Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–We’ve spent a while talking about your trip to Mexico in the autumn of 2005. When you came back, you and Shinsuke Nakamura had a match in the Tokyo Dome on October 9 opposite then HUSTLE roster members Yoji Anjo and Toshiaki Kawada. Incredibly, the match was announced two days before the show.
Tanahashi: Seems utterly bizarre to think about it now, announcing such a major card two days out. Plus they were hardly opponents for us to show off what we picked up in Mexico. But they were with HUSTLE then, huh?
–There was none of the HUSTLE comedy some might have been expecting in that match. Kawada in particular was very straightforward.
Tanahashi: I think there was still that Strong Style expectation around me. I really wanted to get rid of that image as soon as I could, but I think at that point guys from other companies would come in and wrestle with that image of ‘this is what an NJPW match is like’.
–You ended up winning the match with a Dragon Suplex on Anjo. A lot of buzz from this event was around the press conference the day before. Riki Choshu, who had left NJPW in 2002, returned as a co-ordinator backstage with New Japan. It was a shock to the fans, and there was a lot of discontent with the wrestlers. How did you feel?
Tanahashi: I wasn’t unhappy, or anything, but I did wonder why he was coming back at that point in time. It was really a drastic measure; it’s a thankless task to deal with talent, to handle the book. He wouldn’t have volunteered, the company had to come to him with an offer.
–Choshu’s plan was to refocus things on the in-ring side. He really hit the reset button when it came to alliances and factions.
Tanahashi: That played a big part in Nakamura and I splitting up after we lost the tag titles to Chono and Tenzan (October 30 2005, Kobe). There were ups and downs to that, but I think Toru Yano felt the worst of it. He was just starting to come into his own under Tatsutoshi Goto and Hiro Saito; he’d gotten the blond hair, was walking round with that sake bottle of his. Then all of a sudden he’s back to black hair, black tights orthodox Yano. He hated that position. I remember him complaining over drinks several times.
–It lasted all of about four months. According to Yano’s book, Choshu said ‘what the hell is that look supposed to be?’ and he went and dyed his hair black right away. Four months later, ‘what the hell is that look supposed to be?’
Tanahashi: He forgot what he was mad at (laughs). But I think there was a lot of trial and error around the whole company at the time. It was Choshu that really took a chance on me. Maybe because I was working as his assistant back in the day, I don’t know. When I was in the hospital he sent me flowers and a card that said ‘life’s a long haul. Don’t give up’. That stuck with me. So I was very forward facing when Choshu came into that role, regardless of what other people might have thought.
–Did you go out much with Choshu around this time?
Tanahashi: I remember us going out to eat in Kagoshima once. I think any fan would see the two of us and not think we had much in common, but he was a part of my life at so many critical moments. He was the one who told me to go through college before I got in the business as well.
–You had some interesting comments about Nakamura after your tag team was broken up. ‘We will never team up together again. Us competing with one another is more important. We only teamed together because our paths happened to intersect right at that short moment.’
Tanahashi: After we lost the tag titles in Kobe we left separately. It was done at that point. Even when we were teaming I’d lost to him for the IWGP U-30 title and in the G1, so the rivalry was a bigger deal to me.
–It was a symbolic exit. Then, in Korakuen Hall on November 3, you put a final full stop on your team. It was certainly a big year for the two of you together. In retrospect how important was the team to your careers?
Tanahashi: That was our youth, really. We were in our 20s, developing and really shining bright, and we both went on to the top since.
–For all your talk of never getting to be friends with Nakamura, do you two get along better now?
Tanahashi: Yeah. We always take pictures together whenever we get the chance to meet up. After that time teaming together and all the matches we had since, we built up a good deal of trust.
–On November 14 2005, Yuke’s purchased the 51.5% share that Antonio Inoki had held in NJPW and became New Japan’s new owners. Simon Inoki, the president at the time, made reference to Yuke’s helping rescue NJPW from a hostile takeover.
Tanahashi: There were a lot of rumours around at the time that business was looking very bleak. Yuke’s had helped out in a real pinch, but at that point, I didn’t really understand what would change with a parent company in charge to answer to. I was worried about whether we’d still be able to wrestle the way we had been.
–One instant change was that Inoki’s penchant for changing cards at short notice, or showing up all of a sudden at events stopped.
Tanahashi: That stuff really frustrated me, but it taught me the patience you need to have as a pro. That to be a 100% professional you have to take every single thing that gets thrown at you. When he nixed the match I was supposed to have with Nakamura saying it wouldn’t draw, part of me wanted to scream that the fans had literally voted for it. But when you think about what Inoki would often say about the eight circles of fandom, it was something that only resonated with the core.
–What changes did you feel under Yuke’s?
Tanahashi: Well, first of all, they never said a single thing about what happened in the ring. They left that stuff up to us, and we were able to wrestle just as before. What they did was reform everythign behind the scenes, and put the management system back in order. They really helped out, and it was purely out of love and gratitude; here was a company that had gotten big largely because of videogames about pro-wrestling, and here they were giving back. You know, had Yuke’s not lent a hand, the history of professional wrestling would be very different indeed. And to look at it from the other side of things, I came along right at the perfect time for Yuke’s as well.
–The Ace Age really came into being under Yuke’s.
Tanahashi: At this point I hadn’t won my first IWGP title, hadn’t shown what I could do. They helped me to the next stage, even when I was getting booed out of buildings (laughs). I have a huge place in my heart for that company.