With NJPW just days away from rocking the Walter Pyramid for Fighting Spirit Unleashed (limited tickets still available!), NJPW1972.com caught up with the Ace, NJPW icon and G1 Climax 28 Winner Hiroshi Tanahashi for his thoughts. (This interview was conducted before September 23)
Match lineup for “FIGHTING SPIRIT UNLEASHED”: https://www.njpw1972.com/tornament/33018?showCards=1
Tickets information: www.longbeachstate.com/njpw
— So, with Fighting Spirit Unleashed coming up, I wanted us to talk about NJPW’s expansion into America.
Tanahashi: Sounds good.
— First of all, last July saw NJPW’s first shows on American soil as its own separate entity. How did you feel about that first advance into the US?
Tanahashi: Ah, those two dates in LA. But you know, before that, back in 2011, I actually defended the IWGP title (on May 14) in New York. The whole NJPW crew went over.
— This was when NJPW were working with the Jersey All Pro promotion. It was also when a tournament was held to determine the first IWGP Intercontinental Champion.
Tanahashi: Right. That was like ‘one small step for NJPW’, a prototype of what we have now. I was in the main event with Charlie Haas. But Prince Devitt and Low Ki has a junior title match right before us that just blew everyone away. They turned a small step into a giant leap right past us. We couldn’t follow it.
— They were in the middle of their rivalry, it stole the show.
Tanahashi: After that, it wasn’t NJPW presented as NJPW in America but instead we were guesting on ROH cards. Having had that New York experience I wasn’t sure going into those shows whether it was really a step up.
— But the big difference then was that NJPW World meant that fans in America knew about NJPW. You could come out on an ROH show and get a huge reaction, which really showed the fans’ knowledge.
Tanahashi: Right, it’s clear the fans are following the product in real time. Everybody singing along to Kaze ni Nare for Suzuki, stuff like that.
— Last year in LA, you defended you IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Billy Gunn. You had said beforehand that you wanted to face him, right?
Tanahashi: Billy Gunn! He’s older than me and still looks amazing, just so big and ripped. I always thought ‘I want to be like him’. And then we finally got to wrestle. We both showed our asses in that match, literally. I think some people were going ‘what the hell did Tanahashi go to America to do?’
— You said afterward you were going to try and make ‘bare butt Tanahashi’ a thing on every American tour going forward.
Tanahashi: I did! But then the next two times I didn’t get a chance to whip the cheeks out, so that promise fell by the wayside.
— Was it a special experience for you, wrestling Billy Gunn?
Tanahashi: Absolutely. I’ve got so much respect for him. I’m really glad we could have that match together.
— The next US show was March 25, the Walter Pyramid and Strong Style Evolved. The main event was the Young Bucks versus Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi.
Tanahashi: Yeah. I recorded a podcast afterward with KUSHIDA. I think he’d had a few drinks and was mad, asked ‘Was that really a New Japan main event?!?’
— You yourself were actually a little upset that was the choice the company went with to headline the show.
Tanahashi: Right. That was the booking that the company felt was best for the American fans. I wasn’t so much thinking ‘that’s the wrong move’, but I did think ‘maybe it’s time to reflect on where the rest of us are lacking’. We weren’t in a position where our programs where main event worthy, and I think the responsibility for that fell on us somewhat.
— That night you were part of Taguchi Japan, teaming with Ryusuke Taguchi, KUSHIDA and Dragon Lee against Los Ingobernables De Japon. The Walter Pyramid is really a stunning building, isn’t it?
Tanahashi: It’s gorgeous. And it’s actually a pyramid!
— You were saying before we went ‘oh wow, it’s a real pyramid!’
Tanahashi: I wasn’t expecting it to be! And then when I looked up some images, it was really surprising. A big blue pyramid, at that.
— Next was July 7, San Francisco and the Cow Palace. It’s long been a Mecca for wrestling fans.
Tanahashi: Apparently so. I did some research before the show and saw how many classic title matches were held there.
— Tiger Hattori (legendary NJPW referee) was saying ‘Masa Saito wrestled here a ton of times’. How was it wrestling there?
Tanahashi: The atmosphere was great and the fans were loud, but I wasn’t happy with my spot, only third on the card (with KUSHIDA against Hangman Page and Marty Scurll).
— I see.
Tanahashi: I really felt then that if NJPW was going to keep going to America, we needed to stop trying to alter things to try and make them more American. It should be New Japan Pro Wrestling, as is, in the States. We really need to show that ‘Made In Japan’ aspect, I think.
— I understand. Certainly as G1 winner you’re entitled to express that and have people listen. The September 23 briefcase match with Okada would have made a good match for America in that sense, to say ‘this is New Japan!’
Tanahashi: That would be pretty cool. We had a tag match against one another in ROH and got huge chants just for looking at one another.
— The LA Dojo has been established as the American home base at this point. Your thoughts on the dojo?
Tanahashi: There’s a tremendous upside there, and some really great young guys there who are motivated and want to wrestle New Japan style. (Katsuyori) Shibata is really driving ‘New Japan ism’ home to these kids. He’s got a kendo stick and everything. (Laughs)
— Have you worked out in the Dojo yet?
Tanahashi: No, not yet. But I’ve heard a lot of talk. Apparently whenever Shibata says anything they all yell ‘yes sir!’. They all call him ‘sir’.
— The Dojo students came to the Cow Palace show.
Tanahashi: They came backstage. There’s three guys who are real hot prospects, I think? I spoke to them myself. Said ‘you guys are our future’. That was my chat-up line. (Laughs)
— That’s quite a cliched line!
Tanahashi: It’s a bit overdone! At the rate it gets said we won’t see the present for all the future running around. Anyway, Shibata has the LA guys doing the exact same regimen we do in Japan. If you tell a bunch of foreign trainees ‘OK, give me 1000 squats!’ they won’t necessarily understand why that’s important, what the meaning behind doing that is.
— It seems.. not irrational, but it’d take most people aback.
Tanahashi: But Shibata just tells them to do it. He doesn’t take questions, doesn’t dress it up, just has them do it. And it’s through that, you find out. The only ones left sticking it out are the ones that really want it.
— They have to be saying ‘yes sir’ and mean it from the heart.
Tanahashi: Right. The ones left there now have a lot of respect for Shibata, and a lot of respect for his leadership. I have no doubt the ones that make it to an NJPW ring will all have good prospects.
— They’ll have gone through the same, not hell perhaps, but very much the same teaching, the same NJPW-ism.
Tanahashi: For a few years before this, we’ve had a few foreigners come into the Japanese Dojo and go through the system. Juice Robinson, David Finlay. Tama Tonga and Karl Anderson before that.
— Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor in WWE) as well..
Tanahashi: That system was a big step in the globalization of NJPW, because the Dojo is world renowned. I think the same thing will happen to the LA Dojo.
— It’ll be huge for the wrestlers and fans if these Dojo prospects can get out in front of the LA crowd.
Tanahashi: Right. I can see a lot of pride from LA fans to them, just like the Japanese Young Lions. It’d be amazing to see them maybe become IWGP US Champion.
— Your match hasn’t been announced as of yet, but with Fighting Spirit Unleashed coming up on September 30, what do you want to show the US fans?
Tanahashi: Like I said before, I want to show that Made In Japan feel. With NJPW World there are so many fans now that watch our cards live or near live. I want to bring them what they see streaming on their devices in person right in front of them. It reminds me of when WWE came to Japan and I was at the show. It would have been 2002 maybe? The Rock was definitely there (March 1 2002, Yokohama Arena). They had a Japanese ring announcer translating what the English announcer said. Whenever that guy spoke he got booed.
— The fans were saying ‘we want to see WWE just like we see on TV!’
Tanahashi: Right. They were saying ‘forget the translation, we want to see the authentic American product’ I think. I think there are American fans that want the same from NJPW. Not something rearranged for ‘American tastes’ but the real deal. That’s what I want to show them.
— Whether or not that comes to pass, that’s your hope as G1 Winner.
Tanahashi: Right. A lot of American fans saw me win the G1, and I got such a huge international response on Twitter after I won.
— Indeed. Even Chris Jericho sent his congratulations, while still saying ‘I’m watching you!’
Tanahashi: Yes. I was kind of ‘OK, you don’t have to watch so closely..’ (Laughs)
— Jericho with a rare moment of kindness..
Tanahashi: Honoured, I’m sure (laughs). But yeah, about half of the responses I got online were from English speaking countries.
— It might be a good idea to take the G1 trophy with you to LA. The fans would be hyped to see it.
Tanahashi: Right! Only thing is getting that huge thing on the plane! Maybe I’ll get a scale miniature made!
Watch Fighting Spirit Unleashed LIVE exclusively on NJPW World on September 30 at 5PM Pacific, with English commentary from Kevin Kelly and Jim Ross!