One is the long time established Ace of NJPW, while another is rising swiftly to the top from the junior heavyweight division. SHO grew up a fan of Hiroshi Tanahashi’s; has their relationship changed since he stepped in the ring? Will Tanahashi pass down some worldly wisdom, or will the Ace learn a thing or two from SHO?
I told you ‘I want to become a pro-wrestler’ and you said ‘well, I’ll be waiting’.
–There’s quite the story about the first time the two of you met.
SHO: Right. I was in my second or third year at college, in Yamaguchi. NJPW came to Shunan City. I went, and at the meet and greet there was the first time I ever saw Hiroshi Tanahashi in the flesh.
–Can you remember what you said?
SHO: You told me I looked pretty big, heh.
Tanahashi: He looked great. But I thought his shirt was a bit weird. It was this really cute floral design I had as a collaboration with TV Asahi; it didn’t really seem to suit the muscle look. I can remember it like it was yesterday, huh!
–Impressive memory for sure! Either way, SHO stood out to you.
Tanahashi: He was put together, he was cool, the shirt was cute…
SHO: And when I told you ‘I want to become a pro-wrestler’, you said ‘well, I’ll be waiting’.
–The ‘Tanahashi Challenge’ has become a thing. He told Yota Tsuji the same.
SHO: You said the same thing to Tsuji?!?
Tanahashi: Haha! This was when Tsuji was in University. He ran into me at Jiyugaoka Station and asked for a picture. I took one with him, then asked what he did. He said ‘Ameican football’. I go ‘Oh, really? You look pretty big’. (laughs)
SHO: You gave him the same line you gave me!
Tanahashi: And it worked! He got in the business. I’m an excellent talent scout!
–Kengo Kimura (former wrestler who worked as a scout after retiring)’s ears are burning.
Tanahashi: But when I was in the wrestling club at Ritsumei University, I did a training camp at SHO’s school, Tokuyama. We were there a few days. Maybach Taniguchi (NOAH) was there; he was captain so it would have been our fourth year, I guess? Is that dorm still there?
SHO: They tore it down to renovate in the end.
Tanahashi: Makes sense. It was quite run down back then, and there was no air conditioning.
SHO: My year was one of the last to use it. It was ancient.
–Interesting fact about Tokuyama is that Bad Luck Fale was there, too.
SHO: I know! He went there for rugby. When I enrolled at Tokuyama I heard there was an alum who went into NJPW. I did some digging and found King Fale, as he was known then.
Tanahashi: You two didn’t overlap?
SHO: No, he’d already graduated. We didn’t meet.
Tanahashi: There are a lot of those unseen connections that get made between everyone in this business.
When you came back from excursion, you had the perfect balance.
— SHO, what did you think of Tanahashi before you started out as a wrestler?
SHO: He’s the reason I got into wrestling as a fan.
SHO: A friend of mine in high school was into wrestling, and showed me a video on his phone. I just thought, ‘hey, that guy’s really cool’.
–You’ve said it was a video of Tanahashi versus Shinsuke Nakamura.
SHO: I think it was. I’m a little hazy on it, but I remember seeing a Dragon Suplex.
Tanahashi: The circle of pro-wrestling life. I grew up a fan of (Kenta) Kobashi and (Tatsumi) Fujinami. They made me want to get involved. Then you watched me and got in. There are kids watching you now that will be inspired to come in. Thinking ‘I want to look like that guy’.
–Funny thing, I actually saw an interview you gave before your debut. The Tanahashi influence was definitely there.
SHO: Oh man! (looks at photo). The shaved head and everything. That’s embarrassing.
Tanahashi: But even with the shaved head, he had that striking look to him. Like a pop star. I knew he’d be competition. Then he joined CHAOS.
–Do you have any memories of SHO as a young lion?
Tanahashi: He and YOH have similar frames, but SHO was much more built. His chest, legs and back were amazing. His arms needed more work; he needed some more balance. When he came back from excursion he had that balance.
–I did quite a bit of digging for this interview. I found Tanahashi’s blog from July 19 2013. You were in Hakodate, and SHO was playing guitar and singing ?
SHO: I remember this!
Tanahashi: Look at the rubbish pictures! This was before I had a smart phone.
–SHO had only just debuted at this point. You did a lot together; I remember the Tokyo Dome guide to Suidobashi…
SHO: Ah, yes!
Tanahashi: We went to get fried oysters, didn’t we? I know a great oyster bar in Nagoya. They produce oysters for the whole country there, so its the freshest place every season.
SHO: I’d love to go!
I’m still as nervous as when I was a fan. I was nervous coming here today!
–We put out a book called New World a few years ago. The editor in charge of that was really keen on highlighting you as a Young Lion.
SHO: I remember them coming out to the Uwajima (SHO’s home town) show.
Tanahashi: Oh yeah, I remember that.
–It was a rare case back then of one of the local Road To events being broadcast live on NJPW World.
SHO: I was on the same team as Tenzan and Tanahashi.
Tanahashi: We were in Toyohashi the before. That’s a big travel day before the match the next night, but the bus had broken down. So the boys were piling in rental minivans. You got heat for being from such a faraway town!
SHO: By the time we got in it was gone 9 at night, and there was nowhere open.
Tanahashi: I actually paid for a Shinkansen ticket out of my own pocket, but it sounded rough for a lot of the guys. But the match itself was great. I still remember the ‘Tanaka’ chants.
SHO: I was really grateful.
Tanahashi: I got the win in the end, but it was all thanks to you. You were throwing everybody around with German suplexes. You stole all my pops!
–You had this amazing return to your hometown, and teamed up with your hero in the process. Have your impressions of Tanahashi changed over the years?
SHO: No, he still makes me nervous. I was nervous coming over here today!
Tanahashi: I’m always a little bit on edge when I talk to (Keiji) Muto. Same deal (laughs).
–You get nervous in front of Muto?
Tanahashi: I do. With Tatsumi Fujinami I’m constantly standing to attention (laughs).
Tanahashi: But SHO, joining Roppongi 3K and coming back from excursion, definitely got a cooler edge. You certainly can’t say a thing negative about his look. When you were both Young Lions, you were more straight ahead, harder hitting while YOH was much more adept at technical wrestling. But I think that you were able to gain just a tad more from your excursion and since your return than YOH has.
–SHO, I know your partner is always at the back of your mind.
SHO: In 2015, he was entered into Best of the Super Juniors and I was watching from the sidelines. That was really frustrating, so I was really trying to catch up. I thought that when I went on excursion I had to do something to distinguish myself. So if it weren’t for YOH, I definitely wouldn’t have had the success I did.
–In august 2015, Tanahashi chose YOH as his partner when they went to DDT to face HARASHIMA and Ken Oka. How did you take that decision?
SHO: I really wanted to be in that spot. To represent in a different company.
Tanahashi: Back then, YOH had a better understanding of where he should be in a match like that. he knew how to fire up, to be bolder.
I’d have to assume Hiromu Takahashi is big in your sights
–But even though SHO is fairly withdrawn, he started his own podcast: SHO’s Low Voltage Talk (Listen here! Japanese language only).
Tanahashi: That was a real surprise. I’d always figured YOH would be the type to do that. But I used to feel awkward talking as well; I just thought that there was a lot that I could express on a podcast that I couldn’t in pre-match interviews or post match comments, so I started mine (Hiroshi Tanahashi’s Podcast Off! Japanese language only)
–Was that your own logic for starting a podcast?
SHO: It actually came from a conversation with KUSHIDA (currently in WWE/NXT). This was just before he left New Japan, and there was going to be a gap for a junior heavyweight focused podcast. I asked him what it was like doing one, and he said it was great and I should give it a try. So I went to the office with the idea, and they were saying ‘are you sure you can do it without YOH?’ which put me under a fair bit of pressure (laughs).
–I remember that conversation!
SHO: YOH had just started doing his own blog, so I said ‘I want to try doing it on my own’, and they let me.
–That really seem to give you that power to express yourself, and meant you were riding high into Best of the Super Junior last year. That said, you seem to be pulled in a lot of different directions right now.
Tanahashi: Want some advice? I’m excellent at giving it!
–Advice Ace! (laughs)
Tanahashi: Nobody’s been asking me for help lately… (laughs)
SHO: You and I both are tag champions right now…
–Right, and that’s kind of the theme we were going for with this interview, but there’s a lot of other things you seem to want to do…
SHO: I’m being pulled into a lot of singles situations as well, so I’m not quite sure where my focus should be.
Tanahashi: Certainly I would say Hiromu Takahashi should be in your sights right now. Hiromu’s great in the ring, but has an unbelievable power to grab people’s attention and imagination. He’s… driven.
Tanahashi: That’s a problem. He’s this hugely popular figure, in a hugely popular heel group. For us as conventional babyfaces, it’s difficult to combat that.
–Is Hiromu’s success a big motivator for you?
SHO: It is. We’re both the same age, which is another factor.
–You came into the Dojo after him, but you’re the same age.
SHO: Hm. But right now we’re too different in my mind. Yes he’s more experienced than me, but there’s a big gap between where he is and where I am.
Tanahashi: I get that, to be honest. You’re both champions, but… Maybe that’s a difference that we pick up on as wrestlers more than something the fans take notice of.
SHO: He’s in another league…
Tanahashi: Don’t put yourself down.
SHO: He really is. That’s what’s driving me to get better.
Tanahashi: There’s a lot of areas, especially in terms of look and power that you are clearly in front of everyone in. So I don’t think you need to be too down on yourself. But you need to be able to wrestle as the protagonist in your own matches. That comes from being in a lot of different scenarios. Whether it’s with tagging with YOH, whether that’s having Shingo (Takagi) as a rival, or chasing Hiromu, steadily you’ll be abe to make yourself the focal point of each of those narratives. Right now, Hiromu is the focal point of his, Naito is the focal point of his. LIJ is the center of this galaxy right now.
SHO: That’s their drawing power.
You want people saying that this company would be better off with you as a singles champion
Tanahashi: The key I think is to min/max. Take one area to the extreme, and have one area where you can’t be beaten by anybody.
–There’s a lot of areas where SHO is very capable.
Tanahashi: Oh, absolutely. But with Hiromu, he’s great in the ring, he’s unique, so wrestling fans love him. When it comes to non-fans though, the one thing that can draw them in on effectively is visual impact. It’s in looking good and being in great shape. I think if a non wrestling fan would look at SHO and Hiromu in the ring and was just asked which they think looked tougher or looked cooler, more might go for SHO, and that’s key.
SHO: That means a lot, thank you.
Tanahashi: The other thing that’s important is what you plan to do when you become a singles champion. If you can make fans picture what kind of person you would be, or what you would do as a singles champion, that gets them talking. You want them to be able to say that this company would be better off with you as a singles champion.
SHO: I haven’t really gotten to that point yet. I’ve been focusing so much on getting there that I haven’t thought about what would happen when I did.
Tanahashi: That question is really important to me. What would NJPW be like with Tanahashi as champion?
–You think it’s important to draw attention to yourself and say ‘I want to be like this’ ‘I want to do this’?
Tanahashi: Wrestling isn’t politics; this isn’t the election trail, but it isn’t far off. Hiromu is always saying ‘I won’t lose to a heavyweight’ ‘I want to headline in the Tokyo Dome’ ‘I want to be on prime time’. Fans get on board with those messages. They support you with those dreams.
SHO: It’s like a manifesto of sorts.
Tanahashi: There’s a lot of ways around it, but for me, I do as much media as possible. Local TV, radio, absolutely everything. I want more people to know me, to get more famous, to get more name value any way I can. If you did that and put yourself out there more, you might put yourself up there with Hiromu, right? If he seems like he’s beating you in all areas you need to find your own unique way of going about things. With me and (Shinsuke) Nakamura, it was the same. We were aware of one another, but we climbed the mountain our own ways. Then when we met at the top, it was ‘oh, hi’ (laughs)
–And you each thought the other’s route looked like hell (laughs).
Tanahashi: Nakamura had a hell of a time. He had his trials in MMA, he got booed as a babyface and cheered as a heel at times. Mind you, I got booed plenty as a babyface, too. (laughs)
SHO: But you make a good point. You can’t get any better than someone if you only follow the same route.
–Hiromu is constantly online and keeping up with everything, so I think he followed last year’s bodybuilding contest quite closely.
Tanahashi: He took part in the CMLL contests as well, didn’t he?
SHO: Oh, so he did the original Concurso?
Tanahashi: We’re going to do it again this year, but I want to double the entrants, from ten to 20. I’ll invite him.
–You’re calling out everyone. Like the infamous ‘100 million Yen tournament’ that UWFI ran!
Tanahashi: Yeah! Let’s get SHO to ground and pound him. Hiromu though, I think his biggest appeal is that he looks like he’s having fun. SHO is more of the stoic and straight ahead type, and that gets reflected in the ring; pro-wrestling always holds up that mirror to humanity. I think that might be important for you, to have more fun with the task in front of you. Hiromu always seems like he’s enjoying himself out there, right?
SHO: You’re right.
Tanahashi: That’s what the people like best about him.
SHO: I think if I had to answer honestly whether I was having fun in the ring, I’d have to say I haven’t been lately. It’s just been about putting all I have into the match.
Tanahashi: Well, that’s a good thing in and of itself.
–To turn it around, what’s SHO’s thoughts about Tanahashi lately?
SHO: He’s great. I want to be like him when I get to be his age.
Tanahashi: Ah, you’ll blow me away.
SHO: But I’ve got a lot to do in the next ten years.
People mistake me for you. Overseas, I’ve been called ‘little Tanahashi’
Tanahashi: Your 30s are a key time. After I won the IWGP title in 2006, the next few years are tough, but it was my late 30s that I really got to be in good shape. I’ve by and large managed to keep it that way. You’re 30 now, and from a bodybuilding perspective that’s the best age to be, with muscles developed and all the strength you can put into training.
–So it’s a key decade for SHO. One thing I wanted to touch on before we’re done here is the lookalike issue you two have…
SHO: People mistake us all the time. I often see pictures that I’ve been tagged in on Facebook, but it’s not me, it’s Tanahashi. Overseas, I’ve been called ‘little Tanahashi’.
SHO: People ask if we’re brothers. I’ve been wrongly recognised in gyms. I mean, it’s an honour, really.
Tanahashi: Let’s swap ring gear sometime and wrestle each other’s matches. (laughs)
— Have you ever tagged together, just the two of you?
Tanahashi: Maybe once? After we’re back from all of this Coronavirus business, we should have a special tag match. Tanahashi and SHO vs Ibushi and YOH! (laughs)
SHO: Wrestling each other’s partners!
Tanahashi: Champs, too!
SHO: That sounds awesome.
Tanahashi: Oh man, I’d look the worst of the lot.
–Would you ever like a singles match against one another?
SHO: Oh, for sure!
Tanahashi: It’d be like Naito and Hiromu. A similar relationship.
SHO: I’m still chasing you.
Tanahashi: Well, I’ve got to make sure I don’t lose out visually at least!