After Kota Ibushi seized his first G1 victory on his fifth attempt on August 12 in the Budokan, NJPW1972.com sat down with the Golden Star to discuss Tanahashi, Okada, some lofty goals and much more in this long form interview!
‘People take things a bit too seriously. I only tweeted because I was bored’.
–So, first things first: congratulations!
Ibushi: Thank you!
–I hear you didn’t sleep much on the night of your win.
Ibushi: Right. I don’t exactly live a regular lifestyle as far as sleep goes, but during the G1 there’s a lot of pressure, and it messes with my sleep schedule. I crashed the second I got home, but only for about three, three and a half hours.
–Ah, so it wasn’t a case of not being able to sleep, more that you slept and couldn’t get back to sleep.
Ibushi: I fell asleep at a weird time, y’know? The matches were quite early (the final day of the G1 started at 3PM local time). I got home about nine, and all I remember is washing my hands, brushing my teeth, and then just lying down and *poof* I was out. Then I woke up about 12:30AM and couldn’t get back to sleep until 8AM.
–So that’s why this interview time got changed. I heard from your manager that you didn’t sleep at all. The office was pretty worried about you.
Ibushi: No, no, it wasn’t that I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I did want to get some more sleep, but I knew if I did I wouldn’t be able to make our scheduled 1PM. So I asked to put this interview off until after my press conference.
–Ah, that’s alright then. But you’ve been tweeting about having trouble sleeping, right? On August 8, you said ‘Not sleeping, can’t sleep. How long can a human go without sleep? Sleeping for about an hour these last two nights is wild!’ It was like ‘wow, is everything OK?’
Ibushi: (laughs) Well, those two days turned into an experiment, kind of. I wondered if humans didn’t need to sleep all that much to still function.
–And you concluded that they could.
Ibushi: I did. I even won my next match. But I did think I’d be in even better shape if I got some sleep.
–I see. With all the tweets about not sleeping, hearing that you were awake until morning got the office pretty worried.
Ibushi: People take things a bit too seriously. I only tweeted because I was bored.
–No big deal? You’re getting enough rest?
Ibushi: Exactly. I’m sleeping OK.
‘I thought I’d just say the first thing that came to mind the second I grabbed the mic.’
–To get back to the G1, your speech after you won was pretty moving.
Ibushi: On the mic? Really? I was just thinking ‘oh s***!’
–What do you mean?
Ibushi: Like ‘what am I even saying right now?’ I was exhausted, my head was spinning.
–You didn’t have some words in mind in case you won?
Ibushi: Nope. I didn’t have that kind of bravado. Didn’t want to get into that mindset of ‘oh, what shall I say if I win?’ so I figured, if I won, I’d decide in the moment. Just say the first thing that came to mind the second I grabbed the mic. Spur of the moment, kinda thing.
–In your post match comments and on social media, words like ‘I won’t run away,’ ‘I won’t give up,’ ‘I won’t repeat the same mistakes’ became somewhat of a theme, right?
–We’ve talked at a time when you had chosen to be away from New Japan, so those words seemed a little uncharacteristic.
Ibushi: Hmm. I’ve been asked the same question; that I’d been saying ‘I won’t run away’, so was there a time when I was running away from things? But it’s like this. If you go all the way back to your childhood, everyone has at least one moment where they feel they’ve let themselves down, right?
–I’d say that’s a pretty universal experience, yeah.
Ibushi: Right. Go all the way back through life, and there was a time when everybody has messed up, or run away from an issue, or quit something. So what I was saying was in response to all of that. That was the idea at least. (laughs)
–Another word you used that I wanted to ask about was ‘together’, which isn’t a word we’ve heard you say often.
Ibushi: There’s probably a lot of different words that fell out of my mouth like that. But ‘together’ means different things depending on the context. To the fans it’s ‘all fans together, let’s tear it up’. Or it could be ‘fans and wrestlers together, let’s tear it up’, or ‘fans and wrestlers and staff…’ but when I said ‘together’ after I won, I had a different meaning in mind.
–On the first night in the Budokan you made a point about all the people in A block you wrestled. After the finals, you mentioned the 20 in the G1. Maybe you weren’t speaking as a representative of the wrestlers, but you had a strong sense of responsibility.
Ibushi: Right. Ever since I came back to Osaka in February and talked about ‘resolve’ I’ve been in the same mental state, and I was able to speak to that in the ring after I won.
‘Pain is no big deal. Not being able to move, that sucks’.
–And through all that you emerged victorious. When you look across all of New Japan, you’ve never been in the spotlight as much as right now.
Ibushi: Last year it looked like I could do it, but didn’t. Yeah, this might be the first time I’ve been in this position. I’ve won Best of the Super Juniors in the past, but that was a different thing, really. This is pretty much the biggest thing to ever happen to me.
–The league matches seeing a lot of prospects emerge. To tell the truth, it seemed the A block win was out of your reach at times.
Ibushi: Really? But I think that was a motivator in a way. Feeling like if I did lose, I would be letting those people down.
–But you were really pushed to your limits.
Ibushi: Right. I mean, the ankle injury… I think that was the toughest mental hurdle I’ve ever had to overcome.
–It was that tough.
Ibushi: Obviously there was a lot of pain, but pain in itself is no big deal. Not being able to move, that’s what really sucks, mentally.
–I see. You did say that you were OK, but I know in Dallas airport after that opening match you were limping pretty badly. It was pretty touch and go?
Ibushi: Oh yeah. It was really tough. Honestly I was pretty proud of myself for making it (to the airport) in that state. I proved to myself how much I’d grown.
–You had that top star mentality, like a Tanahashi or Okada. No days off.
Ibushi: Right. That’s where that repetition of ‘I’m not giving up’ came in, like I was constantly answering to myself.
–I see. It wasn’t clear just how bad that injury was. But that was where that never quit attitude came in.
–A lot of your opponents would really target that ankle during your matches.
Ibushi: I didn’t think it was going to be quite that bad. They really went after it (laughs)
‘We had five days after Dallas. Those first three days, it wasn’t getting better at all’
–When that injury happened, did it really change your campaign from how you first envisioned it?
Ibushi: Completely. It completely changed. I normally go through a lot of things by feel, but you do look at cards and think ‘oh, this guy is going to wrestle that kind of way’.
–With a lot of matches and opponents in front of you, there’s always a certain amount of mental imaging going on, but you couldn’t start with a blank page so to speak.
Ibushi: Right. That’s not something I usually go in for, so I decided to change my style up.
–When you mention style, you’re known for your flying.
Ibsuhi: Yeah. We had five days after Dallas, right? Those first three days, my ankle wasn’t getting better at all.
–Not at all?
Ibushi: Right. So at first, I was thinking, ‘how can I go about this? How can I hide the injury, and fly on this ankle?’. On day four, I decided I’d completely change my style. No flying. You saw me use my knees a lot more, kick a lot more.
Ibushi: But it’s less ‘this is my new style’ and more that I’ve broadened the scope of what I can do. With a fully healed ankle, I can still do all the stuff I was doing before, and now I can do all of this on top.
–The injury led to new thought and new invention.
Ibushi: Absolutely. On the whole it was an incredibly positive experience. I was able to clear a big mental hurdle, and I was able to show I can win without necessarily having to fly around.
–Indeed. But I know you take every part of your matches very seriously. It can’t all have been addition; there had to have been some aspects that you had to cast aside.
Ibushi: Sure. The moment i won, that’s what hit me, that this G1 was about results for me, not the matches in themselves. If I hadn’t have gotten hurt, I’d have still used my old style. Whether that would have gotten me the win or not, that’s hard to say.
‘I’ve beaten that guy, so I’ve surpassed him… that idea doesn’t really belong in wrestling today’
–To go into specific big matches and key points in the tournament for you, Osaka on August 3 against Tanahashi was huge. It felt, perhaps that you’d finally surpassed Tanahashi.
Ibushi: ‘Surpassed’… hmmm.. I think that idea, of ‘I’ve beaten this guy so now I’ve surpassed him,’ I don’t think that really belongs in pro wrestling today.
Ibushi: Like, I think you can lose and still seem like you surpassed someone. With the Tanahashi match in particular, you can take winning out of the picture, and I think I can say I earned something. Was given it maybe? I accepted it, or was entrusted with something. It’s very nuanced.
–There was the powerful image after the match of the two of you talking. We couldn’t really hear what was said, but when you talk about acceptance, that was part of it?
Ibushi: Yeah, that’s part of it. He was probably saying that I surpassed him, but I also took it like ‘you surpassed me in the ring, but…’
–One word that did come across in the feed was ‘already’. That led to some speculation from the fans.
Ibushi: He said ‘you’ve already surpassed me’. But to me, I took that as ‘you’ve surpassed me in the ring, but not in the other parts. So I have high hopes for you. Give it your all.’ That’s how I read it.
–If he felt that you’d completely surpassed him, he wouldn’t have talked to you.
Ibushi: Exactly. If it were me, I’d have nothing left to say.
‘Would I call Okada my rival? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s the closest word.’
–Then on August 10, you faced Kazuchika Okada for the first time in five years. Obviously as the current IWGP Heavyweight Champion, one would assume that match had some extra significance, but how do you feel about that match in retrospect?
Ibushi: He’s a different guy to the one I faced before. I think my perception of him has changed as well. Before, I thought of him as the hot young star of New Japan, but now I think I feel much more… would I call him my rival? I don’t really know. Maybe that’s the closest word.
–Do you call Naito a rival?
Ibushi: Naito is different. I’ve called him a rival in the past, but I don’t know whether I can really say that… With Okada, I don’t think I can say with 100% conviction ‘he’s my rival’. I’d say maybe 70%. I have no idea what you call that.
–Even though you beat him once during the G1, if you are to face Okada again in the main event of the Tokyo Dome, with the title on the line… He certainly feels like the endgame boss for you.
Ibushi: Oh, for sure. It was one match in a long tournament at the Budokan. A title match is a very different prospect. But I know the possibility is there, that I can beat him.
–You’ve called Nakamura and Tanahashi gods before, but unlike them, Okada is younger than you, and career wise he’s a contemporary, so that’s a big difference.
Ibushi: Nakamura and Tanahashi are my gods. I’m beneath them, but it’s not because I’m beneath them that I call them that. I have to surpass them, and I think that time is getting closer. But I don’t care whether he main events the Tokyo Dome, or he’s at an indie show in front of 50 people, Nakamura is still my god. I want to surpass him, I feel I have to surpass him, but it’s because I respect him so much I call him that and I always will until the day I die.
–It’s not a question of status.
Ibushi: Right. So where Okada stands in all that, I’m still finding out. But rival is the closest word I have right now.
Continued in part 2! Ibushi discusses Naito, his hunt for double gold and more!