The Dragon Fires Back: Shingo Takagi interviewed (1/2)

Shingo Takagi reflects on New Japan Cup, more

Shingo Takagi might have fallen at the final hurdle of the New Japan Cup, but nobody could dispute the quality of his opponents. With arguably the toughest route to the final, Shingo wrestled and beat a parade of former New japan Cup and New Japan Cup USA winners before going down in defeat to Will Ospreay. When Ospreay went on to win the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, Shingo claimed his right to a rematch and first challenge to the champion, which will now happen at Wrestling Dontaku on May 4; we sat down with Shingo to get his thoughts on a wild first quarter of 2021. 

Interview conducted before Sakura Genesis

Is it recognition from the company? I don’t know, but it was the toughest of routes

–So, it’s getting warmer out, and the cherry blossoms have bloomed. 

Takagi: The cherry blossoms are really important to me. They really represent the Japanese spirit, and a kind of spiritual harmony. I love being outside at this time of year. Not a big fan of the allergies, but definitely of the cherry blossoms. 

–Let’s look back on your New Japan Cup. You said several times through the tournament that it was a tougher campaign than your G1. 

Takagi: It definitely was physically demanding. But it was fulfilling as well. 

–You wrestled in the main event through every one of your five singles matches. Did you feel any pressure at all?

Takagi: No, not really. I like being in the main event. If anything, being able to take the time to get ready before going on last, that suits me down to the ground mentally. But yeah, the matches were damn tough. 

–You had the hardest draw of anyone in the tournament it seems. Every opponent until the final was a former New Japan Cup or NJC USA winner. 

Takagi: I know, right? I don’t know whether there was a little bit of recognition from the company in the brackets there, but it was just tough match after tough match. But after I crashed out to SHO in the first round last year, I knew I couldn’t let that happen again, and I was coming off the loss to Tanahashi for the NEVER title in Nagoya as well. The press was buzzing about the quality of the match, but I knew I’d taken a step back and I needed to move back up. 

–So you were really set on making an impact. 

Takagi: I wasn’t on any of the major cards in February, just sitting home and watching NJPW World. I was really impatient, so there was a lot riding on that cup for me. 

I’d lost to him without him even needing the Rainmaker

–So first of all in the cup you wrestled Kazuchika Okada.

Takagi: I saw Okada beat EVIL at Osaka Jo Hall, and I heard him say afterward that he planned to get back in the IWGP hunt, that he’d win the New Japan Cup to do that. I took that as ‘OK! Okada’s back!’. I thought he’d be a great guy to face in the semifinals, or the finals, and then the brackets came out. Damn, first round! (laughs)

–When we conducted a fan poll, nearly half of fans’ picks to win were for Okada alone. 

Takagi: A clear winner, then. 

–You came sixth in that poll. Of course, when you met previously, it was in last year’s G1, where you lost via stoppage not to the Rainmaker, but the Money Clip. 

Takagi: A bit of me knew that if I took the Rainmaker, there’s not much I could have done about that. But I’d lost to him without him even needing it. This year he’s pulled the move out here and there, but not when I faced him before. I’ve said this in other interviews, but wrestling is a lot like gambling. 

–How so?

Takagi: It’s risk and reward. There are moves where if you take them, it’s game over, but if you can find a counter to them then it really works to your advantage. Opportunity from crisis, right? But the other way around is true for your opponent. It’s all on a knife edge, and Okada was the same way. 

–And in that situation we saw the ‘Shingo style Rainmaker’ so to speak. 

Takagi: That got a bit of a buzz on social media, huh? I don’t know how much Okada looks into that stuff though. Milano (Collection A.T., Japanese colour commentator) asked me before that night whether I would dig out a ‘Takagi style Rainmaker,’ and I replied ‘no, but I might use a Rainmaker style Pumping Bomber’ heheheh. 


Takagi: These days, the fans, the press, the wrestlers, everyone’s following things really closely on social media, so dropping those little breadcrumbs is a good thing. And if word of that gets in Okada’s ears, it might make him think ‘right, I’m going to put that S.o.B down with a Rainmaker,’ which gives me a chance to one up him. 

I love impressionists

–As it turned out, you picked up a dramatic win that had the fans buzzing. 

Takagi: The reaction was good to see, but I had to focus on my second round match right away. After every match, all I really said on the muic was that I’d keep going all the way to the final. But that’s the thing with NJPW. Most of the time, it’s only the main event winner that gets mic time, and that’s only the backstage comment that airs live on World. 

–So it’s quite a hurdle to get heard.

Takagi: I didn’t want to pass up that opportunity after each of my matches, even though I was exhausted. That’s when I can get the most people on my side. It’s all about impressing with my matches, but then following up on the mic, and saying what I left unsaid backstage. I was able to perform three times every night, which was a huge opportunity for me. 

–You had the chance to showcase everything you can do.

Takagi: Maybe not chance so much as I had to do it, and it would have been a waste not to. If you’re a pro-wrestler, you have to be able to fight, and you have to be able to talk. 

–You’re widely recognised as one of the best talkers in NJPW, and you have a great ability to bring out your opponent’s strengths on the mic. Do you credit Dragon Gate with honing some of those skills?

Takagi: I think it’s more of a thing I worked on personally. You know, I think I had a very fixed idea of what pro-wrestling should be all the way up to my early 30s, but now I’m more open minded.  I love watching comedy, love watching impressionists and I think maybe that comes out. With the whole ‘Takagi-style’ moves, heheh. And having lived in the Kansai area… 

–Kansai and Osaka especially is famous for producing Japan’s best comedians. 

Takagi: That was when I came across the Yoshimoto Comedy Hour, which is a long standing comedy show that’s gone out every week since the ’60s. It changed my approach to wrestling, seriously. 

–How so?

Takagi: Well, yes wrestling is basically about what’s happening in that fight in the ring. But that still means it’s a very broad form of expression. It’s a little mirror up to life and society. Yoshimoto helped teach me little things to reflect that; mainly in terms of amplifying my movements, making myself more animated. You can learn a lot from a lot of different places, be it comedy impressions, skits, stand up, or even the damn news. It can all inform how you wrestle and how you talk. 

–Changing your intonation, having a clear through line in your promos, that kind of thing?

Takagi: I’m with Naito when it comes to that logic. I do what I would be entertained by, and if I’m having fun there’s a good chance the fans will be, too.  

Essentially, I’m my own boss

–But it really does seem like hard work. You’re covering every single base possible. 

Takagi: Eh, I just tend to take the initiative when there’s something I think would be cool to do. 

–You talk partly in jest about being a team player, but you’re all about being in the main event. 

Takagi: As a wrestler that’s the most attractive spot, right? More people are watching the big show closing events than anywhere else, and if you get to close those shows out with a big promo, that’s a great spot to be in. 

–It’s not a chance many get, even on the regular tours. 

Takagi: In the end, it comes down to essentially being my own boss and dictating the pace. If I’m fired up, I get to fire my opponent up. So the match is hot, which means the crowd will be hot. So I want to have fun, and I want to stand out more than anyone else. 

–That’s quite the bullying mindset! But I think when people call you a bully, there’s some affection there. 

Takagi: I’m no wimp either, though, heh. 

In the King of Sports, he’s King of Meatheads. 

–In the second round you faced Hirooki Goto. There was quite an exchange of comments heading into that match. With the traditional Japanese mindset and everything, you two share quite a few similar points. 

Takagi: We’re similar stylistically, perhaps. One thing that I thought the first time we came across one another was that he’s quite the manipulator.

–You thought he was pretty cunning?

Takagi: That’s what I thought. Because he flip flops so much, right? He says the exact opposite thing every other day. After I beat him in Nagoya, the next night he’s talking about wanting to see me go all the way to the finals, and win the thing. But then on twitter he’s writing ‘hope they both lose’. He made a hashtag!

–He did!

Takagi: And then I’m out here talking about ‘Goto Trouble’ and he’s the one using it as a hashtag. That’s my thing for making fun of you! In the end I just realised he isn’t a manipulator, he’s just powerfully stupid. In the King of Sports, he’s King of Meatheads. I said some pretty bad stuff about him but in the end, I don’t have any ill will toward him. I don’t hate the guy. 

–I see. 

Takagi: But, that unpredictable aspect is pretty scary. You never know what he’s going to do, what he’s thinking, if anything, and he’s incredibly capable, incredibly tough. For me to be able to beat him, that gave me an instant rush of confidence. The thing is, if he were the type to bear a grudge, he’d have been thinking about losing the NEVER title to me last year and bringing that extra fire and motivation. But he can’t remember what happened the night before by the time he gets up in the morning, so that was to my favour. 

KENTA was above me when he came in and that was inspiration

–You faced KENTA next, which created quite the backstage ‘hawk and dragon’ scene (watch here). 

Takagi: With KENTA I really felt it wouldn’t work well if I tried to play him at his own game, but then he came to me backstage. I start my comments and then I see him come up from behind the press. I’d only just started speaking as well. That’s all his smarts at play. 

–And then KENTA dictated the pace.

Takagi: I’d never honestly thought too much about the kanji in my name. So I didn’t have much of a comeback to him saying I should be a hawk, but I figured, hey he spells his name KENTA with letters and not kanji characters, you could write his name with the kanji for ‘dog’, right? And he just no sells it, completely wipes me out. There were quite a few media people there that night, and man, it was like a fart in church. 

–Rough crowd. 

Takagi: But (Yota) Tsuji was there, and he turned his face away for a second. I think, maybe, he broke a little. I would hope so. I mean come on, I can’t even pop Tsuji? That’s rough.

–You had a bit of a connection to KENTA since his first night in NJPW.

Takagi: I’d just lost the Best of the Super Jr. finals in 2019, and at Osaka Jo Hall I beat Satoshi Kojima and made this big appeal of ‘put me in the G1!!’. Then a little bit later, here comes KENTA, casual as anything, and says ‘see you at the G1’. 

–You had to be tested and he walked straight into the G1.

Takagi: I’d been here for eight months, and worked for the shot, and he just walked into it. So it showed our difference in status, but that was a motivator for me as well. 

–You’d last met in 2008 in Dragon Gate where a Go2Sleep put you in the hospital.

Takagi: I watched that match back, and the thing is, I was out after the Go2Sleep, and he didn’t pin me. He pulled me up by my hair and gave me three buzzsaw kicks. I got to the back and my head was pounding, went to hospital and was diagnosed with a concussion. That was a really rough night.

–So there was a lot of emotion behind this match. 

Takagi: Yeah, but I have a lot more self belief than back then. I wasn’t going to bend my style to his, just stay firm to my convictions and I got results. On the other hand, after all the provocation, I don’t feel he was as committed as me. 

–So what was it like, wrestling him for the first time in 13 years?

Takagi: He’s achieved a lot, matured a lot in those years as well. When he was controlling the match, I was definitely feeling that experience in him. But when it came down to the end of the match and just clashing wills, there was no way he was one-upping me.

–In the end we saw a bit of the old KENTA.

Takagi: Hmm. But since I’ve been in NJPW, I’ve had the chance to wrestle bigger and bigger guys. In the end, the experience I had with Jeff Cobb helped most. I hit KENTA as hard as I would have hit Cobb, and that’s what paid off. 

More in part two!









photography by Taiko Kuniyoshi