Tetsuya Naito speaks on the year that was in 2020
He is the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion. He closed out the Tokyo Dome, closed out Jingu Stadium, and effectively closed out end of year awards, picking up both match of the year and MVP status from Tokyo Sports. While December 2019 saw him walk into the Tokyo Dome with nothing, December 2020 sees him hold everything. We spoke to El Ingobernable as Wrestle Kingdom fast approaches.
*Interview conducted December 11
I’ve never been in this position before. It’s weird.
–So we’re approaching the end of the year once again.
Naito: We are.
–As Wrestle Kingdom is coming up, how do you feel now compared to previous years?
Naito: Hmm. Every year we get that kind of question coming up, reflecting back on the year. This year is very different obviously. I’ve had much fewer matches, for a start. Those three months where I couldn’t wrestle really felt like forever, and when I find myself thinking about this year, wrestling doesn’t make up nearly as much of it as it usually does.
–It only feels like yesterday that you were holding those belts up in the Tokyo Dome.
Naito: I can see why you might feel that way, yeah. But actually I feel the opposite, it feels like so long ago now.
Naito: It’s really a year none of us have ever experienced before. It’s a strange position to be in.
–And with World Tag League and Best of the Super Jr. taking up the winter tour, you’ve had quite a bit of time off.
Naito: They never put me in World Tag League, huh? That scenario comes up every year, but with everything that’s happened, not wrestling much to begin with, I wish I could have had more matches, even if it wasn’t in the league itself.
Naito: But I did want to be in the league. I really think that even if you have matches lined up for the Tokyo Dome, you should be in World Tag League.
–That’s a long held standpoint for you.
Naito: Well, even if I wasn’t going to be let into the World Tag League, the company could at the very least have put me into a match. The Young Lions don’t need any more reps, every single night on the last tour. I just want to wrestle.
–The last time you were on the World Tag League tour, it was back in 2016, when you teamed with Rush.
Naito: Four years… This year there was no Naito, no Jay White, no Will Ospreay, no Okada, no Ibushi. So you get to wondering, what makes this a World Tag League? I mean, I understand that it’s important for the wrestlers to take a break and heal up. But I don’t need a break; even if I’m beaten up, I’d much rather be wrestling.
–That’s always going to be a difference between you and the management.
Naito: I guess. But even if it meant shortening my career in the long run, I’d rather be in there.
–You’ve often talked about how important it is to you to show who you are in the now, so to speak.
Naito: Exactly. I can only show who I am right now, right now, even if I’m tired, even if I’m beaten up. I made a lot of promises, and I came out with everything this year. I want to show as many people that sight as possible.
–Certainly, you’ve really been the very top of the world in NJPW this year.
Naito: After the Dome, winning both belts… I couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the year. It really felt, in January, like this would be a standout year in my career. Maye the standout year in my career.
–But COVID happened.
Naito: I had a lot of big ideas of what I wanted to do as the double champion and I haven’t been able to carry out any of those plans. That match with Hiromu, the one I waited ten years for, that being cancelled was the start of it all. Nothing went to plan this year, but in many a way, that’s on brand for me, I think, heh.
I really wanted to see Hiromu vs BUSHI for myself
–You actually attended quite a few events on the last tour live, didn’t you? I know you were at Korakuen to see Hiromu and BUSHI.
Naito: Well, obviously I’m an NJPW World subscriber. No freedbies, I pay my 999 Yen a month. But I wanted to see Hiromu and BUSHI in person.
–There is actually a special account for the wrestlers to use…
Naito: I’ve no need for that. It’s worth paying for, I pay for it. But I wanted to see Hiromu and BUSHI with my own eyes and ears, so I found a quiet spot in Korakuen to hide out and watch from. I was half hoping someone might spot me…
–Hiromu and BUSHI have a very interesting relationship; different in age, but BUSHI having come in from AJPW, while Hiromu came up through the Dojo. What did you think of the match?
Naito: Well, I’m in the position where I’ve known both of them before they became wrestlers.
–Hiromu since his Dojo days pre-debut and BUSHI from Hamaguchi Gym.
Naito: And with all they’d gone through in LIJ these last few years, there were a lot of flashbacks going on in that match. I think a lot of fans were probably thinking it was a foregone conclusion that Hiromu was going to win…
–He was the favourite going in.
Naito: But I think BUSHI knew that, too. So I was interested from the standpoint of just how much anger BUSHI was going to show, how much he wanted to throw those expectations in the fans’ faces. But the whole situation shows just how hot Hiromu has become.
–There were a lot of different factors. It would have been interesting to have had you on commentary for NJPW World.
Naito: Ahh, but you have to think a lot on commentary. I really wanted to experience that match for what it was with no distractions.
I really wanted to see that venue in Osaka…
–You went to the Gunma card on November 23 as well, didn’t you?
Naito: Ahh, yes and no! I went to Fujisawa on November 28, but before that I wanted to head to Gunma. It was our first event at that venue, and I’m a real nerd when it comes to the different buildings we run in. So I drove up there, but I actually left before the wrestlers showed up.
–All the staff were pretty surprised to see you.
Naito: Haha. Everyone kept asking ‘what are you doing here?’ and I kept saying ‘not much’.
–Even though you had the day off, you drove down just to see a new building.
Naito: And Fujisawa is nearby. It’s somewhere I went quite a few times as a fan, and I wrestled there a couple of times as a Young Lion, so there’s quite a bit of nostalgia to that place. That’s why I went, but I was getting a lot of funny looks.
–People probably thought you were looking for something to do.
Naito: I was looking for something to do! I was pretty bored to be honest. I just wanted to wrestle, but the company doesn’t ask you to just head out on no notice.
–There’s no ‘can you head out and put a little match on’..
Naito: So each time, I went home before the boys got there. Actually I’d never been to the Osaka central main arena before, so I wanted to check things out there.
–All the way to Osaka?
Naito: Right, I thought about it, but it was a long way to drive, and the way things are right now, flying or the Shinkansen didn’t seem like a good idea.
–It’s a very nice place though.
Naito: Ahh, I wanted to go! I’ve wrestled in the sub arena a lot, but not the main part.
–What did you think of World Tag League and Best of the Super Jr. happening at the same time this year?
Naito: It’s been good, I think. I had my doubts at first; it was a limited field in each league, and I was worried it might feel confusing, but all said and done, it was a good pair of tournaments.
–It certainly made for a more concentrated feel, more focused.
Naito: And it was good for the boys I think, to have that sense of competition to the tour. But I do think from a fans’ point of view, it could be a little frustrating if your town doesn’t get the wrestlers you want to see.
–That’s a good point.
Naito: For Tokyo or Osaka it isn’t such a big deal, but for the smaller towns that might only see NJPW once a year, it is a bit of a shame. But I think as an experiment, it was a success.
I want all of Ibushi’s energy
–December 5 in Kagoshima you finally had your first match in nearly a month. You certainly seemed excited beforehand; how did it feel to be back in the office?
Naito: It was great. Especially as it was my first match in Kyushu this year. NJPW had been in Beppu the night before, but this was my first time wrestling in the area all year. So yeah, it felt good just being there and being able to show the fans both belts.
–The Kyushu fans certainly seemed excited to see you. It was a hot crowd.
Naito: Well, it being Ibushi’s home town might have helped some. Although, looking at the crowd, I couldn’t help but feel there was more Naito merch than Ibushi merch…
–Ibushi certainly had a ton of support, but there were some Naito fans in the house for sure.
Naito: I think Ibushi was really expecting a home field advantage he didn’t totally get.
–Well, it was in Satusma Sendai, which is a little down the road from Ibushi’s actual hometown of Aira. That could have been a factor.
Naito: Oh, I don’t think so. I think it was more of a good thing for me, to see that many Naito fans so far from Tokyo.
–It was the first time in a while we saw you opposite Ibushi. There was quite a bit of tension there…
Naito: Hmm. I wondered whether Ibushi was all the way focused on me or not. I want him to be. I want all of Naito’s energy at the Dome, because that’s the only kind of match I want to have. I get that Jay White is in the picture as well, but i was the one who called him out, so to not have 100 percent from him would be no fun at all.
Naito: At the end of the day, I like wrestling Kota Ibushi. It’s a ton of fun. I want him to show me he feels the same way, so I want him to turn his focus my way a little more.
–Certainly it seems the feeling is mutual; Ibushi had said that as G1 winner, ‘it has to be Naito’ when it came to IWGP opponents. But then Jay enetered the picture.
Naito: By the time the Tokyo Dome comes around, I’m pretty sure I’ll be the only one in the picture for Ibushi. That’s the way I want it, at least.
I’ve given this thought
–After Ibushi lost the right to challenge briefcase to Jay White, you really threw him a lifeline by issuing a challenge for January 4. You wanted this match that badly?
Naito: Well, the G1 briefcase is supposed to be for January 4, isn’t it? So after Ibushi won the G1, I thought ‘OK, I’ll be wrestling Ibushi on January 4. Of course, Jay took that case from him. But he wanted his match on January 5. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to do on the fourth, the image of Ibushi winning the G1, and the image of the kind of matches we have, that’s what came to mind.
–But there’s considerable risk involved for you.
Naito: Of course. I’ve given this a lot of thought. But the benefits to me are much greater. The pluses that come out of this really outweigh the risks in my mind.
Naito: This year that we’ve had, not being able to wrestle, or wrestling in empty arenas in the summer, that really brought home how important it is to have people watch, to show people what pro-wrestling is about. Wrestle Kingdom is the biggest chance to do that. The biggest crowds, the TV, NJPW World- there’s more focus on us now than at any other time in the year. And it’s for two days.
–There’s certainly no bigger stage.
Naito: Yes, thinking about my own welfare, just having one match is the smarter call. But as a wrestler, as someone who truly feels that showing what they can do, right now, is the most important thing to do, the highest calling you can have, there’s no doubt that wrestling both nights is a tremendous advantage. Jay White, he might be thinking about his body. He made a smart call. Me, I’m thinking about doing what I do in front of hundreds of thousands of people. This is the right call for me. I guess if I lose, I’ll have a day off after all though, heheh.
–That reminds me of that classic Antonio Inoki interview, screaming about ‘how dare you make me think about what might happen if I lose, right before a match!’
Naito: Except, I’ve thought about it plenty, you know? If I lose on the fourth, I probably won’t have a match on the fifth.
–It’s a different situation to last year, when the two losers in the top two matches faced off.
Naito: Right. I lose, and it’s over.
–That’s a risk in itself.
Naito: That would be the absolute worst case scenario for me. But that’s what will drive me to do all I can on night one. I’ve thought about what might happen if I lose. I can’t bear that. So I’ll be doing all I can to win.
If I were in World Tag League, who would it be with?
–So you wanted to be in the best possible situation on the biggest possible stage. Risks notwithstanding, two wins at Wrestle Kingdom will really be something to look back on as a career peak.
Naito: Sure. It’s all about doing what I can in the now. That’s something that really became important to me with my eye surgery last year. It was really up in the air whether I could wrestle again, whether I might have to retire. Now, even if things are tough, I have to show who I am right now.
–That’s why you wanted in World Tag League.
Naito: Right. I think I’ll really push to be in next year.
–But this year SANADA tagged with Shingo Takagi, so if you did enter, who would it be with?
Naito: You’re right! I thought the same thing this year. Even if I wanted to team with Hiromu or BUSHI, they were in BoSJ. They’d have to pull double duty.
–That’s a lot to ask.
Naito: Heheh. That’s when I pull the old ‘who do you owe your career to?’ line on Hiromu (laughs).