Hirooki Goto starts a chain reaction of interviews!
In Chain Reactions, we’ll be talking to different wrestlers and staff about their journey through fanhood and into NJPW. Each interviewee will then nominate the next, so we don’t know who will be next! First up is Hirooki Goto!
It was all thanks to Fire Pro
–So, thanks for taking part in this chain reaction. Talking of chains, you actually turned down one chain, the ‘full gear at home challenge’ that’s been going around…
Goto: Haha! Yeah. Sorry, but I don’t actually have my gear at home.
–But interviews are different.
Goto: Interviews are something I can do!
–So, how did you first discover NJPW?
Goto: It would have been first or second year at junior high, I watched World Pro-Wrestling on TV.
–What timeslot was it in at that point?
Goto: Late at night at the weekend. I’d tape it and watch it Monday morning before school.
–I see. It would be in different timeslots depending on where you were in the country.
Goto: Yeah. I’m from Kuwana, in Mie prefecture.
–I heard you also watched a fair bit of All Japan Pro-Wrestling?
Goto: Right. Back then there wasn’t just All and New Japan, but I’d watch Michinoku Pro and a bunch of other promotions. The first stuff I watched was joshi wrestling, JWP. Actually, the first thing that got me into wrestling was videogames. It was all thanks to ‘Fire Pro’.
–A lot of wrestlers from your generation got introduced to wrestling through videogames.
Goto: Yeah. I had a few friends who got introduced to wrestling by videogames.
–And then you started watching the real thing.
Goto: Yeah. I’d look at wrestling magazines, and then discover there were all sorts of different promotions. I started getting into Akira Maeda’s RINGS as well.
–But NJPW was on the front page of most of those magazines.
Goto: Yeah. It was just red hot back then. This was just after Yuji Nagata and the Third Generation had started.
We’d put gym mats down in school and wrestle
–Is there a match from that era that really stands out to you?
Goto: For me it’s got to be January 4 1994. (Hiroshi) Hase and (Keiji) Muto vs the Steiner Brothers. Man, that Steiner Screwdriver was something else. (Watch on NJPW World!)
–Big Van Vader was very active back then.
Goto: Right. I loved his match with Antonio Inoki in ’96, and Muto vs (Nobuhiko) Takada when NJPW took on UWFi. There was a prime time special on TV for that event, and being able to watch pro-wrestling in prime-time was really special for me.
–You’ve spoken before about how you used to play at wrestling at school.
Goto: We took it seriously, too! We’d get crash mats from the gym and put them on the ground for our ring. When we started messing around, it was with martial arts holds and stuff, things you didn’t really need the mats for, but it escalated pretty quick. We did some dumb, dangerous stuff (laughs).
–I know you were a big fan of Steve Williams at the time.
Goto: Dr. Death, yeah! His dangerous backdrop suplexes were really popular, I got dumped on my head on those crash mats more than once.
–That was an incredibly dangerous thing for junior high students to be doing.
Goto: Oh absolutely. There’s no way we should have been doing that, but it was a pre-pubescent Hirooki Goto’s move of choice (laughs)
–I heard a story once that you even wrestled in the school library?
Goto: No!, No, no. The library was for kickboxing (laughs). There was a split between the kids that did wrestling and kickboxing. K-1 was getting popular at the time, and so the fights would be in the library. Wrestling was on crash mats in the dark gym store cupboard. (laughs)
–So did you ever mess around with the K-1 clique in the library?
Goto: Yeah! I went in the library a few times. We invented MMA really, when you think about it! That was every day at lunch. Where was I? Oh yeah, don’t ever try this yourself, kids! (laughs)
I knew I was going to be a pro after junior high, so that led me to wrestle in high school
–So were you thinking of going pro that whole time you were playing around in junior high?
Goto: Oh, yeah. I decided early on that I wanted to become a pro-wrestler. About a month after I started watching, I came to the decision that this was the only path I could take.
–You were confident in your own strength at that point?
Goto: Yeah. I was always good in gym class, enjoyed anything physical. So I really did think ‘ah, I can do this!’
–Usually junior high is when kids start thinking about what they want to do when they grow up.
Goto: Yeah. When the guidance councillor would be asking what we wanted to do after school, a bit of me definitely wanted to just come out and say ‘I’m graduating junior high and going straight to pro-wrestling’. But I was only 60kg at the time; I had a lot of work to put into getting bigger. So I figured I’d go into high school and join the wrestling team.
–So you started amateur wrestling purely to turn pro.
Goto: Exactly. That’s all I had in mind.
–And was NJPW always the goal?
Goto: Yeah. It was always NJPW. They always had the biggest crowds, and the loudest reactions. I had this idea in my head of wrestling in front of all these people.
–Some wrestlers grow up dreaming of facing one particular person, but it was the stage itself that appealed to you.
Goto: Right. I definitely loved watching Riki Choshu and all that, but it was the scale that was exciting to me. Pyro, lights, all of it; stuff that the other companies in Japan weren’t doing.
–Did you tell your parents about your chosen career path at that point?
Goto: I did, but I don’t think they believed me! They just kind of laughed it off.
–It would be pretty difficult for your parents to fully believe you went into high school just to become a professional wrestler.
Goto: Right. My high school specialised in preparing kids to go into the manufacturing industry. My parents ran a little electrical goods store, so I think my dad probably figured I was going to become an electrician and follow him in the family business.
–So your dad probably thought ‘he says he wants to be a pro-wrestler, but he chose this school out of the love for his family’.
Goto: Right. I kinda played him (laughs)
Shibata played basketball in junior high and definitely looked it
–Talking about your family, I heard a story from a certain wrestler that your parents’ house had an elevator inside.
Goto: Ah, yeah, that story huh. We actually had that house built while I was in junior high. A three story house, with a nice area on the roof. My dad was thinking about what he and my mum would do when they got old, and decided to put an elevator in there.
–The wrestler I talked to made it seem like you came from money…
Goto: Hahaha! I’ve never once thought that we were well off! When I was a kid, my folks never bought me my own bicycle or anything. I had to run everywhere.
–You weren’t spoiled or anything, then.
Goto: When all my friends were going places by bike, I had to run there! I never got any videogames or things like that either; I said I played a lot of Fire Pro, but that was at my friend’s place.
–Back to high school…
Goto: I remember before I even started school, I was so hyped to start wrestling, I went to check out the wrestling classes.
–All with that goal of going pro in mind.
Goto: Exactly. I went int there asking to start training early. The first thing I said was ‘I want to be a pro-wrestler, so I’ll be joining the wrestling team!’
–Famously, this was where you met Katsuyori Shibata.
Goto: Yeah. I first saw him after the induction ceremony. Shibata had been scouted by the high school coaches. He had played basketball in junior high, and really looked it. He looked like an athlete.
–You didn’t now at first that he was the son of referee Katsuhisa Shibata.
Goto: No, not at all. The idea of Katsuhisa Shibata’s son living here in a town like Kuwana never once crossed my mind.
–So it wasn’t until you got to be friends that you found out?
Goto: Right. We didn’t actually talk much at first, so it was quite a bit later that I found out. The training on the wrestling team was really tough, so we started to talk as more people were dropping out. The school itself didn’t have the best reputation, and you’d have a lot of kids drop out of their club, and then drop out of class altogether.
–So the school was in bad shape?
Goto: But that didn’t bother me at all. I was so set on my own path that these kids dropping out didn’t influence me in the slightest. I was just focused on what I was doing.
–You were just training every day.
Goto: Right. I’d be up at the crack of dawn training, sleep during my classes, train after class and then go home. That was my life then.
Our coach brought Nagata, Ishizawa and Mr. Shibata to our dojo.
–So that was when you and Shibata became friends.
Goto: Right. There were fewer of us there, so we got to talking more. When he told me about his dad, that blew me away.
–It must have been a shock to have someone connected to NJPW there.
Goto: It was huge. All of a sudden, I thought that I had an ‘in’ to the business.
–You were closer to your dream.
Goto: Right. Plus, I found out that our coach used to know Yuji Nagata from university.
–How did you find that out?
Goto: When I first asked to be part of the club I said I wanted to become a pro-wrestler, coach said he was a fan, too and that Nagata had been his senpai at university. I didn’t know whether he was serious or not, but that was pretty huge for me.
–Did some part of you think at that point ‘maybe this dream isn’t so far fetched?’
Goto: Oh, I was convinced. That connection just cemented it for me.
–Did you and Shibata go to NJPW events together?
Goto: Yeah. Before that though, our coach invited Nagata, Shibata’s dad and (Tokimitsu) Ishizawa to our dojo before they had a match over here.
–Wow, that must have been a shock to the system.
Goto: Hell yes it was! Here were these guys that I’d seen on TV right here with us practicing on our mats.
–A real experience.
Goto: I even got to spar with Nagata. Only thing is, when I shot in on his leg, I scratched it with my finger nail and gave him a little cut.
–He can’t have been happy.
Goto: He was pretty pissed (laughs). He told me to cut my nails before practicing.
–He had a match that night, after all.
Goto: Yeah. He came and practiced with us and then had a match that night. I got the chance to go, and that was my first time watching NJPW in person.
–Now you felt that you had connections, did it change your perspective on the matches you saw?
Goto: Oh, no, I was a total fan. I’d never seen NJPW right up close like that before.
–Were you thinking ‘I’m going to be working there soon’?
Goto: I definitely thought that. I remember saying to Ishizawa after we were training that I wanted to be a pro-wrestler.
–And what did he say in return?
Goto: He said ‘OK, give me 1000 squats right now!’ I go ‘yes sir!’ and start squatting! He laughed and said he was kidding, but I think I showed how serious I was.
He said ‘I want to do this’, so it became ‘right, let’s do it together’
–So did Shibata say he wanted to be a wrestler at that point, too?
Goto: Actually, he didn’t at first, but I think that after we went to that show, it gave him pause to think. He said ‘I want to do this’, so it became ‘right, let’s do it together’.
–How did you feel when Shibata told you he wanted to be a wrestler?
Goto: I was delighted, really. There was actually one more guy in the wrestling club who wanted to be a pro, and I thought we could train together, but he dropped out.
–After high school, Shibata went straight into the NJPW Dojo, while you elected to wrestle in college.
Goto: Right. I met the university wrestling coach and made up my mind to go through collegiate wrestling. A big part of that was Nagata. He said people that go through college and use that time to get bigger and better on the mat tend to debut faster. Back then you had Nagata, (Manabu) Nakanishi, Ishizawa and (Kazuyuki) Fujita, all coming to the top in NJPW, so it really seemed like collegiate wrestlers got bigger breaks.
–It was the fast track in a way.
Goto: Yeah. Actually Shibata said he was going to go to uni as well at first, but then he changed his mind.
–It’s quite a well known story that he changed his mind without telling you.
Goto: Yeah, I had no idea. Looking back on it, I think it was our high school coach getting in his ear and telling Shibata not to tell me he was going straight to the Dojo. I had already made up my mind on college at that point, so if he told me what he was going to do, I would have changed my mind, too.
–But how did you feel in the moment when you found out he was going into the Dojo?
Goto: You know, it’s weird, but I wasn’t mad at all. He never told me he was taking the tryout, just said all of a sudden that he was in. So I was just dumbstruck at how it all went down.
–It was all so sudden you had nothing to say but ‘good luck’.
Goto: Right. But I was genuinely happy for him, and it gave me a lot of confidence. He and I were doing exactly the same things training wise, and he got through the tryout, so it made sense that I could, too.
–Like ‘I’m a shoo-in!’?
Goto: I wouldn’t go that far, but I did think that if I kept working hard I could do it.
More in part two, and find out who Goto nominates for the next step in our chain reaction!