The Liger Sessions #2: Togi Makabe pt.2!

The Liger sessions sees Jyushin Thunder Liger sit down in conversation with some of the people he’s closest to in the wrestling business. The series started last week with Togi Makabe, and their conversation was so spirited, we decided to extend it to a second part! 

Check out part one!

When the new trainees ask to introduce themselves to me, I tell them ‘no need’.

–When we spoke last, we talked about the first meeting of Liger and Makabe. Makabe said he found you terrifying at first; what were your impressions of Makabe as a trainee?

Liger: He took it very seriously. I remember a lot of us were once out to dinner and I was sitting with him. He had just come back from Puerto Rico on excursion at the time and he asked me ‘do you think I can be a top guy?’

Makabe: I remember.

Liger: So I said to him ‘if you keep giving it all you have like you have been when you’re training, it’ll work out’. There was a reason I said that.

–Which was?

Liger: If you’re going to get better, if you’re going to get stronger, you need to be able to listen to the opinions and advice of others. You need to take that on board with humility and then be able to put it into practice to better yourself. That’s a trait everybody who’s become IWGP Champion shares, Makabe included. 

–Makabe has had a lot of ups and downs in his career, and has gone from such demanding times to reaching the very top of the business. What do you think of the career path he’s had?

Liger: I could tell at the time we had that conversation, he was grasping at straws to clutch. But that’s a measure of a pro. If he wasn’t any good he would have just faded away. That’s how tough this business is. When new trainees come into the Dojo, if they ask to introduce themselves to me, I tell them ‘no need’.

–Why is that?

Liger: I don’t want to remember a new name and then feel disappointed about them dropping out. There’s a lot that fall by the wayside. Once you’ve been around for a month, then come teach me your name. 

Makabe: That’s your policy?

Liger: Sometimes kids will drop out without me noticing. But what I want everyone who steps through those doors to know is that this isn’t just any wrestling school. This is the New Japan Dojo. Me and Makabe remember the times when this Dojo was the Mecca. So when Makabe saw what the kids were doing and said ‘that’s not good enough’, he knew what he was talking about. 

Makabe: Damn right.

Liger: Makabe’s training is hard as all hell, but he won’t ever lie to you. You listen to what he says and do it, and you’ll do well. 

–You’re safe in Makabe’s hands, so to speak.

Liger: Well, I’m someone that’s strict to the young kids, and leave it at that. My approach is ‘if you’re gonna drop out, drop out, that’s that’. Makabe is different.

Makabe: How’s that?

Liger: Makabe will let people have it, but he’ll take guys aside if it looks like they want to hang in there. He’ll talk to them, give them advice. He’s got that kindness, sympathy to him. that’s not me (laughs)!

Makabe: Oh, I’m not so sure! (laughs). But one thing I do want to say is that only the strong survive in NJPW. You have to be of the mindset that you’re there to take the world on and be a top guy. 

Liger: Absolutely. You might see me do some pretty dumb stuff on TV shows here and there, but when I’m training, or when I step in the ring, it’s with the heart and pride of a New Japan Pro Wrestler. 

Makabe: That’s what I want today’s wrestlers to hear! Never ever take NJPW lightly. Never ever take wrestling in that ring for granted. 

Liger: That’s right.

Makabe: From having nobody in the building to reaching the point we’re at now, yes ability is a big part of that, but heart is hugely important. 

Liger: If we’d have given in when there were 200 people in the house, we would be done by now. But Makabe was there saying ‘right, next time we’ll put double the asses in the seats!’

Makabe: I’m sure everyone around was saying ‘what the hell is that guy smoking?’ under their breath, but all the same they said ‘right, let’s do it’. And we did. 

That match you had with Hashimoto. Without the body suit, that physique… It was like ‘now, that’s a pro-wrestler’

–Makabe, you’ve followed Liger’s 30 year plus career. What matches of his have really stuck with you over the years.

Makabe: Whenever there’s been a big event, Liger’s been there, and whenever Liger’s been in big matches, he’s killed it. So there’s just so many, I can’t think of one to be honest. But if I were to pick one…

–If you were to pick one…?

Makabe: Kanemoto and Otani versus Liger and Shinya Makabe. That one. (grins)

–You chose your own match! This was from when you were a Young Lion?

Makabe: That’s right. I was in the black tights and black boots. Interestingly enough, I think this was on the first card that Samurai TV ever broadcast live. 

Liger: Oh, really?

Makabe: That’s a match I remember fondly, anyway. That and Battle Liger. 

–Ah, where Liger has the half body suit.

Makabe: Yeah. Like when he wrestled (Shinya) Hashimoto (February 24 1994). Without the body suit, that physique… It was like ‘now that’s a pro-wrestler’.

Liger: I thought that the half suit would make it easier to wrestle with a guy like Hashimoto. 

–Was that ever a dilemma for you, wondering whether you should show your physique?

Liger: Not at all! My face is covered anyway, I’ve never been keen on the idea of showing my body off. When I decided to do the Battle Liger thing, I thought about putting those little pasties on to cover my nipples.

Makabe: Hahaha!

Liger: That’s a shoot! I’ve actually tried using them before, but they come off pretty quick during a match. 

–You quickly moved past pasties. 

Liger: I mean at the end of the day, I came back from my UK excursion and they handed me the suit, and just went ‘here you are’. I didn’t have much say in the matter.

–I suppose not.

Liger: Truth is, Makabe just talked about some old matches of mine, but I’m more of the mindset that the past is the past. I don’t tend to remember much. That goes for matches, but I do remember Makabe’s post match comment one time: ‘Thank you, OK?’

Makabe: Ah, yeah (embarrassed).

–This was after you won the 2009 G1 Climax. You had been a heel for a long time, but the fans were cheering you on to victory. You said ‘normally, I would rather die than say this to you. I would rather die than say this, but all I can say is thank you, OK?

Liger: I saw that and thought ‘that’s cool as hell’! That really stayed with me. That, and, I think it was in your match with (Shinsuke) Nakamura? When you went down and just bellowed ‘F**K!’

Makabe: That was when my Achilles tendon went.

–During the 2005 G1.

Liger: He said it over and over. I’ve severed a tendon in the ring before, and all I could think was ‘man that hurts!’. Here he was saying that English word, and even in that pain conveying the emotion, the anger at himself, the anger at his fate. It was really powerful. So those are the two scenes that stick with me for Makabe.

Makabe: ‘Thank you’ and ‘f**k’. That’s me. (laughs)

It was being ringside as Inoki’s assistant that made me realise what a pro-wrestler is.

–As you countdown to your retirement in January you’ve been wrestling in a lot of different promotions. 

Liger: It’s fun wrestling all these different guys, but I don’t really feel like I’m counting down per se. I wrestled in Mexico in July, in Arena Mexico and Arena Coliseo, and for another independent promotion, but I didn’t really feel particularly sentimental. It was the same when I announced my retirement actually.

–You were quite cheerful then.

Liger: Because I love wrestling! I don’t want to end this in tears. I want to go ‘it’s been a blast! Thanks, wrestling! Thanks, wrestling fans! Thanks to all my opponents! Yaaaaayyyy! Like that.

Makabe: ‘Yaaaay’? (laughs)

–What are your thoughts on Liger’s road to retirement?

Makabe: One thing that’s cool about this era is we have social media now, y’know? All this news about Liger is all over the place, right on Twitter. I see him taking these shots with all these other wrestlers and I’m thinking ‘oh, yeah, him, he looks well’. It’s people’s memories, but they pass me a message of their own. 

–All in real time. 

Makabe: I see stuff like that and I think ‘is it really ending?’

Liger: Me being on Twitter is thanks to Makabe, actually. He kept telling me ‘you should have a Twitter’. I made an account, but didn’t have many followers. Makabe said ‘they probably don’t believe it’s really you. I’ll retweet you’. Then it took off all at once.

–The Makabe bump!

Liger: Makabe is so good at looking out for people like that, even on the little things. He likes his tough guy aura, so talking like this makes him all shy.

Makabe: Yeah, well, nah, it’s… It’s OK, isn’t it?

Liger: But Makabe’s popular because the fans know this side of him too, right? This emotive human side.

Makabe: Speaking of emotions, that’s something Liger is so good at, conveying emotion even while he’s under the mask. So much comes from a wrestler’s facial expressions; if you see a wrestler’s face you know what mindset they’re going to the ring with. With Liger you get that sense, even though you can’t see his face.

Liger: Now, that’s all because of Inoki.

–Inoki taught you how to emote from the ring?

Liger: Oh, yes. It was being Inoki’s assistant and watching his matches from ringside that’s what made me realise what being a pro-wrestler is. The generation I came up in, I was blessed with so many amazing teachers. Yoshiaki Fujiwara taught me holds. Kotetsu Yamamoto taught me how to be a man. Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada taught me how to drink. (laughs)

Makabe: Haha! You’ve got all that old-school NJPW DNA in you.

We need Liger’s tough love

–There’s still more big Liger matches to come, but over the years we’ve come to call Liger ‘Global Jyushin’, and that’s really true. 

Makabe: Even if you look at America alone, to have been in both WCW and WWE is quite the feat. 

–That’s true, he might be one of the last to say he could do that. Would you like to wrestle Liger before he retires?

Makabe: Me? Nah! When I wrestle someone, the guys I really want to fight are the worst sort of people. The guys that make you want to say ‘let’s go, you SOB’. (laughs)

–On June 26, you were a part of Riki Choshu’s retirement match. You hit Choshu with four King Kong Knee Drops…

Makabe: I thought I’d take his head off! But that’s all good. I had just found out i wasn’t in the G1, so there was that feeling of frustration, and of wanting to show everybody the kind of match I could have if I were entered. I was a little pissed off. 

–There must have been some disappointment at not being in the G1. 

Makabe: For sure, but I felt I had to go out there and show them, ‘hey, next year, or the year after, you have to let me in!’

–You weren’t going to let it break you.

Liger: Makabe has a long way to go yet. I expect a lot from him, and so do the fans!

Makabe: Thanks!

–Since you guys are such good friends, one thing I want to ask is, what’s something each of you would change about the other?

Liger: Ha!

Makabe: Everything! Jokes aside, though, we need Liger, and NJPW needs his tough love.

–In a tough business like this, you need someone who can be that particularly stern figure.

Makabe: Exactly! Having Liger around builds character for the young kids. That’s why I’m worried about what’ll happen when he retires. I’m scared he might just shuffle around in his slippers all day drinking tea and eating biscuits. (laughs) 

Liger: What’s wrong with biscuits? (laughs)

Makabe: But to have that drill sergeant kind of figure there is important, running a tight ship is important. When I was training I really got it from my senpai. I was yelled at, told to leave…

–In those days the trainees really had it rough. 

Makabe: I thought I was training properly, but in hindsight, I was being a little bit too preoccupied with what the others were thinking of me like ‘there’re not going to be pissed at me again are they?’. To the senpai it was ‘where’s this brat’s head at?’

–It looked like you weren’t focused. 

Makabe: New Japan is the pinnacle, we’re at the top of the mountain, and these Young Lions are all the way down in the foothills. The senpai are yelling at them to hurry and climb up, but if you worry about what the others are doing, you’re just gonna fall. That’s why someone like Liger is important to train with these kids, to keep them honest. Nobody’s slacking off if he’s around. 

–Liger, what are your thoughts on that?

Liger: Speaking for myself, there are days where I get to the Dojo and I don’t really feel like training. Then when the kids get in theere and they go through their warmups, hearing them yell as they count their reps snaps me out of it and I get in there. I don’t want anyone to think for a second that the years are catching up to me. And to me if you’re going to do it, if you’re going to train, you have to do it properly. Everybody’s human and sometimes you feel you want to take it easy, but in the Dojo, that thinking doesn’t cut it. Veteran or trainee, that doesn’t make a difference when it comes to working out and training.

Makabe: Even now, when I’m training I have the same mindset. ‘I’m taking all you MFers down!’

Liger: That’s the spirit! (laughs) Even though I’m retiring, if there are people with Makabe’s mindset around, we’ll be OK. 

Makabe: My mission right now is to raise talent that I can look at and say ‘this guy has it. NJPW is in good hands with him.’

Liger: If I had to change one thing about Makabe, maybe this is odd to say, but he trains too much. 

–He trains too much?

 Liger: Right. Him and Tanahashi, they’re always off doing media somewhere, but even so, they will always come to the Dojo and train. Whether it’s first thing in the morning or late at night, they’ll be there. So I’ll wake up at 6AM, start making breakfast and I can hear people in the Dojo. I go and take a look, and there’s Makabe working out! ‘Oh, I’m on location today so I wanted to train a bit first’. It’s 6 in the bloody morning! 

–Even Liger gets surprised!

Liger: So I’ll say ‘well, I’m making breakfast, at least come and eat’, and he’ll go ‘no, I’ve got to get going,’ and he’s off! I can’t tell you how angry it makes me to hear anybody say ‘ah those guys are on TV all the time, they can’t take their training seriously’. You snot nosed (expletives deleted)!

Makabe: Steady on! 

–The fury of Liger has come upon us!

Liger: But that’s how much we represent and are responsible for wrestling, you know? That’s how hard we have all worked to get here. You can’t once get all self satisfied, all happy at being treated well by a big successful company. We worked our asses off to get to this point, and we have to work our asses off to make sure we stay at the top. For all those kids that have only known the good times, Makabe has to be there to make sure they understand what it takes to be part of NJPW. 

–It’s been an amazing conversation, any final thoughts?

Makabe: I talk with Liger a lot, and a lot of times I think I’m really checking to make sure he feels the same way about something as me. And when he does, that’s when I feel fired up and ready to go. I want to take everything he’s passed to me and make sure it reaches the next generation coming up.

Liger: Makabe teaches from the heart. Right now, NJPW is red hot, so it’s important everybody understands why there is a New Japan in the first place.