Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–Last time we talked about you winning the IWGP U-30 title back in June of 2005. The next month, Shinya Hashimoto passed away of a brain hemorrhage aged just 40.
Tanahashi: Yeah. After Hashimoto left NJPW, I really didn’t have any contact with him, so I didn’t know about his health. I hadn’t heard he was dealing with anything in particular, so to hear he’d passed was a real shock, so sudden.
–Hashimoto had left in November 2000 and started ZERO-ONE in 2001.
Tanahashi: When I was starting out, Hashimoto took a shine to me because we’re from the same part of Japan, in Gifu. He would always speak to me in that Gifu accent of his, and was so proud of his hometown; it rubbed off on me, too.
–You went to eat with him a lot as well, right?
Tanahashi: Oh yeah, and always on him. Kenzo Suzuki was his attendant at the time, but he would always make sure to invite me, too. I remember one time we were in this little town where Hashimoto had a sponsor that put on a big fancy dinner for him. He brought me and Kenzo along and went ‘make sure you two do something wild!’ (laughs)
–He wanted to make sure everyone had a good time?
Tanahashi: Well, he wanted to make sure a couple of young guys got loaded, took their shirts off and danced about (laughs). Not something that would fly these days…
–Old school, for sure.
Tanahashi: The other thing that really springs to mind about me with Hashimoto; when I was at university, I went to a lot of shows in the Kyoto Prefectural Gymnasium. I remember them selling this illustrated Hashimoto King of Destruction T-shirt there, and honestly it was ugly as sin (laughs). But then I figured, maybe it might go all the way round to being cool again? Like in an ironic way (laughs). Plus he was the local hero to me, so I picked it up and wore it around town a ton (laughs).
–You had that connection from your days as a fan, then. Hashimoto’s funeral was on July 16, and a lot of NJPW wrestlers were in attendance.
Tanahashi: I was a pall bearer, actually. The TV presenter Souichiro Takashima did a wrestling style announcement at the funeral. I know Hashimoto was fond of him.
–He was a KBC TV presenter at the time, but he’s the mayor of Fukuoka now. He’s presented trophies to the main event winner at Dontaku several times.
Tanahashi: Him crying as he announced Hashimoto’s name really stuck with me. It’s incredible to think that he died at 40. Such an age. When I turned 40 I remember thinking ‘man, I’ve lived longer than Hashimoto ever got to’.
–Have you had much contact with his son Daichi?
Tanahashi: We said our hellos after he made his debut. I thought it would have been nice for him to come into NJPW, but I guess the natural direction was for him to debut with his dad’s company.
–He went on to Big Japan Pro-Wrestling and won their Strong Heavyweight title.
Tanahashi: It’d be neat if he could show up in a NJPW ring sometime, with that history.
–A week later it was NOAH’s second and last to date event in the Tokyo Dome. You challenged Takeshi Rikio for the GHC Heavyweight Championship. Having won the New Japan Cup, and representing NJPW, it really felt like expectations were high for you.
Tanahashi: Yeah. That was a sour memory, and not because I lost the match. there was a lot of self reflection going on after that. The Dome was really filled out that night, and NJPW were really struggling in the same building. A lot of the media were saying that NOAH had taken the lead when it came to business in Japan. I really felt I needed to fire back.
–You really flew at Rikio in the match. There was a Moondault Press, and you did three suicide dives in a row.
Tanahashi: Doing that move, I was really thinking of Tatsumi Fujinami’s Dragon Rockets that he used against Genichiro Tenryu in the Dome back in ’96. But I put a little too much into it and wound up in the timekeeper’s area (laughs). I smacked into the fencing and broke a finger, and my right hip joint.
–Even Fujinami broke his nose against Tenryu doing that dive.
Tanahashi: The Fujinami influence was really strong (laughs). But that match was a real tough one, for me, mentally and physically. With Rikio it really felt I wasn’t getting anything back from the crowd. I couldn’t listen to the fans and build up any kind of rhythm.
Tanahashi: I think looking back, I didn’t really properly read the room and understand the situation I was in. I thought if I did my very best I’d win the fans over there, but I was an outsider and I should have wrestled like one.
–You should have embraced the heel role.
Tanahashi: Exactly. If I went for his knee, or if I’d bent the rules a little bit it would have brought the crowd into the match more. Instead I was the same old Tanahashi. So much of the match is made before you even get in the ring, and I learned a lot about how to present myself that night.
–Rikio would eventually retire in November 2011. What did you think of him as a wrestler?
Tanahashi: He was a former sumo wrestler, and like you’d expect, his palm strikes were really something. Just getting hit by one of those it was like ‘holy shit’. But he’d only just won that title from Kenta Kobashi, and the fans hadn’t really accepted him as champion at that point.
–And even though this match was for the GHC title, it was fourth from the top of the card, underneath Genichiro Tenryu vs Yoshinari Ogawa, Kensuke Sasaki vs Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada vs Mitsuharu Misawa.
Tanahashi: I didn’t really think the match order was my responsibility, the match itself was. I think Rikio was really pushed as a power guy, so my plan was to try and roll him up and have the upper hand on technique. In the end I think the NOAH fans left with a pretty poor impression of me. I felt pretty down after that match.
–Not many fond memories from that match then.
Tanahashi: I didn’t see the chance for a rematch anytime soon, so I was left wondering how to elevate myself. I think it really sparked something in me, to make sure that my matches were unmissable, to get myself out there and be active on TV, doing more promotion. It definitely wasn’t a match to be proud of, but it helped me turn a corner in my career and helped me move forward.