And new, and last, and only: Tetsuya Naito interviewed

Tetsuya Naito speaks ahead of Ibushi battle

February 28’s main event will see a battle between Tetsuya Naito and Kota Ibushi over the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. ‘Over’ is an operative word, and distinct from a battle ‘for’ the championship; while the title is indeed on the line, so to is the very future of the championship, with Ibushi aiming to unify it with the IWGP Heavyweight title, and Tetsuya Naito having very different plans indeed. To find out how he feels about the situation, we spoke to the challenger. 

I knew as soon as he won, I would move fast

–So, you had a lot of free time through January.

Naito: You’re right. I was definitely no occupado.

–You ended the tour in Hiroshima with two wins, but with a very differet aura around you compared to heading into the Toyo Dome.

Naito: Well, I wasn’t in the title hunt. Not to say that I wasn’t fired up mind; it was the first time in a while I’ve had that sense of looking to make my own narrative during a tour. I enjoyed that; it was a lot of fun. 

–A change in gears from the end of the year.

Naito: Everyone else in LIJ had a program and I didn’t. But it was a chance to take a step back and see how they did, gain some perspective. It was no occupado, but in a good way. 

–Hiroshima seemed pretty surprised to see you walk out after the main event in Hiroshima. 

Naito: I was thinking through the whole tour about whether to make my move if the right time came along. In the end, to me it was about the main event result. I knew I wanted to say something about Ibushi’s unification plans no matter what, so as soon as he won I moved fast.

–As soon as Ibushi talked about his unification idea on January 5, that struck a nerve with you.

Naito: To be honest, I really don’t understand what he’s trying to do. He isn’t getting across to me at all. I’m sure in his own mind, he has it figured out, but hearing his comments, I don’t understand it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

–There is certainly a lot of confusion.

Naito: I’m not talking about support here; you aren’t going to please 100% of the people with anything at all. I think it’s a good thing, it’s important that he’s putting his views out there and saying what he wats to do regardless of who might support him. But all we’re getting is Ibushi wants to do something new without a clear idea of what and why. 

–You’re fine with Ibushi wanting to do something new, in principle. 

Naito:  Sure. I think it’s a good thing that we’re seeing a pre-champion Ibushi and a post champion Ibushi in that sense. Something’s changed in him. 

He might unify these titles before the New Japan Cup. I couldn’t let that happen

–Let’s take the other side for a second here. You share your objections to unification with a lot of fans, but people were very confused when you challenged for just the Intercontinental Championship.

Naito: Really?

–What would challenging for just that title achieve in your view?

Naito: Well. There are a ton of titles in NJPW right now. In my opinion, and it’s never changed, the one that really represents the very pinnacle of pro-wrestling is the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Now I’m going to be honest; I’m not a fan of direct rematches. To lose a title and then come back and demand a rematch, I did it with EVIL last summer, but…

–You did, ending EVIL’s reign at about six weeks in Jingu Stadium. 

Naito: I’ve got to say, I’m not comfortable with it in general, and in Ibushi’s case, there was no nonsense, no interference, no cheating in the Tokyo Dome, he beat me clean. To come right back and challenge for the heavyweight title again, after that match, that’s disrespecting the title, I think.

–I see. 

Naito: But if I did nothing, Ibushi would go ahead with his plan to unify. he might do it tomorrow, or the next day. Yes, if I won New japan Cup, that would give me a rightful challenge, but he might unify before then. I couldn’t let that happen. So, no tranquilo. If I hadn’t challenged, I’d live to regret it. 


I never saw the significance of it, but it’s always had a significance for me

–So all that said, I want to bring up something you said backstage on February 14.

Naito: Which is?

–‘If I hold the belt from February 28 to August 28, six months without defending it, I have to turn it over, right? The title will end there’. It sounds like you want to retire the title altogether if you win.

Naito: If I win, I won’t retire it. 

–You won’t.

Naito: But, and I’ve said this all along, I don’t know what the title is supposed to represent, and I’d like it gone. So, if for six months, somebody doesn’t challenge me for it and take it away from me, then I’ll turn it over. At that point the company could decide to have a match to fill the vacant title, but if nobody wants it, nobody will be in that match. That’s how it’ll end. 

–You won’t retire it, it will just phase out, in your estimation.  

Naito: Exactly.

–So in Ibushi’s view, the end is the same. There’d be one title at the end of all this, so why not unify the two? Is it again out of respect for the  heavyweight championship? 

Naito: Yeah, that’s the main thing to me. If Ibushi unifies them, it becomes the IWGP Double Championship, or what have you. The IWGP heavyweight Championship, and the Intercontinental, all that goes away. 

–That isn’t what Ibushi’s saying. he’s said he wants to preserve both title lineages. 

Naito: Is that so?

–Perhaps it goes back to this confusion over what Ibushi wants to do.

Naito: I think regardless of what Ibushi says, the Intercontinental history will fade out. The focus will be on the top championship, and that’s the IWGP heavyweight Championship. I don’t see how the Intercontinental legacy could survive that. 

–That’s a good point. 

Naito: It’s strange. I’ve always questioned the purpose of the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, but if you look back on my career, it’s been the belt I’ve been most connected to. I’ve never understood the significance of *it*, but *it’s* always had a significance for *me*. 

Sometimes kids are fickle, right?

–You alluded to the man who wrestled across the pond in your comments. Certainly Shinsuke Nakamura is always seen as ‘Mister Intercontinental’, but you’ve hold the title more than anybody else. 

Naito: Oh! Is that so?

–You’ve held it six times, Nakamura five. 

Naito: So I’m ahead.

–It could be argued that you’re the one most closely associated with the title. 

Naito: When it’s all said and done, and everyone looks back at my career, they’ll think of me with the Intercontinental Championship most often. But I still don’t understand why we have it. I still, honestly think it would be better if we didn’t. But when Ibushi talks about him unifying or whatever the hell it is he wants to do? If the Intercontinental Championship, if that lineage is going to end, fine. It ends with me.

–So that’s your motivation. 

Naito: It’s closer to me than anyone. So I will end it. 

–Back in 2018, you just about demolished the title. 

Naito: People still bring that up with me to this day. But you know… It’s almost like when we were kids, where you might pick on a girl but deep down you have a crush on them. Kids are fickle, right? 

–Even so!

Naito: I smashed that belt up, and I tried to retire it back then. I don’t respect it, I don’t see a value in it, but it has a place in my heart somehow. 

–With that said there are some that feel you’re coming to save the Intercontinental Championship. To them, is it right to say that you want to end it by your hand instead?

Naito: I get that it might look as if I’m coming to save the title. I’m saying that it would be perfectly fine for it not to be around anymore. But, that depends, doesn’t it? If nobody challenges me, then there’s a neat full stop with me as the last champion. But me winning the title doesn’t mean that it will be retired, necessarily. Just, if there are no challengers… 

–That’s where it gets complicated. It would be simpler to understand if you were simply intent on retiring the title as soon as you won it.

Naito: Hmm. But I’ll admit, there was the influence of a certain ‘king’, and there are more than a few fans who do have a connection to the title, right? So I’m giving them a stay of execution if you will. Six months. Six months for someone to show that they want this Intercontinental Championship enough for them to try and take it from me. The twisted web I weave, huh? Heheh.

–And on the other hand, Kota Ibushi has talked of his reverence for Shinsuke Nakamura, and he’s called it the best belt. You can’t argue that both of you are deeply tied to that title. 

Naito: Well, Ibushi likes to talk about it, and I don’t. But yeah, I guess you could see it that way. 

–The two of you are more deeply tied to it than anybody on the planet. 

I don’t think we’ll have an Intercontinental Championship by Wrestle Kingdom 16

–If you win on Sunday, will you not try to go for the IWGP heavyweight Championship again? 

Naito: At the Tokyo Dome after my match, I used the word ‘absolutely’. I used to use that word a lot, back when I didn’t put a whole lot of care into what I said. Absolutely means absolutely. It’s not a word that you throw around. But that’s how determined I am to be back in the main event in the Tokyo Dome wrestling for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. 

–So is there not a possibility that you’ll be chasing the Heavyweight Championship while you’re Intercontinental Champion? That the belts will come together again, by accident?

Naito: Maybe. But in the last year, not one person stepped forward and asked to challenge for the Intercontinental Championship. If I’m right, nobody will challenge for the title with me as champion. It’ll end, not because I killed it, but because it slipped away. I don’t think there will be an Intercontinental Championship by Wrestle Kingdom 16. In the end, the main event on the big stage in NJPW, it has to be for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. 

–You were the first to declare they wanted to be double champion. 

Naito: Right, but I never said that I wanted to unify the titles. I wanted to defend them separately, but things didn’t pan out the way I envisaged. 

–Your motivation then was to be the first double champion. And to prove that the Intercontinental Champion could win the Heavyweight title. 

Naito: Exactly. I proved the two titles aren’t mutually exclusive. From there, things getting this complicated, I guess I’m to blame in the end. I started this whole double title thing. I should be the one to end it.