The Liger Sessions #1: Togi Makabe

With Jyushin Thunder Liger counting down to his retirement, a new series on sees the Living Legend sit down with key figures from his career. In this first installment, he talks to Togi Makabe. Liger and Makabe have long been close friends, but this discussion gets pretty spirited at times, especially about developing young talent! 

When I heard Liger was retiring, I thought, ‘is he serious’? And then I thought, ‘is the company serious?’

— So, Liger, with you retiring in the Tokyo Dome in January, we’re starting a series of conversations with key people you have career and personal connections to. For this first conversation, we’re joined by Togi Makabe!

Makabe: Hey!

Liger: Let’s get to it!

–Makabe, what was your reaction when you first heard about Liger announcing his retirement?

Makabe: Honestly I thought ‘is he serious?’

Liger: Hahaha!

–It came about so suddenly, you couldn’t believe it?

Makabe: Right. At first I thought ‘is Liger serious?’ And then I thought ‘is the company serious?’

–Like, ‘why didn’t the office stop him’?

Makabe: Yeah. I mean, it’s partly because of him and all he’s done that NJPW is so famous all around the world. And, maybe it’s weird to say this, but he’s in a mask and body suit. It’s not like you can tell how old he is, right? And he is still absolutely jacked, so his appearance hasn’t really changed. 

–He hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years, so you’re saying you think he can still go.

Makabe: Ever since I was a fan I always thought ‘Liger’s ripped, so why wear a body suit all the time?’ Well, it’s good motivation for those kids in the Dojo to try and catch up to him. 

–He’s a positive influence on the trainees as well. 

Makabe: So when I first heard I was thinking ‘what are you talking about?’. Like maybe he’s thinking about taking a bit of a break and then going internationally, or making a next step, all of that’s stuff only he knows for sure. But I was just like ‘hold on a second!’

Liger: (laughs)

–You and Makabe have been close for a long time. Did you talk with him about your plans beforehand?

Liger: No, I don’t think it’s right for a wrestler to talk with his colleagues about retirement, you know? I didn’t even tell my family until after I’d made up my mind to retire.

–You didn’t talk to your family either?

Liger: Right, it was all on me.

–You formally announced your decision the day after your March 6 IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match with Taiji Ishimori.

Liger: It was kind of, not really sudden, but a sense of ‘OK, then’. It just felt like the right time to put a full stop on things. 

–What do you think about Makabe feeling it’s too early?

Liger: I’m happy to hear it, but truth is, you could see in Best of the Super Juniors this year just how deep the junior heavyweight roster is, and as far as in-ring is concerned, I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do. Plus, I think it’s important to bow out with the fans saying ‘why is he quitting now? He can still go!’ rather than laughing like ‘old man Liger is still going?’. This way is more dignified.

My wife said ‘it was your decision, so I’m not going to say anything’. But then she went ‘I wish you’d talked to me first…’

–A dignified end to a 30 year career.

Liger: Right. All the guys before me, Antonio Inoki, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Riki Choshu, Tatsumi Fujinami, when the question comes to ‘what’s a key trait for a wrestler?’, my answer, and I’m sure that Makabe feels the same, is ‘a wrestler can’t become weak.’ As the years have caught up, I was starting to feel like I couldn’t wear that philosophy as a badge of honour anymore. After the match with Ishimori, all those feelings really hit. 

–How did your family react to the news?

Liger: My wife said ‘it was your decision, so I’m not going to say anything’. But then she went ‘I wish you’d talked to me first…’ (laughs)

Makabe: Of course! Even if you were keeping the boys in the dark, your family…

–So it was a complete shock for all of the wrestlers as well.

Makabe: None of us knew anything. 

 –When Genichiro Tenryu retired, he said that he had ‘filled his belly with pro wrestling’. Those words left an impression on you, but I get the idea that you’re not completely stuffed.

Makabe: Ah, I definitely approve of stuffing your face! I respect Liger’s idea, that sense of dignity, but if it was me, I’d want to go until I could go no more. Maybe Liger’s got all those achievements under his belt, and he feels he can just call it a day, but I think he’s put in all this work, it’s a shame to stop now. That’s why I reacted to the company like ‘come on, do something here.’

–News about your retirement reverberated pretty far.

Liger: I appreciated that. To get back to Tenryu, he said to me ‘if you’re not completely stuffed on wrestling, if you’re not at that point where you couldn’t eat another bite of it, you’ll turn out like those guys who keep coming back one more time. That’s always sad, right?’ I said to him ‘I agree, and after I’m done, I won’t ever come back again.’ I still feel that way and I don’t ever plan to go back on my retirement. 

–You’re committed to your decision.

Liger: Tenryu and Makabe might be all about stuffing their faces, but I’ll stay healthy, a nice 80% full. I don’t want to be getting diabetes or anything. (laughs)

Makabe: Put your health first! (laughs)  

For years, every time I’ve gone to the Dojo, Liger’s always been there training. 

–Let’s go back to the beginning. What did you think of Liger when you first met him?

Makabe: Obviously, I was scared to death!

–When the current top stars were younger, they pretty much all felt Liger’s wrath at one time or another. 

Makabe: When you really get to know Liger, you get to understand the kind of person he is. If you can do that, he becomes a lot easier to handle.

Liger: Hahahahahahaha!

–It’s easier to figure him out?

Makabe: Oh, it’s so much easier. It’s getting to that point that’s tough though, you know? Liger’s image of what Makabe the pro wrestler is, or what he thinks a New Japan wrestler should be… If you don’t understand that, then he’s not going to meet you halfway at all. 

Liger: …

Makabe: Here’s a thing about him. For years, every time I’ve gone to the Dojo, Liger’s always been there training without fail.

Liger: Well, I mean, I live there! (laughs)

Makabe: He laughs like that, but it’s not something anyone can do at all. It’s something all the boys laugh about ‘don’t you have anything else to do with your life than train all day?’

–The fact is though, neither of you have much in the way of free time. On top of your matches, you do media appearances and promotion together. 

Liger: I’m not just saying this because Makabe’s sat next to me right now, but there was a time when we had hardly any people in the building when we were on the road. You’d see big gaps in the chairs, the fans just scattered here and there. 

–Business was bleak for a time.

Liger: Makabe would look at that and tell me ‘next time we’re here, let’s make sure there’s double the people! Do our best tonight and fill it up next time!

–He always had a positive outlook.

Liger: He’d be saying that same thing to everyone, senpai or kohai, it didn’t matter. And now, even though the buildings are full a lot of the time, Makabe looks at the crowd and says ‘ah, compare it to the Friday 8PM era and we’ve still got a ways to go!’

–He’s talking about the era when NJPW was on TV on Fridays at 8PM, right in prime time. 

Liger: Other wrestlers get teary eyed, thankful we’ve been able to draw fans, but Makabe will never sit on his laurels. 

–That’s how strong willed he is. Both of you have been in NJPW when business was booming, and when it was bad in the mid 2000s.

Makabe: I mean, when it was really bad, there were nights where we were drawing 200 to a house show. Tohoku was like that, right?

Liger: We weren’t able to draw 500. 

Makabe: 200! You could just walk down the street and round up that many to come. But that’s how bad it was.

–200 would be a pretty big wedding party. Not a great number for a wrestling event.

Makabe: That’s the level we were at! But you get those few people and drive them crazy, and then they’ll each say ‘oh that was a blast! I’ll invite so-and-so to come with me next time’. If you can do that, then you’re making a difference. That’s what I said to Liger and he got fired up.

Liger: After someone who’s your junior says something like that to you, and you don’t respond by giving it all you’ve got then you can’t call yourself a senpai. You don’t get to stick around here just by putting in the miles. 

–You never once turned tail?

Makabe: Not at all! Me and Liger are honest to a fault. We were just all in ‘OK, let’s do it!’

Liger ‘Oh captain, my captain!’ (laughs). But NJPW is where it is because everyone thinks that way.

Makabe: Absolutely. Guys like Okada are giving it their all at the top now, and I totally recognise that. But if there’s ever any wrestlers around that think they can take a break and be happy where they are, I’m always there to stick my boot up their lazy asses.

Right now, Makabe’s taking the lead when it comes to training. 

–There are wrestlers coming in now who are too young to remember the toughest times business wise. Is that something that concerns you?

Makabe: Oh for sure! That’s why I give ’em hell (grins). When I was young, Liger was so strict with me. But even if you’re swearing under your breath, if he’s able to do what he can do, there’s nothing for it but to accept that criticism. You’ve got to suck that up.

–You can’t argue with ability and results. Who was that strict master for young Liger?

Liger: Yoshiaki Fujiwara for sure. I was screaming for my life when we sparred. And (Kotetsu) Yamamoto and Antonio Inoki were there to balance things out on the human side. Yamamoto would always say ‘when a wrestler is out of the ring, he’s just a civilian. At the best of times, people think wrestlers are louts, so make sure you learn some damn manners!’

–Whatever the era in NJPW, senpai wrestlers have always kept the younger ones in check.

Liger: Right now, Makabe’s taking the lead when it comes to training. Normally when wrestlers enter their veteran years, they tend to take it a little easy and pace themselves, but even on the long tours, Makabe’s calling over the young guys and going through squats and push-ups with them before the doors open. That all really adds up, night after night. It’s tough. 

–Always with that discipline.

Liger: If it was all talk, that’d be different. All of us wrestlers believe in our hearts that we’re the best. So when you’re in that melting pot of egos, if you want your voice to be heard, you damn sure have to make sure you’re at the top of your own game. Mr. (Hiroshi) Hase (former NJPW wrestler turned politician) would always say ‘if you’re going to tell someone off, say the same thing to the guy in the mirror first.’

–I see.

Liger: That’s what’s important, and that’s what Makabe understands. 

–(Former NJPW wrestler) KUSHIDA was talking about Katsuyori Shibata starting the LA Dojo once. He said that fired you up quite a lot.

Makabe: Ahhhh, that little bastard KUSHIDA, stirring the pot!

Liger: Hahaha!

Makabe: Well, Shibata had his accident, and hasn’t been able to get in the ring, but his passion for pro wrestling is still there, and he’s been able to pass that to those kids in LA. That’s what I was thinking one time as I sat on my porch smoking a cigar…

Liger: You don’t have a porch and you don’t smoke cigars.

Makabe: Whatever. But I was thinking ‘he’s going to work with those young kids and then what?’ It hit me, that he was thinking of our Dojo in Noge as rivals. And I was thinking, who’s really watching over our kids right now? I couldn’t think of any one person. Of course they were all training hard, but it wasn’t like when I was young, when there was someone from above just constantly beating those fundamentals into me. 

They have a rare chance to learn from us. So we have to do our part in return.

–The training system had changed.

Makabe: I thought it wasn’t good enough. It freaked me out a bit, honestly. So the next day I was eating at the Dojo with KUSHIDA and I said ‘we need to do this right.’ The next day we went back to square one, bumping, taking an arm, and making sure the fundamentals were done thoroughly. 

–Is that so?

Makabe: KUSHIDA would do squats and all the warming up with them, and then I’d start teaching them the techniques. I thought if I taught this way, then those young guys will understand that someday they’ll have to do the exact same thing. 

–Some day they’ll become the teachers.

Makabe: Taguchi’s doing more recently too, right?

Liger: Yeah, the coach has been training with them every day. Same way, starting with the basics. Forward rolls. When you have the seniors passing their knowledge down like that, it keeps the essence of NJPW, that’s been there ever since Inoki and (Karl) Gotch, alive.

Makabe: You know I think when business was bad and the entire company was in trouble, we were complicit in that, losing that mindset. In the modern era, everybody believes that New Japan is the best wrestling in the world, and they work hard as a result, but nobody was teaching that core essence to the young kids coming up. That’s when word came that Katsuyori Shibata was doing exactly that in LA. 

–That gave you the impetus.

Makabe: I’ve no doubt, Shibata’s got the exact same mindset of not letting his boys lose to the Noge Dojo. Here though, I’ve got Liger with me, giving me advice on how to teach stuff. I can only see so much of how they’re progressing. But me and Liger are giving the kind of learning experience you can only get at the NJPW Dojo, right?

Liger: You don’t get this at your everyday wrestling school.

Makabe: These kids have a rare chance to learn from us. So we have to do our part in return.