Ace’s HIGH #40: Sayonara, Shibata

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 #39: King of Tag Style

Ace’s HIGH #41 Coming February 3! ->

I would act, and Nakamura would do the thinking

–Last time we talked about your first singles match with Shinsuke Nakamura on January 4 2005. After your loss you said backstage that it was the most humiliating moment of your career, and that you didn’t care for Nakamura’s in-ring style.

Tanahashi: That’s the definition of stubbornness, huh. Losing and then refusing to accept defeat. It was a real loss to me. He had already won the IWGP heavyweight Championship and yet here I was losing the U-30 title to him as well. Plus that loss really sealed the title’s fate as well. There was no reason for it to exist after that. It’s a shame nobody’s resurrected it since.

–You won the title initially, then Nakamura won and vacated it. You won the vacant title and then passed it up to challenge for the IWGP heavyweight Championship in June 2006. Since then, it’s been inactive these last 15 years or so.

Tanahashi: Well, that’s quite a legacy to live up to, just me and Nakamura holding that title. Maybe I should resurrect it as the O-40 title. It’d turn some heads, get me in the headlines. 

–You wrestled one another in the Dome, but after that you spent 2005 defending the IWGP Tag titles with Nakamura.

Tanahashi: I’d been very self centered through my career up to that point, but I had to learn to be patient during that period. That ‘me, me, me,’ stuff is all very well and good, but here was this guy who was younger and red hot himself in my corner, and I had to acknowledge that. It hurt.

–January 30 in Hokkaido you defended successfully against Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Yuji Nagata. Post match you commented on how easy it was to team with Nakamura. How was it in retrospect?

Tanahashi: Yeah, I think we had that non-verbal communication down. We both wanted to come across as a natural team.

–We talked last time about how wrestlers benefit from being fans themselves. Nakamura is just such a case.

Tanahashi: He’s encyclopedic. About everything wrestling. He could tell you every wrestler on the debut card for (joshi promotion, formed in 1992) LLPW, by heart. Thinking back on that time teaming with him now, it was unlike me. I really didn’t think, I just did what was natural. I did the actions and Nakamura did the thinking, the little details.

–To hear him tell it, he felt you tagged better when he took a step back, that he felt you were still very much in ‘me, me’ mode…

Tanahashi; Ahh, maybe I hadn’t learned that patience quite yet then! The junior member of the team had more of a head on their shoulders. 

–But Nakamura did say that the meeting of MMA and pro-wrestling in that team was an interesting one. There was certainly interesting chemistry there. 

Tanahashi: That was certainly an aspect of it. Between that and having a similar look in our ring gear, it helped us leave an impression with people.

–You were both young, had dynamic styles. It was an exciting combination. 

Tanahashi: I remember we both did a Mc Donald’s commercial back then. For Pepper Cheese Double Beef. We named a move after it (laughs).

–Your elbow and knee drop combination! There was a lot of confusion around the company at the time; did you feel much pressure on the two of you?

Tanahashi: Oh yeah. Choshu came to us directly and said as much. ‘We’re counting on you’ kinda thing.

I was furious with him

–Seiichi Kusama was the president of the company at the time. He commented to media that he expected you and Nakamura to ‘use the Third Generation as their stepping stone’. That was quite a comment, considering Hiroyoshi Tenzan was 33 at the time and Yuji Nagata was 36, both in their primes. How did you react to that?

Tanahashi: I didn’t give it much thought. I don’t think many would have paid much attention to something like that. Say to a guy in their 30s that they need to be a stepping stone for someone underneath and they’d want to throw that right back in your face. I get he was trying to push me and Nakamura, but that was a stupid way of putting it.

–A lot of people did throw things right back at the company. On January 31 2005, Katsuyori Shibata cited a ‘difference in visions for NJPW’ in leaving the company, even while he was a pushed commodity.

Tanahashi: We used to get along well when we were rooming in the Dojo together, but when he had his direction in Makai Club we completely drifted apart. I didn’t hear a thing about him thinking of leaving. I saw him interviewed in a magazine at the time saying ‘The NJPW I left was my NJPW’. What a thing to say! I couldn’t even understand what that meant.

–You couldn’t see where he was coming from.

Tanahashi: I think looking back on it now, he was into that idea of the pursuit of strength, and pro-wrestling being about that. It didn’t gel at all with how I saw wrestling, how the story and the journey are more important than the destination in a match. 

–Yuji Nagata asked Shibata to stay at the time. Did you have that same instinct, to ask your rival to stay on, or were you looking ahead?

Tanahashi: My mindset was ‘if he wants to go he should go’. I was so completely absorbed in doing all I could to turn things around here. So I was very pragmatic about it. There were a lot of people leaving at the time, I just kept my head down and moved forward.

–What was next in front of you was Keiji Muto in your first singles match with him, February 16 for AJPW.

Tanahashi: It was a complete squash. I really didn’t show any of myself and lost with a Moonsault. It really hit me that I was a long way off Muto’s level.

–This was four years before you met in the main event at the Tokyo Dome in ’09.

Tanahashi: I think the moment got to me a bit. I flashed back to being a fan for a second, like ‘oh man I’m really in the ring one on one with Muto’. 

–And it came full circle, after you worked as his assistant and he tried to recruit you when he jumped to AJPW in 2002. 

Tanahashi: Yeah. It really made me realise that anything can happen in this business, you can never say never. Someone leaves and they can come back, or you can face them in a different company. That’s just another layer to these stories we have in pro wrestling that make it great.