The G1 Climax is now past the halfway point, and Tetsuya Naito sits in a precarious position at 2-3. Many people’s favourite going into the tournament, El Ingobernable has his back against the wall as he fights for a spot at the Budokan final on August 12. NJPW1972.com spoke to Naito to get his thoughts on the remaining tournament matches.
(This interview conducted before July 6)
‘Moxley? Maybe I’ll see something in him after we actually meet in ring’
–A lot of people have been looking forward to your July 28 match with the United States Champion, Jon Moxley. He’s been quite the topic of conversation.
Naito: How’s he doing? Popular, huh? Well, sad to say, I don’t really know much about to him. I’ve heard he wrestled in WWE. Who was he there? Ambo-? Umbre-?
Naito: Yeah, yeah. I heard that name. Is he as famous as Chris Jericho?
–Well, they’re both big names, but Jericho has been wrestling for 30 years. Moxley is only 33, but he’s a top star, so expectations are high for him.
Naito: Only 33, huh?
–He had an auspicious debut when he beat Juice Robinson to win the IWGP United States Championship on his first attempt. Did you happen to see that match?
Naito: I saw it. But that Moxley match didn’t really move me. I know it was a hot crowd in Ryogoku, that came through on the TV even, but I was left thinking ‘why are the people making that kind of noise?’ I couldn’t put my finger on it, myself.
–Moxley has a fairly rough fighting style, maybe that doesn’t gel with what you like about wrestling?
Naito: Maybe that’s part of it, I prefer technical wrestlers. Plus, with his new gear, he seems more subdued, less showy than how I imagine a WWE wrestler is. Then again, that’s just going off one match. Maybe he has something I haven’t seen just yet.
Naito: You don’t hold all the championships he has, or get as popular as he’s got purely on luck. Maybe I’ll see something in him after we actually meet in the ring, but for now, he’s an unknown quantity.
–It’s rare to see, a first time meeting for you with a non-Japanese wrestler in a singles main event.
Naito: Right. Maybe since I wrestled Kenny Omega in the G1. I’m not feeling any particular pressure though. I’ll just do what I always do, face off against my opponent and show my kind of wrestling.
–Very focused. By the way, do you watch other wrestlers’ matches during the G1?
Naito: I watch the other people in my block. Since this is match number five, I’ll have a few more chances to see what Moxley can do.
‘Did Juice lose the dreads to stop me from pulling them all the time?’
–Next, on August 1 in Fukuoka, it’s Juice Robinson. Ever since Robinson lost that match to Moxley on June 5, he’s taken on a more serious attitude.
Naito: He cut his hair short, too. That surprised me. It’s like he’s gotten accustomed to NJPW and now he wants to show a different side of himself. I think he’ll be a different Juice to the guy I’ve faced before.
–He’s been strongly associated with the US title this year.
Naito: He’s really grown since he first came to Japan. Since he was teaming with me and I kept beating him up (grins).
–That was in September 2015.
Naito: Maybe he lost the dreads to stop me from pulling them all the time? Quite the anti-Naito strategy, heheh.
–He got a hair cut just to counteract you?
Naito: At the end of the day, though, while he’s grown a lot, I can’t see him beating me.
‘I want Takagi to be hungry. I hope he comes in trying to take LIJ from me’
–On August 4 in Osaka you face your Los Ingobernables De Japon teammate, Shingo Takagi.
Naito: Well, no doubt, this is the match I’m most looking forward to this G1.
–You face Takagi a year to the day since you took on Kota Ibushi in Osaka. Two straight years in the same place with 57 Club members.
Naito: Hmm. Well, I took my lumps last year, but there’s no way I’m losing two years in a row to someone the same age as me.
–You two share quite a long story.
Naito: Right, we first met in Animal Hamaguchi’s gym 20 years ago. But from when we first shared the same ring to facing each other now, it’s been less than a year.
–It was last Ocotober that you introduced Takagi as the newest pareja for LIJ.
Naito: Obviously I wouldn’t have brought Takagi in if I didn’t think he would make a big impact, but I never thought we’d be facing each other in a singles match so fast.
–That speaks to how much he’s done here.
Naito: He’s gone above and beyond. After the Best of the Super Juniors final I was just looking at the guy. Heart, technique, physique, he has it all, and after that match he had in Ryogoku he wasn’t worn down any. The guy is tough as they come.
–He’s in top shape.
Naito: He takes much better care of himself than I do. He takes a lot of massages, too. That and he’s always talking to himself in the locker room (laughs).
–Maybe a little self centered, or maybe he just doesn’t let anything else bother him? It could turn out to be a string to his bow.
Naito: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The guy doesn’t care about anybody else around him whatsoever (laughs)! But I want that. I want him to be hungry. I want him to come in trying to take LIJ from me. I mean, I’m not going to let that happen, but still.
‘I want to focus on the present. I think anybody who doesn’t doesn’t have a future in this business’
–I hear that when you were both at Hamaguchi Gym, Takagi would beat you more often than not when you were both sparring?
Naito: Oh, yeah. I mean, my background was in judo, so Takagi had an upper hand with wrestling. But I closed the gap over time.
–When we talked before you said that you won the last sparring session you two ever had together, but you misremembered, didn’t you?
Naito: Apparently…. yeah. Apparently when he stopped training at the gym, he had a board that everyone signed, and I’d written ‘I might have lost our last sparring session, but I’ll get my win back someday’ or something like that. I was like ‘crap, I lost!’
–Undone by your own handwriting (laughs)
Naito: So now I get a chance to get that win back. I can’t lose!
–We talked a bit about how well Shingo Takagi looks after himself; how are you doing physically at the moment? Guys like Taichi or Ibushi haven’t been generous when it comes to talking about your physical state.
Naito: I’ve been called a ‘punch drunkard’, ‘beaten up’. To be honest, none of that’s anybody else’s business. If I’m honest, the best shape I’ve ever been in was for my debut. But if I were to really look out for myself, perhaps I should take a tour off and rest up.
–Now that you mention it, a lot of top guys are taking time off on some tours. During Best of the Super Juniors, Okada, Ibushi and Jay White all took time away.
Naito: But I want to go to every arena in the country and show every fan the Tetsuya Naito that’s around right now. You can only see this Tetsuya Naito at this point in time. For the rest of my career, if it’s a choice of being a part timer for 10 years or going all out for three, I’m choosing the latter.
–You just want to wrestle.
Naito: Damn right. I want to focus on the present. In fact I think anybody who doesn’t doesn’t have a future in this business. Tough as it may be physically, I everybody to know this Tetsuya Naito.
‘I actually enjoyed wrestling Michael Elgin. I think I can have similar matches with Jeff Cobb’
–On August 8, you’ll be wrestling Jeff Cobb for the first time.
Naito: We’ve barely crossed paths, not even in tag matches. I’m actually kind of interested in him.
Naito: I actually enjoyed wrestling Michael Elgin. I think I can have similar matches with Jeff Cobb. Just the way he’s able to move with his size.
–He might be even more nimble than Elgin was, what with that moonsault he’s able to do.
Naito: He was in the Olympics once, right?
–Yes, he wrestled for Guam in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Naito: Thought as much. There’s just something different about Olympians and how they use their physicality. A lot of fans might look past it, but I’m excited for this match.
–Back in November your teammate EVIL faced Cobb in ROH and lost.
Naito: He has to be tough, if he can beat EVIL. If I were a fan, I’d buy a ticket hoping that Cobb would toss that Naito guy all around the arena, haha.
–You bring up suplex experts, and one might think about the Steiner Brothers, who were active in NJPW through the 1990s and early 2000s. Do you remember the match where they threw Hiroshi Tanahashi all over the place?
Naito: I do! That was the Tokyo Dome, right? May 2002. Well, maybe that’s a bit worrying, but I have Destino in my pocket. That’s a move that really uses my opponent’s strength against them; my matches with Elgin proved that.
–Elgin never did beat you.
Naito: I do well against opponents like that. After Takagi, this might be the match I’m second most looking forward to.
‘It really seems like Jay White is excellent at dictating the pace. But I don’t like being dictated to’
–Your last group match in the Budokan on August 11 is Jay White. That’s an anticipated match.
Naito: Hmm. We haven’t faced off since he came back to Japan. It’s quite similar to the Kenny Omega situation.
–Both focal points of BULLET CLUB to boot. What do you think of Jay?
Naito: I picked on him quite a lot when he was a Young Lion. He’d be holding the ropes open for me on my entrance and I’d kick him away, stuff like that. He might have a bit of a grudge toward me, heh.
–What do you think of him post excursion? His momentum’s been phenomenal, he won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on his first attempt back in February at just 26 years old.
Naito: He did something I couldn’t, winning the IWGP title in his 20s. He’s certainly got a full head of steam. I think when you look at him post excursion, his in-ring approach and his size, you can see that change, but the biggest change for me is in his face. When he was a Young Lion, there was a softness to his face, a frailty almost. Now he has results under his belt, you see that in his face, you see that confidence.
–You’ve been watching his matches, then.
Naito: Well, not exactly day in and day out. It really seems like he’s excellent at dictating the pace of a match. I don’t like being dictated to.
–That might become the story of that match. When you look at the other leaders of the BULLET CLUB, Prince Devitt, AJ Styles, Kenny Omega, they all seemed to match your style somewhat, but Jay is rather different.
Naito: I think so. He fights kind of rough. But just like Moxley, I might change my mind after we actually lock up.
–Another key point of the match will be your respective finishers, the Bladerunner and the Destino.
Naito: Yeah, I don’t want to take that Bladerunner. I have a lot of pride in the Destino, and I plan on winning with it. Since it’s the last group match, the match order on the card isn’t decided yet, but I really hope Jay does well enough that our match is the main event. Obviously I don’t plan on being anywhere but the top spot by then.
‘If he really has the resolve he says he does, I want to feel that for myself’
–So what do you think of A block?
Naito: It seems pretty hard fought… It’s definitely hard to fill out a bracket for.
–In B block there are four debutants, so a lot of the appeal is in seeing first time meetings. In A block there are more experienced wrestlers with history between one another that becomes hard to read ahead of time.
Naito: But you have to be interested in KENTA. And I know KENTA has said in several interviews that he’s interested in me.
–You two have faced each other before. On March 28 2014 in Ariake, you and Naomichi Marufuji faced KENTA and Masato Tanaka. You were still in hontai back then.
Naito: I had won the G1 the year before, but after that I couldn’t really produce results or get much love from the fans. I lost the IWGP title match with Okada in the Tokyo Dome semi-main, and then the next month in Osaka I lost the NEVER title to Ishii, getting booed out of the building in the process. I’ve changed a lot in the last five years, so I definitely want to see how KENTA’s changed since then.
–What interests you most about him?
Naito: I mean he openly admitted he was a failure in WWE. To be in that much of a hole and stand in a NJPW ring, that’s very similar to the position I was in four years ago.
–You were at an impasse in early 2015, and found a new lease on your wrestling life when you went to Mexico and joined Los ingobernables.
Naito: I want to see for myself if he has that same kind of resolve, that resolve he says he has. That and because I knew him before, I want to see what kind of match he can produce now. I kind of question a guy who admitted he didn’t produce results abroad just saying he wants in the G1 and here he is, but I do want to wrestle a guy whose back is against the wall like his is.
–How about EVIL and SANADA competing in A block?
Naito: EVIL’s definitely motivated, I felt that when he wasn’t bumping fists with the rest of us. I think the heat’s on for him.
–He doesn’t want to be left behind?
Naito: You look at the rest of us LIJ members in the G1, I’m Intercontinental Champion, SANADA made the New Japan Cup final, Takagi made the Best of the Super Junior final. EVIL is the only one who hasn’t produced in a singles environment this year so far, so I definitely think that gets to him. He wants to show everyone what he can do.
–A dark, rebellious heart, then. Any final message for the fans?
Naito: All you fans want to see me win both IWGP Heavy and Intercontinental titles. You want to see me be the first double champ, right? For that to happen, winning the G1 first, that’s destino. Producing this G1 is the shortest route to my goals, so I will make it happen. You can rest easy on that, so stay tranquilo. Assen na yo.