One Step Beyond: Tetsuya Naito Interviewed

IWGP World Heavyweight Champion speaks

After making good on his promise of claiming the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom, it was unlikely that Tetsuuya Naito was going to continue predecessor SANADA’s reticence to talk to the media. Naito making his rounds though coincides with a rematch with SANADA on the horizon in Sapporo, and hints of more of an attitude from the Just Five Guys member as a chaser to the title Naito now holds…’proudly?’ We spoke to Naito about holding the belt he ‘never wanted’ and another clash with the Cold Skull. 

Watch new Beginning in Sapporo LIVE in English on NJPW World February 23&24!

SANADA didn’t keep the title as long as he did by accident


–So first of all, congratulations on winning the world title, although maybe you’d prefer to be congratulated on getting your roll call at the Tokyo Dome…

Naito: Right. That was my main goal, to get that roll call in the Tokyo Dome more than getting this title belt.

–Was it as special as you’d built it up to be over the last four years?

Naito: It was hard! It’s hard to do in the Dome. For one thing, the echo on the mic was so big…

–Ah, that’s different to other venues.

Naito: So you notice I tried to cover one ear. I had an idea from before that it would be tricky to be on the mic in the Dome. But in the end, just to have that roll call with so many people felt great. 

–And how was it wrestling SANADA in that main event spot?

Naito: Look, even if, and that’s a big if he chanced into winning the belt int he first place, you can’t hold it as long as he did by accident. His first reign with the top title, and he won it in April and kept it nine months. My first IWGP heavyweight reign was only two months, so I know that’s a hell of an achievement. 

There was probably a lot behind those tears


–You’re someone who’s normally quite open talking about people you enjoy wrestling. How is SANADA in your opinion?

Naito: Hmm, SANADA isn’t really that type of wrestler. He’s not an Ospreay, Omega, Ibushi, guys that I really enjoy being in there with. I will say that when I get in there with him, it’s always more fun than I envisage, but it’s a different type of thing I think.

–A lot more orthodox.

Naito: Right. So if I had to say I’m in the middle, leaning finding it hard to wrestle him.

–When EVIL jumped you as you took the mic, SANADA made the save. In a strange way we had the original LIJ members together there. What went through your mind?

Naito: First of all, I was surprised it wasn’t KENTA…

–Good point.

Naito: But thinking back on it all, the fact you had original LIJ members in the main event of the Tokyo Dome like that did remind me just how great this faction is. And remember, it was me who brought the whole thing to Japan, heheh.

–You did thank SANADA on the mic, and he had tears in his eyes…

Naito: Well, you know, what I was thinking when I said was ‘hurry up and get your ass to the back because I’m speaking now’. Probably what Muto was thinking about me last February (laughs)

–Oh you knew how Muto feels!

Naito: Anyway, I think there was probably a lot behind those tears, but you’d have to ask him. It’s not like he’s going to tell you on his own.


Naito: But I think he should. He had the belt for nine months and didn’t put himself out there. Now he’s back to being a challenger, he really should be saying a lot more going into this match.

–This is another big test of SANADA in many a way.

Naito: Up until the Tokyo Dome you were able to say with SANADA, OK, it’s his first reign. Now if he were to win again, what would he do different? Would his second reign really just be the same as the first?

–But the more you talk about wanting SANADA to start talking, the less likely he will be to actually do so…

Naito: End of the day, nobody’s forcing him to do anything. But if he doesn’t say anything, and he loses, again, then he’s going nowhere but down in my opinion.

I got to the back, gave my comments, went to the trainer’s room and got six stitches


–This is your first time with the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, but we know you aren’t all that interested in the belt in and of itself. 

Naito: It isn’t ‘not all that’ so much as ‘not at all’. I was against the title being created right up to the end, and it’s because I lost that this thing exists.

–Have things changed any since you won the title?

Naito: It’s only been a few days, but I can’t say I’m now overflowing with love for it. But holding this belt means that you’re in the main event, and it means you’re the focal point of everything in NJPW, so I want to keep hold of it. 

–Now you still have a black eye from the match…

Naito: Right, my eyelid. We clashed heads when I went for that last Destino. So after the match, I got to the back, gave my comments, went to the trainer’s room and got six stitches.

–Quite a way to finish your night.

Naito: Right- I really didn’t want them and asked if there was another way, but didn’t have a choice. Those stitches hurt like hell. And the anesthetic before- can you imagine getting a shot on your eyelid?


Naito: But the doctor’s all happy go lucky about it. Actually on the last Korakuen shows of the year I got hit on the other side, and that was three stitches on that eyelid. So I had nine stitches across two eyes within two weeks of one another.

My eye’s not all the way there

–While we’re on the topic of eyes, you had surgery on in November. Can you let us in on how things are going right now?

Naito: Well, the more you get this, it is diminishing returns. in all honesty, things aren’t right, but they are better than before. 

–There were people who said that having that roll call in the Tokyo Dome made for the end of a chapter so to speak, do you agree with that sentiment?

Naito: I said backstage, that talk really isn’t any of their business. When one goal gets achieved, that’s when another comes up. Maybe some people will achieve what they set out to and then feel that’s it, they’re done, but that’s not me. I always wanted to have that moment because I wanted to see what the next goal would be. 

–This goal took four years to achieve.

Naito: If I had that roll call four years ago, I’d have cleared the next goal by now. But now I’ve taken care of the unfinished business, I have a better idea of what’s next. 

–You ant more roll calls on more big stages, and the easiest way to do that is to have that belt.

Naito: Right, I kinda need it.

–You’ll have a direct rematch with SANADA in Sapporo. After that do you have an idea of who you want to face, or what kind of matches you want to have as a new champion?

Naito: As a new champion? 

Tsuji catches my eye… and Umino, but not in a good way

–Well, for example, there has been a lot of talk lately about a new generation coming through. How do you react to that?

Naito: Whatever sport you follow, that changing of the guard is a fact of life. You can’t resist that, and if it didn’t happen then we wouldn’t move forward as a genre. NJPW needs this and I know I’m not going to be around forever. It’s a little sad to be in my spot, but I can grow from this pressure, it’s something that I never felt before, and that7s exciting.

–You never really had a generational rivalry. Being between a Tanahashi and an Okada age wise, when you wrestled either it was never like Tanahashi and Okada was as a young guard old guard type of rivalry.

Naito: Right. I’m excited to have something like that.

 –And there’s a lot of fresh opposition in that generation. 

Naito: Yeah. I mean right in my backyard, Yota Tsuji is doing great right now.

–True. Is there anybody else you have your eye on?

Naito: Yota is the real standout to me. Well, Shota Umino catches my eye, but not for the right reasons.

–Not for the right reasons? 

Naito: Well, I’ve said before that wrestling is all or nothing. If you stand out for the right or for the wrong reasons, the key thing is you stand out. If you’re in the middle, that’s when you’re in trouble. Like the names we haven’t said yet, Narita, or Uemura… 

–They’re lacking something in your view. 

Naito: Right. I might not like what Shota Umino’s doin, but it sticks out for me, and Tsuji stands out in a good way in my view. Either way, they’re on my radar.

–So what do you mean by not liking what Umino’s doing?

Naito: He just has too much of that Tanahashi smell on him. Almost to the point I feel he’s ripping him off. Now, he’s steadily getting more and more eyes on him, but eventually I think he’s going to hit a brick wall doing what he’s doing. For him the question is what he does when he hits that wall, so I want for him to run into it as soon as possible.

–An interesting point. Umino has brought your name up several times.

Naito: Hmm. Well, when I wrestled him I did see a bit of myself in him, but he’s more Tanahashi.

–There is quite a bit of your style in his.

Naito: OK. So if I quit the business, is he suddenly going to be a megastar? No, he’d be a Naito tribute act. It’s the same with him doing the Jon Moxley entrance. There’s a lot, too much of him that’s taken from somewhere else, and you are only going to get over to a certain extent that way. 

–You might say that you walked a similar path before you found yourself.

Naito: Oh yeah, I’m speaking from experience. And at the time, even though I said different, I think I knew it, too. But struggling like I did is what led me to Los Ingobernables, so that’s why I’m interested in what Umino does. 

–I see.

Naito: The biggest thing with him is where and when he runs into that wall, and what he does when he runs into it. That’s why I want it to happen sooner rather than later. 

I think Tanahashi’s done


–So as we get toward the end here, I wanted to get your thought son Hiroshi Tanahashi becoming President…

Naito: When I was still in Hontai I heard Tanahashi say that one day he wanted to become President. So yeah, I guess the time had finally come.

–You weren’t surprised.

Naito: Oh, I was definitely surprised when I actually saw the news (laughs) 

–So it did take you aback.

Naito: I mean, he said before that he wanted this and now he’s worked to get there. I’m happy for him. But I think in ring he’s done.

–You think his in ring career is ending?

Naito: I’ve never been a CEO. But I’d imagine it’s a pretty tough job. I have been a wrestler, and I know for sure it’s a tough job, and being a top flight guy is a really tough job. NJPW isn’t some place you can get in the ring and phone it in. I think that Tanahashi realises he’s past his peak, and he’s putting his feet in both waters for now, but I think that as a wrestler he’s done. 

–Tanahashi has said he’ll continue in both roles.

Naito: If he can be a player manager and do it well then that’s great. But he hasn’t been setting the world on fire as a dedicated wrestler recently, so I think in future that dual role will be even harder. As a Tanahashi fan back in the day, it is a little sad.

–You told Tokyo Sports you wouldn’t mind being Tanahashi’s last opponent.

Naito: I was inspired by Tanahashi when I became a wrestler. I can’t go back in time and be his first opponent, but I can be his last. I was Keiji Muto’s last opponent- officially anyway. Retiring the guy that got me into wrestling as a fan, and retiring the guy that inspired me to work to be a wrestler myself, not many people can say that. In the end, who knows what happens from here on out, but it’s something to keep in mind as I head into this year… cabron.