In the Genes: Yota Tsuji Interviewed

New Japan Cup winner has big ideas

Yota Tsuji has made his flashy grin a trademark, but confident smiles hadn’t been backed up by a big result until the calendar turned to 2024. After putting Yuya Uemura away in Sapporo and leaving with a handful of his contemporary’s hair, Tsuji turned his sights to the New Japan Cup, and blasted through the competition, taking home the trophy. Now for the first time in LIJ history, two of its members will collide in a championship match main event, and Tsuji has big plans for both the bout and what’s to come in the future. 

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Nothing here comes easy


–As we’re conducting this interview, you’ve just finished the post New Japan Cup press conference- how are you feeling?

Tsuji: I’ve always had this image in my head of doing a press conference like this, and now it’s finally happened. It does feel like I’ve managed to claim something big. I’m delighted, honestly.

–How has the reception been?

Tsuji: It’s been a lot, just as much as when I came back from excursion last year. I’ve had a lot of messages from friends and family, and then a bunch from people I haven’t heard from in ages (laughs).

–You came back last year right into an IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match. Do you feel perhaps you should have gotten to this point sooner, or more like this was a necessary period to find yourself?

Tsuji: I had wanted to shoot right to the top, but nothing in NJPW comes easy. I definitely felt that over the last nine months or so.

–I see.

Tsuji: And to be perfectly honest, when I first came back, I was feeling quite a bit of pressure. I was a little unsure of myself, feeling I had to switch from lucha to pro-wrestling. I played it cool as much as I could, but it was definitely a factor. Over the last, just under a year I feel I’ve gotten a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, and put that foundation into the New Japan Cup. 

The question of who should carry this place only has one answer

–It feels like destiny in a sense, you winning the New Japan Cup right off the back of Kazuchika Okada and Will Ospreay leaving NJPW. 

Tsuji: I was able to produce right at the time I absolutely needed to produce. Life has those now or never moments, right? And with me, whether it was here or in my return, I felt that now or never pressure. 

–After you won the cup you said that you’d opened the door to a new era. To fans who felt a sense of uncertainty you might be a savior of sorts. 

Tsuji: When I first came back, I felt like I made enough of an impact that it put me at the lead of this generation. That’s why all the guard changing talk didn’t interest me at all. But with Okada, Ospreay, Tama leaving that did raise the question of who should carry this place going forward, and that question only has one right answer.

–So you felt a change int he atmosphere here.

Tsuji: I felt like I was at the forefront, and I think there were fans that felt that way too. But I think the majority of people had me lumped in with Narita, Umino and Uemura. It was on me to get results and show that I’m a head above those guys, ad that’s where that stuff about opening the door came from. 

–Backstage after your Cup win, you listed all of the younger generation, Umino, Narita, Uemura, Gabe Kidd, Hikuleo and Master Wato by name. You’ve lived closely with all of them.

Tsuji: Right. We shared the dorm together, we walked the same path. Now, granted Master Wato won Best of the Super Jr. first…]

–Ah, you’re right!

Tsuji: But what I meant by all that was even though I opened the door for everyone, I can’t go through it alone. It was calling them out to step up and challenge me, or to carry things on top along with me, otherwise this new era doesn’t really arrive. I said in the press conference before the final that the new era is here when people stop talking about it, when it becomes the new normal, and they have to be aware of that as well.

I was so far ahead, they had to slow me down


–You are a little older than those names you listed off. With that in mind as well, do you feel like you had separated yourself from that pack?

 Tsuji: I think I was always ahead of that pack. Far enough that there is no comparison in my opinion. I think I was so far ahead they had to slow me down. 

–With that Reiwa Three Musketeers talk last year?

Tsuji: With that weight around my ankle, even as ahead as I was, the impression would be that I was a step in front at best.

–Do you feel the conflict that created slowed you down?

Tsuji: I think it’s still slowing me down, that’s why I want them to catch up. But here’s the thing- I am a little older than the others. With that time I’ve been through college, I’ve had experience in the real world as well. Having that experience has put me int he position I am today. They say that in the ring, things are like a hyper amplified version of everyday life, right?

 –Well, that characters in the ring get amplified certainly.

Tsuji: That’s why when I was on excursion, and even now, I thought it was important to go as many places and experience as many things as possible. It’s important to grow, not just as a wrestler, but as a human being. 

–I heard stories of you being chased by stray dogs in the middle of the night in Egypt. But you felt at the time that was key to your development?

Tsuji: For sure! That, floating in the Dead Sea, everything. 

I would do all I could not to go to the LA Dojo

–Before the New Japan Cup, Zack Sabre Jr. talked about being ready for the spot instead of the ‘young pups’. Do you feel like you’ve sent a message with your win?

Tsuji: Of course, and I know he was watching. There was a sense of expectation around me the second I came back, but the one thing I was lacking was results. For all the talk of ‘that was a great match, but Tsuji lost,’ I needed to have a good match and win, and I was able to do that at last. 

–You were able to beat a power guy like Jeff Cobb on his terms, a high flier in El Phantasmo, and on and on. Arguably the best in each of their chosen fields and you beat them at their own game.

Tsuji: I really attribute that to not just studying the European style in the UK, Germany and Europe, but lucha libre as well. Everyone’s image of lucha is a lot of high flying, a lot of dives, but it’s a lot broader than that. there are power guys bigger than me, there are technicians. Wrestling in that melting pot is what got me ready for this NJC. 

–Speaking of your excursion, you made it a point not to go to the LA Dojo. 

Tsuji: Absolutely I would do all I could not to go there. The company got in touch with me about renewing my US visa, but I thought if I had a visa then they would send me to the LA Dojo. So I made up an excuse about not understanding the explanation and got out of it that way.

–Why so much effort to avoid the LA Dojo?

Tsuji: Back in the day, the LA Dojo guys took part in the Young Lion Cup, right? And they all wrestled the exact same way. I had no idea what made any of them different. All little clones of (Katsuyori) Shibata. I knew if I went there anything that made me an individual would be killed off. Then all of those guys went on to join BULLET CLUB right? I can’t speak about parenting, but I think that’s what happens when a parent is too strict, the kids go off the rails, heheh.

–You had a very clear idea of yourself as a pro-wrestler, even while you were still a Young Lion.

Tsuji: When I was playing American football, I was a quarterback. A quarterback has to gameplan for the entire match, assess the big picture, the whole situation and come up with the right path of action. I think I apply that mindset to my wrestling as well. 

–That ability to self produce is key.

Tsuji: Exactly. You have to be able to read between the lines. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I made the right choices.

We’ll have the fruits of the seed I planted

–Let’s get into you versus Tetsuya Naito on April 6. One episode that stands out with the two of you was back when you were a Young Lion, and started a campaign of getting to 55,000 likes on Twitter to get a singles match with him. That was all you acting on your own, right?

Tsuji: I didn’t talk to anyone about it, I just went ahead and did it (laughs). So there was a lot of ‘what the hell are you thinking’? But there’s a lot in this business where it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. That was a nice little story at the time, and it ties into what happens now, years later. The only shame was that I only got to about 34,000 likes.

–That’s right.

Tsuji: At the time, I felt frustrated by that. Like I was treated as a charity case a little. But I felt that while I was on excursion I needed to close the gap to Naito. If I produce in this title match then I will have closed that gap. We’ll have the fruits of that seed I planted. 

I want to wrestle my way

–So what’s your view of Naito as a wrestler?

Tsuji: There’s no doubting his appeal. But if I’m honest, I can’t help but notice he’s in rough shape. With the shape I’m in physically and mentally, I’m at an advantage. 

 –Naito has storied injury issues.

Tsuji: But wrestling isn’t always all about that. Big match experience can come out in flashes that completely decide a match. He has a deep pocket of tricks to draw from, so I definitely have to be careful. 

–It seems your styles are quite compatible with one another…

Tsuji: I’m not sure either way stylistically, but with both of us having lucha backgrounds, I guess we have similar ways of thinking when it comes to what we want to do when in the ring. I don’t know if you can call that ‘compatibility’, though. There’s a lot I won’t know until I’m in there with him. 

–Are you excited to be in that Ryogoku main event spot?

Tsuji: Oh, of course. Excitement definitely trumps nerves for me. 

–Do you get nervous at all?

Tsuji: Not really. I was fine before the Cup final, fine before my return match at Dominion. If anything, I was feeling great, wind wise. 

–You did a lot of high altitude training in Mexico.

Tsuji: I felt like nothing could tire me out! Like Japan felt really easy by comparison (laughs). All the same, I ended up losing. If anything though, it was tag matches I found hard coming back to. In a singles match you bear the responsibility, you carry the load, but in a tag match you have your teammates to think about as well. It’s hard to spread that spotlight, speaking as a quarterback, heh. 

–Is there anything with Naito you feel you have to be extra careful about?

Tsuji: He likes a lot of head drop moves, and in a big match, he turns up the aggression and the angles of attack even more. That could be critical.

–You’re his teammate, and he has respect for you. That’s actually likely to make him more dangerous.

Tsuji: I don’t want to get to far into the philosophical, but I really don’t like that super dangerous fight to the death approach. I want to wrestle my way, and for that and all of NJPW to be the best style in the world. 

The IWGP is the biggest tool we have when it comes to taking on the world


–After your match in Osaka Jo Hall last year, you promised to make NJPW the world’s top promotion. 

Tsuji: Right. I believe that NJPW’s wrestling is the best in the world.

–And you want to make that part of your branding and NJPW’s. Now when it comes to talking about splitting the IWGP World Heavyweight title…

Tsuji: I think that’s the first thing I need to do. I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel that the value and the prestige of the IWGP letters has diminished. I never really understood the World title and I think a lot of people feel the same way. 

–So you want to inherit the old tradition and lineage?

Tsuji: No, it’s not that. I’m not too caught up in the old stuff. I started watching when Tanahashi was wrestling Giant Bernard, so talk about Antonio Inoki, quoting ‘The Road’, that doesn’t do anything for me. 

But I have said I’ll carry this company, and if I’m to do that then I can’t ignore its history. If it wasn’t for that past then we wouldn’t have our present, and I think you should use the past as reference to develop new ideas for the future. Plus there’s no doubt that the IWGP title has been diminished since it was relabeled as a World title. I have to put that prestige back. 

–History is certainly something we have that a company like AEW say, doesn’t.

Tsuji: The IWGP is what sets NJPW apart. That’s our biggest tool when it comes to taking on the world in my opinion. 

I have to do what Naito couldn’t

–Have you thought about potential defences after you become champion?

Tsuji: After I split up the World Heavyweight Championship, I want to properly retire the Intercontinental title. There’s only one person to have that title retirement match with.

–There’s one person who put the Intercontinental Championship on the map back in the day…

Tsuji: I don’t think I need to say who.

–Quite the thought. To you personally, is it the Ryogoku main event or the IWGP title, or facing Naito that’s the biggest deal April 6?

Tsuji: I think having an all LIJ Ryogoku main is a huge part in all this. Taking the title off Naito specifically means a lot- like I said I feel I have to do what he couldn’t. So I have to beat him April 6.

–It would be interesting to hear what Naito has to say about that.

Tsuji: Haha. Wouldn’t it? I think he’s probably thinking I’m a pain in the ass. We’ll see.