-What are your thoughts on the title shot?
‘It seems every time we talk it’s the biggest match of my life, but it’s the biggest match of my life. The chance to become Intercontinental Champion is the stuff of dreams. It’s the second biggest championship in New Japan and who’s had it, it’s a who’s who, with Tanahashi, Nakamura, Hirooki Goto and now Tetsuya Naito. So it’s a big deal.’
–Do you think a win’s possible?
‘I definitely think it’s possible. At Ryogoku, if you asked people if I could have pinned Naito, they would have said no, but I did. If I didn’t feel I had the ability to beat anybody on the roster, I wouldn’t be here. So I absolutely have the ability to beat Naito.’
–You’re on a streak of big matches after the Tokyo Dome and the NEVER title shot. Are you feeling a sense of momentum?
‘Absolutely. At Sakura Genesis, when I pinned Naito, I felt kind of overcome. It was a huge moment and a reminder to me that “you can do this, you can beat anyone on any night”. And I feel on April 29th I really could do this, and I really could walk out with the Intercontinental Championship.’
— Naito implied that your pin on him was a fluke. What do you think about that?
‘So what if I was lucky? That’s how you get title shots around here. You pin the champion, in a singles match, tag match, whatever, you deserve a title shot. Who cares if I was lucky? I pinned him, I deserve the shot. He says I beat him once, he beat me three times, well I’m gonna make it twice and take his title in the process.’
— You mentioned you were overcome when you beat Naito, can you speak to that specifically?
‘If you go back to April 9, I hit him with a lariat, and I hit him perfectly, he did that flip in the air, and when I grabbed him for Pulp Friction, and jumped in the air, I knew I had him. There was this- not nervousness- but will he get out of it, will another LIJ guy run in? But when I hit it I knew.’
–What do you think about Naito, honestly?
‘I have a ton of respect for Naito, honestly, up to a point. He takes the easy way out. As a wrestler I have so much respect for him. He has a lot of heart, he’s one of the fastest, he’s an incredible wrestler. Between the ropes bell to bell, he’s incredible.
But the way he carries himself, the way he treats the belt, attacks referees after the match, I don’t agree with any of that. I know what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to elicit a response, a reaction from the fans. Show he’s trying to be too cool for school, but I think that’s BS. New Japan should be an honoured and sacred place where titles are treated with respect. He’s representing the company, and if he treats the belt like garbage then he’s telling the fans he’s treating the company like garbage. But between the ropes, I’ve seen him win big match after big match and title after title, and he’s a great wrestler.’
— Do you think he deserves to be champion?
‘Oh yeah. I think if you talk about whether he respects New Japan or not, or respects the fans or not, that’s different. But it’s all about what you do in the ring bell to bell. Bell to bell, that guy shows up and competes with the best of them. He’s a champion, and if you’re a champion and beat the best there is, you deserve it. We’ve seen him beat Elgin, seen him beat Tanahashi. You don’t beat those guys if you don’t deserve to be champion. So yes, he does deserve it.’
— When you started in New Japan you teamed with Naito. He didn’t treat you too well back then. What memories do you have of that time?
‘I have tons of memories. My first tour in New Japan was with Naito. I knew he didn’t like me or want me as his team mate. I wanted to make it work and he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t tag me, would leave me in two on one situations, beat me up after the bell. He was a real piece of s***. I think then he was making plans to rally the troops for LIJ, because it wasn’t long after that we saw EVIL, then BUSHI, then SANADA. So I think he was beginning to collect these lackeys and now we have Naito of today leading LIJ.’
— Naito mentioned that he might have considered you for LIJ and you didn’t deserve it.
‘Who’s to say I would’ve wanted to be in LIJ? At that point I wanted to make it work and be a success, but knowing what LIJ entails and what it became I wouldn’t want to be a part of it. But back then, trying to latch onto something as someone knew, maybe I’d want to. Say what you want about them, they are successful. But let’s say I did become a part of LIJ. By now I would’ve left. I just don’t believe in the way they do things.’
— LIJ is the most popular group at the moment, but their thinking is very different to yours. What don’t you like about them?
‘Jeez, have you got about six months? They hit you with chairs, they cheat, BUSHI mists you when he’s not the legal man, these aren’t legal moves in pro wrestling, not what NJPW is about. If one of them is about to lose a title, four of them come out… they take the easy way out. They rely on shortcuts, and I’m not down with that. I mean, I’ve been kicked in the nuts by Naito at least four or five times.’
–What are your goals in New Japan, and what would you like to say in the ring as a wrestler?
‘The ultimate goal is becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion. That should be the goal of anyone. If you’re away from your family, coming here, spending most of your life in Japan, that had better be what you think about. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’ll happen someday. I want to be someone with a lot of heart, that works hard. And you lose sometimes, but you win some too. But I want to be a good guy who fights his ass off every single night.’
— What draws you to New Japan specifically?
‘I just think the Japanese style is so cool. It’s rubbing off on me, that toe to toe fighting spirit, heart, passion, guts. It’s not necessarily American style, or European or Lucha Libre. There’s something of that in there, but if that’s what you want, that’s the Japanese style, and I love it.’
–How do you feel about New Japan coming to America?
‘I think it’s a step in the right direction. It’s an untapped market and we have a huge audience with New Japan World. So if we don’t do it, it’s a disservice. Look, it’s WWE, New Japan, and then everyone else. NJPW is the second biggest company in the world. We’ve got to start going all over the world. And the show sold out in two hours! We need a bigger building! So there are so many American fans and European fans that want to see us. We wrestle here. Some other places call themselves sports entertainment, but we wrestle and people want that. So I think it’ll only grow and we’ll be doing tours there before long.’
–Does that really come from having been in the WWE system and starting over as a young lion here?
‘Yeah. That’s the problem with WWE. I felt like nothing there. Just a number. I didn’t affect anything. But here I feel like I’m on a small team making a big difference. I feel like I contribute. I can feel New Japan growing and myself growing. I’m excited. I’m happy. It’s great.’
— What does New Japan mean to you in a few words?
‘Heart and honour. That’s what I’d say.’
–Do you think Naito has those?
‘Way down deep he does. But mostly he just tries to be cool. He wants to be a bad boy who sells Tshirts and he gets a kick out of being an asshole.’
–What do you want to tell Naito?
‘Naito. No team Taguchi Japan, no LIJ. One on one for the Intercontinental Championship. And I know you say you beat me three times, I’m not worthy, but I don’t care what you think. Let me ask you. If I do hit Pulp Friction and pin you, what happens? What happens to the guy atop the mountain? What happens to LIJ? It all goes away. But if you beat me, what then? I just live to fight another day. See, I’m supposed to lose this match. You don’t think I’ll win. The fans probably don’t think I’ll win. If I lose this match, I’m in the same place I am right now. But if you lose this match? You’re getting knocked off the top of the mountain.
Naito, you know. If I hit Pulp Friction, that Intercontinental Championship is mine.’