Ace’s HIGH #44: Lucha Ace?

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 #43: Remembering Hashimoto

Ace’s HIGH #45: Coming March 3! ->

–Let’s talk about the 2005 G1 Climax. You’d won the New Japan Cup in the spring; that tournament had been billed as the ‘spring G1’ so you were looking to pull off the double. 

Tanahashi: They gave me a little camcorder for this tour, to take footage backstage and on the road. They made a DVD of it. 

–So it was all documented. As we talked about last time, you’d cracked your right hip and fractured your left finger in the NOAH match with Takeshi Rikio just before the G1 started, so you weren’t 100%. Your tour started with a draw, against Toru Yano, and you eventually ended the block in fourth place, on 3-3-1.

Tanahashi: It was rough. In my first match with Yano I was trying to counter his Onigoroshi powerbomb into a Frankensteiner, and ended up spiking my head on the mat. There’s a scene in that DVD where I’m showing how much my movement was restricted after that. The Frankensteiner was pretty much retired from that point on (laughs). It made the rest of the tour really difficult. Like in ’14 when I hurt my neck against Kota Ibushi on the lawn dart into the corner, it really affects you for the rest of the tour when something like that happens.

–Kazuyuki Fujita won B Block that year. He went undefeated, and won all of his matches in under ten minutes. He must have been tough to face with an injury.

Tanahashi: I remember taking a knee from him, and then not much after that. In the end, he interrupted the referee’s ten count to put me in a Boston Crab to win. He really crushed everyone in that G1, and it wasn’t my style of match at all. Fujita was really good to me when I was a Young Lion, but we had completely different viewpoints when it came to pro-wrestling. I like matches that have some depth to them, things you’ll want to come back to and re-watch, but I think with that match with him, one time was enough. 

–You want matches to stay with the people watching. 

Tanahashi: But in the end, we were in very different positions. He was a freelancer and had to produce in foreign territory; he did what was expected of him and what he had to do. But when you’re carrying the company’s expectations and trying to get fans onside, then that kind of match isn’t going to get that done.

–It was a case of knowing different roles. 

Tanahashi: And in the end, it was this story of a huge invading force that Masahiro Chono was able to stop, to give the fans that happy ending. So it worked out.

–Of course, Chono had just lost his close friend Shinya Hashimoto. After that match with Fujita you had your second singles match with Shinsuke Nakamura, very heavily bandaged up. You were IWGP Tag Team Champions at the time as well.

Tanahashi: I’d hurt my neck with Yano, my back with Fujita, and then I went out there doing suicide dives. Plus Nakamura didn’t hold back at all, tag partner or not. In the end we left together, though. 

–After the G1, you and Nakamura went for a one month excursion to CMLL.

Tanahashi: For as long as my career has been, I never really got many long term excursions like that. The only other one I can think of was in ’08 for TNA in the States. I never really had the time to go on excursion, and I was part of the main roster relatively quickly. I really think there’s something special to going away for an extended period and coming back right at the top. So I was far from a Young Lion, but I was looking forward to the trip.

–And it was a rare opportunity then for a Japanese wrestler to head to the lucha scene. You had one other interaction with Mexican wrestling before this, in July 2000, when you faced Negro Casas. You managed to snatch a win even. 

Tanahashi:  With a half hatch suplex. I was bigger then than I am now, and I was able to out power him. At the time, I really didn’t realise what a big deal that was, but there was a sense of ‘oh, this is a big deal’. When I got to Mexico and saw how revered Casas is, that made me realise for sure.

–Was it reassuring in a way, to do the Mexico trip together with Nakamura?

Tanahashi: I’d say so, yeah. And Neko-san (Black Cat) was with us the whole time, he worked as a co-ordinator, and took care of everything. No language issues, everything was smooth… I never got the fish out of water sensation. 

–You got some pretty special treatment.

Tanahashi: We were learning, even while we were treated like stars. That said, Nakamura adapted much better than I did. Like I don’t think I was able to kip up once on the trip, but that’s a fundamental move in lucha. I used to try when I was a Young Lion and never could get it, so I gave up. Then here I was training in a lucha class and people getting mad at me because I couldn’t do the simplest thing. 

–That must have hurt your pride. 

Tanahashi: I think all the other guys were like ‘who the hell does he think he is?’ I could do a handspring, could do a backflip. But I couldn’t kip up. And then Nakamura is doing everything with ease and having a ball. With his MMA experience as well, he was getting a lot of respect. After the training session, he had guys coming up to him asking him to teach them submissions and them teaching him llave while I sort of twiddled my thumbs. Not a great experience for me.