On July 13 G1 B block kicked off in Ota-ku, with Tetsuya Naito defeating Toru Yano to start his campaign. Before the tournament started, njpw1972.com talked to Naito about his quest to pick up a third G1 Climax victory and his thoughts on the B block competition.
(This interview conducted before July 13)
‘G1 entries? Put it to a vote’.
–So you’re heading into your tenth G1…
Naito: That’s right. To be honest, it’s made me think ‘Man, have I really been in that many times? I remember when I was going into my first G1 I heard the list of names, and the people that were making their 11th, 12th, 13th entries. All of a sudden I’ve become one of those veterans.
–So this year, Tanahashi is making his 18th appearance, Yano is at 14, Goto 12, and then you’re the next most experienced.
Naito: So I’m definitely in the upper end.
–There are seven entrants this year that weren’t in last year’s field.
Naito: There’s definitely a feeling that this year’s lineup is very different. It’s kind of tough to dig your teeth into. Seven people didn’t make the cut, huh..?
–There are lots of different reasons for that, but some wrestlers were unhappy with the selection. Minoru Suzuki was furious at NJPW officials, and YOSHI-HASHI tried to win his way back into the lineup in his match against Zack Sabre Junior.
Naito: To be honest, they probably needed to make a stronger case for themselves before the lineup was announced. Too little, too late. Eh, it’s better than somebody just accepting it and not doing anything at all, but it’s a case of going ‘oh, so they did want in?’
–They needed to put themselves out there a little more earlier on?
Naito: Take Suzuki. He doesn’t get in and he’s complaining about the G1, saying ‘how dare you call this the tournament to determine the toughest man of the summer?’ I thought ‘why talk badly about a tournament your lackies are entering? It’s not like you have the right to say anything you want. You need to be more constructive, offer some idea to make things better.
–Suzuki himself might be pretty mad to see this interview…
Naito: Heheh. Well, maybe it’s time to rethink the selection procedure for the G1. Maybe have the champions get automatic entries while everybody else has to win qualification matches to enter.
–If you look back through the history of the G1, there have been a few qualification matches over the years…
Naito: Right, like in 2004, Togi Makabe beat Mitsuya Nagai to get in. It’s probably difficult at this point to increase the field past 20, but maybe there should be a system of looking at people’s recent records, or perhaps putting it to a vote to decide who gets in.
–You’ve questioned the structure of the G1 in the past.
Naito: I have. I’ve wondered in the past, we have so many cards in the tournament, how are we deciding to let these people in? There’ve been entrants that definitely didn’t deserve their spots. It really should be a case of this scale, with this strict criteria is allowing the G1 and NJPW to be as big as it is. What’s the catchphrase for this year, by the way?
–‘Lion’s Kingdom in Summer’
Naito: Huh. Well, maybe the fact that not even the king can get into the ‘lion’s kingdom’ might be enough to express how high the barrier to entry is.
‘You win the G1 and no questions, no complaints, you get to have an IWGP title shot. That’s why I wanted to have the Intercontinental title going in’
–You’re currently in possession of the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. The G1 winner gets to challenge the IWGP Heavyweight Champion in the Tokyo Dome, and you’ve said you want to be the first person in history to hold both belts simultaneously.
Naito: You win the G1 and no questions, no complaints, you get to have an IWGP title shot. That’s why I wanted to have the Intercontinental title going in, and I just about made it.
–You won the Intercontinental Championship from Kota Ibushi at Dominion, so right before the G1. This year, Wrestle Kingdom will be over two nights on January 4 and 5 at the Tokyo Dome. Are you envisioning one of those main events being a double title match?
Naito: It’s not like I’m particularly fussed about venue. It could be in October at Ryogoku, or in Osaka in November. But if I’m going to say ‘just like I promised, I became a double champion!’, I’d want as many people as possible to see that. If that’s the plan, the Tokyo dome would be the best place.
Naito: Well, I guess I might have to defend the contract a couple of times as well, that might be a factor. At any rate, first thing’s first, and that’s the G1. I know how tough of a tournament it is.
‘The last few years I’ve thought “why the hell does Yano get to be in?”‘
–Your G1 starts off with Toru Yano in Ota.
Naito: I’ve just mentioned how tough this tournament is and the first person we talk about is anything but. We were talking about the people that make the G1 cut before, and Yano’s name is never someone I’d expect to be in. The last few years I’ve thought ‘why the hell does Yano get to be in?’
–He might not have the best win-loss record, but he has a good deal of skill on the mat, and he has an intriguing fight style. A lot of people feel he adds some spice to the lineup.
Naito: Is that why he brings curry with him to the ring? He spends the entire tournament trying to get himself over and hawking his wares. I don’t think there’s a single molecule in his body that wants to put the work in to win.
–You’re saying the G1 doesn’t need a salesman in the lineup.
Naito: Right. He’s a comedy salesman. But I know there are fans who are interested in seeing if he can pull off some upsets, and he’s different from the average wrestler. I can see why some people might find him interesting.
–He’s fine anywhere other than the G1, you think.
Naito: It’s not many opponents where a win or loss purely comes from how you use your brain. But no, we don’t need him in the G1. After my first match I won’t be feeling any of the rigours of the tournament. When I beat him, it’s not like I’ll feel like I’m off to a hot start or anything. I feel like my G1 campaign is eight matches long.
— You’re not counting Yano.
‘Taichi? He’s not going to be bringing Iizuka back with him? Or might it be someone else?’
–Your second match will be in Sapporo against Taichi. That match will be in the same building you faced him in February, for the Intercontinental Championship.
Naito: What’s he gonna do, bring Iizuka out of retirement to attack me again? Well, I’m sure he’s still shame faced from before and looking for revenge.
–Taichi won his second NEVER Openweight Championship on May 3 in Fukuoka, but lost it at Dominion to Ishii. He’s been putting together an impressive resume as a heavyweight.
Naito: I have no complaints at all about him being in the G1. To do what he’s been doing takes something, right?
–It was on March 6 in Ota last year that Taichi faced you in his first match as a full blown heavyweight. He’s come a long way since.
Naito: He’s definitely upped his game from the old Taichi. I’m looking forward to facing him but I’m not sure he’ll come at me straightforward. Surely he can’t be thinking of bringing Iizuka with him again? Or maybe it’ll be somebody else.
–There are more than a few people he can draw on.
Naito: DOUKI might be the favourite. Or maybe as a dark horse pick, The King himself? Either way, the only person around who actually cares that he’s in his home town is probably Taichi himself. Most of the people there will be hoping for me to end the night with a big call of ‘De! Ja! Pon!’ and just like in February I’ll be happy to give it to them.
‘He still can’t let go of Shibata’s hand. Goto hasn’t changed a bit’.
–On July 19 you face Hirooki Goto. In Fukuoka on May 4 he started talking about his determination to take out jay White, and he wasn’t seen until he attacked White on June 25 in Sendai.
Naito: Am I the only one who thought it’s just the same old Goto going through a slump and then trying to look like he’s doing something about it? Like that time before where he painted himself white and drew kanji all over himself.
–This was going into his February 2016 title match with Kazuchika Okada. You said at the time ‘all you did was stand under a waterfall? What’s actually different about you?’
Naito: The he loses to Okada and goes and joins his unit anyway. Changes his costume a little bit, that’s it. To tell you the truth, as an opponent, I like Goto.
Naito: Heheh. But no matter how many chances he gets, he just always seems to fall short. He lets everybody down.
–He has challenged for the IWGP title eight times. He’s no doubt a top flight wrestler.
Naito: But that time he painted himself white was the last title shot he got, right? And when he wasn’t around, did anybody really notice he was gone? That’s the position he’s in now.
–When his name was announced to enter, he got a big reaction from the crowd in Korakuen.
Naito: I think most of that was just people going ‘ohhh, yeah, that guy!’, isn’t it? He went to study with Shibata, right?
–He went to train in the LA Dojo with Shibata and his students.
Naito: So he still can’t let go of Shibata’s hand and walk on his own. He hasn’t changed a bit. Whatever way you cut it, anyway, Goto is permanently fixed on Jay White.
–He attacked White on June 25 in Sendai, and their first G1 match is against one another.
Naito: Well, I hope he doesn’t burn himself out. Maybe if he does, it might be time to dig out an old suggestion of mine, and have him redebut as Captain Kuwana, the hero of Mie Prefecture…
–The legendary masked man you wanted to see at the Tokyo Dome back in 2016…
‘I want to show just how much better I am than the NEVER Openweight Champion. I recognise how tough Ishii is, but that’s how strongly I feel.’
–Next, July 24 in Hiroshima. You face Tomohiro Ishii in the main event. It’s Intercontinental versus NEVER Openweight Champion.
Naito: I know the real point is the two champions going at it, but I’m more focused on this being in Hiroshima.
–Because you’re a big fan of the Hiroshima Carp baseball team?
Naito: That’s true, but also, the last time I had a G1 match in Hiroshima was four years ago, when I beat Tanahashi in the main event.
–That was the first time you used the Destino?
Naito: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. But after the match then, I got a ton of boos. Since then, I haven’t been in a G1 match in Hiroshima, but it’s become a second home for me, so I know the fans there want to end with a big ‘De! Ja! Pon!’ That and I happen to know that Ishii’s a big Hanshin Tigers fan. (laughs)
–From the diamond to the squared circle, then. Ishii is the NEVER Champion, and you have a connection to NEVER. It was originally conceived as a brand for younger wrestlers, and one you were very closely connected to earlier in your career. Have you given any thought to not just being a double IWGP Champion, but a Triple Crown holder?
Naito: Not particularly. I don’t want to just hold everything. My desire to have the Heavyweight and Intercontinental comes from them both being on a similar level, so much so that you often see them defended in double main events. The NEVER and US titles are one step below in comparison.
–Some fans might see it that way.
Naito: I mean, I first came up with the concept of the NEVER Championship, so it isn’t as if I think it’s worthless. But at the end of the day, there’s a clear gap between it and the IC and heavy belts, so I can’t envisage being a Triple Crown champion. That said, I want to show just how much better I am than the NEVER Openweight Champion. I recognise how tough Ishii is, but that’s how strongly I feel.