— You debuted in February 1997, so your 20th anniversary is around the corner. What’s the first thing that comes to mind, thinking back?
Makabe: Oh man, that’s a long time! Well, hang on, maybe it’s been long but short at the same time.
— Long but short?
Makabe: Well the first 10 years after my debut felt like such a slow grind. But, since I started rebelling against the authority when NJPW was down, time has just flown like crazy.
— In 2006, you formed your own unit in Great Bash Heel.
Makabe: That’s it! That was when things changed. I just had this mindset- “the company, the other wrestlers can all eat shit!”. After that everything happened in the blink of an eye!
— That was the turning point. But to approach things chronologically, let’s talk about the start of your career. When you were thinking of becoming a wrestler, was New Japan the only goal you envisaged?
Makabe: I’d say so, more or less. I was interested in UWF International as well, somewhat.
— Ah, when you were involved with student wrestling (ed note: student wrestling clubs exist in many Japanese universities, and are mainly looked down on by the mainstream, similar to backyard wrestling in the west) you borrowed a UWF ring, right?
Makabe: Yeah, that’s right. I connected with them when I went to a UWF show.Looking at young Kazushi Sakuraba and Yoshihiro Takayama kicking ass, I really looked up to them. But I thought that if I was going to be a wrestler, I wanted to be in the top company in the world, and New Japan was the high water mark.
— But when you came into New Japan, you failed the tryout first time and passed on your second try..
Makabe: Yeah. One of the guys that got through that time couldn’t take it, just cut loose really soon after. So two months later they had another tryout. Me and this other guy got in, later I heard that was out of 360 applicants.
— Two out of 360!
Makabe: Crazy right? Hearing that made getting in an even bigger achievement.
— It was more exclusive then.
Makabe: Too exclusive! But if you think about it, we were the Japanese baby boom generation. I think that day, there were maybe 30 of us? I remember it even now, Takashi Iizuka yelled at me doing squats. “All the way up! Lift your heels!”
— It seems crazy to think about it now looking at his style, but in those days Iizuka was coaching. You’ve been very open in the past about how tough things were for you when you broke in.
Makabe: It might have been a different story if there was someone else there with me. But the other guy that made it through the tryout was just a kid straight out of high school. He quit almost right away. I had at least been through university so I was a little more mature. I told him ‘if you’re going to quit, at least do the right thing and tell everyone’. But before (Katsuyori) Shibata and (Wataru) Inoue came in as my juniors, it was a hellish two years.
— What kept you going through that period?
Makabe: Stupidity? Craziness? But a rebellious spirit as well I think. I just thought “man, when I walk outta here, I’m going to *REDACTED* everyone with a *REDACTED*!” That extreme (straight faced).
— It took you to your extremes as a person.
Makabe: It really did. The most frustrating thing about it was just how inconsistent everybody was. One guy here would say “OK”, another “absolutely not”. I had no idea what the right thing to do was.
— It was a period where the senior wrestlers got away with a lot of unreasonable treatment. You said yourself before that you changed that approach.
Makabe: I just thought I wanted to fix what was broken. It’s important to teach perseverance, and a lot of that is in being strict. But just constant negativity doesn’t do any good.
— Did that terrible experience help who you are now?
Makabe: Well I didn’t want it to have all been in vain. I survived this messed up situation just out of a sense of arrogance, and maybe I actually knew right from wrong. But looking back, maybe I was a stubborn young kid, you know? I definitely talked a lot of shit about my debut match!
— You were so long with your interview the reporters missed the next match!
Haha! I think another reason I stuck it out was I didn’t want to go back to my hometown not having made it as a wrestler. My friends, the people around me all loved wrestling, and I didn’t want them to feel I was a quitter. And I didn’t want to leave NJPW for another promotion.
‘I’m over with the crowd, I go to NOAH and headline, come back and I’m still jerking the curtain?’
— You broke in when New Japan was enjoying more popularity than even today. This was when the company ran a four major stadium dome tour. What was that period like for you?
Makabe: That stuff felt normal back then. But there was this sense of ‘we’re doing so well, so why am I not getting anywhere?’ I’d get chances here and there, but one thing would never lead to the next. I just had to keep training.
— You were in the wilderness somewhat, but as you say, you did get chances. Three years after your debut you were in the Super J Cup, and the next year teamed with Riki Choshu to challenge for Tenzan and Kojima’s IWGP Tag Team Championships. You teamed with Yuji Nagata and went to All Japan as well.
Makabe: Yeah, and I’d get coverage for it. Me and Choshu were on the covers of magazines at that time. But after something like that, next I’d be in the opening match again. I just thought I’d never be able to string anything together. It was the same feeling coming back from my foreign excursion.
–When you came back in September 2002, a highlight was teaming with Yoshihiro Takayama in June 2003 and having huge outbursts at NOAH shows.
Makabe: Oh yeah! I was frustrated. I was over with the crowd, headlining NOAH shows, but when I went back I’d just be jerking the curtain again.
— What were your feelings toward the company at that time?
Makabe: I thought ‘this place sucks’ to be honest. That’s all I thought. I was in that spot in NOAH, was getting a lot of press but the company didn’t care. My personal life was pretty rocky back then too, heh.
— And at that time, the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi were getting a lot of focus despite coming in after you.
Makabe: Right. I was just a ball of hate, or of this desire to rebel. “I am going to surpass these worthless guys” kind of thing. Perhaps that was me deflecting from my shortcomings.
— Bluffing perhaps?
Makabe: One thing I remember even now is when I went to an MMA event a friend was involved with. And Shinsuke Nakamura, he’d just started at that point, came to me and said “I have a friend on that card too. Mind if I come with you?”. We went to a cafe beforehand and just shot the shit for ages, had a great time.
Makabe: But right after that, he started getting his big push, and then I didn’t hang out with him at all.
— You weren’t getting the same attention. Are there matches during that wilderness period that stand out to you?
Makabe: Definitely the title matches with Choshu and Takayama. Fighting alongside my masters and being able to prove myself to the bosses. “I’m not a name to you, but I’ll make sure to show you something awesome” kind of thing.
— That Takayama tag period in September 2003 saw you wrestle the legendary Seiji Sakaguchi, wearing a judo gi.
Makabe: Ah, yes! In Nagoya Rainbow Hall. I gave Sakaguchi a body drop. Later He came to me and told me how dare I threw him!
— You scored a point against the former All Japan judo champion!
Makabe: That was a hell of a match. Sakaguchi’s partner was that Goddamn Chono (Masahiro), and his son (actor Kenji Sakaguchi) was in his corner. “A situation like this, I’m going all out,” I thought.
“I knew that I needed to create my own opportunities. I just didn’t understand how”
— Kenji Sakaguchi was very popular at the time, so that match got a lot of mainstream attention.
Makabe: Yep. But after that, right back to the opening match. I’m thinking “they go through that, and put me in that spot, so why am I treated like this? Can you teacher’s pets do this? ” and I didn’t think Nakamura, Tanahashi, Shibata could be in the mainstream at the time.
— You were feuding with the ‘New Three Musketeers’ at that point.
Makabe: At the time, they were just guys. “Ok, you guys can wrestle”. That was about it. They didn’t inspire like the guys that inspired me as a kid. They didn’t have the fighting spirit of Inoki, the badass nature of Choshu, the grace of Tiger Mask, the power of Hogan.. these guys had none of those things. But that was jealousy speaking. Everybody else was thinking the same of me.
— You’ve calmed down a bit since then.
Makabe: Honestly at the time they looked at me as the bathroom break guy. And I was so frustrated. “This isn’t the pro wrestling I aspired to”, I thought. This was during the MMA boom, a lot of people were leaving the company, New Japan was in a lot of trouble… It was just daily, “this place sucks”. My private life wasn’t much better.
— Seems your private life was always rough back then!
Makabe: For a wrestler the question is always “just what is a chance?”. The company wouldn’t give me an opportunity. So, OK. I knew I had to create my own opportunities. I just didn’t understand how. It seemed I could have great matches every night to no recognition. I did great matches but spotlight was always on elders and scums. I was just under constant stress, thinking “what the hell do they want from me?”
— You gave thought to leaving at the time.
Makabe: Yeah, there were a few times when I thought about quitting.
Continued in part 2!