Tetsuya Naito’s first longform interview as double IWGP Champion
January 5 saw Tetsuya Naito finally stand on top of the world with his name etched in history as the first ever double IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight champion. With no time to let the moment sink in however, Naito’s next challenger immediately made himself known: the devious KENTA. NJPW1972.com spoke to El Ingobernable to get his thoughts on his historic win and what’s to come.
I was seeing two of everything
–It was a busy stretch from January 4-6.
Naito: Heheheh… How was it? Satisfied to see the resurgence of Tetsuya Naito?
–It was quite the sight. Are you worn down after that series of big events?
Naito: Not one bit, actually.
–We’re conducting this interview just after the post Wrestle Kingdom press conference. So often wrestlers will appear somewhat worn out in these situations, but you’re in high spirits.
Naito: Well, I’ve been in similar situations before. Take the Tokyo Dome factor out of it, and I’ve wrestled two, sometimes three high profile singles matches back to back.
–It’s not all that different from a G1 scenario.
Naito: I mean, I had two weeks off and then just wrestled three matches. I’ve got plenty left in the tank. I’m probably more drained after a regular tour.
–And you have a tremendous mental boost in the form of those prizes…
Naito: That is pretty important. Yes my body’s hurting, but small price to pay for getting results.
–It seems like I’m speaking to a confident Naito for the first time in a while…
–Now you’re in a good place, I did want to ask… Before the Tokyo Dome you deflected the question somewhat with us, but Tokyo Sports newspaper ran a piece about your surgery for muscle paralysis in your right eye.
Naito: That’s right. I started having issues with my right eye last May.
Naito: Right above the eyeball there are these three little muscles… It was one of those.
–So one of the muscles that supports the eyeball?
Naito: Yeah. That muscle was paralyzed. So essentially my right eyeball wasn’t being supported properly. That meant I could see out of one eye, buit with both eyes open, I couldn’t focus my vision.
–How did that affect your matches?
Naito: All my opponents were looking at me with four eyes, basically.
–So you were seeing double?
Naito: Right. I’d be in four vs four tags against eight opponents. Working with six ropes.
Naito: Not at all! In October at Ryogoku I went from seeing double to triple.
–Triple? Surely that must have made day to day life extremely difficult.
Naito: Absolutely. But if I squinted with my right eye, I could just about get some kind of focus.
–So you were winking at anything important.
Naito: Right, if there was something I really had to look at, I’d shut my right eye.
–Apparently, you didn’t tell the company at first?
Naito: Ahhh…. I really hate going to the hospital.
–I can kind of understand. Away from the ring, you’re kind of… Optimistic? Or maybe a little negligent, depending on how you look at things…
Naito: Ha! Well, I kind of thought at first that if I slept it off, it’d get better by itself, but it didn’t.
–You thought it’d go away on its own.
Naito: And then I went to see an optician on my own, but that was no good either. I spoke to the trainer, saw opticians, neurologists, ear, nose, throat guys, and nobody could figure it out. Eventually I was told to go to a university hospital and get it really thoroughly investigated. That was September.
–After the G1.
Naito: Right. So I’m making no excuses for my results in the ring, but you can probably understand how hard it was to concentrate. I was seeing two of everything, tripping far more than usual. Even walking up the steps to the ring or running the ropes was something I was having to take much more care in doing. Things that I wouldn’t normally think twice about, I was suddenly having to consider really carefully. And up to now, I’ve always taken backstage comments quite seriously, but if I had nothing left over after my matches, I wasn’t going to half-ass a promo. So I was giving fewer comments.
The surgery was part of this resurgence coming together.
–Don’t you think it was quite dangerous, getting into the ring in that condition?
Naito: Yeah, it was. For everything apart from singles matches, I was leaning on the rest of LIJ quite a lot.
–Did they know about your issues?
Naito: They knew my eyes were messed up, but nothing specific, I don’t think.
–And all from last May onwards.
Naito: We finally figured out the cause of it all in September, and from there I realised that I needed surgery, but we needed to figure out a good time to do it. I even thought at one point I’d go for the surgery after the Tokyo Dome, but as it happened, I could take time off from halfway through World Tag League, so it worked out.
–If you hadn’t gotten the surgery, it’s hard to imagine that you’d end up double champion as you are now.
Naito: I don’t think it would have happened. The timing of this surgery was part of my whole resurgence coming together .
–It’s such a relief that you did get that surgery done. Even within the company, hardly anybody knew about your issues, and a lot of people were worried about you; you just didn’t seem to have any of your usual energy.
Naito: I really did think that I might be done. My issue was with the muscles over the eye, but it was a very similar issue to what retired Milano Collection AT. He had paralysis in the muscles underneath both eyes.
–So what was the actual procedure you had done?
Naito: The affected muscle was one of three, so apparently what they did was bind all three together to give the eyeball proper support.
–And that fixed it?
Naito: Well, because one of those muscles was paralysed, it meant there wasn’t proper tension to bear the eyeball; one of them was slack all the time. With the three tied together it created enough of that tension. It isn’t going to be 100% like it was before last May; if I look upward, my vision’s a bit blurry, but it’s much much better. I can look at you right now fine at least!
[CONTENT WARNING] The following portion of the interview contains a graphic description of ocular surgery that some readers may find disturbing. The section ends at the next picture.
–After Wrestle Kingdom, Hiromu Takahashi said ‘pro wrestling is dangerous. Anything can happen at any time’. You were really going from match to match.
Naito: Right. One thing I think we both share is that we both have the kind of strength that only comes from considering retirement. Reaching a hard limit like that, being aware of your mortality so to speak, it makes you think you have to do everything you can to show who you are in that moment. Because he had to deal with that, Hiromu Takahashi is all the stronger. So am I.
–It sounds like a really tough procedure to have done. Were you under general anaesthetic?
Naito: I wanted to be, but the way the schedule worked out, the surgery was overnight. The surgeon said that in that case, general anaesthetic makes things difficult the next day, so it was just local.
–So just your right eye was anesthetized?
Naito: Right, they used a long needle in the cavity right below and right above the eyeball.
Naito: That’s how they delivered the anesthetic, so it feels numb. I was kinda woozy.
–So, if you weren’t put under, could you see what was happening?
Naito: No, because the eye was anesthetized, I didn’t know which way it was looking or anything like that. But even though I was woozy, I could feel that something was going on. Like a pushing sensation. I asked about it when I had my post-op check-up and the doctor said ‘ah, yeah, that’s when we were cutting into your eyeball’.
Naito: So they cut in, do what they need to do, and then stitch it up. After the surgery, I could feel this kind of irritation in my eye, and some pain, and that was because of the stitches. In my mind I figured they’d stick a needle right in the eye, but they actually cut it and stitch it afterward.
–Wow. It’s a good thing they didn’t explain all this to you beforehand.
Naito: Oh yeah. I’d have run a mile. Or maybe they did say it and it just went right over my head.
–Thank goodness. Back in November, when the Double Gold Dash was first announced, it really felt like you weren’t yourself. This was before the surgery?
Naito: Yeah. I had a tentative appointment, but I wasn’t sure.
–So as all this talk was going on, it was a very real question mark over whether you’d make it to Wrestle kingdom?
Naito: That’s right.
However big the building is, the ring is the same size
–That main event in the Tokyo Dome against Okada really felt like the culmination of everything in your career. It was a phenomenal match.
Naito: I’d said beforehand that my heart and my head both said it’d be Okada opposite me in the main event on the fifth. I wanted that, to have a singles match, in the Dome, in the main event, with both the belts on the line. So when I was in the ring and waiting for Okada to make his entrance, it really felt like all the stars had finally aligned.
This was the third time I’d been in the Dome against Okada. It was always me to the ring first, waiting for him. But this was the first time I actually watched him enter.
–What was different?
Naito: I’m not saying I was cocky about it, but I had much more confidence this time. Certainly 2014 was rough.
–You had that blow of being voted out of the main event spot. But this year was phenomenal, especially the closing stretch.
Naito: I knew there were fewer fans on the fifth than the fourth. Watching the first half of the card, I honestly did feel that the reactions weren’t as big on night two. I had my doubts, but you wouldn’t knew there were 10,000 fewer people going by the reactions to that match.
–They were chanting for both of you, and reacting with every blow.
Naito: I think it was the 2017 match with Tanahashi that I felt for the first time what it was like to really wrestle in the Tokyo Dome. The way the sound from the crowd comes to you, the slight delay because of the size of the building. Wrestling Okada I felt ‘ah, yeah, I’d missed this’. It’s such a credit to Okada that he’s done that so many times.
–I know you watched the night one main event between Ibushi and Okada on the monitors. What did you think of that match?
Naito: Honestly, from my viewpoint, I thought that if they did that same match in Ryogoku, Ibushi would have won. Here’s the thing; however big the building is, the ring is the exact same size. So what’s different at the end of the day? It’s crazy when you stop to think about it. But I thought, watching that match, you really saw the difference in big match experience between Okada and Ibushi. Like I said, heart and head for me said Okada, but from the start of the match I was almost certain it would be.
Stardust? It’s not ‘I can’t do it, so…’, it’s ‘I can do it, but…’
–Asking around, the one reaction to the Okada match I heard a lot was that the Stardust Press brought people to tears.
Naito: Ahhh, that was pretty nerve wracking…
–It had been a while.
Naito: I’d gone for it in the 2017 G1 final against Kenny Omega, and against Okada in the Dome in 2018. But I missed both times. Crashed and burned. This time, before I went up, I pounded my chest two times. It was partly a message to all of Los Ingobernables, but also to tell myself ‘it’s now or never’.
–The Stardust Press was your finisher before you joined Los Ingobernables, so that spiritual shoutout was important to you?
Naito: Right. A lot of people have commented that I changed my finisher to Destino because I couldn’t do Stardust anymore. Thing is I came across Destino in Mexico and decided that in Los Ingobernables that would be my finish. So I left Stardust in Mexico before I came back in a way. It isn’t a case of ‘I can’t do it so…’, it’s ‘I can do it, but.’ On the biggest stage, with all those people watching, I managed to hit it right? I mean, he kicked out, but… (laughs)
–The specter of Okada will always be around Tokyo Dome main events. How was it, taking him on?
Naito: He’s Tokyo Sports’ MVP, he holds all the IWGP Championship records, he was champion all the way from April to January… It’s not something I’m thrilled to say, but it’s pretty fair to say that NJPW=IWGP=Okada. He oozes confidence. When he posed on the corner and then came to face me, he literally seemed to shine. But at the same time, I had enough confidence to believe I wasn’t going to lose this time.
Get Naito’s thoughts on KENTA in part 2!