Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–We took a little diversion back to 2002 last time, but let’s catch up with what happened in 2006. The year started with you taking on Katsuyori Shibata on January 4in the Tokyo Dome. Shibata had left NJPW just under a year prior, and started with Big Mouth Loud that May, so this was a case of Shibata being the invading force against you.
Tanahashi: I just remember him beating the hell out of me from start to finish. Going in the image was to have it be like Tatsumi Fujinami versus Akira Maeda, where he took and took and took all that punishment and pulled off the win in the end. It was just like that, actually; just without the win at the end (laughs).
–It was a strange situation that made this match, really based on the connection that Riki Choshu had with Fumihiko Uwai, who was the president of Big Mouth Loud and formerly front office for NJPW. Shibata gave zero comments before the match, and didn’t talk about it afterward either. He didn’t seem comfortable with the situation, to be honest.
Tanahashi: Hmm. This probably isn’t the juice you’re looking for, but even though I have a ton of memories with Shibata from our younger days and then more recently, I really can’t remember much of anything around this match. I think we were both fixated on other things at the time.
–After he left NJPW, Shibata was positioned as a major part of Big Mouth Loud, and he teamed with KENTA, even challenging for the GHC tag titles. He wasn’t on your radar at this time?
Tanahashi: No, not at all. I was just so wholly absorbed into what I was doing at the time. I had my hands full with each match as it came, and the company was on rocky ground.
–January 2006 saw more than ten wrestlers leave when their contracts were up.
Tanahashi: A lot of the office staff were leaving too. I’m sure that was a tough decision for everyone involved. It was hardly like these people hated the business or anything, but they had to make that life decision, and they figured they had no future in the company. Like last time we talked about Anzawa, the Young Lion, leaving. I took that all personally, because I figured that if I were able to draw more people to the venues, it would mean a better work environment for everybody.
–It sounds like you were putting yourself under a lot of pressure.
Tanahashi: Well, I think I’ve always tended to paint myself in the tragic hero role. But it was a larger picture scenario. A lot of wrestlers were rethinking their careers in general; the entire business in Japan was in a difficult spot.
–A lot of the talent that left would be part of Muga World Wrestling’s first event, the promotion that became Dradition. There was a lot of courting going on with those wrestlers.
Tanahashi: I heard those rumours, but I guess they weren’t interested in talking to me, heheh.
–Were there any departures that were particularly unexpected?
Tanahashi: I think (Yutaka) Yoshie, for sure. I thought he enjoyed life here, so it was a real surprise when he quit. I thought he was the type to be happy with the status quo, but it turned out he wanted a new challenge.
–Another tough reality in the January of 2006 was the passing of Black Cat on January 28. He was a key liaison between NJPW and CMLL, which led to the annual Black Cat Memorial match at Fantasticamania, which you’re always a part of.
Tanahashi: Cat was a real gut punch. He was really good to me. Nowadays there are fewer and fewer guys active who had direct contact with him, so that role of being in the match and passing over that tracksuit to his wife is really important to me.
–What memory of Black Cat stands out the most to you?
Tanahashi: It’s got to be when I came in the Dojo. He took one look at me and said ‘you’ve gotta aim heavyweight’. That’s what I always envisioned, but to have him say that to me set my mind at rest. I asked ‘why?’ anyway, and he grinned and went ‘that’s where the money’s at’.
–On February 5, you had your third singles match with Shinsuke Nakamura, announced five days before. It was a difficult situation to be in; the feud was steadily becoming a key rivalry to be protected, but then these matches were being made with zero build.
Tanahashi: So much of it was thrown together. There was no real reason for us to have that match then. And in the semi main, Riki Choshu was tagging with Akebono for the first time all of a sudden as well, so that took the wind out of our sails a fair bit. I think it was a case of booking moment to moment and pulling the trigger on that match because the ticket sales were soft, but even with that match made we only half filled the place. That wasn’t a marquee match just yet, or at least it hadn’t gotten over with the fans outside of Tokyo.
–You did get your first win over Nakamura though, with a Dragon suplex. That must have been a big moment for you career wise?
Tanahashi: Yeah. I think we were both hell bent on showing our own will and determination as this whole rivalry developed, and that shwoed in the match; it kind of had a clunky rhythm. I think at this stage, we weren’t really on the same wavelength. It started to get better and better from 2008, 2009, and then of course by the last match in 2015 it was huge. But it took time.
–You said backstage that ‘with this result, I’m going to carry this company. I’m not lying. Starting with the next tour, I’m carrying this place’.
Tanahashi: Nakamura had won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship before me, but I’d just beaten him. On January 4, Nakamura couldn’t beat Lesnar for the title, and I felt that sense of duty, to be the one to beat Lesnar.
–Before you could get to Lesnar, you would face Yuji Nagata in Ryogoku on February 19. Nagata had the lion’s share of the match, and you won after a Dragon Suplex. Post match Nagata would raise your hand, float a smile, and walk to the back with his signature poses. It didn’t seem like he agreed with the loss at all.
Tanahashi: Perhaps not. First of all, I think in a lot of ways I was still green at that point. Wrestling Nagata really shaped me; without those matches with him I wouldn’t be the wrestler I am today.
–Nakamura would say something similar, that there was no escaping Nagata for either of you.
Tanahashi: Yeah, I think so. With me, when I wrestle younger guys, I tend to like bringing out their best attributes and fighting from underneath. Nagata was different, he’d shut you down completely, so you had to find your own way into the match.
–He tested you.
Tanahashi: To go back to the post match, the old school way of thought back in the day was when guys lost to somebody less experienced than them, you’d see them head right to the back. I wouldn’t do that for people younger than me; part of it is still being hurt after the match, but showing clearly that you’ve been defeated is better all the way around. If anything it makes the crowd more sympathetic to you and makes them want to see you win next time.
Tanahashi: But here, Nagata had lost, and he was raising my right hand. It was like he was the winner doing that to the loser as a mark of respect. The message was a really clear ‘who’s the real winner here?’. That was really frustrating to me at the time. I’d won the match, but he’d dominated the bulk of it, and walked away as if he were the winner. It pissed me off, but in the long haul, it was another thing that helped me grow and get better.
–You’re grateful for the experience in retrospect.
Tanahashi: Oh yeah. I’m grateful for every moment I had in the ring with him. Dealing with his kicks helped really refine my in ring style when it came to targeting the leg, everything. At the time, I was pissed off, but now, nothing but thanks.