Our look at the next generation of junior heavyweights in NJPW continues with YOH!
In New Junior Generation, we talk to NJPW’s top junior heavyweights about the state of the division, and how it will move forward when NJPW returns to action. In this second part with YOH, he continues examining his competition, and responds to criticism from El Desperado!
And YOH: Part 1
At school, my teacher would always be saying ‘what are you thinking, Yohei?’
–So, when we spoke to El Desperado recently, he was very critical of you, quite frankly. Were you aware of that criticism?
YOH: Yeah, I heard rumblings. He says a lot, huh…
–He said it amazed him you and SHO have achieved so much without looking tough at all. A lot of strong criticism of a team in Roppongi 3K that won the Super Junior Tag League three times, and the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships four times.
YOH: Well, he hasn’t achieved what we have in the same time period at all. For him to take that kind of aloof standpoint reeks of desperation to me, but still.
–Desperado also criticised your style in the ring, and said you ‘lacked passion’.
YOH: What he thinks about me really doesn’t matter. I have confidence in my own abilities. He can complain all he wants about our style in the ring, but it’s wins and losses that matter in the end, right?
–How would you respond to Desperado saying he could get SHO fired up, but that you lacked emotion?
YOH: Regardless of what he thinks, I’ve always been an emotional type, you know…
YOH: Not convinced? (laughs) But I think to really break down what Desperado said, it does remind me, when I was at school, my teacher would always be asking ‘just what are you thinking about, Yohei?’
–So there was something a little hard to read about you from an early age?
YOH: Yeah, and I was actually happy to hear that from my teacher. I thought it made me seem mysterious, heh.
–So there’s a connection there? But if you do really look into what Desperado said, how does it make you feel, honestly?
YOH: Pissed off, honestly. I think they (El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru)’s way of thinking is to hold other people back rather than build themselves up. I don’t get the feeling they actually want the tag titles, they’re just happy disrespecting us. So, whatever. I just ignore them.
–You don’t want to waste time on them.
YOH: No, but that said, I think that match in Osaka (New Beginning in Osaka 2020; watch on NJPW World!) did allow me to bring a new side of myself out.
Kanemaru is a genius in that ring. He has great matches with everyone
–You best Kanemaru and Desperado in Osaka to defend your titles for the first time in this fourth reign.
YOH: It meant a lot to me, and it brought out a meaner side to myself. I guess it’s appropriate that Desperado brought that out of me. Wrestling’s all about making the most of your situation.
–You two really don’t seem compatible at all, but it turned into a heck of a match.
YOH: I think we could have quite a few good singles matches. I kind of have this image of Desperado being Minoru Suzuki’s goon, that it’ll be good for him to get away from.
–‘Get away from’?
YOH: About two years ago, he was the absolute bottom of the heap in Suzuki’s group. Then he was able to attach himself to (Yoshinobu) Kanemaru, and things got a lot better for him in singles and tags.
–Even Desperado himself said the same, that Kanemaru was a huge factor in his career.
YOH: Well, there you have it. That’s the genius of Kanemaru.
–That’s high praise.
YOH: Kanemaru can have a good match with anyone, and he can really establish whoever he’s in with. he’s a master, a lot like Rocky is. I remember having a great match with him in the main event a couple of years ago (May 31 2018, watch on NJPW World!)
–You managed to win with the Five Star Clutch.
YOH: It was a real back to basics kind of match. A clear heel, a clear babyface. It was the kind of match I really like.
–That sounds very reminiscent of something Hiroshi Tanahashi said, about his feud with Toru Yano, actually. That it was the very epitome of pro-wrestling.
YOH: Exactly. I couldn’t stop smiling after the match I had with Kanemaru. No wonder he was so successful in Pro-Wrestling NOAH.
–A record seven time GHC Juniro Heavyweight Champion with a record 28 defences. It’s kind of strange, you praising Kanemaru like this, while Desperado was complimentary of Rocky…
YOH: Haha! What did he say about Rocky?
–Well, he took another shot at you. He wondered what Rocky was really teaching you.
YOH: Well, I wonder what Kanemaru is teaching him… (laughs)
I think. A lot. Maybe that’s why I don’t seem passionate?
–You’ve been with SHO for your whole career. What’s your take on him right now?
YOH: He’s done really well to establish himself as the power guy in the junior division. He can be a little awkward at times, so for him to find that straight ahead style has really helped him and I love to see it.
–As a team, you really have that distinction in approaches.
YOH: Well, I think that’s important in a team. When we were both came back from excursion, there was a lot of trial and error in finding our style. While we were away, guys like Ricohet and Will Ospreay were making waves. We asked each other what we could do to counter that kind of style. We both got into jiujitsu, SHO even had a couple of MMA matches.
–You were really thinking about how to stand out.
YOH: And that’s what I suggested to SHO, that in the junior division there really wasn’t a straightforward power guy.
–So you’re the idea guy?
YOH: I think my job in this team is to be the one taking a long view and assessing the situation. I think, a lot. Maybe that’s why Desperado says I don’t seem passionate?
–It takes a calm and cool head to be analytical like that, certainly.
YOH: If you watch our matches, I’m the one that tends to look for an opportunity and create a chance, and SHO is the one to really press that advantage before we hit Strong X for the win.
–Jyushin Thunder Liger has said that while you both still have youth on your side, he’d like you to do more as singles wrestlers. Your thoughts on that?
YOH: He does say that from time to time. If I wasn’t thinking about singles success, I wouldn’t be here.
–NJPW wrestlers tend to all be focused on being the top single guy.
YOH: But to go into the process here, I don’t have any respect for the line of thought of tagging just to create a singles opportunity. Success only comes from taking 100% of the expectations people have from you and returning 150%. Roppongi 3K still has a ways to go.
–And you want to do all you can as a team first?
YOH: Right. It’s important to tackle things in order. Focusing on singles as well as tags isn’t the way; I don’t want to half ass anything. So right now it’s about taking steps together, as a trio with Rocky included. While there’s stuff still left to do as a tag team then that’s what’s important.
–A quite composed view.
YOH: We still have places left to go as Roppongi 3K. It’s a process I’ve thought about for years now. I think we can get the heavyweight tag belts. Once that goals been achieved, then I can think about singles as well.
We’ve been together, what, three and a half years? We have another 30 in us.
–You’re quite a rare case when it comes to tag teams. You don’t see many teams that have been together from the Dojo days, right through excursion.
YOH: It’s no easy feat, if I do say so myself.
–The closest comparison might be Tetsuya Naito and Yujiro Takahashi in NO LIMIT, but they had broken up not a year and a half after coming back from excursion.
YOH: We’ve been together, what, three and a half years? We have another 30 years in us.
–Like a classic rock band (laughs).
YOH: Yeah, or the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express (laughs). Now that we’re both talking about singles championships in our future, I think it’s a sign that we’ve both progressed another level. We’re both secure in our own styles; we aren’t going to restrict ourselves solely to tag team wrestling.
–You and SHO really have been thick as thieves from the beginning though. Liger has said you two got on so well, he was worried you were going to make it.
YOH: Right. We get along really well, but that’s despite, maybe even because we don’t know each other on that deep a level. It’s weird, but we only share what’s essential, and we get on great because of that.
–You keep a distance?
YOH: Right. Our friends outside of the business and our hobbies are all completely separate. We get on great, but if we were both in the same class at school, say, I don’t think we’d talk to each other once (laughs).
YOH: Right? But if we were both in a different life, I’d still like to work with him. We just gel really well.
–You’re a similar age as well.
YOH: I think that’s important too. I’m a year older than him, and maybe it wouldn’t work quite as well if I were the younger one. It’s just a perfect storm, with him.
–No breakup on the horizon.
YOH: I wouldn’t ever want to break up with him. I want us to stay together and keep on benefiting each other and this entire division.
I’m kind of similar to SANADA, we both have a sympathetic air.
–You said you and SHO keep different friends and hobbies, but you recently started a band together, The Sakura Denbu…
YOH: Right! It started as just messing around, but we got to the point where we’ve played gigs, and started going to a studio like, three times a week. The studio’s in the same building SHO lives in, so…
–Do you think it could help you in the ring, somehow?
YOH: Promos, maybe (laughs)? I don’t know if we’d crash and burn, singing. It does make me remember though, last year in Hiroshima, Rocky sang We Are the Champions…
–Ah, yes, after you defended against BUSHI and Shingo Takagi! (Watch the match on NJPW World!)
YOH: He really belted it out, and it landed. Maybe we could do that, it’d be cute (laughs).
–Fans are on tenterhooks about your promos, given your track record.
YOH: Well, track record included, I think fans can await us on the mic with anticipation. You learn from your mistakes, and even if you slip up, keep moving forward.
–You’ve always had a very considered perspective on things.
YOH: I think I was born that way. I’m quite similar to SANADA, I think, we both have a sympathetic air.
–You both have that composure going on.
YOH: If I was still a fan, I’d be a SANADA fan. You know, actually when I was coming back from excursion, I wanted to do the Dragon Sleeper. Then SANADA started using Skull End, and I had to rethink my Dragon move!
–So that’s where the Dragon Screws and Dragon Suplexes come from. To get back to your coolness, Tetsuya Naito told a story once that right before your debut match you were hanging out eating a protein bar. He wondered why you weren’t a ball of nerves.
YOH: I dunno, I finished warming up and figured I should have something in my stomach! I guess you don’t see many people eating ebfore they debut. But it wasn’t a front or trying to be cool or anything. I just went out there as I was.
Lots learn to train like Liger. I learned to live like Liger.
–Let’s talk about some of the other figures in the junior heavyweight division. In your Young Lion days you were always quite motivated by BUSHI.
YOH: I grew up a fan of Rey Mysterio’s. Back then, BUSHI’s masks were very Mysterio-esque, and I thought they were cool as hell.
–So it was the mask that did it!
YOH: Yeah. But I think that BUSHI is an unsung key guy for LIJ.
–You think he’s a glue guy, so to speak. Desperado said you and he were very similar, that BUSHI was a hard guy to faze.
YOH: That he doesn’t show much emotion? But I think he’s a tremendous wrestler. He’s a genius when it comes to using the mist as well. He’s really made a lot of strides. That sounds like I’m talking down about him…
–BUSHI has held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship in the past, but lately he seems to be a support player.
YOH: I don’t think he’s one to end his career in that spot. He’s waiting for his spot, I think. You might see an MX or a green mist out of nowhere on another LIJ member someday.
–Ominous! How about Ryusuke Taguchi? Do you have a special affinity from him being from the same prefecture?
YOH: I’ve always felt I’ve been on the same wavelength as him. There was that talk last year of myself, him and Taiji Ishimori being the new Sendai Sailor Boys. I think Ishimori’s on a similar wavelength, too.
–Ishimori’s been very serious since joining BULLET CLUB, but when he was opposite Taguchi, we saw a very different side to him.
YOH: Right, he was even dancing when he defended the title against him! (watch on NJPW World!)
–Taguchi thought he had found a dark aspect of Ishimori’s past when he brought up the Sendai Sailor Boys unit he was a part of, but then in the title match, Ishimori busted some moves and took Taguchi by surprise.
YOH: I thought the three of us dancing like that would be awesome! Taguchi and I really need to get that fun side of Ishimori out there.
–Duty bound (laughs)
YOH: He’s always been insanely talented, and he’s cool in BULLET CLUB and all, but maybe it’s time to come over to us, don’t you think? He doesn’t really fit in there.
–You and he went to the same high school, correct?
YOH: Yes! He was in the wrestling club there. When he was in Toryumon, he even visited, and I was able to spar with him some. So I have a different connection to him than most.
Now it’s really our turn
–What are your thoughts on Ishimori’s partner, El Phantasmo?
YOH: He has unbelievable balance, and he’s an incredible athlete. I managed to beat him during Best of the Super Junior (Watch on NJPW World!), but I expect him to play a big role in the division going forward.
–You see him going up in the world?
YOH: Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a Kenny Omega like path, and took over the whole BULLET CLUB.
–He’s certainly done a lot in his first year.
YOH: There’s more than a few wrestlers who use the junior heavyweight ranks in NJPW to really get noticed on a global stage. That’s how important a division it is, and how important a tournament like Best of the Super Juniors is. You can’t take entry for granted, ever.
–It figures that you take nothing for granted, either.
YOH: Absolutely not. You can’t take anyone around here lightly, and I hope to be in a spot where wrestlers are falling over each other to fight me and SHO.
–You’re proud of being New Japan made?
YOH: Absolutely. Hugely. There aren’t as many native born talents in BoSJ of late, so with a lot of imports from other companies or countries, there is the worry that people might think a talent’s upbringing isn’t important.
–You can see why that thought arises, when compared to the ’90s, say.
YOH: So that’s why it’s on us to really show what we can do and create a future for the division.
–That said, with you and SHO, and Hiromu, the Young Lions of the early part of the last decade are the champions now. That must mean a lot.
YOH: After Liger retired, I thought ‘this is it, it’s really our time now’. I feel quite strongly about it; like I said, I get emotional quite often, you know! (laughs)
–That’s true, for all the talk about not showing emotion, you cried backstage after you returned in 2017 and took the tag titles, and again on April 1 2018, when you promised to be the best tag team in the world.
YOH: I like to think I’m carrying a lot on my back. Whether that’s the junior heavyweight division or not, I don’t know…
–But we can trust in you. I think we’ve shown the human side to YOH in this interview for sure.
YOH: I hope that people understand that this is the guy YOH is. It’s someone I’m quite fond of, heh. I’ll keep sending everyone those good vibes!