The man who’s often been called the best wrestler in the world sits down with arguably the best referee of all time!
Kazuchika Okada and Tiger Hattori are united through a cross generational friendship. Hattori might be retired now, but he’s still got time for the Rainmaker, as we found out in this special chat!
It looked hard for him the last few years. I’m really glad he got to retire OK.
–A lot of fans know you two have a special relationship. How would you describe it?
Okada: Our relationship? I’m his carer. (laughs)
Hattori: Yeah, that’s about right (laughs)
–He’s not denying it.
Okada: Well, I got worried about him getting to the venues by himself, so I’d drive him in my car. I’ll worry about him eating properly, so I’ll take him to lunch. I’m pretty much his carer, seriously.
Hattori: I mean, it’s true.
–So it’s not a teacher and student situation?
Okada: Not really. I mean, he’s a referee, obviously. But there are definitely some things that he tells me, stories from his long career that have some useful advice to them.
Hattori: I’m more than just a teacher to you!
Okada: Oh for sure. You’re a walking encyclopedia. No, a living fossil!
–Looking back on your retirement now on February 19, how was it?
Hattori: It was a real surprise. So much more than I could have imagined. I mean, I was no big deal; just a referee!
–Okada, how was it for you? It looked like you were emotional, but that can’t have been the case.
Okada: Oh, no, I got through the whole thing without so much as a tear in the eye. I mean, it was sad for him to finish, but these last few years it did seem pretty tough for him, so I’m really glad he got to retire OK.
‘I’ve never given thought to Okada’s age. I mean, I don’t even know how old I am’ ‘That’s because you’re senile’.
–So when did you start driving Tiger to the matches?
Okada: Oh, about five years ago? He always asks me if I’m going in by car, and then it’s us together.
Hattori: It just ask all innocent: ‘hey, are you driving today?’
Okada: The thing is, after that, he’d never tell me if he wasn’t going to the building that day. I’d always have to ask him ‘are you working today?’ and then he’d send a one word reply. ‘Nope’ (laughs).
Okada: Well, at the end of the day, we’d only drive together for Tokyo cards, so I’d just reach out each time so we could go together.
–You guys are 42 years apart in age. It’s not entirely unfeasible that you could be grandpa and grandchild.
Hattori: I guess so. I’d never given thought about Okada’s age. I mean, I forget how old even I am.
Okada: That’s because you’re senile (laughs)
Hattori: Haha! No, but I don’t ever really think about age.
–Do you think Okada takes special care of you?
Hattori: Yeah. He takes care of everybody. But he takes better care of me (laughs)
–Okada’s car has become quite famous in your neighbourhood, I hear.
Hattori: Right. I mean, not everybody gets driven into work in a Ferrari, you know? Even so, one time I nearly got in the wrong car.
Okada: There was this other car parked in the spot I usually stop in. Hattori thought that it was me, so he opens the door and there’s this woman in there, right!
Hattori: Right! So I apologize and get out. Man, that was a real shock.
Okada: It was a bigger shock for that poor woman!
Hattori: I don’t know, man, it was the same color car! Anyway, I was always proud, going to work with Okada. It’s great to be picked up by a top wrestler.
Okada: But you always slam the door really hard. I’ve got to take care of that Ferrari!
Hattori: You always complained, so the last few times, I was being really gentle.
Okada: And then the door didn’t shut properly!
–Haha! So did Okada pick you up for your retirement?
Okada: I did pick him up. And you know what? I thought that because this was his retirement, I should be very proper. So I came to get himk in a nice suit. And he doesn’t give me a second thought, just ‘hey man’, like always, and in he gets. His last day! Dressed in a hoodie. ‘Hey man.’ (laughs)
Hattori: I dressed up for you today.
Okada: You should have dressed up then, too! It was your last day!
–That really shows your respect for him.
Okada: And he just goes ‘hey, why are you all dressed up, man?’ Argh!
It was the perfect way for him to go out.
–So the last match you refereed was Okada, Tomohiro Ishii & Hirooki Goto vs Tetsuya Naito, Shingo Takagi & SANADA. What was that match like?
Hattori: Well, it did strike me that a six man was the extent of what I could do. It really was time to finish. After that, it was just ‘I hope I can move well enough’.
–The last few years, you hadn’t been refereeing the top matches on a card, but that last night, you had the semi-main and the main event.
Hattori: Yeah. I went to the gym and trained as best as I could for those matches. Then it was just doing what I could in the match.
–Okada, how did it feel for you to be in Hattori’s last match?
Okada: Well, I figured a singles match would be too much for him. Given the circumstances, i think it was the perfect way for him to go out.
–Tiger hasn’t refereed many of your singles matches, right?
Okada: Hmm, all I can remember is him reffing the match I had with Marty Scurll at All In.
–In Chicago, right?
Okada: Yeah. That and a match I had against Captain New Japan. I remember when he came over to raise my hand, he stepped on him.
–The last pinfall Tiger counted was SANADA rolling up Goto for the three. Okada, I bet you wanted to be part of the decision and scoring that last three.
Okada: Well, not really. It was Tiger that should have been the focus, not me. I was glad he just counted the three. That said, I did think it was a lousy call. Maybe he hit the bottle a little early that night.
–Then, during the ceremony, you lay down and had Hattori cover you.
Okada: He didn’t cover me at first. It didn’t hit him what I wanted to do.
–Was that something you’d thought of beforehand?
Okada: It was, yeah. I thought the normal group photo would be boring, and hontai was going to do that anyway, so I thought for the CHAOS pic we should do something more fun.
–It’s traditional to give the retiring wrestler the toss into the air. Tiger is much lighter than the wrestlers so it really look like he flew!
Okada: He was so light!
Hattori: It was like I was flying for a second, you guys really threw me!
–We had so many great guests that night. Great Kabuki, Keiji Muto, Hiroshi Hase and Riki Choshu all showed up to pay respects.
Hattori: It was a real surprise. Especially Kabuki and Muto. I figured that Mitsuo (Choshu) would show up, but Kabuki was a real shocker.
–You managed Kabuki with Masa Saito way back in the 70s in Florida.
Hattori: I sometimes hang out with him at his bar, but I didn’t think he would go to the trouble of coming to the venue.
–There were even video messaged from Genichiro Tenryu and Antonio Inoki.
Hattori: Tenryu’s a friend since the Florida days, like Choshu. He came over when he was really green as goose sh*t. Inoki, he’s way out of the league of someone like me.
–Tenryu went to Florida just after his pro-wrestling debut.
Hattori: He put himself through hell. Quit sumo and started completely over.
–And another Okada connection; it was Okada who retired Tenryu, in November 2015.
Hattori: Ah, that match was great. You sent both of us off well.
‘Lots of independent spirits in CHAOS. Jado, Gedo…’ ‘They aren’t in CHAOS anymore’
–After the show, you two took one more picture together, didn’t you?
Okada: We did. I wanted one more shot with him. I mean, I had my suit and everything (laughs)
Okada: I went to the back, got changed slowly. Everybody had left, the fans too, so we took a picture. You remember, right?
Hattori: Of course I remember, I’m not completely gone yet! (laughs). We went to Yano’s afterward as well.
–It always seem you get on well with CHAOS in general. Did you often spend time in the CHAOS locker room?
Okada: Hattori would always ride on the CHAOS bus on tours as well, so he always got on with us. Yano, Ishii too.
–And you got on well with Shinsuke Nakamura. Are you fond of CHAOS?
Hattori: Well, a lot of the guys are very different in CHAOS. Lots of independent spirit, people who came into NJPW from the indies. Jado, Gedo…
Okada: Umm, they aren’t in CHAOS any more.
Hattori: Oh, yeah. Well, anyway, I knew Ishii when he was working under Tenryu. When he was about 16.
Okada: No, I don’t think it was that long ago. (laughs)
Hattori: 16 or 17.
Okada: I think he was a fair bit older (laughs)
–If he was 16, he wouldn’t have graduated high school.
Okada: Like me! (laughs)
Hattori: Ah, yeah. Ishii-chan went to high school, I know that. I just remember this kid at Tenryu’s side on the Shinkansen. I was sat behind Tenryu, and Ishii stood next to him, standing to attention the whole train ride.
–You must be proud of how Ishii’s grown since then.
Hattori: I mean, it’s clear where he was taught by the best in Tenryu and Choshu. Old school.
Every referee in NJPW is great, and Tiger was at the very top of the list
–Backstage after the retirement, Tiger, you talked about your approach to the refereeing job. Always being in position, counting right away, not getting in the way.
Hattori: Well, otherwise, you’re blocking the camera shot. Crappy referees are always doing that.
Okada: Oh, you were always like that toward the end. I’d always think ‘Why the hell is he there?’ (laughs)
Hattori: Maybe I was a little (laughs). But there are a lot of restrictions in there. You have to think about where the boys are, where the cameras are.
Okada: You’d always be showing your ass to the cameras, right? Well, I dunno, I guess he was a pretty good ref, all told (laughs)
–Are wrestlers always mindful of what the referees are doing?
Okada: Hm. I definitely feel all the NJPW referees are excellent.
Hattori: Everybody is great, absolutely.
Okada: I’ve met a lot of referees from a lot of different countries. There have been a few difficult ones over the years, but I’ve never felt that in NJPW. Tiger was at the top of an amazing list.
Hattori: Oh, everybody’s top. (Red Shoes) Unno, (Kenta) Sato, (Marty) Asami are all great.
‘You got chased by a big bee’. ‘It was a *hornet*’
–It’s been just over a month since the retirement now. Has it properly hit home?
Hattori: I’ve got nothing to do. I always wake up and wonder what I can do each day.
Okada: I keep saying to him, he needs a hobby or he’ll start to lose it (laughs)
–Have you been meeting up much since the retirement?
Okada: We went out to eat the other day, didn’t we?
Hattori: We did. You and I should go on another trip to the Goto Islands.
–You went with each other last summer didn’t you?
Okada: yeah. That’s where my mom’s from, actually. We went for a week. He’d been saying for ages that he wanted to go, so after the G1 we went together.
Hattori: It was amazing!
Okada: We stayed in my uncle’s house.
Hattori: I don’t think I’ve ever spent a week in somebody else’s house on a trip like that.
Okada: We didn’t go out to eat once. We went fishing every day.
Hattori: Just mountains of shashimi.
–I heard when you were small you went on a trip to Goto and liked it so much you ended up living there?
Okada: For a year and a half, yeah.
Hattori: It’s amazing. It’s like it’s frozen in time. There are all these old Christian churches there, hidden away.
–During the Edo era, there was a lot of persecution of Christians in Japan, so they kept their churches hidden away.
Okada: …And I got chased by a hornet. Remember?
Hattori: I was on the beach, and see him running toward me from, like, 20 meters away. I was thinking ‘what the hell?’ and then I realise there’s a bee chasing you. I just thought you should get stung and get it over with (laughs).
Okada: I didn’t want to get stung by myself, I wanted someone with me if it happened. Tiger was closest.
Hattori: That was a big bee.
Okada: It was a *hornet*.
Hattori: You baby. What’s the worst that could happen. You’re gonna die from a bee sting?
Okada: They’re dangerous!
–Actually, sometimes you do hear of people dying from hornet stings.
Hattori: Then what the hell were you running to me for?
Okada: What do you think?
The fun continues in part two!