Our look at the next generation of junior heavyweights in NJPW continues with YOH!
Best of the Super Juniors 27 has been removed from the 2020 NJPW schedule as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak. With Jyushin Thunder Liger’s retirement at the start of the year heralding the end of a significant era, it’s undeniable that when action restarts, so will a new generation of junior heavyweight wrestler. In New Junior Generation, we examine some of that generation’s prospective leaders.
My moves, my entrance; I owe a lot to Hayabusa
–So, this interview series is about the new generation of junior heavyweights in NJPW. First, your thoughts on the end of the last generation, and Jyushin Thunder Liger. With you being 32 yourself, he must have had quite the influence on you?
YOH: Absolutely. He was there at just the right time for me to be obsessed.
–Was he a big part of your childhood?
YOH: Oh, yeah, huge. Just the visual impact of a character like that is massive, and then when he took the top half of the suit off to wrestle heavyweights, you saw how jacked he was as well.
–A phenomenal physique.
YOH: Well, you know, about that. After he retired, I was at the same photoshoot as him, and we started talking shop. He said ‘the reason I was able to do so well is that speed wise, technique wise, all that, I was average. You had guys that really excelled in one area or another, but me being middling everywhere meant I was a good base, I could have a good match with anyone.’
–That’s how he saw himself.
YOH: I guess. I was listening to him thinking ‘wait, aren’t you ridiculously strong? You weren’t average at all’ (laughs).
–He certainly wasn’t average from a visual standpoint either (laughs).
YOH: Exactly! And he probably has the best voice in wrestling. He can go right to the cheap seats in the Tokyo Dome with his voice. And he’s probably number one in ‘wrestlers with childlike innocence’ (laughs).
–He never stopped being a fan.
YOH: You hear that when he does commentary. It’s just a string of ‘Awesome! Incredible!’
–What match of his was most memorable to you when you were a fan?
–Your Falcon Arrow is taken from Hayabusa, isn’t it?
YOH: I get in the ring Hayabusa style as well. That match with Liger was his first match back from excursion in Japan and really put him on the map; just having Liger as his opponent gave that match impact. When I was a fan, the only merch I’d get from the junior heavyweights would be Liger’s. He just symbolised the entire division.
–And what did you think of him when you entered the NJPW Dojo?
YOH: In a way, it put me at ease. It wasn’t an act, the guy you see in the ring is exactly the same guy away from it. Just as animated, just as passionate. Only thing is I blundered into one of the famous ‘Liger landmines’ without knowing pretty early on. Still, that’s the same with everybody!
–The famous Liger short fuse.
YOH: You can have a normal conversation with him and then all of a sudden he’ll flip out. But he’ll cool down just as quickly, he doesn’t bear any grudges at all.
–Hiromu Takahashi has told a story that he made Liger mad once; when he apologised to him later on, Liger yelled at him again, saying ‘you already apologised once, why are you prattling on about it?!’
YOH: Hahaha! He’s a product of his generation though. I’d heard before I came in ‘make sure you speak in a loud clear voice’. So I said hello to Riki Choshu in a big booming ‘HELLO, I JUST STARTED HERE, I’M KOMATSU’! Choshu just said ‘keep it down! I’m not deaf!’ (laughs)
–That sounds about right.
YOH: So it was like, ‘what should I do, then?’. I think common sense is different now to what it was then, or today we’ve lost some of that. So that generation are an interesting bunch to talk to.
There’s no following jyushin Thunder Liger. That name would weigh too much to move.
–Liger has spoken in the past about how wrestlers are classified over the years; that the ‘pro-wrestler’ label has become a general ‘athlete’.
YOH: Hmm. I think when you look at matches from back in the day, and compare them to now, it really is a different field in many a way. There’s a frame of reference there, but it’s evolved a lot. When it comes to what goes into a match, this is the best era to be in.
–You take pride in being part of this generation.
YOH: You often hear about how wrestlers’ bodies have changed over the years. Truth is, they have to. The shape, the build that was successful in the past; there’s no way those guys would hang today, especially in the junior division. You can’t make it the old school Showa way of constantly eating to get big, and then hurling back the booze after the matches. It certainly gives that era a certain character, but they wouldn’t be able to hang today.
–Especially when you consider the pace of the junior tag matches.
YOH: Right. You have to maintain an exact rhythm with your partner, and if one of you is a step behind, it throws the entire match off. In this generation you have to be in absolute peak condition all of the time to be able to do the kinds of things that we can do.
–Was there not some talk about you becoming a second generation Liger at some point?
YOH: Well, he talked to me about it. Then, in 2016, I was having a conversation with a certain wrestler that was there. I said to him ‘I’d like to wrestle under a mask. A ways back, Liger said…’, only for this other wrestler to reply ‘I had the exact same conversation with him!’ (laughs)
–You weren’t the only one, then!
YOH: I figure that he said it to everyone, it was a little rib of his (laughs). But in all seriousness, there’s no following up. There’s no way you could have a second Liger. That name holds so much weight it would be an anchor on you.
–That legacy is too big.
YOH: Hiromu said it after he had Liger’s last match, right? ‘I couldn’t surpass him’. There is no surpassing him. What we have to do is create something completely different. Make history of our own.
–So what is it you want to create?
YOH: Something bigger than there’s ever been, bigger than this genre’s ever been. Something that’s better than anything that’s come before us.
–It’s interesting, when you look at the card on January 5 this year, Liger’s last match opened the event, and then in the second match there you and SHO were facing El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. It was a real sign of the torch being passed to you guys.
YOH: That’s how I took it. I think that’s what the thinking was when that match was booked. On the one hand I was worried that it would be an impossible match to follow, but thinking about it being the end of one era and the beginning of the next, that got me fired up to get our belts back. And result wise, it was the best possible start to the year.
Wrestling Ospreay last year convinced me that this is the style I want to wrestle with going forward.
–Another big transition for the junior heavyweights has been Will Ospreay and Shingo Takagi, last year’s Best of the Super Junior finalists, both moving to heavyweight.
YOH: Right. Well, Shingo was never a surprise at least.
–You were actually one of his first opponents when he debuted in NJPW in that eight man tag at King of Pro-Wrestling 2018 (watch on NJPW World!). You were a little lost for words after that match.
YOH: Ever since, he’s become a best bout machine, hasn’t he? Same goes for Ospreay. For them to meet in the final last year and tear the house down like they did… Obviously as a rival wrestler, that’s tough to see happen, but you can’t be anything other than amazed by that matchup.
–You can’t help but be impressed.
YOH: It was honestly amazing. I was watching the whole thing thinking ‘man, I want to have a match like that’. When I wrestled Ospreay in Yamagata in that tournament, it was emotional in a way. The last part of that match I suddenly caught myself thinking ‘man, I’m having so much fun!’. It almost made me cry for a moment. (watch on NJPW World!)
–You were having so much fun in the ring you nearly cried?
YOH: Seriously! I lost, but even so, I walked back thinking ‘that was the best match of my career’. I think that’s what made me know who I was in the ring. It was from there that I felt ‘this is the way I want to wrestle, this is the style I want to have going forward’. I’m not like SHO or Shingo, going all out against one another, and I’m not someone who can fly all over the place like Ospreay. I’m more of a throwback. I’ve always liked the classical style of wrestling.
–There’s a lot of variety within the junior heavyweight division. Everyone feels very distinct; are you conscious of where you fit in that mix?
YOH: Right. There’s a little trial and error involved in there. The Japanese word for match is derived from testing one another; I think it’s only right you take that time to experiment in the ring. I think finally last year you saw me established as a singles wrestler. This year is a bit of a mess, but when we’re back you’ll see a third year YOH that’s ready to really impress.
–You sound confident.
YOH: With trial and error, you add, and then you subtract, but I think this year is all about addition once we’re back in the ring.
–A lot of wrestlers will say that as your career goes on, you tend to do more with less. You don’t agree with that adage?
YOH: Well, I actually start from a really minimalist point, when it comes to what I do in a match. That’s partly my own process, and partly Rocky (Romero’s) in put. I actually started thinking about a much more intricate finish, but chatting with Rocky, he said ‘you should have a flash pin as a finish’, and that’s what led me to the 5 Star Clutch.
–In the 2018 BoSJ.
YOH: From there I learned to only keep moves that are important, moves I need. That’s a safe way to work, but when things get really heated, I feel I’m left without many options.
–You feel you need one or two more weapons in your arsenal.
YOH: So I feel that this is the year where I open the floodgates and do everything that I have in my head. Just as everything’s changing in the junior scene, it’s a really important year for me personally. I like that, it’s exciting.
Who said heavyweights have to be above juniors?
–So Rocky’s influence is definitely important to you.
YOH: Oh, absolutely. Both as a singles and a tag wrestler, if it wasn’t for Rocky, SHO and I wouldn’t be where we are today. I trust in him 3000 percent.
–That’s a lot of trust!
YOH: But he doesn’t carry us, he doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. The three of us talk and it’s like he’s adding a little spice with his advice. Giving us that seasoning. He’s the master.
–To go back to Ospreay for a second, what do you think of his move to heavyweight?
YOH: Well, he was just getting bigger and bigger. You can see that on his Twitter, heh. It was the natural thing toi happen, but it did take me by surprise a little bit. I was thinking ‘if he goes heavy, what are we juniors supposed to do?’
–What do you mean by that?
YOH: I mean that Ospreay can move like he does, but he’s a heavyweight now. That speed and agility is supposed to be the junior heavyweights’ unique selling point. But there’s opportunity created in that. It’s up to us to make something new.
–You have your own experiences wrestling heavyweights: last year in Boston you and SHO took on the Guerrillas of Destiny. (Watch on NJPW World!)
YOH: My main thought going into that match was ‘who said heavyweights have to be above juniors’? In the end it’s about pitting your skills against one another, so there shouldn’t be borders and barriers put in place.
–You did earn that title shot after all, when you rolled up GoD.
YOH: Yeah, my style brought us to the dance. In the end, I took the fall, but I didn’t feel that match was any different than a junior heavyweight title match in approach. I just find it hard wrestling power guys.
–No team has ever held both sets of tag championships at the same time…
YOH: Good point. No Limit (Tetsuya Naito & Yujiro Takahashi) and the Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson) did win both tag championships, but not at the same time.
–Back in 2016, the Young Bucks were IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, and challenged heavyweight champions the Briscoes, but came up short. (Watch on NJPW World!)
YOH: If a team were to pull it off and hold both sets of titles, then there would be no arguing that they were the best team in the world. That sounds like a pretty great goal to have.
Hiromu has always been like this. From day one, I thought he was going to be a threat.
–Let’s talk about the current IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. Hiromu Takahashi came from a year and five months off to go right to the top of the division.
YOH: Explosive is the word that fits him. He’s able to draw everybody into his world. He’s obviously super talented and super popular as well.
–Do I detect a little jealousy?
YOH: Of course. I keep thinking ‘he’s amazing’ and at the same time ‘man, I knew it’.
–What do you mean by that?
YOH: He’s always been this way. He’s had that same factor Liger has all this time. Even back in the Young Lion days, I thought he was going to be a threat.
YOH: He’s always been just so passionate. He’ll dash into any situation. I heard a story that when he was a fan he would run to the entrance gates when a wrestler made their entrance to cheer them. Then, even when the other entrance was the other side of the building, he’d dash around to boo the next guy. (laughs)
–That’s passionate, all right (laughs).
YOH: I heard that and thought ‘man, this guy’s weird’. There’s no doubt that he’s got a screw loose, but he’s also got so much love for this business. He’s fascinating, and that’s why he’s the man.
–You can’t deny his appeal.
YOH: There hasn’t been a guy like him before. He’s so unique, so fascinating. He’s the kind of guy that everyone else tends to revolve around. The question becomes ‘who else can stop him?’ I’d like to give it a shot.
–What do you think of his matches?
YOH: Some people might think his matches are these exchanges of dangerous moves. He’s a lot smarter than that though. His moves are carefully chosen, he bumps in such a way he looks in a lot more danger than he is at times. And he has such an incredible range, you see that with his YouTube channel.
–Have you given thought to starting up a YouTube channel?
YOH: Me? I’m more an Instagram Live guy (laughs). The state of emergency in Tokyo threw everything off a little bit, but every Friday me and (Hiroshi) Tanahashi have been putting out a show called ‘New Japan Station’. I drew up a whole plan, wrote scripts and everything. We wanted to do something while there haven’t been any matches, so we decided to put out this little live show, a news show kind of thing.
–Making the most of the situation.
YOH: Right. And I like taking inspiration from other artists. You see musicians sometimes streaming themselves getting ready to perform, right up to them walking out on stage. I’d like to do that.
–Fans love to get a little glimpse behind the curtain.
YOH: Whether it’s possible or not, I’ll worry about that later. For now, I’m all about blue sky thinking. If I want to beat Hiromu and lead this division, it’s not just about getting results in the ring, but all the little things outside of it, too.
In part two, more from YOH on the junior division, and a response to El Desperado’s criticism!