Tetsuya Naito gives his thoughts on Jay White and the Double Gold Dash at Wrestle Kingdom 14
I thought for a while that I couldn’t do this anymore.
–Can you tell us what your mental state is with the Tokyo Dome and the Double Gold Dash in front of us?
Naito: It’s just like every year, I start getting pretty excited around this time. But just like every year we’ve had a few days off, and I don’t like that. I always feel being in the ring and wrestling is the best way to be in ring shape.
–You prefer regular tours, where there are preview matches right up to the big event?
Naito: Right. Before the Tokyo Dome, there are one, two weeks without any matches. It gets to me every year. I’d rather be wrestling right up to January 3.
–Backstage at Korakuen Hall, you said that you were uncertain for a while, but that unease has gone. Were you talking about your conditioning then?
Naito: No, not really. I don’t want to go into specifics, but for a while I thought I couldn’t wrestle anymore.
–What the–? That’s a pretty big deal…
Naito: Truth is for about six months, maybe since May, I had this kind of crisis of confidence. From about May, I’d felt something was up, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
–Did that come through in your matches, do you think?
Naito: I thought I could cover it up, but I think the result was that it did come through. I was constantly wrestling in that state of unease. I hate going to the hospital, but I really wasn’t myself for a time.
–At some time you might feel comfortable going into the details, but for now, it must be a huge benefit to you not to be going through that.
Naito: Right. It’s like any injury, and I’ve had bad knees for a while, things don’t get back to 100%, but when it comes to this issue I’ve had, I’ve managed to recover well enough during the time off. Bear in mind, 100% or not, I came pretty damn close to zero.
I realised not speaking was just as effective
–October 14 at Ryogoku you said that you thought you saw a path to history. After that, almost nothing in backstage comments for months. For someone who has put such an importance on speaking one’s mind, you had a lot of people concerned with your silence…
Naito: Like I said before, it was a lot of mental strain. I really thought I might not be able to get in a ring again.
–That unease was taking over.
Naito: I don’t want to say something for the sake of saying something. I want to put 100% into my matches and my promos. That’s 200 total, but if I can only put out 170 in this mental state, and I’m giving 100 in my matches, well I don’t think it’s worth giving a half-assed comment backstage, after I’ve given it such importance before.
–But without knowing the reason for your silence, the fans were pretty worried, and it gave Jay and Taichi licence to stir the pot.
Naito: Right, but it did mean my opponents and the fans were left guessing. That’s fun in itself, right? So at first it was a matter of my mental state, but in the middle there I realised not speaking was just as effective.
–You made that comment about the unease going away at Korakuen. At the press conference earlier that day, it showed.
Naito: Heheheh. I think I had more confidence in my words and my expressions. A bit of the good old Tetsuya Naito.
–So you have no worries heading into the Double Gold Dash now?
Naito: Well, obviously it would be better for me to come out here and say ‘I’m 100%, I’ve got this!’ But what I can say is that I’ve recovered. Most of the issues I’ve had are behind me.
–A lot of eyes were drawn to how heavily your legs were taped during the Korakuen events.
Naito: Back at Hamamatsu during the World Tag League I pulled a muscle. It was completely healed by Korakuen, but I had tape on there just as a precaution to stop hurting it again. Physically and mentally I’m at better shape than now than I have been for most of the year.
I really didn’t like Okada bringing up a fan vote.
–So let’s go in depth on the Double Gold Dash. You were the first to talk about becoming double IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental champion around a year ago, back last January.
Naito: Making history, that’s been the aim. Records, they’re made to be broken. But when you’re the first to do something, that stays forever. I was trying to think of something that’s never been done before, that I could be first at. And then it hit me; double IWGP champion.
–Being first is key to you.
Naito: That and there’s always been a distinction between the two titles; people wrestling for the Intercontinental Championship haven’t mixed with the Heavyweight contenders. So rather than have people think that I’ve gone back to just wrestling for the IC title, I wanted to say, no, I’m going to have this and wrestle for the heavyweight title as well.
–That distinction has always been there with the Intercontinental Championship. Particularly under Shinsuke Nakamura.
Naito: I wanted to get rid of this idea that once you’re in that position of wrestling for the IC, you never move away from it. Bear in mind, too, that I never had any interest in the Intercontinental belt in itself. The Heavyweight title has always been the number one belt to me.
–So the Intercontinental Championship is your passport to a greater goal.
Naito: That’s right. But don’t get confused; the thing that I want the absolute most right now is the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Remember, that’s what I’ve said since day one: I want to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship while holding the Intercontinental.
Naito: I didn’t take those comments lightly when I made them, and I still feel strongly about it. I have to hold the Intercontinental Championship.
–At Power Struggle in Osaka, Okada brought up a fan vote, which was in favour of the Double Gold Dash, and here we are. How do you feel about that chain of events?
Naito: I heard what Okada said about the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, how important it is to him. I agreed with every word, from his standpoint. Why would you have a gold medal and then ask for a silver? That’s how a champion should talk. And that’s exactly why I really didn’t like him suggesting the fan vote.
–It’s interesting that the person who suggested to putting it to a vote was the one most opposed to the whole idea.
Naito: I think it was directed at me, but it did surprise me that Okada would say something like that. For a moment I thought he wasn’t so tied up on the IWGP Heavyweight title after all; that maybe he didn’t care which way it went. But I think as the champion, what he wanted was for it to go to a vote and have it lose.
–He wanted the fans to turn on it?
Naito: Right. He wanted to force his views through to the bitter end.
The record I had with Jay in 2019 is no accident. There’s absolutely an X factor to him every time.
–First of all this weekend, you have to take on Jay White for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship January 4. How do you feel about Jay?
Naito: His confidence is amazing. He’s a lot like how Okada was when he first came back to Japan in that he has confidence in spades and it’s backed up by his physicality. I’ll make no bones about it; he beat me twice in 2019. And he beat Okada, too, right?
–That’s how he started his 2019, by beating Okada at the Tokyo Dome and then going on to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Hiroshi Tanahashi the next month.
Naito: In one year he beats Okada, Tanahashi, and me, twice. There’s no flukes there at all. The record I had against him is no accident. There’s absolutely an X factor I sense in him every time.
–And an incredible ability. He’s very much like yourself, in that he tends to very strongly dictate the pace of a match and have his opponents wrestle at his pace.
Naito: I don’t know whether you can call us similar, but he’s absolutely good at controlling the room. The fans don’t take their eyes off him from the moment he walks out.
–And he’s pushed your buttons on the mic. After he beat you in Kobe, he did a BULLET CLUB version of your famous role call.
Naito: Haha, yeah he did, didn’t he? A receipt maybe. I picked on him a lot before he went on excursion as a Young Lion.
–You would kick him away when he held the ropes open before you…
Naito: A portent of things to come. He’s completely changed since those days.
–Rebelled against that upbringing. And now more than capable of holding his own on the biggest stage there is.
Naito: What I’m interested against him, and then into the next day, is being the first. If I lose to Jay, whichever of the three does manage to do it, even if I get a shot later on, it means nothing to me. Being the first is the one and only goal that I have.
Naito: Nobody remembers the second. Only the first. That’s what I’m going for here.
I couldn’t do it in ’18… I wonder just how far that chorus from the fans will be heard?
–After you and Jay White on January 4, it’s Kazuchika Okada versus Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. You’ve said that your prediction, and your hope is for an Okada win. Does that stem from 2018, when you lost to him in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12?
Naito: That’s right. After he beat me back then, I can still hear what he said as I was walking to the back. ‘It feels pretty good to main event in the Tokyo Dome, right? It’s even better to win!’ Well then, I want to find out for myself just how good that feels, and I want to beat him to do it.
Naito: And for the last few years, Okada’s been synonymous with that belt. To make it into the history books by beating him will be all the sweeter.
–you have achieved your dream of wrestling in the Tokyo Dome main veent, but haven’t won there yet.
Naito: Well, I’ve only been in the main once (laughs). 2014 it was a ‘double main event’ but really that was the semi.
–It took Okada three attempts to finally win in the Tokyo Dome main event. Before then, he was beaten twice by Tanahashi. It’s an extremely high bar to clear.
Naito: Beat him, make history, finally do that role call I couldn’t in 2018… Just how far will that chorus from the fans be heard..?
–It would be a huge call of ‘De Ja Pon!’. Being part of that in itself could be reason to make sure you have your ticket for January 5.
Naito: I want as many people as possible to be part of that, that call in the Tokyo Dome. Something I haven’t experienced before.
–The biggest for you so far has been Ryogoku, has it not?
Naito: Yeah I think so. I’m excited just thinking about how loud it’ll be, how much of a moment it will be for everyone there. I hope as many people as possible share that moment with me.
If it comes down to me and Ibushi… What’s Shingo going to think?
–Another possibility is of you facing Kota Ibushi on the fifth…
Naito: We were tied together during the spring. After I put forward the idea of double gold, he started complaining. When did the whole idea spark such a fascination with him?
–It was after the G1 Climax that he put forth the idea of a double title match at the Tokyo Dome.
Naito: Someone who complained that much and then flip-flops? Nah, I don’t want to face him. I’m fired up to take on Okada. That said, I do really enjoy wrestling Ibushi.
–You’ve both said that before. Your matches tend to take on something very special.
Naito: And if it did come down to me and Ibushi, I wonder what Shingo (Takagi)’s going to think? Think on that, the first members of the ’57 Club’ where myself, Ibushi, Shingo and then Okamoto from Tokyo Sports. Okamoto aside, I bet Shingo will be pretty hot watching that main event.
–He won’t be tranquilo.
Naito: I’ve said this a lot over the years: I would love for there to be competition within LIJ. That includes with Shingo. And me versus Ibushi would be the matchup he would hate to see most.
–After the matches you and Ibushi have had in the past, for you to do it again with history at stake would be phenomenal.
Naito: i’m sure it would be. It’d be a hell of a match. But even so, I think, and I hope, that it’ll be me opposite Okada.
–But if you do it, and make history after the journey you’ve had, there is that question of ‘what’s next?’
Naito: Hahaha! Maybe I’ll retire…?