Ace’s HIGH #17: The impatient Young Lion

Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!

<–Ace’s HIGH #16 Starting in the Ring

Ace’s HIGH #18  coming August 26! ->

–So let’s keep going with our talk about your time as a Young Lion. There were a lot of peers around you coming up at the same time. Was that motivational in a sense?

Tanahashi: Oh yeah. And you know, me, Katsuyori Shibata, Wataru Inoue, Kenzo Suzuki, we all had different approaches and characters and that made for some interesting combinations. And you had Togi Makabe there rotating through us. 

–It was pretty much the five of you in different combinations every single night.

Tanahashi: Right, and one would be cycled out. But it always hurt, not to get booked. I wanted to be out there every night. 

–Experience was everything to you.

Tanahashi: Yeah, that, but it also just felt good, you know? Being in that opening match. Being the first thing the fans see that night. That motivated me. If the fans could see there was a guy who looked like I did, and that was just the first match, then it would elevate everyone on the whole card.

–That’s quite a stance for a Young Lion to have.

Tanahashi: Hmm. Maybe. To be honest, I didn’t feel like a Young Lion, in my mind. I felt like I needed to be one, so it was like I was playing the role in a way. Go out there to fire everyone up and say ‘but there’s still more amazing stuff to come!’

–An Ace from the start.

Tanahashi: I was young, but I like to think I still had quite an analytical view of everything. 

–Do you think that was because you were such a hardcore fan before you got into the business?

Tanahashi: I’m not so sure about that. I just think I understood just how important the first match on a card is. That’s where you light that fire that needs to keep going for the whole night.

–One match that I certainly remember from that time was against Katsuyori Shibata in Osaka in November 1999.

Tanahashi: Oh yeah. After that match, Norio Honaga came up to me. Usually he said nothing, just a really strict guy. He’d give the young boys rankings. Always either 0% or 10% on their matches. But that night he said ‘Tanahashi, I’d give that 75%’. (laughs)

–What made him rate that match, do you think?

Tanahashi: I think we just brought all we had. We really wet at it, and the fans came along for the ride. You’d normally get some polite applause in these opening matches, but we had people chanting our names. I think that was the first time I’d heard anyone chanting my name, at least; and this was only a couple of weeks in for both of us.

–You said after that match that if you were opposite Shibata every night, you’d really go places.

Tanahashi: With him, I experienced something I never had before. Getting that chant, that reaction, I was on a high.

–Was there something different about Shibata compared to other Young Lions?

Tanahashi: I think even then there was this real sense of competition about Shibata. He would never let you take his back on the ground. It would always be this really tough fight with him.

–You both debuted on the same day, but Shibata was in the Dojo a year longer than you. Then again, you’re three years older than him. How did that work out hierarchy wise?

Tanahashi: It was the Dojo tenure that counted. So he’d call me Tanahashi-kun, but I called him Shibata-san. I was below him in the pecking order. 

–You mentioned Honaga earlier; did your senpai often offer you advice after your matches?

Tanahashi: Well, they mostly just got mad and yelled at you. Choshu first and foremost. 

–Even Tanahashi got yelled out by Choshu. Does any incident in particular stand out to you?

Tanahashi: I wrestled Inoue once in Matsuyama and Choshu called us both out. He yelled ‘you went out there and wrestled like a pair of grandpas! Show some fire damnit!’. This was when he was technically retired, and working with the younger talent. 

–Did you ever do the opposite and ask senpai to watch your matches to give advice?

Tanahashi: No, I never did come to think of it. 

–You had faith in what you were doing? 

Tanahashi: Yeah, I think so. I was very egotistic. I knew what my style was and I stuck to my guns on it. I listened to the senpai of course, but a lot of the times it would be ‘yes sir!’ and it going in one ear and out the other (laughs).

–And here I thought you were a model student!

Tanahashi: I was very stubborn, very obstinate.

–So did you feel that you weren’t like all the other Young Lions?

Tanahashi: I wouldn’t go that far, but I definitely had a strong image of the kind of wrestling I wanted to do. I was hungry, and I was impatient.