The double champ on the eve of Wrestle Kingdom
Tetsuya Naito has long spoke of the importance of showing who he is right now. That’s what motivated the double champion to attempt to wrestle back to back main events at Wrestle Kingdom. But there is more to the story than simply being a fighting champion. We sat down with Naito as the Tokyo Dome looms.
I felt a lot of antagonism to guys my age before I started
–Wrestle Kingdom is right around the corner. How are you feeling now that 2020 is now behind us, and you’ve had the last preview tag matches of the year?
Naito: They were fun matches. I’ve always said, that Ibushi is a fun guy to wrestle.
–Ibushi says the same about you. This match on January 4 certainly has a lot of history to it, and I thought we could talk about some of that history.
–Do you remember when you first met Ibushi?
Naito: I reckon it would probably have been his first Best of the Super Jr. 2009, was it?
–So you actually first met at a NJPW event, rather than through the famous ‘1982 Club’.
Naito: Right. I was obviously aware of him, knew we were the same age, knew what kind of wrestler he was, but it was that tournament that we met directly for the first time.
–Ibushi had debuted in NJPW May 2009, then went into that year’s Best of the Super Jr. Had you seen much of his matches?
Naito: Not really, no. I don’t really watch other promotions’ matches, but I’d seen him in magazines.
–So do you remember the first conversation you two had?
Naito: You know, not really. When I was in Hamaguchi Gym I really felt a lot of antagonism toward those guys like Shingo Takagi or Ibushi, that were the same age as me, but got to debut before me. But as soon as I was in the mix in NJPW, that feeling went away.
At that point, I really felt ‘I’m not the top guy here’
–So when did Ibushi really appear on your radar?
Naito: It had to be the first time we were in a match together. That G1.
–In 2013. August 2, in Korakuen.
Naito: He was really making waves in NJPW at that point, but we hadn’t had the opportunity to face off; he was a junior heavyweight for one thing. It was actually in 2012, when I hurt my knee, that the whole ‘1982 Club’ started, and all of us wrestlers the same age started meeting. Then I came back and we were in the same G1 block, right away.
–There were a lot of expectations riding on him as a junior in that G1 and he really lived up to them. It was around that time that (NJPW Chairman) Sugabayashi started making appeals to him to join NJPW full time.
Naito: He was really ahead of me at that point in time. I felt that when the 1982 Club met up, with Shingo there as well. I really thought at that point ‘I’m not the top guy here’.
–You were in the midst of a very deep roster at that point.
Naito: Well, I was certainly on the biggest stage of all of us in that group, but even so, I didn’t have the self confidence to be able to say I was the top guy there.
–You were a main eventer, but…
Naito: You look at Ibushi at the time, or Takagi at the time, they were champions in their promotions. But I hadn’t won the IWGP title, hadn’t won the G1, and when we started the 1982 Club, I was on the shelf. I really felt like I was lagging behind.
–You and Ibushi had a very interesting relationship around then.
Naito: We would do our best to needle one another. Watch each other’s matches and deliberately look for botches, slipups. Then we’d go to the other guy like ‘what the hell was that?’
–I heard Ibushi would see those slips and then go to you sarcastic like ‘cool move’..
Naito: Yeah, we liked picking on one another. There was some tension there, but at the same time sympathy for one another underneath it all.
–So, a unique relationship.
Naito: You’re right there.
It was like messing around on the gym mats at school
–That first G1 match, Ibushi beat you with a Phoenix Splash. What do you remember of that match?
Naito: I do, actually. It was a big deal to wrestle someone the same age in the G1. My dad was watching as well, and he was a big Ibushi fan. He said he was really looking forward to the match, which put a lot of pressure on me (laughs).
Naito: And then when we locked up, it was like something I’d never experienced before. Obviously I wanted to win, but still, it felt so…easy, so much fun. Like I was messing around doing wrestling moves on gym mats at school.
–You’d found a new favourite opponent right away.
Naito: Right. With us in different weight classes, I didn’t know when or if we would do it again, but I definitely felt he was a lot of fun to wrestle.
–Ibushi did go heavyweight, and in 2015 you met in the New Japan Cup where he beat you again.
Naito: In Hiroshima of all places, where my team plays… I think after that match there was a clear line drawn, with Ibushi above and me below. It wasn’t just me thinking that, the fans felt the same, I think.
–That was the first time Ibushi used the Bastard Driver.
Naito: Yeah, after that he’s dug it out from time to time ever since.
–It seems like you and Ibushi really choose your matches with one another to dig out the most dangerous moves you have.
Naito: I think when it’s me and him, we just flashback to those days messing around as kids. When you have no fear on the gym mats, when I was moonsaulting off the horse without a second thought.
–And wrestling him brings you back to that point, where you don’t have any fear.
Naito: I think he might feel the same way. Like we’re pushing ourselves to go bigger and bigger.
–You both would have had the same influences coming up as fans as well.
Naito: I think so. It all means when I’m in there with him, I start thinking I want to do more and more stuff I never would normally.
–At that point in your careers, Ibushi had beaten you twice, and moved on, but you went to Mexico that May, and that changed everything.
Naito: You could say that, absolutely.
–August 5 2015, you got your first win over Ibushi with the Destino. After that, you went on to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship the next spring, while Ibushi, burned out after being under contract to both NJPW and DDT, stepped away from the ring. What was your take on Ibushi at the time?
Naito: To be honest, I had no idea. I was so completely focused on what I was doing. I was having a lof of fun, but I didn’t have any spare energy or time to be looking at anything that didn’t directly concern me.
–He fell off your radar?
Our positions completely switched.
–Ibushi returned to NJPW for the 2017 G1, and he faced you in his first match back. Things really seemed to escalate in that match. Ibushi landed a piledriver right off the top rope before you won with the Destino in the end.
Naito: After that match there was a lot of criticism online. People saying we’d kill ourselves. Of course, one misstep, one wrong move and our careers would be over. But we knew that and yet we were having so much fun. Every step of the way I was thinking how much fun it was to wrestle Ibushi.
–You were thinking that even as you were risking life and limb.
Naito: But beating him, after he’d taken that time away, it really felt like our positions changed with that match. Like I was above that line, he was below. After that match, even if the win:loss records said different, I felt like I was above him in the pecking order.
–That match was a big turning point in your story.
Naito: After that, the theme was always ‘how is Ibushi going to catch up to me?’ That was fun in a new way. It was a different feeling to when I beat Hiroshi Tanahashi, say, because then I thought I put Tanahashi in my rear view mirror completely after that.
NJPW didn’t treat me with the same importance as him
–After that match though, Ibushi went on a three match run against you: in the G1 in 2018, in the 2019 New Japan Cup, and then in Madison Square Garden.
–Ibushi said that at Korakuen on December 23 that he hadn’t forgotten the wars you had in 2019.
Naito: Ah, yeah. He said that backstage, didn’t he.
–Two Japanese wrestlers on that famous American stage in MSG that April, and you tore the house down.
Naito: The only thing is, even though i know it’s a famous place, it still doesn’t quite have that special ring to me as a venue… Anyway, there wasn’t a bad seat in that house, I don’t think, and the sight of all those people in there was really incredible.
–You were a very vocal proponent of NJPW running events and matches just as they would in Japan when overseas. This match was the only one on that card with all Japanese competitors.
Naito: I think the fans over there didn’t want, don’t want to see a bunch of matches that are supposedly tailored toward them. They like New Japan, they want New Japan. So it was important for us to have that match.
–Ibushi won his first Intercontinental title, and he would sign full time with NJPW once again. What did you think of that?
Naito: It brought to mind how much NJPW like Ibushi, how much they wanted him. He was really able to get them to bend over backward for him. It left me cold a bit, like they didn’t treat me and LIJ with as much importance.
–It wasn’t as if Ibushi had taken a vacation. He went around the world, wrestled for WWE, and then decided that he wanted to dedicate himself here.
Naito: Hmm, but I knew Ibushi, what he’s really like. I figured ‘maybe he’s signed for now, but he’ll flake out eventually.’
–The rematch on June 9 in Osaka Jo Hall saw you recapture the Intercontinental title, but it might have been your most dangerous match yet.
Naito: Oh yeah. Ibushi’s eye was pretty messed up after that.
–From that headbutt, and then there was the German suplex on the apron.
Naito: There was a lot of feedback on Twitter for that afterward. And I think Ibushi felt the same way about it; that isn’t for the people to say. They can say it was too dangerous all they want, but I want to come back and ask them if they want to see completely safe pro-wrestling, and just how that gets done.
–Danger is part and parcel of all professional wrestling.
Naito: So trust in us and watch. There is no such thing as safe pro-wrestling. A bodyslam can end your career. I really don’t like fans who have never done any of it, judge on what’s safe and what isn’t.
Fun and dangerous aren’t one and the same
–So it finally comes to this. Ibushi vs Naito 9 in the Tokyo Dome, main event.
Naito: It’s a big deal. Just being the last to walk down the aisle in the Tokyo Dome, as the champion, that’s a first for me. That’s emotional in itself.
–Both times you’ve main evented in the Dome, it’s been as a challenger entering first.
Naito: And after the journey that we’ve had, there’s something poetic about it being Ibushi in there with me as well. I really do like wrestling him. Him as a person, not so much. But I like wrestling him a ton.
–That’s very clear.
Naito: Look, when we get right down to it, what we’re here to do as pro-wrestlers is simple. We want everyone buying a ticket, watching on TV, watching online, in Japan and around the world, to enjoy themselves. So if the wrestlers aren’t enjoying themselves, it doesn’t seem reasonable that the fans would. Ibushi is the ideal opponent for me in that case, and we’re doing it in the biggest match of the year. With more people watching than any other time, we’re going to blow all of them away.
–I think some fans are wondering what you might do that tops what you’ve done before.
Naito: For all I’ve said before though, fun and dangerous are not one and the same. there’s a lot of different angles to look at wrestling, a lot of different ways of enjoying it, and Ibushi is the best for bringing that fun out.
He seemed different in there, more grown-up
–Ibushi has changed his style and evolved since you last faced off, your thoughts?
Naito: I think I felt that in the preview matches on the Road To. He seemed different in there, more grown-up in a way. In the past, when he was tagging with Tanahashi, or with Kenny (Omega), it would be his partner taking the lead in his matches, but now he’s taking charge, like with SHO.
–That’s a big shift.
Naito: It was like ‘oh wow, you can wrestle like a grown up’ (laughs). I think that’s become clear.
–He’s often marched to the beat of his own drum and hasn’t attracted followers, but there are a few people looking up to him now.
Naito: Oh? SHO and who else?
–Master Wato, certainly.
Naito: Ahh, heheh. But I’d be careful if I were them. Ibushi isn’t exactly the best role model to have. From a human perspective (laughs).
–But he’s changed from a character standpoint.
Naito: He really has, for better or for worse. Not just in the ring, but in his comments as well.
–You’ve wrestled Kazuchika Okada in the Tokyo Dome three times. Do you hold him in a similar status as Ibushi in your mind, or are they very different as opponents?
Naito: Hmm, well first of all, Okada’s rival is SANADA, really.
–And Okada and SANADA are the same age, too.
Naito: I think the key there is that Okada and I have very different ideas about pro-wrestling, and me and Ibushi kinda align in a way. he’s certainly a special opponent, but in a different way.
Jay still hasn’t lived down the times I picked on him
–If you were to beat Kota Ibushi on January 4 then you stand to face Jay White on January 5. White has his own designs on revenge after losing to you at the Dome in 2020.
Naito: Jay’s sharp. He certainly game planned this situation.
–He’s the challenger, but he’s in the position of the last enemy to face.
Naito: He was thinking that he was the biggest star of the three of us, that he wanted to be the last in wait. I might have fallen into his trap, maybe. But I’m doing this exactly how I wanted to; it just so happens to be just what he expected.
–You’ve explained that two back to back matches is a plus for any pro-wrestler, regardless of the risk, but Jay has other ideas.
Naito: He’s completely the opposite, heh. But this isn’t about who’s right. For me, back to back main events on the biggest stage, that’s the biggest prize here, but when results and the titles are more important than anything else, well, he made the right call for him.
–How do you appraise your relationship?
Naito: He was a Young Lion when I just started in Los Ingobernables. I think he still hasn’t lived down all the times I picked on him, heheh.
–In ring, he’s very good at dictating the pace of a match.
Naito: We locked up a little on December 22, and I enjoyed it. I think that we can have a match that’s different to last year in the Dome again. To be honest, I can’t think about him until January 4 is done, but I did feel that if we do meet on the fifth, it’d be a good match. I felt like his tactics had really changed when we faced off in Korakuen.
This will be the first and last time there’s an atmosphere like this
–More than anything else, Naito fans want to hear your call of ‘De! Ja! Pon!’ in the Dome. Last year KENTA stopped that happening…
Naito: And this year there’s a little pandemic happening. With the fans not yelling, it would just be me. I really want that whole building to shake with the people’s voices, but I think this is the one and only time they’ll do it in their hearts in the Dome.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really like being in a building as big as this without being able to cheer or yell. But on the other hand, this will be the first and last time there’ll ever be a Tokyo Dome atmosphere like this. I think that’ll create something really unique, and I’m looking forward to that.
–A positive from a negative. You’ve also spoken about wanting to leave the Tokyo Dome up the ramp rather than the infield.
Naito: That’s an experience no fan will ever get and a precious few wrestlers. To walk up that ramp after the main event, look back and see that sight, there’s only a handful that can say they’ve experienced it.
–It’s a very rare opportunity.
Naito: Just being in the main event is a rare thing in itself. And then up to now, there’s only been one person a each year to win the main event. And it’s only been Nakamura, Tanahashi, Okada.
–Certainly since you debut in 2006, those are the only men who have walked the aisle after the main event.
Naito: Pretty exclusive, right?
–Well, by rights, you should be in the club as well, but…
Naito: Well, I guess I’m in a unique spot in that sense, too. Winning a main event and being carried out to the dugout.
–It might be a one and only situation.
Naito: Right. I left two things undone at the Dome last year; two things I should have been able to do. I get to fix that this year. Well, except for the big chant.
–But you could get to walk back up the aisle twice this year.
Naito: You’re right! Okada got to make two big entrances as a champion in 2020, but for me in 2021, it’s two big exits. Write that down!
That’s kind of what I want Jay White to understand. A real pro-wrestler wants that, that buzz of two main events in the Tokyo Dome. Sure there are people that think it’s weird jay gets to wait and take a night off even though he isn’t the champion, but for me, more important than beating a weakened opponent is walking out and doing what you love doing more than anything in front of as many people as possible. There’s no other choice in my book. Walking out and walking back though!
Okada should talk less and act first
–I do want to end by touching on what Kazuchika Okada said backstage recently.
–Okada said that there are a number of fans who aren’t happy with the main event IWGP title scene in NJPW of late, that it hasn’t lived up to the standard fans have expected of New Japan, and that fans have left, while it’s people like Okada and Tanahashi that are the ones to make that right.
Naito: I guess I’d ask him who are these people that have fallen away, and how does he know? But if it’s a declaration that he wants back into contention, then that’s a good thing. But there’s no right answer.
Pleasing everyone in this business is very, very hard to do. But if he really feels the way he does, then he needs to step up ASAP and try to get the titles. That’s on him. Before you complain, you need to act.
–In other words…
Naito: In other words, why not just challenge me? Anyone can bitch backstage. The Young Lions can do that if they want. If Okada really truly takes pride in what he’s done here, then he needs to step up and act.
–You certainly sense a pride in his words.
Naito: And there are probably people saying ‘oh yeah, way to go’. So for those peoples’ benefit, he should get a move on, shouldn’t he?
–At the press conference on December 23, he said fans should compare his match with Ospreay to the Tokyo Dome main events.
Naito: Well, let’s see if he can say that after the Ospreay match. For me, two nights in the Dome. Ibushi, Jay. I’m looking forward to walking out there… and walking back.