Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
We were the light at the end of the tunnel
–So let’s continue where we left off last time. Then we talked about how you were courted by HUSTLE in the middle of a difficult time for NJPW.
Tanahashi: Difficult is certainly one way to put it. There was a lot of frustration, but I felt so committed to try and overcome what was in front of all of us. You have to remember, there was very little of NJPW, in NJPW, if that makes sense. I remember in maybe ’03 or ’04, there was a tour in Hokkaido where so many guys had left, the biggest face on the poster was (Yoshihiro) Takayama.
–Even on NJPW’s promotional material, the spotlight was on an outside figure.
Tanahashi: That was really tough. I was still in my 20s at that point, but I really felt that if I was given just a little bit of shine by the company, I could make things happen. I think probably Nakamura felt the same way.
–After the Osaka Dome card that year it was certainly a very outsider rich scene in NJPW. Kensuke Sasaki was IWGP Heavyweight Champion and Takayama and Minoru Suzuki were the tag champions, none of whom under NJPW contract. That was when you and Shinsuke Nakamura joined forces to bring the tag titles back.
Tanahashi: It was a complicated situation. He was already a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion at that point. He was my junior in age and experience, but he’d already achieved bigger things than me. Even teaming with him, I saw him as a rival, and that certainly left me conflicted. But I think forming a united front and bringing titles back to NJPW was more important than my ego at the time.
–And so it had to be Nakamura.
Tanahashi: It really was the only right choice when it came to a partner. Even if I say so myself, I think we really represented the light at the end of the tunnel for NJPW. We had youth on our sides as well; I was 28, he was 24.
–You were set to challenge on December 11 2004 in Osaka. Takayama suffered an injury and offered to grant his title belt to Kensuke Sasaki, but instead the titles were vacated altogether and you and Nakamura faced Sasaki and Suzuki to crown new champions.
Tanahashi: Right before Osaka, I hurt my knee in Hiroshima. Nakamura really looked after me. Introduced me to an acupuncturist, put salt on my knee before the match.
–Suzuki and Sasaki took the lion’s share of the match, but you ended up scoring the win with a Dragon Suplex on Suzuki.
Tanahashi: It was a long match, especially by the standards of the time. 32 minutes, and they were in control for 80 percent of it, but in the end we pulled off the win. It was really striking a blow for NJPW against the invaders; like there was still some hope left.
My first singles Dome main event against Shinsuke… it was destiny
–But it was right after that match that you said to Nakamura ‘let’s have a singles match next time!’. Nakamura agreed, and you faced off for the IWGP U-30 Openweight Championship in the main event at the Tokyo Dome on January 4 2005. It was quite special in hindsight, two guys in their 20s headlining at the Dome.
Tanahashi: Right, but I do feel that the company didn’t have much choice. Neither of us were particularly recognisable to anyone outside of the hardcores, and we weren’t really accepted by the old fans yet either. In the end, it wasn’t a drawing match.
–2005 saw Tokyo Dome cards in January, May and October, and they all drew poorly.
Tanahashi: These days it’s company policy to list the actual attendance for these cards, but back then there was a big discrepancy between the numbers the promotors put out and the number of people in that building. But then again, to be in a singles main event in the Tokyo Dome, and to have Nakamura as my opponent; it did feel like destiny.
–Was it a little emotional for you, to have that position of walking out in the Tokyo Dome as the champion, entering last?
Tanahashi: Not really; I love that entrance ramp, but I didn’t have the luxury of thinking about the prestige of it all. I just felt a lot of pressure, like we really had to show everyone something special.
–Nakamura later said that he’d wanted to wait until you were bigger names before you had the match.
Tanahashi: He said that to me right after the match, actually. ‘It’s still a bit too soon’. You have to remember we both grew up as fans in the 90s, and that whole debate of who was better, the Three Musketeers of NJPW, or the Four Pillars of AJPW. I think part of him wanted that first Tanahashi vs Nakamura match to be on the level of a Mitsuharu Misawa vs Keiji Muto.
–He wanted it to be a dream match situation.
Tanahashi: I didn’t really see it the same way. I thought that putting that match out there was the only call the company could have made at that time; it was because they kept using us in those big spots even when times were tough that Nakamura vs Tanahashi became a big drawing match.
–In the end, Nakamura submitted you at 24:46 to win the U-30 title. Do you have any particular memories of the match itself?
Tanahashi: I think we were still green for that spot. Looking back at it, I think the occasion really took over for me; I felt that I needed to show off, go bigger on my offense whether it made sense to or not. It isn’t the sort of mentality I would have later in my career.
Shawn Michaels changed my outlook on wrestling
–The sort of mentality you would have 15 years later with Chris Jericho in the Dome, say?
Tanahashi: Oh man, it’s night and day, I think! Compare the two and you’ll see in the Nakamura ’05 match I have much less control of the flow. We’re giving each other German Suplexes, I’m completely overdoing the tope suicida and landing in the tables. But it’s fun to look back at me being so young and wild in there. A little tough to see me much more mobile, but still (laughs).
–That mileage stacks up over the years.
Tanahashi: I spent a lot of time back then watching my matches back and thinking about how I could have done things better. It was around this time I started watching Shawn Michaels, and that really changed the way I look at wrestling.
–What got you into watching Michaels?
Tanahashi: I think it was the TV (WWE) were putting out here at the time. You know, as a fan I never watched American wrestling, but watching him from a pro’s perspective, I really appreciated just how good he was. He wasn’t a big hulking guy, wasn’t as athletic as Kota Ibushi is, say. So I really wanted to watch him to see just why he was at the top of the heap.
–When you wrestled Kurt Angle later in your career, Angle called you ‘the Japanese Shawn Michaels’.
Tanahashi: That was something to hear. On one hand I was happy for the compliment, but on the other I thought ‘ah damn, I’ve been found out!’ (laughs) There was a lot of subconscious influence going on, just in the progression of my matches toward the finish. I think, though, it speaks to something I always feel wrestling someone new. I always know whether someone really watches a lot of wrestling.
Tanahashi: Meaning that there’s a direct relationship between how much wrestling you watch as you train and how good your matches are, I think. Tetsuya Naito, Kazuchika Okada, a lot of guys these days have come from a place of watching a lot of wrestling themselves.