Tama Tonga reflects on seven years of one of wrestling history’s most prominent factions.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay
–And then in the midst of all that success, in January 2016, AJ Styles, Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson all left.
Tama: They were really uncertain times. We had a meeting in the hotel, and they told us. It was definitely sad, definitely unsure. You have to remember, I was on the same boat. There were rumours about me, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to stay.
–You were thinking of leaving as well.
Tama: In the end, I still strongly believed in what we were trying to do, and what we were building here in New Japan. I believed that strongly enough to stay, and at that point, Karl, Gallows, AJ leaving was just another hurdle that we had to overcome.
–On January 5 2016, Kenny Omega kicked Styles out of BULLET CLUB and assumed the lead of the group.
Tama: The decision was made for him to be the guy calling the shots, and I said ‘OK’. Let’s do it. Again, I’m the workhorse.
It was sink or swim for us. We’re still swimming.
–In April 2016 we first saw the Guerrillas of Destiny. You and your brother Tanga Loa instantly defeated GBH to become IWGP Tag Team Champions (watch on NJPW World!).
Tama: It was sink or swim for the two of us. Obviously we’re still swimming. That beginning was really tough, and it was nerve racking, but we found ourselves. We’re still here.
–Even though you’re brothers, you were brought into wrestling in very different ways.
Tama: We were taught completely differently. I came up the New Japan way, he came up the WWE way. It’s a completely different style, and you can see that. So I was trying to mould us as a team and him as a wrestler in a New Japan ring.
–It was that year’s World Tag League final against GBH where, even though you lost, it really felt as if the team had truly arrived (watch on NJPW World!).
Tama: That was the first match where I felt we hit our stride as a team. That’s when I felt we were at the start line. That’s still one of my favourite matches of my career; you really saw us click.
–You recently lost the IWGP Tag Team Championships to Kota Ibushi and Hiroshi Tanahashi, but Ibushi was very complimentary after the match, especially to your brother; he said he was surprised at how far he had progressed.
Tama: I don’t care what Ibushi thinks. But what I think about T is that I’m proud of him. He had to adapt to a different style in a short time. He wasn’t at the top level over there, but he had to sink or swim at the top level right away in a different country and with a different style in NJPW. He did very well.
The Elite were just doing whatever they wanted to do. Enough was enough
–To go back to Kenny Omega, you said that AJ was very humble when he took the lead in BULLET CLUB and got all of you together for input on the group’s future. What was Kenny like as a leader?
Tama: When we knew that Kenny was going to be leading the group, I was behind that. I’m a big picture thinker, I’m always thinking about what would be best for the group as a whole, and so I was absolutely fine with Kenny taking charge, but…
Tama: I guess he had other intentions. He had different goals in mind.
–The Elite was more important to him than BULLET CLUB.
Tama: I kind of started to see it when you saw him do more stuff popping up with the Elite here and there, but I was just trying to be supportive.
–Always a team player.
Tama: Yeah, until there was a moment when I really saw what was happening, and you saw what happened then.
–You were effectively two different teams.
Tama: It just felt like the Elite group was building something on their own. We were here in Japan on every single tour doing what we had to do, and they were going rogue, and just doing whatever the hell they wanted to do. Enough was enough.
–It boiled over for you.
Tama: You saw it in that G1 in 2018, I put it all out there at that point. That was where it was ‘OK, you go your way and I’ll go mine’.
–That was a controversial G1 for yourself and Fale especially. Half of your matches ended in disqualification, all of Fale’s losses came from DQ, and there was a lot of negative press around you.
Tama: There was a lot of press around me, is how I hear that. I took it back to where we were at the start. Then it was all about getting heat. I’m an artist in that regard. I decided I’m going to go out there and make heat art.
Maybe I took some extreme measures, but it was worth it.
–You were going back to the origins of BULLET CLUB?
Tamas: That and trying to evolve what we doing before. Amp it up. I knew the Elite was gone at that point, so I wanted to step things up. Maybe I took some extreme measures at times, but it was worth it.
–Had you decided by that summer that Kenny and the Elite were out of BULLET CLUB, that they weren’t coming back?
Tama: A line had been drawn at that point. They were on their team and we were on ours.
–At King of Pro-Wrestling Jay White, Jado and Gedo joined BULLET CLUB after leaving CHAOS. After what had happened with Kenny, did that change feel right to you? Or were you uncertain about it at first?
Tama: At first, I wasn’t sure. Not right away. I will make do, and adapt with every situation. So when Jay came in, I thought ‘OK, let’s make it work, let’s see’, but I didn’t know yet how good he’d be as a frontman.
–Did you ever see yourself as that front man?
Tama: Never. Maybe when I was a young boy. You dream big, but when you grow older you realise what’s important is to pick your role and know where you need to be.
–Jay fit that profile.
Tama: Oh, Jay fits the profile. Jay really fits the profile.
We don’t want KENTA to be the badass he was, we want him to be the badass he is.
–It seems your role in BULLET CLUB has been as a recruiter.
Tama: A recruiter, a smooth operator I like to say (laughs).
–You introduced us to Taiji Ishimori as the reborn Bone Soldier, and you teased a new recruit before KENTA joined. What do you look for in BULLET CLUB members, then?
Tama: There’s no set requirement, no guidelines. It’s just what can you do in this moment to make us better as a group? What can you do for the club? As a recruiter, as a smooth operator, it’s my job to see that in people.
–KENTA has to be a star get for BULLET CLUB in terms of all he’s done for you over the last six months.
Tama: I came to Japan in 2010. Then, yeah he was in a different company, but KENTA was the man in Japan. When he went to the States, something about him… wasn’t ‘lost’ but maybe dimmed. We wanted to bring that fire back, and we did.
–People always knew how tough KENTA was as a wrestler, but his actions outside the ring, his comments backstage and online, his ability to make the crowd so angry, those are all things that have surprised people.
Tama: Surprising? Yes and no. We were looking for him to bring the fire he had before. We expected him to bring that fire, and to build on it. He’s found himself again. We’ve given him the platform to find himself again. We don’t want him to be the badass he was ten years ago, we want him to be a badass in this world right now. And he’s got that fire, man.
–How did you react to his attack on Tetsuya Naito in the Tokyo Dome on January 5?
Tama: I looked at Jay, and he looked at me, and I just said ‘perfect’. That’s what it was, perfect.
Hikuleo is ‘the one’. Trust me.
–So as we get to the end of our time here, I wanted to try and play BULLET CLUB word association. For every member of BULLET CLUB, past and present, one or two words, if you could.
Tama: All of them? There might be some surprises (laughs)
Tama: ‘Tunnel vision’
–Bad Luck Fale.
Tama: ‘Big man’
Tama: ‘Leader’. The second in command is a leader a lot of the time.
Tama: ‘Latino chapter’.
–Rey Bucanero and La Commandante
Tama: ‘Henchmen’ (laughs).
Tama: ‘Pimp’. I’m getting too simple now I think (laughs).
Tama: That’s tougher. ‘Driven’.
Tama: ‘Hope’. I still have hopes for him. There’s a good kid in there, he just maybe wasn’t guided the right way.
Tama: (long pause)… Smart, again. That’s the only word. He’s smart.
Tama: ‘Tracksuit’ (laughs).
Tama: ‘The One’. And I’m not just saying that as his brother. He is big money. You wait.
Tama: ‘Jacked’ (laughs).
Tama: (long pause) ‘Next’.
Tama: ‘OK’. And that isn’t a knock. He wasn’t the right fit for us.
Tama: ‘Big money’.
–Any final message as we wait to get back to action in NJPW?
Tama: This is an ever evolving world, and we’re always evolving with it. BULLET CLUB is an ever evolving idea, and we will keep evolving and keep moving forward. We’re never set in stone, we’ll just keep evolving and getting better. We’ve been together 7 years, longer than nWo, longer than almost everyone, because we kept evolving and we will continue to.