— Last time, we discussed how you thought about leaving New Japan during their down period. A number of wrestlers left at that time..
Makabe: I talked about it with a few different friends, and they said “If the company’s in such bad shape, why not wait to leave until it goes under?”. I had wanted in so bad, gone through hell to debut here, so I thought that was the best solution.
— You rethought things..
Makabe: Well, then in the 2005 G1 I tore my Achilles tendon. While I was off from that I had a lot of time to think. When friends would visit, and I’d see other wrestlers who happened to be around, I got really excited, you know? I’d look at those guys and think ‘These guys would be happy to see it, I want to finally pull myself up there, let’s give it one more big try.’
–Coming back in 2006, you wrestled in Apache Pro Wrestling, and New Japan’s recently launched LOCK-UP unit, working as a heel.
Makabe: Ah, that’s when everything changed. Kintaro Kanemura (at that time Apache Pro owner) was making fun of me, yelling ‘hey, I never booked Makabe!’. The crowd were all laughing.
— When LOCK-UP’s first show happened, you were feuding with Toru Yano and Tomohiro Ishii. You assaulted both of them but their opponent in the main event, Kanemura put you down in front of the crowd.
Makabe: And now, I don’t blame him, that was the level of recognition I had at the time. But it lit a fire in me. And it made me realise ‘I’m gonna go at it in a way they’ve never seen in New Japan!’
— It might surprise your fans today to know you went over to Apache and took part in barbed wire board deathmatches.
Makabe: I know, right? And I went into those in the same style as usual, no T-shirts or anything to cover myself. But those matches became a key part of me. Up until then, I had no plans of doing that style of match, and all I knew was straightforward wrestling. The deathmatches became a big part of the Togi Makabe character. Just Togi Makabe, Straightforward Wrestler was a boring guy to watch. When I realised that, I did as many deathmatches as I could.
— So you weren’t against doing deathmatches?
Makabe: I had reservations for sure. I hated those guys smoking in the locker room for one. But I was decided. ‘My life, my existence runs through here now.’
— After that, GBH was formed, and when Tenzan was forced out of the group, you became New Japan’s top heel. Did you feel proud of how far you’d come?
Makabe: Proud, maybe. But I felt this sense of duty at the same time.
Makabe: Absolutely. At that point the company were pushing Nakamura and Tanahashi as the top babyfaces. If I’m not there to oppose them, they can’t grow into that role. I thought the New Japan I loved was in danger of going under and I wouldn’t let that happen.
— So you really felt a strong sense of purpose at that time.
Makabe: I had ambition, too. I wanted to change everything about NJPW. Toward the company it was ‘I’m gonna take your boring booking and flip it on its head!’ and to go with that I wanted to make sure I had the most heat with the fans out there.
— So you were still anti-authoritarian.
Makabe: That’s been the story of my career from the start! But at that time in particular it was ‘this place sucks!’
— How did it feel to have the company finally recognise your ability?
Makabe: I think that when I was doing the Apache stuff and they were teaming me with other NJPW guys, it felt ‘my time’s coming now’. But even then, Nakamura and Tanahashi were in the main event picture. ‘You guys are still pushing these losers?’ I thought ‘Well, I’m down to fight and take my spot by force!’
— That’s when your ascension began.
Makabe: Everything that had amassed during my wilderness period, it all completed who I was, in terms of confidence, personality, presence. The guys that were just there to maintain the status quo wouldn’t get a peep from the indie fans. But I got whole crowds booing me off my own ability.
— You had more strings in your bow than any other wrestler.
Makabe: Right. The fans aren’t stupid. They know whether you’re fake or the real deal. So this guy who was treated like crap now being focused on and tearing it up, that’s intriguing.
— GBH was the centre of attention with you at its helm.
Makabe: And because of that, in ring it was straightforward. Babyface versus heel. That’s the kind of wrestling I always loved since I was a kid. I especially remember Osaka- me and Yano against Tenzan and Iizuka. The heat was off the charts. That was awesome.
— You’re referring to Tenzan and Iizuka, great friends at that time tagging together on April 27, 2008. Iizuka would betray Tenzan and join GBH.
Makabe: That moment, it was like time stood still in the building for a couple of seconds you know? The crowd were just shocked ‘eh?’ I’m like ‘yeah, right?’, hah. I felt at that moment, that feeling I had when I was a kid watching. That was New Japan’s revival, I thought.
— After that, in April of 2009, Yano collided with Nakamura to form CHAOS. With the exception of Honma, all the GBH members would leave, putting you in a difficult spot.
That piece of shit Yano, with Nakamura! When that happened, he hit me with the corner of a chair and split my head wide open like a watermelon. Anyway, in the midst of that humiliation, my second chapter began.
— You suddenly amassed all this support from the audience you were against. You went from top heel to a huge babyface in an instant.
Makabe: It’s a pendulum, absolutely. If you’re a top heel and that pendulum swings you’re gonna be a top babyface, right?
At that point the shows still weren’t doing great numbers, but I remember when I came back to the Osaka Prefectural Gym, the pop was loud enough I couldn’t hear. I was looking behind me wondering what massive superstar had just walked out. Then ‘oh, hey, all this is for me!’
–Your popularity surprised even yourself.
Makabe: Well, it’s weird. When I was heel, the fans wouldn’t hold back at all. ‘Makabe, I hate that you exist!’. I heard that! I’d never heard anyone say something like that in my life! But here’s the thing. I never pandered. I never asked for them to react a certain way. Guys that pander to the audience do that because they have all the charm of a turd. My thinking is to make fans see my matches for themselves or regret it later. That’s never changed.
— That attitude carried you to your first G1 victory in 2009 and in May 2010, your first IWGP Championship. Your opponent in both those matches was Shinsuke Nakamura. You were developing an epic rivalry.
Makabe: At that point, Nakamura had gone from being a top face to a lead heel in CHAOS, but he hadn’t quite settled on his style yet. Any hesitation and you’re easy to beat! I mean, I’m a veteran here! Eh, he gave as good as he got sometimes though…
— You had a bloodbath of a chain deathmatch..
Makabe: We did! You couldn’t get as far removed from the deathmatch style as Nakamura, but he stepped into my world that time.
— It was really the common man versus the elite.
Makabe: And the common man won, and the elite fell. There’s nothing more satisfying than that! But in truth, that was Nakamura’s turning point too. He went from the dirt and climbed all the way to the top. The freak! (laughs)
— It was after that he became such a charismatic star.
Makabe: He was just a green guy with a rocket strapped to him before. I said earlier right? If I’m not there to pull them down, they won’t be able to grow. That feud was absolutely me doing my duty in educating him.
— Nakamura would later say his feud with you helped him polish his trash talk.
Makabe: Well, that’s obvious! I’m the master! You’re talking to a guy whose debut match interview was longer than the match itself!
— It goes without saying, but looking back, was the IWGP Championship win the pinnacle of your career?
Makabe: Of course! The IWGP belt is the true pinnacle for New Japan Pro Wrestling. I’m really glad looking back that I had Nakamura as my opponent at that time. I’d been so determined to put him in his place. There’s a huge difference between being a wrestler and being a champion. It’s more different than anyone might think. That’s something that comes out in the ring.
— What’s the biggest difference, being a champion?
Makabe: Everybody’s point of view is different, but if you get to be pride of place, you have to carry the company and pull it along. You’re not hanging off the companies back, you’re the face of the promotion.
— You have to take on a lot of responsibility.
Makabe: It was “I’m going to show you my wrestling. Real wrestling. Drink it in!” That’s the mentality of a top guy.
Continued in part 3!