Tiger Hattori concludes his look back at a legendary career.
The business has changed a lot over the years. If I’m old school, then I guess the new school started with Tanahashi?
–You were in charge of countless famous matches, but one that often comes up is Antonio Inoki vs Ric Flair on April 29 1995 in Pyongyang.
Hattori: Man, there were about 200,000 people there, and Inoki and Flair had them. These people that had never seen pro-wrestling before in their lives, they had them in the palms of their hands. Tore into one another. I was thinking ‘hey, this match doesn’t even need a referee!’
Another match that sticks with me is Hansen and Vader. Just brutal.
–That was February 10, 1990. NJPW and AJPW wrestlers faced off in a few matches on that card. This was Stan Hansen challenging for Vader’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but it ended on a double countout.
Hattori: You forgot to say that Hansen punched Vader and knocked his eye out! I think it’s the matches that fell apart that stick with me the most. Naoya Ogawa vs Shinya Hashimoto too. Inoki liked that kind of situation, huh?
–There was quite a lot of blowback from fans in the 1980s with matches that didn’t have clean finishes. Riots, almost.
Hattori: Inoki used to just say ‘let them be mad’. It was a different time, wrestling was much more bloodthirsty back then. Nowadays, a clean, decisive, sportsmanlike win is great, but it’s very different to how it used to be. If I’m old school, then I guess the new school started with (Hiroshi) Tanahashi.
–That’s where you’d say the current generation began?
Hattori: Back in the day you used to have a lot more monsters like Andre. Recently, you hardly ever see anyone in anything less than top shape. And these top guys in great shape, putting on great matches with satisfying finishes; for that to get over like it has, that’s great in my book.
I brought Bernard in when I came back to NJPW. That was great all around. Me and him have an interesting relationship.
–When Hiroshi Tanahashi came to the forefront coincided with you introducing Giant Bernard to NJPW.
Hattori: That was when I came back for the second time, I think? There were a few people in the company who weren’t exactly welcoming at that time. Anyway, I went to Roppongi, and there were a lot of foreign wrestlers hanging out there who were being booked by All Japan. Bernard, and that guy, oh, what’s his name? Annoying guy. Works in ROH, wears street clothes when he wrestles?
Hattori: Yeah, him and his partner D-Von, there were quite a few guys who wanted to work in New Japan.
–Eventually Team 3D did come to NJPW in 2009.
Hattori: Right then we couldn’t bring everyone over at once, so it just started with Bernard. And he was over like hell. It worked out well all around. Me and him have an interesting relationship.
–Bernard really took over from Scott Norton in the lead foreign wrestler role. He became Tanahashi’s big rival.
Hattori: In the end, Bernard and Norton had a singles match in Ryogoku, in 06, and Bernard won. Norton took it hard I think, that he’d been passed by but that’s the nature of the business. Bernard really put together a hell of a run, and then he went over to WWE to head up their Performance Center. He did great, Chad (Karl Anderson) lives in a mansion… They both overtook me!
–You’ve worked incredibly hard not just as a referee, but in co-ordinating between Japan and the rest of the world.
Hattori: I often get the requests from promotions overseas, asking about certain wrestlers, and I handle that stuff. It’s hard for Japanese wrestlers to hash out their payoffs and schedules with foreign promoters otherwise.
–Jyushin Thunder Liger has said a few times ‘Tiger’s a great guy, but he books me on nightmare schedules’!
Hattori: Heheheh. He had it hard, did Liger. But he didn’t complain, much. He definitely had the most booking requests. I don’t know who’ll step up in that position now. Naito gets a lot of requests though.
Tanahashi didn’t have the luxury of an excursion. For him to still be able to carry the company was amazing.
–You really came back to NJPW to see Tanahashi’s rise in the mid 2000s.
Hattori: He put his body through hell, and never once complained, never said a word, even when he got hurt, just kept giving it his all right at the top. Since then, Naito, Okada have come up, Ibushi and SANADA as well, but Tana built this house.
–He brought us out of the wilderness?
Hattori: Tana just means peace of mind, you know? He went to a good school as well; by the time he decides to call it a day he could easily transition into the office. It’s incredible to think he never had the luxury of a foreign excursion; there was no time for it. For him to still be able to carry the company so effectively was amazing.
–You and Okada always seem to get along well.
Hattori: Ah, we get along great. I didn’t remember, but apparently we first met in Mexico, when he was 16. Now, when we have events in Tokyo, he’ll come pick me up from my home in his car. That’s a hell of a car he’s got; it’s become pretty famous in the neighborhood! And he took me on a holiday to the Goto Islands with him, didn’t take a Yen off me for it.
–He gave you the VIP treatment.
Hattori: You might not think it to look at him, but he’s got quite an old school mindset. He’s got himself together, and he puts the young ones in line. The other old school guy around now is Makabe. Oh, I can tell you a few things about that little bastard!
Hattori: One thing I remember about him; I sent him to Puerto Rico on excursion and he got in a big fight with the promoter there. You know the way he does: ‘F**K YOU!’ and stormed out. Then he went to Calgary, a bit in the original LA Dojo and came back. He went through some difficult times, man. He didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, then he injured his Achilles in 2005. I really didn’t think he’d make it.
–Even when he came back to Japan, he couldn’t quite seem to get his break.
Hattori: But I’m glad he finally figured out a way to get himself over. Ever since he’s become this big star, on TV, all that. He was broken in by Mitsuo (Riki Choshu) so of course he has that old school spirit.
We have some amazing wrestlers, Japanese and non Japanese. We owe a lot to the Dojo system.
–Who else impresses you on the current roster?
Hattori: Definitely (Tomohiro) Ishii. He’s been through a lot and come out well. I first met him when he was in WJ, he must have been, what, 16 then?
–Not quite; WJ was in 2003, when Ishii would have been 27…
Hattori: Ah man, he wasn’t so young, huh! He’s another old school one. I remember he got on the Shinkansen with (Genichiro) Tenryu and just stood next to him the whole train ride. Never sat down. That’s respect, man.
–When Tenryu wrestled in NJPW in the late 90s, Ishii was his attendant, so maybe that’s how you remember meeting a teenage Ishii.
Hattori: Perhaps. Who else… I think SANADA is doing good. He’s a weird one, I can never figure out whether he doesn’t think about a thing, or whether he thinks about everything. He spends quite a lot of money on his look, no?
–He’s very fashion conscious. You’re very fashionable yourself!
Hattori: No match for him. But he and Okada put on great matches together, I’m glad they won the Tokyo Sports award. Hopefully he’ll continue to grow.
–How about the foreign wrestlers?
Hattori: Juice (Robinson), he’s come a long way. Interesting dude. He was in NXT/WWE, and when I went over there Bernard told me ‘take that guy to Japan!’. He had these dreadlocks at the time, and I go ‘who? This guy with the hair?’. But Bernard said he had all the tools, but his partner was hurt, the guy he was programmed in was hurt and they had nothing for him.
–Juice himself often talks about not being able to progress in WWE, and starting again in NJPW.
Hattori: He went through a tough time, starting again from scratch in the Noge Dojo. Then there’s (David) Finlay; his father sent him to me. He’s come along real well, too. And Henare.
–We used to see a lot of Americans at the top in NJPW, but recently guys from Europe and Oceania are in the top flight.
Hattori: Jay White’s from new Zealand, isn’t he? He’s amazing. Lots of potential. He’s really carved out a spot for himself. I think Gedo’s support helps with that.
–Will Ospreay moved to Japan recently.
Hattori: When he was in the UK, the promoter over there told me great things, and when he had that amazing match with Okada, in 2015, I knew we had to have him. There’s great guys over there. Ospreay, Zack Sabre Junior, El Phantasmo, even though he’s Canadian, he was doing great stuff in the UK. Then there’s Tama Tonga’s youngest brother working hard out there right now.
–Hikuleo is on excursion in the UK, yes.
Hattori: He might have the biggest potential of all three of those guys. Keep an eye on him when he comes back. Oh, and (Chase) Owens. He’s a hell of a worker too.
–He always shows an experience beyond his years.
Hattori: He’s so good. Great worker, but his face and his body aren’t (laughs) I’m always looking at his gut when he’s in the ring. If he can do something about his face and his body, he’ll be over like crazy.
–It’s a bit difficult to do something about your face…
Hattori: Well anyway, we have great wrestlers from Japan and overseas, all here. We owe a lot to the Dojo system, and that old school mentality that still exists after all these years.
–The Dojo’s been producing the world’s best for a long time.
Hattori: Not Just Japanese, but guys from abroad as well. Then you’ve got Katsuyori Shibata teaching the young kids really well in America too. You come through the Dojo system and you’re good to work absolutely anywhere in the world. That’s what the WWE would like to be able to do with their Performance Centers right? There’s a lot of people that were brought up in Japan that can be a success in the States, but the other way around, that’s not common at all.
There’s no other business like it.
–You refereed for over 40 years. What’s the best part of the job?
Hattori: Depending on how much you put into the job, you can really influence a match. If you’re purely businessmanlike, then the match will be what the match will be. If it’s a bad wrestler involved, the match can fall apart. It’s a big responsibility, being a ref. You can’t get in the way, of the boys or the fans.
–You have to know when the cameras are, too.
Hattori: Right. Well, sometimes when there’s been a cameraman I didn’t like, I’d make sure all he could see when somebody went for a cover is my ass as I was counting, heheh. I’ve kicked people away if they’re being a hassle, too. The refs we have now, (Red Shoes) Unno, Marty (Asami), Kenta (Sato), they’re all great. I’m worst of the bunch, haha.
–Are you retiring from your job as a foreign co-ordinator as well?
Hattori: Well, I still have my connections. If there’s anyway I can still help, I want to pitch in. I still want to be involved. And in August, we have Madison Square Garden. NJPW keeps getting bigger and bigger. Man, 40 years, huh…
–It must be sad to step away.
Hattori: It’s been sad, already. I’ve been waking up in the morning not really sure what to do. I don’t feel like going to the gym so much.
–You’re 74! Do you have any hobbies?
Hattori: Well, I really like DIY, so I might take carpentry classes. And, it might seem a little late, but I want to actually go to class and study English properly. I never learned my English in class. Now there are guys in the locker room and the office that speak better English than me.
–The greatest string to your bow is that you’re equally loved by the office and the wrestlers, Japanese and English speakers.
Hattori: Oh, I don’t know about that. Anyway, I guess both my English and Japanese have gone a bit as I’ve gotten older. Maybe I should take Japanese classes first…
–Any last message to the fans?
Hattori: I’m just so happy that I was able to be in this business for this long. I’m so grateful to everyone. And I’m grateful I never caused any major incidents.
–You were never the instigator (laughs)
Hattori: In the end, this business is constantly changing. Eras go by, people go by, and everything keeps going, because of all these great fans. I’m so thankful. I mean it; wrestling is my life. There’s no other business like it.