his taxi driver. Well, he did buy me takoyaki on the way back.
Ryogoku is usually up for the final day. This year they were really into both
–It was a long tournament. In the end, it was two back to back main events for you, but you said in your blog that you never dropped out of G1 mode.
Naito: For the whole month, it was eat, sleep G1, all the way.
–You did manage to go and see three Hiroshima Carp games…
Naito: That was a chance for me to recharge and get energy from the team. The Carp power me, I bring that to the matches, and then I pass that on to0 the fans with any luck, heh.
Naito: Right? It’s a pretty good system. I need something to give to the people, and once I do that I need to get a little more to give again.
–In your post match comments at the G1 quarter finals in Funabashi, you touched on how important having the G1 back in midsummer in Ryogoku was to you.
Naito: It was awesome to be back there. I’ve seen my share of finals there as a fan, and I think there’s such a strong connection between that building and the G1 final. It all came together, so I knew I just had to be in that spot int he final.
–There’s something about the G1 final in Ryogoku that’s even more special in midsummer than in April or October.
Naito: You’re right. It’s hard to put your finger on but there is something different about it. And this year it was red hot for both nights. Often times you have them hot for the finals but the other days there have been a little quieter, but this year they were up for the whole weekend.
–It showed just how important that vocal crowd presence is to a tournament like this.
Naito: There was a lot of pent up energy for sure, like it was a real release of everything from the COVID era.
–And you were the one drinking all that in, in the end.
Naito: Yeah. It’s definitely gratifying to be on that stage, and be lighting the people up like nobody else can.
Ospreay has to be the best athlete in the business right?
–Before the G1 there was a lot of focus on the young debutants, and Kaito Kiyomiya from NOAH. You talked in our pre tournament interview about that attention, how do you think it played out in practice?
Naito: There was a bit of jealousy, a bit of irritation there, definitely. My eyes were definitely drawn to that block, and hearing them talk their game made me more excited to see them. They definitely won the news cycle, but it is what it is.
–But in the end Hikuleo was the only G1 debutant in the elite eight, and there was a clear line of early tournament attention being around the future, while the latter half was focused on the present.
Naito: That comes from it being such a long tour. That you’re able to think of it in two halves like that, with different expectations and energy around each- there’s good and bad to that.
–You faced Will Ospreay in the semifinals. Having lost to Ospreay twice last year, how did you feel knowing that he was between you and the final this year?
Naito: I had a feeling in my gut that might happen when I saw how the tournament was structured this year, so when it was official, it was like ‘yep, knew it’. It’s tough facing someone you’ve lost twice to, but at the same time there was this feeling, if I could get past him, then I’d have all that momentum. In the league part of the tournament it was Zack (Sabre Jr.) and in the elimination phase it was Ospreay that was like that for me.
–You had those incredible matches with him last year already, and now here you were facing an Ospreay that had beaten Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada in a one month span. He was really on fire.
Naito: No doubt. He has to be the best athlete in the business, right? It’s really hard to imagine him losing in most situations. And for him to have the connection he does in a country that’s foreign to his own is really something.
–One of the interesting subtexts to this match was the idea of you coming back to a midsummer Ryogoku, winning the G1 six years earlier in the same spot, and then Ospreay talking aboutonly having lost once in the building up to that point in time. You both have big connections to the building.
Naito: Haha, maybe he’s a venue geek like I am. I think we’d have a lot to talk about someday. he’d have to learn Japanese though, my English stinks.
–You were met with a big hook kick to the face in the closing moments of that match.
Naito: I was on my feet and then the next thing I knew I was on the canvas. I really didn’t know what hit me.
–As in the strike was from behind, or you might have been knocked out for an instant?
Naito: A bit of both, I think.
–It was impressive that you went on to not just finish but win the match after that. Was it on instinct?
Naito: A bit, but also the image training I do before the match. I had that idea in mind of if I can get this, this then this then I can get it done, so it was replaying that in my mind.
–Benefit of experience becoming second nature, perhaps.
Naito: I don’t like that kind of talk, but I think the career I’ve had helped me.
Naito: Over the course of my career, I’ve taken a few big shots. The first time something like that happens there’s nothing you can do about it, but you learn to calm yourself down, breathe, take stock and be able to pick yourself up.
–Once the main event was over, you perhaps showed the after effects when you flubbed your closing promo. It’s rare you ask for a do-over- was this only the second time?
Naito: You’re right. Where was that, Kawasaki I think? But I have dreams about screwing it up all the time.
–Oh really, the wrestler’s nightmares.. What kind of slip ups do you have in your dreams?
Naito: Ah, like how I screwed it up in Ryogoku, getting the order of the names wrong. Or I’ll be in the middle and accidentally turn off the mic, or my voice will suddenly break like I’m a teenager…
–De Ja Pon in a breaking voice!
Naito: I never had a nightmare about getting it wrong in the middle of Ryogoku! But I guess having the calm of being able to ask for a do-over was another case where my career experience came to help me, heh.
I wanted Okada, but I didn’t think it would be him
–It all came down to you and Okada in the final.
Naito: Obviously I knew just before I went out to face Ospreay that it would be Okada in the final, so I had that in the back of my mind the moment I won. To be honest, I hadn’t really imagined that it would be the two of us in that final.
–Oh, you hadn’t.
Naito: We hadn’t faced one another in that scenario before, so I wanted it to be Okada, but I didn’t think that it would be him.
–Obviously you have wrestled one another several times before, but never in a G1 final. Did it feel different? There were certainly fans seeing the two of you wrestle each other for the first time though- especially in front of such a hot crowd.
Naito: Facing one another in the finals of the G1 Climax after having gone through a month of these grueling matches, compared to having a title match that we’d been preparing for for a whole tour, it was definitely a different scenario. It added a freshness for sure.
–Okada has been all but unbeatable in recent times, but he was heading into that final match without the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, and having lost to Bryan Danielson at Forbidden Door. Did you sense a difference in the way he wrestled at all?
Naito: Singles title or not, he’s been the top guy for the last few years now, and the guy that the company has been pushing for a decade now. It’s funny, but I got a wave of nostalgia when we were heading into the final. We roomed together when he was a Young Lion, and we’d hop on my bike and go fishing together back in the day. All that came back to me- I guess that’s what facing him on this stage that’s so important to NJPW as a whole does to you.
–The crowd was so loud in the opening phase of that match especially- it almost seemed as if Okada had a tear in his eye.
Naito: Ah, someone else told me the same thing- did it show up on TV?
–I don’t know for sure, but it looked as if he was holding back some emotion there.
Naito: I didn’t notice in the moment. I’ll be a pro and say it was because I was focusing on the match, heh.
Compare me at 41 to Chono at 41 and Tanahashi at 41. I think I win
–One thing that came to mind watching the broadcast was the subject of age.
–It was especially apropos with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Masahiro Chono on the Japanese announce team. Chono’s last G1 win was at age 41, same for Tanahashi, so with you at 41, they brought up the point hat tis might be your last chance.
Naito: I said as much on the mic, but I hate the word ‘forever’. Time waits for no man, after all.
Naito: I heard that talk when I watched the match back on World. But to give the flip side to that comment, I was at Ryogoku as a fan when Chono won his last (in 2005), and backstage when Tanahashi won his last (2018). I think if you put Chono at 41 against Tanahashi at 41 and me at 41, I’m better than them, and I have more in the tank.
–You have more to offer, you think.
Naito: Well, if you watch those other matches back, they’re a lot less mobile at that point than I am now, I reckon. I definitely feel I have a lot further to go yet.
–As diplomatic as ever… but age is not something that comes to mind when we see you wrestle.
Naito: At the same time, I know my time is limited. I have knee troubles, eye troubles. The end of the line, that image of retirement that was so far away for so long is now coming into focus a little. But I think that’s just another reason to enjoy where I am as a wrestler and to live in the now, right now. I need to make the most of every moment. That’s not just in the ring, either. Being in the gym, it’s a big motivator for me to push harder, knowing I can’t afford to delay anything.
Last time the crowd drowned out the line…
–You’ve made a tradition of winning the G1 and going back to the line of saying that you are in the lead role in NJPW.
Naito: I said it in 2013, and then in 2017, ‘the centerpiece of NJPW… is me!’ Thing is, in ’17, I left it hanging too long, and the pop from the crowd ended up drowning out the line.
–If you know you know, right? It was just like in your manga.
Naito: Right. I really wanted to get the line out properly this time, so from the beginning I was thinking, if I win I’ll go to that line. I’d regret it otherwise. So yeah, this time I let the crowd react, waited it out, and then finished the line.
–We go back to the benefit of experience (laughs).
Naito: Right! I guess in that moment back in 2017, I wasn’t tranquilo enough! If I had a time machine, that’s what I would say to me- assen na yo (laughs).
–So you wanted another shot at that just like you want another shot at the Tokyo Dome ‘De Ja Pon’
Naito: Right. I got my revenge on 2017, and now I want to get that 2020 call out in 2024. At the same time though, I don’t think I’d be able to really call it closure.
Naito: I think the fanbase is different. There are newer fans, and a lot of fans that were there in 2020 that aren’t watching now. It isn’t like I can get that roll call out in 2024 and feel satisfied about it. I talked about this to Tokyo Sports, but my grandpa was in the crowd in 2020, but he passed during the G1 two years ago. Then my grandma passed during last year’s G1. She always used to say she couldn’t bear seeing me getting beaten up, so she never came to the matches. Maybe if we were ever in her back yard in Ashidachi… but she never got to see me wrestle.
–Sorry for your loss.
Naito: So even if I get to do that call, it’s not like it makes everything whole. It hurts I never got that back while he was alive, so I hope in January he’ll be yelling from heaven… ‘de! Ja! Pon!’