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‘A first for many newer fans, to see this ‘Battle of Ideologies’
— Well, Tanahashi, January 4th, the Tokyo Dome, is just around the corner. This will be your first time back in the main event after a while. How are you feeling about it?
Tanahashi: It’s been 3 years since I faced Okada in the main event, in 2016. This will be my 10th time in the spotlight!
— You’ve main-evented on January 4th in the Tokyo Dome more times than any other wrestler. Does this time mean something different to you?
Tanahashi: Well, I’ve been in this position many times, so I shouldn’t have a problem. However, I am feeling a different kind of anxiety this time.
— What kind of anxiety?
Tanahashi: With Kenny (Grumbles)…
— Are you saying that this opponent poses a different challenge than you’ve experienced before?
Tanahashi: To be honest, yes. There’s a lot of baggage to unpack here. But, I’ve never hidden my feelings from the fans.
— Indeed, this ‘Battle of Ideologies’, has been much discussed among the fans.
Tanahashi: Part of me wonders, “Why did this have to become about ideologies?” But when I brought up the babyface vs heel dynamic, Kenny responded with, “Why does it have to be so old-fashioned?” I then realized that Kenny doesn’t care how he’s viewed.
— Babyface vs heel is classic pro-wrestling, which is something you appreciate, isn’t it?
Tanahashi: If Kenny wants to go his own way, I can fire things up by saying, “I don’t like Kenny,” which puts the ire on myself. However, this may make it difficult for my fans to stand behind me.
— You have many fans standing behind you.
Tanahashi: So, then, which direction should I go? What should I do? I settled on, ‘The Battle of Ideologies’.
— At the base of this clash, which you’ve built, is a difference of opinion and perspective. We’ve seen much anger directed to you on social media from Kenny’s fans. Of course, the same is happening on his side, as well.
Tanahashi: I believe very strongly in what I’ve said about Kenny, so no matter what his fans say, I’m unaffected.
— Your confidence in yourself is unwavering.
Tanahashi: At the same time, this maybe a first for many newer fans, to see this ‘Battle of Ideologies’. It may make it uncomfortable for those who love all of what New Japan offers.
— They may not be used to seeing opponents go after each other in such a harsh manner. It makes things uncomfortable for everyone.
Tanahashi: Yes, it’s putting the fans in a tough spot. That being said, I wanted to show that pro-wrestling can be enjoyed on this mature level, not just the fun and fierce side I usually aim for.
— I see your point.
Tanahashi: If they say that babyface vs heel is old-fashioned, then I propose something new. And now the fight at the Tokyo Dome is taking shape.
— Precisely. Things are really heating up.
Tanahashi: But at the same time, I’m getting a lot of criticism for it. Back in the day, (Shinsuke) Nakamura once said, “There is so much tension between us, it feels like a war between companies.”
— That’s true. When you feuded with Nakamura, the atmosphere was extremely tense. You criticized him, accusing him of, “Being cursed in Strong Style.”
Tanahashi: Yes. Things were awkward with Nakamura and (Katsuyori) Shibata in the early 2000’s. But that has made me stronger, mentally (laughs).
— Also, in recent years, you made a statement after a match with DDT’s Harashima, where you said, “I don’t want people to think all pro-wrestling companies are on the same level.” That was very controversial.
Tanahashi: Yeah, I can be a trouble-maker at times. Sometimes I like to rock the boat, but always with a smile.
— Surprising to many, that is how you really are.
Tanahashi: People think I’m always peaceful and want to be friends with everyone. But I’m more like a brightly-colored frog from the Amazon rainforest, which can poison you, out of nowhere.
‘I was able to hold onto my persona by avoiding that ladder match in Osaka’
— You’ve faced Kenny once before, haven’t you?
Tanahashi: Yes, in Nagaoka.
— You faced Kenny there on February 14th, 2016, for the vacated IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Initially, Kenny was set to challenge Nakamura for that title, but Nakamura returned the belt upon his exit of New Japan. A new challenger was announced, simply as “X”. It was to be you, a gift from the departing Nakamura.
Tanahashi: Nakamura told me, “Tanahashi, I’ll leave it to you.”
— It sure was something, as Nakamura put his hand on your shoulder, walking away from Kenny.
Tanahashi: (Chuckles) And after all that time, Shibata stood in my corner at this year’s G1.
— Everything comes back to the New Three Musketeers. Kenny was also there, standing in Kota Ibushi’s corner.
Tanahashi: Yeah, he was.
— That match for the vacated title, in Nagaoka, it was make or break time. Right before that, Kenny declared his intention to move up to the heavyweight division. He was victorious and took control of BULLET CLUB, as it’s the new leader.
Tanahashi: That was the turning point. From there, Kenny took off. At the same time, I hit a rut and started to drop.
— You were supposed to have a rematch with Kenny in New Japan’s first ever ladder match in Osaka-Jo Hall (Dominion). However, while facing Kenny in a warm-up match, you suffered a left shoulder injury and had to miss the match.
Tanahashi: At that time I was so motivated to carry New Japan, as Nakamura and AJ (Styles) had just left. But my actions couldn’t match that motivation.
— Kenny carried that momentum into his G1 debut, and went on to be the first ever foreign winner.
Tanahashi: I regret that I couldn’t put a stop to Kenny’s surge. But… Another part of me believes I was able to hold onto my persona by avoiding that ladder match at Dominion.
— I see. Because a ladder match would totally be in Kenny’s wheelhouse.
Tanahashi: If I had done that ladder match, I don’t think I could have proclaimed to Kenny, “This is New Japan,” after his IWGP Heavyweight 3 way match in October. So, missing that match (at Dominion) ended up being meaning for me.
— But at first you were willing to participate in the ladder match, weren’t you? Both you and Kenny hold Shawn Michaels in high esteem, one of the innovators of the ladder match.
Tanahashi: At first I was like, ‘This should be fun,’ but as I think about it now, there may have a been a higher power that kept me out of that match (laughs). It may be the reason why we stand here now, in 2018.
— Some kind of higher power, pulling your strings?
Tanahashi: If I hadn’t had that ladder match, nothing I say right now would have merit.
‘Kenny claims, “Tanahashi hasn’t changed at all,” but I want to tell him, “I’m a completely different man”’
— Since the title match was set in October, you both have had harsh words and fierce warm-ups. Now that the match is just around the corner, what is your current impression of Kenny?
Tanahashi: I re-watched our press conference and read his interviews, I find many of his ideas and principles to be very shallow.
— Kenny said, “I’m the one who is leading New Japan, now. Tanahashi can’t accept that reality.”
Tanahashi: He also says, “My style is what fans like the best.” He is indeed, very shallow.
— What do you mean by that?
Tanahashi: He speaks so blindly. He claims that I can’t move anymore, but it’s something that happens to all of us.
— You say that often. If we look back, when you feuded with Nakamura, it was about being conservative vs innovative…
Tanahashi: I was the innovative one. I was always like that. Although Kenny thinks I haven’t done anything, I’ve done a lot to change New Japan.
— While Nakamura was saying, ‘Why not fight through the past’, while facing the history of New Japan, you suggested a shift in values.
Tanahashi: Yes. I began saying, “I love you,” after matches. I started playing air-guitar and greeting fans at ringside.
— It was something very different from what we had seen in New Japan before.
Tanahashi: It was about creating new meaning for what New Japan can be. At the same time, many people booed me. So when Kenny says I haven’t changed anything in New Japan, I dismiss that completely.
— It’s interesting to see you become more conservative as time goes on, where as in the past you went against the grain.
Tanahashi: Yes, my role has switched. I find myself in the position of being a symbol of what New Japan is.
— So, with that in mind, is it possible for you to understand where Kenny is coming from?
Tanahashi: It’s true, he’s in the same position I used to be in. However, I don’t think change for change’s sake is necessarily good. There are good and bad aspects to change.
— You’re saying it’s wrong to want to change everything, correct?
Tanahashi: Kenny believes that as long as he sits at the top he has the right to do whatever he wants to. I won’t argue with that, but I don’t have to like it. I didn’t say anything when he decided to have that 3 way match, but I called it dull afterwards because that’s the truth.
— Then you told him, “This is New Japan.” However, you chose those words because you knew they would hit Kenny hard. You have zero give on that point.
Tanahashi: Mhmm. I scope things out. When I want people to focus on a point, I say a lot of things, like, “Your time is running out.” But some of the things I say, even I haven’t thought them through.
— You just let it all out?
Tanahashi: Yes, but that’s how I like to do things. I like to foreshadow. I toss out many ideas, but beneath it all I’m drawing connections. This is important. I actually don’t want to show my hand, but some of the things I said were picked up on by some fans. That was sloppy on my part.
— Fans hang on your every word.
Tanahashi: But I never lie. What I say is always what I believe.
‘At the core of Kenny’s frustration is a need for approval. I can sense his desire for wanting to be appreciated’
— Earlier you commented that after you beat Ibushi in the G1 final, Kenny was shooting daggers at you.
Tanahashi: Yes, he was staring at me, very intently.
— We asked Kenny about that moment and he answered viciously, “I should have killed Tanahashi right then and there.”
Tanahashi: (Laughs) Right, he should have done it then.
— Kenny also sharply criticized the decision to have Shibata as your second, saying, “The desperate old man used every trick to make sure he’s in the center at the end. Is being the champion or the ACE that important to him?”
Tanahashi: I see. He’s saying that I’m using everything at my disposal to make up for my diminished skills.
— We know that you are very much a thinking man’s wrestler.
Tanahashi: I understand. It all comes down to my belief of what pro-wrestling is and how it differs from Kenny’s idea. He thinks it’s all about using many flashy moves, but that’s completely different from how I feel.
— Kenny accused you of using Shibata as one of your ploys.
Tanahashi: To be honest, even I was surprised when Shibata asked if I wanted his support at the G1 final.
— That wasn’t your intention all along?
Tanahashi: Of course I knew that when I went out there with Shibata, that we’d get a huge reaction. But I didn’t use him to my benefit.
— Understood. Kenny is also frustrated that when New Japan is featured on TV on various programs and shows, he’s not the one in the spotlight.
Tanahashi: But if the situation was reversed, if we were in America, a Japanese wrestler would face the same problem. There are always obstacles which makes things difficult for foreigners, anywhere. But he can’t use that as an excuse. He has to take it upon himself to make it happen.
— I see.
Tanahashi: At the core of Kenny’s frustration is a need for approval. I can sense his desire for wanting to be appreciated. ‘Why is Tanahashi still admired more than me, even though I’ve had so many amazing matches?’
— It appears that it’s very frustrating for Kenny. Even though he devotes his life to pro-wrestling, he doesn’t get the credit he feels he deserves. His hard work hasn’t completely paid off.
Tanahashi: But that is because Kenny only sees things from one perspective. He believes that his opinion of what makes a great match is all that matters.
‘Kenny gets irritated that he doesn’t get the acknowledgement that he wants, so he lashes out. He is fueled by the need to be recognized’
— You said, “Kenny only sees things from one perspective. He believes that his standard of what makes a great match is the only one that matters.” You think there’s more to it than that?
Tanahashi: We show our humanity in our wrestling. I said this at the award press conference, that even the standard of that award has changed over time.
— On December 13th, at that Best of Pro-Wrestling press conference you said, “The criteria for selection has changed over the years. I was highly scored for my effort in spreading pro-wrestling to the masses.”
Tanahashi: I think I was the one who brought about real change. You don’t get that award based solely on what you do in the ring, anymore. It’s also about raising the stock and value of pro-wrestling.
— The award, itself, is not based on one aspect anymore.
Tanahashi: I’m a pain in Kenny’s ass because he wants to be evaluated solely on what he does in a match.
— He wants them to value his in-ring performance most of all.
Tanahashi: In that criteria, it can be said that Kenny is number one, isn’t he? He does get huge reactions from the crowds. However, I’m still ahead of him when it comes to being the topic of discussion. Kenny’s frustrated, thinking, ‘I have all these great matches and I’m the IWGP Heavyweight champion, but that old jerk gets the headlines from just a little Tweet’. (Grins)
— He’s very annoyed by you.
Tanahashi: He has this chip on his shoulder, ‘If I try harder than Tanahashi, I’m better than Tanahashi’. Kenny gets irritated that he doesn’t get the acknowledgement that he wants, so he lashes out. He is fueled by the need to be recognized.
— I see.
Tanahashi: Of course it’s important to have a thrilling match, but at the same time, that’s not all that pro-wrestling is about. It’s not only about how long you’ve been doing it. It’s not a ‘iron-man contest’. It all comes down to a pin-fall or a submission. That is why sometimes you go for a roll-up or a tap-out, depending on the situation.
— It’s not just about flashy moves.
Tanahashi: It’s what I’ve been doing my entire career. In this past G1, I showed many different ways to get a win. Pro-wrestling is a mature sport, in that sense.
— There are a lot of various elements that go into a match.
Tanahashi: Tanahashi is like the original Nintendo, it all depends on your inputs. Everything that you manipulate is done entirely by your actions. But newer game devices have many automatic functions, you can pull off a combo just by pressing one button. That’s the difference between us. You either like flashy games, or games with depth.
‘Why not?! It should be me. My aim is set on Madison Square Garden’
— I’ll bring it up again; you don’t like Kenny’s style of wrestling, do you?
Tanahashi: I don’t like it (clearly). In Rolling Stone Magazine, I said that every road Kenny takes is left in ashes.
— Left in ashes?
Tanahashi: To put it plainly, he doesn’t spare a thing. So everyone else has to lose more than he does. It’s like if you use up all the nutrients on the land, then you have to move on to someplace else. It leaves his opponents empty handed.
— You’re saying he dries up all the land?
Tanahashi: It’s something that Liger told me, before. In the old days or pro-wrestling in America, every company had their own territory. And there was one champion who traveled to all the territories and faced challengers.
— That’s how the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship used to work.
Tanahashi: Fans would root for their local guy, and the champion would bring the best out of him, even in defeat. And the local fans would think, ‘Our guy was close. If he could go a little harder, he could win’. That gave the fans hope. Liger told me, “That’s my image of a champion. That’s why I call you ‘Champ’, Tana.”
— He calls you ‘Champ’ even when you don’t hold a title. Does that mean you don’t see that champion figure in Kenny?
Tanahashi: It is what it is. Actually, I was thinking about when Kenny faced Okada and then Naito, why didn’t we have these same discussions then? Was it because they both can move at the same pace? Or do they have the same ideas and principles? I wondered why someone like Naito, who doesn’t mince words, didn’t go after Kenny more.
— You questioned why they didn’t have a battle of ideologies with each other?
Tanahashi: I wonder… Maybe they all think the same? (Laughs)
— By the way, Okada, who you recently tagged with, said that he could understand both, you and Kenny’s points of views. It was a surprise to us, as we thought he’d side with you more.
Tanahashi: He usually stays neutral. Perhaps there’s a level of respect between and Okada and Kenny from their matches together. On the other hand, there’s no respect between Kenny and I, at all (Laughs).
— Indeed. You are the one wrestler who completely stands at opposition to Kenny.
Tanahashi: Yes, that’s true. Before, he received many accolades, and that recognition gave him some sense of satisfaction and comfort. But once I said, “I don’t think you’re right,” my own fans took action. Even at Korakuen Hall, Kenny admitted, “I’m not as popular as I thought.”
— You’re referring to his comments on the mic at the last show of the year, December 15th, in Korakuen Hall. Kenny did mention that he realized he wasn’t as fully supported as he had once thought.
Tanahashi: I watched him say those words. But I think he was waiting to hear the fans answer, “No, Kenny, of course that’s not true.”
— Kenny’s also said, “As New Japan proceeds with overseas expansion, it shouldn’t be Tanahashi who takes the lead role. This is my pro-wrestling.” He was adamant about not leaving the main event at Madison Square Garden to Tanahashi.
Tanahashi: Why not?! It should be me. My aim is set on Madison Square Garden.
— Kenny believes he’s the reason why the tickets sold out, because fans want to see him there.
Tanahashi: I see. Does that mean they’ll return the tickets if Kenny isn’t there? (Laughs)
— No matches have been announced yet. What do you think when Kenny says that his style of wrestling is the most important to New Japan going forward?
Tanahashi: I completely disagree. What Kenny did was bring his American style to Japan. If we bring that style back to America, again, then it doesn’t have any connection to New Japan style, at all.
— You claim that his style of wrestling is something completely different than New Japan’s own.
Tanahashi: Yes. I want to display what’s great about New Japan on the global stage. Naito has said something similar before, as well.
— That’s true. Naito said, “We should show our own style to foreign fans, instead of altering it.”
Tanahashi: It’s not an easy question to answer, ‘What’s special about New Japan?’ If the overseas market is made up by a majority of Kenny fans, then New Japan has a chance to show them something entirely different.
— You’re saying that there are far more possibilities available.
Tanahashi: Yes. The Young Lions being trained by Shibata, right now in the LA Dojo, are giving us a glimpse of the future.
‘Pro-wrestling is a sport that is open to various concepts and ideas, but Kenny is trying to unify that philosophy into one kind of thing. I don’t think that’s right’
— Kenny sees you as a fossil. “Tanahashi just wants to hold on to his position. He’s useless to the company.”
Tanahashi: I completely dismiss that (Sly smile). I want to ask Okada or Naito, ‘Don’t you guys hear the warning sirens?’
— In the past, Naito has commended Kenny’s style of wrestling.
Tanahashi: Right. Naito doesn’t go after Kenny at all. Well… That may be the trend these days.
— Are there any wrestlers who agree with you?
Tanahashi: Wrestlers that don’t like Kenny? Yeah. There are a few. It doesn’t have anything to do with Kenny’s personality. I remember a lesson from a debate class, ‘You have to separate opinions from character’. Don’t hate someone for what they think. No matter how heated the argument, afterwards you should be able to go out to dinner together.
— When it comes down to it, you don’t despise each other, even though you have very different opinions.
Tanahashi: Even though I don’t like his style of wrestling, I wouldn’t say I don’t like the person he is. I can separate the wrestler from the person. However, when it comes time to fight, it’s easier for me if I combine them.
— That makes sense. Wrestling is a fight, not a debate.
Tanahashi: If I say I don’t like his style, but I like the person, that would confuse everyone. (Sly smile)
— But Kenny even attacks your fans, calling them a ‘cult’ and ‘elderly’.
Tanahashi: He even goes after my fans, huh? Well… Then why doesn’t he just accept his own heel persona? Why doesn’t he look and talk the part? That’s what makes me question, what he really means when he says, “I’m not as popular as I thought.”
— You say he’s inconsistent?
Tanahashi: Since he won’t stand for a classic babyface vs heel dynamic, I brought Kenny to the battle of ideologies. But it’s tough as hell. I had to drag the fans into it, too. It’s painful.
— This is kind of uncharted territory for New Japan, isn’t it?
Tanahashi: Absolutely. This is the final battle to close out the Heisei Era. This is war, just like when we went up against UWF, in the early years of Heisei.
— In the last preview match at Korakuen Hall, it all came to a head. It was a seesaw affair, and the crowd was heavily invested. It looks like it’s all worked out, hasn’t it?
Tanahashi: No, not really. It was just me against the 3 of them. (Sly grin)
— You felt like your partner, (Will) Ospreay, was your opponent, too?
Tanahashi: I was in a bad situation. Online, people called us, ‘The 3 speedsters and the immobile Tanahashi’. Others said, ‘Was Tanahashi really even there?’
— I believe some thought, ‘Tanahashi did great, keeping up the pace with that hyper offense and defense’.
Tanahashi: I thought so too (Laughs). However, Kenny has impacted the way fans judge wrestling. If you watch through his filter, perhaps there’s no way you can imagine Tanahashi beating him. They’re probably thinking, ‘It’ll be 30 minutes and filled with death-defying moves. That’ll be the only way it can be legitimate’. No. Not for me. What is it that makes it decisive, really?
— They have their own idea of what makes it a convincing win.
Tanahashi: Yes, but now many fans are thinking that way. It’s hard to change the flow of things. But that’s the beauty of pro-wrestling. Even if you have more left in you, you may be caught off guard, and lose by pin-fall. Or you opponent may wrench your arm and make you tap out, even if you could still go for more.
— It’s not just about the hard-hitting and dangerous moves.
Tanahashi: Pro-wrestling is a sport that is open to various concepts and ideas, but Kenny is trying to unify that philosophy into one kind of thing. I don’t think that’s right.
‘I imaged a match between Kenny and Choshu. I saw Choshu winning quickly with a Riki Lariat followed up by a Sharpshooter’
— We’ve gotten many of your thoughts so far, but we still can’t anticipate how this match will play out.
Tanahashi: Neither can I (Laughs). We are saying some major things to each other. However, I was just thinking that I have to combat his idea of his one unified style.
— You feel that sense of responsibility?
Tanahashi: The other day I ran into (Riki) Choshu at the dojo. I imaged a match between Kenny and Choshu. I saw Choshu winning quickly with a Riki Lariat followed up by a Sharpshooter.
— I see. Very interesting.
Tanahashi: I can’t imagine that match going 30 minutes, but I can picture Choshu winning after 10. Choshu wouldn’t let Kenny dictate the match.
— Right. Because Choshu would be above the influence of Kenny Omega’s wrestling style.
Tanahashi: I believe that even with just one powerful elbow strike, if you use it with a strong spirit, it can last forever in people’s memories. I don’t care for the kind of wrestling that is the sum of addition. I’ve never thought otherwise, since the beginning of my career.
— You’ve been consistent in your thinking.
Tanahashi: Mhmm. How did this interview go? I have to admit I got riled up to hear Kenny talk about me the way he does.
— It’s fine. We can understand your passion.
Tanahashi: I have nothing else to say at this point. I’ve already talked plenty, everywhere (Laughs).
— Finally, Kenny says the Dome will be Tanahashi’s funeral. How do you see the match playing out?
Tanahashi: Maybe it will be like when Keiji Mutoh was reborn.
— What do you mean by that?
Tanahashi: After his injuries, he had to adjust his pace, alternating between slow and fast movements. But I don’t want to rip him off. Perhaps I can create my own new style. If Kenny’s going to go after my age… At Inoki’s retirement ceremony, Fujinami fought against Sasaki…
— It was for the IWGP Heavyweight title, April 4th, 1998, in the Tokyo Dome. Fujinami captured the title from Sasaki in dedication to his mentor, Inoki.
Tanahashi: Fujinami was maybe 44 at the time. As a diehard Fujinami fan, at the show I yelled out, “Fujinami! This won’t be your last time!”
— You rooted for him very enthusiastically. (Laughs)
Tanahashi: Maybe I’m imagining myself yelling to me, “Tanahashi! This won’t be your last time!” Sounds like a movie idea. Mhmm.