Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
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–So, on October 9 2004, Riki Choshu returned to NJPW after being away since May of 2002. It was a big surprise; most of the wrestlers didn’t know about it beforehand.
Tanahashi: I certainly didn’t know. I probably saw it from backstage, but I can’t remember much of that moment to be honest; I had too much on my plate I think.
–And it was such a chaotic time for NJPW in and out of the ring.
Tanahashi: It’s probably a coping mechanism on my part; not to remember much, heheh.
–And then Choshu took quite a commanding role behind the scenes in NJPW.
Tanahashi: Yeah. I think that MMA influence was still lingering in NJPW, and the company wanted to make a clear statement that ‘wrestling is wrestling’ so bringing Choshu on board was a big part of that.
–There was some negative reaction to Choshu’s return that night. Yuji Nagata was quite against it. What was your take?
Tanahashi: Well, I had my past with Choshu. I was his attendant for a while, he had my back when things were tough. Even if there were some people against it, I was in his corner, I think.
–The main event finish that night was indication of how disordered everything was. Kensuke Sasaki was challenging IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuyuki Fujita. Fujita caught Sasaki in a choke sleeper, and Sasaki fell backward, pinning Fujita in the process. It was such a weak finish for Sasaki to win the belt with. Sasaki’s wife Akira Hokuto was furious.
Tanahashi: I remember that. It was a terrible finish, and a terrible treatment of the title. It really let the fans down. But then I was focused on doing the kind of wrestling I believed in as the U-30 Champion.
–Not long after that Ryogoku night, you wrestled the American Dragon, Bryan Danielson for that title.
Tanahashi: I remember that match, in Kobe World Hall! Danielson was just such a wrestler’s wrestler. To the very model; an orthodox opening, moving onto rope work, progressively bringing in bigger moves. He’s younger than me, but I was able to learn so much by wrestling him.
–And of course, he went onto become a huge star in WWE.
Tanahashi: He’s great. A smaller guy, but so strong, put together, and an expert on the mat. He wholly deserved to be a top guy.
–Fast forward to November 19 and the Osaka Dome. There was a fan vote to determine the main event on that card, and you versus Shinsuke Nakamura won that vote. Then three days before the show Inoki vetoed the whole thing and scrapped the match. So in the end you and Hiroyoshi Tenzan teamed against Naoya Ogawa and Toshiaki Kawada, who were on the HUSTLE roster at the time, while Nakamura and Manabu Nakanishi faced Fujita and Kendo Kashin. How did you take all that?
Tanahashi: It was a complete pain in the ass. I think at this point people had just about had enough with Inoki’s meddling.
–Inoki was scathing toward your match with Nakamura and said that it wouldn’t draw. But what was in place really didn’t grow traffic to the match, so one wonders how well the original card would have done as was.
Tanahashi: Well, I don’t think me or Nakamura were anywhere near showing what we were capable of at that point, but even so, it really felt like we were fumbling around in the dark and fed bullshit the whole time.
–This was the only time you faced Ogawa.
Tanahashi: I was caught between being in such a foul mood and knowing I had to do my best with the match. I do remember Ogawa using an overhead judo takedown and me popping right back up.
–You lost to Ogawa that night, but after the match had harsh words for him. You said that Ogawa was nothing but a name with no ability.
Tanahashi: I was bitter, straight up.
Tanahashi: I still couldn’t let that match with Shinya Hashimoto slide.
–The infamous ‘January 4 incident’ of 1999. The match broke down into a fight. It’s an incident fans have talked about for decades since.
Tanahashi: I couldn’t forgive that. It was a mess, and the press were siding with Ogawa over the whole thing. Pro-wrestling is supposed to be about the two of you, it’s supposed to be about thinking of your opponent, but Ogawa was only in it for himself. He wasn’t thinking about the business at all. And I think in the long run, it ruined Hashimoto’s career.
–That’s why you were so conflicted.
Tanahashi: I was hurt, I was mad, I was disappointed in everything. I was really holding onto a lot.