Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–Let’s go in depth about the IWGP U-30 title this time. That was a special title for you through your 20s, right?
Tanahashi: Oh, of course. Back then we had all these mixed martial artists in NJPW, and the house style was very MMA tinged. For me, the U-30 title was a chance to forge ahead with my idea of what wrestling is, or should be.
–So you really set out to present the antithesis of what was happening elsewhere on the card.
Tanahashi: Yeah. If NJPW was going that way, I wanted to go the complete opposite. Do classical, old school pro-wrestling…But whether my ability was enough to carry my ideas or not is up for debate. I’m not sure whether the matches themselves got over to the extent I’d wanted.
–Nonetheless, you really became the leader of a youth movement, of all the wrestlers in their 20s.
Tanahashi: Yeah. I defended that title 11 times in my first reign. I wrestled title matches against American Dragon (Daniel Bryan, WWE), Naomichi Marufuji (NOAH)… Those experiences really helped shape the wrestler I became.
–And you stayed true to that idea you had. You maintained that style through your run.
Tanahashi: I can understand why wrestlers get attached to the NEVER title, say. It’s a different concept, not just a stepping stone to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
–You defended that title in your first ever Tokyo Dome main event, January 4 in the Tokyo Dome against Shinsuke Nakamura. It must have hurt that he retired the title.
Tanahashi: And then I revived it (laughs). That title just represents my youth so perfectly, I think.
–Do you remember putting together ‘the five commandments of the U-30 title’ while you were champion?
Tanahashi: Uhh, I think so? What were they again?(laughs) I think I remember saying there were five commandments, but I only actually said one.
–Right. You said ‘whatever might happen, take every situation face on, with positivity’
Tanahashi: Hmm. There might have been some subtext to that one. Like I was looking back at something… But you know, I don’t think I’ve changed all that much. That’s what I mean, the U-30 title became a strong base, a strong foundation for who I became.
–I want to take you back to May 2 2004. Ultimate Crush in the Tokyo Dome. The idea was to have pro-wrestling matches and MMA fights on the same card. You faced Hiroyoshi Tenzan in an IWGP Heavyweight Number One Contenders match in the opener, but lost.
Tanahashi: I remember that night. I really felt I wasn’t up to scratch. It didn’t get over with the crowd, and I really took responsibility for firing up the fans in the opener. It really bummed me out.
–What did you think of the Ultimate Crush concept?
Tanahashi: Hmm, at that point what I thought didn’t really matter. I was really focused on what I was doing, so the bigger picture didn’t enter into it for me.
–You didn’t get a heavyweight title shot at the Dome, but the next month, you and Yutaka Yoshie won the IWGP Tag Team Championships from Tenzan and Masahiro Chono. Your first tag title.
Tanahashi: There were a lot of things lining up for me. I was already the U-30 champion, and then with the tag titles, I was double champ, and only four years or so into my career. That was at the Budokan, wasn’t it?
–At the Nippon Budokan, yes. What were your thoughts on your partner Yoshie?
Tanahashi: He was one class before (Togi) Makabe, so by the time I came into the Dojo, he was in charge. He definitely helped improve me, I think, but he was a little bit of an odd guy…
Tanahashi: He was a real neat freak, and very particular. He would take an age just to wash his hands, like he was trying to scrub his fingerprints off or something (laughs). So he was really strict when he was checking your cleaning job.
–How was he as a wrestler?
Tanahashi: He was such a different body type to anyone else, so it presented this visual contrast with the two of us. And it gave us some pretty clear roles, where I would be flying all over the place and bumping and then he would come in off the tag.
–On the main event that night in the Budokan, Shinsuke Nakamura was challenging Yoshihiro Takayama for the NWF Championship. He was less than a year into his career at this point, but with him coming from that MMA style and background, he really overtook you and everyone else coming out of the Dojo system.
Tanahashi: Well, that was the way it was back then. If you produced outside of NJPW, you found yourself guaranteed a push in the company. There wasn’t any stopping that.