Cold Skull’s Gold Hopes: SANADA interviewed

SANADA breaks his silence about Ibushi and Hiroshima

SANADA is just days away from arguably the biggest match of his career against Kota Ibushi in Hiroshima for the double IWGP Championships, yet the unflappable Cold Skull seems as relaxed as ever. Having sent Korakuen Hall home with an illuminated ‘gift’ last week, and the promise of a similar scene when he beats Ibushi for the titles Thursday, what’s really going on in the number one contender’s head? We sat down with him to find out. 

I’m a simplist

–So, you challenged Kota Ibushi on January 5, and you’ve been opposite him all the way through this tour. How are you feeling in the middle of these preview matches?

SANADA: Hmm, not bad. 

–Not bad? OK.. Was challenging the champion always the plan if you beat EVIL in the Tokyo Dome?

SANADA: It was. You know, EVIL was a former double champion, so a singles win over him… Really at that point, the best people in a position to challenge were me and Okada, right?

–After Kazuchika Okada beat Will Ospreay on January 4, for sure. But you were obviously first and foremost in the fans’ minds with a win that night. What did you think of the main event scene with Ibushi, Tetsuya Naito and Jay White at Wrestle Kingdom?

SANADA: I didn’t really care to be honest.

–You didn’t?

SANADA: No. All I was thinking about was EVIL, and I really didn’t have time for anything else. You know, I’ve been into minimalism lately.

–What do you mean by that, exactly?

SANADA: Well, that you empty yourself of all distractions. Focus on nothing but the bare minimum, the essentials. I’ve been trying to put that in practice in my entire life at the moment. 

–So, have you been clearing out a lot of clutter at home as well?

SANADA: Oh yeah. The only thing is, as a wrestler it’s difficult to get clothes in your size; most of my outfits for media appearances are order made. So the clothes have stayed and everything else is being thrown out.

–So when did this minimalist approach start?

SANADA: Oh, end of last year, start of this one.

–So pretty recently!

SANADA: Well, I just came across this book on the whole philosophy, and for I felt I might give it a shot. That book has had a really big influence on me. 

–So it’s like you’re taking that Marie Kondo approach to your life in the ring and out? Only keeping things that spark joy?

SANADA: Absolutely. That’s the approach I’ve been taking in clearing everything away. Except all the SANADA merch. That sparks joy. That all stays. I’m in love with myself, you see (laughs). But I think there’s something to taking a minimalist approach to wrestling, and taking away everything that isn’t necessary. 

There’s a lot of waste in the world, and I think there was to my style as well. 

 –That’s the philosophy that brought you to the Tokyo Dome. Now, had you beaten Kota Ibushi in the G1 Climax 30 finals, it would have been you in both main events, potentially. Did that eat at you at all?

SANADA: No, not at all. That was just another thought I did away with. I even stopped vanity searching recently. I’ll see fans saying things on Twitter, go ‘OK’ and move on, now. Maybe I’m not so much a minimalist as I am a ‘simplist’. Let’s go with that. A simplist. 

–I’ll leave that up to you!

SANADA: Well then, I’m a simplist (laughs). You know, during this whole pandemic, I’ve come to realise there’s a lot of waste in this world, and I think there was to my style as well. I mean, some people like the waste, but…

–You tend to keep things fairly simple, stylistically.

SANADA: Not flashy, but with the fundamentals always done right. If I do a plancha, it’s not an intricate dive, but it’s done better than anybody else can do it. So I really think that word ‘simplist’ suits what I do perfectly. Same goes for my private life, as well.

It’s a chance to try something new

–So did you watch the main event matches in the Tokyo Dome at all?

SANADA: Not really. I did see them, but not intently. I didn’t sit down and focus in on them or anything.

–Ibushi had quite a journey, to finally become double IWGP Champion, and then defending against jay White in a 48 minute match the next night.

SANADA: Back to back title matches is a big deal, I know. It’s like wrestling the back to back nights in the G1 finals. 

–Ah, like you wrestling the last B Block group match and then the finals back to back in G1 Climax 30.

SANADA: That puts a huge strain on you, physically and mentally. I have to respect that. But as for going 48 minutes…

–You don’t think the length of the match is a factor to respect much?

SANADA: Right. I’m a simplist, remember? It’s about quality not quantity. I don’t think wrestling epic long matches is something to be all that boastful about. 

–It’s worth mentioning that this is your fourth IWGP Heavyweight Championship challenge.

SANADA: Every one of my three challenges have been against Kazuchika Okada. February 2018, then May and October in 2019.

–Does this challenge feel different to you?

SANADA: Definitely. Kazuchika Okada has really represented the IWGP heavyweight Championship to me up to this point. With Ibushi, it feels like there’s a new era, fresh blood. 

–I get what you mean, even though Ibushi is a few years older than Okada and yourself.

SANADA: The Okada era with that title was very stable, but now things are shifting. It’s a new development, a chance to build something new. 

–Okada was the dictionary definition of a champion, but with Ibushi holding the titles, we have a completely different vision. That’s quite exciting. 

SANADA: There’s a lot of unpredictable factors there. It’s like getting on a new ride, or going to a place you’ve never been before. A little scary, but definitely exciting.

–Every time you and Ibushi have faced one another before, it’s been during the G1. This is your first time going through a traditional championship match build with him.

SANADA: It’s very different. It isn’t a one off deal, we’ve had these issues and disputes grow over a month instead. 

You have to get results first

–I want to go back to the match you had in the 2019 G1. Backstage, Ibushi asked whether you were satisfied in your place in Los Ingobernables De Japon, saying that he wanted to see Seiya Sanada rather than the SANADA in LIJ. Did you reflect on those words at all?

SANADA: Not at all. Every now and then I hear that kind of talk, about going ‘over there’, but I really don’t feel it. I don’t want to do anything half-assed.

–You don’t see yourself leaving Los Ingobernables De Japon.

SANADA: I think you have to get results first. It’s one thing if you do something definitive, get a big result and leave a group, but that logic of ‘I can’t get anywhere where I am so I’ll leave for this other crew’, that doesn’t make sense to me.

–I see.

SANADA: And Seiya Sanada, that’s my real name, but I haven’t used it in wrestling for years at this point. I don’t see any value in going back to my past, and I don’t have any sentimentality about it. If you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward.

–So do you feel there’s a lot unfulfilled when it comes to your career?

SANADA: Absolutely. If this was soccer, there are any number of great players, but if you don’t get those results you don’t get called up, you don’t play in the World Cup, you don’t get that recognition on the global stage. Results are everything.

–You’ve been IWGP Tag Team Champion and NEVER 6-Man Tag Team Champion, but in nearly five years in NJPW, you’ve never won a singles title. Is there a reason why you haven’t chased the NEVER Openweight title, say, or the US?

SANADA: It goes back to that simplist thing, right? I only want the IWGP. I’m only interested in that Heavyweight title.

For me, the IWGP shines brightest

–This time though, you’re challenging for not just one, but two titles. Kota Ibushi has talked about unifying the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles, and there’s a lot of controversy and discussion about that. What’s your take on the double championships?

SANADA: The double titles? That does nothing for me.

–Not at all?

SANADA: Nope. But when it comes to unifying them or splitting them up, really I won’t know about that until I have them. That’s something for the champion to decide, and I might change my mind when I have both titles on me. I was never a fan of the whole double title match idea in the first place. As a simplist, that kind of situation was more complex than it’s worth. There was no real merit to it.

–The idea of defending both titles together or separately…

SANADA: Right. You had Naito and Jay wanting to be a double champion, but…

–Okada was the one saying he was only interested in the heavyweight title in 2020.

SANADA: I’m more on Okada’s side there, I think.

–So would you perhaps be thinking that you might retire the Intercontinental Championship if you won the double titles?

SANADA: Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I want to win the things first. For me, I want to be where the lights shine the brightest. Everyone has a different idea of what position that is. That might mean different titles to some wrestlers, or it might not even be in the championship scene to others. But to me, what shines the brightest is the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

I have plenty of weaknesses. I’m just good at hiding them

–Kota Ibushi has commented that there are no flaws in your game, and that if you have a weakness, it’s that you don’t have a discernible weakness.

SANADA: Oh, I have plenty of weaknesses.

–You do?

SANADA: Of course. I’m just good at hiding them. There are plenty of things that I’m no good at, and I just don’t do them. That’s the trick. So maybe it looks like I have no holes in my game. I haven’t really spoken with Ibushi, so I don’t think he knows much about who I really am.

–You have your weaknesses. 

SANADA: Oh yeah. Have you heard me on the mic?

–That’s why you’ve created a mystique around yourself? The strong silent type?

SANADA: Exactly.

–But like it or not, you’re being brought into a war of words with Ibushi though. he’s said he wants to see you do something more wild, more unpredictable. 

SANADA: Well, I want him to bring that out of me. 

–What’s your take on Ibushi as a wrestler?

SANADA: He’s different, for sure. And different in strange ways. Like, he has those moments in his matches where he flips out, right? Gets really mad.

–He certainly goes through those moments, yes. 

SANADA: I mean, that, to me… I’m over it. He’s done it so many times that I know to expect it. That isn’t wild unpredictability.

–Is that what you alluded to when you said Ibushi had more lustre before he won the belts?

SANADA: Yeah. It’s not just him, it’s everybody. It’s human nature. People are more interesting when they’re chasing something, aren’t they? What that says about being a champion, I don’t know, but even if confidence is an important thing to have, being behind and chasing is when people shine the brightest. Well, in Ibushi’s case, I’ll happily put him back in that position.

–Ibushi has been talking about becoming God for a while now. How do you feel about those comments?

SANADA: That’s the question, I think. Does he really believe he’s God? There’s a reason why I called myself the ‘hope’ of professional wrestling. If you’re God, what else is there after that? You can’t go any further. Hope, that springs eternal, heh. But while we’re on semantics, there’s another word Ibushi used that I’m not a fan of.

–Which is?


–Dare I ask ‘why’ that is?

SANADA: Isn’t it a weird thing to be asking of someone? It says you aren’t satisfied, it feels…diminishing. Why is a word that gets in the way of progress.

–And that’s what you felt with Ibushi? When he asked why you wanted the titles?

SANADA: Because I’m not talking about winning the titles so I can do something. It isn’t a means to an end. What I want to do, the belt isn’t relevant to that. What the belt is, is the best possible fashion accessory.

The aura Chono had was something else

–Is there a particular match that really represents the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to you?

SANADA: Hmm. We’re all nostalgic people, aren’t we? As adults we always hark back to our days as school kids, heh. I think I’d go for something like Masahiro Chono vs Tatsumi Fujinami.

–August 8, 1998, when Chono won his one and only IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

SANADA: Chono’s aura, man, it was something else. As a kid, I thought his whole attitude was just incredible.

–You were always a Chono fan.

SANADA: Always. I’ve never gotten to interact with him much, though.

–Your mentor was Keiji Muto, but you liked Chono better?

SANADA: Ah, I liked Muto too!

–I don’t have you pegged as a Shinya Hashimoto type.

SANADA: Ah, actually, you might not believe it, but I dug Hashimoto! I think all of the Three Musketeers had their own unique traits, their own personalities came through. I liked Hashimoto because he wrestled in a way I just could never. Even as a kid, I knew that when I grew up I wouldn’t be like Hashimoto. That made him special to me.

–But you could relate to Chono?

SANADA: You know how it is as a kid, you grow up with your head in the magazines, right? I remember seeing this photo of Chono with a Cobra Twist on somebody in Weekly Pro-Wrestling once. Balanced like that, I just thought ‘man, that’s art’. Just him being him, captured like that. That was fine art to me. 

–You’ve got a very unique eye in that sense.

SANADA: Hah, there aren’t too many like me, are there? But I’d like it if some fans looked at my matches with the same eye. The photographers, too (laughs)