Our interview relay series continues, as Hirooki Goto nominates YOSHI-HASHI!
In Chain Reactions we hear from figures in and out of the ring in NJPW as they discuss what brought them to the cerulean blue. Each interview subject nominates the next, so in this second interview, Hirooki Goto has nominated YOSHI-HASHI!
–Last time we covered up to you entering Animal Hamaguchi’s gym. To change the subject somewhat, did you ever attend any NJPW events when you were growing up in Aichi?
YH: Yeah, I went to the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, sometimes Nagoya Rainbow Hall as well. The one thing that really stuck with me watching live for the first time was just how loud it was when guys hit the mat, that’s something that doesn’t come across on TV.
–That familiar sound of a bump on the canvas.
YH: The first match I ever saw live was (Wataru) Inoue against (Katsuyori) Shibata, and the sounds, man. The bodyslams, the strikes, it was so different to TV.
–What else stuck with you from that first event?
YH: Well, I really remember Doctor Wagner Jr. and Kendo Kashin for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, Scott Norton being there… (Manabu) Nakanishi having those ridiculous dreadlocks in! I really just enjoyed the whole atmosphere around NJPW. All Japan’s TV never grabbed me.
–You were always a NJPW guy.
YH: Right. That was always the ring I wanted to be in.
–So when you were in Hamaguchi’s Gym, presumably you met a lot of guys that made it in the pro ranks.
YH: Yeah. Obviously (Tetsuya) Naito and BUSHI. There was KAI (currently freelance) as well.
–Did you talk much with Naito and BUSHI?
YH: We weren’t best buddies I don’t think, but we said hello, for sure.
–You all had the same goals in mind. Did it feel competitive, in a sense?
YH: Well, Naito is the same age as me, but he was already much bigger, and he’d been in the gym for three years at that point already. I definitely thought he’d make it into NJPW.
–Did you wish you’d come to Tokyo earlier?
YH: I did, yeah. But I felt ‘well, I’m here now, so let’s make the best of it’. But man, Hamaguchi’s pro-wrestling course was intense. The jump squats, the push-ups, the sparring. All of it was ridiculous.
He ticked all the boxes to make it through. Everything right.
YOSHI-HASHI spars with Tetsuya Naito at the 2005 NJPW Tryout
–So in December 2005, you were a part of NJPW’s tryouts in Korakuen Hall, along with Tetsuya Naito.
YH: That’s right. Out of all the people taking that tryout, only Naito made it through. Apparently they were thinking nobody might make it through.
–It was difficult to find a spot in those days, especially considering timing, room in the dorms at the Dojo, all of that. But still, for Naito to be the only one to make it through is quite the accomplishment. What do you remember of that tryout?
YH: Everything! Middle of December or not, it was really hot in Korakuen, I remember that. They made us do 500 squats at first, but it was the pace they went at that was crazy. Really fast. I just about made it through those, but my legs were on fire at that point.
–But you’d only just started.
YH: Yeah. Next we had push-ups, and then we got in the ring and did back and forth bridges. That’s when you put your head on the ground, and you bridge yourself backward, then flip back and forth. I’d never done that before so I couldn’t do it. I knew right then I was toast.
–A 17 year old SANADA was also part of this tryout. Did it hurt to only see Naito make it?
YH: Well, it was the right call from where I sit. He could get everything done, had some size. He ticked all the boxes.
I failed twice, thought I was done, and then I had a dream…
YOSHI-HASHI & Naito at the 2005 tryout. The 2005 tryout was open to the press.
–You went on to take the tryout for a second time; was that the next year?
YH: No, no, that was about six months later? They had that December 2005 open tryout in Korakuen and then a closed one in 2006. It was just me and one other guy; what had happened was that one of the entrants dropped out so there was a space, and the company thought they’d take someone from Hamaguchi’s. I actually got through all of the exercises that time, but in the end, I was still only 70kg, and they wanted bigger guys, so I was out.
–Even so, you didn’t give up.
YH: Well, thing was, I did everything they asked me to do and I still couldn’t make it in. That kind of broke me. I called home to a friend in Nagoya, and he said ‘well, why don’t you come home?’. He offered to set me up with a factory job, and that’s what I was about to do, but then something incredible happened.
YH: I thought I was done, and then I had this really clear dream. A really perfect image of me going into the Dojo. Like, it was absolutely real.
–So that was a message, you felt?
YH: Right. And I kept having it. Like every night, so clear, this dream of going into the Dojo.
–It’s easy to think that it meant something.
YH: Right? And before I could take the third test, I was turning 22. That used to be the upper age limit, but it was around then that they raised the age limit to 25. They even made it a big deal about appealing to unemployed guys and temp workers!
–Haha! This was in some difficult times for NJPW so they wanted to cast a wider net.
YH: It seemed like everything was finally lining up for me. And at Hamaguchi’s Gym at the time, Masakado (now of Masakado Pro) was there; he’d wanted to get into AJPW…
–He eventually made it into ZERO-ONE.
YH: He was like me, failed the AJPW tryouts twice, couldn’t get a spot in another promotion, but he just wouldn’t give up, and he really encouraged me, too.
–So, third time lucky was February 2007, but by all rights, you should have failed, right?
YH: That’s right! I didn’t make it. There were two other guys in there that were really huge, both over 190cm, one from Sakaguchi Dojo (formerly operated by NJPW co-founder and current consultant Seiji Sakaguchi) that made it in, but they both dropped out.
–So they called you up?
YH: Yeah. (Trainer) Misawa had handled the tryouts. He called me and said ‘you still want to do this?’ And I went ‘more than anything’. That dream really came true.
Two more guys dropped out, and then here came Okada
–So who was in the Dojo with you?
YH: There were two guys who had come over after leaving the AJPW Dojo, but after a while, they dropped out. So I was on my own for a little while, and then Kazuchika Okada came in from Toryumon.
–And that’s where your connection to Okada started.
YH: But you have to remember, he had already debuted, like three years before, even if it was in another company. They all told me ‘when it comes to NJPW, you’re the senpai, OK?’ but in my heart I knew it was a little different.
–There was an experience gap there.
YH: But I’m glad I was in that senpai role. I’ve seen how Okada gets mad at the younger guys…
–Even Okada himself admits he’s strict to the younger wrestlers.
YH: He’s five years younger than me, but had so much more experience. I really didn’t know what I could say to him in terms of advice, or guiding him in any way. It was more him treating me with that senpai respect. He’s always call me Yoshihashi-san.
–And at that time, the leader in the Dojo was Tetsuya Naito, correct?
YH: Yes. Then a little later Prince Devitt (aka Finn Balor, WWE) and then Karl Anderson came in.
–Okada ended up having a pre-debut match with Naito on August 26 2007, and then his official debut was with Taichi on April 12 2008. You didn’t debut until July that year, against Naito. How did that make you feel?
YH: Well, until you debut, you aren’t allowed to leave the Dojo. When you have debuted, you can actually go out. So it did hurt a little, Okada was able to leave and have that freedom I didn’t. Devitt really looked out for me at that point. He was much better at everything than me, and I looked to him as a senpai, but he said ‘I’m a foreigner, all this senpai kohai stuff, it’s different with me. I’m your friend, and that’s it’.
I was wearing five pairs of socks, three tank tops and two T-shirts to try and look bigger
–It sounds as if you had some issues with the hierarchy that exists in this environment.
YH: Yeah, that was the toughest part of it all. Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi would handle the bulk of the training, and Kazuo Yamazaki would coach. It was hard, but Hamaguchi’s had really prepared me.
–There have been stories told about how Kazuchika Okada found the training tough.
YH: They’re really hard on you at first. What I struggled with was my weight. The exercise I could do, but they were just pressuring me to eat and eat and that was tough to a skinny kid like me. Like, when I took the tryout for the third time, I did everything I could to look just a little bit bigger. I was wearing five pairs of socks, three tank tops and two T-shirts (laughs).
YH: Haha. I saw this thing on TV about Mainoumi.
–The retired sumo wrestler.
YH: Yeah. He was too short to get into a sumo dojo, so…
–He convinced a doctor to inject silicon into his scalp to get taller.
YH: I saw that, and thought ‘that’s it!’ (laughs) I wasn’t going to start injecting silicon, but…
–That’s what it meant for you (laughs).
YH: Well, I was lucky! These days they check for that stuff, you have to strip down to your waist. But it was tough you know, obviously I was sweating a ton, it made it hard to move (laughs)
–But when you got into the Dojo, did they think you’d shrunk all of a sudden?
YH: yeah, they did. Back then you couldn’t debut unless you were 90kg, so they were making me eat a crazy amount.
–But in the end, you finally, finally debuted.
YH: Yep. They told me I was debuting about a month in advance. I was so nervous, I couldn’t see right; I could only see Naito there opposite me. It was done in a flash, but I still remember that match really clearly. I definitely remember that Boston Crab.
–He really punished you.
YH: It was quite the chiropractic adjustment (laughs)
–What was Naito like as a senpai?
YH: He was quite chill; he didn’t get angry or anything. He would always give good advice on how to do the chores and things like that. I think knowing him from Hamaguchi’s helped some, too.
It was so unexpected. I won’t ever forget that match
–So you’ve been wrestling 12 years since that 2008 debut. What matches really stand out to you?
YH: Definitely being able to challenge for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships with Koji Kanemoto just a year after I debuted, that will always stay with me.
–December 4 2009, you challenged Apollo 55.
YH: That’s right.
–Jado & Gedo had been number one contenders, but in a match you and Kanemoto had with them on December 2, a kick from Kanemoto led to a Gedo concussion. You and Kanemoto were substituted in.
YH: And I wasn’t even Kanemoto’s regular tag partner. It was normally Taichi, but he had influenza and had to miss the tour. So it was such an unexpected set of circumstances.
–Especially for a Young Lion to be put into a title match, especially on one day’s notice…
YH: Just all around crazy. Obviously I wasn’t able to win on my own merit at that point in my career though (laughs)
–You must have been nervous.
YH: To say the least! I couldn’t eat the night before. Nakanishi was actually in our corner.
YH: I was his assistant at the time. He never said anything beforehand about it, so all of a sudden he’s getting ready to come out with us and I was freaking out even more.
–I remember Nakanishi was amazed when you went to the top rope for a Swanton.
YH: He yelled at me ‘what the hell are you doing, kid?’ (laughs). It was the first time I ever did a Swanton in a match, but Taguchi got out of the way… After that I ended up busting my mouth open. I went to hospital after the match.
–You ended up taking the loss with a Black Hole Vacation, and then went straight to hospital.
YH: I was just leaking blood. It was just another thing that made that night hard to ever forget.
Everything can change in an instant. I truly believe that. That’s why I’m here
–That kind of all sums up something that’s become your catchphrase in recent years.
YH: Everything can change in an instant.
YH: Look, I truly believe that. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I kept going on this path, that’s why I get paid to do this thing I love. Life just changes in an instant.
–Let’s bring things forward to 2012, when you and Okada faced off in your return matches. Dual return matches are a rare thing in themselves; what do you remember from that night?
YH: You know, it’s weird, but I didn’t feel nervous at all. Maybe it didn’t really hit me that it was actually happening, going out on a big stage like that. Maybe I was there in body but not in spirit. I’m more nervous about matches now! But it was a little strange wrestling Okada after all we’d been through together.
–Now we are on the threshold of coming back, what ‘s your mindset?
YH: I’m really excited for the new Japan Cup. I thought before that it could be a big opportunity for me.
–We wish you well. So finally, what does New Japan Pro-Wrestling mean to YOSHI-HASHI?
YH: Energy. Hope. When I was a fan it would be what gave me the will to go into school the next day, you know?
–And now here you are.
YH: Here I am. I gambled everything to make it here, so it’s my ring of dreams, I guess you could say.
–So who’s next in our chain reaction?
YH: I think I’ll pick YOH. He’s got quite the story. I actually remember meeting him ten years ago, so we go back!
YOH will be next when Chain Reactions returns!