Aaron Henare’s first interview as part of the United Empire.
After weeks of speculation, United Empire’s latest member was revealed to the world on April 4 at Sakura Genesis. After a crushing defeat to jay White in the first round of the New Japan Cup, Aaron Henare departed hontai for NJPW’s newest faction. With a new appearance and aggressive demeanour, Henare instantly targeted SANADA with new finish the Streets of Rage and picking up a tag team victory that now sees him compete one on one with Cold Skull on April 26 in Hiroshima.
If I’d done the same old s**t, nobody would care
–So we’re a few days removed from your debut as part of the United Empire.
–When you got into the ring at Sakura Genesis, you were moving differently. It seemed like you were more confident, you were certainly a lot more aggressive, and very much focused on that Muay Thai style.
Henare: What I’ve learned is that what can make or break you in this business is moments of impact. Ryogoku was the moment of impact for me.
–You knew this was a turning point for you.
Henare: If I’d gone out and done the same old s**t, come off the ropes with that shoulder tackle I would do, then the fans wouldn’t give a s**t about me. Two weeks earlier they didn’t give a s**t against Jay. So I thought f*** that, I’m going to go out there and do me, do what I can do. I dropped Naito right at the start of the match. I elbowed Takagi so hard in the face he was walking around with an ice pack backstage afterward. SANADA, you saw the results. Because I didn’t wrestle how people expected me to, I went back to what I’ve grown up doing.
–One of the things that seems to make United Empire so dangerous is that you have a range of fighting styles. Cobb is an amateur Olympian. O-Khan is a mixed martial artist, well versed in karate, wrestling and judo. Ospreay has a more typical professional wrestling background, and you have a Muay Thai backbone. If a fight breaks out, smart money is on you guys to win.
Henare: First of all, don’t label me a Muay Thai guy. I can fight Muay Thai, but I can handle myself in pretty much any martial art you can think of.
Henare: And Ospreay, great pro-wrestler, but he can handle himself in a street fight as well. He can just as easily knock a guy out with a headbutt as anything else. Look, we’re the tough motherf***er group. Nobody on this roster, or anywhere for that matter can scare us. And we’re only just getting started. This is brand new. If we’re this dominant now, imagine where we’ll be in five, ten years?
I spent the last few weeks thinking ‘I need him in a singles match’.
–So let’s talk about you and SANADA. At Ryogoku, you hit Streets of Rage to score victory for you and the United Empire, and now you take him on one on one in Hiroshima on April 26.
Henare: I could have tagged with Cobb at Ryogoku and let him hit the Tour of the Islands and pin SANADA. But I needed that win for myself.
–You were on the losing end against SANADA when you and FinJuice tagged against LIJ in Sendai at the New Japan Cup final.
Henare: That was so embarrassing. So humiliating, to be pinned with zero damage. Pinned by an O’Connor Roll. You know that’s a Kiwi move as well?
–Named after Pat O’Connor. He was a big star in the 1950s and 60s, and the first Kiwi NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Henare: To lose with that move was just insulting. I spent the last few weeks thinking ‘I need him in a singles match’. To get that, I had to beat him in Ryogoku. Impactfully, and make sure everyone will remember.
–What are your opinions on SANADA as a pro-wrestler?
Henare: Honestly, I think he’s one of the best in the world. He is very capable in everything he does. He’s a good striker, effective submissions, and people underestimate his power.
–One of the best allrounders in NJPW.
Henare: He’s like the guy you go for in a videogame with even stats all the way across the board. But he hasn’t achieved everything he could.
–A lot of his opponents have talked about wanting more fire from SANADA. He’s challenged for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship several times, but hasn’t broken through to being a consistent main event player just yet.
Henare: He’s a lot more stoic than I am, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I see a bit of myself in him. People don’t appreciate the level of competition that he brings. I think he will get to the top at some point. But why should I let him get there before I do?
–You’re not waiting in line anymore.
Henare: I’ve spent so much time getting hung up on one person. Ishii, Shingo, I was obsessing over them, but look at how they carry themselves. They’re always moving forward, onto the next thing. Now I have a long list of names I want revenge on, and SANADA’s first on the list. I write my own story now.
Ospreay is happy to be in our corner just like we are in his
–What do you think is the key to victory against SANADA?
Henare: Knockout. Of all the guys- Ishii Takagi, Fale, Goto, I’ve had singles matches with, SANADA has the weakest chin. That’s my best shot. Plus I think I have the better team around me.
Henare: The way I see it, the United Empire is more helpful to me than LIJ is to SANADA. Naito will never be in SANADA’s corner for a match like this. But if I’m in a big match, Ospreay will be happy to be in my corner, just like we were in his corner at Sakura Genesis. That’s a mental edge.
–When you, Cobb and O-Khan were in Ospreay’s corner at Ryogoku there was a lot of concern that you would get involved in the match. To your credit, you didn’t at all, and it was the same at the New Japan Cup final. Can we expect that to be the case going forward for the United Empire? It’s purely to second and support, not interfere?
Henare: Look, when it comes to the wrestling, in that ring when the bell sounds, we have no time for bulls**t. None of us are about the bulls**t. We’re all confident in who we are, now. So there’s no need to jump guys, do any of that stuff (Dick) Togo does with EVIL. We were there with Ospreay at Ryogoku just in case somebody else came out to mess with him.
–So purely for support.
Henare: We weren’t there to f**k with anyone, we were there to show we are not to be f**ked with. And at the end of the day, we knew that Ospreay can get the job done by himself, and we all feel the same about one another.
–You aren’t about detracting from the fight itself.
Henare: Look, let’s say I’m wrestling SANADA on April 26, and Ospreay comes out, or Jeff comes out and helps me win. What does that say about me? I’d be offended because it doesn’t do justice to any of us.
–Beyond Hiroshima, what are the plans for yourself in United Empire? We could quite easily see any combination of yourself, Cobb or O-Khan being a tag team or 6-Man team, and your former partner Tanahashi has the NEVER Openweight title as we’re talking.
Henare: There’s a long list of people that I want revenge on from before. There’s a long list of results I want to get and championships I want to win. But first it’s SANADA. Like I said, I write my story now. I decide what happens, and you have to wait to see what’ll happen after I beat SANADA on April 26.
It was a long time coming, I just wish I could have done it sooner
–All in all, you underwent a huge change at Sakura Genesis.
Henare: I’m fired up. I was fired up at Ryogoku. My resting heartbeat is 52; that night before I went through the curtain it was 120.
–There was a lot of surprise at your appearance; on your social media you were posting pictures from New Zealand, talking about quarantining…
Henare: Listen, I didn’t lead anybody on, didn’t tell any lies. Everything I posted about being in quarantine, dealing with quarantine food, all the rest of it; that’s true, it just didn’t happen when I made the tweets, heheh.
–Be that as it may, you did show up in Ryogoku, and as a changed man.
Henare: It was a long time coming, I just wish I could have done it sooner.
–It was quite evident that you were frustrated after the last tour, and after that match with Jay White in the first round especially.
Henare: I don’t think this starts at the New Japan Cup. This started in 2018.
–When you came back to action after your Achilles injury?
Henare: I’d been through the system in the Dojo, and I wanted to get an excursion at the end of that.
–You wanted the chance to reset perhaps?
Henare: The fact that I didn’t, even though I’d graduated, it felt like I hadn’t really. That was really disappointing, and it felt like maybe the company didn’t see me as an asset. I came through the system, did all the cooking and the cleaning, and I didn’t get anything out of it.
–You’d seen contemporaries at the time like SHO and YOH, or Jay White, return from excursion in prominent roles.
Henare: And here I was, just filling a role. I thought if I kept my head down, I could one day break through and be a star after that, but it’s been three, four years now and nothing.
–You’d had a bad run of luck.
Henare: I plugged through 2018, 2019, and then I thought, ‘OK, New Japan Cup 2020. Here’s my chance. I beat Ishii and that will lead to something big’. And then, COVID. It’s screwed up everybody’s life, so I don’t want to make excuses, but yeah, it’s s**tty luck.
I had a blueprint of who I wanted to be and the reality wasn’t matching that at all
–To go back to your Achilles injury in 2017, it was at Togi Makabe’s 20th anniversary event. You teamed with Makabe early in your career; he went through some tough struggles in his younger years as well, and he had the same injury you did.
Henare: And I thought, honestly, that we would bond over that. I thought he would help me, that I could join GBH. But he didn’t help me, didn’t talk to me. I was as important to him as an elbow pad. When we teamed together I would be the one taking the beating and he would get the easy night. He didn’t give me any advice.
–You thought he dismissed you somewhat.
Henare: Yeah. So then it was ‘OK, let’s keep doing this the right way, the respectful way’, and then Jay happened.
–That tough first round cup loss.
Henare: I’ve said in my backstage comments, he’s the best Kiwi wrestler in the world. I don’t think you can doubt that right now. But I thought I would do better, as you could tell by what happened backstage.
–You punched through a wood panel backstage and cut up your hand pretty badly.
Henare: It was four years of frustration.
–A lot of energy being released.
Henare: I’m not a f***ing loser, you know? Before I came here, in MMA, in sports at school and university, I won at everything I tried. So to go from winning everything to winning nothing absolutely sucked. I had a blueprint in my mind of what I was meant to be, and the reality of what was happening wasn’t matching at all.
Now I can create something for myself that’s real
–Of course you made your debut with the United Empire at Sakura Genesis, and immediately got that win over SANADA. Backstage, you said ‘I could blame Makabe, I could blame Tanahashi, but I won’t. I’ll blame myself’.
–What would you blame them for?
Henare: For not helping me out. I was no more important than a knee pad to Tanahashi. I do all those matches with him at World Tag League, and then what happens after that? He goes and tags with Ibushi. He goes to him for the big matches, and then when he just needs a body he goes to me, uses me like a knee pad and then throws me to (Yota) Tsuji to wash.
–He didn’t give you any advice?
Henare: There’d be a little bit here and there about appealing to the fans or whatever, but when it came to getting results? No. You look at our results World tag League 2019 to 2020, and we actually did worse our second year than our first year. And all the while Tanahashi’s helping out his special project Tsuji, taking him out to dinner, going and dedicating time in the Dojo with him. But you know who was there to help me out? Will Ospreay.
–He reached out to you?
Henare: We went out to dinner, and right then, after all the times when I asked Tanahashi or Makabe for help, I ask Ospreay once, and look what happens.
–Ospreay formed the United Empire at the G1 Climax finals with Great-O-Khan. Then on night one of World Tag League, O-Khan teamed with another X, who was revealed as Jeff Cobb, and the two of them ran right through yourself and Tanahashi.
Henare: Yeah. Can’t argue with that.
–Was there an epiphany there? Did their actions impress you deep down?
–Jeff Cobb was in a very similar position to yourself in a sense. Both of you very impressive athletes, but results proving sporadic. In the United Empire your ceilings seem much higher.
Henare: At the time, I was bagging them. I was talking s**t about them backstage, saying what they did wasn’t for me, but I didn’t take that step back and think why. Both Cobb and O-Khan needed change. They needed to stop caring what other people thought about them.
–They didn’t wait for their spot, they took it instead.
Henare: Look, O-Khan didn’t ask nicely for a match with Tanahashi. He beat the s**t out of him, and then he got his match at the Tokyo Dome. You talk about ceilings, I put those ceilings there for myself. I thought that just because people saw me a certain way, I should act that way, but no. My ceiling’s higher than anyone will ever expect.
–Now it is on you to live up to that standard. Is there any extra pressure on you?
Henare: Come on, how many times have I said this? I’ve been training my whole f***ing life. I’ve been fighting since I was a kid. I didn’t have the easiest upbringing.
–Can you talk about that?
Henare: My whole life has been a struggle. I’ve never complained, but it’s important people know that. People might have a certain idyllic image of New Zealand, but there’s a world of difference between growing up well off, and growing up in the poorer areas. Where I’m from, you either become a rugby player, or a gangster. Those are your two options.
–You had to fight your way up from where you were.
Henare: Yeah. I was fighting for money as a teen. I’d go to Queen’s Street every Friday, Saturday night and fight in the streets to feed myself. That’s how I got into the fight game, how I got into the gyms. I had to make a decision to either go into MMA or pro-wrestling, and I got into pro-wrestling because of that Strong Style spirit, that King of Sports stuff. That’s what spoke to me. That’s the dream I was sold.
–And in practice it wasn’t quite how you envisioned?
Henare: People saw me as this nice peaceful Maori kid, but I’d kept all these demons in the background. I suppressed all that stuff about being a martial artist, because I thought I had to be humble and start from the beginning. Not any more. Now I’m in United Empire, I’m somewhere where I can finally build something for myself that’s real.