Ace’s HIGH #32: Mister Pro-Wrestling

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 #31: Rubbing Elbows with Misawa

Ace’s HIGH #33: Ace in a Cage Coming December 9! ->

–Let’s go in depth about your 2004 this week. Now in February, Shinsuke Nakamura had to vacate the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, leading to a tournament to crown the new champion in Ryogoku. You beat Yoshihiro Takayama in the first round, but lost to Genichiro Tenryu in the second. 

Tanahashi: Ah, yeah. I cradled Takayama to beat him, I remember.

–You said after your exit that in one night you suffered a ‘devastating loss and the biggest win of (your) life’. You said that ‘the man upstairs,’ wanted you to beat Takayama, and promised that you would be the focal point of all of pro-wrestling.

Tanahashi: Heh, my position has changed over the years, but still the same confidence. I truly believed what I was saying, it wasn’t all bravado. 

–Just saying it is one thing, but you went and made it happen.

Tanahashi: Right, but it’s all about where you are. I hadn’t really earned a comment like that, and didn’t have the fan’s sympathy. I could say ‘I’ll be the center of this business’ and they’d say ‘what the hell are you talking about?'(laughs).

–But to get to Takayama specifically, what was it like to wrestle him?

Tanahashi: I mean, he was a really big name at the time. Even if he didn’t always have the results to follow, he was the face of MMA for a while, with that huge fight with Don Frye.

–And that made the match a big deal for you.

Tanahashi: Well, the size difference was pretty big (laughs). That becomes the thing to think about, how best to deal with a match when you’re the smaller guy. But I like working that kind of match, pulling off that upset against a much bigger opponent.

–How was Tenryu in the second round?

Tanahashi: Tough. Really tough. He kicked me so hard and so often that his shoe laces had left marks on my face. And Tenryu had this knack to chop all the younger wrestlers right in the throat. That might not be the easiest thing to understand for a spectator, but when you’re taking those chops, it’s hard not to think of it as openly vindictive. He tests your fighting spirit for sure. 


–Tenryu certainly had that reputation. 

Tanahashi: But I always was a fan of his. I remember really getting chills when his entrance theme ‘Thunder Storm’ played. That opening riff, heh. So I think being able to share a ring with him as a wrestler myself was a big step for me. It was an emotional thing, like reaching a big waypoint on the mountain climb.

–He is ‘Mister pro-wrestling’ after all. In the years since, you’ve spoken to him in the press any number of times. What do you think of him as a human being?

Tanahashi: You’d think a guy who was at the top for so long would just take a back seat toward the end of his career, but he watches everything. He knows all the mannerisms, everything. So he’s a great guy to talk wrestling with. Whenever I do something with him, it would be 70/30 him talking; I’d try and make a point, but he wouldn’t leave you a gap! That’s how good a talker he is. 

–He might not have the clearest of voices, but he has a way with words!

Tanahashi: He would speak with so much conviction, so much energy, and then he would put that energy into his matches as well. Back in the day, All Japan was very much about telling their stories in the ring, and there weren’t many good talkers, but Tenryu bucked that trend. 

–And with Riki Choshu in that mix, there were suddenly two wordsmiths in AJPW in the mid 80s.

Tanahashi: Yeah. Especially Tenryu, he kept up with the trends and the times, and that’s always a key trait for a wrestler. 

–That tournament was in February 2004, and then NJPW was back in Ryogoku the very next month, on March 28.

Tanahashi: We were still going pretty hard then, two or three Tokyo Dome shows a year as well. There was an interesting match on that card wasn’t there?

–There was indeed. You faced Kazunari Murakami in an empty arena steel cage match for the U-30 title.

Tanahashi: That’s right.

–We had empty arena matches in NJPW this year, but this was a very different situation. The match was recorded and then relayed to the crowd in the arena via the big screens. After the match you didn’t even quite seem clear on what had happened. Your post match comment was ‘what did they just make me do?'(laughs)

Tanahashi: I went that far, huh! (laughs), ahh, that was pretty hellish. Still, a learning experience. 

–We’ll get the whole story next time!